Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Play-by-Play History of 'Play-by-Play'

A Play-by-Play History of 'Play-by-Play'

At some time or another, every sports fan wants to get play-by-play updates of their team’s game.  Today’s technology lets you get game updates nearly instantaneously online, on the radio, on television, or on your device.  If you choose audio or video, you can hear an announcer give play-by-play commentary on the game.  Before mass communication, however, you could only experience a game play-by-play by watching them play.  They did not have a word for it then – you just watched each play.

But as technology progressed, and technological advances made up-to-the minute updates, the promise of true play-by-play reporting became a reality.  Broadcast pioneers like Ted Husing[i] paved the way for the uncountable hoards of talking heads, pundits, analysts and color commentators who bring us our favorite teams or the most important games to us in a lively and entertaining fashion.
And somewhere along the way, they developed a word to describe the process – play-by-play.  The phrase play-by-play, as applied to sports information communication, dates to at least as early as 1910, before radio, when it was used to describe the reporting of game information in real time, more or less, to the newspaper offices by telephone and telegraph. 

Fans could get updates of the game from bulletin boards set up at newspaper or telegraph offices.  Initially those reports did not come in play-by-play, but they provided an element of vicarious enjoyment of games played far away.  Mass communication paved the way for sports to become part of pop-culture, enjoyed and followed in equal measure by people wherever they are, not just confined to local fans who can actually attend the games.

Early Baseball – Early Telecommunication

In 1838, Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph signal by Morse code.  Within twenty years, England and the United States were connected by a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable[ii] that enabled nearly instantaneous communication between North America and Europe. 

Well, OK, not always instantaneous.  The speed of communication depended on the speed of the operators, the number of lines available, processing time, transportation time for delivering the physical message to and from the telegraph offices, and in the case of newspaper reports, the time required to set the type, print and distribute the paper. 

In 1865, in the earliest days of organized baseball in the United States, the Athletic Club[iii] of Philadelphia and the Atlantic Club of Brooklyn[iv] played the “Championship” game on a Monday; the results were printed in Cleveland on Thursday:

Great Base Ball Match for the Cham-

The telegraph has already announced the result of the great base-ball match in Philadelphia between the Athletic club of that city and the Atlantic of Brooklyn, which came off on Monday last.  The Atlantic club retain the championship, having vanquished their challengers by 21 to 15.
Owing to the fact that base-ball is rapidly becoming the national game, and that the two clubs above named are recognized as the best in the United States, the match has excited great interest.  We extract the following in regard to it from the Philadelphia Press of Monday.  We must remark, however, that the account of this paper is colored by partisan feeling, in a manner unworthy of it . . . .

Cleveland Daily Leader, November 2, 1865, Morning Edition.

Scoring updates and descriptions of the game came in much faster in 1870, if your local telegraph office posted the information as it came in:

The National Game. – As usual, when the Athletics and Red Stockings [(the Cincinnati Reds; not Boston)] meet each other in the base ball field, considerable excitement prevailed in this city yesterday while these celebrated clubs were playing a match game at Cincinnati.  The Western Union Telegraph appreciating the interest of the public, had the result of each inning placed on the bulletin board shortly after it was played. . . . 
In the fourth inning the Cincinnatis were again put off with a “whitewash,” while the Pennsylvanians went to the field with one run to their credit.  When this result was made public considerable enthusiasm manifested itself in the parties congregated about the bulletin board. . . .
At this stage of the contest a general feeling of confidence prevailed that Pennsylvania’s favorites would carry off the honors, and the end of the game showed that it was not misplaced the Athletics having made eleven runs and the Red Stockings seven.  These clubs will play each other in Philadelphia the next time, one more game being necessary to complete a series of three games, the Athletics and Red Stockings having won one each. – Patriot.

The Columbian (Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania), August 5, 1870.

By 1887, telephone reports augmented the telegraph:

A few of our base ball cranks [(fans)] have contributed, during the season, to a fund raised for the purpose of receiving reports of the ball games by telephone.  These reports they have, each evening, made public by placing them on a bulletin board in front of Longwell’s store.  As they are a little behind on the expense of this, they would like to have the fifty or more individuals who never miss a night nor pay a cent, call on Harry Longwell and pay something.  The boys don’t think any one, especially a non-contributor to the fund, has any business to change the figures so as to make them lie to the public.

The True Northerner, (Paw Paw, Michigan), September 21, 1887.

In 1888, an enterprising newspaper improved the display of the telegraphic updates, enabling 6,000 fans to virtually enjoy a game:

The Baseball Bulletin Excited the Admiration of Electricians.
[From the Electric Age.]

For the benefit of thousands who were unable to attend the games for the world baseball championship, The Evening World, with its usual enterprise, devised something new in the way of a bulletin board, which gave the movements of the players, the runs as they were made, and the successive “outs.”

On the board, which was 9 feet square, was painted a baseball quadrangle or “diamond.” For each of the nine field positions there was a perforation, which was filled by red buttons when the Giants were in the field, and by blue buttons representing the St. Louis team, when the Giants were at bat. . . .

Thus, when the reds were in the field a blue peg on either of the bases represented a St. Louis player intent upon scoring a run, and vice versa.  The buttons were numbered according to batting order, and it was an easy matter to tell who the base-runner was.  . . . .

As each play is made it is telegraphed over The Evening World’s baseball wire, which is looped from the editorial rooms, where the regular report is copied, to the bulletin board, where an operator calls the plays to a young man, who moves the pegs accordingly.

This is one of the simplest and best forms ever devised for a baseball bulletin, and The Evening World is happy in being able to give the public an opportunity of witnessing the games free of charge.  There were entertained fully 6,000 people each day of the World’s Championship series.

The Evening World, November 1, 1888, Last Edition.

The technology of game-time sports reporting remained relatively stagnant into the late 1890s:

Crowds at Times Bulletin.

That the Washington fans have been worked up to fever heat over the struggle between Baltimore and Boston for the Baseball pennant has been evidenced by the hundreds of people who daily crowd around The Times bulletin board to watch the returns.

The Times (Washington DC), September 28, 1897.

But with technological advances came added dangers:

As Frank Rourke was telephoning the base ball score to some inquisitive fan a bolt of lightning struck the telephone wires and knocked the receiver from his hands and nearly floored him.  An interesting part of the proceedings was that the telephone was not injured.

Omaha Daily Bee, May 25, 1907.


Technology eventually progressed to a point where reporters could send detailed reports of each play to the home office as they happened, either by telephone or telegraph.  In 1910, such reports were called “play-by-play” reports:

Long Distance Service supplied the University Missourian with its splendid play by play report of the Missouri-Kansas game yesterday.

University Missourian (Columbia, Missouri[v]), November 25, 1910.

Improvements in telegraph service also enabled play-by-play updates to the newspaper offices, where they could be posted on the bulletin boards during the game with increased speed:

Not content with serving the fans with one leased wire – its regular Associated Press report – The El Paso Herald has had a second wire strung into the ball parks where the world’s championship series of games are being played.  This second wire is a direct Western Union wire and cannot be beaten for quickness. . . .

The Associated Press leased wire operated direct from the baseball park where the game is being played.  Both these reports are taken by operators on the balcony of The Herald building, directly in view of the fans, and the announcements are instantaneous.  A man calls the game play by play over the shoulder of the Western Union operator as fast as the plays are made on the ball field.  The Western Union flashes each play to The Herald and here again, another man calls it as the operator receives it.  Can you beat that for service? 

El Paso Herald (Texas), October 7, 1913.

The increasing speed and efficiency with which play-by-play reports could be made and reported to the public made it possible for public events where fans received play-by-play reports during the game:

The Missourian’s play-by-play reports of the Missouri-Washington football game in the University Auditorium.
For good measure, bulletins from the second World Series baseball game.
The Missouri Four will sing quartet numbers.  Terence Vincent and Charles M. Culver will sing solos, accompanied by Robert L. Bailey at the piano.

University Missourian (Columbia, Missouri), October 8, 1915.

In time, they improved the auditorium play-by-play experience with projectors, stereopticon slides and cheerleaders:

Play by play reports of the Kansas game will be given at the University Auditorium

Go to Lawrence if you can.  If you can’t, here’s your chance to get the game play by play and root for Mizzou

E-YAH!! Eat ‘Em Up, Tigers!
“Eat That Rock-Chalk Jayhawk Up”

“Fight ‘Em! Fight ‘Em! Fight ‘Em!”

A cheer-leader will be there to lead the yells.  Each play will be thrown on the screen from the stereopticon slide as it is received from the “Special Wire to the Missourian.

The Daily Missourian (Columbia, Missouri), November 23, 1916.

Radio Play-by-Play

Within just a few years, new technology would provide a more immediate way to experience a game from a remote location – play-by-play commentary on the “radio (or wireless) telephone:

The championship football games this fall were followed play by play by thousands all over America – thanks to the use of wireless.

William H. Easton, Ph.D., When the Ether Speaks, Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, volume 133, number 3451, December 24, 1921, page 876.

The article accompanying the report of play-by-play radio broadcasts, however, suggests that there were probably not very many listeners at the time.  Radio was very new, cumbersome, and expensive:

The radio (or wireless) telephone has, therefore, been perfected.  Powerful radio stations can now receive sounds of any character by telephone from distant points and send them out in the form of electrical waves.  These waves go out in every direction, and anyone provided with suitable receiving apparatus and located within the sending radioum of the station (which varies from 50 to 5,000 miles, depending on conditions) can intercept these waves and hear the sounds with perfect distinctness.  And if a sound amplifier is attached to the receiving instrument, the sounds can be so magnifified as to be heard clearly throughout a room or a hall.

Here is something new in the world, and something that possesses possibilities of instruction and entertainment that surpass anything that civilization has yet developed.


The writer of the article also appears to be somewhat of a visionary.  He imagined a radio dial much like today's cable listings, with channels listed by subject matter; his vision did not take shape until the cable television revolution of the 1980s, some sixty years later:

General News
Weather Reports
Weather Channel
Ship Movements
Travel Channel
For Children
Light Opera
AE (originally)
Grand Opera
Bravo (originally)
Special Events
Financial News
Crop Reports
Sporting News
Vaudeville selections
Classical Concerts
Church Services
Wash. DC     Senate


Play-by-play announcers and their signature calls are now a staple of pop-culture:

None of that would have been seen, heard, or appreciated without the long history of newspaper writers, telegraphers, telephone operators, and scientists who laid the groundwork for the “play-by-play” commentary that we rely on today, to enjoy the game wherever we are.

[i] Ted Husing was one of the original “Monday morning quarterbacks” – see The History and Origin of “Monday Morning Quarterback”.
[ii] Celebrations of the completion of the trans-Atlantic cable spawned the football cheer, Sis-Boom-Bah! – see Skyrockets, the Transatlantic Cable and Pre-Civil War Militia – the Explosive History of Sis! Boom! Bah!
[iii] It was still forty years before the Athletics would be known as the White Elephants – see Buddhism and Baseball – White Elephants and the White Elephant Wars.
[iv] It was still thirty years before a team from Brooklyn would be known as the Trolley Dodgers – see The Grim Reality of the Trolley Dodgers.
[v] In 1910, Missouri had been known as the “Show-Me State” for about ten years (although the phrase, “show me” had been associated with Missouri for several years before that – see Show Me the Tunnel –  How Missouri Became the Show Me State.