Baseball Broadcasting Begins

added 10/10/2008 by Gene Elston

An early tv camera (lower right)
captures the Cincinnati-Brooklyn game in 1939.

H.P. Davis, vice president of the Westinghouse Company, having convinced himself as well as other Westinghouse officials, submitted to the Department of Commerce a license application for a radio station on October 16, 1920. The approval came a little more than two weeks later with the grand opening of KDKA Pittsburgh. The beginning of broadcasting history on November 2, 1920 started with the Harding-Cox election returns. The returns were received by telephone from a newspaper in Pittsburgh and were sent out through KDKA by cable telephone service throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Between updates on the night's historic elections, an entertainment program of music was offered to listeners.

However, getting the human voice through the air began years before 1920 and included the tireless experiments of many inventors and scientists going back to the 1880s. In 1896 Guglielmo Marconi, a young Italian, conceived the idea of wireless telegraphy permitting messages sent into the skies to be picked up by any receiver which happened to be tuned to the same wave length. Also it was one of Marconi's technical advisors, John Ambrose Fleming, who developed the earliest vacuum tube, which became the life and soul of modern radio.

World War I found many countries experimenting with wireless or "radio", as it was beginning to be called. Hundreds of radio transmitters were active in the United States, operated by "hams" being used for experimental purposes and for transmission of messages to shipping companies and naval stations. The Armed Forces used it for transmitting intelligence, but few foresaw radio as an entertainment media.

By 1921, the the "Roaring Twenties" were swinging into high gear as radio began featuring orchestra music and comedy, as well as discussion programs and public service. The first sports broadcast to hit the airwaves came on July 2, 1921 when KDKA aired the World’s Heavyweight Boxing Championship between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier. The first baseball broadcast emanated from Forbes Field in Pittsburgh on August 5, 1921 with Harold Arlin calling the play-by-play in the Pirates 8-5 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. Surprisingly, neither the New York Times or any of the Chicago newspapers made mention of the broadcast. Two months later, October 5, 1921, KDKA aired the first World Series game with a direct wire from the Polo Grounds in a 3-0 win by the Yankees over the Giants. It would be the only game aired in the best of nine series.

Red Barber (in suit) interviews
Leo Durocher after the game.

It would be February 11, 1937 before baseball is mentioned along with television. It took place with the first large-scale television demonstration by the Philco Radio and Television Corporation at the Philco factory in Philadelphia. Boake Carter, a well-known radio news commentator, was on hand to interview Connie Mack the veteran manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. Nearly 200 editors and publishers of national magazines and newspapers gathered to view the television broadcast sent to Philadelphia’s Germantown Cricket Club, miles away, where the guests would see and hear the pair almost as clearly as though they were in the same room.

It would not be until May 17, 1939 that baseball would actually go on television for the first time. Princeton and Columbia would play the game at Baker Field, Columbia’s home park, and station W2XBS in New York City covered the game. Only a handful of viewers saw Princeton win 2-1 in 10 innings. The New York Times in reviewing the game said, "It is difficult to see how this sort of thing can catch the public fancy!"

The process of putting the big leagues on a little screen grew remarkably since August 26, 1939 when NBC transmitted images of the Cincinnati Reds playing the Brooklyn Dodgers in the first telecast of major league baseball aired over experimental channel W2XBS which was then pioneering television from a transmitter atop the Empire State Building. The New York Times headlined the event, "Major League Baseball Makes Its Radio Camera Debut." While 33,535 fans in Ebbets Field watched history being made on the scene, only viewers looking at 9-1/2-inch screens and living within 50 miles of the game site could pick up the telecast since very few owned sets. There were fewer than 500 sets in all of the United States and NBC executives owned most of them in the New York area.

Boake Carter (right) interviews
Philly manager Connie Mack in 1937.

Two cameras covered the game, one at ground level and the other in the upper deck back of third. Red Barber was the announcer and Proctor and Gamble, Socony-Vacuum and General Mills sponsored the broadcast. Barber did all the commercials live, holding up a bar of Ivory Soap, then donning a service station attendant’s cap, holding up a can of Mobil Oil, then topping it off by pouring Wheaties into a bowl with sugar and cream and proclaiming it was "the Breakfast of Champions." The Reds won the game, 5-2, with Bucky Walters pitching a two-hitter. The second game of the doubleheader, which the Dodgers won 6-1, was not televised.

On September 30, 1947 the World Series is covered simultaneously by radio and television as TV jumps on board in covering the series for the first time. The Gillette Safety Razor Company was the radio sponsor and the Ford Motor Company would join Gillette on the television side paying baseball a $65,000 rights fee. Interestingly, the telecasts would be made available to all video stations. All three networks - NBC, CBS and Dumont - alternated days, plus nine stations in New York, Philadelphia, Schenectady and Washington had the games. As many radio stations that could be reached by relay or coaxial cable broadcast the audio version. The number of sets in the New York-Philadelphia-Washington area was estimated as 70,000. With hundreds of thousands viewing the games by television, the series was believed to have been seen by more people than any other sports event in history. Surprisingly, NBC used the same two-camera setup (used eight years earlier) in their coverage of their first game in 1939 - one directly back and high above home plate and the other lower and to the left. The Yankees beat the Dodgers four game to three with Mel Allen and Red Barber working radio and Bob Stanton handling the TV side.

Gene Elston is the former play-by-play voice of the Houston Colt .45s and Houston Astros (1962-1986) and the 2006 recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award given by the Baseball Hall of Fame. For more of Gene's remembrances and historical perspectives, visit Gene Elston's Journal.