Poets at the Microphone



A good athlete must have that harmony of movements or rhythm, which is called “form”….From pitch, to swing, to ball, a whole series of rhythms are set off, one rhythm, or one motion, starting another.  So it is in life—from sun, to moon, to earth, to night, to day, to you getting up in the morning and going out to play a game of ball.  All the rhythms of life are in some way related, one to another.  You, your baseball, and the universe are brothers through rhythms.

Langston Hughes, The First Book of Rhythm

It is impossible to sever language from poetry.  All written and spoken language is rhythmic and metrical.  Even the phonebook read aloud would contain the unmistakable cadences of the English tongue.   All barkers, salesmen, teachers, DJs and sportscasters, and anyone else who makes her living with her voice, are constantly interpreting poetry, whether they realize it or not.

Two of the people who have breathed life into our language for me are sportscasters Chick Hearn and Vin Scully.  Although they are quite different in style and temperament, their respective talents almost perfectly match the games upon which they report(ed).

Linguists refer to English as an accentual-syllabic language because the rhythms of our language are based upon the natural stresses which occur with accented syllables.  A particular form of genius which interpreters of language like Hearn and Scully possess is the ability to unconsciously make thousands of decisions about which syllables to stress and how to stress them during the course of a single sporting event.

The late Chick Hearn, who announced Los Angeles Lakers’ basketball games for thirty-seven years, was a brash, boisterous, irrepressible motor-mouth with an inventive mind for language and metaphor.  He originated many phrases which are now embedded in the nomenclature of the game:  SLAM DUNK, CHARity STRIPE (free throw line), YO-YOing UP and DOWN (dribbling) and TICKy TACK FOUL (an infraction that wasn’t).  When a player on offense had made a move which caused his defender to lurch in the wrong direction, Hearn would say the player had faked his opponent “INto the POPCORN maCHINE.”  Hearn’s machinegun delivery was apposite not only for the action-packed, rapid-fire sport he covered, but for modern age in which we live.

By way of contrast, Vin Scully, who has been covering Los Angeles Dodger baseball games since the team was in Brooklyn (now going on sixty years), seems in many ways better-suited for an earlier, simpler, more agrarian age.  This is not to say that Scully talks like a hick.  Far from it, he is an erudite man who seasons his commentary with literary allusions and historical references.  Scully’s calm, leisurely parlance is perfect for the one major American team sport which is not governed by a clock.  (As George Carlin remarked in his legendary baseball/football routine, while football is “rigidly timed,” in baseball, “you don’t know when it’s going to end.”)   Like the game of baseball itself, Scully’s languid delivery reminds us of an age (whether it actually existed or not) when time was less of a commodity.

The pastoral rhythms of a bygone time live on in baseball, which was invented sometime in the early to mid-nineteenth century.  The innumerable pauses in action allow a good baseball announcer to weave several narratives into the story of the game he is broadcasting.  Like a nineteenth century cracker barrel bard, Scully is above all a storyteller [This is a hypothetical example]:

“Two and one, the young pitcher Davis comes from PENSaCOLa FLORida.  His grandfather was a FULL BLOODed  CHOCKtaw INdian who once EARNED a LIVing HUNTting BEARS.    SWINGANDaMISS.  Two and two.”

When a player hits a ball deep into the outfield and Scully refers to it as a HIIIIIGH FLYYY BAAALL, he is creating poetry.  (If you close your eyes, you can almost feel the arc of the ball in his words.)   Like Hearn, Scully instinctively knows which syllables to stress and how long to stretch out the vowel sound.

Vin Scully feels like a friend to millions of people who have never met him.  His pleasant, mellifluous voice was a tremendous comfort to my grandmother who never missed a game on the radio, particularly during her final, bedridden years.  (And there were certainly times during my drinking days when Vin Scully and a twelve-pack seemed like my two best friends in the world, though not necessarily in that order.)

Poetry is everywhere that people talk.  Once, when I was teaching seventh graders, as I walked up to my classroom door and stuck a key in the lock, the group of three or four students standing there immediately ceased the conversation they were having:

I joked, “You guys don’t have to stop talking because of me.  I’m down.” (Down in this context meaning, cool, alright, one of the gang.)

One of the students, a girl named Janelle, replied, “MISter BRAY you are SOOO NOOOT DOOOWN.”  (“DAVEy LOPES hit a HIIIIGH FLYYYY BAAAALL”)

by Richard W. Bray

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6 Responses to “Poets at the Microphone”

  1. sirthanxsalot Says:

    Regarding Chick Hearn
    Impressive too that he was using the art of the language of his trade to appeal to viewing and listening audiences simultaneously

    Quote from Sports Illustrated online, 2002
    “CNNSI.com: Wasn’t he also doing the radio broadcast at the same time as the TV broadcast?
    Taylor: Yes, he was. And that’s a tricky thing. He could paint a picture to the radio audience without making it obvious to the television audience that that’s what he was doing. That was also underrated. He had so many “Chick-isms” that made people chuckle — people may have missed what a skilled craftsman he was as a broadcaster.”

  2. The Duck Says:

    Bray’s master insight is that all spoken language involves poetics. This understanding ennobles poetry which is inherent in the human gene pool. All persons need poetry, even those who would never think of it as part of their natural requirements.

  3. sirthanxsalot Says:

    Mister Bray writes:
    I joked, “You guys don’t have to stop talking because of me. I’m down.” (Down in this context meaning, cool, alright, one of the gang.)
    One of the students, a girl named Janelle, replied, “MISter BRAY you are SOOO NOOOT DOOOWN.” (“DAVEy LOPES hit a HIIIIGH FLYYYY BAAAALL”)

    Dorothy Parker writes

  4. JBond Says:

    What a thoughtful and extremely articulated piece on two iconic personalities, Vin Scully and Chic Hearn. It’s easy enough to write about the accomplishments of these two but to reflect on their mastery and use of language is the heart of the article. Most of us that listen to language or read it do so for the enjoyment of the moment with little thought to the study and experience that created that enjoyment.This blog is a reasoned treatise that greatly reflects on the use and value of our great english language.

  5. Jackie Says:

    I can really hear both voices as you are describing the way they accented certain syllables–took me right back to my childhood hanging about while my Dad listened to games. I never realized that their voices were so memorable for a linguistic reason!

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