August 26th of this year marked the 77th anniversary of the first televised major league baseball game. The game aired on W2XBS, which became WNBC-TV. Called by announcer Red Barber, the matchup featured the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.
According to History.com only an estimated 400 people in the New York area had access to a TV at the time. But the broadcast coincided with the 1939 World’s Fair, taking place in nearby Flushing Meadows (now home of the USTA National Tennis Center and the US Open). At the event, RCA introduced TVs to American consumers. And with the telecast of the Reds vs Dodgers, NBC’s broadcasting business began.
In spite of there being just two cameras filming the game, positioned so far from the field that it was hard to see the ball in motion, the early broadcast proved to be a success. It took some time to gain the support of baseball owners, out of fear that televising games would destroy attendance at the games. However, they soon realized the potential that could result from exposing more fans to the game, from selling rights to air the games, to selling ads to run during the games.
It may be no coincidence, then, that the first TV commercial was in a baseball game. Earlier this summer was the 75th anniversary of the first televised ad. On July 1, 1941, leading into a game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies, the station ran a :10 ad for Bulova. It was a simple ad by today’s standards, just a billboard really. “America runs on Bulova time,” the announcer says.
A key figure behind bringing baseball games into American homes is Harry Coyle. Through his 42-year career, he served as director and coordinating producer for NBC Sports, focused on the NBC Game of the Week. His tenure, from 1947 to 1989, spanned the era from black and white TV and two or three cameras, to technological enhancements such as slow motion, instant replay, and games covered by dozens of cameras. He retired in 1989.
Coyle pioneered the use of hand-held cameras, close-ups, and player reactions. Michael Weisman, a former coworker of Coyle’s said “He was very early in personalizing players,” he said. “He didn’t just follow the ball; he was a storyteller.”
According to many articles, Coyle’s most memorable shot showed Red Sox player Carlton Fisk waving fair his game-winning home run in the 1975 World Series. Prior to this, cutting to a player for a reaction shot was simply not done.
Today, Major League Baseball is a multi-billion dollar industry, with an average of 20 cameras covering a game. They catch details down to the baseball’s shape changing when it makes contact with a bat. They are even mounted on catchers’ masks, an innovation that is nearly twenty years old (Fox introduced it at the 1997 All-Star Game).
Today it seems only natural that baseball players would star in TV commercials. It is a long season, with games from March through October. Across the more than 162 games each team plays, a multitude of cameras bring the players into our homes. The game is slow paced enough that we can see the players’ faces and hear stories about them from announcers. Many players become celebrities in their own right, both while playing and once they have retired.
My favorite TV spots involving baseball players are those which talk about or refer to baseball, but are not for a product used in baseball. Johnny Bench was the Cincinnati catcher in the Carlton Fisk highlight I mentioned earlier.
Here in a spot for Krylon paint, Bench gives a fast pitch (great pun, his), that the paint goes on so smoothly that it leaves no runs, no drips, and no errors.
This is a play on a line announcers often say as an inning ends. Bench starred in the series throughout the 1980s and partly due to the many cameras that covered his 16-year Hall of Fame career, he probably can thank Coyle for some of this endorsement contracts.