Broadcasting Baseball on Television

Among those who know, it is generally agreed that baseball is the toughest sport for the television cameras to cover. Here is the story of how they bring the National Sport right into your home.” — “The Best Seat in the Ball Park”, Popular Science. August 1949.

There’s been a lot of talk over the last week or so about the quality of TBS’ production of the 2010 postseason. Much of the talk has revolved around the announcers – Chip Caray’s “Line drive! Base hit! Caught out there!” call comes to mind immediately – but there have been plenty of complaints about the technical aspects of the production too. From Caray’s mic levels as he screams his excitement to the lack of decent slow-motion replay on close plays, there hasn’t been much about the broadcast that has gone unnoticed. It just goes to show how far things have come in even the past twenty years, let alone the past sixty, when we expect so much from our broadcasts. It’s a positive sign of progress that we don’t even realize the level of excellence that we demand.

That wasn’t always the case, though. Sixty years ago, it was considered a remarkable advancement to even have three cameras in the ballpark, let alone PitchTrax information displayed on-screen or multiple angles on a bang-bang play at second. I know all of this because, in the summer of 1949, Popular Science featured a four-page story describing the behind the scenes work of a broadcast television game. The technology and setup that it describes may be dated, but it’s still a great look back at how things used to be (and a good example of how things can change and stay the same at the same time).

For example:

“That’s why Coyle eliminated his camera behind third base and grouped them all together behind and above home plate for this year’s telecasts of the Yankees’ home games. But that doesn’t mean the new technique limits the field of coverage. It lets the viewer see just as much, without the confusion.

Behind this camera battery is the rest of the television baseball team. Squeezed in with camera #1 in the upper-tier basket is the announcer, the man who adds rapid-fire words to the pictures. He not only must watch the action of the field, but he must keep part of one eye fixed on the screen of a small television set in front of him so that he knows what scenes are going out over the air. If he didn’t, there would be times when he excitedly described one scene but your TV set showed something else.”

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Cameras are now placed all over the park, of course, and the technology used by announcers to follow the action on-screen has advanced considerably, but it’s hard to say that the broadcasters’ job has changed any in the meanwhile.

The article goes on to give a little more detail about the director’s job behind-the-scenes:

“At the same time the director is listening to the announcer’s commentary on the loud-speaker and analyzing it instantaneously picturewise; keeping tabs of the viewing scopes, judging them for clarity and continuity of action, and from time to time phoning instructions to the cameraman to ‘open that iris’ for a better image or ‘get back there in the right outfield’ for a play he has a hunch is coming up; eyeing a television screen up in one corner to see whether his picture are going out over the air or if a film commercial has been cut in from the studios downtown.”

It’s the view of the 1940s baseball world that this article gives you – the pictures and diagrams of the ballpark and its cameras, the casual insights into the ballpark-going experience, the atmosphere of it all – that really makes the article fun to read. I’ll leave you with the article’s closing, which should give you a pretty good feel for how things have changed in the past 60 years – and I’m not talking about technology anymore:

“This year the rooting roars of armchair and tavern television fans are louder than ever. All major-league home games are being televised except those of Pittsburgh – and those not for the lack of television facilities but for the lack of a sponsor.

Come the World Series, the bet is that it will be on the television screens – the bet being that sponsor money will be paid out to reach the ‘best-set-in-the-ball-park’ audience. The TV team will be ready.”

I’m just guessing that no one in the commissioner’s office or at Fox or at ESPN is wondering whether they’ll find a television sponsor for the World Series this year…

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.