NBC's coverage of the World Series seems to be ruled by an official dictum declaring that, aside from the gobbledygook of Casey Stengel that we all can afford to suffer, our October classic between two great teams is a deadly serious proposition. Announcers should not intrude on this severe mood with any evidence of emotion, laughter or voice inflection. The NBC squad was up to its task, too, scaling the heights of somber superlativism. Had it not been for Tony Kubek's beanbag interviews, I could have been tuned in to Sir Winston Churchill's funeral by mistake.
I have been to my share of World Series games, and I am convinced the Series is an entirely different spectacle from the one described to me last week by Curt Gowdy, Chuck Thompson and Jim McIntyre. The games I attended struck me as being lively, exciting affairs, containing equal parts tension and fun. Maybe this year's Series was different. And maybe I am being picky to expect some facsimile of excitement to project itself through a TV screen, particularly since I suspect most viewers were pleased with the clinical NBC presentation.
After all, remember what happened a few years ago when the Cardinals were in the Series and Harry Caray dared betray the fact that he was excited? The viewer protests rivaled those stirred up by Howard Cosell's finest hours. Because of all the technological legerdemain thrown at them, viewers seem to want cardboard announcers now. Watching the Series, I recalled something Bert Parks had said only a few days before: "My personality is too strong for what they want on TV today. The emcee is gone. All they really want is a voice-over." This applies directly and increasingly to sports telecasting, as the presentation of the World Series proved.
What flair there was came from Thompson, a smooth old pro who joined Gowdy for the last three games. Yet even he seemed restrained. Seldom, for instance, did he produce that distinctive trademark of his. He says some sentences backward, does Chuck Thompson. "He hit this one hard, did Concepcion." "He can generate a lot of power, can Don Buford." Where Thompson helped most was as an analyst. While, heaven forbid, neither he nor Gowdy ever seriously suggested any of the 50 players—or six umpires—had deficiencies, they did provide a more enlightened commentary with each successive game. For example, in the second game Baltimore built its big inning around three straight hits to the opposite field. This was crucial, good baseball and an interesting point. But nobody mentioned it. By the last game, however, when Brooks Robinson went to right with a pitch to move a runner to third, Gowdy and Thompson were quick to emphasize what had happened.
There was also, for me at least, a failure to anticipate what might happen and to let me in on the possibilities. In baseball, calling the play is not the measure of an announcer; preparing for the possibilities of a play is. The special intrigue of baseball is the series of alternatives that each new situation presents. Bunt or hit? Who's on deck? Take the pitcher out and who's left? And will the other team pinch-hit then? NBC gave us too little of this.
As is so often the case—and it may be that the one is a far less difficult art than the other—NBC's picture coverage was much stronger than its announcing. Camera angles were numerous and excellent, and the special replay and slow-motion devices were effectively employed. It was the close-ups, though, that paid off best. The tight dugout shots of the two managers provided revealing moments. And filmed footage of the Reds' Sparky Anderson in the dugout during a regular-season game, which appeared on a pregame show, was fascinating.
Indeed, the pregame shows offered the kind of sparkle and speculation that was missing once the play-by-play began. Mickey Mantle gave it the old aw-shucks hound-dog, and Sandy koufax—who is beginning to sound like Bing Crosby—was much better in this setting than he had been as a playoff color man. Like most athletes who are used to being interviewed, Koufax can respond well to questions, but he fails at initiating comment. It was during the playoffs, when Stan Williams came in to pitch, that Koufax said he had roomed with Williams once and had many "fond memories" of the ex-Dodger. Having teased us so, Koufax went so far as to reveal Williams' ERA. He could have used someone right there saying, "All right, Sandy, tell us one fond memory." On the pregame show, with Joe Garagiola there to ask the leading questions, Koufax became more than a six-figure voice-over.
Finally, I wish NBC did not have Kubek roaming the stands for interviews. If networks believe that former jocks are best qualified to analyze games, I think it only consistent that an ex-usher be hired to interview the people in the stands. With his gee-whiz repartee, Tony stepped on no toes as he shuffled through the aisles, and this year, unlike last, he never interfered with the action. But his assignment was silly and thankless. He was at his most instructive when introducing us to players' wives, since all the wives looked the same to me. Now I know why the Cincinnati and Baltimore organizations are so successful. They issue wives to all the players, along with spikes and fielders' mitts.