Committee Member Dr. James Walker, a prolific author of several baseball broadcasting books such as Crack of the Bat and Center Field Shot, penned an article over at the Conversation about this year’s Ford C. Frick Award, Graham McNamee.
McNamee could be considered a somewhat controversial selection for the Frick award. Even though he was the first-ever popular national baseball announcer, there were several holes in what we would consider his professional veneer—meaning that, by today’s standards, he would likely be considered a poor baseball announcer. But McNamee had a strong and pleasant voice that was cut for the stage, and that was exactly the thing that the earliest fans of baseball on the radio wanted from their announcer. In the early and mid-1920s, McNamee was baseball on the radio.
Dr. Walker has generously consented to allow us to reproduce the article in full here.
The 2016 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee you’ve never heard of
When the National Baseball Hall of Fame held its 2016 induction ceremony on July 24, the names of the two player inductees – Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza – were recognized by even the most casual baseball fan. Serious fans (and most New Englanders) celebrated the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, the recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for baseball writers.
But the fourth name on this year’s list, Graham McNamee, winner of the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters, resonated only with devoted historians of the national pastime. In “Crack of the Bat,” my history of baseball on the radio, I reviewed McNamee’s seminal contribution to the popularization of World Series broadcasts.
Most other Frick winners have been honored during their lifetimes. (Vin Scully won in 1982 and is still broadcasting today.) But McNamee hasn’t broadcast a game in 75 years; he died at 53 in 1942, when television was only an experiment and radio was just over two decades old.
McNamee’s long wait for recognition raises two questions: Who was Graham McNamee? And why did it take 74 years for the Hall of Fame to honor his contribution to baseball broadcasting?
The right voice at the right time
McNamee came to New York in the early 1920s to study singing, only to join the chorus of Gotham’s thousands of struggling vocalists. However, the city was also the center of a nascent network radio industry that had only just begun to generate substantial advertising revenues.
McNamee was in the right place at the right time, with the right voice. In 1923, he joined RCA-owned WEAF (later WNBC) as a staff announcer. WEAF was the nation’s most popular station and ran the first-ever radio commercial, a 10-minute ad for apartments in Jackson Heights paid for by the Queensboro Corporation.
Like all first-generation radio announcers, McNamee did every kind of programming: music, news events and sports. His first significant sportscast was a middleweight championship fight in 1923. While boxing had been broadcast before, stations usually used a ringside reporter who relayed the action by phone to an announcer at the station, who then broadcast the play-by-play to listeners.
McNamee, however, broadcast live from ringside. His breathtaking firsthand account of the contest as it unfolded before his eyes captivated listeners. Big-time, live, emotional sportscasts – just like McNamee’s – were beginning to sell a skeptical public on the new medium of radio.
Boxing was a start, but McNamee’s big break in sports came at the 1923 World Series. The previous year’s World Series had been called by legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, but Rice loathed the assignment and refused to broadcast baseball again.
So in 1923, Rice’s colleague at the New York Tribune, W.O. McGeehan, took the mic on WEAF. But after two games he’d had enough. Like Rice, McGeehan found radio’s demand for a steady stream of words very challenging; the medium provided little time for composition and none for editing. So the newspaperman left his post in the fourth inning of Game 3, leaving the mic to his assistant, Graham McNamee.
A radio star was born.
The naysayers emerge
For the next eight years, McNamee became RCA’s voice of the World Series. As the Series’ broadcast reach expanded from the Eastern Seaboard to the Midwest and, finally, to the entire nation, McNamee’s fame grew exponentially. After the 1925 World Series, McNamee received 50,000 letters from fans of his broadcasts. Listeners loved his strong, pleasant voice and detailed, enthusiastic descriptions of the action, which allowed them to better visualize a game they could only see in their minds.
But not every baseball fan was a McNamee fan. From time to time, his attention would stray from the game and to the celebrities in the stands or a letter he had received. He’d be prone to forget the count and even the batter’s name. According to baseball broadcast historian Curt Smith, McNamee freely admitted to being “an entertainer first and broadcaster second.”
So as the novelty of World Series broadcasts faded, some baseball writers became less impressed with broadcasting’s first superstar.
After one game of the 1927 Series, columnist Ring Lardner famously observed, “I attended a double-header, the game [McNamee] was describing and the game I was watching”; a New York Sun headline read “M’Namee’s Eye not on the Ball: Radio Announcer Mixes Up World Series Fans”; and in a scathing criticism, the Boston Globe identified eight problems with McNamee’s call of the opening game, including forgetting to report balls and strikes and leaving the mic for several minutes to get a soft drink.
But most fans still loved McNamee’s style; plus they had few baseball broadcasts to compare with it. In the 1920s, not many teams – and none in New York, Philadelphia or Washington – regularly broadcast games. For most Americans, McNamee’s World Series calls were all they knew.
McNamee also added a number of other high-profile broadcasts to his resume: the inauguration of Calvin Coolidge, the 1927 Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney “long count” heavyweight fight, the 1927 Rose Bowl game and Charles Lindbergh’s return to New York after his solo transatlantic flight.
But by the end of the Roaring Twenties, many announcers began to specialize in covering the national pastime. They included Hal Totten, Quin Ryan and Pat Flanagan in Chicago; Ty Tyson in Detroit; Fred Hoey in Boston; France Laux in St. Louis; Tom Manning in Cleveland; and Harry Hartman in Cincinnati. Each developed his own unique style and vast, local followings.
Meanwhile, though he covered the World Series from 1923 to 1931, McNamee was only working a handful of baseball contests per year because New York teams rarely broadcast regular-season games.
Famous for being the first
Baseball broadcasting was passing him by. Major League Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis valued seasoned professional announcers and pushed NBC (RCA’s network) to move McNamee to pregame coverage for the 1932 World Series. Though McNamee continued to be involved in coverage of the Fall Classic – including narrating a newsreel of Game 3 of the 1935 World Series – he’d been marginalized.
Given his initial fame and role in pioneering the coverage of baseball on radio, why has McNamee been overlooked for so long by the Baseball Hall of Fame?
All previous Frick winners have had long careers, usually with one team. Although some eventually had national profiles, most cut their teeth on the day broadcasts, slowly winning the adulation of a team’s fans. But McNamee was baseball’s broadcast primal star, famous for being the first but not necessarily the best. Longtime Braves and Astros announcer Milo Hamilton, himself a Frick winner, gave a succinct explanation for why McNamee wasn’t in the Hall of Fame: “He didn’t broadcast baseball long enough.”
But in 2013 the Hall of Fame launched a new system for selecting winners that alternates consideration of announcers from three eras. The era for this batch of inductees – the one ending in the mid-1950s – gave McNamee a second chance.
It’s taken the Hall of Fame some time, and many would call it long overdue. In his 1970 book “The Broadcasters,” famous broadcaster Red Barber celebrated the medium’s pioneers, including Graham McNamee.
As Barber explained, what made them so great was “that nobody had ever been called upon before to do such work. They had to go out and do it from scratch. If ever a man did pure, original work, it was Graham McNamee.”
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Very few of us reading this article ever heard an actual re-created baseball game on the radio, but game re-creation was the norm for away games for nearly every team broadcasting their games on radio from the dawn of broadcasting well into the 1950s. Almost all of us knew that already, but if you didn’t, you know now.
But even though we know, intellectually, that this was the state of the baseball broadcast art, probably very few of us have thought very deeply about how this art was executed. We perhaps don’t often close our eyes and imagine what a re-created baseball game would sound like, and the effort that went into making it sound like a real, live baseball game.
Committee member Bob Barrier has, and he wrote a nice little piece a few years ago about, as he terms it, the aesthetics of re-creating a road ball game on the radio for a team’s fans to enjoy at home. While the whole idea of re-creating a baseball game from a telegraph wire might sound a bit like a silly exercise to undergo, sending broadcast equipment and an announcer on the road was prohibitively expensive at the time, and besides, teams usually had room to house only one broadcast team, obviously for the home team’s broadcast (which probably explains why the Brooklyn Dodgers re-created road games even at the New York Giants’ Polo Grounds, less than 15 miles away). But the fans still wanted and needed to hear their own team play even when they were playing on the road, and thus: the re-creation.
Barrier’s piece is reproduced in full below, having first appeared in the tome entitled Baseball/Literature/Culture: Essays, 2006-2007. Especially illuminating is his interview with Nat Allbright, little known today but widely considered the “king of the baseball re-creators” throughout the Fifties, having worked some 1,500 Brooklyn Dodger road games for the Mutual Network from his studio in, of all places, Washington D.C. During the interview, Barrier asked Allbright to simulate a baseball re-creation for him, and … well, I invite you to just read it, below.
Only the Game Was Real
The Aesthetics and Significance of Re-created Baseball Broadcasting
Robert G. Barrier
The huge success of XM Satellite Radio’s Major League Baseball broadcasts the past two years has highlighted a truth almost forgotten. Even in these days of high-definition television, streaming Internet video, and play-by-play graphical Web sites, baseball on the radio still remains the most compelling, imaginative, nostalgic, and personal way to participate as a “spectator” from a distance. Indeed, radio announcers maintain the seams of nostalgia, and in their different ways make the listener a daily participant in the game. But for some of these listeners, particularly those who lived in the rural South and Midwest from the 1930s to the 1950s, the imaginary stadiums constructed for them came from announcers re-creating the actual games from Western Union tickers miles away from the actual game. The re-created games, which often relied on recorded crowd noises, audio clips of bats hitting the ball or the ball hitting the glove, were also embellished by the imaginative patter of word artists, such as Red Barber or Graham McNamee, who created broadcasts in many instances under the illusion that listeners were hearing a real game from a real stadium.
Early on, electronics connected the nation of fans with largely factual accounts devoid of creative imagination. The earliest commercial radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, broadcast scores during the summer of 1921 and carried the first live broadcast on August 5. The
following year, RCA-Westinghouse broadcast the 1922 Series from the Polo Grounds, arranging for famous sportswriter Grantland Rice to report to an audience, which was called by the New York Tribune “the greatest audience ever assembled to listen to one man” (qtd. in Tygiel 65). Even competing stations in New York went silent so that listeners could hear the broadcasts. But for all of Rice’s brilliant poetry, the creator of the famous image “the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” failed in on-air reporting. He simply described what happened in “a little flat, atonal voice somewhat awkwardly modulated and unmistakably Southern.” Of this experience he would later report, “The broadcast officials wanted me to keep talking. But I didn’t know what to say” (qtd. in Tygiel 68).
The tradition of the personalized broadcast began in 1923 with Graham McNamee’s conveying the atmosphere and the imagination of on-air baseball. A singer brought to New York to develop his talent, he “understood pacing, style, and performing for an audience, even one he could not see” (Tygiel 69). Whereas the Western Union operator was expected to remain, “perfectly cool and collected, no matter what happens … and would be chided by the manager if he did bring in personality,” McNamee recognized that the new medium required a different approach: “to avoid dead silence, I found myself more than ever falling back on general description. And that is where the imagination comes in” (qtd. in Tygiel 69).
Though sportswriters groused and criticized the showmanship, McNamee successfully made every listener a spectator, enabling them “to use their eyes” by “paint[ing) word pictures that other minds could feast upon…. Very little imagination was required … especially when the announcer turned his microphone on the roaring, booing and cheering crowd” (Tygiel 71). Very soon teams in the Midwest began regular season broadcasts, especially in Chicago, but not in the eastern cities where there were larger population centers as well as many more major newspapers. In more scattered areas of the Midwest, broadcasts could extend the drawing area to 100 miles or more. Even the Sporting News, self-described as “baseball’s bible,” criticized broadcasts because of economics—fans wouldn’t pay for what they got free. Essentially, radio coverage democratized Major League Baseball, making it more accessible and intimate to those far away from the stadiums; as Jules Tygiel observes, “the process had become more familial or individualistic, replacing the communal experience with a more isolated one” (72).
As the listening audience expanded, so too did the need for announcers like McNamee who approached the game with a showman’s view. Many of the most popular announcers of the 1940s and 1950s were southerners, including industry legends like Red Barber, Mel Allen, Arch McDonald, Ernie Harwell, and Russ Hodges, all of whom made famous peculiar southern expressions and maintained a narrative rhythm reminiscent of the southern oral traditions of local color and humor. Perhaps it is this storytelling tradition—and their professionalism—that enabled so many of these broadcasters to approach baseball games as story, humor, and spectacle while maintaining the reportage narrative that was their main duty. Harwell, recently retired after 56 years of broadcasting, accounts for the distinctive southern voice as a natural result of the southern oral tradition, so many stories told at evenings on the porch or in the kitchen (Kaufman).
One might trace this loquaciousness back to Mark Twain and the southwestern humor tradition, but there remains a significant difference. Whereas the point of a Simon Wheeler or a Eudora Welty character is to stray far afield from the initial conversational subject, southern baseball announcers restrained themselves to commentary between pitches (Harwell says he never told a story he could not finish within the inning and he insisted upon giving the score as often as possible). It was a studied but natural patter of talk, not an extended yarn. And also there was the distinctive southern accent:
Ernie Harwell still sounds like old radio…. His style is conversational, sure, but he’s not just talking. He’s broadcasting…. People talk about his Southern lilt, and you can hear it on the air if you’re listening for it, but more noticeable is the precise, clipped diction of a 1940s radio man who has to make himself understood through the static and noise of a distant Philco (Kaufman).
Likewise, southerners also played a significant role in the lost art of re-creating live baseball games for later broadcast. In the first radio recreated games, which date to 1921, a reporter telephoned details of the action to a radio announcer, who in turn dictated the game to a very limited audience. Many re-creators made no bones about the fact that they were re-creating but others went to great lengths for the illusion of reality. Willie Morris, in North Toward Home, praises McNamee for making each game an epic contest and recounts how he won money from his childhood acquaintances by predicting upcoming events in re-created games after he had heard the real games earlier via shortwave. And even though, according to Dodger re-creator Nat Allbright, the law required re-creator announcers to make a statement that the game was re-created at both the beginning and the end, most listeners thought the games were real. In the ’30s and ’40s, almost all teams—major and minor—re-created games,with most teams re-creating only away games to save money. Many older fans recalled how they preferred the created game to the actual, since the re-creator had a 10 to 30 minute lead time, except that occasionally the teletype would fail. Ronald Reagan, who did Cubs games throughout the Midwest, had to invent, on more than one occasion, marathon foul balls, fights, or power failures.
Perhaps the most popular of the studio broadcasters, Allbright led the second largest network (next to Mutual’s Game of the Day) –26 states and 117 stations—out of Virginia from 1950 to 63. Allbright
calls what he did a science, using both high and low technology. High-tech resources included tape recordings of “background roar” and “excited crowd” noises; a recording of each stadium’s separate singing of the national anthem; and having a colleague listen to the live game in the next room, or following it via Morse code. Low-tech tools included rapping a pencil against the table for the crack of the bat, crinkling a cigarette wrapper for thunder, or having someone in a nearby bathroom play the role of the echoing PA announcer (Allbright).
Although they had a lead-time from the actual games, the successful re-creators also had to follow the broadcast atmosphere created by McNamee and other live announcers. To Allbright and other re-creators, the artful process required pacing, pause, timing, and building to control the whole tempo of the broadcast. Having the extra time gave a re-creating announcer an opportunity to add the effective comments for his team. For example, broadcasting live, Russ Hodges is famous for screaming after Bobby Thompson hit the “shot heard around the world” in the Giants -Dodgers playoff in 1951:”The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” Allbright, the Dodger re-creating announcer, did it this way:
I announced that Clem Labine was coming in to pitch, then had to change it to Ralph Branca when that was corrected. Suddenly, my associate in the next room started waving his arms like the ball was gone. When he handed me a piece of paper confirming what had happened. I said, ‘A drive to left field—back, back, and that ball is gone! … Unbelievable! It’s out, and I’ll see you next season” (qtd. in Heller).
To further illustrate the pacing and process of re-created games, Allbright, during a personal interview, agreed to re-create a game from the ’50s, while sitting in the glass-enclosed office. While the action below likely only exists in his mind, one should notice how he still uses pacing, byplay, tempo, imagery, and building to make this imaginary game come alive:
Alright, Let’s see…. We’ll open it up in the top half of the ninth inning. The Dodgers lead 3-2. The Giants have the tying run at third and the go-ahead run is at first base with one down. Mueller is on at third and he’s talking now to Leo Durochcr. That’s the tying run and Dusty Rhodes at first for the New York Giants. Dusty came in and hit for Jorgenson here in the ninth and singled to right in front of Carl Flunk. And the batter will be Willie Mays—number 24. He has one for three, right-handed batter. He doubled in the fourth and drove in a run.
Don Newcombe on the mound for the Dodgers, pulls off his cap, walks over now, picks up the rosin bag, looks toward third.
Gil Hodges with the go-ahead run at first base will play close to the bag. He will play the runner Rhodes. He will not be in back of him. Andy Palko back in deep left. Duke Snider, left center. Carl Furillo in right-center field. With Don Hoak third. Pee Wee Reese at shortstop and … Jackie Robinson at second and Gil Hodges at first.
Campanella, in front of the plate, holds up one finger now. Runners on the corners as Willie Mays moves into the batter’s box. Don Newcombe cannot pitch around Willie Mays because the on-deck hitter is Bobby Thompson.
Mays swinging his club back and forth. Newcombe stretches. Looks back to first. Now takes his foot off the rubber. Wipes … pitching hand across DODGERS on the front of the uniform.
Game time tomorrow evening. Friday, will be at seven. Saturday afternoon at one and Sunday at one. And that will finish up the four game set.
The Dodgers lead the National League by four games over these Giants. Newcombe ready, comes in with the pitch … and it’s … inside, close for a ball.
Mays steps out of the batter’s box … goes down for a handful of dirt. It’s a bright sunny day with a temperature of about 84 degrees … at Ebbets Field and the wind is blowing … toward right. [Three second delay.]
Newcombe ready on the mound, looks in for the sign, set and delivers. And a SWING and a MISS for a strike.
It’s one and one for Willie Mays. We’re in the bottom half of the ninth inning. Bobby Thompson on deck and it’s a 3-2 ball game. The Dodgers lead by one. Tying run is at third.
Newcombe … on the mound. This guy can let it go. He can make that ball look like an aspirin tablet.
Don Newcombe. Ready. Set. Comes down with the pitch. There’s a GROUND ball past the mound, going to Reese. Reese up with it, over to Robinson. THERE’S ONE. Back to first: A DOUBLE PLAY AND THE DODGERS GET OUT OF IT IN THE NINTH and WIN THE BALL GAME by a score of 3 to 2 over the New York Giants.
So they win the first game of this four game set. And Newcombe and Roy Campanella down below celebrating. There’s Reese, Jackie Robinson, and Gil Hodges. And it’s the HATED Giants GO DOWN in the first game of this four game set.
This is Nat Allbright at … Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York. Re-created and … tomorrow game time will be at seven.
I’ll be back right after these words from … YOUR local … beer dealer.
Without the constant noise level of the imaginary crowd, the hum and buzz of excitement, note how Allbright moves in a controlled tempo, with few breaks in the delivery and only one mistake (calling the Giants’ inning the bottom half though the game was at Ebbets Field—perhaps unconsciously thinking of the infamous Thompson home run?). In fact, Allbright’s abilities to convey the color and tension of a real game by his delivery stand out even more without the canned noise. Notice also that Allbright makes the event and his “telling of it” personal without intervening in the game: ‘It’s a bright sunny day with a temperature of about 84 degrees … at Ebbets Field and the wind is blowing … toward right,” hesitating, as if he were actually checking the pennants blowing in the outfield. Another aspect of the “personal” in Allbright’s above sample that differs from some earlier broadcasters and many current ones is that he functions first as a reporter, rather than a fan. Though obviously a “homer” he refrains from pulling directly for the Dodgers, an element many modern team network broadcasters bypass.
The Allbright re-creation transcribed above reveals how “reportage” can be made vivid by rhythm, figurative language (Newcombe “can make that ball look like an aspirin tablet”), pauses, and pacing. As an indication of the difference in engagement between re-created baseball by Nat Allbright and on-site baseball broadcasting, one might compare the 1950s’ broadcasts of Mutual’s Game-of-the-Day (live) and Nat Allbright’s re-created Dodgers games. By that time, many major league teams were playing games at night during the week and so many weekday games came from Wrigley Field or from minor league venues. I recall coming home from school September afternoons to hear those Mutual games from Chicago and even sometimes from Yankee Stadium when the weather turned too cold for night games: those were long afternoons filled with leisurely and slow games, the action interspersed with banter, such as how announcer Bob Neal’s last name backwards seemed to spell “Lean,” a conversation I somehow recall from fifty years ago! Though I did not perceive of it until recently when I heard the Allbright re-creation, the re-created games from the Dodger network were far more appealing because of the constant hum and ebb and flow of canned background ”noise far louder than any real stadium could be, each inning rising to a climactic sound level, almost like eighteen horse races. In another indication of the ”reality” of the re-created broadcasts, Allbright recounted during the interview how some of the thousands of listeners from small towns of the South and the Midwest attending spring training games in Florida would seek out the Dodger’s broadcast booth and refuse to accept that Red Barber was the only on-site announcer. Indeed, I remember my own friends in 1957 ready to fight me for telling them that Nat Allbright’s broadcasts were re-created, a fact I had learned from the Sporting News.
Allbright remembers Mel Allen telling him that the baseball re-creator had the best of both worlds, broadcasting the games yet getting to remain at home and “sleep in (his) own bed at night.” In many similar ways, the lucky listeners of those re-created games also had the best circumstances possible: the ability to hear the results of the game, the opportunity to listen to a word artist’s re-creations, and the pleasures of the imagination to participate in the game itself in one’s mind’s eye—and ear.
Allbright. Nat. Personal Interview. 1 Match 2006.
Heller, Dick. “Nat Allbright was the Dodgers to many fans in the 50s.” The Washington Times 10 March 2003: A10.
Kaufman, King. “Baseball Greetings. Ernie Harwell.” Salon Online 27 August 2002. http://archive.solon.com/people/feature/2002/08/27/harwell/index5.html (accessed I5 July 2007).
Morris, Willie. North Toward Home. Oxford: University of Mississippi Press.1999.
Tygiel, Jules. Past Time: Baseball as History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
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!
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.
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.”
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.)
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.