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Better than reality, more than make believe: radio’s re-creation of baseball

Recreating the game in the studio [http://www.modestoradiomuseum.org/recreations.html]

Recreating the game in the studio [modestoradiomuseum.org/recreations.html]

In 1957 the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants baseball teams simultaneously left New York, the Dodgers to Los Angeles and the Giants to San Francisco.

I was 10 years old. I loved the Dodgers more than anything in the world. I carried my large pre-transistor radio with me wherever I went so I could hear them. When they lost, I would cry – and blame myself for not rooting hard enough, for not being there, fully, totally focused, hoping and praying for them.

When they left me, I asked my mother “How could this happen?” She looked at me and said “It’s a thing called capitalism.” I have been a pinko ever since.

I immediately decided that I would punish the Dodgers for their betrayal by rooting for their traditional enemies, the Giants. Since the Giants were now in San Francisco, this could have been a problem. No local station would be broadcasting all the Giants games across the continent.

But an amazing radio technology combined with an amazing performance art saved me: the technology and art of broadcast re-creation of baseball. The N.Y. Giants had a die hard following of abandoned fans that would not give up immediately, so there was still an audience in New York for their games. The expense of paying for announcers, flying them around the country, and the high cost of pre-satellite coast-to-coast transmission made actual live coverage impossible. But there was an obscure technique called re-creation that was miraculously revived to solve this problem. In re-creation, the announcer did not need to go to the ballpark, did not even need to be in the same city, and didn’t have a telephone connection to the actual events. Instead, he sat in front of a teletypewriter, which transmitted the absolutely bare-bones truncated data of the game, like so: “Jones up. Strike. ground to third. out. Smith up. Ball. Strike. Strike . . . “

The announcer sat in front of the teletype, pretended to be at the park, and announced the game to the fans listening on the radio. The engineer and he had a bunch of buttons that activated perhaps a half dozen primitive tape sequences: Cheers, Boos, “Excited Crowd,”  “Regular Crowd.” The announcer had a bat and a block of wood that he used to simulate the sound of a bat hitting a ball.

I’m not making this up: every time a player hit the ball, the announcer whacked the block of wood. He wasn’t just announcing, he was re-enacting; no, more than this, he was recreating, or actually creating a new representation of the game, in a newly created dimension of reality, all the while passing it off to his audience as the traditional game itself, the old ball game.

The guy who did this 1957-1959 was named Les Keiter, a legendary sports announcer who was perhaps the only person ever quite up to pulling this off. Keiter was endlessly enthusiastic about everything. When Willie Mays tripled and slid into third ahead of the throw, Keiter would trumpet in supremely thrilled satisfaction: “He beat the ball, He beat the Ball!!”

Keiter spun out an elaborate repertoire of such expressions; fans ate them up like candy. Many announcers have pet phrases of course, and baseball, because of its relative lack of action, requires announcers to fill the time with flourishes, dalliance, shaggy dogs stories, and all kinds of hokum. But these mundane announcers would seem to have the considerable advantage of having the actual game in front of them – the weather, the fans, the actual players performing their complex feats, the kind of pitch that was made, how close a certain play was. Keiter was free of all details of what was happening – he didn’t know if it was a curve or a fastball; whether Mays was safe by a hair or came in easily standing up. Keiter’s language, his expressions and tangents and rigmarole, these authorial conceits – he had to make them all up. He couldn’t afford to be constrained by reality, because reality was not forthcoming.

Sitting in Bermuda shorts and eating popcorn from a bag, Keiter overcame these limitations by issuing himself a blank check of an artistic pass. Free from the clammy grip of reality, his imagination soared. These games were not pale imitations of baseball games, they were way better than the real thing, spectacular creations of the pure love of the game and the pure act of sharing it with humanity at large, especially the bereft boys of Brooklyn and The Bronx.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, consider this: Keiter would describe fans in the seats, he would tell us that a blond woman in a red dress with a flowery hat in the stands behind first base just reached out and ‘all-most!’ caught that foul ball that Orlando Cepeda just lofted over there. Not only did Keiter not even know where the foul ball was hit – the sum total of knowledge sent over the wire was ‘FB (foul ball)’ – but the gender, the hair color, the dress and the hat – the very existence of this woman! – were fabrications of Keiter’s furious mind. Hundreds of such sweet fables were effortlessly served up every game, perhaps tens of thousands all told in the four hundred or so games Keiter recreated.

To my knowledge no tapes of these broadcasts exist. If you have any or know of any please speak up. It’s possible that after my generation is gone no remembrance of this peculiar and preposterous opera of wit and charm will persist. It will be enough, it will have to be enough, that it once existed. Thank you Les Keiter – how special you were.


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6 Responses to Better than reality, more than make believe: radio’s re-creation of baseball

  1. Sherry Gendelman July 19, 2013 at 12:18 pm #

    What a lovely piece about the magic of radio, how intimate it is, and of youthful enthusiasm for the National Pastime” . Thanks for the memory.

  2. Margo August 13, 2013 at 6:41 am #

    That was a fantastic read!

  3. Steve Leikin August 17, 2013 at 5:32 pm #

    Great story Bob! Unfortunately this predates the baseball of my youth which can’t live up to the unrestrained world of fiction. I noticed you didn’t mention how Ronald Reagan launched his career making up just such stories on the radio. Thank the lord Keiter never became a politician. One fabulist was enough.

  4. Mike M June 6, 2014 at 11:58 pm #

    My father, in the late 30s – early 40s was a telegrapher on the “game end” of these re-creations. He sent the play by play back to the visiting team’s city when they played the Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League. He often doubled as the official scorer; I have a couple of his score books– ahh, the names in there.

    He said one of the challenges on the receiving end was how to fill the time when the wire connection was lost… and it happened often. One fellow would fill the time with the exploits of a dog that ran onto the field. the dog would run around, evading all the players (mentioned by name) and ground keepers until the connection was re-established and then it was caught and returned to its owner and the game would resume… so to speak. The “theater of the mind” at its best.

    I stumbled across this article looking for visual aids to help explain all this “old stuff” to my grandsons who get to watch everything in real time on TV, the live TV that has always been in their lives.
    .

  5. Randeroo June 24, 2015 at 6:58 pm #

    “Boom! It’s up against the fence!” “

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