A Modest Proposal: The Fifth of July, or the Quiet Game (one for the purists)

Beckham on the field

Photo by Elizabeth Matheson.

On December 20, 1980, the last Sunday of the regular season, NBC broadcast a historic football game between the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins. Actually, the game itself wasn’t important; both teams had already been eliminated from playoff contention. It was memorable for reasons quite apart from the action and the outcome: the game was broadcast without broadcasters.

The Orange Bowl PA Announcer was instructed to embellish his summary of plays in order to ensure clarity for the television watchers at home. The production crew placed microphones in many places around the stadium, and there were additional screen graphics, too. Bryant Gumbel, the NBC gameday host at the time, was patched in from the studio for an occasional update. But there was no play-by-play, no color commentary. Just ambient sound. If you wanted to follow along, if you wanted to be entertained, you had to watch the action on the field.

The stunt, dreamed up by sports broadcasting impresario Don Ohlmeyer, was apparently unpopular, although its novelty did boost ratings for what Ohlmeyer called a “dog of a game.” The silent treatment has never been repeated, save for a 2010 NFL Network rebroadcast of an already-played Jets-Bengals game. We like narrators. We like explainers. We like analysts.

But mostly, we like noise. We have to like it. The world is getting noisier. There were three billion people on earth in 1960. Now there are seven billion. We’re making a lot more noise, we’re making it at record expansion pace, and we’re compounding it because each of us has to shout louder than ever in order to be heard over the din.

I like holidays, but not for the reason most people like them. I like them because most things are closed, and the day is quiet. Writers like quiet. We need it, in fact, almost as badly as we need water, and we expend a fair amount of energy in an effort to create it. “Silence, cunning, exile”: James Joyce’s recipe for the writer’s life. The latter is largely there to foster the former. The second, cunning, is about plotting in secret, whispers in the dark.

Writers tend to like baseball (baseball is “literary”—no, it’s not). We like it because it has complex but elegant design, interesting characters, and tightly-wound, built-in dramatic potential. But you can say that of most sports. Writers like baseball particularly because it’s quiet: there’s a crowd, and the crowd makes noise, but the game is full of silences.

Every play in baseball, in fact, is followed by an observed moment on the field of almost memorial quiet and stillness. This encourages quiet attendance, a kind of detached solitude, because the game is structurally quiet; each player, especially outfielders, stands alone and apart from his teammates. The experience is a stadium version of flânerie, that ephemeral urban pastime which is hard to describe exactly (the flâneur is “the passionate spectator,” wrote Baudelaire), but certainly aims at the pleasure of being alone in a crowd, and hence quiet.

The modern baseball game is quite noisy. Ev-ry-bo-dy clap-your-hands. The simple, one-word  scoreboard command: NOISE. It was very loud at the DBAP last night, a night that broke attendance records at the stadium. It was the Fourth of July, the place was packed, the music and voices and everything else were turned up about as loud as they could go. The fireworks afterward reached higher heights and decibels. This was as it should be. It was a day of patriotic celebration, revolutionary revelry. Rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air, never more so than on Independence Day.

Here is a modest proposal, though, in the night’s wake, and in the spirit of that voiceless NFL broadcast in 1980. What about a quiet game some Fifth of July? Every celebration needs its decele(b)ration. No cartoons, no pop songs, no sumo. No Jatovi either, I’m afraid; not even Wool E. Bull. Just old hand Tony Riggsbee solemnly announcing batters and pitchers—and he can deliver between-inning ads, too, because nothing is more American than advertising. A little organ music here and there, at rally time, will do no harm.

Beyond that, though, no other noise. Just the game.

It has probably been done before by some minor-league team looking for a gimmick, but it will probably never happen here. It would be appropriate, though. The National Pastime. Every Fourth of July needs its Fifth.

2 Comments on “A Modest Proposal: The Fifth of July, or the Quiet Game (one for the purists)

  1. I forget whose idea this was, but I latched onto it long ago – Throwback Mondays, just as you describe, nothing but the PA and the organist.

  2. I’m pretty sure Bryant Gumble was in the stands at the Orange Bowl, and did his updates coming out of commercials.

    ed. Yes, you’re right! Thanks for the correction.

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