Baseball on the Radio: Review of Crack of the Bat

Walker, James R. Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. Pp. xiv+305. Notes, index, and appendices. $28.95 clothback.

Reviewed by Hunter M. Hampton

Crack of the Bat CoverI began writing this review on the Monday after my Texas Rangers won the American League West. In case you missed it, the Rangers blew a four run lead in the top of the ninth inning on Saturday afternoon. The meltdown left me nearly inconsolable. Why? Because I had a friend’s two-year-old son’s birthday party on Sunday from the fourth inning until the ninth inning (aka 3-5pm). Skipping the party was not optional. So I went armed with the MLB At Bat app. In those two hours I fulfilled so many stereotypes you could have filmed a commercial for October baseball. Children were screaming about wanting more cake, or that someone touched their toy, or for any and all other reasons they scream. And I stood in a corner watching dots appear on my iPhone screen telling me the balls and strikes. As the game and party wound down, I literally locked myself in the bathroom and listened to the final three outs on the Rangers’ Radio Network in Hallsville, Missouri. The voice of the Rangers, Eric Nadel, painted a perfect picture of the celebration. Watching the highlights later on SportsCenter, I found the video feed less than satisfying. It was in that moment that James R. Walker’s narrative in Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio clicked in my millennial-mind.

A Professor Emeritus at Xavier University, Walker has written extensively on the role of television in America, including Center Field Shot: A History of Baseball on Television (2008). As a follow up, Crack of the Bat takes a similar approach to his other works in charting the development of a communication medium and how it shaped America. Walker declares the goal of his book as “the evolution of radio’s coverage of the game from 1920 to the present and baseball’s reaction to it” (p. 2). He dedicates his coverage to the relationship between baseball team owners, radio stations and networks, and sponsors. To accomplish this aim, his sources range from the New York Yankee business records to communication company’s court cases to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

His ambitious undertaking expands further to include six themes. First, he looks to answer what historically qualifies as an actual baseball broadcast. Walker wants to unravel the key distinctions between a play-by-play description of a game sent by telegraph and a live description from an announcer at the stadium. His second and third themes discuss the different approaches to radio by various teams and geographic regions. The fourth theme illustrates the love/hate relationship that developed between newspaper writers and radio announcers. While initially intertwined, Walker analyzes the forces that drove a wedge into their relationship. Fifth, he wants readers to understand the power of advertising dollars on radio broadcasts. Finally, he hopes that readers understand the importance of radio in expanding the popularity and income of Major League Baseball in the 20th century.

To accomplish his plethora of goals, he divides Crack of the Bat into three stages of development. He begins with “The Formative Years, 1920-1936,” and focuses almost exclusively on the World Series broadcasts. The second era is “The Age of Acceptance, 1937-1960.” In this section, he frequently refers to this era as the “golden age” of baseball radio, and he admits to favoring this section since it “is the most historically interesting epoch” (p. 4). His final and shortest stage, “The Television Years, 1961-Present,” describes the decline of radio with the rise of TV broadcasts. These final three chapters include an argument for the continued commercial viability of radio broadcasting rights, an historical “how-to” chapter for aspiring radio broadcasters, and commentary on the recent technological developments of “hypercommercialized era of baseball on the radio” (p. 255).

Walker is at his best when dissecting the nitty-gritty details. For example, he willingly engages the debate about the actual date of the first radio broadcast of a baseball game. To provide a thorough answer, he parses out what actually qualifies as a broadcast. He declares the 1922 World Series, not the 1921 Series, as the first baseball game reported live over the radio waves. The 1921 Fall Classic was not a live broadcast by an announcer in the stadium. It was a play-by-play recitation by a radio announcer who received coverage over the phone from the Newark Call newspaper office who was receiving telegraphs from the game (p. 25). This type of deep-cuts historical inquiry appears throughout Crack of the Bat, and provides an excellent source for lecture material or trivia knowledge depending on your fancy.

Two weaknesses undercut the strengths of Walker’s book. First, his desire to focus on the development of baseball on the radio leads him to almost completely ignore any other social, cultural, political, or baseball factor at play. While he provides extensive knowledge about the interrelationship between the development of radio and baseball, the larger implications of this relationship on the world writ large (or even American sports writ large). A good example of the power of radio in early 20th-century America is Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal. Here she analyzes how the development of the radio “Americanized” second-generation immigrants in Chicago. By not mentioning the larger developments of American culture and baseball, Walker passes on opportunities to plug his analysis into the larger narrative of American history.

The second weakness may be more of a pet peeve than a weakness, but I believe it is worth pointing out for readers of this blog. It deals with the use and abuse of kitschy language. He refers to children listening to beer and cigarette commercials as “the next generation of smokers and drinkers, in the on-deck circle” (p. 115). Again, he describes the Great Depression as striking Major League Baseball “like a fastball to the bean” (p. 175). All academics want to write like those entertaining, footnote-less journalists that sell a lot of books, but at some point we are sacrificing our voice of authority for entertainment’s sake. The reason this stuck out to me is that the question of the future and value of sport history is a hot button issue for all of us in the field. It started with the JAH state of the field article, and Lindsay Pieper continued the discussion in her review of New Directions in Sport History a few months ago. One critique brought against sport historians is a lack quality or serious scholarship. I believe that Walker’s, and he is most certainly not alone in this critique, choice of words undercuts the perceived quality of his incredibly detailed and skilled research.

In all, Walker’s Crack of the Bat does a good job at what he wanted his book to do. It is filled with incredible insight into the development of radio and baseball. While readers may want more external context, he offers plenty of juicy facts and statistics for all you baseball sabermetricians out there. For baseball historians, junkies, or those who remember listening to games on an old radio growing up, this book will provide nothing but enjoyment. For millennials that sneak away from a party to hear their team clinch the division, Crack of the Bat will give you insight into the nostalgic power of baseball on the radio, and make you realize what you missed.

Hunter M. Hampton is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Missouri.  Email him at hmhyn7@mail.missouri.edu or follow him on Twitter @hhampton44.

9 thoughts on “Baseball on the Radio: Review of Crack of the Bat

  1. Pingback: The enduring appeal of baseball on the radio | Sports Biblio

  2. Mr. Hampton

    This was a great review to read about, being that I am a baseball player and a fan as well. But sorry to say it I am not a Texas Rangers fan, I have to support my hometown team the Detroit Tigers. When you talked about sneaking in the bathroom and listening to the Rangers game it brought me back to my rides home with my dad from late night baseball practices and the whole ride home listening to the Tigers finish up their game. So this book has some sentimental meaning for me. I agree with you that there is nothing like having the announcer on the radio paint the picture in your head of the situation on the field or the batter at the plate. But one question popped up in my head when I first started reading the review, and that was, Do you think that televised baseball would be looked at differently if we had the radio announcers broadcast the games on television? And would it make it better to watch and more enjoyable than it already is?. All in all this was a great book and book review because it really did make you appreciate how much something so simple like tuning into the radio for a baseball game can be.

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    • Hey Greg,

      Thanks for the comment. I think the comparison between television and radio announcers is interesting. Walker does talk about the rise of TV announcers. He points out how Vin Scully has found a magic formula balancing the two, but Vin is an unfair comparison for any announcer. Personally, I feel the connection to the Rangers’ TV announcers that others feel for their radio announcers. Listening to the national broadcasters in the playoffs makes the experience much worse (insert Joe Buck comment here). I would like to see MLB give fans the option to watch their hometown announcers throughout the playoffs. Thanks again for your comment.

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  3. I thought that your review of Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio, by James R. Walker was interesting and informative. I can definitely relate to having to hide away during some social function in order to keep up with my favorite teams. However, do you believe that radio will ever really go away? Being one who grew up with radio as my primary medium I still tend to gravitate towards television broadcasts. But I do believe that there is something to be said for a live description of the game than a direct play-by-play that is often done on television. There seems to be a nostalgia about it that doesn’t seem to go away.

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    • Hey Tony,

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t think radio is going anywhere, especially for baseball. So much of peoples attraction to the game is based on nostalgia. Baseball fans love the history of their game more than any other sport in my opinion. I have friends that still choose to listen to the game. Walker talks about at the very end of the book how the technology of streaming has made radio via streaming a viable money maker for the MLB. As long as baseball on the radio returns a profit, it won’t be going anywhere. Thanks again.

      Hunter

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  4. Baseball is the only sport I enjoy listening to on the radio. Nothing compares to sitting in a stadium and watching a game in person, of course, but I would prefer to hear a game on the radio rather than watch it on television. I’m sure that’s an unusual comment from someone in the 21st century but I can appreciate the announcer’s enthusiasm for the team, the game and the play by play action. When I’ve watched games on television, I am distracted by those announcers conversations among themselves or the camera man’s view which is sometimes of the food, the fans or even a small animal that might be in the stadium, not to mention the commercials.

    Your comment on the weakness of the book regarding focusing on the development of baseball on the radio and ignoring other factors was confusing to me. His focus is on baseball and radio, rather than other cultural or social issues or baseball’s effect on American history. Additionally, the radio was in homes and businesses of Americans before television so it stands to reason that these broadcasts helped baseball to become more popular with Americans. Why do you feel that his omission of other things undercuts the strengths of the book? I know you stated that he missed an opportunity to discuss a bigger picture of American history, but I don’t see how that undercut the strengths of the book. Since the subtitle is “history of baseball on the radio”, I felt like he stuck with the script, so to speak and stayed true to the title. He has also written another book,as you mentioned, about the history of baseball on television. Perhaps further discussions of baseball and American culture will be included in his next book?

    Regarding your second weakness, I see your point on that one. Those comments were unnecessary. At some point, those things distract from the credibility of the author and his point. I think all of America agrees that there is a lot of junk on television, especially the commercials! But that doesn’t mean all of future society will suffer because of it.

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    • Hey Melissa,

      Thanks for the questions, and thanks for reading my review so thoughtfully. For your first question about ignoring other factors, I agree that baseball on the radio was extremely important because so many Americans experienced the game on the radio. My critique is that he doesn’t tease out how the radio shaped major events in American or baseball history. For example, he makes no reference to events like Jackie Robinson’s games being broadcast in the south. Were they broadcast? Did the segregated south react to the broadcast or not broadcast the game at all? Answering questions like this would have shown how the radio helped, hurt, or didn’t do anything for race relations in America. I believe that passing up opportunities like this undercut his ability to show the broader impact of the history of baseball on the radio. Some may say, “He balked at the opportunity.” But then I would be a hypocrite. Thanks again.

      Hunter

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  5. I really enjoyed this article it was very informative on to what the book was and your inputs were also very interesting. I think almost all of us have gone through that moment where we have to scramble and find a way to watch our favorite teams no matter what we have to do. It is sad to see that the use of radio for sports is starting to decline. When I grew up my dad and I would always put the game on the radio and just enjoy what was going on. I agree with you that his statement about the drinkers and smokers was very strong and uncalled for. However, the radio has such a big influence on people which I feel that is why he said that. My question for you is do you think that Sports Radio will cease to exist in the future because of all our new advancements in technology?

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    • Hey Nikos,
      Thanks for the reply. Walker’s account of the current status of sports radio ends on a hopeful note. He sees the increase of technology as helping the popularity and financial viability of streaming radio broadcasts. Personally, I don’t know. On the one hand, I feel that video is taking over with services like YouTube and Hulu. Quality radio like NPR’s Serial and Vin Scully, on the other hand, remain popular. How about that for a non-answer answer?

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