Howie Rose photo by Kevin Ryan

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tyger Tyger

Your parachute has opened and a slow descent into the past has commenced. A large city—an American city—comes into focus as you float through the clouds and, judging by the smoke billowing from the long, tapered stacks from the many factories encircling this industrial burgh, business is humming even though it be in the midst of the Great Depression.

Amidst the soot and grime you spot an emerald pasture gleaming in the mid-afternoon of the autumnal equinox and it is there that you invisibly settle—in the press box of Navin Field perched next to the legendary Ty Tyson as he launches into his call of the hometown Detroit Tigers' last meeting of the year against the rival New York Yankees. 

As fortune would have it, the Tigers are closing in on their first American League title in a quarter century when Cobb and Company ran amok. Here, on September 20, 1934 and led by the likes of Hank Greenburg and Charlie Gehringer—subdued superstars who led by quiet example—the Tigers can taste it. 

By contrast, the Yanks are in the midst of a seven year stretch that, despite posting some fine records and boasting at least a few of the game's iconic luminaries, will capture but one Junior Circuit title.

The extant recording of this wild and wooly late season showdown appears to be the oldest complete game broadcast available for critique or (depending on one's proclivities) worship. As such, it is something akin to one of those physics experiments where the smart guys in the lab coats have some piece of evidence still containing an echo of the Big Bang all these eons hence. 

To listen to the 9/20/34 Tiger-Yankee game at Navin Field, click this link (Tracks 1-4): 

Tyson, by all accounts, is among the founding fathers of sports broadcasting. No Neanderthal scrawling images of the Great Hunt on the walls of an antediluvian cave, Tyson's detailed descriptions of the action—though marred by a sometimes annoying nasal monotone—approaches the baroque. Be it the angles of the pitch, the strange hops the ball seemed to be taking on the field that day, the way a pitcher rubs up a new ball, the wire-rim spectacles worn by a couple of the pitchers, the pale green dress worn by one of the female spectators, Tyson's snappy and informative banter draws one in and keeps them there.

The ancient date of the broadcast in the early morn of the Radio Age combined with Tyson's nearly fully formed concept and approach to his oral reportage, give us listeners nearly 80 years later the basic template upon which all that followed it were constructed. Tyson's career as the Tigers' first play-by-play guy began seven years before this recording was made and though it is fair to assume his style had evolved a bit, it is also fair to assume that what we hear here is pretty much how he had been doing it all along. Tyson, in fact, is credited as the first full-time baseball radio broadcaster. Snatches of games had been done before here and there but his gig as the premier voice of the Tigers is pretty well established as a milestone. 

Links to some Ty Tyson biography: 

Much of this begs the question: where and how did Tyson and his fellow primitivists learn and hone their craft? As there was no canvas, no oils, no brushes, no said template, no tradition in the art and craft, what led them to begin calling baseball games in the manner that they called them and how their descendants have essentially been calling them since? 

I can begin to imagine in my mind's ear that at least some of it evolved from the simple practice of attending games with cronies and shooting the proverbial BS punctuated with observations of varying veracity as the intake of beer increased and the game unfolded. 

Think of the simple exercise of attending a game today. Your senses are alive as you make the pilgrimage to the ballpark, file through the gate, make the high altitude ascent to your allotted space most probably high in the nether climes of the upper deck, stand for playing of the National Anthem, the announcements of the starting lineups, the home team taking the field, and the first pitch thrown. Pitch-by-pitch, out-by-out, half frame-by-half frame, your eye picks up on the familiar rhythm and nuance, highly attuned for patterns you've beheld hundreds—nay, thousands (!)—of times before. 

If fortunate enough to be accompanied by another sensitized initiate to our not-so-little cult, you converse and continually comment on both the immediate action and its historically resonant precedents. 

"That looked low," says your friend. 

"Reminds me of Tiant," says you.
"Tiant? Nah, Marichal... check out the way he brings his knee up to his neck before he unleashes some heat." 

And it continues... 

The blistering line drive over first base just hooking foul prompts reaction and commentary from those sitting around you—a half empty glass of wouldas couldas and shouldas.

Is it too hard to imagine similar observations, conversations and lamentations surrounding the echoing greens of a century ago? And is it too hard to imagine that those skills and emotions—that casual, informed repartee, that intangibly slippery alchemy that is the pixie dust of all the finest (and not so finest) airwave illustrators organically coalescing and formalizing into the basic paradigm which comforts us on long Sunday afternoon drives, backyard snoozes on suburban lawn chairs or in silent nocturnal revel between the sheets with the AC ablast. 

Tyson's name was only a vague one to me but after listening to this stream my appreciation for the pioneer practitioner of the palate palette brims. No, he was not the first to call a game but he was the first to helm the mic for an entire season—this when an "entire season" meant re-creating away games by embellishing  the pitch by pitch feeds over a Western Union line theme and variation style with various sound effects (bat hitting ball, etc.) thrown in for good measure by a crafty studio engineer—a mode his no-nonsense approach lent itself quite well to. 

While beloved by that early generation of Motown mavens (they successfully petitioned WWJ to broadcast the 1934 World Series after the station first balked at broadcasting the games and thus competing with both CBS and NBC for local market share), his name is all but forgotten in Detroit, overshadowed by Ernie Harwell, the veritable "Voice of Summer" himself. No plaque in Cooperstown, here my buddy kats and kittens... or a painting hanging in the Louvre.

The game itself presented here is pretty nutty—a sloppy, multi-hit and error-filled affair. Lousy Tiger pitching and even lousier fielding staked the visitors to an early mega-lead which, despite a little too little/a little too late Tiger surge (aided and abetted by some pretty sketchy Yankee hurling and defense) the Boys from the Bronx would not relinquish on this late Thursday afternoon Corktown romp. 

Through Tyson's voice, sepia images come to still life: there's Greenburg (the mighty Jewish giant) swinging his lumber in the on-deck circle, there's Gehringer snagging a sharp grounder, there goes the doomed Gehrig coming around third base to score, and, yes, there's the Babe collecting splinters on the Yankee bench sitting this one out after a long night out. Or was that two too many franks? 

The Tigers lost the Series that year but won it the next. It would be another thirty-three years before they wore the ring again when guys with names like Kaline, Cash, Lolich, and McClain ruled the earth and just months before Tyson, himself, became so much cosmic dust. 

A box score of the game and more can be found here: