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OCT. 31, 2013     INSTRUMENTS UP!

The big band, the massive Oberlin College Marching Band, appears a trifle disorganized in this recent picture from their website.

But during my freshman year, when their predecessors took the field they wouldn’t surrender it.

My 1965 story is this month’s "100 Moons" article.


OCT. 30, 2013     WAR OF THE MEDIA

Tonight marks the 75th anniversary of a famous event in radio history.  But did the public really react in the way we’ve been told?

The radio networks had begun presenting daily newscasts in 1930.  Newspapers saw this as a real threat to their business, and within three years a “Press-Radio War” had broken out.  The American Newspaper Publishers Association convinced the wire services, including Associated Press, to stop providing news to broadcasters.

Instead, the Biltmore Agreement established a Press Radio Bureau as broadcasters’ sole news source.  The PRB was to deliver only enough material for two short newscasts per day, one before 9:30 AM and the other after 9:00 pm.  No news story could air until it was 12 hours old and the newspapers had had the opportunity to print it.  However, “occasional news bulletins of transcendent importance, as a matter of public service, will be furnished to broadcasters, as they may occur at times other than the stated periods above.  These bulletins will be written and broadcast in such a manner as to stimulate public interest in the reading of newspapers.”

Not all radio stations went along, however, and the Agreement lasted less than a year.  In 1934 CBS established its own independent news division, to be followed by other networks.

But newspapers still fretted about radio stealing their market share, which brings us to this date in 1938 — my father's 29th birthday.  That night, Orson Welles aired The War of the Worlds on CBS, presenting the story as a series of dramatized news broadcasts that a few listeners thought were the real thing.  The newspaper industry saw a public relations opportunity.  “See?  We told you radio news couldn’t be trusted.  Those irresponsible broadcasters have spread panic across the nation!”  The New York Daily News headlined, “Fake Radio ‘War’ Stirs Terror Through U.S.”

This article from Slate debunks that idea.  Only 2% of the nation was listening, and there was no widespread terror — not even in New York, which the broadcast depicted as under attack by invading Martians.

Why do we keep retelling the “panic” myth?  “For both broadcasters and regulators, War of the Worlds provides excellent evidence to justify their claims about media power.  ...But the myth also persists because it so perfectly captures our unease with the media's power over our lives.  ...It’s ABC, CBS, and NBC invading and colonizing our consciousness that truly frightens us.  ...Today the Internet provides us with both the promise of a dynamic communicative future and dystopian fears of a new form of mind control; lost privacy; and attacks from scary, mysterious forces.”



I always wanted to visit the Museum of Television and Radio so I could see again the vintage TV broadcasts from my youth.  But now I don't have to.  There's YouTube.  I've added a link to the end of this article of mine.

In other sportscasting news, a reader of Ken Levine’s blog asked him whether, when he’s describing a baseball game on TV, he watches the action live or on the monitor.  “I’ve watched games ... where the announcers seemed clueless about what just happened.”

Excerpts from Ken’s reply:  “I watch the monitor between each pitch.  If the director is showing the manager in the dugout and I start talking about the flags in centerfield, I look like an idiot.  [But during action] I generally watch the field.  [The umpire’s] eyes are the only ones that count, really.  So I’ll glance to him to see if a ball is a home run or the outfielder trapped it, etc.”

From my own experience in doing play-by-play on local cable 40 years ago, I agree.  When a ball was hit in the air, it was often difficult from our makeshift press box to tell where or how far it was going, so I didn’t bother to follow its flight.  Instead, I looked to the fielders to see who was trying to catch it.  Then I could describe it as a popup towards second base or a fly ball to center field.

The umpire's eyes are the only ones that count.  After a base runner is called out on a close play, fans who saw it differently will insist, “He was safe!”  No, he wasn’t.  No announcer would say that, because it’s contrary to the facts.  Maybe replays will show that the runner should have been called safe, but the ump said he was out.  So he is out.

UPDATE ON DOING IT RIGHT:  Game 3 of the 2013 World Series ended on a bizarre play involving an obstructed runner being allowed to score from third base.  The TV commentators seemed momentarily puzzled, but Dan Shulman on ESPN Radio read all the umpires' signals and called the play accurately and promptly.

When I used to broadcast football games, I watched the officials so I could report what officially happened.  Nowadays here in Pittsburgh, I often listen to Bill Hillgrove’s radio call of Steelers or Pitt Panthers games, and he doesn’t follow that rule.  Bill tells us what he sees.  Sometimes that’s not the whole story.

“An amazing one-handed catch along the sideline, and they’ll move the chains!  It’s another first down for Cincinnati.  Wait a minute.  What, now they’re bringing it back?  They’re calling it incomplete?”  His analyst, who saw the head linesman waving his arms across each other and then waving them both at the sideline to indicate the receiver was out of bounds, has to tell Bill what officially happened.

“They gang-tackle the ball carrier, and now the ball is loose!  It’s on the ground.  There’s a big scramble.  And Pittsburgh has recovered the fumble!  What a break!  This completely changes the momentum of the game.  Wait a minute.  They’re giving the ball to Cincinnati?  That's a terrible call.  Pittsburgh clearly recovered the football!  The coach has to throw a challenge flag on this one.”  His analyst, who noticed the linesman holding up his hand while marking the spot where the ball carrier’s forward momentum stopped, must explain that the whistle blew before the ball came loose.

Moral:  Don’t call them like you see them.  Call them like the ref sees them. 


OCT. 22, 2013     RETIREMENT CAR

I bought a new car this month!  I've been driving this 2014 Subaru Legacy Limited for three weeks now.  It has all sorts of luxury gadgets that I’m still learning how to use.

I remember when many of these gadgets, like satellite radio and rear-view TV monitors, were undreamed of.  Others, like cruise control and air conditioning, were expensive options back in the day, but they’re practically standard equipment now.

In the early 1950s, there was very little standard equipment.  Cars came with heaters and ashtrays.  Everything else cost extra.  But fewer folks smoke nowadays, and now it’s the ashtray that’s an optional accessory for an additional charge.  (If I needed one, it would fit into the cup holder.)

When I bought my previous Subaru ten long years ago, I wrote on this website, “This is the car that I may be driving until I reach retirement age.  It depends on which of us wears out first.”  I’m happy to say that I outlasted the car, though not by much.

Arthritis or something like it is setting in; the doctors haven’t given me a definite diagnosis yet.  It’s becoming more difficult for me to walk, especially up and down stairs, though I can cover three quarters of a mile on level ground before tiring.  My fingers are weakening, so to break loose the cap on a bottle of water I’ve learned to use a wrench.  I appreciate my new car's 10-way adjustable driver's seat, which I moved as far back and as far up as possible so don't have to struggle to climb in and out.

I haven’t retired yet, but I’m easing into it.  This winter for Penguins hockey games at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center, I’m planning to work only about a dozen telecasts for the visiting teams' broadcasters.  In past years I've worked three times that many for the home team's broadcaster, Root Sports.

I still have the usual number of college basketball games on my calendar, another dozen telecasts.  We’ll see how all that goes, and next spring I’ll decide whether I want to do baseball again.  After all, this year I did manage to break the Pirates’ 20-year streak of losing seasons, so maybe my work there is done.  Perhaps I’ll just cruise around next summer in my fancy new car.


OCT. 16, 2013     BIG QUACKER

Yes, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, there’s a huge rubber ducky in the Allegheny River outside PNC Park.  It’s part of this month’s Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts.  The bird is due to paddle away after this weekend.

Like everyone else, I walked over to snap a few photos.  That’s the ballpark on the left, beyond the Fort Duquesne bridge.

The duck dropped anchor near the fountain at the Point, where the Monongahela River (in the background) joins the Allegheny to form the Ohio.

And that is where its fans have been gathering to meet it.

At 40 feet tall, the giant toy is quite an experience up close.

According to its creator, Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, “It joins people together and makes people happy.  . . . We are living on one planet, and all the waters of the world become a global bathtub.”

There are real ducks in the river, too, like this mallard.  They dash over to snatch bread crumbs that boaters toss into the water.  I even saw a few ducks trying to catch the crumbs on the fly.

Canada geese outnumber the ducks, but they aren’t as quick.  A goose stares at a floating crumb for a second before deciding to reach for it, and by that time a duck has darted in to grab it.  Stupid geese.  This is why we don’t have cute rubber geese in our baths.


OCT. 11, 2013     WE'RE NUMBER TWO

We televised another high school football game last week.  After a lightning delay that lasted nearly two hours, West Mifflin defeated Elizabeth Forward to run their undefeated record to 6-0.

The Titans have been winners before.  We showed this picture of their 1963 championship team.

One detail in the old photo caught my eye:  no player is holding up an index finger to proclaim that West Mifflin is #1.

That tradition hadn’t been invented yet!

Instead, everybody seems to be signaling that they’re #2.

This is, of course, the V for Victory gesture made famous by Winston Churchill and the “Greatest Generation” during World War II.

Some of the Titans were so happy to win the title that they went into full Richard Nixon mode.



Perhaps you’ve heard the breakout single, “Animal Already Have Tickets,” from the alternative rock band Neon Trees.  No?  Well, for the band's appearance in Pittsburgh we almost promoted their song that way.

The event was sold out, so the promoter was trying to get additional revenue by selling stage passes.  These would allow ticket-holders to see the performance up close, for an extra fee of course. The copy the announcer was supposed to read included these lines:


It appears that the copy had not been written to make it easy to read on the air.  If it had been, it would have been punctuated better.



And while we’re on the subject of writing copy for an announcer, why shout?  Why do we still use ALL CAPS?

Maybe it’s tradition, left over from the days of the mid-20th-century teletype.  That primitive communication device conserved bandwidth over the telegraph lines by eschewing the bit that would have signaled “lower case.”

Or maybe we reason that larger letters are easier to read.  However, evidence shows that the upper-and-lower style is significantly more legible.  Signmaker already have studies.


SEPT. 29, 2013     QUAAACK

This toy was once given away to fans entering Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium.  It's been sitting on my shelf for years, awaiting this very moment.

On Tuesday, the Pirates will host their first playoff baseball game since 1992!

Meanwhile, outside PNC Park, a giant rubber duck is bobbing in the Allegheny River!

Aye, me duckies, 'tis time t' pillage an' plunder.  Let's go, Buccaneers!



On these pages I've mentioned a motion picture called Fantasticheria, filmed on the Oberlin College campus nearly half a century ago and screened for us incoming freshmen of the Class of 1969.

Now I've heard from one of the students who was involved in the making of that movie.  Stu Rubinow relates the true story of the Dawning of the Light Fantastic.


SEPT. 21, 2013     SHE JUST WON'T GO

When my buddy and I in our 1967 Camaro caught up with Haskell and Wesley, their little black imported car was parked on the side of the road.  This was not good.  H & W were competing in our Richwood Prep Rally, but they kept getting lost and breaking down.  They eventually finished in last place.  But they also finished in first place, because there were no other entrants.

Afterwards, I wrote a letter explaining how we two college students mostly failed as rallymasters.  It's this month's "100 Moons" article.



First baseman Justin Morneau, who had spent his entire career with the Minnesota Twins, was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates on a Saturday at the end of August.  He immediately caught a plane to Pittsburgh, where the Pirates were scoring five runs in the third inning against their division rivals, the Cardinals.  His flight landed almost an hour after the game started that evening.  He immediately headed for the ballpark.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, “He said the view coming through the Fort Pitt tunnel, with PNC Park lit up in front of him, was a moment he won't forget.  ‘You look up and see the stands full.  I knew what the score was, I checked the score when I landed, and we were listening on the radio on the way in.  To see the boys up big and to come into that situation against the team you're battling with for first place was pretty special.  Something I'll probably never forget.’”

Ah, yes.  The view coming through the Fort Pitt tunnel.  Every new arrival calls it an unforgettable sight.  A columnist once declared that Pittsburgh is the only city in America with a front door.

You drive in from the airport on a four-lane suburban expressway.  It’s called the Parkway West, perhaps because rush-hour traffic is so jammed, you might as well be parked.  You feel that you must still be miles from Pittsburgh.  The city is nowhere in sight.  You see no tall downtown buildings, no skyline.  But that’s because Mount Washington is blocking your view.  The Parkway tunnels through the mount, and when you emerge from the other side, suddenly the city is right there!

All first-time visitors to the ’Burgh remark on being smacked in the face by this dramatic revelation.

In front of you is the golden span of the Fort Pitt bridge.  Across the river to the right is Downtown; to the left are the sports stadiums.

But I think the experience is somewhat overrated.  Unless you’re sitting in the passenger seat, you have only about two seconds to be dazzled by the view.  If you’re the driver, you’re immediately confronted by rows of signs. 

You’re faced with six possible destinations, five exit numbers (old and new), four highways (two numbered interstates and two boulevards), three orange barrels, two huge trucks, and a pigeon in a traffic cone.

Two of the exits are on your left, using lanes that have unexpectedly been added to the two lanes you had in the tunnel.

It’s not a long bridge, so you have only seconds to make your choice.  From the first sign to the first exit is only an eighth of a mile.

On the lower level of the same bridge, drivers leaving the city face a similar challenge, as Ian Richards has pointed out in this illustration.

Somehow we manage to weave carefully into the proper lane, rarely colliding with other vehicles trying to execute the opposite maneuver.

To truly appreciate the scene, it’s better to get yourself up to the top of Mount Washington and get out of the car.  There at sunset you can see a panorama like this one, with that perplexing Fort Pitt Bridge on the far left.  (Click here for Jordan Steele’s much larger version of this view.)

 Gaze upon our Downtown-between-the-rivers for as long as you like.


SEPT. 10, 2013     EIGHTY-TWO!

We finally did it!  It took an extra week, but we finally did it.

Well, to be honest, we didn’t do it.  The Major-League-Baseball-team-that-plays-its-home-games-in-the-same-county-in-which-I-happen-to-reside, they did it.  With a 1-0 victory last night in Texas, the Pittsburgh Pirates won their 82nd game of the 2013 season, guaranteeing a winning record for the first time since 1992.

The Pirates had already broken their embarrassing record of 20 straight losing seasons, the worst in the four major North American sports, when they recorded their 81st win last Tuesday.  That ensured that they would finish no worse than 81-81.  Now, having finally recorded another win six nights later, they can finish no worse than 82-80.


This can be depicted on my Diamond Brick Road display.

The graph for 2013 is shown on the left.  Even if the Pirates lose all their remaining games (the dotted diagonal line near the top), they will maintain an actual winning record for the rest of the season.

The graph on the right represents the previous two years, in both of which the team was above .500 for a time but collapsed in August and failed to finish in the gold.


        2012  2011     .

This year, since reaching 70-44 on August 8 — their high point of the year, marked by the little outlined diamond on the left graph — the Bucs went into their annual slump.  However, at 12-17 it’s not nearly as bad as usual.  And they had built up more of a cushion by winning 61.4% of their games at the high point, as compared to 53.7% and 57.3% in the previous two seasons.

Not only have the Pirates achieved a winning record for the first time in two decades, they’ve almost assured themselves a spot in the postseason playoffs, at least as a wild card team.  But they hope to do better than that by winning the National League Central Division.

For 51 days (the blue and green parts of the graph), they’ve held at least a share of first place in the division.  They even were the “best team in all baseball” for part of that time.  The Pirates boasted the highest winning percentage in both major leagues for 23 days (the blue part of the graph) between June 26 and August 8.

They achieved this success mostly with pitching.  Their team ERA is 3.29, 3rd best in the majors, while their batters are hitting only .246, which ranks 24th.

It’s important to win the division.  If the Pirates make the playoffs as a mere wild card, their first opponent will be the other wild card team in a playoff series consisting of a single game.  Should they lose that game, they’re done.  And there’s a good chance that pitching will make the difference.

That’s worrisome.  The Pirates’ ace, their only pitcher with double-digit wins, is Francisco Liriano (15-7).  But he’s been inconsistent lately, with an alarming number of bad outings.  Consider his last ten starts.

In six of those games, he’s 6-0 with an ERA of 0.39.

In the other four, he’s 0-4 with an ERA of 17.12.

Should Liriano start the wild-card game and have one of his bad nights, the Pirates season will be over.

UPDATE:  He did start, and he had one of his good nights, allowing just one run on four hits in seven innings.  The Pirates went on to the Divisonal Series, where they lost Games 1, 3, and 5 to the Cardinals.

But we can’t worry about that now.  We need to relegate St. Louis and Cincinnati to playing the wild-card game against each other, by winning the division ourselves.  Let’s go, Bucs!



While using a restroom hand dryer, I had nothing better to do than consider its label — and the cultural implictions of the trilingual warning thereon.

Spanish speakers were very sensibly advised to disconnect the electricity before servicing the unit.

French speakers were asked to disconnect the feed ("alimentation").

And English speakers were commanded to disconnect the POWER.