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Curt Gowdy and the TV Sports Revolution

The games got faster and the narration grew more sparse. But it wasn't just the pace of sports that changed when baseball and then other games moved from the fans' imagination (courtesy of radio) to the hyperreality of television.

And the man at the pivot of that shift in technology and culture was Curt Gowdy, who died today at 86. I grew up listening to Gowdy--NBC hardly ever showed his face during the game--along with Tony Kubek and Joe Garagiola on NBC's Saturday baseball Game of the Week. In the 1960s and 70s, the Game of the Week was the one and only game TV viewers got to see aside from whatever local team games were shown in your hometown. The Game of the Week was a national event, and Curt Gowdy was the genial host and play-by-play man. By today's standards, there was nothing colorful about Gowdy. Even by 1960s standards, he was a straightahead announcer; he didn't add a whole lot of insight about strategy or the players' backgrounds, he was neither funny nor especially wise, and his descriptions of the action were fairly routine.

But that was the whole point: This was not radio. You didn't need a wordsmith to flesh out the picture in your mind's eye. You didn't need a character to fill the spaces between pitches with folksy stories or witty observations. All you really needed was a host, someone who, like Johnny Carson, Dave Garroway or John Chancellor was reasonably friendly, a bit distant, and utterly dependable. That was Gowdy: the opposite of a showboat.

Check out these sportscasters talking with each other about Gowdy's passing and the remarkable thing is the lack of anecdotes about funny moments, embarrassing calls or spectacular achievements. No, what people recall about Gowdy's time in the booth is his steady, authoritative, genial demeanor. He was a total pro. And somehow he understood instintively that TV required a cooler, quieter approach than radio. He was no longer connecting with listeners' imaginations as they created their own version of the game in their minds. Rather, he was a host, providing continuity between bursts of action on the field; a guide, walking with the viewer through a game that the viewer could now watch passively, without any of the active construction that radio play-by-play requires.

Baseball remained (and remains) the ultimate radio sport; baseball is probably the #1 reason XM Satellite Radio still holds its big lead over Sirius in the competition for subscribers. TV has never figured out how to show the many facets of the sport in a coherent manner; in fact, TV coverage of baseball has declined precipitously in quality since Fox came on the scene, treating baseball as if it were football, with endless bells and whistles and video tricks.

Gowdy dared to trust us with a pastoral approach to a summer game. He allowed us to hear the sounds of the game and the crowd. He happily played straight man to Garagiola and Kubek. And he could do it all--football, baseball, and that wonderfully odd old chestnut, American Sportsman, which utterly mystified me as a kid growing up in the big city, where everything Gowdy went outside to do--fishing, hunting, boating--was something I knew I would never see myself.

Gowdy doesn't leave behind a signature home run call or even a single historic moment that will live on in eternity's highlight reel. He is in the Baseball Hall of Fame and the (formerly Washington-based) American Sportscasters Hall of Fame (which at last report was still searching for a new home), but his real achievement was much more subtle: He defined the new sound of sports as TV took over from radio as the primary means by which Americans followed their favorite games. He taught us how to watch and create our own narrative of the game through our eyes more than through our imaginations. To radioheads, that is a terrible loss. But it's better to see the rise of TV sports as a transition to a different kind of popular culture--more passive, to be sure, but also more universal and in its own way, just as capable of forging emotional connections.

Curt Gowdy's easy, casual voice--a welcome mat from the Great Plains--was the voice of green fields and boys of summer, a voice you couldn't possibly associate with contemporary stories of controversy and scandal. Gowdy was the voice of the cleanliness and promise and efficiency of the suburban dream, best accompanied by a TV dinner, a bottle of Schlitz and the Game of the Week between St. Louis and the Phillies, Bob Gibson facing Richie Allen on a July afternoon in 1967.

By Marc Fisher |  February 20, 2006; 5:50 PM ET
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Marc,

I really enjoyed your note about Curt Gowdy. For me, a person of 44, Gowdy was the be-all, end-all for TV broadcasting and I spent many hours of my youth listening/viewing him, especially growing up in a smallish town (Panama City, FL) that only had a local NBC affiliate (CBS and ABC were from other towns and the picture always fuzzy; pre-cable days of course!). With Chris Schenkel and now Curt Gowdy, two legends of my seemingly immortal youth are gone, providing myself with yet another signpost on my own road to middle age and beyond. Thanks for the column.

Posted by: Thomas Davis | February 20, 2006 7:45 PM

Marc, thanks for your thoughtful comments. Curt Gowdy was also a cherished part of youth. I too yearned for the week to go by quickly because my friends and I could not wait to watch NBC's Game of the Week. My mom would make us all sandwiched and iced tea and we would listen to Curt, Tony, and Joe. Then we would go out and replay the game, and I could hear Curt Gowdy's voice as he introduced me in the starting lineup as Johnny Bench.

Thank you for the memories Curt, and God Speed say hi to Chris, Red, Chuck, and all the others in the great ballpark in the sky! You'll be missed not forgotten!

Posted by: Ken - DC | February 20, 2006 8:23 PM

I had the great pleasure of growing up listening to Curt handle Red Sox broadcasts. There are a bunch of comments on Curt from a similar perspective here:

http://boards.boston.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?nav=messages&tsn=1&tid=11290&webtag=bc-redsox

> Gowdy doesn't leave behind a signature home
> run call or even a single historic moment
> that will live on in eternity's highlight
> reel.

Hmmm ... his famous call of Ted Williams' final at-bat home run is perhaps evidence to the contrary.

Interesting thoughts Re: radio vs. tv broadcasting. For much of Gowdy's tenure
as a Red Sox broadcaster (1951-1966) he'd
switch (with Ned Martin) from a few innings of radio to a few innings of tv.
It was fun to listen to the
difference.

-- stan krute

Posted by: Stanley Krute | February 20, 2006 10:55 PM

Perfectly apt description. I remember being in elementary school in the late 60's, hurrying home in October to see the end of World Series games, or the precious weekend games that you could watch in their entirety. Unbelievable drama for the young sports fan: Sandy Koufax's last game, Bob Gibson, Carl Yastremski, Mickey Lolich, the Amazin' Mets of 69, Brooks Robinson, Roberto Clemente. Gowdy did one thing, he made you aware you were watching greatness.

Posted by: hoosier daddy | February 20, 2006 11:28 PM

Marcus, I blogged about blogging and cited your genius in writing stuff in advance:
http://blogs.washingtonpost.com/achenblog/2006/02/blogging_from_b.html

I hope I accurately summarized your writing process.

Posted by: Achenbach | February 21, 2006 7:37 AM

The thing about Gowdy was that he was on all the time, every sport. Is there anyone today who is as ubiquitous? I mean occasionally there's an Al Michaels who can do a couple of different sports, or Bob Costas, but it seemed way back when that Gowdy called EVERY game in every sport.

Posted by: Achenbach | February 21, 2006 7:41 AM

Growing up in Rochester, NY, the Saturday "Game of the WeeK" was indeed an event you made time for...the old man would make a scorecard out of the cardboard backing that came with his starched shirts, and we would watch the GOTW, and keep score, like it was Game Seven of the World Series...every Saturday at 1:00PM. NBC's GOTW, toghether with ABC's Monday Night Baseball, was the only baseball we saw on TV, as we had no local team broadcasting through the week.

Curt Gowdy will always be a part of my childhood, as much a figure as other sports and historical icons of the day. His passing is truly a passing of the grand era.

Posted by: John in Arlington | February 21, 2006 2:59 PM

I remember that voice. I was a kid growing up in the Dorchester section of Boston in the 50's and 60's. No matter what was going on during those years his voice was always a welcome sound when he was broadcasting the Sox games. When I heard his voice yesterday during the news reports, about his death, it brought back many good memories of my youth and the Sox. Sorry to see him go. He was a great guy in and out of the broadcasting booth.

Posted by: Joseph | February 21, 2006 4:52 PM

It's sad to see him go, but "his time" - when simply being a consumate professional was enough - is pretty much gone. I suppose Bob Costas carries on some of the tradition, but now it's all split screens and gimmicks, and god help you on TV if you simply let the action play out without inserting yourself into the game. My favorite memories are of him and Al DeRogatis(spelling?) doing the games of the new AFL. If I recall correctly, both NBC (Gowdy, et al) and CBS carried the first Super Bowl, as each had a contract with "its" league, and an inter-network agreement was yet to be reached .

Posted by: steve | February 22, 2006 9:27 AM

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