Barber's Retroactive Baseball Play-By-Play

Baseball broadcaster Jon Miller talks about a recently discovered recording of a baseball play-by-play that was made 41 years after the actual game took place. At a broadcasters' conference in Orlando in 1979, Red Barber recorded a gripping play-by-play of a 1938 game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk Of The Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And now, the tape of broadcast that no one heard. Let me explain. From time to time throughout his long and distinguished life, people would come up to Red Barber and tell him how much they enjoyed his play-by-play broadcast of one of baseball's most electric moments.

The scene, Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, June 1938, the very first night game to be played there. The protagonist, Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer. He'd thrown a no-hitter in his previous start, and now, in the ninth inning in Brooklyn, he was on the verge of doing it again, something no pitcher has done before or since. And the problem, Red Barber never broadcast that game. The New York baseball teams then prohibited radio broadcast from their stadiums, so the young Red Barber, working for Cincinnati that year, was back home in Ohio.

Yesterday, in column in the New York Times, Richard Sandomir reported the discovery of a tape recorded at a broadcasters conference in Orlando in 1979. 41 years after the game he never broadcast, Red Barber stood before an audience and recreated the bottom of the ninth inning. We'll play you the tape and speak afterwards with the great play-by-play man John Miller.

If you'd like to talk with him about Red Barber and the art of baseball play-by-play, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Just click on Talk Of The Nation.

But now, here's Red Barber. It's the bottom of the ninth inning, Reds six, Dodgers nothing. Johnny Vander Meer walked three dodgers, but did not give up a hit, so bases loaded, one out.

(Soundbite of missing tape)

Mr. RED BARBER (Sports Radio Announcer): Here is the broadcast which nobody ever heard. Johnny Vander Meer standing on the mound. He's got a look of puzzlement on his face. He's a big strapping left hander, six-one, 190 pounds. He's a rookie, but he's been kicking around in the minor leagues because of wildness for some six years. And now, right at the brink of greatness, unprecedented greatness, he's gone wild. He's walked three straight hitters, Rosen is leading down off third base, Lavagetto off second, Dolph Camilli of first.

Bill McKeck(ph) is talking to this young pitcher trying to get him back in the groove again. There's nobody warming up in the bull pen. It's going to be Vander Meer going all the way. It has to be. He pitched a no-hitter four days ago in Cincinnati against Boston, and tonight is his night. His father and mother are here. The girl he's going to marry, they are all here, and this crowd is now for him. They have turned their backs on the Dodgers. They want to see him do it.

Now, the battle coming up is Ernie Koy, a big right-hand hitting outfielder, who was a fullback at Texas, and he can run like a deer. Vander Meer is ready to go. McKeck is going back in. The Cincinnati infield is Frank McCormick at first. Lonny Frey is at second. Billy Myers is at short. The third baseman is Lew Riggs. Out at left field is Wally Berger. The center fielder is Harry Craft, and right fielder is Ival Goodman. Ernie Lombardi, (unintelligible), sitting back at the plate ready to give the sign.

Calling up. Vander Meer pitches, and it's a strike. No balls, one strike, the score is six to nothing in favor of the Reds, but the score is not the story. The story is Vander Meer. Now, let's see. Koy sets swinging from the end of the bat. He's a big strong fellow. The infield is back because Koy can run. Vander Meer delivers. Koy swings. It's a ground ball half speed going down to third. Lew Riggs charges it. He's got it. His only play is at home. He throws to Lombardi, and the forced is on Rosen. Two out.

But the bases remain loaded, but now, Vander Meer is just one out away, and the hitter coming up is Leo Durocher, who has been at Brooklyn for a year since Branch Ricky(ph) sent him up from St. Louis. Derocher, a right hand hitter, lose footed hitter, and Derocher is a dangerous man in a pinch. Vander Meer goes for the rosin bag. Throws it away. Big left hander steps on the mound. Looks around. The outfield is straight away.

He delivers. It's a strike - no balls, one strike. Leo, of course, is going to get a hit if he can. Leo's ready. So is Vander Meer. The runners take their leads. Two down. The pitch. Strike two. No balls, two strikes. Vander Meer ready. Lombardi sets his mitt as the target. The left hander comes down. Derocher swings. It's a hard line drive going down the right field line, and it's foul just by a couple of feet in the right field corner.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. BARBER: Now, Derocher gets back in again. Vander Meer has a new ball. No balls, two strikes, two out, three on. The pitch. It's a high fly ball going into medium centerfield. Harry Craft comes under it, sets, and takes it, and it's a double no-hitter for Vander Meer. Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: The great Red Barber, recorded in 1979 recreating a broadcast that never was, the ninth inning of the second of Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no hitters. Jon Miller, who broadcasts play-by-play for ESPN and the San Francisco Giants, joined us on the phone from his home in California. Jon, merry Christmas.

Mr. JON MILLER (Broadcaster): Merry Christmas.

CONAN: And that is an amazing little piece of work, isn't it.

Mr. MILLER: It really was amazing, and especially considering that he not only had not broadcast the game, he - when it actually happened, he didn't know anything about it. He was the voice of the Cincinnati Reds at that time but not even doing a recreation of that road game, and there was no Internet. There was nobody that broadcasted the game back to Cincinnati, as you already mentioned.

So all of these things he's mentioning, he didn't know anything about it as it was happening. Even started the thing by saying, there's a look of puzzlement on Vander Meer's face.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: So, it is rather extraordinary, and the great thing was is that he not only did not know anything about it, people started calling him at his home - his number was listed. Santa Mir(ph) had this - a little confused about.

I think the real story about his phone number in his autobiography "Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat" in 1968, he said that his number was listed until after that night because people called him from bars. They called him from all over Cincinnati. They called him until four o'clock in the morning to talk to him about this no-hitter. And, as he said in his own book, I didn't know anything more about it than they knew. I was sitting in home. I didn't know what the first thing about the game. But they all wanted me to comment on it. So after that, they changed their phone number, and the number was then put under his wife's name.

CONAN: I see. And that was the - but he was able to develop such drama that 41 years after the event and, well, we all know how the game came out. When Derocher lines that ball foul, the people - the audience gasped.

Mr. MILLER: That was the best part of the whole thing because there was no crowd noise. And certainly, the crowd in Brooklyn that night became Vander Meer fans. They were hoping that he would do this unprecedented feat. And then the crowd in the auditorium there in Florida at this event at which he was recreating this game, they almost gasped when the ball was driven down the right field line and just ended up foul. They gasped, and they laughed, and they applauded. That was classic.

CONAN: There are some moments in there that are just incredibly wonderful. For example, as you suggest, obviously, he wasn't there. He doesn't know what happened or the look of puzzlement on Vander Meer's face. But nevertheless, he didn't say he threw a fast ball for strike one or a curve. He just said strike one because he didn't know what kind of a pitch it was.

Mr. MILLER: That's right. Well, you know, Red Barber was a great reporter of the game. And he did not believe in dressing anything up at all. He actually had a sense of drama, and he was very good, as we could hear very clearly, at creating that drama and conveying that drama. But when he did recreations - and the next year, he moved from Cincinnati to Brooklyn and became the great voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

But they would recreate the road games by Western Union. He'd sit in the studio by the Western Union ticker. And generally, when recreations were done - it was like commonplace of that time - the broadcasters would try to make it sound like they were actually at the party. They'd have recorded crowd noise. They'd make the crack of the bat sound and do all of that stuff.

He said no no no. That's just not true, and we're not going to pretend. I'm sitting at a Western Union ticker tape. I'm reading it off the ticker tape, and the only sound you heard other than Red's voice when he recreated a game was the sound of the wire machine rattling off the next bit of information. So I think that that was part of who Red was. He wasn't going to say it was a curve ball. He had no idea, and he wasn't going to pretend like he did.

CONAN: Let's get some callers on the line. We're talking with Jon Miller about that great three minutes of recording by Red Barber back in 1979, 41 years after he did not broadcast the last inning of Johnny Vander Meer's second of his back-to-back no hitters. Let's go to JL. JL's with us from Iowa City.

JL (Caller): Hi, yeah. Actually, this came up with me this last summer. I listened to the Chicago Cubs games on radio. And I also this last summer came across a radio program called Diamond Jims, which goes back - and goes back to games and players in the past, and they play a lot of clips from radio. And I noticed one day how vivid the - I don't want to say older, but the radio broadcasts in the past were in giving you detail so that you see what was going on.

Because about the day after I heard the program, I listened to a Cubs game, and they went through one batter, and they missed two pitches. They didn't even - they didn't even say. And then the next pitch was fouled off for, you know, ball two strike one. We missed the first two balls. Didn't even say whether it's stalled up - you know, where it was fouled off and so forth. And I think that's what I found missing in current radio, is that they don't recreate not just the drama, but they don't recreate the picture of what's happening on the field.

CONAN: Jon, is that an important part of your job?

Mr. MILLER: Absolutely. It's - I think it's the main part of the job when you're on the radio. And I think now, people, especially young broadcasters, they grow up with baseball and other sports on television. So maybe, I think this new generation of broadcasters hasn't grown up so much with the game coming to them on the radio and whole art of painting the picture the way Red painted the picture. But I think that is the key.

And I know Jim Woods was a great broadcaster, worked for many, many years with several different teams. And he came up under Mel Allen in New York. And Mel was the great voice of the Yankees, and he said that Mel, like Red, was a taskmaster. An inning would end, and Mel would tap him on the shoulder and say, young man, when a guy hits a foul ball into the first base stands in the lower deck, you've got to follow that ball and tell the people where it went because that's the job. Where did the ball go? What happened to the ball? Not just fouled away, but where did the foul ball go? So he said he was a stickler for those kind of details, and that's the way it was done.

I have a tape of Red Barber doing the 1936 World Series on the radio, game three, the Giants and Yankees at Yankee stadium. And in his autobiography, he talks about the first World Series he had done and meeting with the commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis who told him to just call everything that they saw, describe everything that you see. And he admonished them to let the umpires, though, do their job because the umpires were going to be better at it than the broadcasters were. But otherwise, describe everything, and if the umpires having with the managers about a call, well, describe that, but just leave the umpiring to the umpire.

So in that 1936 World Series, he described everything, and I think today, the ears of fans would not be able to tolerate quite as much description because he'd say, now, the umpire wants to take a look at that baseball, and Hadley(ph) tosses it into the catcher, Lombardi, who turns around and hands it to (unintelligible). He inspects that ball, and he's going to keep it in play. He tossed it at the back out to the pitcher, Hadley. And, you know, DiMaggio's up there. He's a dirt picker upper. He rests the bat handle on his right thigh, reaches down with his left hand, grabs a handful of dirt, rubs between his hands. Now, he grabs that big piece of lumber with his right hand.

You know, I mean, literally described every single thing that was going on, but as a young broadcaster hearing that, I was struck by that, that there are so many things that can be described. And I advise every young broadcaster to get those CDs of the old games of Red Barber, Mel Allen, those people did because I think there's a wealth of information that can be gleaned in terms of how it's done, the art of the play-by-play broadcaster.

CONAN: JL, thanks very much for the call.

JL: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Jon Miller of ESPN and the San Francisco Giants. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And the other part of that broadcast, even for casual fans, Jon Miller, some of the names are so evocative. Leo Durocher, still a player - of course, most of us who remember him remember him as a manager many years later. Cookie Lavagetto, a name that just rolls off the tongue. You'd kill to be able to say that name on the radio, and I loved the way he called Ernie Lombardi the big shnozz(ph).

Mr. MILLER: Big shnozz.

CONAN: The shnozz was Jimmy Durante. The big shnozz, now that was Ernie Lombardi.

Mr. MILLER: Well, there were a couple of things that struck me there. Derocher number one, and I had not realized that he made the final out until I heard this and read the article in the Times yesterday. Derocher was the playing manager of the Dodgers at that time, 1938. So the manager of the ballclub made the final out in the no hitter. Lavagetto was one the guys who had walked, as Red recounted. He was on second based.

And that kind of presaged that dramatic game nine years later that Red actually did broadcast and of which there's a famous tape. Bill Bevins of the Yankees had a no hitter in the bottom of the ninth at Ebbets field, but he kept walking people. He's walked 10 or 11 guys, and Lavagetto came up as a pinch hitter and got the only hit of the game off the right field wall, and the famous broadcaster, Red, said, here comes the tying run and here comes the winning run, and the game was over.

So there's Lavagetto nine years before in a famous no-hitter, and Vander Meer was wild. He walked eight. He had walked the bases loaded in the ninth inning, including Lavagetto. Nine years later, Bevins did not walk Lavagetto, and he beat him. So maybe, the key to getting that second straight no-hitter was walking Lavagetto, unlike 1947.

CONAN: Also, I loved the description of Leo Durocher as a loose-footed hitter. I don't think I'd ever heard it before, though I heard Red broadcast in awful lot of games. But it tells you exactly what kind of a hitter he is.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, sort of.

CONAN: Slap hitter, banjo hitter.

Mr. MILLER: Red was a - I only ever heard him on tape - these old tapes of ball games. In 1949, I have a tape of the final game of the World Series. It was at Ebbets Field. The Yankees and…

CONAN: Got 30 seconds, Jon.

Mr. MILLER: And the pitcher for the Dodgers that day was Rex Barney. He ended up being the public address announcer in Baltimore for years and years and years. And Rex was wild, and he walked a bunch of guys and whatnot, and the game was a long game, and the Yankees ended up winning it 10 to six, a lot of offense.

And they turned on the lights during that game, which had not been allowed up till then. The commissioner of baseball was at the game, and he said, OK, turn on the lights. It's getting dark. And Red says on the broadcast, well, ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in World Series history, a game is going to now be played under the artificial electric lights. And they had turned them on, so that was the very first one in 1949. So...

CONAN: Jon.

Mr. MILLER: Red was...

CONAN: Jon, got to go, Jon, I'm sorry.

Mr. MILLER: If there was...

CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. MILLER: Thanks.

CONAN: Jon Miller of ESPN and the Giants. Ari Shapiro will be here tomorrow with the best in Christmas music. I'll see you again on Monday. Merry Christmas. Happy holidays everybody. I'm Neal Conan. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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