Why Did Old-Time Announcers Talk That Way?

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American commentators and former baseball players Pee Wee Reese and Dizzy Dean, along with an unidentified man, broadcast the CBS "Game of the Week," around 1960.
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

In the realm of baseball broadcasting, maybe the single most famous call in the history of the game happened on Oct. 3, 1951, when New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thompson hit a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Known as "The Shot Heard 'Round the World," the home run capped a historic comeback by Giants over their longtime rivals and inspired the famous radio call by Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges:

"There's a long drive … it's gonna be, I believe … The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!"

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Baseball fans have long appreciated that announcers like Hodges in "the good old days" -- the era of the 1950s and before -- have a very specific style and cadence to their speech. It's a clipped, carefully enunciated manner of speaking that can also be heard in the films, TV shows and newsreels of the day.

But did everyone really talk like that in the 1950s? Or is that mannered speaking style we're familiar with really a pop cultural construct -- an artifact of the performance styles and broadcaster techniques of the time?

"That tinny, clipped tone of yesteryear is called Transatlantic speech," said Jay O'Berski, assistant professor of the Practice of Theater Studies with Duke University.

Transatlantic is a specific style of speaking, or dialect, that is still taught in acting schools and was part of the curriculum for performers and broadcasters in the early days of mass media. "It's an effort to neutralize regional dialects and consciousness of a particular class," O'Berski said.

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That high-end, nasally quality, also associated with speech from previous eras, is a very real phenomenon, although it may have more to do with technology than performance technique.

"My understanding of the high-end, all-treble sound is that it's a holdover from radio and the first talkies when they had very little bass technology in receivers," O'Berski said. "You literally could not hear bass tones before stereo technology."

So what we think of in popular culture as "that 1950s" voice is partially the result of performance techniques and technology of the day. The artifacts we have from that era are, to a large degree, recordings of professional performers and broadcasters – film and TV actors, news readers and sports announcers.

But if you were to stop a random person on the street in 1955, in a random town in America, you'd get the full spectrum of regional dialects that continues to change and evolve to this day, says Dr. Robert Leonard, Director of the Institute for Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra University in New York.

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Proof of this is just a few clicks away in the age of YouTube and archived, digitized video, Leonard says. "It is quite possible to find 'man-in-the-street' interviews from 50 years ago. Unless these are staged, and it should be pretty obvious, you will be hearing the 'real' dialects of the times."

Sportswriter Jason Turbow, author of the 2010 book "The Baseball Codes," recently finished work on his latest project -- "Baseball Forever!," a compilation of game broadcasts from the Golden Age of radio. Turbow says recordings from that era can illustrate the range of speaking styles in the era -- often in a single exchange of dialogue up in the press box.

"The play-by-play guys are usually professional broadcasters, and you can hear the difference right away between them and the color (commentary) guys, who are often ex-ballplayers or managers," Turbow said. "It's the same as today, really."