Baseball on the Radio, 100 Years Later

This season, for the first time since the Toronto Blue Jays played their inaugural games in 1977, there will not be a dedicated radio broadcast of their games. Instead of a radio team broadcasting the game, the audio from television broadcasts will be simulcast to radio listeners. Rogers, the Canadian telecom giant that owns both the Blue Jays and the networks they are broadcast on, has made assurances that this is merely a safety measure in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is unclear what the plans are for the future of the Blue Jays on the radio. Longtime broadcaster Mike Wilner was laid off this winter, and there has been no replacement announced; even apart from the loss of a Jays radio broadcast, the AM sports radio landscape in Canada has taken significant blows recently, with Bell Media, another telecom giant, unceremoniously taking a number of local stations off the air last month. Should this season prove to Rogers that having a dedicated radio broadcast is an expense not worth carrying into the future, Blue Jays baseball on the radio could prove to be another one of the casualties of the pandemic.

It’s been almost a century since the first major league baseball game was broadcast over the radio: an early-August game between the Pirates and the Phillies in 1921. Despite resistance from both traditional print media and team ownership, the popularity of such broadcasts took off, sparking a conflict that would fundamentally change the revenue structure of major league baseball. In his book Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio, James R. Walker writes about the forces that changed the attitudes of baseball higher-ups towards the broadcasting of baseball on the radio. Declining attendance was at first, and stubbornly, blamed on radio broadcasting, leading team ownership to call for bans on such broadcasts. But with the growing influence and financial power of advertising in broadcasting and the realization that radio was a boon to developing geographically-displaced fandom (especially in the western United States, where many people lived far from a major-league team), fewer and fewer teams held out against the practice.

There was, at the same time, a fundamental shift in what the purpose of such broadcasts was. As Walker writes, the World Series, from 1921 until 1933, was broadcast on the radio — not because it was lucrative to do so, but as a service to the country’s interested public. In 1934, though, commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis sold the rights to the World Series broadcast to the Ford Motor Company. Within a few years, a federal judge would hand down a decision naming baseball broadcasts on the radio as the property of the teams involved, and New York, the last holdout of broadcast bans, embraced this new revenue stream.

The rest, as they say, was history: MLB and the radio became entwined in each other’s myths. From the way baseball on the radio has become the stuff of legend, you might never have known that the two were once enemies, seemingly at cross-purposes with each other. Within the history of baseball on the radio is so much of what we discuss about baseball today: the persistence of broadcast blackouts; MLB’s slowness to embrace the dissemination of content in new media formats, even when that dissemination would likely be beneficial in building and sustaining new audiences for the sport; and the proportion of teams’ value and revenue that is tied up in the sale of broadcast rights.

The nostalgia of a past golden age, where MLB and the broadcasting of its games worked together in perfect harmony, is nostalgia for something that never existed. There has always been hostility and suspicion towards new, more accessible media formats from those who profit the most from baseball. And what MLB feared the most about the radio — the way it made the experience of a game accessible to millions of people at little cost to them — was, in fact, radio’s greatest asset to the sport. Thanks to baseball radio broadcasts, as well as the skill and personality of the people who broadcasted them, generations of people became and stayed dedicated fans of major league teams, regardless of how often they were able to go to games.

The ability to watch baseball on the internet is, in many ways, comparable to radio in its early days. Now, the potential audience for baseball can reach across the globe. But I think there’s a difference between the accessibility of radio and the accessibility of a service like MLB.TV, or of the various regional cable networks that broadcast games. While most of the world’s population has internet access, the number of those people who can afford a $120 subscription to watch baseball games is rather smaller. Blackouts block otherwise interested local fans from accessing complete-game footage — the entire country of Canada, for example, is in the blackout region for the Blue Jays. The only workaround is to pay for monthly cable or streaming service subscriptions (or a VPN service), an expense that many can’t justify. Even if you can afford an MLB.TV subscription, there is always a risk that MLB will update the platform and make it unworkable on your device, especially if you are someone who can’t afford to continually buy the latest models of TV or computer.

The radio, though, for only the price of a portable radio and a set of batteries — which can come out to under $20 — or your internet connection, can give you the experience of an entire game. Every action is narrated; the noise of the crowd comes from around you. For people who don’t experience hearing loss, it’s an incredibly accessible way to feel connected to the sport of baseball. For several years, I didn’t have a phone with a data connection or a TV with a cable service. When I was outside the house and a Blue Jays game was on, I brought along a portable radio. It’s how I stayed updated on the season through countless bus rides and days at work. Even now, though I can afford to watch games on my phone or on MLB.TV, I sometimes turn off the streams and just listen to the radio broadcast.

There’s a quote from experimental musician Brian Eno that I think about often:

Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart.

Radio certainly fails as a baseball experience. The airwaves are crackly, staticky, breaking up when you pass through a subway tunnel or turn your microwave on. You can’t see what is happening, the exact spin or bend of the pitch, the expression on the players’ faces, the arc of a ball as it sails out of the stadium; you are entirely at the mercy of the broadcaster’s voice, which, while skilled, is fallible. There is so much about baseball that you miss by listening to a radio broadcast.

But there is so much that you miss by watching a TV broadcast, too, with the limits of its focus, the way that its frame can only encompass so much, the camera determining what is seen and what goes unseen. And there is so much that you miss by going to a game, squinting down from the view level, distracted by the noise and the smells. Every medium is imperfect; every medium has something different to offer. Their imperfections, reflecting an imperfect and human game, are what makes them unique. And for many people, the unique imperfections of baseball on the radio are the perfect way to experience the game. The ways it fails are what makes it special.

I’ve seen many people disappointed at the decision Rogers has made about the Blue Jays radio broadcast; people who are blind and visually impaired are among those who have been most affected by this decision. There will still be Blue Jays baseball broadcast over the radio, but it will not be one attuned to description, as a dedicated radio broadcast is; the broadcasts from televised games, relying on the assumption that viewers are seeing the action in front of them, are not the same. I hope that this is, indeed, only a one-year safety-related blip, and that it isn’t indicative of the future of radio broadcasts across the major leagues. For many people to whom baseball is an important part of their lives, radio is the best way to experience the game. As long as it’s possible to keep reaching those people, I think it’s worth doing.

RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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2 years ago

I’m so pleased you have brought this issue to a wider audience, Rachel. Not only are we subject to the preferences of TV broadcasters and directors framing the picture for us, but we lose the transitory experience of the imagination taking us to the ballpark in the details painted through masters of the craft. We in Canada have already been feeling this loss in spring training, limited to games aired on SportsNet that are few and far between (and horribly hijacked by Yankees broadcasters who scarcely know the Jays are on the field!). As the season unfolds without games north of the border, the loss is especially acute for us. But I fear this is a trend we shall see broadened as teams find new ways to homogenize the fan experience.

2 years ago
Reply to  HarryWB

I agree, especially when they’re interviewing Aaron Boone for a full half-inning and I don’t get to see Jordan Groshans at the plate. It seems odd to me that we can’t at least watch the games in Dunedin, since we’re going to be playing there to start the season anyways.