In the early days of Major League Baseball in Canada, listening to a game on the car radio took equal measures of patience and imagination. As the family car wound its way to the Laurentians or Muskoka, radio broadcasts were strafed by static and competing signals through the drive, particularly at night. A late-game rally was often like an extraterrestrial exercise as fans strained to hear Montreal Expos' Dave Van Horne or the late Blue Jays play-by-play announcer, Tom Cheek, re-emerge from the electromagnetic spectrum with good news of a clutch double to the opposite field or strikeout by the team's closer.
The longer the drive, the more important it became to know the network of stations that carried your team. On a drive from Montreal to Toronto, that could mean milking the old CFCF 600 radio signal as far as Brockville, Ont., then scouting the dial for the Ottawa station covering the Expos. Closer to Toronto, games were carried by an Oshawa station. Heading north to cottage country, Blue Jays fans would strain to hear the old CKFH signal till it cracked up near Barrie, then scramble to find the checkerboard of carrier stations to deliver the traveller home. The true baseball fan had the team's far-flung affiliates assigned on the buttons of the radio.
The 2014 season started this week, and these days satellite radio or Internet-equipped infotainment systems can deliver static-free broadcasts to a car anywhere in North America, far from the Rogers' transmitters. But the process of riding along in one's chariot while following a ball game on radio is a timeless ritual, one of baseball's cherished joys.
The link between the car and baseball broadcasts is as much a part of the sport as the home run call, "That ball's outta' here." One of my favourite baseball memories was watching members of my family retreat to their cars in the middle of a family wedding in 1981 to catch Van Horne call the final out over Philadelphia as the Expos qualified for their first (and only) post-season appearance. The sight of cars circling the church parking lot to get better reception was almost as priceless as hearing Van Horne describe Steve Rogers recording the final out.
People drive reluctantly in the cold-weather hockey or basketball season, but travellers embrace the chance to spend an evening turning over the odometer with a baseball game on the radio. On a sunny summer evening, there is something intrinsically soothing about hearing Jerry Howarth declare the Blue Jays "in flight" as lakes and cottages slide by.
Part of the ineffable radio experience is the pace of baseball, fraught with its pauses and ellipses. The flights of memory and wit that fill these gaps are why baseball's great radio voices are also master storytellers. The broadcasts of the Los Angeles Dodgers' bard Vin Scully are a seamless symphony of anecdote, trivia and baseball history that stretches back to Jackie Robinson. No wonder The Simpsons have worked him into plot lines.
If you were a wanderer, night-time brought a cornucopia of baseball over the car radio as the 50,000-watt giants of American radio pumped games through the Canadian summer sky. Fans could follow KMOX St. Louis, WCCO Minneapolis, WJR Detroit, WLW Cincinnati or WGN Chicago. Fans pulled the radio close to catch legends such as Harry Caray, Jack Buck, Ernie Harwell or Scully from half a continent away. They filled the night with the sounds of the summer game. "I can remember getting letters all the time from truckers who listened to our games as they travelled the interstate highways," Van Horne says.
Van Horne occupied the same niche with the Expos. Van Horne found his signature "up, up and away" home-run call while listening to baseball in his own car radio. "I was on way home from Jarry Park one night in 1972, listening to the Pittsburgh Pirates game," Van Horne recalls, "I was thinking of a good home-run call. During a break, I changed to another station and heard The Fifth Dimension singing, 'Up up and away in my beautiful balloon.' I thought that might make for a home run call and tried it out. I wasn't sure if it worked, and went back to nothing after a few weeks. Then the team president John McHale asked me why I stopped with 'up, up and away.' He said, 'I want it back, and the fans want it.' And that's how it stuck."
Thanks to technology, there's no longer a problem with signals and transmitter networks. For drivers, the sport they love has never been farther away than the dashboard radio.
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