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Original Issue

In the first of his series of columns on sportscasting, Wilfrid Sheed finds the tube boobier on the ear than on the eye

As every teak-bottomed tellywatcher knows, the picture gets better every year but the sound remains the same. Each major sport seems to have settled forever into its ritual-announcing tone. Golf, for instance, sounds like the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, with Henry Longhurst slippering tactfully around the 16th green murmuring, "He's approaching now, yes, he's definitely getting closer." Football bifurcates—one voice to make with the pseudo science, rivaling Walter Cronkite on the moon landing, and the other for the bluff autumn-day effects ("These two teams certainly came to play; we should see some real football today, shouldn't we, Rex?" "We certainly should, Bruce...and watch especially for the split linebackers working in and out of the pocket").

Baseball is all folksy humanity and good sense. The announcers try their goshdarndest to catch the atmosphere of a Norman Rockwell post office. "It's a game of inches, Ralph." "It surely is that, Mr. Peabody, sir." The ex-ballplayer divulges nothing more arcane than "He's still trying to keep those pitches down." ("Yes, Sandy, that will do.") And where else do you still hear the word "golly" bandied so wantonly?

Each of these is in line with the mythology of its game. Golf announcers have to whisper, of course (vide the P. G. Wodehouse golfer who complained of the din the butterflies were making in the next meadow), but they go on whispering long after the occasion for it has ceased. There is also a note of the royal function about the post-game credits. The president of the Saucy Cashbox Country Club has to be thanked and the vice-president "for the fine job they have done this year"—presumably for not strewing the course with land mines. Even the flunkies who shill for the local ball clubs do not pause to thank the owners for each day's game. But golf is always a special occasion. And why, I suppose, not?

Football's manicness dates from the days when "college try" stood for something. Professionalism has cooled things a bit: nobody rants the way Bill Stern and Harry Wismer used to rant. Yet vestigial cheerleading lingers in the larynxes of the nonexperts, or charm partners, the Chris Schenkels and Jack Whitakers.

As to the gloomy mystagogues, the Christ-mans and DeRogatises, it seems likely that football fans prefer their game to sound preposterously scientific and would be more than happy to have it retailed in some Buck Rogers secret code. I would venture the heresy, which can later be withdrawn if the mail turns ugly, that while the game is certainly complicated, it is not that complicated. Down and outs, down and ins are the obvious ways of leaving the line of scrimmage and always were. The new names for positions simply denote that the old functionary is standing a few yards back or to the side. If the shortstop on the McCovey shift were called the strongside middle-base backer, baseball could run up a rival "now" lexicon in no time.

Baseball prefers to remain a fuddy-duddy, with its lugubrious oldtimers' days and its hoary statistical wizards (they are the ones who get thanked after the broadcasts, you'll notice). Of all broadcasters, baseball ones remain the most unassuming and relentlessly mediocre. There seems to be a terror of getting uppity, or smart ass, and their jollity is about on the level of ministers of separate faiths forced to travel on the same train.

The picture of the fan implied by all this is not pretty, whether it be the baseball idiot, small-brained and suspicious of change and thought, or the golf bore at prayer, or the football man-child roaring over his charts. In real life the fans, I know, are just as likely to be old ladies with minds like whips or dried-up literary men with cruel senses of humor, and I submit they deserve an occasional change from Frank Gifford. Besides, the games might begin to look different and to exhibit new possibilities if they were not always evoked in that same artificial way.

Meanwhile the best broadcasts often attach to those sports that are not aired often enough to sprout their own clichés, or which, like hockey and basketball, move too fast for the announcer's small talk to wedge in. Tennis, on a brief listen, has improved somewhat. They used to tell you what love meant and what the net was for, a real Dick and Jane plot; tennis was considered a rare, exotic import that had to be explained to Americans every time they watched it. Jack Kramer at the recent Nationals got off some medium-inside stuff that was not bad. But, like Russian industry, tennis starts from a humble base and has far to go.

The competence of certain announcers to talk about sports at all is a question for another time. For now, let's just compare them as you would barflies: which ones can you listen to for a couple of hours and which ones clear the room. If you still watch a child's helping of sports, as I do, it can spell the difference between a good year and the ones we've been having.