A Perfect Call for a Perfect Game

There is no greater challenge for a baseball announcer than a no-hitter or perfect game.

If a team is one win away from a championship, or an individual player is on the verge of breaking a long-standing record, you can mentally prepare in advance to ensure you properly capture the moment when it finally happens.

Advance preparation for a no-hitter or perfect game, however, is extremely difficult.  A no-hitter can unfold in any game at any time, and puts every tool that contributes to a quality broadcast to the test.

A future post will fully explain the proper mindset and approach when broadcasting a no-hitter, but the main idea is having the ability to “seize the moment” by recognizing the appropriate time to shift the majority of the broadcast’s focus towards the potential feat.  While the timing of the shift varies for each no-hit situation, once the shift has taken place, it’s imperative for the broadcaster to remain in the moment up until the no-hitter is either completed or broken up.

If you have never heard Vin Scully’s call of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in 1965, please stop reading and don’t resume until you’ve finished listening to this video:

The game itself is one of the finest pitching performances in baseball history.  Not only did Koufax throw a perfect game, but Bob Hendley, Koufax’s mound opponent that night, actually one-hit the Dodgers, and was no-hitting them until the seventh inning.  One combined hit in what proved to be a 1-0 final where the lone run was unearned.  It was Koufax’s fourth no-hitter, which set a Major League record (Bob Feller had three, and Nolan Ryan later shattered the record with seven).  And while this was the norm for the time, it’s definitely worth pointing out that Koufax’s perfect game was on three days of rest.

Vin Scully perfectly captures the moment, and keeps the listener on the edge of their seat for almost nine full minutes.  His broadcast of the top of the ninth inning has zero structural mistakes and no repetition in language.  Every one of his sentences feels original.

When it comes to broadcasting historical moments, less is more.  Scully may be the best of all-time when it comes to letting the game breathe.  And while this particular broadcasting device is contingent on the success of the home team, Scully does an exceptional job using the Dodger Stadium crowd to his advantage.

What I find even more impressive is how Scully incorporates the roars of the crowd without sacrificing descriptive detail.  This is a perfect example of how oversaturating an event of this magnitude–which all baseball broadcasters are guilty of at some point–is unnecessary.

It’s true that a key aspect of a quality broadcast is channeling the emotion of the game to those who cannot be there in person.  Conveying that emotion through a combination of excitement and words is what makes the broadcast enjoyable for the listener.  But the next time you’re teetering on the brink of going overboard, ask yourself this question:

What is going to be more impactful to the listener: the excitement of one, or the excitement of thousands?

The latter is most evident on the final pitch of the perfect game.  Scully punctuates the accomplishment with a very simplistic, “Swung on and missed, a perfect game!”  He then lets the crowd take over for 39 seconds.  It’s incredibly powerful, and yet no one is speaking.  Can you remember the last time you heard 39 uninterrupted seconds of crowd noise on a radio broadcast?  How about just 10 seconds?  It requires a lot of discipline to remain silent, but the end result is a better call.

The manner in which Scully captivates your attention during such an unpredictable and significant moment, and the way he does so with an effectively simple approach is enough to place this radio call in the upper echelon of baseball history.

The call earns the label of “best ever” when you consider the complimentary elements he sprinkles in throughout the inning.

There is the legacy factor, which is one of the main reasons this call has stood the test of time.  Sandy Koufax is one of the most recognizable Dodgers in the franchise’s storied history, and at the time of the perfect game, he was the best pitcher in baseball (1965 was the fourth of five consecutive years in which Koufax led the league in ERA).  Scully’s legend is held in similar regard to Koufax and the other Dodger greats.  This is not to say that a perfect game thrown by a different pitcher and called by a different broadcaster would have been any less of an accomplishment, but the involvement of two people among the best ever at what they did further emphasizes the magic of the Koufax game.

Building off the legacy factor is the preservation factor.  I’ve searched the internet, and there does not appear to be any video footage from Koufax’s perfect game (televised sports were still developing in the 1960’s, so this really isn’t surprising).  There are a few still photos and postgame interviews, but video highlights seem to be non-existent.  That means Scully’s radio call is the only direct connection we have to this wonderful event.  Any fan, past or present, who wants to relive Sandy Koufax’s perfect game has to listen to the radio call, and imagine in their mind’s eye what is happening on the field–just like everyone had to do in 1965.

When the inning begins, there is a great callback to Koufax’s previous three no-hitters.  From a quality of information standpoint, this is obviously the type of fact that improves the listener’s experience.  Whether Scully pulled this fact from memory or looked it up between innings when the perfect game bid started taking shape, it’s a great example of using anticipation and foresight to strengthen the broadcast.  In other words, it’s very unlikely that Scully reviewed this fact prior to the start of the broadcast, but once the possibility of a perfect game was evident, he recognized that Koufax’s history of no-hitters needed to be discussed.  This is reinforced during Scully’s final description.  Following the 39 seconds of crowd noise, he explains that Koufax is the first pitcher to throw “four no-hit, no-run games.”

There are several other “simple, yet powerful” lines over the course of the final inning.  The best include:

“You can almost taste the pressure now.”

“29,000 people in the ballpark, and a million butterflies.”

“It begins to get tough to be a teammate and have to sit in the dugout and watch.”

“A lot of people in the ballpark now are beginning to see the pitches with their heart.”

“The mound at dodger stadium is the loneliest place in the world.”

“He struck out the last six consecutive batters.  So when he wrote his name in capital letters in the record books, that ‘K’ stands out more than the O-U-F-A-X.”

The last line has always stood out the most for me.  It’s brilliant, both for its wordplay and spontaneity.

At one point, Scully reviews the Dodgers’ defensive alignment.  Such a description is usually reserved for early in a broadcast (first or second inning), and is not referred to again unless there is a substitution.  The quick review in this situation was warranted given what was on the line.

Scully even works in one of his trademark anecdotes when he refers to pinch hitter Joey Amalfitano as “an original bonus baby.”  Scully is well-known for his knowledge of player backgrounds, so you might be wondering why this one-liner is noteworthy.  By virtue of pinch hitting, this was Amalfitano’s first appearance in the game, and it shows that even amidst all of the drama surrounding Koufax, Scully still made sure he provided the listener with information on the new player.

The phrase “perfect game” is also used on several occasions.  Whether or not a broadcaster should say the words “perfect game” or “no-hitter” while a bid is still intact has been debated for years (expect a future post on this subject).  I am of the belief that you absolutely have to acknowledge a bid on the radio.  Even if you disagree, it’s clear that Scully used the phrase with a certain confidence during the Koufax game.  He was not going to allow superstition to influence how he went about his business, and that should be respected.

The most unique part of the call, and the part most talked about among broadcasters, is Scully’s use of the time.  Scully frequently cites the time during the final inning, which is very unusual due to baseball’s timeless nature.  As it turned out, Scully added the time simply as a means of making the call more memorable for Koufax.  As already mentioned, not every game was televised back then, and Scully would often present players with tape recordings of their biggest achievements as a keepsake.  Since Koufax already had three such tapes, Scully injected the time stamps to try and make this tape extra special.

While they were meant specifically for Koufax himself, the time stamps had the added effect of heightening the drama, and they have lived on as one of the defining features of baseball’s most memorable radio call.

One comment

  1. Pingback: No-Hitter Etiquette for Radio Guys | GROWCASTING

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