Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Time Tunnel

In the midst of the debate over Fox Sports' pathetic addition of a musical score to a live NFL broadcast, we all got a chance to take a 50-year trip back up the TV sports time tunnel. And guess what? It was pretty cool.

I'm talking about the MLB Network broadcast of the 7th game of the 1960 World Series (if you missed it, you'll be able to buy a DVD). This was the game won by the Pirates on Bill Mazeroski's walk-off home run. Though it was broadcast (in living color!) on NBC, it was not recorded and thus existed only in the minds of those who saw it on October 12, 1960.

Until a few months ago, when films of the broadcast surfaced in a vault at the late entertainer Bing Crosby's Bay Area estate. The backstory of the "lost broadcast" is interesting enough, but the thing itself is an absolute treasure. It took considerable work to spiff up the film and its audio track, producing a piece of television that rivals the series "Mad Men" for its ability to take you to a different time.

You quickly notice the things that aren't there: instant replay, on-screen statistics, artificial strike zones, and even batting gloves (they weren't wearing those back in 1960). You're struck by the fact that you're watching some of baseball's all-time greats, not in a highlight clip, but in a full ballgame. There's Yogi Berra joking with Pirates catcher Smoky Burgess before digging in. Roger Maris, a year away from his epic 61-in-'61 season, turning a potential double into a single with a nice play in right field. Mickey Mantle, that mythical "7" on his broad back, delivering 3 hits.

You know, of course, how it'll end. Mazeroski's blast remains the most remarkable World Series finish ever. But you're in no hurry to get there. Hall of Fame announcer Bob Prince is perfect for this game: knowledgeable, succinct, and absolutely in sync with the medium. Unlike many of today's TV broadcasters, he's watching the monitor, so he's talking about what the viewer sees. Another Hall of Famer, Yankees voice Mel Allen, occasionally drops in to provide background on lesser-known New York players like pitcher Bill Stafford (who is identified on the broadcast as "wearing his age on his back"--number 22), but was actually only 21 at the time.

The broadcast is simple, but far from primitive. There are enough cameras to allow for a rapid series of shots showing each team's outfielders or infielders. The center-field camera shot that is a staple of every pitch in a telecast is there, with a good long lens that lets you make the ball-strike calls without the annoyance of a graphical overlay. Cutaway shots of the crowd and the dugouts provide ample evidence of the tension and drama. No need to tart this up--it's the seventh game of the World Series!

On the other hand, certain elements of the broadcast are straight from the time capsule. Graphics are primitive; the best the producers can go is slap a player's name on the screen when he steps to the plate (and the technology of the era limited the number of characters, so Roberto Clemente is seen as R. Clemente). The only way to show the score is to actually show the scoreboard, which the producers do at the end of each half-inning.

Today's broadcasters could learn plenty by watching this gem. I'm certainly not advocating a return to an era without instant replay or on-screen graphics. But sometimes, less is more. Sometimes, the game really is the thing--in fact, it always is. In particular, whoever's promoting the "music soundtrack" idea at Fox Sports should be forced to watch this game, over and over again, until he figures it out.

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