The Humble (Ad-Free!) Origins of the First World Series Broadcasts

Committee member James Walker, author of such seminal baseball media books as Center Field Shot and the recently released Crack of the Bat, just published a terrific new article over at The Conversation about the origins of World Series broadcasts, the first of which took place in 1921.  Dr. Walker volunteered to us the article for a reprint in its entirety, and so we have, below.

There are some revelations that will surprise us media-savvy consumers of the early 21st Century, not the least of which is the commercial- and broadcast rights fee-free nature of those early broadcasts.  Another significant difference from today’s broadcasts is the multiple network coverage of the Series, as CBS joined NBC in broadcasting the Fall Classic in 1927, with Mutual becoming the third radio network to do so simultaneously starting in 1935.  Both these circumstances yielded a permanent solution starting in 1939, which you can read more about below.

As enjoyable as this article is to read, the most fun part about it might well be the two minutes and forty-five seconds you can spend watching various footage taken of the 1921 World Series in the video embedded within, which includes not only real-time speed footage, but also what can only be characterized as “super slo-mo” footage, which we are now used to seeing for events taking place in 2015 but which look completely and wonderfully anachronistic when seen for events taking place almost a century ago.

This is a fascinating read. Enjoy!


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by James Walker, October 27, 2015 6.09am EDT

This year, FOX Sports paid Major League Baseball about half a billion dollars for the rights to broadcast the national pastime.

While the package includes some playoff games and regular season contests, the crown jewel is still the World Series; despite decades of declining ratings, baseball’s postseason is still a revenue machine.

But World Series radio broadcasts had humble beginnings, which I detail in my recent book Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio.

In fact, for the first 13 World Series broadcasts, radio networks paid zilch to carry the national pastime’s showcase tournament. The broadcasts started as a promotion for a new radio station and coverage was amateurish. In fact, the first voice on the first live broadcast of a World Series didn’t even know the score at the end of one game.

In October 1921, WJZ, a new station based out of Newark, New Jersey, needed a big event to announce its arrival in the New York metro area. The all-Gotham series between the Giants and Yankees (eventually won by the Giants, five games to three) provided the perfect opportunity.

The voice for this first radio World Series belonged to a Westinghouse engineer named Tom Cowan, but its eyes belonged to another. Unlike Cowan, Newark Call newspaper reporter Sandy Hunt was actually at the Polo Grounds.

Footage from the 1921 World Series, which pitted the New York Yankees against the New York Giants.

 

Hunt relayed the plays by telephone to Cowan, who was lodged in a cramped 15-by-20-foot “contractor’s shack” atop Newark’s Edison plant, where the WJZ transmitter was located. In his calls of the games, Cowan simply parroted whatever Hunt told him – mind-numbing work that offered few breaks.

After one exhausting game, Cowan reported he “couldn’t even collect [his] thoughts enough to tell who had won.” When a WJZ colleague asked him who won, he could only say, “I don’t know, I just work here.”

In 1922, the two-person team was replaced by a single eyewitness at the games – and a famous one, at that. Grantland Rice, perhaps the best-known sportswriter of the day, traded in his typewriter for a microphone during the World Series rematch between the Yankees and Giants.

While offering solid description, Rice would occasionally take extended breaks to “rest his voice,” leaving listeners adrift for minutes at a time. Like Cowan, Rice found the new communication medium daunting; he would later tell legendary commentator Red Barber that one radio World Series “was enough for me for all of my life.”

For Grantland Rice, announcing one World Series was enough. irishlegends.com

After these early experiments, National League owners, fearing that broadcasts would hurt World Series attendance, voted to end all World Series coverage. But the new commissioner, a former federal judge named Kenesaw Mountain Landis, overruled them. Landis viewed the nation’s newest mass medium as a potent promotional machine, and developed a policy promoting the widest possible coverage of the games: all stations and networks would be welcomed to cover the games for free.

The next year, 1923, Graham McNamee, a failed singer, became the nation’s first “superstar” sports announcer. For the next several years, he announced the World Series over RCA’s regional network and, later, NBC’s national network. In 1927, CBS joined NBC in providing national radio coverage for the World Series. A third radio network, the Mutual Broadcasting System, would join the fray in 1935.

Interestingly, the networks initially saw coverage of the World Series as a public service, with no sponsors and no commercials. The radio networks supplied the announcers, paid the AT&T line charges and essentially donated airtime to bring the World Series to the nation’s rapidly expanding radio audience.

In the process, Major League Baseball reached a national audience, while the networks became identified with the country’s most popular sport.

However, as attendance and revenues declined in the pit of the Great Depression, Commissioner Landis looked to radio for a new revenue stream.

Over the years, many companies approached the networks with offers to sponsor the World Series. But the networks feared a backlash if the games were broadcast with a commercial sponsor.

Back then, the advertising supported model of broadcasting was not fully entrenched; unlike today, listeners didn’t simply assume commercial interruptions would take place.

Even the pro-business, future Republican president Herbert Hoover thought it “inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for [radio] service…to be drowned in advertising chatter.”

As one NBC executive put it, “The minute we begin to commercialize this type of service we will soon have difficulties on our hands from various groups that are not friendly to broadcasting.”

Despite the chance of listener backlash for signing on sponsors, in 1934 Landis went on to sign a US$100,000 deal with the Ford Motor Company to sponsor the World Series.

The players got 42% of the take, and the clubs took the rest. Both parties were overjoyed with the commissioner’s radio windfall. The Ford deal made the World Series too valuable to remain unsponsored, ending the era of sports programming as a public service.

Landis still insisted that the maximum number of networks and stations carry the games, and throughout the 1930s, the World Series saturated the airways each October. Sponsors, however, balked at paying network charges for redundant coverage on multiple networks; by 1938 no sponsor could be found.

Landis quickly adjusted to the changing realities of radio advertising by granting exclusive rights to broadcast and sponsor the event, which would focus the attention of audiences on one network and one company.

In 1939, Landis granted Mutual exclusive rights to broadcast that year’s World Series, with an option for the 1940 contests. Meanwhile, Gillette signed on to sponsor the World Series at a cost of $100,000. But in paying only one network, they dramatically reduced the distribution costs. (Other stations could take the feed if they paid the line charges.)

Gillette would be the official sponsor of the World Series for over 25 years. Digital Deli Online

Mutual would maintain exclusive radio rights until 1957 while Gillette was the exclusive sponsor on radio – and, later, television – until 1966.

Landis’ contract established the modern structure of World Series rights: sponsorship on a single network. Network exclusivity made the games more valuable for the carrying network, but also reduced the radio (and, eventfully, television) footprint of the World Series.

As the NFL exploded in popularity and the number of postseason baseball games and competing television networks rose in the 1980s and 1990s, the supremacy of the World Series in the national consciousness faded. While networks continued to pay higher rights fees to cover the World Series, the television audience for the games declinedfrom a high of 44.3 million viewers in 1978 to a low of 12.7 million in 2012.

When it was unsponsored and on every network, the World Series became the “Fall Classic.” Meanwhile, sponsorship and exclusivity increased revenue beyond Judge Landis’ wildest dreams.

And, fortunately for fans, every announcer since 1921 has known the score at game’s end.

Here is How TV Covered the League Championship Series in the Early Years

There’s a great post over at the Classic TV Sports blog by Jeff Haggar (@classicTVsports) about the early years of televised coverage of the League Championship Series, during the time when the weekday games would run in the afternoon, and what would happen when the two series had games scheduled at the exact same time. Remember, there were no cable networks who could easily pick up that second game, so read below how this eventuality was handled.

You can read the article in full below, or read it on the original website here.  By the way, if you are interested in the coverage of all sports (not just baseball) in years gone by, I’d recommend subscribing to Jeff’s blog.


 

TV coverage for the early years of the LCS (1969-1975)

Can you imagine a baseball playoff game with no national TV coverage? This actually happened multiple times during the early years of the League Championship Series.

MLB created divisions in 1969 and added the LCS playoff round. NBC held the national TV rights to these games, but its LCS coverage in those first years left much to be desired.

At the time, the best-of-5 LCS began on a Saturday for both leagues and NBC would kick things off with an afternoon doubleheader. Then things would get interesting. On Sunday, NBC typically selected one of the baseball games for a national telecast and presented a “football/baseball” doubleheader with regional NFL action at 1 pm and an LCS game at 4. The other LCS game was relegated to a local telecast. Neither MLB nor the NFL scheduled any games for Sunday night at the time.

When both leagues played on the same weekday, the starting times overlapped by 1.5 hours. NBC would televise one game in full in the early afternoon and then join the late game in progress.

The standard practice for NBC was to send its top announcer team of Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek to the weekend games of one LCS and then shift them to the opposite league for the weekday games. Jim Simpson handled play-by-play duties for the other series from 1969-1974 with Joe Garagiola filling that role in 1975. The “B” team analysts were Sandy Koufax (1969-1972) and Maury Wills (1973-1975).

During this era, MLB typically scheduled these playoff series with no off day for travel unless one of the teams was from the west coast. And the game times were fixed in advance with no provisions for moving a start later in the day if the other series ended early.

For example, check out the NBC TV schedule for the 1972 LCS round (all times ET):

Sat 10/7, Reds @ Pirates, NLCS game 1, 1 pm, Simpson, Koufax
Sat 10/7, Tigers @ Athletics, ALCS game 1, 4 pm, Gowdy, Kubek

Sun 10/8, Tigers @ Athletics, ALCS g2, 4 pm, Gowdy, Kubek
(Note: NBC did not carry NLCS g2 which started at 1 pm and was only televised locally.)

Mon 10/9, Pirates @ Reds, NLCS game 3, 3 pm, Gowdy, Kubek

Tue 10/10, Athletics @ Tigers, ALCS game 3, 1:30 pm, Simpson, Koufax
Tue 10/10, Pirates @ Reds, NLCS game 4, (joined in progress – 3 pm first pitch), Gowdy, Kubek

Wed 10/11, Athletics @ Tigers, ALCS game 4, 1:30 pm, Simpson, Koufax
Wed 10/11, Pirates @ Reds, NLCS game 5, (joined in progress – 3 pm first pitch), Gowdy, Kubek

Thu 10/12, Athletics @ Tigers, ALCS game 5, 1:30 pm, Simpson, Koufax

After the successful 1971 experiment to move one World Series game to prime time, MLB began scheduling all weekday World Series games at night. But for some reason, MLB continued to keep all the weekday LCS games in the afternoon. It wasn’t until 1975 that MLB moved any LCS game to prime time (when it provided regional coverage of game 3 of each series on a Tuesday night).

Because of the incomplete national TV coverage, NBC allowed the participating markets to carry the LCS telecasts using local announcers. So fans in those markets would have access to each game in its entirety (and had a choice of which telecast to watch when NBC also aired the game).

In 1976, for the first time, MLB placed each LCS game into a unique national TV window and scheduled one game for prime time each day including Sunday. The practice allowing for separate LCS telecasts with local announcers continued through 1983.

Sadly, very little NBC footage survived from these early LCS years. Much of 1973 NLCS game 1 exists as well as portions of the 1972 ALCS game 2 telecast.

Here is the earliest LCS footage I have found – a few clips of Gowdy calls from the 1969 NLCS:

Interview With Free Agent Sports Writer Tyler Mason

Tyler Mason is a free agent sports writer who previously covered the Minnesota Twins Beat for Fox Sports North.  Unfortunately, Mason’s narrative is far too common in  sports journalism.  Mason uses the  hashtag  #hiretyler to help him network for his next opportunity. He was nice enough to take some time to answer questions about his experiences working at FSN, his take on current trends in the media, and his next steps.

1. Could you talk a little bit about your background and how you became a sportswriter? Was there a certain moment or mentor who helped?

It wasn’t until the end of my freshman year that I got into sportswriting. I went to college thinking I might want to be a psychology major, but I took the intro psychology class and didn’t do so well in it. After taking the intro journalism class during the second semester of my freshman year, I went to one of our school newspapers in Madison and wrote a story (a men’s track preview) near the end of the year. I stuck with the paper after that and was there through my senior year, and fell in love with sports writing at that point.

2. I know that you already wrote a nice blog post about why working the All-Star Game was a career highlight for you. Is there something that you would like to add about it?

I’m not sure there’s much to add. Covering the All-Star Game was such a unique experience. There were so many great players in town, and so many media. I didn’t realize how much else went into that whole weekend – the Fan Fest, press conferences, concerts, etc. Just to be around all of that was something I’ll never forget.

3. I recently interviewed Steve Rushin for Twins Daily and he said “There is more good baseball writing than there has ever been, and I won’t list all the current people I read for space considerations and fear of leaving someone out.” Do you have favorite writers today that you admire locally, as well as nationally?

I agree with Steve that there is a ton of good writing nowadays. I don’t necessarily have a favorite writer, and I’ll admit that I don’t read as many baseball writers as I should. That’s something I would definitely like to do more of. I will say, speaking of Steve Rushin, that I’ve always enjoyed his work – perhaps because he’s a Minnesota native. I recently read a book by Dirk Hayhurst, the former big league pitcher. It was interesting to read a player’s perspective for once compared to a journalist’s. I’d say in general, it’s wise to try to read a wide range of stuff when it comes to sports writing, and baseball writing in particular.

4. Besides the obvious rule, “There is no cheering in the press box”, what is it like working the baseball press box? How is it different from other sports?

I enjoy the baseball press box. There’s usually plenty of discussion regarding the game, and decisions made within it. As far as how it relates to other sports, I’d say there’s more interaction between, the writers in a baseball press box compared to basketball, football or hockey. Perhaps that’s because of how much down time there is in a baseball game. The rest of the Twins media are generally pretty easy to get along with, and we all enjoy each other’s company. It’s not as cutthroat as other media markets like New York, Boston, or Los Angeles.

5. My roommate is a sophomore journalism major at the University of Minnesota Duluth. What advice do you have for him and other recent graduates wanting to follow your career path?

Try to find an internship or two that will include some valuable experience. I interned with MLB.com in 2009 and am so glad I did, as I learned a lot about the business during that time. I’d also advise to be active on social media, perhaps even starting a personal blog. Also, network as much as possible. Send e-mails to other writers or try to get to know people in the industry if at all possible. Sometimes, it’s not what you know, but who you know.

6. There is a tweet that caught my attention. Why do you think there are so many free agent sports writers? Does it happen more in baseball? Or is common in sports overall?

I don’t think it’s specific to any sport. Unfortunately, the nature of the journalism business is that turnover/layoffs are bound to happen. You see it in newspapers far too often, but it doesn’t necessarily happen in just one sport.

7. How have companies like Inside Edge, The SportsXchange, Sportradar and the Associated Press impacted the baseball media industry?

I think it’s great that there are more outlets covering baseball today that in the past. The SportsXchange and the Associated Press are pretty similar in their coverage (more game stories and news, not as much analysis), while other sites offer different perspectives. With analytics and sabermetrics becoming such a big part of baseball, it’s great to see other sites embracing that aspect of the game. Baseball fans have more options than ever for gathering their information, and that can only help grow the game.

8. If you cannot get another baseball media job, where do you think your skills would translate well into another non-sports or media field? I see you wrote about becoming a travel writer for example?

I did indeed blog about travel writing, although that was more of a pipe dream than anything. I’d love to find something in the writing field, but those options are limited. I also have a strong social media background, so I feel those skills could translate as well – not just within the sports realm. I am open to branching out beyond the sports scene.

9. Do you have anything new in the works? Perhaps a book?

Nothing new in the works right now, unfortunately. I did write a few books for Red Line Editorial, but they are both geared towards elementary aged children. One is on the history of the Rose Bowl, while the other is a football trivia book. I hope to continue writing/blogging in some respect, although I’m not sure how often at this point.