Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What 1943 Can Teach Modern Baseball Announcers

The language baseball announcers use to describe the action on the field is stilted and repetitive. This is not to say that the play-by-play man of each broadcasting team should be composing a sequel to Ulysses with every Texas-Leaguer, but a bit more inventiveness would be nice. I am not typically one to trumpet how much better things were in the past, but in the area of colorful descriptions of events on a baseball diamond, THINGS WERE BETTER IN THE PAST.

I spent quite a while yesterday perusing an article entitled “Baseball Jargon,” written for the journal American Speech in April 1943. The article was quite comprehensive, and left me pining for the good old days when the Nazis were the bad guys, the French were brave and a fly ball was a cloud-buster.

Let’s take, for example, the Texas-Leaguer, described by the article as a “fly ball hit over the infield and yet too short to be caught by an outfielder.” Because the Texas-Leaguer caused such exasperation for fielders, in 1943 if one occurred during a game, sports writers around the nation could describe it as a “Sheeny Mike, banjo, humpback liner, plunker, Japanese liner, drooper, looper, special, leaping Lena or a percentage hit.” Leaving aside the racist connotations of the “Japanese liner,” and the anti-semitic slant of the "sheeny Mike," they are still undeniably entertaining.

Homeruns might be the only area in which modern announcing has kept pace with that of years past. When announcers crow that Buster Posey has just gone yard, hit a bomb, jacked one out, or hit a dinger, I feel that they are not noticeably worse off than when announcers declared that Stan Musial had hit a circuit clout, a four-bagger, or ticketed, tagged or lofted one into the stands.

Descriptions of bunts have also barely improved, in 1943 bunts were still laid or put down, though the ability to “dump” a bunt has apparently degraded over time.

In what was surely an important policy insisted upon by the player’s union in the 1970’s, descriptions of hitters and their abilities have become far more complementary over time. In 1943 weak hitters were called “cream puff, Yankee Doodle, buttercup or dauber-down hitters.” Nowadays, weak hitters are called David Eckstein, but only if they are white and short.

While some of the archaic descriptions are best left in the past, there are a few that would greatly improve the casual fans’ appreciation of the game. When Jose Bautista takes one of his typically monstrous hacks, it would be nice to hear the announcer remark that he “really unbuttoned his shirt on that swing!” And, after Bautista fails to reach base in a game it would greatly improve my enjoyment of the post-game show if a commentator were to mention that Bautista had been “horse-collared” that day.

The most sadly lacking area of description in the modern game seems to lie in comparisons between a player’s performance prior to and during the game. While modern announcers would happily comment that a pitcher looked good in practice but had a tough day once he got on the mound, he would doubtless never call such a pitcher a “Fancy Dan,” or a “dressy pitcher” who turns “sour” when it counts. On the hitting side, no matter how often an announcer may comment on a player’s “batting practice power,” none would ever dare to call someone who hits better in practice than in a game a “two o’clock hitter.”

Changes in the way the game is played and parsed have also led to changes in the jargon used by reporters and announcers. In a world in which complete games were the norm and not an extreme rarity, it was common to refer to a pitcher whose only crime was failing to complete the game as being “derricked, relieved, sent to the showers, knocked off the mound, or batted out of the box.” While announcers today will typically say that a pitcher who has been demolished has been sent off for a shower, merely being removed from a game before its completion would scarcely be grounds for any comment whatsoever.

A more subtle change can be seen in how walks were perceived in 1943 as opposed to the present day. The commonly used terms in World War II for a walk included “to stroll, get ticketed, get an Annie Oakley, get free transportation, get a handout, get four wide ones, or to be passed.” While there is certainly a great deal of interesting variety here; I have no idea what Annie Oakley has to do with baseball, what is noticeable is the lack of agency assigned to the batter in these descriptions. The idea of a walk being a “handout” from the pitcher, or the batter receiving “free transportation,” paints the walk as an act fully under the control of the pitcher and the umpire. This sense is confirmed by the very next sentence of the article, which reads: “If, however, a pitcher’s control is good, the batter may strike out, fan, whiff, go down swinging, or hit a line drive to the catcher.” So, if the pitcher’s control is good, he can induce the batter to “hit a line drive to the catcher” (probably my favorite phrase in the article), if it is not good, the batter will walk.

Thanks to the rise of sabermetrics and the popularity of Moneyball, walks are increasingly treated in modern times as the result of a conscious battle between the pitcher and the hitter (with the unwelcome intrusion of Angel Hernandez from time to time). Teams now pay top dollar for on-base ability, and not even the famously laggardly Twins would claim that walks are solely the fault of the pitcher.

The fact that a modern day announcer would never imply that a batter had no part in drawing a walk suggests that even though announcing may have gotten drier since the good old days, it may have become ever so slightly more insightful at the same time. Still, I feel that modern day announcing and sports reporting would be infinitely improved by referring to Hunter Pence as a “hitchy-koo,” instead of simply calling him twitchy or nervous.