Voices of the Game
Then Barber recognized the inductee of that day, Larry MacPhail, for whom he had worked in both Cincinnati and Brooklyn. (MacPhail's induction was posthumous, having passed away in 1975). Among baseball executives, the innovative MacPhail was a leading proponent of both radio and television broadcasting in the early days. He also introduced night games and airplane travel to the big leagues. MacPhail's son, Lee, a longtime baseball front office executive who also served as president of the American League, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998. Another son, Bill MacPhail, was president of both CBS Sports and CNN Sports. Larry's grandson is Andy MacPhail, formerly the Baltimore Orioles’ president of baseball operations, and a former general manager of both the Twins and the Cubs. Larry MacPhail was absolutely a key figure in the development of Barber as one of the most prominent baseball voices in the middle of the 20th century.
Back to Red's Cooperstown speech. After a couple of MacPhail anecdotes, suddenly there was a change of gears, as Red delivered his message on some of the history of baseball on the radio:
“Now let me go over something very quickly...the first baseball game that was ever broadcast was on the 5th of August, 1921 on KDKA in Pittsburgh, and it was done by Harold Arlin, who was a foreman for Westinghouse.”
Arlin was just 25 years old when he became the first man ever to broadcast a Major League Baseball game. He used a converted telephone as a microphone, as he called the action from a box seat at ground level at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. For the record, the Pirates beat the Philadelphia Phillies that day, 8-5.
Let’s think about Harold Arlin and that first broadcast. Was he nervous? How much preparation did he do? How detailed was his description of the game, if at all? How often did he give the score? Did he even consider things like personality, humor, or style? Probably not. Was he self-conscious? After all, he was announcing from a box seat, and there must have been some fans just a few feet away, listening to him and staring at him in amazement.
What did the first home run call sound like? Or the first bases-clearing double? How did he feel about it afterward?
No recording exists of that broadcast, and Arlin may not have even identified himself on the air. Stations preferred their announcers to be anonymous voices in those days in the fear that the on-air talent would become too popular and harder to control. But Harold Arlin was a pioneer. While his first attempt was probably a bit awkward, it did begin radio’s marriage to baseball, a match made in heaven that continues to thrive to this very day.
“The first World Series that was broadcast was 1921 and the voice was by Tommy Cowan. But he was in a studio with a telephone at his ear, standing at a microphone. A newspaperman at the ballpark (the Polo Grounds) spoke in the phone and told him what was happening in the ballpark, and as best as Tommy could do, he tried to report it over the air. It was so successful, there was no World Series broadcast the next year.”
Tommy Cowan was heard on WJZ Radio in Newark, N.J., on October 5, 1921. The station had officially gone on the air four days earlier and management wanted to make a big splash by being the first station to broadcast a World Series game. The Series competitors were the New York Giants and New York Yankees. For the Yanks, 1921 was their first World Series appearance, and their young outfielder, Babe Ruth, had a pretty good season, hitting .378 with 59 homers and 171 RBIs. The day before his big assignment, Cowan paid a visit to the famous inventor Thomas Edison. He requested to borrow Edison's personal phonograph and records to use for music on the World Series broadcast. The “Wizard of Menlo Park” obliged.
Since Cowan relied on someone at the ballgame to feed him information, he was essentially the first man to “re-create” a baseball broadcast. Re-creations were commonplace until World War II. In St. Louis, for example, Harry Caray and his partner, Gabby Street, didn't travel to road games until 1947. Instead, they stayed home and worked in a studio, receiving bits and pieces of information from a Western Union operator at places like Wrigley Field or Ebbets Field. The announcers had to use their imagination and gift of gab to “re-create” the game to make it enjoyable for listeners.
"The first play- by-play regular season was done in Chicago by Hal Totten. He was indeed a pioneer, and baseball broadcasting really exploded in Chicago.”
In those early days, team owners were skeptical of radio, fearing that fans would stay home and listen rather than pay for a ticket to see the game in person. Cubs owner William Wrigley felt differently, that radio had promotional power and local broadcasts would indeed increase interest and attendance. He was right.
Wrigley charged no rights fees to broadcast Cubs games at Wrigley field. It was basically a play-by-play free-for-all, with no “exclusivity” existing just yet.
After Totten began announcing in 1924, WGN's Quin Ryan soon followed. Then WBBM got into the act, with Pat Flanagan on the call. By the late 1920s, Cubs home games were simultaneously transmitted over five stations.
”In 1932, such was the feared effect of radio that the major league clubs came within one or two votes of banning radio broadcasting completely. The Yankees, Giants and Dodgers signed a legal five-year anti-broadcasting pact from 1934 until 1938. 1938 was MacPhail's first year in Brooklyn and the first thing he said was 'I'm going to broadcast next year.'”
Red Barber was absolutely a play-by-play pioneer. He was a pioneer in preparing for an event and gathering background information. He tenaciously gave the listening audience a detailed description of exactly what was transpiring in a ballgame, with a meticulous attention to accuracy. His fate also dictated that Red was constantly navigating in uncharted waters. A list of Red Barber “firsts” includes:
• Full-time baseball announcer in New York City;
• To broadcast a major league night game (1935);
• To voice a televised major league ballgame (1939);
• To announce an NFL game on TV (1939);
• To call a coast-to-coast NFL Championship Game (1940).
Significantly, Barber 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 in seven decades.
Those of us who make a living as baseball announcers should think about, and appreciate, the trailblazers of our trade. And when an icon like Red Barber wants to deliver a baseball broadcasting history lesson, via a radio recording of his 1978 Hall of Fame acceptance speech, we would all be best advised to pay very close attention.
Pat Hughes is the radio voice of the Chicago Cubs