Monday, June 7, 2010

Are Baseball Announcers Necessary?

As digital and social media infiltrate the world of sports, and make teams, athletes, reporters, and information overall more accessible for fans, there is a greater opportunity for fans to connect to the game. This connection is important to the longevity of the franchises, and has largely been borne on the shoulders of the games' announcers. But why bother turning up the volume on the radio or television when you can follow the progress and emotions of a hashtag community on Twitter? Are announcers still important in this evolving landscape?

It's interesting to me is that each wave of media infiltration—including the advent of announcers—has been summarily dismissed as a connective force. In 1927 Marshall Beuick wrote that broadcast radio will never surpass the experience of being physically present at a sporting event:
Broadcasting can never really stimulate a consciousness of kind. it will remain with us it if can be properly financed and if the programs are of a high grade. But it will perform its greatest service to isolated persons like farmers, the sightless, and those who are nearly deaf. Besides, it will perform a valuable function in bad or severe weather, when the city dwellers want to remain at home (622).
Beuick maintained that radio broadcasters could never compete with the emotions generated from being physically present and a part of the crowd. And there is some truth to that: there's definitely something to  hearing the vendors hawk peanuts and hot dogs, booing the umpires, and waiting for that perfect swing that drives the ball out of the park. There is definitely a sense of solidarity to be found among fans at the ballpark; however, there are fans who bring radios to the ballpark to follow the commentary of favorite announcers. Why? Because they're integral to the overall experience and character of fan-dom. They are at once the voice of the team and of the fan—a link, if you will, to the ethos of the game for everyone.

Tim Hallett (2003) posits some interesting ideas regarding emotional connections that may be applicable to the relationship between fans and announcers. He discusses the ways both intentional and spontaneous bursts of emotions can trigger connections via an emotional feedback loop. He proposes that interactions provide emotional cues, stimuli that can be interpreted according to the situations at hand to provoke emotional responses (2003: 707).  Interactions create a loop of feedback and amplification—as more interactions occur, they compound the effect of the previously evoked emotions, amplifying them and encouraging additional responses.

An example from the article illustrating how this works concerns a case of road rage:
Jan, who lives with her husband and two children in Orange County and works as an athletic coach at a major university, is late to a practice as she drives her red Corvette convertible with a stick shift along a curvy road in Palos Verdes. At a stop sign, a fellow in front of her who is slow to depart irritates her. As she drives behind him, she find that he slows up. She waits for an opportunity to pass and as they approach a long curve she downshifts forcefully to second, accelerates, and pulls out into the lane of oncoming traffic, only to find that he speeds up, preventing her from passing until they have driven in parallel around a long curve. A few moments later, she stops her car, "dead in the road," forcing him to stop behind her. She walks briskly to his car, puts her head through the window and yells, "You A*****E! You could have killed me!!!" He responds with, "Shut up, you stupid C**T!" Jan immediately "smacked him across the face" (Hallett 2003: 708).
We can trace the evolution of emotions via interactions easily here, starting with the circumstance that Jan is late: slow driver --> increased irritation --> attempt to pass --> irritates slow driver --> slow driver blocks pass --> Jan's irritation leads to anger --> confrontation --> anger and irritation reaffirmed by slow driver. Jan's initial irritation causes her to act, and her act forces the slow driver to respond. The two are connected by their emotions.

How does this relate to baseball announcers and fans? Announcers—both of the radio and television variety—provide emotional cues about the state of the game that evoke responses from fans beyond the effect of the score of the game. It's no surprise then that some of the more popular baseball announcers have been the more expressive ones—Vin Scully, for example, and the recently deceased Ernie Harwell. As the baseball community mourned the loss of Harwell, an article conveyed his importance to the fans and the game:
His easygoing manner and love of baseball endeared him to generations of Tigers fans, enhancing the club's finest moments and making its struggles more bearable.

Even casual fans could tick off Harwell catch phrases: "Looooooong gone!" for a home run; "He stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched that one go by" for a batter taking a called third strike; and "Two for the price of one!" for a double play.
Catch phrases eventually become emotional triggers. Gary Cohen's cry of "It's outta here!" has the power to bring you to your feet. Announcers articulate the clumsy and tumultuous mix of emotions that swirl within fans. Their tones, whether of exultation or disgust, as well as their choice of words guide the fans through the ups and downs of the game—from trailing behind in the 4th to tying the score to finally getting the lead with just three outs to go to seal the deal. Good announcers know how to wield language in such a way as to touch upon perfectly the heart of this emotion. Writer Curt Smith tells the following story about listening to Vin Scully on the radio:
And there was a runner on second and the runner was all by himself and to Scully talking into the radio that now long forgotten night, it reminded him of the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. The runner on second, he said, seemed "like a tiny ship looking for safe harbor."
We can apply Hallett's example to baseball in the following way, beginning with the circumstance that the team is losing, trailing their opponents by five runs: bases are loaded, no one scores --> announcer criticizes play or decision by manager --> invites callers --> callers echo irritation --> bases are loaded again --> team managed to tie game --> announcer's tone and phrases indicate shift in game --> team wins --> post game callers express relief over win.

Announcers are no less important than they were before the introduction of digital and social media. They provide a vital connection to the game that fans seek, and may in fact believe is their right and responsibility to maintain as fans. So while digital and social media allows fans to interact and experience the game in new, more personal ways, these media cannot replace the embodiment of the game that announcers represent. NY Times baseball writer Tyler Kepner posted the following Tweet that caught my attention: "What a great privilege it is to still hear Vin Scully on the radio." I'm sure many fans agree. I'm anxiously awaiting the next time that Howie Rose will exclaim "Put it in the books!" to signal a Mets win.

ResearchBlogging.orgBeuick, M. (1927) The Limited Social Effect of Radio Broadcasting. The American Journal of Sociology, 33(4) 615-622.

Hallett, T. (2003). Emotional Feedback and Amplification in Social Interaction The Sociological Quarterly, 44 (4), 705-726 DOI: 10.1111/j.1533-8525.2003.tb00532.x


  1. I'm a little frustrated that a comment that is supposed to be here isn't showing up. A snippet is displayed in the feed on the right, and I'd really like to know what the rest of it says! Would you mind reposting? Or email it to me and I'll share it. Cheers!

  2. Actually, it just appeared. Must have been a glitch.

    c'est ma: It's kind of interesting that the announcers create eras unto themselves, much in the same ways that good managers and captains do. They are as much team members as anyone in the ball club, I suppose.

    Do folks have similar feelings about television announcers?