As evidenced by mammoth Super Bowl ratings, football and television are a marriage made in small-screen heaven. Not the case with baseball. The national pastime has a complicated and, at times, dysfunctional relationship with TV, evidenced in recent years with the World Series being televised long after children, and many adults, have been sleeping for hours.
“Center Field Shot: A History of Baseball on Television” successfully tells the story of how the sport made a huge breakthrough arriving in people’s homes. The era began with the first televised college game broadcast by NBC in 1939 and now there’s the launch of the MLB Network, which begins in 2009.
Two college professors — James R. Walker and Robert V. Bellamy Jr. — have written an informative tome full of colorful anecdotal stories. Those concerned about the appeal of baseball on television, particularly in light of the Phillies-Rays World Series being the lowest rated ever, would benefit from the context provided by Walker and Bellamy’s extensive research.
From the beginning, many Major League owners were wary of television, fearing that fans would prefer to watch the games in the comfort of their homes rather than paying a ticket to go to the ballpark. The minor leagues also felt threatened by the advent of television and took the major league owners view that TV would empty seats across the country.
“Center Field Shot” cites Variety’s coverage of baseball on television numerously. The showbiz trade was both a harsh critic of early experimental techniques and a cheerleader for the potential of television bringing the ballgame to American living rooms. Walker and Bellamy write that “Variety believed that owners had nothing to fear from TV. The new medium would ‘hypo’ the game by attracting new fans to the ballpark, just as radio had.”
Televised baseball has come a long way from the first grainy black-and-white camera images. Now HDTV cameras bring viewers so close to the action they can almost count the rats scurrying around the Wrigley Field dugout behind Cubs manager Lou Piniella.
Walker and Bellamy provide perhaps the definitive history of the evolution of baseball on television without ever getting too scholarly or slipping into fanciful nostalgia.