SPORTS

Baseball on tap

Baseball sells beer and two breweries are battling

Ken Becker April 27 1981
SPORTS

Baseball on tap

Baseball sells beer and two breweries are battling

Ken Becker April 27 1981

Baseball on tap

SPORTS

Baseball sells beer and two breweries are battling

Ken Becker

Baseball and Ballantine, baseball and Ballantine. What a combination; all across the nation. Baseball and Ballantine. —old advertising jingle

The hawkers in the stands at Yankee Stadium shouted, “Hey getcha cold be-ah, hey getcha Ballantine.” Mel Allen called a home run “a Ballantine blast.” That was in the days when television was young and so were guys named Mickey and Whitey. The old Yankee Stadium is now the new Yankee Stadium. Mel Allen, for a generation the “Voice of the Yankees,” doesn’t work there anymore. Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford are paunchy, middle-aged and doing diet-beer commercials. Ballantine beer never was distributed “all across the nation,” as the song said.

The association of beer and baseball historically has gone beyond the picture-postcard image of the foam-topped paper cup held by a fan on a hot summer day. Beer barons such as August Busch, owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, always have dabbled in baseball, making millions on sport and suds in tandem. The team in Milwaukee is even called the Brewers.

But nowhere has the baseball vehicle been turned into a beer truck more blatantly than in Canada. A major skirmish ended last year when Carling O’Keefe Breweries of Canada gained control of the TV rights to 24 Montreal Expos games and Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd. signed a five-year contract renewing its proprietorship of Toronto Blue Jays telecasts. Then they battled through the winter, trying to line up TV schedules that would soak the airways with their particular brand of brew. Finally, baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in to set the boundaries: Carling country would radiate from Montreal east to Sherbrooke, north to Trois Rivières and west to Cornwall, Ont.; the Labatt frontier would ring Toronto to include Peterborough, Barrie, London and Hamilton. Each would be allowed to beam a maximum of 14 games into the other’s territory (none when the other team was at home). The rest of the country would get most of both networks’ games, but Labatt abdicated the B.C. market, where TV beer ads are prohibited, to Carling O’Keefe.

A few days after Czar Bowie issued his edict, John Hudson, a former head of CBC TV Sports, now director for Labatt’s vast sports promotion network, announced that he was dumping the CBC in favor of CTV. Within a few weeks he had formed his own production company, christened it TV Labatt and rehired broadcasters Don Chevrier and formerYankee Tony Kubek.

Labatt, which owns 45 per cent of the Blue Jays, was unhappy with CBC last year when the network pre-empted the last-place Blue Jays with the pennantchasing Expos. This year, Labatt-Blue Jays feared they would again be relegated to backup game status. “We did not want to end up in a [CBC] package where the viewer was confused whether he was watching a Carling’s show or a Labatt’s show,” says Hudson.

Last week, the fledgling TV Labatt operation aired the first two of its scheduled 22 Blue Jay games, including the Monday home-opener at Exhibition Stadium. Meanwhile, Carling and the CBC wrung their hands through a rained-out home-opener at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium Tuesday and looked on in horror when striking Radio-Canada technicians pulled the plug in the second inning of Wednesday’s makeup game.

The TV Labatt operation has not been without its problems. The entire production team was formed within a matter of weeks. Tom McKee, who worked with Kubek and Chevrier as a field commentator the first four years of Blue Jay telecasts on CBC, is making his debut as a full-time producer. Says 31year-old director Michael Lansbury: “As far as baseball’s concerned, I knew there were three strikes, three outs and four balls.” To help them along, Hudson sent McKee and Lansbury to New York to take a crash course from NBC director Harry Coyle, who has been guiding baseball telecasts since the 1947 World Series.

The day before the Toronto opener, the commentators learned that they had to put together a half-hour show for CTV’s Toronto affiliate, CFTO-TV. “We thought we went on the air at 1:30,” says Kubek, “but then I saw the TV guide and found out we were on at one. It was a bit of a scramble.”

On opening day, with Coyle on loan from NBC to direct Monday and part of Wednesday’s game, the six cameras and three videotape machines whirred and hummed as never before. But some of the camera angles quickly proved inadequate: one camera kept swinging into a post while trying to cover double plays. Halfway through Wednesday’s game, the directorship was turned over to Lansbury with these words from Coyle: “I gotta tell you guys, in another five or six years you’re going to be hot. But now is when you’re going to make mistakes, so don’t get too sure of yourselves.”

And with Lansbury at the helm for the rest of the game, the control-truck chatter during a smooth broadcast went like this: “Who’s on first? ... What the hell’s the score? . . . What the hell inning are we in?” And, in the bottom of the ninth, with a commercial break pressing, the Blue Jays down to their final out against the Yankees, came these words: “C’mon you sucker, strike out.” He did. The Blue Jays lost, but the beer commercial was aired on time,