We speak of great American voices–in literature and music, social commentary, humanitarian endeavors. But there’s another voice, essentially American and occasionally just as indelible, that we hear oftener than those of the more conventional pantheon. It’s a voice that spills out of idle taxis and tenement windows, chatters reassuringly in a corner of the barber shop or backyard, echoes in firehouse bays, contends with waves at the beach, and keeps the solitary fisherman company down at the pond.
It’s a voice we’ve heard since August 5, 1921, when Harold Arlin described to his KDKA audience what he was seeing at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. Since that day nearly a century ago, there have been many baseball announcers, both on radio and television. A few transformed commentary into art; theirs is the art of the tell. And if you don’t think Red Barber, Mel Allen, and Vin Scully qualify as great American voices you’re nuts.
New York may no longer be the capital of baseball as it once was in the 1940s and 50s, but it maintains supremacy when it comes to announcing. Ironically, it’s not the television commentators for the New York Yankees, the most successful team of all-time, but the announcers for the (often lowly) Mets–Gary Cohen, Ron Darling, and Keith Hernandez–who set a standard unmatched by any other club.* (If you’ve ever wanted to know what life was like in the Soviet Union with TASS filtering your news, watch a few Yankees games on the YES network.) The articulate threesome broadcast on SportsNet New York, or SNY, and, for a small number of games, on WPIX, a longtime local TV station.
The excellence of these three announcers begins at the cellular level: their diction. In an era when every kind of public figure communicates by cobbling together the boilerplate of brainlessness (“at the end of the day, it is what it is . . . going forward”), Gary, Ron, and Keith speak in original, cliché-free sentences. Sounds simple? Listen to game coverage by ESPN’s baseball brain trust some night and have a sip every time you hear one of the three aforementioned clichés. And please, make sure you attempt it at home.
When these three broadcasters sit together in the booth, their genuine rapport and lively repartee (all words, by the way, that they could spell and define) elevate them beyond the sum of their impressive individual parts.
Gary Cohen, who does play-by-play, grew up in Queens (the New York City borough in which the Mets play), a Mets fan since childhood. After graduating from Columbia University, where he began his broadcasting career on WKCR, Cohen worked through a host of assignments in various sports until he found his way to his beloved Metropolitans, first on radio and then, in 2006, on TV. Here’s one of those rare planetary alignments when the ideal person for the job not only holds the position but considers the job ideal.
Along with relating the game’s details pitch by pitch, Cohen, in his urbane manner and pleasing baritone, acts as conversational pivot between two great former-Mets who played together on a championship team.
Keith Hernandez enjoyed an exceptional playing career, one that many of us hope will be rewarded with Hall of Fame induction via the Veterans Committee. Breaking into the bigs in 1974 with the St. Louis Cardinals, he earned MVP honors in 1979 and a World Series ring in 1982. But it was an acrimonious trade to New York that energized the already formidable first baseman into a dynamo. His manager, Davey Johnson, named him team captain in 1984, an unprecedented honorific for a Met. As such, Hernandez led the Amazin’s to their second championship in 1986, a feat that also netted him lifetime laurels as a First Citizen of Gotham.
Trading his bat for a quill, Hernandez has written four books, including a young-adult baseball murder mystery and a highly regarded gem, Pure Baseball: Pitch by Pitch for the Advanced Fan, in which he explicates the intricate permutations of two ballgames from the 1993 season.
Born on Oahu and educated at Yale, Ron Darling joined the Mets in September of 1983, quickly securing his spot in the pitching rotation. Three years later and already an All-Star, Ron figured prominently in a championship season. And like his former teammate and fellow Mets announcer, Darling is also an author. His book, The Complete Game: Reflections on Baseball, Pitching, and Life on the Mound, provides the same kind of insights and tactical analysis that he brings to the announcing booth. His talent for eloquent explanation has earned him two Emmy Awards for best sports analyst and also landed him a second gig on TBS when the postseason rolls around.
Even before he wrote his own book, Ron Darling had already found a place in the game’s literary parallel universe as one of the chief protagonists in Roger Angell’s celebrated essay, “The Web of the Game.” On May 21, 1981, Angell joined an estimated 2,000 spectators at Yale Field to watch the Bulldogs take on a visiting St. John’s University squad, with Ron Darling the Elis’ twirler and Frank Viola pitching for the Redmen.
Angell would live out a kind of Field of Dreams day at the ballpark seated beside legendary pitcher “Smoky Joe” Wood while watching two superb young hurlers vie in what many regard as college baseball’s greatest game. Smoky Joe had been a meteoric pitcher, going 34-5 in 1912 en route a championship with the Boston Red Sox. Between innings, Wood, now a nonagenarian, recounted a 1-0 pitcher’s duel he won against the great Walter Johnson 69 years earlier. As it would happen, Viola and St. John’s prevailed by the identical score over Yale even though Darling threw eleven hitless innings, an NCAA record that still stands.
The game exhibited all the pleasures and virtues we’d hope to see in an athletic contest. In his book, The Complete Game, Darling recounts (and also astutely analyzes) the epic’s twists and turns, respectfully citing at several points Angell’s essay–a poetic closure of the loop, the game’s web indeed. My favorite aspect of this legendary duel is one of its virtues: honor. As Darling tells it:
Steve Scafa, St. John’s left-handed-hitting second-baseman, led off the top of the twelfth for the Redmen. A scrappy guy, he always seemed to get his bat on the ball. My first thought as he dug in was, Okay, Ronnie, you’re not striking this guy out, so just make him put it in play. Tony Paterno [Darling’s catcher] and I thought we’d start him out with a fastball away. I meant to keep it down, but it hung up there a little, and Scafa reached out and went with the pitch and stroked a picture-perfect line drive that floated over Bobby Brooke’s head at short and landed softly on the grass in front of our left-fielder. Just like that, the no-hitter was over, and I stepped off the mound to take a deep breath and refocus. When I looked up, there was Scafa at first, tipping his batting helmet. It’s like the moment had been put on pause. There was my catcher, standing straight up behind home plate, looking right at me. He wasn’t down in his crouch. I thought, What the hell is going on here? I knew Scafa had just broken up the no-hitter, but I was trying to win the game. I was thinking, Come on! Let’s go! Next batter!
Then a voice came over the public address system, announcing that my eleven innings of no-hit ball was a record for an NCAA tournament game, and everyone in that wonderful old stadium stood to applaud. I wasn’t expecting that. I wasn’t expecting the guys in the St. John’s dugout to stand and tip their caps. I wasn’t expecting my own teammates to stand and do the same. (Some of the St. John’s players even threw their red caps on the field–the ultimate nod!)
Darling goes on to relate how he and Frank Viola immediately bonded over this game, a friendship further cemented when the two future Major League All-Stars became teammates on the Mets.
Darling’s written description of the Yale-St. John’s game reads much like his on-air commentary. And just as Darling is adept at taking the listener inside a pitcher’s head, Keith Hernandez can explain what’s going on within a batter’s or fielder’s mind.
Part of the beauty of baseball commentary is its evanescence, like the performances of stage actors or live musicians. Another part of the pleasure is the occasional tangent, enabled, in part, by the game’s wonderful pacing. Unlike the manic claims to attention of some other sports, baseball respires in a breathe in-breathe out rhythm of concentration and relaxation that allows for digression.
With Cohen, Darling, and Hernandez, the dialogue can take delightfully unexpected turns. They’re well-read. Keith is no stranger to New York Times crossword puzzles. Gary’s knowledge of Mets history and trivia makes reference books superfluous. They all take a lively interest in knowing the culinary lay of the land in each team’s city. And they obviously enjoy the game and each other’s company, a chemistry that many have noted with appreciation.
In an insight from Ken Burns’s Baseball documentary with which I not only agree but cherish, Thomas Boswell, the veteran Washington Post sports columnist, says: “I’ve always thought that the six months during the baseball season, there was something in the day that wasn’t there the other six months in winter. It was not that you had to listen to the game, but that you could if you needed it.”
Exactly! I often describe the baseball season to people as being like a river: with 162 regular games, it’s always flowing “back there” whether you go down to look at it today or don’t get a chance until next week–it’s waiting there for you.
And so is the stream of announcing and conversation from Gary, Ron, and Keith. They too practice the art of the tell. I could cite dozens of witty exchanges, unlikely references, and thrilling calls but that would be like holding up a glass of water and telling you there’s a river called the Hudson and it’s made of this stuff. Check out some highlights on the Web of the trio in action. Better still, just tune in, slow down, and enjoy some great American voices.
* Legendary Dodgers commentator Vin Scully, still mellifluous at 87, is by far the single greatest baseball announcer to ever grace a microphone, but he works alone.