Play Ball!

by The New Republic | April 28, 1947

Your radio reporter was having a tough time. The weekly sermon, its text presumably based on what's new, fresh or vigorous in radio, threatened to turn into a dull, depressing dissertation. But along came Old Gold cigarettes, Ballantine's ale and Pabst's Blue Ribbon beer. The day, the preachment, the season were saved. For those ate the generous firms which, in my listening area, bring me respectively Red Barber, Mel Allen and Frankie Frisch.

It was exactly 1:55 p.m. At Ebbets Field the Dodgers were playing a preseason game against the Yanks, while at the Polo Grounds the Giants met the Braves. One could turn the dial from WHN to WINS to WMCA, snatch a few words here, a howl of the crowd there, a bit of color at the third spot. The season had not yet opened, but already baseball was on the air!

The morning paper had brought me word that Ilya Ehrenburg was unhappy with the State Department's short-wave broadcasts, labeled "The Voice of America." But has the stern Russian friend ever heard the voice of Red Barber when the bases were loaded and Stanky took his stance at the plate? Did he ever taste the exquisite pleasure of Mel Allen's cadence, skillfully projected under the mob's roar as Jackie Robinson, first Negro player to cross the majors' color line, drove home Brooklyn's third run? Does he know that the very Frankie Frisch who this moment reports from the Polo Grounds is the former Fordham Flash whose tone is to us mellifluous even when he does pronounce his own team's name as "Gints"?

Come with me to the office of Radio Reports, where it is possible (if you know a radio editor) to hear playbacks of the baseball broadcasts from a dozen cities. Here, indeed, is democracy at work. Hear Harry Heilman at Detroit, or Jack Graney in Cleveland. You may not have liked Arch McDonald's politics, or foe that matter the way he handled the World Series on the air last fall. But hear him now in Washington and note his proficiency--and Washington's our country's capital, gentlemen, and Senators and Supreme Court Justices tune in on Arch. Do you prefer Jim Britt in Boston, perhaps? Boston likes him. Or listen to this. Here speaks a gentleman known only to the New York Times Index as Jerome Herman Dean. To us he is Dizzy, and the term is not derogatory. And this that Dizzy Dean speaks is not code broadcast to guerrillas hiding in the hills of his native Arkansas. No, this is Dean broadcasting the doings of either the Cards or the Browns:

"... The runner just slid into third safely, but he was almost throwed out, the lucky stiff." ... "Just look how calmly and confidentially the batter is standing up down there next to the plate." ... "The side is out and the runners are left at their respectable places."

 

Is there anything closer to our grass roots than baseball broadcasting? There were times, in the infancy of radio, when the airing of baseball games throughout the season was attempted by the networks. There were Giants in those days, and we're not: referring to the Polo Grounds gang. Let's see what happened to them. Graham McNamee is in baritone heaven. His sidekick, Phillips Carlin, is now programming vice-president for the Mutual network. I don't know what happened to Major Andy White since he tried to buck the Radio Corporation of America and the National Broadcasting Company back in the twenties by becoming president of a new, upstart network; but I know that that network is now the Columbia Broadcasting System, and White's real rise to national popularity came via baseball broadcasting. Ted Husing, too, has dropped out of baseball radio during the season, but he's doing very nicely, thank you--about $200,000 worth a year, in fact--as a disc jockey in New York.

Barber and Allen, Frisch and Dean and the other voices of baseball today had not yet dreamed of attaining oracular status when McNamee and Carlin and White and Husing were the rage. But they are on more solid ground now. Baseball broadcasting now comes to the listeners chiefly through non network, local stations. There are excellent business reasons for that phenomenon, and I'll conduct a private seminar any rainy day this season for those readers who crave for the minutiae.

 

The $325,000 or so that the Old Gold people spend for Red Barber's reportage on the Dodgers may look like shrewd business to those who are disposed to suspect benevolence. Sure Red Barber helps sell cigarettes. It's conceded--boasted, in fact--that he also helps pack Ebbets Field. But he is more than just a salesman or just a voice confined to a local station. Like baseball himself, he is a national institution, just as the Dodgers are, just as Brooklyn is. I recall a Webster cartoon wherein a fat gent, with a portable radio on the bleacher seat next to him, was obviously annoying his neighbors. Said the gentleman to his exasperated bench-mates: "Well, y'see, this way I can watch this game an' listen to th' Dodgers at th' same time." And that cartoon was syndicated nationally; and it was not only understood, it was applauded. For Red Barber is a hero.

Red Barber--as well as any of the others whom I have mentioned herein--know their baseball, too. They not only talk baseball, they live it. McNamee--may his spirit never haunt me for these words--was showier, flashier, more excited than these moderns. But he never had time to know the players intimately, to know not only their batting averages or field records but also how they got along with their wives, how many kids they had, their proficiency at hobbies ranging from dice to Chaucer, and where they stood on the Frank Sinatra v. Lee Mortimer affair.

Today's broadcasters of our national game on the local level know. Barber, Allen, Frisch--the same is probably true of your local heroes--have covered that rookie pitcher, or that new shortstop whose uniform is still too clean, ever since a scout first spotted the kid in Muskogee. Consequently, when this same youngster is described on the air, the description is apt to be a sharp etching. And the ballcaster has no script in front of him, either. He ad libs, but expertly, with genuine knowledge. No, he's not as showy as McNamee. But he's solid.

 

What were those doubts which disturbed, those evils which portended before the hour of 1:55 p.m.? I was going to needle the National Association of Broadcasters. I was going to go into further detail on the shortsightedness of the networks, which insist on refusing to recognize writers as human beings--with the result that the Radio Writers' Guild has voted in favor of strike authorization by a vote of 983 to 32. These, and other matters of genuine importance and deep social significance, were to fill my column this week. But right now, if you will pardon me, I have other business. There is an important show I must hear on WQXR. Yes, that's the station that specializes in the best symphonic music. Yes, here is Mozart's symphony No. 40 in G minor that comes now to a glorious finale. To be sure, the next number is, indeed, the Wieniawski concerto, the second at that, in D minor. But it's the station break for which I wait with such impatience. Why? Haven't you heard? Do you know who sponsors WQXR's "Symphonic Matinee," seven days a week, from 4:05 p.m. to 5? You don't? Well, hold on to your galluses, citizen. It's the New York Yankees. I want to hear the score, and I don't mean Wieniawski's.

By Saul Carson

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