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
I 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.