In the early days of baseball on the radio, a broadcaster's duties went beyond merely describing the action on the field. Often, they'd have to create the action as well.
The cost of transmitting away games was often deemed to be prohibitively expensive, so broadcasters during this time would work from the home studio. In an article published in the baseball journal Nine, author Tony Silvia described the process:
"First, a telegraph operator transmitted game information back to the studio with the results printed out on ticker tape. Then, engineers and broadcasters used the ticker tape to recreate the game, swing by swing, for their rapt audience of radio listeners. Sometimes the game was long over, giving the radio team more time to plan their embellishments to, what may or may not have been, a real 'nailbiter.'"
Announcers who once worked in this fashion included the legendary Ernie Harwell, as well as radio man-turned-actor-turned-President of the United States Ronald Reagan. But by the latter half of the century, improved technology rendered the practice obsolete, and game recreations went the way of team train travel, cigars at the concession stand and the four-man pitching rotation.
Motivated by a desire to pay homage to the broadcasting greats of yesteryear, Lansing Lugnuts play-by-play man Jesse Goldberg-Strassler annually stages a game recreation broadcast. This year's version, as in the past, took place on a significant date: Aug. 5, the anniversary of the first radio broadcast in baseball history.
The mother of invention...
"You can call it an homage, but it started by necessity."
That's how Goldberg-Strassler explains the origins of his game recreation tradition, which he attempted for the first time while working for the independent Brockton Rox in 2005. His boss, Jim Lucas, thought that having two rookie broadcasters call the game in such a unique fashion could generate some publicity. So Lucas gave lead broadcaster Dave Raymond the night off, and Goldberg-Strassler and his partner Matt Meola called the game based solely on messages relayed to them from the press box ("S1" connoting "strike one," for example). Rudimentary sound effects, such as cracking mini-bats together to simulate the ball hitting the bat, were used to enhance the action.
Goldberg-Strassler characterizes his performance during this broadcast as "awful," but three years later, the experience certainly came in handy.
"In 2008, I was with the Windy City Thunderbolts, and one of those crazy Chicago thunderstorms rolled through," he recalled. "We were an Internet-only broadcast, and there was no Internet in the press box, and then I thought back to Brockton -- I can just recreate it!"
And recreate it he did, with help from an intern who relayed the action taking place on the field.
"And what do you know, it turned out to be the first no-hitter in the history of the franchise!" marveled Goldberg-Strassler. "That was an interesting post-game interview. I was asking [pitcher Isaac Hess] questions about a game I didn't see. ... What was I supposed to say? That he sounded great?"
In 2009, Goldberg-Strassler was hired as the Lugnuts' lead broadcaster and head of the media relations department. It was then that he decided to make the recreation an annual event.
"Let's make this tradition," he said. "I grab my mini-bats, and my glove, and each year it gets better and better."
Making it up as you go
Among the improvements that Goldberg-Strassler has made to the recreation broadcasts through the years is the addition of crowd noise, which he had previously recorded during Lugnuts games. He has a "normal buzz and hum" going at all times, and adds loud crowd eruptions at key moments of the broadcast. The communication techniques have improved as well. This year, Goldberg stationed himself outside of the press box while his partner Keaton Gillogly relayed the action via instant message (the two switched roles for the fourth through sixth frames).
But even with such an expedient and accurate methodology, there is plenty of room for improvisation.
"The play-by-play is, in essence, correct," said Goldberg-Strassler. "But it's entirely up to me. I could say that the pitcher's curve is working, and that every strikeout is coming on a great curveball, but I've got no clue. I might have the manager start up a brouhaha with the umpire, just because, and one thing I love to do on strike one is have the guy crush a home run, only he just pulled it foul."
This loose attitude regarding accuracy in broadcasting can lead to some tricky moments.
"[On Aug. 5] in the first inning there was an infield single with the bases loaded, and I called it so that the ball was returned to the pitcher. But then I get the message that there was a throwing error on the first baseman and another run scores. So now I've got to figure out a way to make that happen, because as far as the listener is concerned the situation is stabilized. ... So I added a pickoff play, where the first baseman missed it on a tough hop and the runner charged home. You've gotta invent things sometimes."
With this being the case, Goldberg-Strassler takes pains to let his audience know that they're not listening to a typical broadcast.
"I try to draw back the curtain," he said. "Several times during the broadcast I'll mute the crowd noise and say that this is a recreation, and that I'm not watching the game. We're paying tribute to guys like Ernie Harwell and Ronald Reagan, the broadcasters of yore who did this because they couldn't go on the road. Then I'll turn back on the crowd, have the mini-bats in hand and it's off we go."
In addition to paying tribute to the industry's past, Goldberg-Strassler sees the recreation broadcast as an opportunity to push boundaries and have some fun amidst the long grind of the season. He hopes that, as such, it will catch on amidst his nationwide network of Minor League broadcasting peers.
"I'd love to hear about others putting their own spin on it, because it becomes new and different and contains things that you wouldn't have otherwise conceived of," he said. "Let's see how far we can take this."
Those who do make the leap into the creative world of the recreation broadcast will, at the very least, come to appreciate their normal routines that much more.
"After you close the book on another [recreation], you realize how difficult it was," said Goldberg-Strassler. "The next night I looked over at Keaton and said, 'You know, it's so much easier when you can actually see the baseball game.'"
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog.