Howie Rose photo by Kevin Ryan

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Vanilla On Vanilla (or like white on sox)

     Pity the poor Chisox fan. Between the curse of the Black Sox that produced long strings of woulda, coulda, shoulda been a contender clubs filled with some legit talent and more than a few characters, some crappy uniforms (the red scheme, the disco model and—ugh—the shorts), the destruction of the grimy palace that was Comiskey Park and all for but one world championship banner to wave in a Windy City winter to show for it... well, my hat's off for hanging so tough.

     I'm afraid to say, dear readers, it gets worse—way worse. For providing the AM soundtrack to more than forty years of White Sox and Cubs baseball was perhaps the lamest excuse for a play-by-play man I've yet to come across on this batch from the archive.

For a link to the September 2, 1967 White Sox @ Red Sox game click here (#14):

     Now perhaps I'm being too harsh. By the time Bob Elson parked his carcass behind the mic atop Fenway Park on a blustery Saturday a couple days shy of Labor Day, the then-sixty-three-year old had been on more or less the same gig since the summer prior to Wall Street laying another f'n goose egg.

     Maybe the guy was getting a little burned out, maybe he'd been disappointed by the White Sox a few too many times fumbling and bumbling a pennant race down the stretch, maybe he'd downed one too many the night before this day game (it is said Elson enjoyed hoisting a few with the players), or maybe he was just way too old and/or old school to pack much of a verbal punch in the Summer of Love's waning hours.

Bob Elson Bio:

     Though a veteran of the era when broadcasters would recreate road games by reading and seriously embellishing the feeds off a Western Union telegraph (see, kids, before email, a quick way of transmitting info long distance was... ah, forget it), Elson shows none of the talent that some of his peers in the field with similar experience had. Guys like Gordon McClendon had a lot of fun using the language and riffing whether they were reading off a ticker tape or actually witnessing the action. Yeah, I am well aware Elson is a semi-revered figure in the radio baseball Elysium, enshrined in Cooperstown as a Ford C. Frick Award annually presented to a distinguished broadcaster of note. And because he is said to have inspired and influenced a slew of latter generation word painters like Jack Brickhouse and Milo Hamilton, who am I to dis Mr. Elson on the strength or weakness of but one extant recording? But, caveat emptor, this one example is deadly.

     Double deadly: Elson's partner, the somewhat junior Red Rush, is only incrementally better here. With their big rounded vowels, shared allergies to mentioning what kind of pitch is thrown (not sure the words "curve," "slider" or "change-up" are ever even uttered), and mutual obsession with both the weather and out-of-town scoreboard, this very much like-sounding pair are the very definition of vanilla. When a broadcaster does a better job at selling a bottle of suds than describing a centerfielder's loping route to snare a drive off the Green Monster, nine miles of rocky road lie ahead. Bird and Diz, Gleason and Carney, yin and yang these fellows definitely are not. Think Pat Boone and Dick Clark.

Red Rush Bio:

     In some ways they are the very embodiment or reflection of so many of those interchangeable white guys on the White Sox from the era: Ron Hansen, Ken Berry, Pete Ward, Gary Peters, Ed Herrmann, J.C. Martin, Joel Horlen, Tommy John, Al Weiss... well, you get the idea.

     Truth be told, the game itself was not the greatest one ever played on Earth either even though it did come in the froth of the last great true pennant race before the leagues were sliced and diced, before the ALCS or NLDS, before wild cards and, like Dylan would sing long after Blonde On Blonde: "greed got in the way."

     Still, for anyone with a soft place in their heart for the 1967 "Impossible Dream" Boston Red Sox, this recording is a must despite the outcome.

For Red Sox 1967 videos:

     With but a month remaining in the regular season, a few mere crooked numbers in the loss column separated five teams: the Red Sox, Twins, White Sox, Tigers, and Angels were all in the proverbial thick of it. One would like to think that an announcer might bring some urgency and drama to the fore when it counted—even in a sloppily played game—but not here. 1967 was the first of four years in which Elson and Rush were paired and, to these ears anyway, it was four years too long.

     Despite the two smiley faces imparting the action, there is much to savor from the game which was essentially decided in the top of the first when Boston ace Jim Lonborg bringing his impressive 18-6 record to the hill coughed up three runs after handily retiring the first two South Siders to visit the plate.

     A pitchers' duel of sorts unfolds over the course of the following frames with Chicago's Horlen (a force to be reckoned with in his career year of '67—he threw a no-no a mere eight days later en route to a 19-7, 2.06 ERA) shutting down the Bosox when it counted. Yaz, George Scott, Rico Petrocelli, Reggie Smith—all Boston's heroes are in the house and, along with Chi's Rocky Colavito, Tommie Agee, Don Buford, Jerry Adair, and Walt "No Neck" Williams, it warms the heart to hear these names spoken once again.

     Williams is easily the focus of the game's more interesting moments as not only does he make every ball hit to him in left an adventure, he gets thrown out at third not once but twice!

     Chicago's 4-1 win that afternoon had a momentary impact on the league's standings by sundown, knocking Boston from its precarious 1/2 game perch atop the AL when coupled with the Twins easy five-zip victory over the Tigers. There was still a month of thrills and chills and very high drama yet to come with the final standings not decided until Lonborg coaxed Minnesota's Rick Rollins to swing at off-speed pitch sending a meek pop-up into the glove of Petrocelli on the season's final pitch.

     A curio of note: early in the game, Elson mentions that White Sox games are being carried on a new affiliate, WCJU in Columbia, Mississippi. I wonder if that might be due to migrations of African-Americans up and down Highway 61. From the 1940s on, the White Sox were favored by Chicago's African-American community many of whom who lived in the same South Side neighborhood in which this home team played. Perhaps by 1967, many of them were heading back points south after two decades of working the Gary, Indiana, steel plants and some smart local radio exec thought WCJU might be able to cash in on the allegiance of the returning masses to the team they had long pulled for.

     A final, semi-tangential anecdote related to Chicago's second baseman that day, Don Buford: returning home from a business trip out west, I was killing time in the San Francisco airport when a pay phone I was standing next to went ding-a-ling. For some reason, I decided to pick it up. "Hello?" I asked. "Is Don Buford there," said the voice on the other end. "Don Buford the baseball player?" I asked. "Yeah," said the voice. I looked up and immediately saw that year's excuse for the San Francisco Giants waiting to pick up their bags after returning from a road trip. And, standing in the middle of a tired looking bunch was Don Buford. More amazingly, standing next to him was one of my all-time favorite players and personalities, Frank Robinson who was in the midst of managing the squad to yet another not even so-so year. "I see him, hold on a second," I told the mystery voice.

     I walked up to Buford and, pointing at the phone, said "There's a call for you over there at that phone."

     Exit Buford leaving what seemed like just me and Frank Robinson as the only two people left after a long nuclear winter. Unable to resist, I began telling Robinson how—even though I rooted for New York teams—I just loved watching him, how he soared in the '66 World Series, how he robbed Bobby Murcer of a game winning three-run homer by diving into the right field wall in Yankee Stadium, how he...
Rambling, I could see Robinson's tired, jaded, jet-lagged face grow ever-more impatient with yet another celebrant extolling his exploits. And then I remembered his legendary, reported surliness prompting me to cut the Pindarian rant and merely say, "Well, thanks."

For link to the 9/2/67 White Sox @ Red Sox box score click here:

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sweet By & By

     1959. The military-industrial complex was just getting its feet wet. Lady Day and Prez had flipped the mortal coil. Castro was making his big push down on that baseball-loving island. Hawaii became the union's 50th state. The Dalai Lama split Tibet. The "Twilight Zone" made its TV premier. The music died on an icy February morn in Clear Lake, Iowa. Yeah, a whole lotta shakin' was goin' on.

     And on Chicago's South Side not too far from Chess Records and all those storied blues clubs and jook joints where the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Little Walter were emerging as the genre's grand poo-bahs, the go-go White Sox rose to a rare pinnacle by snatching the American League pennant and a chance to meet the L.A. Dodgers in the October Classic. In that long post-war, baby Boomer and beyond stretch from 1949 through 1964, this was the only season that did not feature a team HQ'd in the Big Apple.

A link to games one and five of the 1959 World Series can be found here (selections #10 & 11):

     It occurs to me that the '59 Dodgers and GOP had about as much in common as that year's edition of the Chisox had with the Dems. Think about it: left coasters like Nixon and Reagan were on the verge of replacing the east coast moderate elite as the party's go-to guys mirroring L.A.'s usurp of Brooklyn's beloved "Bums." The transitional phase could also been seen in the Dodgers' personnel as the old guard of Snider, Hodges, Furillo, and Labine were being replaced by clean, well-scrubbed young faces named Koufax, Drysdale, Fairley, Roseboro, and Wills who would define the franchise's relative NL dominance in the coming years and plant the seeds for likes of—ugh—Steve Garvey.

     By contrast, the White Sox were a scrappy, blue-collar enterprise, a no stick/flashy leather one year blip on the American League screen that somehow evokes the city's storied broad shoulders and edgy political stew. Yeah, the well-oiled machine of Mayor Richard J. Dailey was in full force and the team's gallery of multi-ethnic rank-and-file talent, guys with names like Fox, Wynn, Minoso, Aparichio, and Kluzewski who could just as plausibly walked off the floor of a Gary, Indiana, steel plant as out the front steps of the Comiskey Park dugout.

Links to 1959 World Series video clips:

Links to More 1959 World Series Vid:

And for all you Minnie Minoso freaks:

     If I could spin another half-baked corollary that would extend to the broadcast booths of both Comiskey and the L.A. Coliseum I would but I can't so I won't. I will, however, offer that one of the joys of spending some time with these increasingly ancient recordings from the Archive are the forgotten and some even unknown (at least to me) chapters of baseball history lore that can still raise a brow of a know-it-all baseball bore such as myself. Who knew, for example, that the Dodgers bested Milwaukee's Braves in two tight playoff games to secure that season's senior circuit crown? Or that Carl Furillo was such a clutch and productive gamer—30 career World Series hits?!?!

     As the World Series voice of ubiquity during the late 1940s through the early 1960s, Mel Allen you may have fathomed is again featured here joined by By Saam, a Texas native and broadcasting workaholic whose multi-sport career found him at the mic for any number of notable games and one who crossed paths with everybody from characters as diverse as the courtly Connie Mack to the very face of big league baseball rebellion: Dick "Don't Call Me Richie" Allen. As one who commenced broadcasting Philadelphia A's home games in 1939 and the same for the Phillies a year later, Saam was not merely the voice of Philly baseball but the voice of sports in the City of Brotherly Love. Be it football for Villanova, Temple, the Eagles;  basketball for the Warriors before their move to the Bay Area; or even ice hockey for Eastern League's Ramblers, Saam earned his moniker—"The Man of a Zillion Words­­"—the good old-fashioned way, that is to say, the hard way. Along the way, he called thirteen no-hitters including Jim Bunning's 1964 Father's Day perfecto against the Mets at Shea and Wilt Chamberlain's 100 point advent at Hershey, Pa., against the Knicks.

By Saam Biographical and Tribute Links:

      But, let's face it, the Philadelphia teams of Saam's era were nearly always also-rans left on the scrap heap of every pennant race and division race in every sport you can name, the exceptions being of the 1950 Phillies' "Whiz Kids," the '60 Eagles and a couple of very early Warrior squads. With all that hometown bitterness fomenting, no wonder the city fathers saw fit to build a jail under Veterans Stadium to house the unruly prols after one too many.

    For all their until recent dysfunction as a baseball powerhouse, Philadelphia can boast a remarkable legacy in baseball broadcasting continuity and longevity. Saam was paired with Richie Ashburn and then Harry Kalas (who died in the broadcast booth before a game in 2007) before retiring in 1975, a direct seventy-year line between the two Great Depressions (and through a whole lot more black jazz) can be easily drawn. Is there another city that can claim such an unblemished lineage?

     Because Philadelphia is within easy range of New York City, I have over the years occasionally tuned in Philly games (its sometimes scratchy signal wavering in and out of listenability) and am no stranger any of the team's radio voices over the last four decades. While I vaguely recall hearing Saam, I was generally well versed in the banter of the superior if partisan Ashburn and Kalas.

     So it was with a certain experience I jumped into the deep end with these two 1959 World Series By Saam/Mel Allen 'casts and came away generally enthused by talents of both men and thrilled to being audioported to times and spaces long long ago and far far away. With his deep voice and sing-songy intonation, I can hear why Saam enjoyed the longevity and medium national exposure he did. A little stiff by early Third Millennial standards to be sure and a bit more of strikes and ball guy with a tad too much dead air between pitches and not enough sharing with us with, say, how far a lead Wills is taking off first than I would have expected for someone elevated to call a World Series or (as  in Saam's case) two, but a solid painter of the baseball words nonetheless.

     In Game One he is at his best in the home third when the Sox sent Dodger starter Roger Craig to an early shower in erupting for a dizzying seven runs marked by a veritable merry-go-round of base hits, base runners and the first of two Ted Kluzewski homers. The Sox rally is like a bucking bronco let out of its slot and running rampant on the downtown Commodities Exchange and with Saam hangin' for dear life like some rodeo buckaroo. He also seems to take particular delight in describing Early Wynn, Chicago's Hall of Fame master of every pitch except the fast one unless it was thrown high and inside, whose mix of hurls and deliveries flummoxed the Dodgers in the series' opening salvo won by Wynn and the South Side boys eleven-zip. Mel Allen is really great as well even when mispronouncing Koufax as "Koo-fax."

     White Sox die-hards must have been licking their lips at the prospect of undoing the curse of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. It had been forty years since those dark days when Shoeless Joe scampered the Comiskey's Elysian Fields of Comiskey but the taste of victory was short lived as the Dodgers came back to win the next three games. Those same die-hards (those lucky enough to still left to wander the topside of the Earth's crust anyway) can take a little solace as the Sox Game 5 win in L.A. has also been preserved for the ages.

A link to some Charles Comiskey stuff:

     And what a game it was, a rather long 1-0 affair marked by some grand early Koufax (who struck out six in a seven inning outing) and the forgotten Bob Shaw (who scattered nine hits in his 7.1 innings under the southern California sun) in a combined three-pitcher Sox effort to get the Series back to Chi Town for what turned out to be the Series finale. Koufax is on fire in the early innings and By Saam is rightly enthused when Sandy retires the White Sox in the first on but seven pitches while striking out two on the minimum three throws each. And Sandy was, don't forget, still a couple of seasons from really even beginning to making his meteoric mark. For what it's worth, when Allen points out that former Dodger pitcher Carl "Oisk" Erskine, the man whose record fourteen strikeouts in a single World Series game would be eclipsed by Koufax would best in '63, is sitting in the owners' box with Walter O'Malley, a strange sense of prophetic deja vu all over again can most definitely be enjoyed.

     These games are particularly well-recorded. Both the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd can be heard and the immediacy of the unfolding action almost tasted. And that both ballparks are featured is something of an added feature. Though I am a big Comiskey Park fan (even making a pilgrimage late in its last season to savor its emerald and turquoise symmetrically gritty fruits), the rare opportunity to hear a game played at the L.A. Coliseum is a treat indeed. What with its embarrassingly short left field with that dopey screen over which Wally Moon sent many of his lunar shots or its Mojave Desert-sized foul territory, to hear all these factors with the mind's ear somehow makes reality of the facility as a baseball venue. And that this broadcast preserves a game witnessed by 92,706 paying customers in a record which will probably stand until the Coliseums in both L.A. and Rome are visited by spacelings wondering how we blew it so bad, stands as a final curiosity.

     All World Series heroics and White Sox glory aside, these games should sing to the hearts of Philly Phanatics whether dressed in ersatz ornithological garb or not and those who kept kosher with By Saam, Whitey Ashburn and Harry Kalas. Back in October of '08 when the Phils were surging to but their second MLB title and the planet's highest profile White Sox booster was making his run for the presidency, I was doing some canvassing in North Philly for that self-proclaimed "Chicago kid" not far from where the ghosts of Shibe Park and the Baker Bowl—the home fields of Phillies and A's teams past—once stood. These were sad, dilapidated neighborhoods ever so slowly emerging from the poverty and neglect that has marked them since the major league last pitch was thrown some forty years ago. And while I was never completely sold on all that year's flavor of "hopey changey stuff" in the first place, I saw spirit in the eyes of those who still called the place home.