On New Years’ Day 2009, MLB Network stepped up to the plate for the first time and set a record. The service, owned in part by DirecTV, Comcast, Time Warner and Cox, bowed before 50 million homes, easily shattering the 30 million mark Fox Business Network launched with on Oct. 15, 2007.
Commissioner Bud Selig, in welcoming viewers to the network, talked about MLB Productions having access to some 150,000 hours of archival footage.
For its opening day, MLB Network threw a kinescope ace: World Series perfection in the form of Don Larsen’s Game 5 gem against Dem Bums in the 1956 Fall Classic at Yankee Stadium. The rarely seen film, hosted by Bob Costas with Larsen and his battery mate, Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra, started with one out in the top of the second. As such, viewers still only heard tale of Jackie Robinson’s line drive ricocheting off the glove of Yankee third sacker Andy Carey to shortstop Gil McDougal, whose relay to Joe Collins at first was in time..
The rest, such as the telecast provided more than a half a century ago, was on display, so long as you didn’t take your eyes off the TV. This was a purist’s reenactment of an historic event, baseball’s only post-season no-no, during a simpler time when the game was truly America’s national pastime.
Captured in black and white, there were few graphics — the scoreboard in left substituted for an on-air line score — no replays and a modicum of crowd shots, and player close-ups. Moreover, the requisite center field angle that shapes today’s coverage didn’t exist yet. Instead, the balls-strike action was depicted via an overhead shot from behind the umpire.
And Gillette essentially had commercial exclusivity (the Paper Mate Capri pen had one spot) on the telecast. From an animated line-drawn parrot, to endorsements from ballplayers like Snider, Birdie Tibbetts and Johnny Logan and Yankee skipper Casey Stengel, the razor company pitched its Foamy shaving cream and three kinds of speed blades (the old perfesser was left “smooth, not a bristle” by the company’s heavy product). It also pitched a World Series premium that came free with the blades buy for a buck: a breast-pocket size version of the Baseball Encyclopedia. Announcers Vin Scully and Mel Allen segued easily into touts for the book on the air, with Hall of Fame southpaw “King” Carl Hubbell joining the latter in the booth to hype the product.
Allen, with a “how about that” or two, called the first half of the game, while Scully put the classic into proper perspective during its later frames. What you saw was Larsen pitching out of the sunlight into the batters’ boxes bathed in Stadium shadow (indeed, the pitcher’s non-windup delivery wasn’t fully immersed in the shade until the top of the eighth).
The telecast did mention that a backdrop, which typically aided hitters, had been removed in deference to the large crowd in centerfield. As Berra, who played in more World Series games than anyone, said, the hitters prayed for cloudy days during early October at Yankee Stadium, because of the early afternoon shadows (Fall Classic first pitches came at 1 p.m. back then).
Those elements, a seemingly wide, outside corner strike zone from ump Babe Pannelli in his last game behind the plate, and Larsen’s sharp control (he only went to a three-ball count on the game’s second batter, Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese) left the Brooklyn batters baffled for the most part.
Alas, for those who weren’t – Duke Snider and Sandy Amoros narrowly missed home runs down the right field line, while Gil Hodges was robbed on a backhand catch by Mickey Mantle in left center after a long run — viewers didn’t get a chance to savor or lament the moments.
Rather, than encoring those key plays — or Mantle’s fourth-inning home and Hank Bauer’s sixth-inning ribby for that matter — the telecast aired in its original, uninterrupted form. Thus, when Costas did elicit reactions from Larsen and Berra, they came after completed innings, not immediately after plays or outs were recorded on the broadcast.
As for the Yankee teammates, they supplied a few good yarns about the ballgame — Larsen said he realized he threw a no-hitter, but he was unfamiliar with the term perfect game, since the last one had been thrown some 34 years before his masterpiece — and what it meant in their lives. However, specifics about strategy and situations went largely lacking.
For instance, Costas pressed for insight into their "book" about Dodger outfielder Carl Furillo, a .312 lifetime hitter who just struck out just 119 times in over 4,000 career at-bats, as he led off the ninth. Larsen talked about putting the ball where Yogi wanted it, while the catcher said the pitcher offered breaking balls and fast balls and “mixed them up good. Anything I called, he got over in the right spot.”
Old gentlemen from a different era, with more than 52 years having lapsed since that historic day back in the Bronx. Sure, it might have been unrealistic to expect them to provide the pitch sequence analysis of today’s game. Still, at least one watcher expected a little more from a look back at baseball perfection.