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
Previous: The Blog Gets Action: Cabbies, Get Off the Phone! | Next: Old Habits Die Hard: How Jack Abramoff Wields Influence Even Now
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: Thomas Davis | February 20, 2006 7:45 PM
Posted by: Ken - DC | February 20, 2006 8:23 PM
Posted by: Stanley Krute | February 20, 2006 10:55 PM
Posted by: hoosier daddy | February 20, 2006 11:28 PM
Posted by: Achenbach | February 21, 2006 7:37 AM
Posted by: Achenbach | February 21, 2006 7:41 AM
Posted by: John in Arlington | February 21, 2006 2:59 PM
Posted by: Joseph | February 21, 2006 4:52 PM
Posted by: steve | February 22, 2006 9:27 AM
The comments to this entry are closed.