Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sports, Media and Data, part II (talkin’ baseball)

Welcome back to our discussion of how emerging media have shaped the data we use to appreciate sports.  Here’s the previous installment, in which I introduced the concept and showed how telegraphs and cheap newspapers led to the formation of the Daily Racing Form, which in turn turned horse racing into a nationwide powerhouse from a purely local industry.

In this post, we’ll look at the close relationship between baseball and radio in the medium’s early days, which led to a change in how Americans enjoyed our national game because of the availability of new data.

Most fans, even young ones who don’t listen to baseball on the radio, can appreciate the dimensions that the medium added to the sport.  Most obviously, radio made for larger audiences.  Not everyone could attend baseball’s day games, the only way to watch baseball prior to 1935.  Thus radio helped expand the audience from the tens of thousands of people in the stands to potentially the millions for games broadcast nationwide, such as the World Series, or even regular-season games with widely-stretched radio networks.

Perhaps more deeply, radio provided a literal voice to the game.  You can’t watch much coverage of baseball today without hearing sound clips from the Golden Era, including “the Giants win the pennant!” or Ernie Harwell or Red Barber.  They turned baseball into a national soundtrack.

Meanwhile, they also provided data.  In fact, they provided data in two ways:

  1. Real-time data.  Radio marked many Americans’ first exposure to what we now call real-time data.  To the first listeners tuning crystal sets into KDKA, it must have seemed like black magic to hear about the Pirates stepping up to the plate in Forbes field while they listened somewhere in the Ohio Valley.  Previously, telegraph services had provided pitch-by-pitch updates to ballgames, but this usually required the fan to stand near a wire or a newspaper office

Fans stand outside the Washington Post’s offices in 1912 for World Series News
(spoiler: the Sawx won)

Now fans could get updates wherever they had a radio.  No more waiting for the evening or morning newspapers.  By the same token, they could savor every pitch, every throw to first and every other event on the field, not a summary by whatever the newspaper scribe deemed important.  Professional baseball became a living thing.

  1. Expert data.  Having a radio announcer, and later a color man, explain the game also gave the average fan much more insight to the game than he or she had ever had before.  Granted, radio began broadcasting baseball at a different time, a time when nearly every boy and many girls played baseball when they weren’t attending school, church or some Dickensian workplace.  Most towns and factories had baseball--not softball--teams for their residents and employees.  Baseball directly owned a big piece of many Americans’ days.  They knew a lot about the sport to begin with because they played it often.

    That said, few Americans ever get to play baseball at the highest level.  They wanted to know how hard
    Walter Johnson threw, what kind of swing Babe Ruth had or whether Ty Cobb looked like he might kill a man.  They appreciated insights as to what went through the minds of managers like John McGraw or Connie Mack.  They learned how pitchers and catchers decided what to throw on a full count with a man on second.

    With games lasting two hours or more, announcers and color commentators had a lot of time, relative to a newspaper article, to give insight and background into what they saw and broadcast.   Thus the fan had not only
    more information, but also more descriptive information.

Taking into account the advances of telegraph, newspaper and radio, a middle-aged sports fan in the Roaring Twenties could remember a time when sports results came at best a day later, or sometimes not at all.  These results came in dribs and drabs.  By contrast, a young fan had come to expect consistent, real-time expert information.  He wanted to speak knowledgeably about games’ nuances

As we shall see in the next installment, where we will discuss the impact of different television technology, this thirst for information would only grow.

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