Sports on New York Radio: A Play-By-Play Historyby David Halberstam
In the 1920s something called radio began to change the way sports fans could track their teams. Previously, newspapers had been their only source of information. As radio caught on several far-sighted entrepreneurs, recognizing its power and potential, helped it become the sports fan's medium. Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History gives/i>/i>… See more details below
In the 1920s something called radio began to change the way sports fans could track their teams. Previously, newspapers had been their only source of information. As radio caught on several far-sighted entrepreneurs, recognizing its power and potential, helped it become the sports fan's medium. Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History gives readers a look at the beginnings of New York radio and how the city's broadcasters shaped the face of radio throughout the nation. The play-by-play announcer, from Graham McNamee in the 1920s through Mel Allen, Phil Rizzuto, and Red Barber, to today's top voices, have touched millions of listeners for generations. The stories behind the broadcasts and the men whose voices brought them to life are covered in this provocative and hugely entertaining history.
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THE PUGILISTIC ROOTS
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Radio's roots were in the boxing ring. To review the history of sports on radio without detailing the enormous impact of boxing would be the equivalent of listing the all-time great baseball players and skipping Babe Ruth. Boxing is not only the root of sports on radio but it is the very root of all of radio.
Indeed it goes back to the very beginning. Radio was actually tested before radio stations were licensed in the early 1920s and sporting events were a part of the experiment. At the turn of the century, radio was referred to as "wireless telegraphy." From a steamship off the New York Harbor, Guglielmo Marconi broadcast an immensely popular event at the time, the America's Cup. On shore, under the sponsorship of the New York Herald, eager fans were able to follow the progress of the race in front of the newspaper's building at Herald Square on 34th Street. There was such a rash of people that the crowds blocked traffic.
Once the technology was in place to beam a human voice into the air and have it picked up by receivers over a vast area of land, one of the companies that manufactured receivers, Radio Corporation of America, wanted to create demand to have consumers buy their contraption. RCA's general manager wasDavid Sarnoff. He had been with the American Marconi Company, the forerunner to RCA, which among other things was in the business of ship-to-shore transmission. As early as 1915, when he was just 24, Sarnoff suggested to the Marconi board of directors that it send entertainment and information over the air. He envisioned the public owning what he referred to as "music boxes. "Sarnoff's board didn't take him seriously and mined him down.
By 1921 Sarnoff was in a position of authority and at the urging of Major J. Andrew White, he approved a promotional undertaking which would give radio the ultimate visibility it needed. White, at the time, worked for Sarnoff as editor of Wireless Age, a house organ for RCA that promoted "wireless telegraphy," the company's core business. Sarnoff approved a $1,500 budget of RCA funds for White to arrange for the live transmission of a tremendously promoted heavyweight championship fight between title holder Jack Dempsey and the French champion, Georges Carpentier.
In the early 1920s boxing dominated the sports pages, and coverage of a heavyweight title fight rivaled that of a world war. The World Series and college football, the closest events in popularity, couldn't compare in sheer public interest. Mainstream America was so consumed with boxing that even the exalted New York Times would dedicate half its front page to the fight. Before radio, live event coverage was nonexistent. Newspapers owned an exclusive so folks would run to the newsstands to await the arrival of the delivery trucks. A newspaper was the closest definition of immediacy.
There were problems in accomplishing this lofty mission. To begin with, much of the public didn't have receivers, RCA didn't have a license to transmit nor the equipment with which to do so and it didn't have the permission to run the fight, which was scheduled for July 2, 1921, in Jersey City, New Jersey. White worked cleverly, creatively, and cogently. Tex Rickard, Madison Square Garden's promoter, was in charge of the fight. White convinced him that since 91,000 seats had already been sold and in view of the fact that all of the nation and Europe were hungry for the fight, radio coverage would satiate public thirst. He then sold the Lackawanna Railroad on the idea of using one of its radio towers and the Navy on borrowing one of its transmitters. Next was the major issue of receivers which the general public didn't own yet. So the energetic White convinced theater mogul Marcus Loew and other operators to place receivers in their facilities. Additionally, some manufactured receivers were already in public circulation as well as some homemade sets that were made by amateurs in garages all over the country. Between the receivers the public had and the theater deals in many cities, much of eastern America could get the fight. RCA also petitioned and received approval for a one-day license to transmit. The call letters assigned were WJY. The Major attempted to get newspapers to promote the broadcast but only the New York Times obliged.
White apparently had some P. T. Barnum in him. To gain public support, White took part of the proceeds from ticket revenue at the theaters and earmarked it for two charities, the Navy Club and the American Committee for Devastated France. (This was just after World War I.) This way there was public sentiment in support of the project.
White and the engineering people overcame all the bureaucratic red tape and he was ready to broadcast the fight. One other problem, White had never described a fight. How would he do blow-by-blow? He had participated in some amateur boxing as a youngster, so he prepared for the broadcast by "shadowboxing in front of a mirror and singing out each move," as he would say later. "It soon became apparent to me that no one could accurately describe every blow, so I adopted the scheme of `collecting' punches which is still in use."
July 2 was a rainy day and the main event was delayed. As such, when Major White started his historic broadcast at the pronounced time, a preliminary bout was being waged by two great bantamweights, Frankie Burns and Packy O'Gatty. White started with the undercard and announced that rain or shine the Carpentier-Dempsey heavyweight tussle would begin at 3 P.M.
The broadcast was transmitted over WJY and the fight was heard over a powerful signal that traveled for thousands of miles through the country and Europe. White and Sarnoff were congratulated by telegram the next day from virtually everywhere, including London where RCA's president was vacationing.
The experiment was such a smashing success and showcased radio in such a glittering and indispensable light that it resulted in a proliferation of radio stations and in spiraling consumption of radio receivers. New York's first station was WJZ, now WABC (770). It started broadcasting in October 1921. WEAF, now WFAN (660), and WOR, still retaining its original call letters, and other facilities began broadcasting in 1922. FM was invented in the late 1920s by Edwin W. Armstrong but was hardly a factor until the late 1960s. Westinghouse experimented with radio in Pittsburgh in November 1920 by transmitting the results of the Harding-Cox presidential election on KDKA. On April 11 KDKA took a boxing report from Florent Gibson, a Pittsburgh Post writer who was stationed at the Pittsburgh Motor Square Garden and put it on the air.
Major J. Andrew White will forever be enshrined as America's first sportscaster. His pioneering on-air work continued through the 1920s before he left radio in 1930. Through it all, the young medium of radio benefited by his pertinacity.
WJZ, owned by RCA, amounted to little until its dedication on May 15, 1923. Meanwhile, WEAF went on the air in 1922 under the ownership of AT&T. The telephone company entered the broadcast business hoping to lower the cost of long-distance connections. WOR was based in Newark, New Jersey, where it was owned by Bamberger's Department Store and operated in the basement of its store.
At first, WJZ was run as a noncommercial station. Sarnoff projected RCA's revenue to be generated from receiver sales. He envisioned WJZ to be supported by 2 percent of the gross radio receiver sales. In fact, for several years, he publicly advocated the endowment of stations by philanthropists. Sarnoff projected $22.5 million in receiver sales by 1923. He was right on target.
WEAF did sell commercial blocks of time to sponsors and in 1925 already showed an operating profit of $150,000. Meanwhile, WJZ was losing about $100,000 a year.
Because it was fearful of potential governmental regulation and because it didn't want to get into the entertainment business, AT&T sold WEAF to RCA on July 1, 1926. Sarnoff, now controlling both WJZ and WEAF, formed the National Broadcasting Company on November 15, 1926. Within just a couple of months, NBC broke it down to two programming networks. NBC Red was transmitted over WEAF and NBC Blue over WJZ. By the time that NBC was formed, 5 million homes were equipped with radios and NBC began signing up stations for its network.
White remained with RCA in various capacities including sports broadcaster for WJZ. However, he had been beaten out by Charles Popenoe for the program manager's job and was growing restless. He then focused his attention on forming his own network. With the help of a concert manager and a catch-as-catch-can promoter, White formed the United Independent Broadcasters and signed up 16 stations. The Columbia Phonograph Company shortly thereafter bought into the network and its name was changed to the Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting System.
On September 18, 1927, the new network was born that would eventually compete with NBC. Andrew White was its first president. Losing about $100,000 a month, the network was in desperate need of an infusion of cash. A Philadelphia millionaire invested in the network, but by 1928, still on the verge of bankruptcy, the company was sold to the family of William Paley who dropped "Phonograph" from the company's name. Paley became chief executive of Columbia. But at that point, the Columbia network didn't own a radio station, so until it purchased its own station, WABC (860), now WCBS (880), the network leased time on WOR.
By 1934 the Kunsky-Trendle Corporation, which owned radio station WXYZ in Detroit, was hoping to syndicate its locally produced program, The Lone Ranger. NBC and CBS had turned it down. So WXYZ made arrangements for it to be carried on powerful outlets, WGN in Chicago, WOR in New York, and WLW in Cincinnati. This foursome formed the beginnings of the Mutual Broadcasting System at the end of 1934.
ABC was really a result of a government edict. The Federal Communications Commission ruled that no company could operate more than one network. NBC, owning two networks, the Red and the Blue, sold the Blue to the American Broadcasting System in 1943. Its first owner was Edward J. Noble, the Life Savers Company millionaire. With the purchase came ownership of New York's WJZ.
Since radio's beginnings, most New York stations have had their frequencies, wattage, and call letters changed. In fact, much has changed since the early days of radio when the medium came under the rule of the Department of Commerce. Later it came under the jurisdiction of the Federal Radio Commission, now called the Federal Communications Commission.
With the advent of television in the 1940s doomsayers were predicting the death of radio. But even with the spiraling growth of cable television, the little "music box," as Sarnoff referred to radio in 1915, is booming. Despite enormous competition from traditional and nontraditional media, radio is alive and well in the 1990s.
On July 4, 1923, Dempsey defended his title, defeating Tom Gibbons. The fight was held in Shelby, Montana. WOR provided radio coverage in New York through direct communication with Shelby from its Newark, New Jersey, studio. Its studio announcer, G. A. Frazier, gave a detailed story immediately after the last blow was struck.
Meanwhile at WJZ, White presided over a variety of broadcasts. He covered the 1924 national convention and presidential election, the play-by-play of weekly college football games and occasionally baseball. In 1923 White did the blow-by-blow of the Jack Dempsey-Luis Firpo heavyweight championship fight over a string of stations that included WJZ.
The Major did his homework before broadcasting the brawl. He spent some time at Dempsey's training headquarters at White Sulphur Springs. Again, interest in the title tussle was overwhelming. Receivers were now more common and those who couldn't access the fight on radio went to the theater where it was run on loudspeakers. After the scrap, one magazine wrote, "Argentina heard and the whole United States listened, at home, in the streets and in theaters for five epochal minutes." The battle was savage and the first round memorable. Both pugilists knocked down their opponents more than once. But the Argentinean whacked the American flat out of the ring. Dempsey was pushed back in with the help of the scribes sitting in press row alongside. Both survived being beaten to virtual pulps before they were saved by the bell at the end of the first round.
The minute's rest before the second round served Jack well. He knocked Firpo out in the first minute of the second round to defend his title. One critic later lauded the broadcast of the Major, "who was able to make vivid to the listening millions the things which were occurring with lightning-like rapidity. He is the pioneer, and still the peer of broadcasters."
Don Dunphy, who would become boxing's most prominent announcer, was a kid that September 14 night listening in his Manhattan home to the Major's broadcast from the Polo Grounds. Don recalled a lot of confusion on the broadcast. Remember that the first round was chaotic and that each fighter was knocked to the canvass several times. "'He's up! He's down! He's up! He's down!' White shouted. This would go on and on. White wouldn't say who was up and who was down," Dunphy recalled.
Graham McNamee, a rival of White's at WEAF, later made reference to the Major's confusing description in his 1926 autobiography, You're on the Air. Describing his own baseball broadcast style McNamee wrote, "But there was not so much raw drama, swift action, and suspense as in the ring, where often all the poor announcer can say is, `he's up, he's down; he's down, he's up,'" an obvious shot at White.
A radio in the mid-1920s was hardly the little transistor headsets we use today when we jog around town. Nor by any means was it a transistor that can be placed on a table. Most early radio sets were of the crystal variety. Dunphy described the radio that he used that night to listen to White's call. "It was a wallet-size instrument that looked like a billfold when closed. When opened, it consisted of a coil of wire and a very thin piece of wire called a cat's whisker, touching a small piece of crystal. When this little wire was manipulated to touch different parts of the crystal, it would get different stations. Every so often, the wire would annoyingly slip off the crystal or onto a dead spot. Then a pair of earphones would connect to the set and that would amplify the sound."
In other words, as a kid Dunphy tuned in to the fight and on earphones related the developments to his entire household. It was his blow-by-blow debut. Radios with speakers weren't popular till later, and early on, the speakers were huge. Many were placed on legs so that someone small could fit underneath the set. It was a great hiding place for kids. Vin Scully remembers how as a child he would cuddle on a pillow under the radio, listening to Ted Husing on college football. The youngster was enthralled by the roar of the crowd.
Getting back to White, William Paley in his autobiography, As it Happened, described him "as a good broadcaster, who was known around town for his natty dress which included a prince-nez with a ribbon and a white carnation in his lapel. He had style. He asked me once for an advance of $500 and, when I gave him the money, he said, `Thanks, it's going for a secondhand Rolls-Royce.'"
In 1926 one of the most popular single sporting events in the history of the land took place in Philadelphia. It was the first of two magnificent heavyweight title fights between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey. The buildup was at unprecedented heights. It was absolutely enormous. Everyone, man, woman, and child awaited the battle between these two titans. At the time, America was a country consumed by boxing, so when a formidable contender was about to challenge the champion Dempsey, the country put everything aside to follow this mammoth event. The most conservative gauge to measure the magnitude of interest is the New York Times. Sports are not generally the priority of its coverage. Eight-column, three-line headlines are usually reserved for war, election, and assassinations.
On the morning following the big skirmish, the Times headline was just that: top of the front page, the width of the page, and three bold and pervasive lines. And from the top to the bottom of page one, six of the eight columns were dedicated to coverage of this enormous event.
September 23, 1926, was another huge night for radio. The Daily News reported that 20 million fans from coast to coast were estimated to have listened to the fight and the New York Times ran a verbatim text of the blow-by-blow broadcast the following morning, using a relay team of three shorthand experts to record the quick-paced commentary.
While the country's population at the time was some 125 million, only about 5 million families had radio sets. Thus, if every set in existence was tuned to the fight, an average of four people were listening to every set. Another New York newspaper reported that the blow-by-blow coverage on radio was heard by 25 million. Either way, the numbers were immense and intense. The radio listeners were a lot more comfortable than the 132,000 who attended the championship in Philadelphia where it rained. In New York alone, it was estimated that 2 million listened to the description.
Fans gathered on Broadway, at Union Square, at Madison Square Garden, and at hundreds of shops and other spots where loudspeakers were installed. Knots of fight fans took their places as early as an hour or two before the fight to get a good spot near loudspeakers. Those in Greenwich Village celebrated the victory of Tunney, their native son and intelligent prizefighter, by shouting joyfully and thrashing tin cans while gluing their ears to the radio.
Although it was a couple of months before the NBC Network was officially started, RCA already owned both WEAF and WJZ at the time of the fight. A network of 33 stations was organized to carry the broadcast. Major White was WJZ's top sports announcer and Graham McNamee was WEAF's. In view of this, these two men, who would turn out to be pioneers of sports broadcasting, would call the fight together splitting the blow-by-blow, color, and between-rounds analysis. It was the only major sporting event that these two radio giants would work together. By 1927, of course, White had organized the network that would eventually be CBS so the two men were with competing networks.
McNamee received a letter from Texas congratulating him on a fabulous broadcast. The listener, an appreciative farmer, wondered whether the sponsor of the broadcast, The Royal Typewriter Company, also sold shovels.
McNamee was brutally honest with his listeners. At the end of the eighth round, he announced that the fight was getting "a little boresome." As the fight progressed, McNamee was frank, "Jack Dempsey is only the hollow shell of his former self."
White's description was on target, too, as the fight wound down. The Major:
Jack's left eye is tightly closed now. He is fighting with one eye. His face is all red. He is cut over the eye. Tunney lands a right on Jack's eye again.
The rain is pouring down and making it more difficult to see what is going on.
Jack lands a right hook on Gene's jaw, but it was not a stiff one. Gene was not even staggered by it. It looks as if we are going to have a new champion. Jack is unable to rally.
The transcript of the broadcast indicates that McNamee's style was in the past tense:
Dempsey elects to go in and did manage to deliver his left. It traveled about four inches and caught Gene clean. Gene has just caught Dempsey a hard overhand right on the ear.
White and McNamee were rivals indeed. Although they worked this gigantic event together, the two men went up against one another that fall with different football schedules.
For Major Andrew White, it was the last heavyweight championship fight he would call on network radio. Dempsey and Tunney would meet in a rematch the following September at Soldier Field in Chicago. But what resulted permanently changed the American broadcast sports landscape.
There was fantastic anticipation. Tunney-Dempsey II was being built into a spectacle. The country was again enthralled. The battle of the gladiators was seemingly on everyone's mind.
As arrangements were being made for this fighting phenomenon, the Major had already organized Columbia. He had signed his first group of stations for the new web and for the first time in its very short history NBC had competition.
In anticipation, NBC alertly signed a contract with Madison Square Garden's Tex Rickard, promoter of the fight, for exclusive coverage. But Rickard included a provision that allowed WMAQ, the Columbia outlet in Chicago, to broadcast the fight locally. White in fact was to do the blow-by-blow for WMAQ.
White, president and announcer of what was then the forerunner to CBS, announced that it, too, would make the fight available over its entire network. An incensed M. H. Aylesworth, NBC's president, reiterated that it had exclusive coverage, presenting a contract that he and Rickard had signed. Rickard was adamant that NBC had an exclusive.
But in view of the fact though that Rickard was allowing WMAQ to transmit a description of the fight and that WMAQ was a Columbia affiliate, it was White's plan to pick up WMAQ's feed via AT&T lines and make it available to the entire network. While it sounded coy, White contended that once the signal leaves Soldier Field, Rickard had no jurisdiction over it.
White seemed to be getting little support for his plan even from his Chicago Columbia affiliate. The WMAQ manager, Judith Waller, washed her hands clean of White's networking plan. "We will handle the fight ourselves with Major White at the microphone unless something unforeseen may come up that will reverse Rickard's decision," she said.
White, though, remained steadfast and bold, knowing the value of carrying this huge event on his fledgling network.
Some five days before the huge September 22 melee, AT&T said it stood ready to install the necessary lines if Columbia wanted the service and could remove itself of any legal obstacles that may be encountered. There was also speculation that should Columbia be prevented from carrying the fight, White would enter proceedings to prevent any broadcasting at all.
In the days leading up to the fight, Rickard, NBC, and Columbia all remained unwavering. Rickard and NBC insisted upon the exclusive and Columbia went ahead promoting its fight coverage, listing 15 stations it planned to feed. WOR was to be the New York outlet.
On the morning of the fight, White left for Chicago by airplane at 6 A.M. and the New York papers had both networks covering the fight, the new Columbia and NBC which at that point had 56 outlets. In fact, the New York World reported that fans were perplexed over the situation. "There were several fist fights over whether WEAF (NBC) or WOR (CBS) should be patronized."
What transpired at that point is unclear. Did White get cold feet? Was pressure brought forth by WMAQ? Did AT&T run into installation hassles at Soldiers Field by the fight organizers? One thing is clear. On the day of the big rematch, Columbia went to an Illinois circuit court seeking an injunction to restrain the promoters from giving NBC an exclusive broadcast right.
The court ruled that since NBC had contracted for the exclusive right, it was the most interested party other than the complainants and that it would be unfair to interfere with NBC's privilege or pass judgment on the validity of the contract without giving NBC a chance to be heard. The presiding judge dismissed the Columbia petition for want of equity.
It was the first-ever battle between two broadcasters for rights to a sporting event and a judge characterized an exclusive rights contract as "equity." The episode was a setback to Columbia. Other than in Chicago, NBC had an exclusive. It was a landmark development that would rule sports and dictate billions of network dollars through to the 21st century.
Other than Chicago, McNamee had the country to himself and opened the broadcast poetically, "All is darkness in the muttering mass of crowd beyond the light. It's like the Roman Coliseum." And through the American landscape, folks huddled around loudspeakers on the street or families gathered around the radio, hanging on every one of Mac's words.
The heavyweight tilt turned into a royal battle, one of the most controversial in boxing history. Tunney retained his crown but not before a mammoth and historical seventh-round occurrence, known to fight fans as "the long count." After being peppered by Tunney, Dempsey courageously charged the champion and knocked him to the canvas. Tunney lay clutching blindly for the elusive helping rope. By all counts, he was there for some 15 seconds. But Illinois rules required the fighter to move back to the neutral corner during the count and apparently Jack did not do that immediately. It delayed the count and Tunney not only got up, he regained enough strength to win the fight and retain his crown.
In its bold three-line, top-of- and width-of-the-page headline, the New York Times, heralding the result of the championship fight, included MILLIONS LISTEN ON RADIO. The numerical estimates had the listenership at 50 million. While convicts in Sing-Sing were permitted to listen to the fight, including those on death row, 10 people in the New York area alone actually died of heart attacks while following the rumble on radio.
The morning after the heavyweight tilt, the Daily News reported that McNamee's call was thrilling and called the evening one of "triumph for WEAF, WJZ, and the other stations of the National Broadcasting Company hookup," adding that on the other hand, "it was one of defeat for the newly organized Columbia broadcasting chain which until a few hours before the battle promised it would also give details of the contest but was prevented because of NBC." It went on to chastise Columbia "for making a false start in promising something it could not give." The News concluded its comments by lauding NBC: "The vast radio audience was more than satisfied with the colorful McNamee descriptions." No other heavyweight championship fight was on any other network until Gillette and Mutual assumed control in 1941.
McNamee was joined on coverage of the Dempsey-Tunney II by Phillips Carlin. Together, they were known as the "radio twins" because they worked together often and had similar voices. Carlin and McNamee would do boxing, football, and baseball together in the early 1920s for NBC. They would also work from the studio every weeknight from 4 to 10 P.M. Carlin would eventually go into management at both NBC and Mutual. He died in 1971 at the age of 77.
Meanwhile, White's role at CBS diminished once Paley took control of the company. Paley addressed White in his autobiography, As It Happened, referring to the Major as the nominal head of the network when he took control in 1928. "Major White understood radio at the microphone. But the business of radio or radio operations were not his talent or even within his knowledge." White would continue to broadcast sports and handle some programming responsibilities, but he no longer had a significant hand in running the company he helped found.
Just a short while before Paley's arrival in the fall, White would make a monumental contribution that would serve Columbia for almost a score of years. He hired the gifted Ted Husing who would dominate broadcast sports until after World War II. White took the young Husing under his tutelage the way Marty Glickman would do with Mary Albert 30 years later. The Major became his mentor and guided Ted through the early years of his glittering career.
By 1930 White, restless and promotionally shackled, resigned. On April 23 Paley sent a memo notifying the Columbia staff that "it is with exceeding regret that I have to report that Major White has asked to be relieved of his official connections." Some 65 years later, Major White's son, Blair, said, "Paley thought CBS history started with him and didn't want any part of my dad. Shortly after he left, my dad sold all his CBS stock. Otherwise, I would have a butler."
After trying his hand in several related and unrelated businesses, Major White moved to California in 1940 where he earned a doctorate, was a full-time psychologist and taught at the University of Southern California. He did maintain a friendship with his protégé, Husing, with whom he would occasionally get together in the 1950s and 1960s in Los Angeles. White and Husing both spent their final years in Southern California. The Major, America's first sportscaster, died in 1966 at the age of 76. Radio is forever indebted to this man of vision, passion, and energy.
When White's mission was radio, it was his imperturbable focus. Sports were no more than a means to an end. On the other hand, Graham McNamee was committed to the microphone through his entire broadcast career. He was not an administrator and never had any managerial aspirations.
Mac, as he was known to his friends, was a generalist. He would work out of the studio, hosting entertainment programs or be out on site, covering political conventions. McNamee would also do anything from a jubilee celebrating the creation of light to reporting on Lindbergh's return from his historic flight across the Atlantic. It took confidence, personality, and versatility. McNamee had these qualities and was America's first popular announcer.
From the start of his radio career in 1923 through the mid-1930s, if there was a big event, Graham McNamee was there. His very presence was almost an endorsement of the prominence of the event itself. He was the unquestionable signature voice of NBC and to a point the indomitable signature of radio.
By 1935 the gregarious McNamee would cover 12 World Series, 8 heavyweight title fights, and 3 Rose Bowls. No one would ever again dominate radio. sports the way he did. He prided himself on his ability to cover 10 different sporting events at the drop of a hat. The popular sports were one thing but Graham would do swimming, tennis, and regattas on radio, too. The amazing element was his charm, spontaneity, and creativity. His style couldn't be characterized as derivative because no one had done it before.
Graham McNamee was born in 1888 in Washington, D.C., and grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. His dad, a legal adviser to members of the cabinet, wanted him to become a lawyer. His mom wanted the boy to have a musical career.
As a young adult, he pursued a singing profession but concert work for a young artist wasn't very profitable. Looking to put some meals on his table, Graham took a job as a meat salesman but didn't find the work fulfilling and came to New York in the 1920s.
In 1923 he walked into radio station WEAF, then owned by AT&T. Blessed with a fine singing voice, he was hired as a staff announcer and assigned to the studio. Mac always had an interest in sports so when the station needed an announcer to describe the Harry Grebb-Jimmy Wilson fight in 1923, he was selected. That fall it was on to the World Series, followed by football and more. His list of sportscasting firsts is long and includes the first-ever national broadcast of a National Football League game, a Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit in 1934.
McNamee's voice might have been heard by more persons than any other living man at the time. No matter the subject, Mac was America's announcer. His signature greeting, "Good evening, ladies and gentleman of the radio audience," was as familiar to Americans as the voice of their president.
The great New York journalist of the time, Heywood Broun, paid McNamee the greatest praise. "Mr. McNamee has justified the whole activity of radio broadcasting. He has been able to take a new medium of expression and through it, vividly transmit a sense of movement and of feeling. Of such is the kingdom of art."
One writer of the time attributed his enormous popularity to his upbeat style and because his broadcasts generally seemed tinged with hysteria. In the 1920s and 1930s, America wasn't exactly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but because its pace had quickened, just a smidgen of hysteria seemed appropriate.
His sports philosophy was simple. "The average fan wants excitement. Enthusiasm has to be contagious." Mac provided plenty of it. Fans adored him. To many, he was their only link to the sporting events they would only hear on the radio and never see live. Baseball as an example was in only 10 markets and most of the big fights were only in New York. Major college football programs were limited to a mere handful and the NFL was sputtering. Red Barber, a taskmaster, was profuse in his praise of McNamee, describing the relationship that he had with his audience as an "adulatory following."
Part of his preparation regimen was to literally force himself into a state of excitement or frenzy before every game broadcast. His ebullient personality always manifested itself and characterized his air work. He articulated the spirit of events, making them come alive on the radio by emphasizing emotion and color. McNamee, though, never perfected the technical precision of play calling. This would be done in following years by the likes of Sam Taub in boxing, Ted Husing in football, Red Barber in baseball, and Marty Glickman in basketball.
Ben Gross, the longtime radio critic for the New York Daily News, had recollections of Graham in his 1954 book, I Looked and I Listened: "Graham was not faking, he did not mean to deceive his listeners. But he was such an enthusiast, such an instinctive showman that before his eyes any action per se became a thrilling, spine-tingling drama."
The singer-turned-radio-announcer did not deny his philosophy. "The listeners are interested in the essential drama of the situation and the sidelights, as much as they are in the matters of how many balls and strikes have been called and how many yards have been gained."
When he had time to prepare his script, he was golden. His description of the environment at the ring was rich. "The fierce lights under their inverted cones are beating down on the contestants in the ring." McNamee also painted a colorful word picture of the fighters themselves. "Their pink and white bodies are glistening with sweat or flecked with blood." And the pioneer also did his homework, visiting the fighters in training camp, interviewing them, taking copious notes, and sharing snippets of their comments between rounds. Back then, of course, if the broadcast was sponsored, it had only one, not the laundry list of today. This in itself afforded broadcasters more time for editorial analysis and an opportunity to share some of their personality.
Graham's blow-by-blow coverage was hardly facile or fluid. It was rather uneven. He was prone to mistakes, having to correct himself too often. There were lulls followed by an avalanche of almost delirium. The southpaw didn't devise a rich nomenclature, either, and the number of his descriptive phrases was impoverished by today's standards. Often, when the action was fast and furious and required him to extemporize, he was tentative or would fluster.
One of the oldest radio sports recordings is of the Jack Sharkey-Max Schmeling heavyweight championship fight on June 21, 1932, in New York. McNamee split the blow-by-blow of the broadcast with Charles Francis Coe, a short-story writer and boxing authority. Coe sounded smoother, and more polished than McNamee. A listener to the tape today might wonder who really was the lead announcer that night.
Graham had charm, though. On June 14, 1934, Max Baer used profanity in the ring as he trash talked the champ, Primo Camera. The ring was amply miked and McNamee was concerned that perhaps the dirty language was audible on the air. Alertly, Mac blurted, "I don't know exactly what Baer said but maybe it's better that way," and delicately moved along with his blow-by-blow description.
The broadcast of the fight was sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes and the sign of the time is best reflected in the between-rounds live exchange of the two commentators. They both described how men ringside and in the stands were reaching for a Lucky Strike during the pause in the proceedings.
Another commercial sign of the time was the advertising copy on a later fight for sponsor, Goodrich Tire. Every other word was men. "Men, when you drive this summer." "Men, the worst thing while driving is when you suffer a flat on the road." "Men, have you ever suffered a blowout on the road?" "Men, remember when you drive this July Fourth weekend ..." This commercial was obviously written a couple of generations before political correctness was in vogue or before it was the norm to see women behind the wheel.
In 1930 McNamee covered the National Air Races in Cleveland and was on the telephone communicating with New York when his partner suddenly threw it back to him. Mac wasn't paying attention to his palmer and didn't know he was on the air. He was talking angrily to the New York studio, shouting, "No station break now. We're in the middle of a race. Tell 'em to go ------ themselves." Luckily, the engineer used good judgment. Seeing that Mac was hot headed and perhaps not paying attention, he had shut his microphone off.
In Cleveland, too, on another occasion in the early 1930s, the beloved NBC veteran was working with Tom Manning, doing a heavyweight elimination fight between Max Baer and Johnny Risko. An invasion of bugs, attracted by the bright floodlights of the boxing ring, made it virtually impossible to see the action. Mac kept batting at them with a newspaper so that he can see. Finally, he blew up. "You listeners will have to read about this fight in tomorrow's paper. I'm only 10 feet away but I can't see the fighters because of these damned bugs." Mac, of course, finished the broadcast and the fans loved it.
Criticism of McNamee started to surface in the early 1930s. Radio required more precision. The influential writer Ring Lardner had written of Mac, "I don't know which game to write aboutthe one I saw today or the one that I heard Graham McNamee announce as I sat next to him." Not to say that Lardner was wrong but certain things never change. There is much jealousy between scribe and broadcaster.
Tom Manning was a fairly good blow-by-blow announcer himself and with swelling complaints of McNamee, NBC wanted to use him to call the Primo Carnera-Max Baer heavyweight championship fight in 1934. Manning, loyal to McNamee, insisted that NBC stick with its veteran. It did, but not for much longer.
McNamee was doing everything. He continued to team with an early radio personality, comedian Ed Wynn. The time demands on him were endless and the pressure he was under was enormous. Graham's strength, his chatty style, needed tightening. Commercials were all read live then and the timing had to be precise. Broadcasters couldn't be quite as unwieldy. Reports had to be accurate.
Pressure continued to mount in 1935 after McNamee called his last heavyweight championship fight, James Braddock's defeat of Baer, and NBC made a change. His role on football and baseball had been diminishing, and he was injured in an accident while covering the Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio. He was knocked unconscious by a racer and was confined to a hospital for three nights.
The critics were chirping, too. In 1935 Literary Digest wrote, "Radio fight fans have criticized bitterly the announcing of major fights." McNamee, of course, was NBC's centerpiece. Earlier, in 1934, the New York Telegram's Alton Cook wrote, "If they don't like McNamee's description of fights, listeners can put on the fight in Spanish or Italian on shortwave."
There might have been other factors as well. By 1935 there was a fecundity of sports announcers. Ted Husing was setting loftier standards for sports broadcasting, presenting play-by-play accurately on rival CBS. In fact, at that point, Husing might have already surpassed Mac in popularity. Bill Stern had already done some work for the web and would eventually dominate NBC's sports coverage for 15 years. Stern was biting at the bit to do more. Bill Slater had come along for NBC in 1934 and by all accounts sparkled doing football.
By the end of 1935 the great Graham McNamee was put out to pasture. He was still in studio and a front man for the network but no longer its dominant talent.
He was employed by NBC until his death shortly before his 54th birthday in 1942. "He died, burned out," broadcaster Lindsey Nelson would say later.
Ben Gross visited Mac in his later years in his Manhattan apartment. "He spoke with affection of some of his famous radio broadcasts. Suddenly, he banged a fist into a palm and frowned. `They don't want me anymore,' he said sadly."
The folks who worked with McNamee flocked to Campbell's Funeral Home in Manhattan on May 12. His pallbearers were a veritable list of who's who in broadcasting, including broadcast partners Phillips Carlin and Tom Manning, Tommy Cowan, who did the first World Series in 1921 as one of radio's first announcers, and Milton Cross. He left an estate that was valued at $137,707, roughly what a network announcer might make today for doing an event or two.
His influence was far-reaching, particularly on boxing, the rage of the generation. It's best summed up by Lindsey Nelson who was assigned his very first heavyweight championship fight in 1957 on NBC, Floyd Patterson and Hurricane Jackson at the Polo Grounds. "I don't think I ever had an assignment that excited me so much as this one. It all went back to those days of sitting on the living room rug and listening to Graham McNamee do Dempsey-Tunney."
History has paid homage to McNamee, treating him with deserved reverence and veneration. Major White was the first broadcaster to call a sporting event but his prominence was a flash in the pan. He moved on to more global areas of interest. Graham McNamee persevered. He was the first to broadcast sports regularly. He did it for the first 12 years of radio's existence, making an indelible impact by hopping from one event to another and from one sport to another. Successors have perfected where he lacked technically. But few, if any, have had his impact. Interest in sports increased dramatically during the time Mac was dominant on the airwaves. The galvanizing effect that he had on the American sports scene is in itself a testimony to his fabulous contribution, let alone the trailblazing effect that he had on sports broadcasting. And unlike later when a Vin Scully sat by Red Barber's knee or Marv Albert listened assiduously to Marty Glickman, McNamee flew by the seat of his pants. There was no teacher, no textbook, and no school.
Those whom we think of as sports announcers in the early years of radio all were called upon to do some general assignment work or entertainment, too. From Ted Husing to Bill Stern to Red Barber and even Mel Allen, they all were capable of broadcasting programming other than sports. The process was slow before the networks hired full-time sportscasters. It was, in fact, done earlier locally. One reason was the sponsor tie-ins that each of these gentlemen had. Red, as an example, did many sporting events for Old Gold, a Brooklyn Dodgers sponsor. As such, when Old Gold put a variety show on the air, it would request Red's involvement.
Clem McCarthy rose to boxing prominence in the mid-1930s when he started being assigned fights by NBC. He eventually took over, albeit briefly, for Graham McNamee on heavyweight title matches in 1937. Clem, though, was and will always be identified first with horse racing. He was the pioneer, setting the stage for so many who followed, from Fred Capossela to Cawood Ledford to Dave Johnson.
McCarthy was born in 1882, the son of a horse dealer, and spent his boyhood at tracks throughout the country. He attended his first Kentucky Derby in 1892. When he grew too tall to become a jockey, he went to San Diego and became a track reporter. In 1927, when Arlington Park opened in Chicago, it was the first track to install a public address system and Clem became its race caller. In 1928 he did the stride-for-stride of the Kentucky Derby for a local Louisville station. By 1929 he was already so prominent that NBC hired him to call the Derby on the network. He did every Derby through 1950 when, oddly enough, he referred to the winner as Middleburg instead of Middleground. Mistakes, though, were aberrant through his glorious career. He had the gift, the blarney, and spoke the language of the track.
He was born in Rochester, New York, but there was a brogue to his speech. When the action was dramatic, it was as though he was reading a child a scary fairy tale, speaking deliberately and stretching words for emphasis. There was theater but it wasn't fabricated. Clem was truly thrilling. Yet he built his reputation on painting an impeccably accurate mind-picture. His voice was so distinct it was almost indescribable. On the one hand it was gravelly, but on the other hand it was mellifluous. There was almost a whiskey tenor to it. If you heard it, you would never misidentify it.
The stories of him at the track are part of broadcast lore. To begin with, Clem would actually talk to the horses on the air. "Get your head straight or you'll be caught napping, boy," he would tell a horse as the starting gate was being filled. "He's got plenty of horse left in him," he would say, when he felt the leader of the pack had enough to win a race.
In 1947, with the whole nation glued to the radio and many with some hard dollars resting on the outcome, Clem made the error of his life misidentifying the winner of the Preakness. He was already 64, but McCarthy would be ribbed for the mistake his remaining 15 years on earth.
The normally faultless McCarthy apparently had his view obscured when Faultless leaped out of the middle of the pack to overtake Jet Pilot on the far turn. The jockeys of the two horses were wearing silks of similar colors. When the horses reappeared into his view, the veteran race caller mistook Faultless for Jet Pilot who at that point had fallen out of the money and was all but through.
When he exclaimed Jet Pilot the winner and realized his grave error, he admitted it immediately, corrected himself, felt terrible, apologized profusely on the air and said, "Ladies and gentleman, I missed. Babe Ruth struck out, too. So I might as well get in famous company."
Bill Stern was McCarthy's partner on many of the Triple Crown broadcasts. He would do the prerace color and interviews. Stern was a household name among sports fans in the 1940s. He turned drama into melodrama.
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