The Men at the Mike
Recalling the days of sportscasting's legends—Mel Allen, Red Barber, Curt Gowdy And Others—When baseball and cigar smoke were in the air.
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96
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The Yankees were the imperial club, a team whose icy excellence inspired their opponents to detest them. Baseball's aristocrats, they played with swagger, dressed smartly when they traveled and were detested by their opposition. They were such a sure thing every fall that sportswriter Smith once said that, "rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel." To a national audience that got its television baseball only in the fall, players like DiMaggio and Berra, Ford and Mantle were household names signifying perennial excellence.
Jerry Coleman, the Yankees second baseman and the Associated Press rookie of the year in 1949, revealed a secret of those stalwart teams. "Looking back at that time, I'd say it was a death struggle," recalls Coleman, who now broadcasts San Diego Padres games. "My salary was $7,000 and the World Series share was what we fought for every day. In 1949, my share was $5,400 and I bought my first car for $1,700, a beautiful green Pontiac with four doors. To me it looked like Cinderella's carriage." Year in and year out, the tough salary negotiations of general manager George Weiss made Yankees players work extra hard for that World Series share. In the 16 seasons from 1949 to 1964, they captured 14 American League pennants and nine World Series.
The universal loathing of the Yankees was never more public than in 1955, when Damn Yankees hit Broadway. In the show, Joe Hardy, a slugger on the Washington Senators, makes a deal with the devil so that the Yankees could be beaten. The play proved that the Yankees could lose, if only in Broadway musicals.
The Yankees' swagger was taken for arrogance. Even the "Voice of the Yankees," Mel Allen, rooted for his team. Not only were fans comparing Willie, Mickey and The Duke, they also compared announcers.
Larry King--yes, that Larry King--was one Brooklyn fan who remembers the difference. In Peter Golenbock's evocative book, Bums, King goes on record about the depth of hatred that Brooklyn kids had for the Yankees. "The Yankees were Mel Allen, who we hated. 'Going, going, gone!' he'd say when a Yankee hit a homer. Oh Jesus, we hated him. We argued who was best, Russ Hodges versus Mel Allen versus Red Barber. The big complaint Yankee fans had against Red Barber was that he didn't get excited enough. This was because Mel Allen openly rooted for the Yankees. It was as though Mel Allen was himself a Yankee. Barber was, to us, a class act. He never rooted for the Dodgers. And he taught us a lot more about baseball than Mel ever taught anyone. Red was the best, because you learned the game from Red."
Barber versus Allen--the debate could rage forever. But one point couldn't be debated. When it came to promoting a product, Mel was peerless.
"Mel took great pleasure in making White Owls a national institution," says Curt Smith, author of the bible on broadcasting, The Voices of the Game, and his more recent book on broadcasting, The Storytellers. "As an eight-year-old boy in Caledonia, New York, I'd listen to Mel say, 'Go grab yourself a White Owl and a Ballantine.' If Mel said it was all right, I couldn't understand why my parents said I couldn't have them," Smith recalls with a laugh. Allen was a sponsor's dream. But he wasn't the only one to realize the importance of pleasing the sponsors. Between 1956 and 1961, Bob Wolff, a broadcaster for Mutual Radio and NBC, announced more World Series games than anyone except for Allen. Paraphrasing the immortal words of Grantland Rice, Wolff once said: When the sponsor writes against your name.what he wants to hear.is not who won or lost the game but how you sold the beer.
By that measure, Allen was king. "No one ever sold a sponsor as well as Allen," says Smith. "He actually alternated sponsors with home run calls. So it was 'Maris hits a Ballantine Blast and Mantle follows with a White Owl Wallop.' It was a marvelous interspersal of play-by-play and advertising. I can still hear Allen and see those games." He shakes his head. "Those Series of the 1950s and 1960s were invariably played at Yankee Stadium. There were the visual silhouettes of fans with cigars and cigar smoke wafting over the infield. What a marvelous confluence: the Yankees in the World Series, Allen at the mike and White Owls." He pauses, adding another fond recollection. "And I was at home with my father, who was smoking Dutch Masters."
But live television spots led to misadventures, too. Wolff knows. "One problem I had in TV's early days was that I had to sell the product. This is before taped commercials; everything was live," says Wolff, who is now a television broadcaster on Long Island. "Once, I got cigar smoking lessons from Dave Berman at the Young and Rubicam ad agency. 'Don't do it like Mel Allen,' he told me. 'He puts it in the front of his mouth. Put it on the side.' One night, I'm working that cigar and put it in the ashtray. 'Stop!' this guy orders. 'What happened?' I said. He says, 'Cigarettes, you put in the ashtray. Cigars, you put in your mouth. No cigar smoker uses an ashtray.' Finally, I got the technique right, and it helped my career. In the mid-'50s, I became the voice of Madison Square Garden. The reason I got the job is that the cigar sponsor and others said to the Garden, 'You got to hire this guy; he can sell anything--not well, but he tries.'
"My first night at Madison Square Garden, they let me ad-lib the cigar ads. The big commercial was the Robert Burns Imperial, which was 25 cents, their top-of-the-line cigar in that glass tube. They told me to talk about its aroma--the smell of that fresh tobacco--and I'll never forget looking in the camera, the cigar under my nose, and saying, 'Boy, this has a wonderful fragrance and aroma. And what rich tobacco!' The telephones start ringing and the vice president of the ad agency said, 'Congratulations, those words were great. Just one suggestion. The next time you're talking about that cigar and its wonderful aroma, please take it out of the glass tube first.'"
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