TELEVISED BASEBALL AIN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE – THANK GOODNESS!

tv baseball Televised baseball “ain’t” what it used to be – thank goodness! Ten years after the first televised big league game from Ebbets Field in Brooklyn in 1939, KLEE-TV, Channel 2 in Houston, our only televison station then operating locally during the pre-coaxial cable days introduced the first viewing of baseball to the few Houstonians who owned those early 10 inch screen console receving sets that sold for about $400 at places like the Bayne Appliance Store. That was a lot of money for a family to pay for television back in 1949, but it was Houston’s first year with the new medium and there were then, as now, people with both the money and ego that were large enough to buy one at the early inflated price. There were no easy credit line purchases back in the day.

Unfortunately for us, our dad was not one of these monied ego types. If we wanted to see TV, we had to scrounge up an invitation to the Sanders household. The Sanders family was the only household  in our neighborhood for the longest time in 1949 that even had a TV. Lucky for me, Billy Sanders was my “best bud” and my original co-founder of the Pecan Park Eagles. Billy also loved to contemplate the future of technology with me. Our “what will they think of next” answer to what lay ahead for us all beyond television was unanimous in our poll response from the rest of the Pecan Park Eagles too. – None of us could wait for the introductions of Feelavision, Smellavision, and Tasteavision. We’re still waiting, I suppose, but I cannot speak for the rest of the Eagles. We all grew up and were lost to each other so many years ago.

tv baseball 2 Bill Newkirk handled the first televised play-by-play at Buff Stadium of 1949 Houston Buffs games. He was assisted by longtime Buff, Colt .45, and Astro engineer Bob Green in generating those early productions. Newkirk was succeeded in 1950 by Dick Gottlieb of Channel 2, which by its second year had now been purchased by the William P. Hobby family and re-christened as KPRC-TV. Guy Savage, later of KTRK-TV Sports, Channel 13, also handled the play-by-play on a number of those early baseball telecasts from Buff Stadium.

Dick Gottlieb would achieve minor notoriety-by-association fame as the only known telecaster of a a suicide in the history of the medium. At a night game in 1951, a man sidled up beside lone broadcaster Gottlieb, announced that he was going to shoot himself, and then did so. The camera man responded instinctively, turning the camera from the field of play to the figure of the slumping dead man as he made his way to the floor. I didn’t see it, but I heard it. My dad and I were at that game, sitting about twenty rows back of Gottlieb and where it all took place. I remember that we were playing Tulsa that night and that the visitors were in the field when the gunshot boomed out. I can still see Tulsa’s Roy McMillan hitting the dirt, spread eagle. Many others did the same. Those who didn’t drop fast and hard ran like mad for the nearest dugout, not necessarily their own. Amazingly, Gottlieb recovered and finished the broadcast of the game. Not even violent death stopped the Buffs.

Of course, there was nothing remotely resembling high definition picture quality available in 1949. Those small fuzzy analog pictures gave us only a blurring vision of little white and little gray colored figures moving around on a lighter grey field at night under poorly lighted field conditions. With a main or only camera directly behind home plate in 1949, we also saw through the pattern of that safety screen device as we attempted to follow the action on the field.

For a long time, there was no second camera. The effect was like it being the pong-era of televised baseball.  The camera had to follow this little round white object when it was hit – and that was only possible when the ball left the bat on a grounder route, to or through the infield. The ball got smaller and disappaeared each time. On fly balls, these vanished immediately. We had to make a judgment about what we were viewing that was based upon how the fielders behaved. In the process, we always lost track of the runner since we couldn’t watch both him/them and the flight of the ball too. Sometimes the camera would swing back, hoping to catch a play at the plate. It would often get there just in time to show us a runner already running past home plate – and we would have to wait on the announcer to tell us what had happened on the play.

Early televised baseball was a lot like “radio with pictures” because the technical limitations on both our televising and receiving equpment weren’t good enough in 1949 to let a picture speak for itself. Thank goodness for a half century of incredible improvement. Thank goodness for the discovery that the view over the pitcher’s shoulder was the best primary shot on the field. Thank goodness for multiple cameras and copying technology. And thank goodness for 2009 telecasters like Bill Brown, Jimmy Deshaies, and Greg Lucas!

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