In many American newspapers Tuesday, including this one, the passing of former NBC coordinating producer and director Harry Coyle drew significantly less attention than that of former Oakland A’s Owner Charlie Finley, and as those who knew Coyle tell it, that’s precisely the way he would have wanted it.
But anyone who has enjoyed the game of baseball on television over the past 50 years would be hard-pressed to name a person who’s had a more significant impact on the great American pastime than Coyle, who guided NBC’s award-winning baseball coverage for 42 years.
“Next to Babe Ruth, I don’t think there’s been a more significant figure in the history of baseball than Harry Coyle. He gave us the blueprint of baseball TV coverage,” said John Filippelli, Fox’s coordinating baseball producer.
Filippelli’s words aren’t the meaningless hyperbole of a television executive. Coyle, who died Monday in Des Moines, Iowa, of heart failure, took the game from its infant days on television and pulled it, often kicking and screaming, into the modern era.
“He literally invented the way that every American watches baseball on television for the past five decades,” said NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol. “He probably brought more sporting joy into more households than any other American.”
Coyle, who headed up NBC’s baseball coverage for 42 years before he retired after the 1989 season, originated the positioning of the centerfield camera that brings the pitcher, batter, catcher and umpire into the same frame.
Before Coyle, the main coverage of a game was provided from a high camera positioned down the first base line, giving the home viewer a rather tilted perspective.
In addition, at Coyle’s direction, cameras were posted at high positions above home plate to show reactions at positions - above third base to show the flight of the ball to first, and at a low angle at third to watch the runner scoring.
“All of these are Harry’s inventions, and will be with us forever,” said John Gonzalez, NBC’s current coordinating baseball producer, who, like Fillipelli, learned at Coyle’s direction.
For all of Coyle’s brilliance during Saturday “Game of the Week” telecasts, the postseason was what put his genius on full display for the entire nation.
“With all due respect to Reggie Jackson, Harry was the first ‘Mr. October,’ ” said Filippelli. “He had a great instinct for the drama of the moment in the postseason.”
Coyle, a World War II bomber pilot, headed more than 30 World Series telecast teams for NBC and brought us such indelible moments as Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956, Bill Mazeroski’s Series-winning homer in 1960 and the 1969 Miracle Mets’ victory over the Baltimore Orioles.
Perhaps the two most memorable moments in recent Series history, at least from a television perspective, came in the 1975 and 1988 Series, Coyle’s swan song.
Coyle persuaded cameraman Lou Gerard to position himself inside the “Green Monster” during the Boston-Cincinnati series in ‘75 to get the batter’s reaction, despite Gerard’s reluctance to stay there because of all the rats running around inside the left-field scoreboard.
Had Gerard not been there, we wouldn’t have seen one of the most remarkable moments of all time, that of Carlton Fisk frantically waving his arms to keep a 12th-inning drive fair and his subsequent leap of joy after the ball hit the foul pole for a home run that won Game 6. Coyle won one of his two Emmys for that Series, and the left-field camera has since become a staple of baseball coverage.
“We put one (left-field camera) there, and we’ve had one ever since we went on the air, and the reason is Harry Coyle and the ‘75 Series,” said Bill Brown, Home Team Sports’ director of programming and executive producer. “Harry Coyle is the person we all thank for the way baseball is covered. The guy is a legend, in my mind.”
Coyle masterfully engineered the coverage of the bottom of the ninth of Game 1 of the 1988 Series, as a gimpy Kirk Gibson belted a Dennis Eckersley pitch into the right-field stands at Dodger Stadium to give Los Angeles a win over Oakland.
To date, only announcers have been allowed into the broadcasting wing of the Hall of Fame. After all the joy and drama he gave us, Coyle belongs there, as well.
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