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June 22, 2011

Wezen-Ball

Jack McKeon's 1962 Radio Experiment

by Larry Granillo

Jack McKeon is back managing the Florida Marlins this year after manager Edwin Rodriguez resigned amid an atrocious June. McKeon, who also took over the 2003 Marlins mid-season before leading them to the World Series, is currently 80 years old. The man is older than Willie Mays and Ernie Banks and a slew of other Hall of Famers, yet he's out there managing. It's pretty remarkable.

McKeon has been a major league manager since 1973, but he was a skipper in the minors for fifteen years before that. In 1962, McKeon took part in an intriguing experiment with the Vancouver Mounties.

"This is XM11495. Bring your pitch in low inside. Watch it, there's a sneak attempt off second."
...
Pitcher George Bamberger took his orders from Manager Jack McKeon, who hid behind the third-base dugout with a radio transmitter. Bamberger listened on a receiver the size of a cigarette package in his shirt pocket."

If someone asked me to guess when pocket-sized radio transmitters were invented, I have no idea what my guess would be. Late-1940s? 1965? 1982? Mid-twentieth century technology is so common in today's world that it's hard to imagine a world without it. But that's apparently what was happening in 1962, when two Vancouver men - Ron Raine and Gordon Hunter - built a pair of radio transmitters that a pitcher and his manager could use. With the blessings of Pacific Coast League President Dewey Soriano and Twins president Calvin Griffith, the Triple-A Mounties gave it a try one late-July night. It was believed to be the first use of similar equipment in organized baseball.

According to the report:

Bamberger did things without looking, disregarding the catcher's signals, throwing at bases without even looking to see if the runner was moving.

(I'm guessing the catcher didn't like receiving pitches he didn't call for.)

The experiment must not have been very noticeable from the field, though. The opposing manager, for instance, didn't learn of McKeon's use of the technology until he saw it in the paper after the game. McKeon, reportedly, said "the idea is great to relieve tension in his young pitchers" and league brass envisioned it eliminating the manager's walk to the mound.

Looking at this experiment with a 21st-century lens, it seems no different than the radios quarterbacks and other football players use on the gridiron. Apparently similar equipment had already been tried in NFL games by 1962, but "jamming by the opposing team - and on one occasion an electrical storm - made it worthless."

It's hard to say how long this experiment lasted. If the equipment was blessed by the league president, then I would expect it to be used as long as the team felt comfortable with it and as long as they felt it was helping them. The thing is, I can see some serious drawbacks from this 1962-era technology. How big was the device? Might it fly out of the uniform? Was the speaker too loud? How good did the microphone work? Was the sound any good? How quickly would immediate updates from the bench upset the pitcher-catcher dynamic? Would the pitcher be forced to rely on it for every pitch? I'm sure there are a dozen more.

In the end, it's just not that great of an idea. That's probably the only reason we need when trying to figure out how the experiment failed. I'm glad to learn that it was tried at least once, though, even if it was fifty years ago (and I'd be very curious to see the actual devices). The fact that new manager Jack McKeon played a big part in it just makes the story that much greater.

3 comments have been left for this article.

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