Baseball on the Radio in New York City in 1953
Author's Note: Ernie Harwell's birthday is January 25th. When I sat down to start writing this article last month, I had that birthday in mind as a deadline. I thank Rich for allowing me to print it here in time for time for Ernie's birthday. Happy Birthday Ernie. Listening to you broadcast a game was always a pleasure.
In 1953, a baseball fan in New York City turning the radio dial had several delightful choices. The trio of Red Barber, Connie Desmond and Vin Scully were the voices for the Dodgers; Russ Hodges and Ernie Harwell called Giant games; Mel Allen, Joe E. Brown and Jim Woods were the broadcasters for the Yankees. Never before and not since have so many excellent broadcasters congregated in one city in one season to broadcast big league baseball.
Before 1939, the three New York teams, fearful that radio play by play would curtail attendance, kept radio broadcasts out of their ballparks. There were some exceptions to the radio ban. A few opening day and other scattered games were aired. All-Star games and the World Series were broadcast on New York radio stations. However, New Yorkers were unable to hear major league baseball on a regular basis until Larry MacPhail, brought to New York from the Cincinnati Reds to take over operation of a moribund Brooklyn Dodger franchise, broke the radio blackout in 1939.
Red Barber was the first of the seven legendary broadcasters of 1953 to take the air for a New York team for a full season of games. Red's first broadcasting job, taken while he was a student at the University of Florida, was at radio station WRUF in Gainesville, Florida. During his time at WRUF, Barber was able to hear the powerful signal of Cincinnati's WLW at his home in Gainesville. Red followed that radio signal to its source to audition for a job at the radio station that has long been dubbed as "The Nation's Station" because of the wide sweep of its AM transmitter.
In 1934, Red realized his goal of a job at WLW. Powel Crosley, the owner of stations WSAI and WLW in Cincinnati, took over control of the Cincinnati Reds during the Great Depression. With a team and two radio stations, Crosley naturally looked for a broadcaster to air the games of the team he owned. There were plenty of capable broadcasters in the Cincinnati area, but the job went to the young man in Florida who had never broadcast or even seen a big league baseball game.
Red's radio work involved more than sports and baseball broadcasts. Only about twenty Reds games were broadcast on the radio in 1934, so Red worked more as a staff announcer than as a baseball broadcaster in his first year in Cincinnati. The next year Red's baseball broadcasting career blossomed. Larry MacPhail brought lights to the Reds home park in 1935, and the Reds played the Philadelphia Phillies in the first night game in major league history on May 24th. Red Barber broadcast that game over the new Mutual Broadcasting network. Red's call of the major's first night game was the first sporting event ever carried by Mutual. After the end of the regular season Red was back in the national spotlight as a broadcaster for Mutual's coverage of the 1935 World Series between the Cubs and Tigers.
Red stayed in Cincinnati until the end of the 1938 season. Powel Crosley did not want to see his talented broadcaster leave. Red was offered more money to stay in Cincinnati than he would make in Brooklyn, but the lure of greater career possibilities in New York caused Red take the Dodger job.
Mel Allen will always be remembered as the voice of the Yankees. However during his early years as a baseball broadcaster Mel was actually the voice for two major league teams, the Giants and the Yankees. After Brooklyn broke the New York radio blackout, the Yankees and the Giants in 1939 joined forces to broadcast their home games over WABC. Brooklyn broadcast its entire schedule, home and away, although road games were recreated.
The principal broadcaster for the Yankee and Giant games in 1939 was Arch McDonald, a veteran broadcaster who had done Senator games in Washington, DC. McDonald's assistant was Garnet Marks. Marks was fired early in the season, and in June of 1939, Mel Allen was hired to take his place. After the 1939 season, McDonald returned to Washington and Allen became the primary broadcaster for Yankee and Giant home games in 1940.
Like Red Barber, Mel Allen was raised in the South. At the age of fifteen Mel enrolled at the University of Alabama. After completing his undergraduate degree, he began law school, also at the University of Alabama. While in law school, Mel became the public address announcer for University of Alabama football games. Shortly before the 1935 season the radio broadcaster for University of Alabama football games quit. The P.A. announcer was transferred to the radio booth to call Alabama football and a brilliant broadcast career was born.
In 1936, Mel traveled to New York for a winter vacation. While in New York he decided to audition for a job, and he landed a staff position at CBS radio in early 1937. Allen appeared in a variety of capacities for CBS including game shows, soap operas and big band broadcasts. In 1938 Mel appeared along with France Laux and Bill Dyer for CBS radio coverage of the World Series between the Cubs and Yankees. It was the first of many World Series broadcasts for perhaps the most recognizable voice in baseball broadcasting history.
Connie Desmond was the third of the seven legendary broadcasters to arrive in New York. In 1942 Desmond was hired to work at radio station WOR. Connie began his broadcasting career in 1932 in his hometown, Toledo, Ohio. During the 1942 baseball season, Connie teamed up with Mel Allen to broadcast Giant and Yankee home games over WOR. Connie also worked at WOR in a variety of capacities, including music shows that featured his own singing.
Red Barber's assistant broadcaster, Al Helfer, went into the military after the 1942 season. Desmond met with Barber and asked for Helfer's job. Connie was hired as Barber's assistant. In 1943 the Giants and Yankees did not broadcast any of their games, so Connie and Red were the only big league broadcasters on the air in New York during the 1943 season.
After World War II, a pivotal figure in New York baseball broadcasting returned from military duty. Larry MacPhail returned to New York, but not with the Dodgers. MacPhail became a co-owner of the Yankees and once again he brought change to baseball broadcasting in New York. MacPhail was not satisfied with the broadcasting partnership between the Giants and Yankees. In 1946, the Yankees began broadcasting all their games, home and away, on WINS. Mel Allen, also out of the military, returned as the principal Yankee broadcaster. The Giants hired Jack Brickhouse as their primary broadcaster in 1946. For the first time, all three New York teams were on the radio for a complete season of home and away games.
Russ Hodges was the fourth of the legendary broadcasters to reach New York. In 1946, Russ was hired to assist Mel Allen on Yankee broadcasts. Before taking the Yankee job, Hodges broadcast for the Cubs and White Sox in Chicago, and for the Senators in Washington, DC. Like Allen, Russ Hodges was a law school graduate. Hodges stayed with the Yankees until the Giants hired him to be their primary broadcaster for the 1949 season.
Ernie Harwell arrived in New York during the 1948 season to broadcast for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ernie began his baseball career at an early age. When he was five years old he was a bat boy for visiting teams of the minor league Atlanta Crackers. At the age of sixteen, Ernie became the Atlanta correspondent for the "Baseball Bible," the Sporting News. Harwell began his broadcasting career at WSB in Atlanta in 1940 after graduating from Emory University. Ernie broadcast Atlanta Cracker games before the war, and after being discharged from the Marines, he resumed his baseball broadcasting career with the Crackers in 1946.
Ernie was brought to New York to fill in for an ailing Red Barber during the 1948 season. That year, the Dodgers began live broadcasts of their road games. Red Barber became severely ill with a bleeding ulcer during a Dodger road trip. Connie Desmond took over as the sole broadcaster for the Dodgers while Dodger management sought a replacement for Red. The Dodgers looked to Atlanta and the talented Harwell to fill in during Red's illness. However, Ernie was under contract to the Crackers, so Ernie's boss in Atlanta, Earl Mann, needed to be compensated for losing his play by play broadcaster. For the only time in major league history, a team traded a player for a baseball broadcaster when the Dodgers shipped minor league catcher Cliff Dapper to Atlanta for the services of play-by-play broadcaster Ernie Harwell.
Ernie remained with Red Barber and Connie Desmond through the end of the 1949 season. Ernie left the Dodgers to join Russ Hodges in broadcasting New York Giant games in 1950. To the delight everyone who has had a chance to listen to him during the past sixty years, Red Barber chose Vin Scully to replace Ernie in the Dodger broadcast booth.
Vin Scully graduated from Fordham in 1949. While he was in college he worked at the campus FM station and also played the outfield on the varsity baseball team. Vin sent letters to radio stations up and down the Eastern seaboard in search of a broadcasting job after graduation. He landed a temporary job as a summer replacement announcer in Washington, DC for the CBS affiliate, WTOP. Management at WTOP appreciated his talent, but at the end of the summer, they had no permanent job for him. Vin left Washington with a promise of a future job at WTOP, but no immediate employment.
Vin returned to his home in New York and contacted CBS radio in search of a job. Vin was able to meet with Ted Church, who was director of CBS radio news. Church had no job for him, but he did introduce Vin to Red Barber, who in addition to being the Dodger play-by-play broadcaster, was the director of sports for CBS radio. Red had no job to offer, though he was favorably impressed after talking with the youngster.
One of Red's primary duties as director of sports for CBS radio was selecting broadcasters to go to various college games throughout the country for the CBS college football roundup show. Luckily for Vin, in 1949 Red was unable to find a broadcaster for the Boston University-University of Maryland football game played at Boston's Fenway Park. Red remembered the young man he had met at CBS headquarters in New York and arranged for Vin to fill in at the last minute in Boston. Vin's performance impressed Red enough to give the youngster another assignment on the football roundup and a chance to be a major league broadcaster for the Dodgers.
Vin joined the Dodger broadcast booth after an eventful meeting with Red Barber and Branch Rickey that took place after Red returned to New York from a 1949 college football broadcast on the West coast. In an interview with author Ted Patterson for the splendid book, The Golden Voices of Baseball, Vin recalled the terms of his employment: "The agreement reached was that I would go to spring training on a one-month option. Either I make it, or they could lose me in the Everglades."
Jim Woods was the last of the seven legendary broadcasters to reach New York. In 1953, Jim teamed with Mel Allen to broadcast Yankee games. Joe E. Brown joined Woods and Allen for some Yankee broadcasts, but Brown primarily worked on the Yankee pre- and post-game shows. Woods had an eventful career before he arrived in New York. Jim replaced Ronald Reagan as the football radio voice of the Iowa Hawkeyes in 1939. After spending four years in the military during World War ll, Woods eventually landed in Atlanta where he replaced Ernie Harwell after Ernie left the Crackers to broadcast for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Woods followed Ernie's path to New York as a major league broadcaster in 1953.
The seven splendid broadcasters were together in New York for just one season. Ernie Harwell left the Giants to become the principal broadcaster for the Baltimore Orioles in 1954. Harwell's departure was not the only shift in the New York baseball broadcasting landscape. After the 1953 season, Red Barber left the Dodgers to join Mel Allen and Jim Woods in the Yankee broadcast booth.
Vin Scully and Connie Desmond continued as Dodger broadcasters in 1954. However, Connie missed some games because of alcoholism. In 1955, the only year Brooklyn won the World Series, Connie was gone from Dodger broadcasts. Dodger owner Walter O'Malley gave Connie a last chance to continue his career in 1956, but when Connie began drinking again, he was replaced for good by Jerry Doggett before the end of the season.
The Yankee broadcast team of Mel Allen, Jim Woods and Red Barber stayed together until the end of the 1956 season. Phil Rizzuto, whose Yankee playing career ended in 1956, was hired to replace Woods as a Yankee broadcaster. Woods was able to stay in New York by shifting to the Giants broadcast booth in 1957.
The departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants for Los Angeles and San Francisco after the 1957 season forever changed the face of baseball and baseball broadcasting in New York. Vin Scully and Russ Hodges relocated with their teams to the West coast. Remarkably, in 2010, Vin will begin his 61st consecutive season as a Dodger broadcaster. After the 1957 season, Jim Woods departed New York for Pittsburgh, where he teamed with Bob Prince to form one of the best play-by-play tandems in the history of baseball broadcasting.
In 1964, Mel Allen was fired by the Yankees. Mel broadcast for the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians after leaving New York. Mel returned to the Yankees as a cable-TV announcer for SportsChannel in 1978. His primary fame though after 1964 was as the voice for the popular TV show, This Week in Baseball. TWIB with Mel Allen was on the air for seventeen terrific years.
Red Barber, the man who in 1939 was the first broadcaster for a New York team, was the last of the seven legendary broadcasters of 1953 to broadcast for a team in New York. After the 1966 season Red was fired by the Yankees. In the last years before his death, Red returned to radio as a regular guest of Bob Edwards on NPR's Morning Edition.
Sports on New York Radio: A Play by Play History by David J. Halberstam is an absolute gem for anyone interested in the history of sports broadcasting. Ted Patterson's Golden Voices of Baseball is rich in pictures and commentary about the history of baseball broadcasting. The book includes two CD's containing excerpts of the author's interviews with various broadcasters. Both books are well worth their purchase price.
Also useful in this article were interviews of Vin Scully and Red Barber broadcast on Larry King's radio show for Mutual in 1982. A partial transcript of the King-Barber interview is available at Dodger Thoughts. I also used material from a radio program produced by a Cincinnati NPR station that was narrated by Marty Brennaman. The CD is available for purchase through the Cincinnati radio station's internet site.
Ross Porter's essay about Ernie Harwell, gives some details about Ernie's life that I included in my article. Also, Ernie has an audio scrapbook that is rich in information and is a delight to hear. It is available for purchase on the internet.
Some of the material about Mel Allen was taken from Mel's obituary in the New York Times. The obit from the New York Times is online. There are a few errors in the obituary though. Also helpful was a taped interview of Mel done by baseball broadcast historian Curt Smith.
Stan Opdyke grew up on the East Coast listening to baseball on the radio. He still prefers baseball on the radio (if the broadcasters are good) to baseball on TV.