When the World Series made its first foray onto radio airwaves in the 1920s, Graham McNamee’s voice became its first recognizable star. It was a national stage for a man who had so desired the spotlight – albeit in a different forum, initially.
In 1923, McNamee was a struggling New York opera singer seeking a major company role when he made a decision that would change his life. On lunch break from jury duty, McNamee decided to audition with radio station WEAF to call a boxing match. His precise diction and tone from the opera stage translated well in the eyes of station management, so much so that they not only hired him to broadcast the match, but also the World Series that fall.
McNamee was originally slated as the color man alongside sportswriter Grantland Rice for the 1923 Fall Classic between the Yankees and Giants. His undeniable talent won out, however, when he took over play-by-play responsibilities in Game 3. As McNamee would later recall, he received 1,700 fan letters after the series conclusion, a total that grew to 50,000 after the 1925 World Series.
The Series was undoubtedly a launching pad for McNamee, who was widely credited for helping NBC get off the ground after joining the company in 1926. In addition to baseball, his voice could be heard across the sports spectrum – and even at political events like the 1924 Democratic National Convention.
Though he stuck closer to the actual happenings on the diamond more than many of his peers, McNamee was a self-described “entertainer first and a broadcaster second.” He tickled the imaginations of his listeners, leading future J. G. Taylor Spink Award winner Ring Lardner to write, “I don’t know which game to write about, the one that I saw or the one I heard Graham McNamee announce.”
“(McNamee) understood the listener would remain with you as long as you entertained,” wrote broadcast historian Curt Smith. “His first commandment was, ‘I will not bore you,’ and he never did.”
McNamee was among the first to pay close attention to microphone positioning, placing them in special areas around the ballpark to create different scenes, such as applause in the crowd or intimate conversation in the booth. This diverse range of sounds made the listener feel that he or she was at the game, and McNamee’s skill at combining the sounds of the game with his descriptions of the minutest details helped further enrapture audiences. Future broadcasters like Ford C. Frick Award winners Curt Gowdy and Jack Buck grew up listening to McNamee.
“The Series was sport and McNamee was the Series,” Buck would later say.
As sport radio’s first major star, McNamee was tabbed for the biggest events. He called the World Series from 1923-34 (a streak of 12 straight that was second only to Mel Allen in radio’s heyday), NBC’s first Rose Bowl broadcast on New Year’s Day in 1927 and the first three Major League Baseball All-Star Games from 1933-35. He also described presidential inaugurations and Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 transatlantic arrival in New York from Paris. Later that fall, McNamee’s fame landed him on the cover of Time magazine.
McNamee lent his voice to newsreels in the 1930s, beginning each broadcast with his signature greeting, “Good afternoon (or evening), ladies and gentlemen of the radio audience. This is Graham McNamee speaking.” He worked until 1942, when he suddenly passed away from a brain embolism at age 53. McNamee was later posthumously inducted to both the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters and American Sportscasters Association Halls of Fame.