12/30/08 10:00 AM EST
Messenger changes, but not message
Baseball's delivery to fans further evolves with launch of MLB Network
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
What does he holler when he is hollering?
You can hear him clean to hell and gone,
C'mon there baby, c'mon, c'mon!
Or he will change his holler, maybe,
To let's go, baby, baby, baby!
-- Ogden Nash
We are still follering this holler guy.
It's that baseball player out on the field, the same one who wore Alexander Cartwright's Knickerbockers threads in the 1840s, the one who wore pinstripes with numbers in 1927, the one who used to "Say Hey" all the time, the one who broke Ty Cobb's hits record one night in Cincinnati, the one who won four starts in the latest postseason.
What's different is the way we keep follering him. The national pastime rolls on. The methods of follering him keep changing, always serving as a petri dish for scientific discovery and a relentless charge of more-more-more. We can't get enough baseball. Let's go, baby, baby, baby. Bring on the MLB Network and consider this evolution:
While there is much debate about whether the Civil War truly spread the popularity of baseball -- many historians now refute that long-held notion by citing how many players and clubs vanished because of massive casualties and sobering reality -- there is no argument about the importance of 1800s print publications as the sport's first viral vehicle.
The free press was seen by Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson as crucial to the lifeblood of a new republic, and along with advances in printing and paper-making technology led to an explosion of newspaper growth in the 1830s. They called it the "Penny Press" because it was suddenly possible to pay only a cent for a copy of Benjamin Day's New York Sun or later Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. Newspapers generally had been read by the wealthy, literate minority.
In his book, "But Didn't We Have Fun? An Informal History of Baseball's Pioneer Era, 1843-1870," author Peter Morris writes on page 40:
"The game's association with the printed word spurred its growth. For starters, print was ideally suited to communicating the changes made by the Knickerbockers. As anyone who has struggled with an instruction manual can appreciate, print is not a medium that is well suited for explaining something to someone who is entirely unfamiliar with it. But ... that was not much of a problem in the 1850s because the country knew the rudiments of the game. More important, print was effective for the task at hand: listing changes, updates, and revisions to an already familiar activity and thereby creating the uniformity that American bat-and-ball games had lacked.
"An added bonus was that mass print communications were to the 1850s what television was to the 1950s and the Internet was to the 1990s: a new medium crackling with excitement and potential. This was particularly true of the burgeoning American newspaper industry, which had been revolutionized by the introduction of the penny paper in the 1830s and the spread of telegraph lines. Americans were awed by the speed with which news form the other side of the country, or even the world, could land on their doorsteps. In short order, newspapers had become affordable, accessible, and a vital part of the lives of an increasingly literate American population. Hitching the game to this rising star was to prove highly beneficial."
Telegraph not only helped newspapers fill their pages with baseball news, it also helped create some of the earliest play-by-play to outposts across the country as the first step toward broadcasting.
In the book "Breaking News: How The Associated Press Has Covered War, Peace, And Everything Else," Thomas Edison is quoted on the remarkable manner in which AP set up a single, national circuit for the 1916 World Series that featured a knotted strand 26,000 miles long. That allowed AP to deliver the play-by-play direct from the ballpark to all 700 of its media members with no intervening relay or delay. Edison said in this Oct. 26 telegram from Orange, N.J., to an AP editor:
"The Associated Press must be wonderfully well organized to be able to accomplish what was done in the ball games. Uncle Sam has now a real arterial system and it is never going to harden. Edison."
During Game 1 of that 1916 Fall Classic, AP was delivering basic pay-by-play over the wire. Then one of its stringers suddenly used that special circuit to deliver this telegram from Newport, R.I.: "F-L-A-S-H ... A GERMAN SUBMARINE HAS ARRIVED HERE." The U.S. joined World War I soon thereafter.
It was not uncommon during early 20th Century World Series to have a telegraph message from the ballpark relayed to a person who would post the action on a large scoreboard in the local town square. They wanted more and more.
On Aug. 4, 1921, newly appointed Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis proclaimed the following in announcing the banishment of eight White Sox players who he determined, legally or not, were guilty of having consorted with gamblers for the intent of "throwing" the 1919 World Series:
"Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball."
One day later, the first baseball "broadcast" happened. Within that 24-hour period, life as the world knew it had changed. Innocence was lost, the fishbowl would be unveiled, and no technology -- not even close -- ever changed the game more. The invention of baseball broadcasting would change everything.
That game on Aug. 5, 1921, was broadcast by KDKA of Pittsburgh, and the hometown Pirates beat the cross-state Phillies, 8-5. Harold Arlin was the first announcer. That fall, KDKA and WJZ of Newark, N.J., broadcast the first World Series game on the radio, with Rice and Tommy Cowan calling the games. They were not actually at the game, but rather, were reading the telegraph reports over the radio. The next year, they did it from what would become known as a broadcasting booth.
Red Barber, the most famous broadcaster in history and the true pioneer, would eventually make that booth known to all as "the catbird seat." The Golden Age of radio soon followed, and Barber was joined among such luminaries as Harry Caray, Mel Allen, Russ Hodges, Ernie Harwell and Vin Scully.
The first televised baseball game was on May 17, 1939, a 2-1 victory by Princeton over Columbia at the latter's Baker Field. The game was aired on W2XBS, an experimental New York station that later became WNBC-TV.
The first televised MLB game was on Aug. 26 of the same year, once again on W2XBS. Just as Rice had overlapped the transition from print to radio in calling that first game, now Barber was overlapping the transition from radio to TV by calling this Dodgers-Reds doubleheader at Ebbets Field. The Reds won the first game, 5-2, and the Dodgers won the second, 6-1. Barber made the call without benefit of a monitor and with only two cameras capturing the action. One camera was on Barber and the other was behind the plate.
"This is Red Barber speaking. Let me say hello to you all." Those were the first words ever uttered in a Major League telecast.
Television programming was almost completely pre-empted by World War II, and once the war was over, the rush soon was on for Americans to purchase such luxuries they had been denied during the combat years. The period of 1948-49 marked the greatest growth in TV sales. Round, oval and rectangular screens became the rage. Milton Berle, Edward R. Murrow, Ed Sullivan, Howdy Doody -- the new faces of life.
Baseball players had to be on those, too. The 1948 Boston Braves won the National League flag and drew 1.46 million fans, and then they decided to sell the TV rights to all of their home games for the next two years. Before long, they were raking in TV revenue but fans were staying home in droves to watch on TV instead. In 1953, the Braves moved to Milwaukee and refused all offers to televise home games.
What followed was a gradual marriage between baseball and TV, a symbiotic discovery. At first it hurt Minor League Baseball to have the sport's stars available to watch in a small town instead of your bush league hopeful. At first it hurt the MLB gate. But it became the tool of expansion in baseball, and by 1969 there were now 24 clubs, even in Canada (Montreal), and the NBC "Game of the Week" was a staple for many. The arrival of color TV along with night baseball ushered in a new era.
TV contracts ballooned, nationally and regionally. Cable TV came along in the 1970s, giving us Ted Turner's "Superstation" that would turn the hapless Atlanta Braves into America's Team. The Cubs were everywhere because of WGN. ESPN was launched with its curious Australian rules football and sundry curiosities, and before long it became a true player and was broadcasting MLB games. FOX became an October fact of life for a new generation and then that "Superstation" known as TBS joined the postseason party. TV brought you new camera angles and HD clarity, and made the game far bigger overall as opposed to those early attendance declines.
It was just strings of binary code in zeroes and ones, translated into readable graphics and text on a computer. And it represented the future and still another transformation of a baseball fan's life. Now, instead of merely having a medium presented to a fan by a corporate entity, the fan was part of the process. Message boards, sortable stats, online ticketing, fantasy games, shopping, scores, customized player information, interactivity with MLB personnel including players -- anything was possible.
Major League owners voted unanimously in 2000 to form a subsidiary company called Major League Baseball Advanced Media, combining resources to handle all MLB Internet operations including MLB.com and the 30 club sites. Content was created independent of MLB authorization, with journalists hired to form the first and only network of 30 traveling beat writers with matching editorial producers -- resulting in 24/7/365 coverage from people close to club decision-makers.
Baseball sites became widespread with disparate voices and serving only to broaden the scope and understanding of the game. At MLB.com, the Gameday application was one of those that offered live, pitch-by-pitch coverage through data feeds, and gradually it was enhanced more and more until it brought video highlights and pitch-tracking geometric data. Then there was that day in August 2002 when a revolutionary broadcast happened at Yankee Stadium, bringing about another life-altering moment for fans.
It was an experimental stream of a Rangers-Yankees game, viewed by 30,000 fans, many of whom were at work and going back and forth between work and play windows on their computers. The following season, Major League Baseball became the first sports league to stream its full schedule over the Internet via what would become known to fans worldwide as MLB.TV. It also presented the first opportunity for full-scale on-demand viewing, letting fans choose any half-inning of any game that season as well as classics. In 2008, iTunes downloading of key MLB games became another staple for many of us.
This and the other MLBAM properties are a central part of the fan experience for many, but the beauty of the Internet is how widespread the controls are for fans beyond that. Blogging has taken giant incremental steps over the past few years, as the lines forever blur now between company- and consumer-produced content. Individuals control what content they want, how they want it, and whether they want to produce or consume it. Nothing is the same. Everyone spreads the game, so different than the penny-press world of curious consumption.
The speed of this technology shift has been overwhelming, as baseball rides the wave of ever-increasing digital handheld usage. When Apple introduced its iPhone, MLB At Bat immediately became one of the must-have apps, and MLB personnel helped Steve Jobs introduce the features. The MLB.com Gameday application also was customized for mobile customers, allowing yet another way to consume live action during the season. It was now virtually impossible to miss a baseball game on planet Earth, at last.
MLB.com Mobile introduced Text Alerts, and today millions of fans customize these so that key game moments involving their favorite teams and/or favorite players are put right onto their handsets. In 2008, the launch of Video Alerts became another killer app, so that you could watch an Albert Pujols or a Josh Hamilton homer right after it happened.
On New Year's Night, the latest step in the inexorable evolution is introduced when the MLB Network launches in about 50 million households, representing by far the largest launch in cable history. As with other major advances seen above, the net effect will be to only further popularize the game and spoil you as a baseball fan.
It will be on the air 24/7/365, and it gradually will morph into whatever fans dictate that it must be. No other sports cable network is more suited for its subject, given baseball's seemingly endless summers, its incomparable tradition (look for Don Larsen's 1956 World Series perfect game on Opening Night) and its highly active offseasons. It will bring the latest TV technology, marquee talent, energy and passion.
This holler guy who we are follering, you know what he hollers when he is hollering.
From print to telegraph to radio to television to the Internet to mobile to the MLB Network, the evolution of baseball coverage makes sure of it.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.