Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Are ads ruining baseball on the radio?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
August 26, 2013 -- Updated 1113 GMT (1913 HKT)
Chicago Cubs baseball announcer Harry Caray conducts fans singing
Chicago Cubs baseball announcer Harry Caray conducts fans singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" from his television booth in 1996
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Baseball radio play-by-play is working commercials into the announcers' descriptions
  • He says baseball on the radio is still special -- it's free and comforting commentary in summer
  • At times, play-by-play can reach heights, as in description of Stan Musial's last at bat, Greene says

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- Baseball. The radio. Summer.

There is something about the connection between the three of them that nothing can tear apart.

If baseball on the radio sounds a little different lately, there is a reason. Richard Sandomir of The New York Times reported recently on the proliferation of "drop-in" advertisements on radio broadcasts of ballgames around the nation.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

Drop-in ads are paid commercials that air not as traditional advertisements, but as part of the play-by-play. The first walk during a New York Yankees game is accompanied by "Just walk into CityMD's six convenient locations"; the first run scored in a Texas Rangers game is described by the play-by-play man as "the First Financial First Run."

It shouldn't be surprising that this is happening. Baseball has always been a relentlessly and unapologetically revenue-seeking enterprise. Have you ever seen photos of the outfield walls in big-league ballparks in the early to mid-20th century? Even NASCAR's marketing strategists would have been envious of the don't-waste-an-inch commercial clutter.

Broadcast entities have to find a way to make back the money they spend for radio rights. According to USA Today the average salary of a Major League Baseball player this year -- the average salary -- is around $3.6 million, and everything from ticket fees to concession-stand prices is reflective of the sport's runaway inflation.

The future of America's favorite pastime
'Voice of baseball' to stay with Dodgers
Baseball instant replay: A good idea?

So no one should be startled by the presence of the drop-in radio ads. Yes, they frequently can be an irritant to the flow of the play-by-play. But ours is a sponsor-and-advertising-driven culture overall; that's not going to go away.

And baseball on the radio -- distinct even from baseball itself -- is durable and steady in ways that can't be easily spoiled. Baseball on the radio is one part of the sport that somehow, despite everything, still manages to feel good.

On the radio, baseball is less literal than baseball on television. With the measured voices of the most skilled announcers accompanied by the resonant humming undertone of the crowd, the echo from down on the diamond of the crack of a bat against a fastball, and the occasional thump of a foul ball bouncing off the top of the play-by-play booth, there is a kind of romance in a radio broadcast.

The sports-page and sports-website coverage of the business of baseball may, of necessity, be dismaying and ugly lately. A visit to the ballpark in person brings on the sticker-shock of those prices on everything from hot dogs to souvenirs to parking spots.

Baseball on the radio, though, remains free. Unlike viewers of cable TV or subscribers to satellite radio, fans of home-team games on their hometown radio stations don't have to pay a cent to listen. The sound of it all is very much what the sound has been forever. Because the pace of the game is leisurely, local play-by-play announcers, over a 162-game season, develop a relationship with their listeners unique in sports. They have to talk a lot, even when there's not much going on down on the field, and the audience grows accustomed to, and comfortable with, their relaxed voices and their heard-but-not-seen personalities.

And that's just during routine games. At certain moments, radio broadcasts of ballgames can become part of the very fabric of a town -- the authentication of how sports can help define the meaning of community.

How good can it get? For a gold-standard example from the history of the sport and of the medium, listen to the KMOX radio broadcast of Stan Musial's final at-bat for the St. Louis Cardinals before his retirement.

The date was September 29, 1963, at the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis. On the play-by-play was Harry Caray, in the years before he moved to Chicago to broadcast the White Sox and then the Cubs. Some older residents of St. Louis recall a television simulcast of Caray's call, but it is the KMOX radio version that is indelible in their memories:

"Here's Musial. Listen to the crowd again." (The roar is heard behind Caray's voice.) "A base hit would give the Cardinals the lead." (The noise sustains.) "First pitch. Oh, what a cut he had, and he fouled it back. Hey, he really had a swing at that one." (The crowd begins to clap rhythmically in unison.) ..."The stretch by Maloney. Low curve."

And then, unforgettably, from Caray: "Take a good look, fans. ... Take a good look. This might be the last time at bat in the major leagues. Remember the stance ... and the swing." (The rhythmic clapping in the stands grows more insistent.) "You're not likely to see his likes again."

The procession of the game: "Fast ball, low and away." And soon: "The pitch to Musial." (Caray's voice rises to be heard above the mounting crowd noise.) "A hot shot on the ground into right field, a base hit! ...The Cardinals lead, one to nothing, listen to the crowd! Listen to the crowd! Let's see, now! Manager Johnny Keane is talking to Gary Kolb.

"Stan is at first base. He might be waiting for this applause on the hit to die down. ... They'll tear the joint apart when he trots off the field. ... Now listen. Gary Kolb is going to replace Musial. ...There he goes! The end of a great career. A standing ovation for Musial. ..."

Could being in the stands have been any more memorable than listening to that?

I remember talking once with a woman in her 80s. She was residing in an assisted-living facility; her husband had died the year before, and the end of their lifetime of long conversations in the evenings had left a void.

She told me that, even though she had never been much of a baseball fan, she found herself tuning in, each evening, to the strong-signal WLW Radio out of Cincinnati. For three hours, she said, she would listen to Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall broadcast the Reds' games. Their voices -- reliable, unhurried -- became her companions. A part of life she could count on.

"Take a good look, fans. ... Take a good look."

It's possible, on summer nights, to see most clearly with your eyes closed.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT