Thursday, August 5, 2010

August 5, 1921: Summer nights, the radio on

PITTSBURGH - It's a hot summer afternoon, approaching dinner time. It's the middle of the city. A group of boys are sitting on the stoop in front of an apartment. They can hear the cheers from the stadium up the road, but they don't know what's going on. That's why they're huddled around the radio. They need to know why they hear the cheers.

It's a cool fall evening. A young man is in bed. He has school in the morning. He should be sleeping, but it's a pennant race. He's hiding under the covers with a radio, the volume turned up just enough for him to hear, but - hopefully - not so loud that his parents hear. He doesn't know that his father is listening to the same thing in the next room over.

It's a warm summer night, present day. The sun starting to set. A cool drink, a comfortable chair. Leaning back, watching the stars come out, one by one. Coming out of the radio are the comfortable, familiar sounds of a radio announcer, the voice of a man who is as much a part of the team as the players themselves.

Baseball and radio. A match made in heaven.

And to think it started as a one-game experiment.

Radio station owners were just starting to figure out their medium in 1921. The station KDKA in Pittsburgh had proven to be unexpectedly popular with its musical programming, so it started experimenting with other types of broadcasts. It announced the results of the 1920 presidential election. It broadcast a boxing match live in 1921. And then, on August 5, 1921, it broadcast a baseball game.

Twenty-five-year-old Harold Arlin was behind the mic for that first game, an otherwise run-of-the-mill late season matchup between the first-place Pirates and the last-place Phillies. He did the entire broadcast himself, no producers or assistants, and he stood behind home plate to call the action. He thought it'd be the only game he'd call, as baseball was seen as too slow-moving and boring to have mass appeal on the radio.

Boy was he wrong.

It didn't take long for baseball to get more coverage on the radio. The 1921 World Series was broadcast on three stations, the first time the sports' championship was sent out to the masses. KDKA had exclusive in-stadium broadcast rights, even though the Pirates stumbled and didn't make the series.

Since then, baseball's history is intertwined with the history of radio. Teams' fan bases expanded exponentially, as people who had never even seen a major league stadium could follow their team every night. The announcers bringing the daily action became synonymous with the teams they covered, often becoming more beloved than the players themselves. After all, a player might have a career of only 10 or 15 years, but announcers stay on for generations. A young man could tune into a game and hear the same voice his grandfather grew to love.

Timeless. A connection between the generations. A staple of warm summer nights, the familiar sounds of the crowd and the game disappearing into the fading twilight.

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