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August 18, 2003 / Sports / Brooklyn Cyclones / The Play’s the Thing

Brooklyn’s Southern tradition

The Brooklyn Paper
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The Cyclones are a Southern team — southern Brooklyn, anyway — and following the heritage of Brooklyn baseball, a southern gentleman has been painting a picture of the games on the radio.

The next time you’re at Keyspan Park, take a look at the press box behind home plate. There, you’ll see a banner with an old-fashioned microphone painted on it and the words, “The Catbird Seat.” Right behind the banner, in the Catbird Seat, you’ll see Brooklyn announcer Warner Fusselle, the nationally known radio and television voice.

But the expression “sitting in the catbird seat” is one that was made famous by Hall of Famer Red Barber, the Southerner who started broadcasting Brooklyn baseball in 1939 — and did so until the 1953 season. For a time, he worked with Georgian Ernie Harwell, another Hall of Fame announcer, who broke into the majors in 1948 with the Dodgers, temporarily replacing the ill Barber.

Now Brooklyn has Fusselle, the latest Southerner in the Catbird Seat. Fusselle has done national television shows like “This Week in Baseball,” “Major League Baseball,” and “Major League Baseball Magazine.” He has also worked in movies — lending his voice to 1992’s “Bad Lieutenant.”

So what’s he doing in Brooklyn?

“The reason I was interested in this job was because it was baseball, and it was Brooklyn,” he said. “I had become friends with Ernie Harwell and early in my career I had written Red Barber for advice. Later on I interviewed Red Barber and got to be friendly with him as well. When I heard that baseball was coming back to Brooklyn I wanted to do it. I was from the South, too, and I wondered what it would be like.”

Barber, Harwell and Fusselle didn’t grow up throwing Spaldeens on streets, against stoops, and off walls. Regrettably, they each passed to adulthood ignorant of the taste of an egg cream. But they are three men who overcame their lack of Brooklyn basics with two fundamentals of their own— the ability to inform and entertain the Brooklyn baseball fan.

Fusselle feels that it is this Southern tradition of storytelling that is part of the reason for the success of Barber, Harwell and — although he won’t admit it — himself.

The Southern announcing tradition in Brooklyn began when Dodgers CEO Larry MacPhail moved from the Cincinnati Reds to Brooklyn in 1938.

Barber had begun his major league baseball career with the Reds in 1934. And while more and more teams began to broadcast games, the three New York clubs were sticking by they’re unwritten agreement not to put games on the radio, fearing it would hurt attendance. But when MacPhail began running the Brooklyn Dodgers, he kissed off the agreement and brought Barber to Brooklyn as New York City’s first major league baseball announcer.

Of course, MacPhail’s decision was the right one. The charming Barber took to Brooklyn immediately, peppering his broadcasts with Southern expressions like, “running like a bunny with his tail on fire,” (That player can really run fast); the bases are FOB (full of Brooklyns); and, of course, “He’s sitting in the catbird seat” (The batter is sitting pretty, like Duke Snider up with the bases loaded, no outs, and a 3-0 count).

Barber’s broadcasts were so entertaining and informative that they increased interest in the Dodgers. Attendance increases followed. Support for the Dodgers skyrocketed. As Brooklyn Dodger Hall of Fame President Marty Adler recounted, “In the summer, you could walk down any street in Brooklyn and follow each pitch of the game as it came from the open windows and the stoops.”

Barber’s was the voice of the first professional baseball games ever televised — an Aug. 26, 1939, doubleheader between Cincinnati and the Dodgers from Ebbets Field. He was also at the microphone on radio in the Polo Grounds in 1951 when New York Giant Bobby Thomson hit the “Shot Heard ’Round the World” to beat the Dodgers and win the pennant.

Harwell broadcast that game, too, for television, and he has said, in an exaggeration, “The only person listening was my wife.”

Harwell was a broadcaster for the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern League when Barber became ill with a perforated ulcer in the summer of 1948. In an unprecedented move, the Dodgers traded minor league catcher Cliff Dapper to Atlanta for Harwell, who immediately went to New York, where he got lost trying to find Ebbets Field from the subway.

His first game was rained out, but Harwell came back the next day — better acquainted with his directions — and made his major league debut on Aug. 4. In the first inning of his first game, Brooklyn’s Jackie Robinson stole home.

Harwell stayed with the Dodgers through the 1949 season and then became a broadcaster for the rival New York Giants. He spent a few years with the Giants and the Baltimore Orioles before he found a home with the Detroit Tigers, where he spent 37 years doing play-by-play. He retired after the 2002 season.

So, Brooklyn has this great tradition of Southern announcers. But there’s a problem. As fan Mark Lazarus, also known as the Mayor of Section 14, points out, “We have Warner Fusselle, a nationally recognized announcer, broadcasting our games, and you can’t hear him in Brooklyn if you’re more than five miles from the ballpark.”

A Brooklyn fan can pick up Fusselle’s broadcasts anywhere in the world at www.BrooklynCyclones.com. In Brooklyn, for all home games, Fusselle’s voice can be heard simulcast on BCAT, Brooklyn’s community access cable television stations.

But radio station WKRB 90.9 FM, which has broadcast the Cyclones games from Kingsborough Community College since their inception, has a very limited range, and can only be picked up from within a few miles of the Manhattan Beach school.

Last season, the Cyclones games were also broadcast on WSNR 620, Sporting News Radio, a more powerful, citywide AM station. But after the season, the station changed formats, and the Cyclones ended up back exclusively on WKRB.

With Brooklyn’s major league announcer and a major league population it’s about time the team had a major league radio signal. Let’s get a station with some range. Brooklyn leads the league in attendance, and fans who can’t get into Keyspan Park deserve the ability to hear their team’s games in a convenient way — in any room in their house, in their cars or in their backyards.

Let’s get Brooklyn’s latest Southern announcer some radio power so that his broadcasts can be heard outside of southern Brooklyn.

As fan Lazarus pointed out when discussing the difficulty of following the Cyclones on the radio, “We deserve better.”

He’s right.

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