Baseball Journalists Composed Vibrant Prose, Then TV Came Along And Ruined It

Baseball writers created legends.  They composed narratives with colorful language that readers never see in the post-television era of sports journalism.  Before television became common in homes in the early 1950s, most people did not see games with their eyes.  Baseball writers painted pictures in the heads of readers.  The Associated Press sent vibrant baseball articles all over the country in the days before TV.  The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants did not move to California until 1958.  The west coast had a baseball league of its own (the Pacific Coast League), but the newspaper was the only way they could learn about the Major Leagues.  Radio did not air baseball until 1921, and it was very limited.  The New York Yankees did not air games over the radio until 1938, three years after Babe Ruth retired.  Even after radio came along, Americans mostly got their baseball fix through newspapers.  Television changed all that.  Television changed the way baseball writers composed articles.

“From the outset, sportswriters in the U.S. were differentiated from mere sports reporters or journalists by their ability, and licence, to place themselves at the centre of the story, rather than merely report the facts and figures associated with a sporting contest.  The reader was under no illusion that what you were reading was an interpretation of an event through the eyes of the sportswriter.”[1] Before television, baseball writers created an event for fans who eagerly picked up newspapers wondering if their favorite team walloped the opponent.  Davis J. Walsh painted the scene in Chicago during the 1932 World Series against New York for Miami readers: “One by one, the lengthening shadows cast themselves across Wrigley field late Saturday like so many of the ghosts of the hope that once abided here.”[2] Walsh’s description elicits a much more vivid and titillating image than what a fan would see on television. Before TV, baseball transcended reality.  Baseball was one part sport, one part novel.

Crowd outside of the Polo Grounds before the 1905 World Series

The second World Series took place in 1905 and pitted the American League’s Philadelphia Athletics against the National League’s New York Giants.  The New York Times covered this event.  The typical lead of a news article gives readers the most important information and answers the questions “Who?” “What?” “Where?” and “When?”  This lead appeared in The New York Times the day after the hometown Giants won the 1905 World Series: “Two neatly dressed, ruddy faced, athletic looking young men, grinning broadly; one a giant in contrast to the squattiness of the other, walked along the veranda of the clubhouse at the Polo Grounds about 5 o’clock yesterday afternoon.”[3] The opening sentence of the piece sounds more like the first line of a story than the lead of an article.

The descriptive language and metaphors in the 1905 baseball article greatly differ from contemporary sports journalism as well: “He [Christy Mathewson] bestrode the field like a mighty Colossus, and the Atheltics peeped about the diamond like pigmies who struggled gallantly for their lives, but in vain.”[4] Post-television sportswriters would get fired if they turned in an article with language like “peeped about the diamond like pigmies who struggled gallantly for their lives, but in vain.”  Broadcast sports journalists use vibrant language more than print journalists now.  Radio and TV announcers have unique ways of calling homeruns during games.  Highlight shows such as ESPN’s Sportscenter also enliven the telecasts with colorful language.  Catch phrases are the difference between the fun language exemplified in the 1905 New York Times article and the anchors on Sportscenter.  Newspaper writers before television would compose entire sports articles with metaphors and creative diction.  Sports anchors on ESPN make names for themselves by coming up with individual sayings that get repeated over and over if they catch on with the public.

Another example from the 1905 New York Times article shows how sports journalists had to provide in precise detail what happened during a game because television and radio did not exist to broadcast games: “In the second inning, Seybold sent the first ball pitched to left field for a base.  Murphy put an easy grounder into Dahlen’s hands close to second, and by a quick toss to Gilbert, and he to McGann, a sharp double play was the result.”[5] The New York Times article accounted for the entire game like this, and it was not the only newspaper that transcribed game results in detail.  Here is an example from Pittsburgh in 1924: “In the eighth, with one out, Young doubled past third, and advanced to third on Kelly’s out at first.  Terry was passed intentionally to bring up Wilson, and on the next pitch Ruel nipped Young off third.”[6]

Sportswriters could not write the same narrative prose and detailed game accounts for baseball games after television became a common household item.  Michael Oriard states, “Sportswriting has become an adjunct to television, its primary role now to find the story behind the story, not to recreate sporting events for fans who could not attend them.[7] By the 1960s, with television firmly established in homes, baseball journalism stopped telling the story of a game.  Sports journalists knew the public saw the games on TV, so they had to give the public something they could not get from television.  Baseball reporters began using many more quotes than they had in the past.  Fans could see the games, but they did not have access to the players like the media.  Inside access to players became one of the new selling points of sports journalism.

Babe Ruth

Along with beautiful and fun prose and a detailed account of the game, sportswriters had another goal in pre-television sports journalism: creating legends.  No better example of idol-making exists than that of Babe Ruth.  An article on the University of Virginia’s website explains, “Babe Ruth’s rise to legendary status coincided with a boom in the sportswriting industry. From 1915 to 1925, the average metropolitan newspaper doubled the amount of pages it devoted to sports coverage.”[8] The New York Times colorfully describes a Babe Ruth home run in 1921:

With Peckinpaugh on first base, the stage was properly set for one of Ruth’s four-ply slams, and the Babe obliged by hitting one so fast that many found it impossible to follow the course of the ball.  Those blessed with glimmers of the 20-20 grade bore testimony later that the sphere had burned a path between the upper and lower decks of the right-field stand, carrying over the westerly corner of the bleachers, and then over the runway into the vacant lot south of the Polo Grounds.[9]

The New York Times author makes Ruth sound superhuman.  And language such as “four-ply slams” instead of “homerun,” “glimmers” instead of “eyes” and “sphere” instead of “ball” is not commonly used in baseball print journalism today.  The people calling the games on TV and radio are much more likely the ones using colorful language to create mood and character.  Surprisingly, The New York Times would not even knock Ruth during his pre-Yankees days.  They even branded Ruth as a hero back when he still played for the archrival Boston Redsox: “…that he [Babe Ruth] finished second best is not at all discrediting.  The young Boston pitcher gave an efficient all-around display of baseball at its best, and even in defeat was undoubtedly the hero of the game.”[10]

Even before radio and television existed and instantaneously spread words and images all over the country, everyone still knew the Babe.  Former Yankee great Tommy Henrich explained, “When I was, let me see, eight years old, Babe Ruth went to the Yankees, 1920.  And now no radio, no nothing, you still heard of Babe Ruth.  This is a phenomenon coming on the scene in New York.  And I said, ‘Boy oh boy that’s for me.”[11] And, Ruth knew how to use the media as well as the media knew how to use him.  Myth has it Babe Ruth pointed towards center field and called his shot during the 1932 World Series.  Only one verifiable source reported on this called shot, but all the other newspapers picked up on it the day after it was reported.  Many eye-witnesses said Ruth merely pointed to the Cubs dugout and told them he had one more strike left in his at-bat.  After the press went wild with the called shot story, Ruth played along.  Former Cleveland Indian standout Bob Feller said, “We all know he was pointing in the dugout and not in center field, which doesn’t mean anything.  It was a good story and Babe realized it was a good story.  And right away when they said, ‘You called the shot,’ he said, ‘Yes.  I did.”[12] Baseball writers made Ruth a legend, and he played along because he loved the attention.

Barry Bonds, the media and steroids

In the post-television era of baseball print journalism, writers rarely promote players as role models and depict them as living legends.  The press rarely wrote a good word about former San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds during his playing days.  Most of the public thought, and still thinks, of Bonds as a cheater (steroids) and a jerk.  People now know that Ruth was a womanizer and a drunk, but print journalists mostly protected Ruth’s image during his playing days.  Bonds has one of the most reputable charities among athletes, and he never goes out moonlighting or shows up in a bunch of commercials like some other sports celebrities.  So why does the media lambast Bonds?  Why do they not hide his ties to steroid scandals? Why are things so different now?

Along with television came more money.  Most baseball players’ received modest salaries in the pre-television days.  Fans related to the players.  Most athletes made the same amount of money as the fans and lived in the same neighborhoods as the fans.  After television created more revenue, baseball players became millionaires.  Fans no longer related to them as much.  Post-television, fans often profile athletes as greedy and elitist.  Fans do not mind seeing baseball stars such as Bonds get taken down by the press in scandal.  In fact, fans seem to desire it based on the concentration it receives from a contemporary media that is fixed on “selling” news for consumption.

Television might have destroyed the beautiful and fun prose sportswriters used, and television might have turned the media from legend makers into scandal makers, and television might have turned baseball players from relatable folks into rich celebrities; but, those are the sacrifices for making the game more accessible to people all over the country and the world.


[1] Raymond Boyle, Sports Journalism: Context and Issues (London: SAGE, 2006), 32-33.

[2] Walsh, Davis J. “Ruth and Gehrig Homers Shatter Cubs’ Hope,” Miami Daily News 2 Oct. 1932, accessed September 30, 2010, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=AVgtAAAAIBAJ&sjid=mNgFAAAAIBAJ&pg=4057,3213007&dq=miami+daily+news&hl=en

[3] “Giants Champions, The Score 2-0,” The New York Times, October 15, 1905, accessed September 30, 2010, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F00F11FE3F5C1A728DDDAC0994D8415B858CF1D3

[4] “Giants Champions, The Score 2-0.”

[5] “Giants Champions, The Score 2-0.”

[6] Ralph S. Davis, “Giants Take First Game,” The Pittsburgh Press, October 5, 1924, accessed September 30, 2010, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=ohcbAAAAIBAJ&sjid=BkoEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6885,5362291&dq=giants&hl=en

[7] Boyle, Sports Journalism: Context and Issues, 39-40.

[8] “Babe Ruth: Constructing a Legend,” September 30, 2010, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~UG02/yeung/Baberuth/writers.html

[9] “Trinity of Homers Helps Yanks Win,” The New York Times, September 3, 1921, accessed September 30, 2010, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F10C17F63F5A1B7A93C1A91782D85F458285F9

[10] “Babe Ruth Is Hero, Though Yanks Win,” The New York Times, May 5, 1918, accessed September 30, 2010, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F50E1FFC3B5F1B7A93C7A9178ED85F4C8185F9

[11] Fay Vincent, The Only Game In Town (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 59.

[12] Vincent, The Only Game In Town, 55.

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