Hardball on Vinyl: The Curious Case of Baseball, The First 100 Years

What did people in the pre-digital age do during the long winter without baseball? Listen to baseball on records, of course.

We are now all out of baseball until February 2014. That is to say, we are out of brand new Major League Baseball. Over the cold months to come, we can still derive some sort of baseball-type nutrition from the Arizona Fall League and Dominican Winter League. Failing that, we can always go back and watch clips of this past season, or earlier, on MLB.com. If you have MLB.TV, you can even watch entire games from years gone by with the click of a mouse or a tap on a tablet. Science!

But let's say it's 1969. Once the season ended 44 years ago, what options existed for the baseball-starved fan? Not many, but if you wanted to relive past glories, you probably turned to your hi-fi.

A friend recently gifted me this flea market find: A record called Baseball: The First 100 Years. Produced back in 1969 to mark the centennial of professional baseball (the original Cincinnati Reds introduced the innovation of paying ballplayers in 1869), it is a curious artifact of the times when audio, not video, was the most accessible means of propagating nostalgia, sports-based and otherwise.

The record company behind this curiosity, Fleetwood Sounds, produced a series of sports-related records beginning in the late 1960s, usually prompted by a championship or some other milestone. Mets fans may have seen (and heard) the LPs they produced to commemorate the amazin' seasons of 1969 and 1973. Fleetwood made records about football, basketball, and hockey as well, and appears to have continued doing so until at least 1980, when they released LPs for both the AL pennant-winning Royals and the world champion Phillies. Many of these records are still available on CD from Fleetwood, for those of you old fogeys out there who still engage in the quaint practice of paying actual cash for albums.

If you're wondering why people would plunk down their hard-earned money for a record of a largely visual event, consider that the VCR was not yet a household item. There was no way for the average Joe to preserve the great moments of his favorite team and watch them over and over again. However, everybody did have a turntable. So if said Average Joe wanted some kind of record of a magnificent season, his only recourse was, well, these records. In the pre-VCR era, many forms of visual entertainment received this treatment; I've seen records dedicated to All in the Family and Happy Days, intended, I suppose, for those folks who couldn't wait a whole week to get their fix of Meathead and The Fonz.

Baseball: The First 100 Years is mostly narrated by longtime baseball announcer Curt Gowdy, with a quaint introduction from Jimmy Stewart, for some reason. Though the title clearly says The First 100 Years, we skip over the first 60 years of that span rather quickly on side one. Even the roaring 20s gets a bit of a short shrift. I assume this is because there wasn't a whole lot of available audio from that time. We do, however, get to hear some old timers talk about the heyday of the spitball, and some brief testimonials about the wacky exploits of the St. Louis Gashouse Gang. There's even some snippets of speeches from the first Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1939.

Side two begins with the 1940s and carries us through the end of the 1960s. While there is a lot more documentary audio contained here, some of it sounds reenacted. (There are a number of clips with Mel Allen on the mic that have just a bit too much fidelity for the times they were supposedly recorded.) However, the bits that are real are remarkable, and I doubt whether most fans have ever heard them. For instance, there's some great clips of Red Barber, the Brooklyn Dodgers' play-by-play man, and some rare audio of pennant-clinching wins in 1965 (Twins), 1966 (Orioles), 1967 (Red Sox), and 1968 (Tigers).

For you audiophiles out there, it should be noted that Baseball: The First 100 Years is a 7", like old 45 rpm singles or, if you come from the hardcore world, punk EPs of the 80s. However, according to the back cover, it is a "Microsonic ®" record designed to be played at 33 1/3. Because of this, each side of the record contains close to 15 minutes of audio. That's shorter than your average LP side, but adds up to a much longer running time than the average 45 of the day.

If any of this sounds like it's up your alley and you're in need of some baseball between now and spring training, please enjoy Baseball: The First 100 Years.

Baseball: The First 100 Years, Side A

Baseball: The First 100 Years, Side B

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