Homer and Baseball

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When I first started studying Homeric poetry, I was quickly introduced to the work of Milman

Perry, who finally unlocked the key to the “Homeric Greek” which was not like any spoken

Greek.

The oral storytelling of the Homeric bard consisted of telling a story that had specific plot

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elements, points that had to be worked into the story, and episodes of a certain length. But

the bard was able, in his presentation, to orally improvise as he told the story, by combining

certain stock phrases together with original material. These stock phrases helped the oral

bard stay within the (strict) confines of the poetic meter of Homerian poetry by giving a set

of building blocks to help construct the tale in real time as it was being told.

I found this concept to be unusually familiar, because I had been listening to baseball

broadcasts on the radio for years before I ever studied Homer in any detail. Baseball

announcers have almost the same job to do tell specific action on the field, and improvise a

running commentary the entire time, within episodes of fixed length (innings). They are both

constrained to tell what is happening in the game and free to improvise. Like the Homeric

bards, baseball announcers have a set of stock phrases which they use, on an instinctive

level, to weave their improvised web of the game’s events. While not constrained by meter,

as were the bards, baseball announcers’ phrases have an English rhythm.

This is likely true of all sports, although because I am most familiar with baseball I stick to

that sport. Basketball is similar, although since the game moves so fast the announcer must

use a smaller vocabulary of short, specific phrases to describe the action, and has less room

to improvise. While the action is never the same, the vocabulary of stock phrases is concise,

short, and limited and must quickly and closely follow action on the court. In football, there

is too much going on during a play for the announcer to even begin announcing it all, and

his job is mostly to filter the action down into a real-time stream of description. Football,

perhaps, is a game which does not translate well to the non-visual medium of radio, just

because it is difficult to imagine men in their formations and their movements during a

play.

Baseball’s stock phrases come in several varieties. One aspect of the game is filling “dead”

time, when nothing is happening, and this “dead” time is sometimes the most interesting as

announcers get to talk about various things related (sometimes marginally) to baseball. They

fill this time with different things, but the process is highly structured. In all cases, announcers

generally prepare a lot of “filler” information for a given series (-4 games) between two

teams, and use as much or as little of it as time permits. They work it in in an ad hoc fashion

as the action permits. While this material is fixed in its amount, it is inserted into the

storytelling, or announcing of the game, as time and circumstances permit.

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