How Radio Gave Baseball Its Voice
On August 5, 1921, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a 25-year-old studio announcer for radio station KDKA sat in a box seat behind home plate in Forbes Field. Using only a converted telephone as a microphone and some jury-rigged equipment, Harold Arlin broadcast the first Major League Baseball game, calling every play in a game between the Pirates and the Phillies, which the Pirates won 8–5.
Arlin later recalled that this pioneering event was merely an experiment—a “one-off”—and that most of the staff at the station thought that baseball would never be commercially viable on radio.
For the moment the conclusion reached by Arlin and his peers seemed on target. That year’s World Series between the New York Yankees and the New York Giants was broadcast locally, and the broadcast the following year of the 1922 World Series was linked to more than one station, but these were novelties with little impact on the regular baseball season or the consciousness of the fans.
The first great radio success came in 1923 with the Chicago Cubs, which was due to the open-mindedness of Phil Wrigley, the owner of the Chicago Cubs, and his progressive president William Veeck—not to be confused with his son Bill Veeck. Wrigley, a great advocate of advertising, had been the perfect owner for Veeck to work with. One of the combined legacies of the two men was radio, which both men saw as the perfect vehicle for selling the Cubs as a regional franchise. Veeck especially welcomed free radio coverage of Cubs games, and one of the reasons he gave for this was that radio educated new fans in the subtleties of baseball, and this was especially true for women. Wrigley firmly believed that radio would increase ticket sales and yield a wider regional fan base.
Late in the 1923 season, Judith Waller, managing director of radio station WMAQ, came to Wrigley asking for a 30-day trial of broadcasting live Cubs games. At the end of the trial, listeners were asked to send in letters expressing their feelings about the broadcasts. The letters came in bundles from all over the Midwest. A Wisconsin dentist wrote, “I have had no trouble with my patients since I installed the radio for the Cubs games. They sit and listen and let me work.” An Indiana farmer wrote that he had a radio rigged in his field and caught the score as he finished each turn of the plow. He said, “Don’t stop it.”
The experimenting continued and culminated on June 1, 1925, when WMAQ became the first station in the United States to broadcast every home baseball game, an arrangement that continued for many seasons. Surprisingly, the deal with WMAQ was not exclusive, and the Cubs allowed other broadcasters to set up next to the press box and provide live accounts of the game on the radio. At any given moment through the late 1920s, as many as five radio stations carried the games live. But the key was WMAQ, a clear-channel 50,000-watt monster that could be heard over much of the Midwest in the day and over most of the East Coast at night when the AM signal was stronger. “The middle as well as the country at large was becoming Cub-conscious,” newsman John P. Carmichael later wrote of the WMAQ deal. “The team was on its way to fame and fortune.” [i]
In his 1946 history of the Cubs, journalist Warren Brown maintained that beyond spreading the Cubs gospel, radio did increase attendance for the team. His evidence: from 1918 to 1924, when the Cubs averaged fourth place in the National League standings, they drew 3,585,439 patrons for that seven-year period; and from 1925 to 1931, with a club that averaged fourth place in the National League standings, the Cubs, for that seven-year period, drew 7,845,700 patrons. To quote Brown, “That represents a gain of 119%. Over the same period, the other seven clubs gained 27% in home attendance.”
But despite the success of the Cubs as the decade wore on, a majority of the other teams were increasingly fearful, believing radio would cut down on ticket sales by allowing the lukewarm fan—or the fan with little disposable income—to stay home and get a word picture of the game for nothing. The Boston teams—the NL Boston Bees (later the Braves) and the Red Sox—began broadcasting some of their games in 1926.
Baseball Magazine, July 1930
Then along came the crash of 1929 and the fear of broadcasting seemed to intensify. Owners pointed to the declining sales of sheet music and phonograph records as evidence of radio’s negative impact on traditional media. But there was one notable exception—in 1929 the Cincinnati Reds became the second club to air regular radio broadcasts of all their home games.
In December 1931, 11 of 16 Major League teams came to the winter meetings in Chicago planning to establish a ban on all radio coverage, but the measure had to be tabled. The night before the ban was to be discussed, the Cubs had agreed to a new radio contract for the 1932 season, infuriating those who feared the consequences. President William Harridge of the American League intimated that if radio became an issue with the newspapers, he would recommend that broadcasts be eliminated. “Newspaper publicity made baseball,” said Harridge, who had the support of the Baseball Writers Association, which had expressed the belief that radio was cutting down on the sale of “EXTRA” editions of their newspapers.[ii] [iii]
As the Depression deepened, the opinion of the majority of owners solidified around the notion that radio kept fans from the ballpark. Nowhere was this belief more strongly held than in the greater New York area, where, in 1934, a five-year pact between the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, and the New York Yankees went into effect banning all radio coverage. Added to this fear that radio was sapping the vitality of baseball was the emergence of serial melodramas known as soap operas, which often ran when afternoon games were played.
If radio was declared the enemy of baseball in New York, it was not universal. The Cincinnati Reds reported that radio was adding to ticket sales, and the commitment to the medium redoubled when Powel Crosley, the largest manufacturer of radios in the world, bought the team in 1934.
Crosley’s general manager was Larry MacPhail, the red-faced, sandy-haired, heavy-drinking protégé of Branch Rickey who had revived the ailing Reds and turned them into a money-making contender. His innovations in Cincinnati included regular radio broadcasts employing another redhead—a young Floridian named Red Barber—and night baseball.
MacPhail was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers during the winter of 1938–39, and on February 5, MacPhail announced that the Dodgers would be the first team to break the New York area radio ban, and all of the team’s games would be broadcast on WOR—a 50,000-watt powerhouse of a station. Sponsors had been lined up, and broadcaster Red Barber was hired to be the voice of the team.
Source: The Trading Card Database, www.tradingcarddb.com
Later in the month at the National League winter meeting, the Giants announced they were also opting out of the radio agreement. At the end of that meeting, the only radio holdout in either league was the New York Yankees, which succumbed shortly thereafter. [iv]
Meanwhile, after being first hired by MacPhail, Barber went to spring training to get the lowdown on the players so that he could talk about them—and not just what they did between the white lines. New Yorkers had heard him before—and apparently liked him despite or because of his homespun southern delivery—as the announcer for the 1938 World Series and radio voice of the Army–Notre Dame football game staged at Yankee Stadium a few months earlier. His voice, made for radio, was soothing, and his approach to calling a game was colorful and rich in rural metaphor—Ebbets Field would soon become “the Flatbush pea patch.” Barber was a man of “you alls” and “yes, ma’ams” headed for a place mocked for “dems” and “dose.” [v]
Barber was one of the most influential of the new broadcast personalities who gave the game its voice through the war years and beyond and in the process became as important to the face of many teams as the players themselves. Another such figure was Mel Allen, another southern voice, who became the Yankee’s first play-by-play man. During his long radio career, Allen called more World Series (20) and All-Star Games (24) on radio than anyone in history. Barber, who later went to the Yankees after 15 years with the Dodgers, was also instrumental in the development of another brilliant redhead, Vin Scully. Beginning with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950, Scully apprenticed under his watchful eyes and critical ears. The amazing Scully has called Dodgers games on two coasts in seven decades including the present one.
As it turned out, radio became the vehicle by which baseball thrived. As Gerald Nachman put it in his book Raised on Radio, “Radio quickly became a crucial arm of sports in America, spreading the gospel of baseball in the 1920s to 1950s.”
When television came along, the fear was that radio would be the loser to the new medium, but radio remains vital today as teams set up their own networks to keep far-flung fans connected to their favorite teams. Currently, the last team to buy into radio has 52 stations linked on the Yankees Radio Network, which reaches across 15 states including Alaska.
[i] Carmichael, 1993, Chicago Daily News, biography.
[ii] San Jose News, December 8, 1931.
[iii] Normally reserved for a crisis—but often extended to baseball—these were special editions hastily printed and hawked by street vendors. During a World Series, there would be at least one newsboy on every corner.
[iv] Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1938.
[v] The Sporting News, March 16, 1939, p. 6.
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