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John F. Schneider & Associates, LLC
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The broadcasting cage at Griffith
Stadium in Washington
DC in the early days of commercial radio, 1924. (Library of Congress)
J. Edward White
calls an early sports broadcast for WJZ in New York.
His assistant, announcer Ted Husing (left),
would go on to become one of early radio’s best-known sports
interviews Babe Ruth in the bleachers during a Yankees broadcast.
Graham McNamee and
George Hicks broadcast a Stanford University football game for NBC in
Ted Husing and Les
Quailey broadcast a game. Husing’s hand-held microphone was developed
especially to give him flexibility and freedom of movement while
are seen here with the specialized spotter system they developed for
Don Dunphy (R)
broadcasts a boxing match in 1941 for the Mutual Radio Network. Bill
Corum (L) provides the color commentary between rounds.
Hal Totten broadcast
the Chicago Cubs games over WGN starting in 1924.
Here he gives a sports report on the NBC
network in 1935.
broadcast all the Chicago White Sox home games for NBC’s WENR in
Ronald “Dutch” Reagan
began his public career as a popular sportscaster on WHO and WOC in
Early West Coast
sports broadcasters (L-R): Jack
Don Thompson, Ernie Smith.
broadcasting required specialized portable audio equipment, often
operated. Here, the
Martin Shuler and
Newton Loken at WLB in Minneapolis (now KUOM) show off some of their
WWJ announcer Ty Tyson
called the Detroit
Tigers baseball games from 1927 to 1942.
ABC sportscaster Bill
Stern with heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano, 1955.
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.
its earliest days, radio broadcasting threatened to create a revolution
reporting. It was
the first mass medium with
the capability of relaying an event to the public as it happened. When KDKA in Pittsburgh
Harding-Cox presidential election returns in November, 1920, it scooped
newspaper in the country by transmitting the returns as they were being
from the precincts. Newspaper
wouldn’t see the results until the morning after.
its great advantage of immediacy, radio did not become a dominant news
until the start of World War II. Throughout
the 1920s and 30s, newspaper owners were successful in keeping the
agencies from selling their services to broadcasters, and radio
secondary source for news. But,
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
industry’s earliest years.
October, 1920, a month before KDKA’s famous broadcast, WWJ in Detroit
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
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
the stadium to the studios during football games.
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
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
was also a huge sport in the 1921, and KDKA also broadcast the first
match on April 11, when Florent Gibson broadcast a blow-by-blow
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
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
application for WJY, a one-time special-event station to be built for
express purpose of broadcasting the event from Boyles Thirty Acres in
City. One of
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.
line for the event. J.
Owen Smith, a New
York radio engineer and well-known ham operator, would operate 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
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
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
instead of a live broadcast of
White’s blow-by-blow description of the fight, listeners heard the
the fight as described by engineer Smith, who heard White’s voice on a
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
match. He quickly
replaced the tube to
finish the broadcast, burning his hands so badly in the process that he
to the hospital afterwards.
all these setbacks, the WJY project was considered a success. About 300,000 people were
estimated to have
heard the broadcast. Because
had home radio receivers in 1921, most of the listeners paid to hear
over speakers mounted in theaters and bars around the Northeast. For many, it was their first
radio, which would help feed the explosion in radio receiver sales the
years later, Major J. Andrew White was again chosen by RCA to announce
World Series over WJZ, which had opened a few months after the WJY
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
and announced the game based on ticker-tape or Morse code descriptions
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
“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,
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
live broadcasting prohibitively expensive.
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
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
a few years, those
skills led him to be hired across town at the new CBS network in 1927,
was their primary sports announcer until 1946.
his football broadcasts, Ted Husing’s assistant and right-hand man was
named Les Quailey, who was possibly sports broadcasting’s first
the leisurely sport of baseball, football
games sometimes moved swiftly, and it was a challenge to accurately
the game. Husing and Quailey confronted this issue by inventing a
annunciator, which they adapted from an apartment building’s electric
system. In the stadium, while Husing was describing each play into the
microphone, Quailey observed the action through a special pair of
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.
biggest competitor in New York City was the AT&T station, WEAF,
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
with the broadcast, giving him guidance on how to speak into a
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
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
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
profession in real time. The
loved his descriptions of the remaining series games, letters poured in
thousands, and Graham McNamee was soon named by a listener poll to be
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.
45 days into the life of the new NBC network, McNamee was assigned to
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
and on New Year’s Day, 1927, millions of radio fans heard McNamee’s
description of the Rose Bowl game from Pasadena, as Stanford and
to a 7-7 tie.
the success of the Rose Bowl broadcast, McNamee was assigned to
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
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
many decades. In
the meantime, McNamee
became NBC’s principal sports announcer, and he was tapped to announce
the network’s World Series broadcasts through 1934. He also was
of NBC’s plum news events, such as the national political party
presidential inaugurations, and his voice was heard continuously on NBC
his sudden and untimely death in 1942.
He was posthumously inducted to both the National
Sportswriters and American Sportscasters Association Halls of Fame.
the mid 1930’s, as McNamee gradually shifted his attention away from
broadcasting in favor of emceeing several popular studio entertainment
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
with a commanding voice and a thorough knowledge of sports. He had become a successful
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
other on the air. In
1939, NBC chose Stern
to call the first baseball and football games ever broadcast on
1942, when NBC was forced to divest of its
Blue Network and its name was changed to the ABC network, Stern’s
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.
addition to the two big national networks, many local radio stations
sports as a key ingredient of their programming.
WGN in Chicago was one the most important of
these. In 1924, WGN
Indianapolis Speedway race, presenting the 7-hour program from a
specially-constructed soundproof booth.
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
across town at WENR, the
Chicago NBC station, Tris Speaker was calling the games for the
were also dozens of early sports announcers who became regional stars
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
him to a career in motion pictures, and eventually to the presidency of
over in Cincinnati, WLW
owner Powel Crosley purchased the Reds baseball team in 1934 and hired
to announce the games over his station.
had been broadcasting sports for four years, but had never attended a
league baseball game. Nonetheless,
called the first game he ever attended on WLW, and then continued as
the Reds announcer
for the next five seasons. In
became the announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and later succeeded Ted
at CBS in 1946.
the 1920’s and early 30’s, the West Coast had a separate radio world
from the rest of the country because of a lack of network phones lines
time difference. Sports
as important there as in the rest of the country, with college football
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
were heard regularly over the West Coast’s several regional networks.
sports announcer’s popularity was not limited to just baseball and
specialized in the broadcasts of boxing matches, and he was heard on
television from 1939 to 1981. It
estimated that he called over 2,000 fights in his long career.
THE MODERN ERA
the 1950’s and 60’s, major league sports had become a big business, and
task of the play-by-play announcer was a highly specialized job. Some announcers became so
with the teams they broadcast that they were hired as employees of the
instead of the stations, Dozens
sportscasters come to mind from this period, including Russ Hodges,
Harwell, Mel Allen, Jack Brickhouse, Harry Caray, Dizzy Dean.
sports broadcasting has developed into a highly complex and
form. We now have
hundreds of 24-hour all-sports
radio stations across the country, and there are more than seven ESPN
Night Football attracts
twelve million viewers each week, and the Super Bowl sees more than 100
viewers each year. Thousands
employed bringing major league sports into peoples’ living rooms and
all have built careers
on the backs of White, McNamee, Husing, and the other forerunners who
the art of sports broadcasting. They
the art of describing a sporting event in real time to a mass audience,
methods they created are still used today by thousands of modern
love of sports has spawned many billion-dollar
businesses, and they all owe a debt to the pioneer radio sportscasters
1920’s and 30’s, who first brought live sports into American homes
- “The First Quarter Century pf
Broadcasting” by E.P.J. Shurick
- “You’re On The Air” by Graham
- “My Eyes Are in My Heart” by Ted
- "Battle of the Century”, the WJY
by Thomas H. White
- “Radio and its Impact on the Sports
Eric C. Covil
- “Raised on Radio” by
This article appeared in the Spectrum Monitor Magazine, December, 2017
John F. Schneider & Associates, LLC