Late last year, MLB quietly released the first season of This Week in Baseball on DVD-on-Demand and iTunes--a little too quietly, in fact, since MLB never made an official announcement about the release. Though both formats were released in November, I didn't hear about their availability until the year almost ended, and only then thanks to a random RT on Twitter. I'm constantly on the lookout for footage of old baseball games, and yet the TWIB news flew completely under my radar. It's almost as if the league took pains to keep it a secret.
Whatever their Selig-ian motives or methods, MLB has released the inaugural season of This Week in Baseball (1977), and I am grateful for it. You may not realize this if you've never searched for baseball footage from this era, but it is in severely short supply, especially when it comes to regular season games. These TWIB episodes serve as important time capsules of the game as it was back then: how it was played, how it looked, and how fans responded to it.
For you whippersnappers who don't remember a time before ESPN or the interwebs or hula hoops, This Week in Baseball was a weekly highlights show that brought seven days' worth of baseballing action condensed into a half hour (minus commercials). When the show debuted in 1977, both NBC and ABC showed games nationally (on Saturday and Monday, respectively), but it was otherwise virtually impossible to see any footage from games that took place outside of your media market. If you wanted to see what the buzz was all about when a team on the other side of the country suddenly got hot, TWIB filled you in. Mets fans of a certain age may remember the show airing on WOR-9 immediately before Sunday afternoon games and/or Steampipe Alley.
The show was narrated by the legendary voice of Mel Allen. For folks like me who grew up watching TWIB, Allen's relentlessly upbeat style and "How 'bout that!" catchphrase are synonymous with baseball itself. And yet, when he was tapped to join the show, Allen had been wandering in the broadcast wilderness for over a decade. The Yankees canned him from play-by-play duties before the end of the 1964 season with almost no explanation, a move that gave rise to rumors the team fired him for being a drunk, a drug addict, a homosexual, or a loan sharker, or some combination of these offenses and more. (Classy, guys.) By calling on him to narrate its highlights, TWIB reminded people of how great Allen was, and allowed him to regain his rightful place as The Voice of baseball.
Since no one else seems to be talking about these historic re-releases, and because every other television show has been recapped within an inch of its life, I have taken it upon myself to view and summarize each episode of this program's first season. Considering the Mets were awful in 1977 (and also traded away Tom Seaver and Dave Kingman mid-season), I don't anticipate running into too much video from Our Favorite Team. But I believe the historic import of these shows trumps rooting allegiances.
So let's step into the Wayback Machine, shall we?
Those who've seen This Week In Baseball before will not find all that much different, format-wise, in the very first episode, which covered the week ending May 31, 1977. (Calendar enthusiasts may note that May 31, 1977 was a Tuesday. I'm just passing along with the video says, folks.) There are a few creaks here and there, but it otherwise takes the same shape that fans would see for the next two decades: Clips from the league's hottest teams, some brief human interest, a blooper reel, and the play of the week.
The opening of the inaugural episode will also be familiar to those who've seen the show at any point during its run. TWIB begins with a series of "action" clips set to the tune of a song called "Jet Set," which would serve as its theme from here on out. (This song was also used as the theme for a short-lived early 1970s game show called Jackpot. "Jet Set" got around.) There's a few shots of the 1976 World Series, but most other clips appear to be several years old. Of Mets interest: a brief clip of Willie Mays pleading on his knees at home plate during the 1973 Series. The film quality is very 70s: grainy, pock-marked, sub-Rockford Files. Think non-remastered NFL Films specials about the Terry Bradshaw Steelers
That will not fill the viewer with confidence about the quality of what follows. But, when the meat of the show begins, we see that the bulk of the footage is of video. It is not HD by any stretch, and it varies wildly in color quality and contrast, but even so I find there is a vibrant, "just yesterday" quality to video that trumps bad film footage. People's movements look much more real than they would on the film stock of the time. Compare this to an official World Series film from the same decade and the TWIB footage wins by a landslide.
As if programmed by ESPN, the initial segment covers a pair of two-game series between the Yankees and Red Sox, one each in the Bronx and at Fenway. Check out this pic of the Yankees taking the field, and notice that the stands are more than half empty. The Yankees are the defending AL champs playing their chief rivals (who Allen tells us are "red hot"), and yet the ballpark is almost barren. This is a reflection of the generally depressed attendance numbers of the era.
The Yanks-Red Sox review gives us some great shots of George "Boomer" Scott hitting a Piazza-esque opposite field homer, and the funky delivery of Luis Tiant. We are also treated to the sight of Tiant left on the mound far too long, even after he cedes back-to-back longballs to "defending home run champ" Graig Nettles (that happened, apparently) and Carlos May in the bottom of the seventh. The Yanks rally for four runs in that frame and turn a 5-2 deficit into a 6-5 victory, much to the delight of the fans. However, the loudness of the cheers in the TWIB broadcast compared to the tiny crowd captured by the cameras proves that the raucous noise is mere overdub trickery. The same goes for the "crack of the bat" SFX, which sounds like a set of encyclopedias dumped on a roll of bubble wrap.
When Nettles' shot lands in front of the right field bleachers, one mook decides to leap from the front row after it. Immediately after doing so, he seems to realize--mid-air--that he's made a terrible mistake. Unfortunately for him, gravity doesn't allow for do-overs. This would never be tolerated in ballparks today, let alone be shown on TV, but 1977 was a simpler time, I suppose. Simple enough that TWIB is totally okay with showing us footage that makes it looks like this man is falling to his death.
The Yanks and Sox split their four games, and Allen concludes, "the way things are going, looks like it’ll take all summer to settle the issue" between the squads. That leads us into a segment on the Orioles, who are leading the AL East by week's end and have just finished a (mostly) encouraging series against the AL West-leading Twins at Memorial Stadium.
Not many big boppers on this team, as Allen concedes and the footage of O's batters bunting their way on base backs up. Watching these episodes, I was struck by how much speed was emphasized in the highlights, a reflection of baseball attitudes of the time, the quicker game that was played on Astroturf fields, and the fact that stealing bases looks pretty cool on TV.
Baltimore is buoyed by their pitching, as Rudy May and Jim Palmer pitch consecutive complete game gems to open the Minnesota series. After Palmer's outing, he is greeted on his way back to the dugout by a random dude in a straw hat. You could do this back then without getting tased within an inch of your life.
The Orioles do have some issues, though they mostly appear to be plain dumb luck. In the series finale, Twins shortstop Roy Smalley ("not known for his power," Allen notes) hits a ball to deep left field. Don Kelly chases it down to the warning track and gets a glove on it, only to watch the ball glance off his leather and over the wall. It is one of only 6 "homers" Smalley will hit that season. TWIB cameras catch Kelly's shame.
Then, the O's are betrayed by an unlikely source. Earl Weaver is one of the smarter managers of his era and far more stat-minded than his contemporaries, but he experiences a rare brain cramp in the eighth inning when he signals for an intentional walk to Larry Hisle. Problem is, Hisle is not at the plate; Dan Ford is. Weaver realizes his error soon enough to call off the IBB, but Ford walks anyway, and Hisle knocks in the eventual winning run shortly thereafter, spoiling Baltimore's hopes for a sweep. Despite the weirdness of this contest, Baltimore concludes the week still in first, 1.5 games atop the Yankees.
After a space for some words from our sponsors, TWIB launches into a look at Wrigley Field and the legacy of Phillip K. Wrigley, the recently deceased Cubs owner. Allen concedes the Cubs are mired in "baseball's longest drought without a flag" but, in keeping with his positive mien, is otherwise all smiles about the North Siders and their history. The segment (replete with jangly ragtime music) contains such curious touches as film of dancing Wrigley ushers and stills of old timey Cubs greats that were clearly shot from a poster or a program.
This leads into a look at a series against Pittsburgh, as the Cubs sweep the Pirates over a gorgeous spring weekend at the Friendly Confines and somehow find themselves in first place in the NL East. "Most picked the Cubs to finish last!" Allen marvels. Chicago manages to take all three games from Pittsburgh despite their opponents' dizzying array of uniforms, each more Disco Era than the last. The Bucs wear a different uni combo in each game, but none is more eye-assaulting than this double pinstripe top/yellow stretchy pants ensemble modeled by John Candelaria. I do not recommend this screengrab be viewed by pregnant women or those with heart conditions.
We then travel from the Windy City to the City of the Angels, where the Dodgers host the Reds. Los Angeles and Cincinnati have enjoyed a heated rivalry for the past few seasons (check out Joe Posnanski's The Machine for more deets on that), but at this juncture of the season, the Reds are struggling mightily and the Dodgers are flying. The music heard beneath Allen's narration may be familiar to fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000, as the same tunes were employed in a short called "Progress Island," and is some of the best tropical funk the public domain could offer.
Cincinnati manages to take two of three at Chavez Ravine, but that only shaves L.A.'s lead in the West down to 9.5 games. Highlights include Dusty Baker almost collapsing into the left field stands multiple times in vain attempts to rob homers. His counterpart in right, Reggie Smith, makes a great catch in right field, then crashes into a gate in the outfield fence and almost kills a Reds reliever in the process. In these days, fences are not padded, gates not secured, and the health and well being of players not given much consideration at all.
After another commercial break, TWIB shares a moment for the long-awaited return of Mark Fidrych, the rookie sensation of 1976 who missed the first part of this season due to knee surgery (necessitated by an injury suffered while horsing around during spring training). We get a shot of his famous "mound manicuring" and see some of the form that made him so dominant the year before. Unfortunately, while The Bird goes the distance against the Mariners in front of a psyched home crowd at Tigers Stadium, Detroit loses 2-1. Both Seattle runs score on head-smackingly awful errors typical of the hapless Detroit teams of this era.
From here, TWIB launches into a blooper reel, complete with the obligatory kazoo-filled "wacky music." Truth be told, though, it's not so much a blooper reel as it is a review of marginally obscure rules. First, Allen spells out for us the difference between fielder's interference and runner's interference, with the help of recent instances of each. The former is shown in a game between the brand-new Blue Jays and the A's (called by future memoirist Ron Luciano), the latter in a White Sox-Yankees tilt.
After getting thumbed out for interfering with the shortstop, frustrated Chicago runner Alan Bannister is seen taking out his frustrations on his equipment, dropkicking his helmet from a perch in the dugout. This also affords us a look at the White Sox' awful polo shirt unis of the time. Only the Pirates' horrors cited above keep these from being the worst togs on display in the episode.
Allen also brings us the tale of another type of interference, sharing a scene from Wrigley wherein Cub Bobby Murcer is called out because he was physically refrained from heading home by his third base coach. That coach's name is Peanuts Lowrey. Peanuts is later chewed out in the dugout by Cubs manager Herman Franks. We could achieve a ballpark food trifecta if we just received a visit from coach Bill Crackerjack.
TWIB's play of the week comes from Cleveland, where a 22-year-old Dennis Eckersley pitches a no-hitter before what Allen calls "a modest crowd" at Municipal Stadium. This appears to be the only footage available from this historic event (Eck's official Hall of Fame reel repurposes it). For some reason, said footage consists largely of shots that look like they were taken 20 rows back down the first base line, as you'll see in the screengrab below. Jubilant Indians fans spill over the scoreboard in center, and Eck is swarmed by ordinary citizens as he tries to leave the field. Again, behavior that would be punished to the fullest extent of the law now, fully embraced back then.
The very first episode of This Week in Baseball concludes as all of them did, with slow motion shots of baseball greats to the tune of a stirring composition called "The Gathering Storm."
Had you tuned into this episode seeking a full recap of all the action in baseball that week, you would have been disappointed. This, however, would have provided you far more than you would have seen otherwise. It also provides us an invaluable look at a time before VCRs and 24 hour sports channels and fax machines.
In episode 2, we will actually get a glimpse of the 1977 vintage Mets, thank to a personnel change (no, not that one). We'll also see Eckersley chase Cy Young's ghost--literally--and Allen get way too excited about Fred Lynn. Stay tuned!