It’s rather far down the overall list of concerns right now, but sports fans have never dealt with anything quite like this in modern times.
The Covid-19 virus has left the sports world at a standstill at least for the next several weeks. As insignificant as our games may seem at this moment in time, the void is nonetheless palpable for those among us that are used to live sporting events to play a significant role in our lives.
The games have stopped, and a fan can watch only so many “30 for 30” documentaries and ‘80s Celtics games on NBA TV before longing for something with some suspense.
The circumstances were much different, but 39 years ago fans faced a summer without baseball. In a labor dispute, players went on strike June 12, 1981, and the void was disconcerting, just as it is this spring.
Baseball was missed, dearly. So a couple of Red Sox broadcasters – Ken Coleman, already a legend then, and Jon Miller, who has become a legend since – decided to do something about that.
They began calling Red Sox games on the radio during the strike – no, not games using bats and balls and played on the lawn at Fenway, but ones using dice and cards played in flagship station WITS’s studios on Lansdowne Street.
Coleman and Miller played a baseball simulation game based on players’ actual performances called Strat-O-Matic in the WITS offices. Then, when their game was done, they would record it like an actual broadcast, and it would be played over the Red Sox Radio Network (which had 28 affiliates then) as if it were the real game following the actual regular-season schedule.
It was Miller, the current voice of the San Francisco Giants who spent two seasons (1980 and ’81) in the Red Sox radio booth, who came up with the idea after the initial decision to broadcast Pawtucket Red Sox games during the strike drew little notice.
“After a few Pawtucket games, the powers that be at the radio station said, ‘We’re not getting a whole lot of positive feedback,' ’’ said Miller. “They don’t sound like big-league games, the crowds are small. We were kind of stuck, because we didn’t want to lose our sponsors for the Red Sox games.”
So Miller, a Strat-O-Matic aficionado who first began playing in 1962 — and still does — made his pitch.
“I had the idea of what if we act like the strike has ended and we just pick up the schedule and have the Red Sox play their regular schedule, but we play Strat-O-Matic,’’ said Miller.
He showed his producers how to play, then he and Coleman — who wasn’t a Strat player, but loved the idea — went in the booth and used the scoresheet from the game as a script for their play-by-play. WITS signed off on the concept, and Miller and Coleman made the broadcasts remarkably realistic.
“I remember I went into the station’s men’s room, with all-tile walls and flooring that gave my voice a little echo, and I’d tape myself announcing the lineups into a little cassette recorder as [public address announcer] Sherm Feller,’’ said Miller, imitating Feller’s voice. “No. 8 . . . Carl Yastrzemski . . .
“The organist, John Kiley, had a record album that he’d probably recorded years before. So we’d play some song that John Kiley always played at the ballpark. Ken would always say off the top, 'The following is recreation of a Strat-O-Matic baseball table-top game that was played here in the studios at WITS.’ Then we would pause a second, and roll into John Kiley’s music, and the crowd murmuring in the background, and then we’d say, 'Welcome to Fenway Park,’ or wherever the game was.”
The broadcasts were so realistic that if a listener hadn’t heard Coleman’s disclaimer, they might think the strike had ended and that Yaz and the boys were off the picket lines and back at Fenway.
“The first night we did this, it was for a Red Sox-Yankees game,’’ said Miller. “The guy running the station that night, the phone rang off the hook. He was getting phone calls from angry season-ticket holders like ‘Why the hell wasn’t I told the strike was over? I’ve been a season ticket-holder for 25 years, and I would have been at that game tonight! ‘ I took it as a compliment, but the poor guy was swamped.
“He got a call from a guy at a rooming house at Kenmore Square. He said something like, 'Ah, it’s great to have the games back, I can see the park from over here, it’s great to see the lights back on. I turn the sound down on the radio and open my window, I can hear the crowd from here.’ ”
I was like, “ ‘You can?' ”
Local celebrities, such as city councilor Albert “Dapper” O’Neil and Bruins general manager Harry Sinden dropped by to help manage the teams. Then they would do a postgame interview with the producers.
“We’d say, ‘Well, here comes manager Harry Sinden out for a pitching change,' ’’ said Miller.
The games were taped in a way similar to what current game shows such as “Jeopardy!” do, recording several episodes in a single day.
“We’d do three or four games Monday, three or four Tuesday, and that would cover the whole week,’’ said Miller. “After about three weeks, we got so bored with it.”
So they mixed it up. They picked teams and played an All-Star Game. They brought historical teams into the mix. They had the 1981 Red Sox play the Impossible Dream 1967 Red Sox, and broadcast it. Then, the ’67 Sox squared off with the ’46 Red Sox. As they were preparing for the ’67 Sox to take in the 1961 Yankees, said Miller, ‘’They announced that the strike had ended and they were about to get started again.’’
The strike ended July 31, and the real season resumed Aug. 9, with the actual All-Star Game. Once they had abandoned calling Pawtucket games, Miller and Coleman did their Strat-O-Matic re-creations all the way through the strike. The void was filled as best it could be.
“I was trying to imagine that people were listening to it as we were doing it,’’ said Miller, who says he still has the games on cassette somewhere. “But I can’t imagine that people listened to it more than one time, or that people were listening for more than an inning to it.”
He laughs. “But if it was a Yankee game, maybe they wanted to find out how it turned out. Hopefully we gave them some suspense, a few laughs, and something close to baseball when they were missing it."