BEGINNINGS OF SPORTS BROADCASTING
By John Schneider, W9FGH
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Red Barber broadcast the Cincinnati Reds baseball games from 1934-39, the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1939-46, and the New York Yankees from 1954-66. He was heard on NPR's "Morning Edition" from 1981 until his death in 1992.
From its earliest days, radio broadcasting threatened to create a revolution in news reporting. It was the first mass medium with the capability of relaying an event to the public as it happened. When KDKA in Pittsburgh broadcast the Harding-Cox presidential election returns in November, 1920, it scooped every newspaper in the country by transmitting the returns as they were being reported from the precincts. Newspaper readers wouldn’t see the results until the morning after.
Despite its great advantage of immediacy, radio did not become a dominant news medium until the start of World War II. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, newspaper owners were successful in keeping the press news agencies from selling their services to broadcasters, and radio remained a secondary source for news. But, the reporting of sporting events was another story. Sports and radio were a made for each other like ball in glove, and the country’s broadcasters were quick to capitalize on that advantage from the industry’s earliest years.
MORE THAN SCORES
In October, 1920, a month before KDKA’s famous broadcast, WWJ in Detroit was already broadcasting the final scores of the World Series games. But it was immediately clear that audiences wanted to hear details of the game’s progress, not just the final scores. KDKA had a solution to this dilemma on August 5, 1921, for a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Philadelphia Phils played at Forbes Field. They sent a staff member to sit in the top row of the bleachers near the outside fence. At the end of each inning, he would drop a slip of paper to a colleague waiting just outside the fence, and he would race to a pay phone to call in the game’s progress to the station. That fall, WLB, the University of Minnesota’s station, did them one better by forming a line of students to relay notes from the stadium to the studios during football games.
The first known live play-by-play broadcast took place in October, 1921. All the Worlds Series games were played in New York City that year, as the Giants faced off against the Yankees, and so KDKA installed a wire line from Pittsburgh to the Polo Grounds in New York and assigned sportswriter Grantland Rice to broadcast the games live. The next month, KDKA announcer Harold Arlin described a Pittsburgh vs. West Virginia football game - the first live football play-by-play broadcast.
Boxing was also a huge sport in the 1921, and KDKA also broadcast the first known boxing match on April 11, when Florent Gibson broadcast a blow-by-blow description of the Johnny Ray vs. Johnny Dundee fight live from ringside. But the biggest fight of that year was the “Battle of the Century”, on July 2, 1921, when Jack Dempsey defeated Georges Carpentier for the heavyweight championship title. RCA saw this fight as a great opportunity to demonstrate the potential of radio with a live broadcast of the fight. For that purpose, it filed a license application for WJY, a one-time special-event station to be built for the express purpose of broadcasting the event from Boyles Thirty Acres in Jersey City. One of radio’s earliest celebrities, Major J. Andrew White, was picked to announce the game, and a Navy longwave rig (1600 meters, 187 kHz) was borrowed from the G.E. transmitter assembly line for the event. J. Owen Smith, a New York radio engineer and well-known ham operator, would operate the transmitter.
The project was beset with one obstacle after another. The owner of the fight venue refused to allow the transmitter to be located at the arena, and so it was installed 2-1/2 miles away at the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railway terminal in Hoboken. A mammoth antenna was suspended between the terminal’s clock tower and a radio tower on the property, and an AT&T phone line was installed to carry the broadcast from ringside to the transmitter. But on the day of the broadcast, the AT&T engineers refused to connect the telephone line to the transmitter, in what was apparently a political dispute between AT&T and RCA. So instead of a live broadcast of White’s blow-by-blow description of the fight, listeners heard the details of the fight as described by engineer Smith, who heard White’s voice on a phone held up to his ear for the entire four-hour broadcast. If that wasn’t stressful enough for Smith, a transmitter tube suddenly overheated and burst during the last round of the match. He quickly replaced the tube to finish the broadcast, burning his hands so badly in the process that he had went to the hospital afterwards.
Despite all these setbacks, the WJY project was considered a success. About 300,000 people were estimated to have heard the broadcast. Because few people had home radio receivers in 1921, most of the listeners paid to hear the fight over speakers mounted in theaters and bars around the Northeast. For many, it was their first exposure to radio, which would help feed the explosion in radio receiver sales the next year.
Three years later, Major J. Andrew White was again chosen by RCA to announce the 1924 World Series over WJZ, which had opened a few months after the WJY broadcast and was one of New York’s biggest stations. But this was to be a “re-creation” of the games instead of a live broadcast. In a game re-creation, the announcer sat comfortably in the studio and announced the game based on ticker-tape or Morse code descriptions of each play that were sent from the stadium. White created the impression of a real play-by-play broadcast for his listeners, inventing imaginary details to fill in the gaps between the raw ticker-tape data.
Baseball “re-creations” were not unusual in the early days of radio. Previously, announcer Tommy Cowan had re-created ball games for WJZ, and other stations, like WJAG in Norfolk, Nebraska, and KQV in Pittsburgh, had also adopted the technique. The latter station went so far as adding the sound effects of a cheering crowd, band music, and the crack of the bat. Sports re-creations, were a common practice at radio stations around the country into the 1940s, especially for away games where phone line costs made live broadcasting prohibitively expensive.
Major White was also tapped by WJZ for football broadcasts, and for a 1924 Penn-Cordell game, he brought along a young WJZ studio announcer to assist him. Ted Husing had played some football in college, and so was chosen to add some color commentary for the broadcast. But when it was time for the broadcast, Husing was alone in the bleachers, with White nowhere to be seen. Having no other options, he started the broadcast on his own and soldiered on until White finally arrived. His performance impressed the station management, and Husing’s career focus was soon changed to sports. He excelled at describing live events due to his sports knowledge, thorough preparations, fast-paced descriptions and ample vocabulary. Within a few years, those skills led him to be hired across town at the new CBS network in 1927, where he was their primary sports announcer until 1946.
For his football broadcasts, Ted Husing’s assistant and right-hand man was a man named Les Quailey, who was possibly sports broadcasting’s first “spotter”. Unlike the leisurely sport of baseball, football games sometimes moved swiftly, and it was a challenge to accurately describe the game. Husing and Quailey confronted this issue by inventing a mechanical annunciator, which they adapted from an apartment building’s electric doorbell system. In the stadium, while Husing was describing each play into the microphone, Quailey observed the action through a special pair of wide-angle binoculars and identified the players involved in the action. When Quailey pushed the appropriate button, the players’ names would light up in ground glass windows on the device, and they. It was an invention created out of necessity, and it helped to improve accuracy when describing a game.
WJZ’s biggest competitor in New York City was the AT&T station, WEAF, and its chief announcer was a young man named Graham McNamee. For the 1923 World Series, WEAF hired a newspaper sportswriter to call the game, and McNamee was chosen to assist him with the broadcast, giving him guidance on how to speak into a microphone. McNamee himself was not well-versed in baseball, and it was felt that the veteran sportswriter’s deep knowledge of the game would make the broadcasts a success. But baseball moves along slowly, and the moments between the plays were filled with long periods of silence. Management became increasingly frustrated with the sportswriter’s dry and uninspired descriptions of the games. Finally, in the fourth inning of the third game, McNamee was asked to take over the microphone. Although he lacked the sportswriter’s knowledge of the sport, he possessed a keen talent for describing what he observed around him in great detail and with enthusiasm. Between each play, he would describe the ambiance in the stadium, the weather, the activities of the players in the dugouts, those of the fans in the bleachers, and hundreds of other small details. For the first time, an announcer was injecting realism and excitement into the game for an unseeing radio audience. In 1924, announcing play-by-play sports was entirely new, and McNamee had no predecessors to copy - he was inventing the techniques of a brand new profession in real time. The WEAF audience loved his descriptions of the remaining series games, letters poured in by the thousands, and Graham McNamee was soon named by a listener poll to be the country’s most popular radio announcer. In 1926, when RCA bought WEAF, brought it under the same roof with WJZ and formed the new NBC radio network, McNamee became its star announcer.
Barely 45 days into the life of the new NBC network, McNamee was assigned to announce an event that had never before been attempted - the country’s first live coast-to-coast sports broadcast. NBC leased over 4,000 miles of telephone lines to connect its more than 50 stations, and on New Year’s Day, 1927, millions of radio fans heard McNamee’s vivid description of the Rose Bowl game from Pasadena, as Stanford and Alabama fought to a 7-7 tie.
After the success of the Rose Bowl broadcast, McNamee was assigned to announce dozens more sporting events on both a national and international level. But, although he was a skilled and popular announcer, he had not played sports in school and so he lacked the deep knowledge of sports that was becoming more essential. So in 1928, to augment his rudimentary knowledge of the game, NBC assigned an announcer from KFI in Los Angeles to assist him. He was a former football player from Colorado named Don Wilson. That national exposure jump-started Wilson’s radio career, and he went on to become the announcer for Jack Benny’s radio and television programs for many decades. In the meantime, McNamee became NBC’s principal sports announcer, and he was tapped to announce all of the network’s World Series broadcasts through 1934. He also was assigned many of NBC’s plum news events, such as the national political party conventions and presidential inaugurations, and his voice was heard continuously on NBC until his sudden and untimely death in 1942. He was posthumously inducted to both the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters and American Sportscasters Association Halls of Fame.
In the mid 1930’s, as McNamee gradually shifted his attention away from sports broadcasting in favor of emceeing several popular studio entertainment programs, the NBC sportscaster crown was passed to Bill Stern. Hired in 1937 to host the Colgate Sports Newsreel and Friday night boxing broadcasts, Stern was a fast-talking announcer with a commanding voice and a thorough knowledge of sports. He had become a successful sports broadcaster in spite of having lost his left leg in an automobile accident. Soon, Stern and Ted Husing became fierce competitors, working for rival networks, and the two broadcasters would often snipe at each other on the air. In 1939, NBC chose Stern to call the first baseball and football games ever broadcast on television. In 1942, when NBC was forced to divest of its Blue Network and its name was changed to the ABC network, Stern’s contract went with the sale, and he remained a popular voice at ABC until 1956. Afterwards, he was heard on the Mutual Radio Network well into the sixties.
In addition to the two big national networks, many local radio stations adopted sports as a key ingredient of their programming. WGN in Chicago was one the most important of these. In 1924, WGN broadcast the Indianapolis Speedway race, presenting the 7-hour program from a specially-constructed soundproof booth. The same year, WGN broadcast live football games from every campus in the Big Ten, as well as Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Southern California. In 1925, it broadcast the Kentucky Derby from Louisville. All of this represented a huge investment by the station in leased telephone lines. Also starting in 1925, WGN broadcast all home games of the Chicago Cubs from Wrigley Field, with Hal Totten at the microphone. Meanwhile, across town at WENR, the Chicago NBC station, Tris Speaker was calling the games for the American League White Sox.
OTHER NOTABLE SPORTSCASTERS
There were also dozens of early sports announcers who became regional stars due to the huge followings their broadcasts attracted. In 1924 in Detroit, WWJ announcer Ty Tyson broadcast his first play-by-play event, a University of Michigan football game. Then in 1927 he called his first Detroit Tigers game, and he continued doing the Tigers games over WWJ until 1942. In Iowa, Ronald “Dutch” Reagan parlayed his football experience at Eureka College into a sportscaster’s job at WHO and WOC. He did both live play-by-play broadcasts and baseball re-creations. His notoriety led him to a career in motion pictures, and eventually to the presidency of the country. Meanwhile over in Cincinnati, WLW owner Powel Crosley purchased the Reds baseball team in 1934 and hired Red Barber to announce the games over his station. Barber had been broadcasting sports for four years, but had never attended a major league baseball game. Nonetheless, he called the first game he ever attended on WLW, and then continued as the Reds announcer for the next five seasons. In 1939, he became the announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and later succeeded Ted Husing at CBS in 1946.
During the 1920’s and early 30’s, the West Coast had a separate radio world cut off from the rest of the country because of a lack of network phones lines and the time difference. Sports broadcasting was as important there as in the rest of the country, with college football and minor league baseball games being the most popular. From San Francisco, which was the West’s radio center at the time, announcers Jack Keough, Don Thompson, and Ernie Smith were heard regularly over the West Coast’s several regional networks.
The sports announcer’s popularity was not limited to just baseball and football. Announcer Don Dunphy specialized in the broadcasts of boxing matches, and he was heard on radio and television from 1939 to 1981. It was estimated that he called over 2,000 fights in his long career.
THE MODERN ERA
By the 1950’s and 60’s, major league sports had become a big business, and the task of the play-by-play announcer was a highly specialized job. Some announcers became so well identified with the teams they broadcast that they were hired as employees of the teams instead of the stations, Dozens of well-known sportscasters come to mind from this period, including Russ Hodges, Ernie Harwell, Mel Allen, Jack Brickhouse, Harry Caray, Dizzy Dean.
Today, sports broadcasting has developed into a highly complex and commercialized art form. We now have hundreds of 24-hour all-sports radio stations across the country, and there are more than seven ESPN television channels. Monday Night Football attracts twelve million viewers each week, and the Super Bowl sees more than 100 million viewers each year. Thousands are now employed bringing major league sports into peoples’ living rooms and automobiles. They all have built careers on the backs of White, McNamee, Husing, and the other forerunners who invented the art of sports broadcasting. They pioneered the art of describing a sporting event in real time to a mass audience, and the methods they created are still used today by thousands of modern broadcasters. America’s love of sports has spawned many billion-dollar businesses, and they all owe a debt to the pioneer radio sportscasters of the 1920’s and 30’s, who first brought live sports into American homes across the country.
NOTE: This article appeared in the Spectrum Monitor Magazine, December, 2017