Legends Behind the Lens: Bill Webb
Baseball’s greatest director shaped the modern look of America’s Pastime on television
The story of American sports television is engrained in the history of this nation, rising on the achievements of countless incredible men and women who never once appeared on our screens. During this pause in live sports, SVG is proud to present a celebration of this great industry. Legends Behind the Lens is a look at how we got here seen through the people who willed it to be. Each weekday, we will share with you the story of a person whose impact on the sports-television industry is indelible.
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by Jason Dachman
Few individuals had a more significant impact on the look and style of baseball on television than Bill Webb. The veteran director’s fast-paced camera cuts, extreme closeups of the intensity on players’ faces, and timely snapshots of passionate fans in the stands have become standard in any baseball game televised today. During nearly four decades at the front bench, including as lead director for MLB on Fox Sports for 20 years and on SNY’s New York Mets coverage for 10, Webb took the torch from the great Harry Coyle and cemented his position as the most accomplished baseball director of the modern era.
“The main thing that I try to do is bring the game up close and personal,” he said at the time of his induction into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. “First, I try to be creative in setting the drama between pitcher and batter and then let the drama build as you get further into the game. Your obligation as a director is to do the best possible job with what you have to tell the story to the people at home. It’s my job to put those people at home in the best seat in the ballpark, not in the cheap seats.”
In all, Webb, who died in 2017, directed 17 World Series, 20 League Championship Series, and 18 MLB All-Star Games — earning a whopping 40 Emmy nominations along the way.
“Bill is truly the perfect package as a baseball director,” said Sportsnet New York (SNY) Executive Producer/SVP, Production, Curt Gowdy Jr. “He’s a great student of the game, and he combines that unique ability to break down the science of the game with his patented emotional shots showing the intensity and rawness of the game. And then he can raise it to the next level with his technical creativity. We’ve been lucky to have him all these years.”
Breaking Into Broadcasting
Born in West Orange, NJ, in 1951, Webb attended Kinnelon High School and the University of Tennessee, where he was premed. In 1969, he broke into the broadcast industry with his first job at WOR-TV (now WWOR-TV).
“My parents and I just could not afford for me to [continue college], and my father, who was in advertising, told me about a job opening at WOR in the traffic department,” he said. “I rotated the commercials and put the commercial cards in the deck. That’s how it all started. It worked out okay, to say the least.”
At WOR, he quickly worked his way up to associate director. In 1971, he became AD on all Mets home games at Shea Stadium, marking the birth of a storied career in the truck at the ballpark.
Stepping Up to the Front Bench and the Move to ABC
In 1979, Webb got his first job directing baseball when WOR elevated him to lead director on all Mets games. It was there he first crossed paths with analyst Tim McCarver, who served on the Mets’ broadcast team from 1983 to ’98 and would go on to team with Webb at Fox Sports from 1996 until his retirement in 2013.
“Bill and I went back to 1983, when I joined the Mets and he was the director,” said McCarver. “You could tell that this guy was destined for a long, long time in the business. He really knew what he was doing, and he was very helpful to me in educating the viewer on the game. You could do it with words only, but, when you combine the words and the pictures, that’s when you’ve got something. That’s what Bill constantly improved upon: how to bring those pictures to the viewer in a way that made watching a baseball game on television a rewarding experience. He did it like no one had before.”
Webb would go on to direct hundreds of Mets games before leaving to join ABC Sports following the 1987 MLB season. During his time as lead director at ABC Sports (1988-96), he diversified his directing portfolio, steering the ship on a cavalcade of Wide World of Sports shows, as well as on college football, college basketball, and horse racing’s Triple Crown — for which he won four Eclipse Awards.
“ABC actually hired me to do baseball, but then they lost the baseball [package], so I ended up primarily directing for Wide World of Sports,” he recalled. “In any given week, you’d be directing boxing or skiing or figure skating. It was great training.”
Throughout the 1990s, Webb maintained his New York roots, directing Yankees games and a variety of other properties for MSG Network.
A World Series Debut and the Birth of MLB on Fox
After narrowly missing out on the opportunity to direct his first World Series in 1994 because it was canceled, Webb finally got his shot the following year, directing the 1995 Series for The Baseball Network. His star shot into the next echelon in 1996, when Fox Sports won the rights to one of two Major League Baseball TV packages and tapped Webb as its lead director, including the 1996, 1998, and 2000 World Series. Fox would gain exclusive national MLB rights in 2001 and has aired every World Series since — with Webb in the director’s chair through 2014.
“Bill Webb is the ultimate storyteller. He epitomizes everything you want a game director to be.” — Eric Shanks
“I’m only as good as the pictures that are being shown,” said Fox Sports lead play-by-play caller Joe Buck, who has worked with Webb for nearly two decades, “and I think we work really well together. I know where he’s going before he does sometimes, and he knows where I’m going before I do. After a while, I think it becomes Pavlovian, and we can anticipate everything one another does. I was so lucky to have been matched up with him because he does all the work for me.”
Along with long-time producing partner Pete Macheska, Buck, and McCarver, Webb changed the way America watches baseball, embodying Fox’s “Same Game, New Attitude” mentality without ever sacrificing the art of storytelling.
“It is both an inspiring and humbling experience to work alongside one of the greatest,” said Macheska, “and Webby is just that: one of the very best at calling the shots, live, in the moment, without hesitation. He capitalizes on the emotional ups and downs of baseball’s most dramatic moments unlike anyone I’ve ever worked with.”
During Webb’s two decades in the director’s seat, Fox’s MLB coverage garnered more than 30 Sports Emmy Awards (including a dozen for production).
“Bill Webb is the ultimate storyteller,” said Eric Shanks, president/COO/executive producer, Fox Sports. “There is not one person more synonymous with the look and feel of Fox’s Emmy Award-winning postseason-baseball coverage than Webby. He epitomizes everything you want a game director to be.”
A Mets Homecoming: The Launch of SNY
Webb made a homecoming of sorts in 2006, when the Mets launched their own regional sports network, Sportsnet New York. When Gowdy was brought in to build the production operation, Webb was his first production hire for Mets broadcasts.
“It was unique because we were getting arguably the best baseball director in the business to work on our regional broadcasts,” said Gowdy. “Our philosophy was to bring a national sensibility to our regional broadcast. And having Bill be the quarterback as our director was the best start for us. The early days, I think Bill was a mentor to a lot of our staff and even the talent because he was just a great seasoned veteran. He never took himself too seriously, and he always has a great sense of humor about what he does.”
Webb — along with producer Greg Picker and the broadcasting trio of Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez, and Ron Darling — was a staple of Mets telecast ever since.
“Some people are just put on this earth to do certain things, and Bill Webb was put on this earth to direct baseball,” said Picker, who sat alongside Webb at the SNY front bench for 11 years. “He is so natural, and to watch that is a treat in any profession. But one thing that is very underrated that most people probably don’t talk about enough is Bill’s work ethic, which is just incomparable. His work ethic matches his natural ability, and that combination has created probably the best baseball director of all time.”
“Bill Webb has been such a pioneer,” said McCarver. “He took what Harry Coyle and Roone Arledge had mastered before him and extended that into an even greater way to bring the game to the viewer at home. There’s simply never been anyone quite like him.”
The video in this profile was originally produced in 2016. For more on the life and career of this industry legend, visit their profile at the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.