The Aesthetics of Baseball

Don Larsen 1956 World SeriesCliff Lee 2009 World Series

As I sit on my mysteriously stained couch watching Game 5 of the World Series, my mind wanders to the decision-making process of the game’s director, Bill Webb. He’s orchestrated 13 of these Fall Classics, with new technologies opening up more vistas of sweat and crotch grabs each time.  Webb, alongside producer Pete Macheska, makes decisions on shot selection and duration every second of the game, all of which subtly shape the viewing experience. Baseball is a game of lulling rhythms that occasionally spike into frenzied bouts of athleticism. How Webb handles the former, the batting-glove adjustments, talks at the mound, and endless foul balls, is the most fascinating aspect to his anonymous craft.

Idly charting his shot selection over the first few innings, a few patterns emerge. He averages around 5 shots per at-bat, but incrementally increases their number and cutting speed at more dramatic moments. In the top of the fourth inning, with no-one on base and a comfortable 6-1 lead, Cliff Lee is facing Nick Swisher with the count at 2-1. Webb starts with a medium shot of Swisher, cuts to a medium shot of Robinson Cano on deck, then shifts to a close-up of Lee, before settling in to the centerfield camera for the pitch. This is one of his routine setups: batter, on-deck, pitcher, pitch. IWorld Seriest establishes the basic conflict while adding context for the next one.

Later in the inning, Webb alters his approach to match the actions of the crowd. With two outs and Brett Gardner at the plate, the crowd rises in applause to urge Lee to end the inning. Responding to the situation, Webb goes with the following shots: medium of Gardner, CU of Lee, wide shot of fans, CU of Lee, centerfield camera. In cutting back and forth between the crowd and Lee, Webb is subtly adding a narrative to this pitch, that the crowd is in a conversation with the pitcher, which he soon repays by getting Gardner to ground out to short. He generally dislikes crowd shots, and has limited their use at Fox, as he told USA Today:

‘Crowd shots I’ll do between pitches; it’s dead time,’ he says. ‘I’m not a big fan of them. During the regular season, you’ve got a lot more liberty. But in a platinum game like this, every pitch means something. You stay with what’s going on in the field.’

In other pitches, he cuts between the opposing coaches to juice the sense of conflict between each toss. He also opts for push-in close-ups on the pitcher and hitter to add an extra dollop of tension. His most aggressive technique is the split-screen, framing pitcher and hitter in the same shot, and adding the catcher’s signals in an insert between them. He thankfully uses this segmented shot sparingly. Michael Hiestand writes, again in USA Today:  “[They are] pretty busy. But, says Webb, at least viewers know what pitch is coming. And not as busy, notes Webb, as when on past Series action he split the screen four ways when bases were loaded — ‘too confusing, that was a strikeout.”

Webb also turned down the use of cameras that are suspended on cables and fly down the foul lines, which TBS used in their coverage. His aesthetic is appropriately conservative, eschewing most of the bells and whistles that Fox Sports likes to impose (their dancing NFL robot, the ill-fated glowing hockey puck), and toning down the tricks he does use:

‘Viewers may like them the first time but then the toys become redundant,’ he says. ‘The best way to cover baseball is to cover the baseball game. And the only real difference between a regular season game and the World Series is it’s more emotional. You need to make sure the technology never gets in the way of showing that emotion.’Chase Utley

Even in higher leverage situations with runners on base, where his shot selection is more varied, his cutting speed increases only slightly. He maintains a use of fairly long takes, even with his cut-ins (I’m curious to compare his shot length with the other networks, in case this is just the industry standard, but I suspect he’s slower than most). In only one instance did I detect any quick cutting: Ryan Howard’s walk on a full count in the first inning, where Webb  employs rapid-fire shots of the crowd, who were again riled up and waving their white towels (this was after the incredible Chase Utley and his hair hit a three-run home-run).

In a bit of serendipity, the MLB Network was showing Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, Don Larsen’s perfect game over the Brooklyn Dodgers, at the same time as 2009′s game 5. Flipping back and forth, it’s a quick and dirty way to see how Don Newcombecamera angles effect the way one views a game. The default camera position in 1956 was an elevated view behind home plate that would pan up to catch a ball in play. There are also cameras on the first and third baselines, but they are only used for accents, either introducing a player or offering a profile of the pitcher. It distances you from the action, with no sense of balls and strikes, and no close-ups of the players. Mickey Mantle seems even more otherworldly from the back. After he breaks up the scoreless game with a mammoth home run, one feels it appropriate that his face is hidden. One shouldn’t look too close to such (drunken) godliness. The distance of the camera must have added to the mystical aura that surrounded these 50s titans.

In a fascinating article for Slate, Greg Hanlon offers a brief history of the centerfield camera, which he claims was introduced in 1950 on NBC’s Game of the Week. Apparently it took a while to become standard, but now almost every team uses this look, which provides a more intimate view of the details of the game, from the catcher’s signals to the pitcher’s fidgeting in his glove. What Hanlon explores is the distorted angle of this view, as most of these cameras are located 10 to 15 degrees off-center to left field, offering a skewed view of the ball’s path to home plate. Only the Red Sox, the Cardinals, and the Twins place it at dead center, which requires a higher camera elevation to keep the pitcher from blocking the view of the catcher. But for the majority of telecasts, including Fox’s coverage of the World Series, the view is distorted, sacrificing verity for intimacy. Hanlon says the biggest impediment to switching to dead-center views is simple architecture:

In Oakland, Calif., a wall of luxury boxes precludes placing a dead-center camera. The Crown Vision center field scoreboard provides a similar obstruction in Kansas City. In Denver, the “Rock Pile” bleacher seats make installing a dead-center camera a “seat-kill,” in producer parlance. Other stadiums have advertising signage where a camera would be placed.

ESPN attempted to install a dead-center camera for all of their 2001 broadcasts, but it was declared impractical after less than a year.

Webb simply deals with the cameras he has given, and does a wonderful job. The fact that he also directs the Mets broadcasts (my sad, sad favorite team), has no bearing on this praise. He simply stays out of the way, elegantly incorporating dramatic arcs during down time, and limiting graphic bells and whistles that clutter too many other broadcasts. All he’s missing is “..a camera operator on the fields, just to trail pitchers to the mound or batters to the box. ‘I don’t see what the problem is when there’s no action going on. … I won’t get in your way.’” Bill Webb is a master of not getting in the way.

0 Response The Aesthetics of Baseball
Posted By TOC : November 3, 2009 5:50 pm

As someone who worked in televised sports for many years, I have often found myself explaining camera usage to friends (probably more often than they would prefer) while I watch ballgames. Viewers are usually completely unconscious about the many choices that are made on their behalf…

…and let’s not forget the “worst to best” rule of instant replays… It is no coincidence that, on a close play, the viewers at home will get to see 3 (or more) angles on instant replay, but it is always the LAST one they see that is the best angle on the play.

Go Red Sox.

Posted By TOC : November 3, 2009 5:50 pm

As someone who worked in televised sports for many years, I have often found myself explaining camera usage to friends (probably more often than they would prefer) while I watch ballgames. Viewers are usually completely unconscious about the many choices that are made on their behalf…

…and let’s not forget the “worst to best” rule of instant replays… It is no coincidence that, on a close play, the viewers at home will get to see 3 (or more) angles on instant replay, but it is always the LAST one they see that is the best angle on the play.

Go Red Sox.

Posted By suzidoll : November 3, 2009 7:07 pm

“You need to make sure the technology never gets in the way of showing that emotion.” — This is relevant for Hollywood studio films today; unfortunately, the opposite is true.

Posted By suzidoll : November 3, 2009 7:07 pm

“You need to make sure the technology never gets in the way of showing that emotion.” — This is relevant for Hollywood studio films today; unfortunately, the opposite is true.

Posted By medusamorlock : November 4, 2009 9:52 am

All I can think about is that “mysteriously stained couch” of yours…!! As someone who never got into any sports, it’s times like this that we realize we’re missing something, without a doubt. Fascinating post!!

Posted By medusamorlock : November 4, 2009 9:52 am

All I can think about is that “mysteriously stained couch” of yours…!! As someone who never got into any sports, it’s times like this that we realize we’re missing something, without a doubt. Fascinating post!!

Posted By MarcyS : November 4, 2009 1:09 pm

totally intriguing post…a lot to think about here. I’ll be wathing game 5 very differently.

Posted By MarcyS : November 4, 2009 1:09 pm

totally intriguing post…a lot to think about here. I’ll be wathing game 5 very differently.

Posted By moirafinnie : November 4, 2009 4:06 pm

Okay, so Fox doesn’t like crowd shots, eh?

If only they had an equal enmity toward irrelevant and off the wall stats, maybe I wouldn’t have to try to watch the Series with the sound off…btw, do you think that the recent flurry of issues over umpire’s calls might have been caused in any part by what sounds like the placement of far too many cameras around the field? I fear that the humanity of the game (as well as the length of innings) may be further affected if they give in and start using instant replays to make calls more accurately.

I really enjoyed your description of the way that cameras enhance and interfere with the American pastime very much, RES. And it’s good to read that another erstwhile Mets fan wanders the earth. I’ve been one since Bud Harrelson was a rookie.

Posted By moirafinnie : November 4, 2009 4:06 pm

Okay, so Fox doesn’t like crowd shots, eh?

If only they had an equal enmity toward irrelevant and off the wall stats, maybe I wouldn’t have to try to watch the Series with the sound off…btw, do you think that the recent flurry of issues over umpire’s calls might have been caused in any part by what sounds like the placement of far too many cameras around the field? I fear that the humanity of the game (as well as the length of innings) may be further affected if they give in and start using instant replays to make calls more accurately.

I really enjoyed your description of the way that cameras enhance and interfere with the American pastime very much, RES. And it’s good to read that another erstwhile Mets fan wanders the earth. I’ve been one since Bud Harrelson was a rookie.

Posted By Jeflee : November 4, 2009 4:49 pm

Holy niche-ness. Awesome site yall.

Posted By Jeflee : November 4, 2009 4:49 pm

Holy niche-ness. Awesome site yall.

Posted By Renee crawford : November 4, 2009 5:09 pm

Nifty stuff i gotta say nifty stuff xo

Posted By Renee crawford : November 4, 2009 5:09 pm

Nifty stuff i gotta say nifty stuff xo

Posted By groveco : November 4, 2009 6:17 pm

Great article. Gives me more depth (of field) to the game. I’ll enjoy things even more now. Kudos for mentioning Utley’s hair. I was surprised how many shots of it there were.

Posted By groveco : November 4, 2009 6:17 pm

Great article. Gives me more depth (of field) to the game. I’ll enjoy things even more now. Kudos for mentioning Utley’s hair. I was surprised how many shots of it there were.

Posted By Mike : November 4, 2009 6:27 pm

interesting when the producers add a new camera angle for games, I’ve seen a few come and go from different sports through the last few years.. it is especially interesting to see how wide screen tvs affect coverage and the various shots.

Posted By Mike : November 4, 2009 6:27 pm

interesting when the producers add a new camera angle for games, I’ve seen a few come and go from different sports through the last few years.. it is especially interesting to see how wide screen tvs affect coverage and the various shots.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : November 4, 2009 6:35 pm

Thanks for the note on instant replay, TOC, it sounds like another mini-drama in the director’s toolbox.

I thought the same thing Suzi, although there are a few people working subtly with the new technology, including David Fincher.

Moira – Bill Webb is the one who doesn’t like crowd shots, I wasn’t implying that this was the policy of all of Fox Sports. I just want to clarify that.

And I don’t understand the argument against instant replay. I think it’s more “human” to accurately reflect the human actions of the athletes. Instant replay is already in for home-run calls, and it hasn’t impeded the action at all. So I hope it comes in sooner than later…

It’s great to hear you’re a fellow Mets fan! It’s a sad, bitter existence, and I wouldn’t have it any other way…

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : November 4, 2009 6:35 pm

Thanks for the note on instant replay, TOC, it sounds like another mini-drama in the director’s toolbox.

I thought the same thing Suzi, although there are a few people working subtly with the new technology, including David Fincher.

Moira – Bill Webb is the one who doesn’t like crowd shots, I wasn’t implying that this was the policy of all of Fox Sports. I just want to clarify that.

And I don’t understand the argument against instant replay. I think it’s more “human” to accurately reflect the human actions of the athletes. Instant replay is already in for home-run calls, and it hasn’t impeded the action at all. So I hope it comes in sooner than later…

It’s great to hear you’re a fellow Mets fan! It’s a sad, bitter existence, and I wouldn’t have it any other way…

Posted By AS : November 4, 2009 7:42 pm

Great write up. Fascinating. I am surprised there is no mention of Fox Trax, the grid superimposed on one side of the screen that the blabbermouths in the booth remind us every time is “our unofficial look at pitch location.” I find it a huge distraction. As someone who is against instant replay in baseball, Fox Trax and its TBS cousin Pitch Trax just further undermines the authority of the umpires, who deserve to be scrutinized, but who rarely get credit for the vast majority of calls they make – the ones that are right.

Posted By AS : November 4, 2009 7:42 pm

Great write up. Fascinating. I am surprised there is no mention of Fox Trax, the grid superimposed on one side of the screen that the blabbermouths in the booth remind us every time is “our unofficial look at pitch location.” I find it a huge distraction. As someone who is against instant replay in baseball, Fox Trax and its TBS cousin Pitch Trax just further undermines the authority of the umpires, who deserve to be scrutinized, but who rarely get credit for the vast majority of calls they make – the ones that are right.

Posted By PK : November 5, 2009 1:35 am

This is awesome to the max. Totally awesome!

…and Go Mets.

Posted By PK : November 5, 2009 1:35 am

This is awesome to the max. Totally awesome!

…and Go Mets.

Posted By warlock6 : November 5, 2009 5:43 am

i personally do not like this game. maybe it sounds strange because all Americans can not live without baseball. but it is the fact.

Posted By warlock6 : November 5, 2009 5:43 am

i personally do not like this game. maybe it sounds strange because all Americans can not live without baseball. but it is the fact.

Posted By sitting pugs : November 5, 2009 9:48 am

It’s musing and writing like this that reminds me that baseball only seems slow when one doesn’t think about the televised aesthetic.

I used to be a baseball fan (er, should I say a fan of the Braves in the early to mid 90s). While I don’t experience the same amount of joy in watching televised baseball now, I still love the shot-reverse-shots between the pitcher and the catcher as well as high-angle medium close-ups of players in the dugout leaning on the railing. Aware but not terribly concerned that at any moment their image could be broadcast to an international audience.

Posted By sitting pugs : November 5, 2009 9:48 am

It’s musing and writing like this that reminds me that baseball only seems slow when one doesn’t think about the televised aesthetic.

I used to be a baseball fan (er, should I say a fan of the Braves in the early to mid 90s). While I don’t experience the same amount of joy in watching televised baseball now, I still love the shot-reverse-shots between the pitcher and the catcher as well as high-angle medium close-ups of players in the dugout leaning on the railing. Aware but not terribly concerned that at any moment their image could be broadcast to an international audience.

Posted By Vincent : November 5, 2009 3:21 pm

Illuminating piece on the technical aspects of doing a game. (I wish there was a telecast available of a game done at the Los Angeles Coliseum when the Dodgers spent four years there. With its misshapen (for baseball) proportions, this venue, designed for football and track, must have provided some real challenges.

As a Washington Nationals fan (yes, we do exist!), I note that when a bases-loaded situation comes up on Nats games, they will show a multiple-camera shot of the three runners on base, then below them closeups of the batter and pitcher. The announcers jokingly call this their “Brady Bunch” shot.

Posted By Vincent : November 5, 2009 3:21 pm

Illuminating piece on the technical aspects of doing a game. (I wish there was a telecast available of a game done at the Los Angeles Coliseum when the Dodgers spent four years there. With its misshapen (for baseball) proportions, this venue, designed for football and track, must have provided some real challenges.

As a Washington Nationals fan (yes, we do exist!), I note that when a bases-loaded situation comes up on Nats games, they will show a multiple-camera shot of the three runners on base, then below them closeups of the batter and pitcher. The announcers jokingly call this their “Brady Bunch” shot.

Posted By Keith : November 8, 2009 10:49 pm

Hi RES, what a great article on televised coverage of baseball. I agree that viewers are usually not conscious of choices made for them.

At the risk of incurring everyone’s wrath I have to say that I have enjoyed viewing baseball for more than ever via HD TV on a large screen. I enjoy the graphics and stats – baseball fans devour states like locusts devour crops. I like the TRAX… it is wonderful to me to get a sense of umpires’ various strike zones and how they impact games.

I am aware of camera angles and notice that FOX wokrs hard at showing the emotions of a game and the ebbs and flows.

The sound is incredible. It was cool to hear Jeter yelling at his
pitchers when men were on or to hear base coaches.

Ok.. I am afraid I have gushed but to me ( a fan over 40+ years) televised coverage of baseball is a marvel.

Being a technologist I think we will come to a point where viewers will have view options much like say browsers.

BTW.. I had ESPN game tracks rolling while I watched the Series.

Posted By Keith : November 8, 2009 10:49 pm

Hi RES, what a great article on televised coverage of baseball. I agree that viewers are usually not conscious of choices made for them.

At the risk of incurring everyone’s wrath I have to say that I have enjoyed viewing baseball for more than ever via HD TV on a large screen. I enjoy the graphics and stats – baseball fans devour states like locusts devour crops. I like the TRAX… it is wonderful to me to get a sense of umpires’ various strike zones and how they impact games.

I am aware of camera angles and notice that FOX wokrs hard at showing the emotions of a game and the ebbs and flows.

The sound is incredible. It was cool to hear Jeter yelling at his
pitchers when men were on or to hear base coaches.

Ok.. I am afraid I have gushed but to me ( a fan over 40+ years) televised coverage of baseball is a marvel.

Being a technologist I think we will come to a point where viewers will have view options much like say browsers.

BTW.. I had ESPN game tracks rolling while I watched the Series.

Posted By Keith : November 8, 2009 10:51 pm

My apologies for the spelling snafus…

Posted By Keith : November 8, 2009 10:51 pm

My apologies for the spelling snafus…

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : November 10, 2009 4:35 pm

AS, I have no issue with FoxTrax and the like. It’s a nice tool for the viewer to see how umps are calling the game, since the real-time camera is off-center, we don’t get a clear view of the strike zone. These tools offer a minor corrective. The more information the better…

No problem Keith…and I definitely agree with you. This is the first World Series I watched on an HDTV, and the difference was enormous. Being able to clearly see the path of the ball to home plate adds immeasurably to the detail of watching the game.

Watching hockey on it is even a bigger improvement, what with being able to see every bounce of the puck and all.

I’m a big-time convert, although I believe broadcasts can use statistics more effectively. They are still too hung up on AVG and RBIs, which should be weighed much less than they are. And pitcher vs. hitter stats are used even with very small sample sizes, which aren’t very predictive.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : November 10, 2009 4:35 pm

AS, I have no issue with FoxTrax and the like. It’s a nice tool for the viewer to see how umps are calling the game, since the real-time camera is off-center, we don’t get a clear view of the strike zone. These tools offer a minor corrective. The more information the better…

No problem Keith…and I definitely agree with you. This is the first World Series I watched on an HDTV, and the difference was enormous. Being able to clearly see the path of the ball to home plate adds immeasurably to the detail of watching the game.

Watching hockey on it is even a bigger improvement, what with being able to see every bounce of the puck and all.

I’m a big-time convert, although I believe broadcasts can use statistics more effectively. They are still too hung up on AVG and RBIs, which should be weighed much less than they are. And pitcher vs. hitter stats are used even with very small sample sizes, which aren’t very predictive.

Posted By Keith : November 11, 2009 9:58 pm

Hi again, I hope you will continue dialog about televised sports as an art form. I so look forward to your blog!

Posted By Keith : November 11, 2009 9:58 pm

Hi again, I hope you will continue dialog about televised sports as an art form. I so look forward to your blog!

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

We regret to inform you that FilmStruck is now closed.  Our last day of service was November 29, 2018.

Please visit tcm.com/help for more information.

We would like to thank our many fans and loyal customers who supported us.  FilmStruck was truly a labor of love, and in a world with an abundance of entertainment options – THANK YOU for choosing us.