Tom Hamilton’s home run call is the best in baseball. Other announcers might bring his level of passion for the game to the broadcast, but he stands alone with his talent for highlighting great moments. He never fails to rise to the occasion, and the sound of his voice is iconic. Not just in Cleveland, but around the game. You don’t have to take my word for it, either; Hamilton is one of the finalists for the Ford C. Frick award, given annually to a broadcaster to recognize “major contributions to the game” of baseball.
What is it, exactly, that makes Hamilton’s voice so captivating? I reached out to a voice and vocal performance expert by the name of Karen Perta, MS, CCC-SLP who performs research about how, exactly, humans create the sounds that they do. In addition to being the perfect person to speak with about this subject, Karen is my girlfriend. This is a transcript of our interview discussing the unique sound that Hamilton brings to millions of listeners every season.
MS: Before we get into the physiology behind Tom Hamilton I thought we’d talk a little bit about your history with baseball.
KP: My history with baseball? I would say that I was not a sports fan growing up except that I have identical young twin sisters that are younger and identical twin cousins that are older. Every summer as soon as school let out, we picked up our cousins in Maryland so they could spent the summer with us in upstate New York. It was like growing up with two sets of twin sisters. My cousins are die-hard Orioles fans, so I was raised an Orioles fan despite growing up in Yankees country. I begged my Dad to take me to a baseball game the summer before fourth grade. He said he would take me but on one condition — I had to learn the names, numbers, and positions of at least three players on the Red Sox and the Orioles. But my cousins taught me all of the players on both teams, all their numbers, positions, batting averages, etc. That was the crazy Brady Anderson year, and if I remember correctly they had Cal Ripken Jr, Palmeiro, Robbie Alomar, BJ Surhoff, Chris Hoiles ... and I remember Mo Vaughn on the Red Sox. So needless to say I got to go to the game, and I think I remember Vaughn hitting one out of Fenway that day. Fourth grade me concluded it was a great idea to wear a Mo Vaughn t-shirt and an Orioles hat on the first day of school. That didn’t go over great in upstate New York.
MS: I think that gives you all the necessary credentials as a baseball fan. What about professionally?
KP: I am a voice-specialized medical speech language pathologist and singing voice specialist. I’ve been practicing for nine years and I am coming to the end of my second year pursuing a PhD in Speech and Hearing Science with a specialization in vocal tract physiology. I use MRI, endoscopy, and cadavers to do my research. If that’s too many big words, I’m a speech therapist and I study how throat parts move to make all of the different sounds humans can make.
MS: We had a chance to sit down and listen to some of Tom Hamilton’s most famous calls before we got started today. What are some of the things that stand out?
KP: It’s distinct and recognizable. He’s got a base layer of that standard announcer voice, but when he gets excited it’s spontaneous, joyful, and genuine. That’s the part that really stands out to me. He’s essentially belting in the high tenor range with a vocal distortion.
MS: What do you mean by a distortion?
KP: It’s an arytenoid distortion. The arytenoids are two cartilages that slide around on a unique and complex joint at the back of your larynx. They help to open and close your vocal folds. Hamilton is firmly closing his vocal folds when he gets loud, and my best guess is that it’s his arytenoids coming forward and vibrating against his epiglottis, or swallowing flap. Some would call that a rattle; others might call it a growl sound. It’s a high pitch and his larynx is high — a low larynx is what we might see in a growl that sounds “darker” — very similar to the Cookie Monster sound.
MS: [impersonating] COOOKIE MONSTER. COOOOOOKIE. MONSTER.
KP: Anyway, there’s not really a consistently agreed-upon term for it, but its a distortion involving parts above the vocal folds. You can hear similar examples in metal music. Or, Alex Brightman (Beetlejuice on Broadway) is doing something a little different, but it’s in the same neighborhood. The main difference is that Hamilton’s distortion is more intermittent, and it happens consistently on certain words. “CAN you BUH-lieve it!” or “aWAYYY back, GONE!” He uses it for emphasis, especially on the more exciting calls.
MS: Is that a conscious choice that he’s making?
KP: Probably not. In my professional opinion I’d consider what he does art, and he’s in a similar situation to what is expected from you in the recording studio. He needs to have a distinct and instantly recognizable sound. If I’m flipping stations on the radio and I listen for two or three seconds, I know “Oh, that’s Adele.” Sports casters need to have that same recognition to stand out. A lot of sportscasters have that deep, smooth, clear voice — but soothing. Think someone like Dan Rather or Casey Casem to borrow from non-sportscasters.
MS: What about someone like Vin Scully?
KP: He’s a little bit twangier, kind of like the old-timey newscaster voice from war reels and such.
MS: Kind of like what Hank Azaria does as Brockmire?
KP: A little bit, yes. With Hamilton, I think [the arytenoid distortion] is a quirk of his that he, probably subconsciously, developed over time. But it’s a feature of his voice that makes him immediately recognizable and distinct. He’s one of the only broadcasters I’ve ever heard that uses a distortion. Historically, it’s something that’s been discouraged, but I think that view is rapidly changing. These sounds are becoming more mainstream and the Beetlejuice musical is a good example of that. That’s what makes it kind of amazing — Hamilton has been doing it for so long and its never something that got “fixed” or caused him any injuries that I am aware of. That’s one of the hallmarks of a talented vocal artists that use distortions, too: the ability to do it consistently, night after night, and not injure their voice.
MS: What type of other artists might you compare him to?
KP: Well, B-Flat 4 is consistently his high note on exciting plays like game winners. Belting that high with a distortion is not all that different from what metal singers might do. Another thing that immediately comes to mind is Louis Armstrong, but he’s not doing it on notes that are nearly as high. It’s a very similar mechanic but on much lower pitches.
MS: Is Rob Thomas close? Think about, say, the I in “I wanna take you for granted” or throughout the rest of “Push”?
KP: That’s close, but it’s not quite right. He does that a little bit but it’s not quite as pronounced. I hate the Yankees but Enter Sandman is also awfully close. And Zack de la Rocha from Rage Against the Machine goes there, too, but again, not there. Kurt Cobain on the other hand had a growly sound, but that was more constriction than anything. Disturbed might actually be the closest on “Down with the Sickness”.
MS: This sounds like it underlines how distinct Hamilton is, then? Even among people who we more traditionally associate as “performers” use the same, people that use that distortion tend to do it in a much lower range and with a low larynx rather than a belt.
KP: I would say so, yes! In my mind he’s definitely worthy of the Ford C. Frick award.
MS: I think everybody here will agree with you on that. We’ll see whether or not we have the normal Hall of Fame weekend this year given all the cancellations, but I imagine they’ll still give the award.
KS: You can even consider this as scientific evidence that he deserves it.
MS: Done. We’ll quote you on that when he wins.
Contact information for Karen Perta available upon request for further discussion of and questions regarding vocal physiology.