Distance Measured in Noise

This blog’s tagline is “Our Top 40 past . . . in the present.” Many of the nearly 1,700 posts that have appeared here in nine years find us measuring the distance from there, wherever “there” is, to our current moment, here.

I was thinking about that distance earlier this week when I watched a piece of video that’s surfaced recently, apparently the earliest surviving color footage of a major-league baseball game. It’s the last two-plus innings of a game between the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds on August 19, 1965, a game in which Jim Maloney of the Reds threw a 10-inning no-hitter at Wrigley Field. There’s a lot to love in the video, which runs about an hour. As an old Cubs fan, I was pleased to listen to Jack Brickhouse and Lloyd Pettit again, as I did when I was a boy. The Hamms beer commercials were as delightful as I remember them—and there was only one commercial between each half-inning. The broadcast has no graphics, just a shot of Wrigley’s iconic scoreboard at the end of each half-inning. The play-by-play is incidental to the video, as Brickhouse and Pettit assume the viewer can see what’s going on, and more important, understand it. The two veteran broadcasters share play-by-play inning by inning; when one is working, the other is quiet, and there is no color commentator. The broadcast is almost soothing in its minimalism. It’s as if some guys have simply gotten up a game on a summer afternoon, and since we don’t have anything else to do, we’ll watch it.

Later the same day, I sat down to watch Monday Night Football. I don’t know if it had to do with the 1965 tape I had watched that morning, but I lasted about half-an-hour before I turned the TV off in disgust because it was wearing me out. Monday Night Football is the opposite of minimalist. It has too much of everything—too many graphics, too many commercials, too much opinion, too much presence. You can’t turn it on and leave it on as background, because it keeps elbowing itself into the foreground: did you see that, watch this, look over here, and most insufferable of all, LISTEN TO ME. Talking talking talking always talking, as if ESPN fears more than five seconds of silence will cause the whole show to turn to smoke and blow away. It’s not entertaining, it’s exhausting. And it insults us as viewers, treating us like children or pets who will only pay attention if they wave shiny stuff in our faces.

The great broadcasters of the past, both individual men and the TV partners that employed them, understood that one’s level of insight is not equal to the number of words one speaks, or how insistently one speaks them. The distance between there and here can be measured in noise, or the lack of it.

Plausibly Related: We’ll stay in distance-measuring mode for the next several years now; the Kennedy anniversary on Friday is merely the first in a half-decade of significant baby-boomer anniversaries unrolling in front of us. But what we see as milestones are not always as significant as we think they were. Similarly, they are sometimes significant in ways that are different than we think. Slate published a terrific piece this week suggesting that our perception of the Kennedy assassination and the coming of the Beatles as moments at which history broke in a different direction is a perception that wasn’t shared by people 50 years ago. Even now, both events retain a great deal of continuity with what went before, and in some ways they didn’t change a thing.

3 thoughts on “Distance Measured in Noise

  1. therealguyfaux

    Re: JFK/Beatles “coincidence”:

    An even odder coincidence is that November 22nd, 1963 also saw the passings of two great British writers, Aldous Huxley (of Brave New World fame) and C.S. Lewis (perhaps best known today as the author of the Narnia books and as the subject of a fine Anthony Hopkins film, Shadowlands). The latter, in a scene in the film set after the death of his wife, is told by a colleague, “Life must go on.” Lewis replies, “Well, I don’t know that it MUST– but it certainly does!”, somewhat offended at the ham-handed attempt at commiseration.

    All this by way of an intro to recounting my own personal recall of that dark period: After a rather joyless Thanksgiving weekend the following week, many people, including myself, looked forward to Christmas, hoping that in some way it would provide some balm to our souls. There was, not in the irritated way of C.S. Lewis, but expressed the same way perhaps– “Life– it certainly DOES go on.” And the Beatles’ music starting to be played more and more, leading up to Christmas, making us think, “Something new here– let’s enjoy it!”, went hand in hand with getting over JFK’s death and regaining a sense of optimism for the holiday season and the New Year– a New Year which saw the Beatles’ music entering a much more heavy rotation, making the announcement that they’d play Sullivan live on 2/09/64 all the more welcome.

    Now a half-century may have clouded my memory somewhat, and December 1963’s not being as memorable for me as for the fellow in the Four Seasons song, may be inspiring a wish to have remembered feeling good about the Beatles more than I really did at the time, and perhaps their music was not as widespread then as I seem to recall, but then, as now, and as in the words of one of their later songs, “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on, bruh, la-la, how the life goes on…”– and listening to them made life a bit more tolerable as it did go on.

  2. Really enjoyed this piece, Jim, particularly because you skillfully put into words what I find wrong with modern sports broadcasts: there’s just too damn much going on, each new graphic or audio dazzler demanding our attention – yelling at us, as it were. It IS tiring to actually watch and listen to these broadcasts. They assault us with sub-rose audio tracks that run under each graphic change – something it took me a long time to figure out. I would say to the spousal unit “what the HELL is that noise???” – not realizing our state-of-the-art audio system was just reproducing the noise that the network used – intentionally – to accompany a graphic change.

    As I watch my kids (ages 30 and 28 now….but they’ll always be “kids”) watch a sports broadcast, I realize they’re not really watching. They’re texting, surfing the web on their smart phones, paying minimal attention to the TV screen or audio track accompanying it, confident that if there’s a big play (or even a small play) it will be instantly replayed so they can look up from the screen of their smart phone and watch it on TV. These are the people the networks are programming to; the split-attention generation.

    I like your analogy of two guys who just happened to meet up at the ball park and are talking in general about the game (Brickhouse and Pettit) – assuming the folks at home could see the game with their own eyes and understand what was going on.

    But then, my formative years were spent listening to Ray Scott say things like “……Starr……to Dowler……..touchdown!” and being comfortable with silence between the downs, and long spaces in Ray’s cadence as the play unfolded. Sort of like “………second and six…………………………………(crowd noise comes up)………Thurston and Kramer leading the power sweep………………………………(crowd noise again)…………and Hornung tackled at the 23-yard-line, first and ten……………………….. and having no one fill the silence with inane comments like “the Packers have a tendency to run on second down 63 percent of the time, which is well above the 54 percent league average, although with a quarterback like Starr, the defense always has to be ready should he decide he IS going to pass, so running the power sweep on second and six is not a surprise, although the defense certainly must be aware of the Packers tendency toward the run, but again with weapons like the Packers’ receiving core, the defense really has to key on how the offensive line is blocking and quickly react if they see Kramer pulling to join Thurston in leading the downfield blocking.”

    It was a simpler time, Jim.

  3. porky

    I never knew what all the fuss was about Spector’s Christmas LP.

    I thought ALL of his songs sounded like Christmas songs, what with the sleigh bells and all….

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