The most exciting baseball games I ever saw were some I never saw at all. I heard them. As a kid, I was a devoted Brooklyn Dodger fan and a follower of all things baseball including New York’s other major league teams, the Giants and yes, the hated Yankees too. I got my baseball from my radio. The voices of my youth were those of Red Barber, Russ Hodges and Mel Allen.
Ballentine Beer, a local New York brewing company, sponsored the Yankees and every time a Yankee hitter smacked one into the seats, Mel Allen would yell into his microphone - “It’s going, going, GONE! A Ballentine blast!” I hated it – hated him – and made a point of never drinking Ballentine Beer either. Schaefer Beer sponsored the Dodgers and, although I couldn’t stand the taste of it, Schaefer was my beer, damnit!
Nothing compared with baseball on the radio on a summer evening. Of course, in those long ago days, baseball games were not regularly televised. And even if they had been we didn’t get our first television set in my house until I was already twelve years old.
Then, in 1957 the baseball world was knocked off its axis.
Greedy owner Walter O’Malley spirited the beloved Dodgers out of Brooklyn and took them completely across the continent to Los Angeles. He couldn’t go alone. One team, separated from all the others by thousands of miles would never have been workable. So, the creep O’Malley talked his friend Horace Stoneham into picking up his New York Giants and moving them to San Francisco. Both of New York’s National League teams disappeared overnight. The pain of it was like a knife to the midsection. It wasn’t California’s fault. No one from the west had come east to steal these iconic organizations. The Devil himself, O’Malley, and his compliant piss-ant servant, Stoneham, were the culprits.
I thought the world, as I knew it, had come to an end.
I was saved by a man named Les Keiter.
The next season began with my National League teams 3000 miles away, but one of them – the Giants – remained as close as my radio dial. No, they didn’t have the technology we take for granted today. There were no satellites to relay the games back to New York City. So, how was I able to hear these games? Les Keiter.
Les Keiter sat in a broadcast studio in New York City – at Radio Station WINS – and broadcast what was called a “recreation” of the games from the reports taken off a Western Union wire tape. Of course, it wasn’t a recreation – it was an original creation. In order to recreate, you need to know the exact specifics of the original. Then you recreate them. Les Keiter had none of this information. All he had was what appeared on the ticker tape.
And the Western Union ticker gave him only the barest of data.
For example, as it came across the ticker, a typical 7-pitch at-bat could look like this:
What kind of strike? A swing and miss, or a called strike? Was the pitch a fastball or a curve, a slider or a changeup? Did the ball bounce in front of the plate? Was a foul ball simply a grounder off to the right or left? Or maybe a long fly – nearly a home run – but turning foul at the last moment?
Les Keiter had none of this to work with. And often the Western Union ticker might delay the report of the next pitch for thirty seconds or a minute or even longer. Keiter had nothing to work with but his imagination.
When a hitter did hit the ball in play, sometimes the Western Union ticker would indicate where the ground ball was hit. Sometimes it wouldn’t. The same thing with a fly ball. From these bare bones, Les Keiter, working alone, with no sidekick, no color analyst, no second announcer, made a complete broadcast.
He had a wide variety of sound effects - the crowd noises, the crack of the bat, the thump of the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt, the muted cry of an umpire’s “You’re out!” But everything about the game itself, Les Keiter made it up as he went along. From the meeting of the managers and the umpires at home plate before the game began, to the first pitch, to the last at bat. Yes, he made it up.
Western Union ticker: FLY BALL OUT
might have sounded like this…
“Here’s the pitch.”
(SFX/ Crack of Bat)
“There’s a long fly to left center.
(SFX/Crowd noise rising)
“The left fielder takes off, but it looks like he can’t run it down. It’s in the gap, all the way to wall.”
(SFX/Crowd noise louder)
“Here comes Willies Mays! Mays races back. He reaches out.”
(SFX/Crowd noise loudest)
“Willie makes the catch!”
(SFX/Crowd noise deafening)
What had actually, really happened? Who knew? Certainly not Les Keiter or anyone else at the WINS studios. Perhaps it had been just a little pop fly to the right fielder. Maybe the second baseman had to be called off. Willie Mays might have stayed put way out there in center field. But, what really happened didn’t matter because whatever Les Keiter said – that’s what really happened. I believed it. And so did a lot of other people.
Time and technology ended this wonderful experiment, this amazing moment when fans, listeners and Keiter himself accepted fantasy as reality. Major League Baseball put the Mets in New York. The Giants and the Dodgers and Les Keiter were replaced and forgotten.
But we all know, don’t we, some things cannot be forgotten, not forever.
Les Keiter died this week. He was 89. The New York Times obituary didn’t say anything about his funeral – where it was or when. So, I can’t know the details, but if I think hard enough, back far enough, I’m sure, in the theater of my mind, I can recreate them, sound effects and all.