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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Wolff found himself in the middle of another ill-fated live spot. "Another time I was supposed to talk about the ash and the burning process of the Robert Burns Cigarillo. I held up the cigar, looked into the camera and smiled, 'Just look at the ash on this one!'" Not the gentlest choice of words. "The cameraman howled," Wolff says. "I did change the wording for the next live spot. But what's done was done; it was live and there were no second takes."
Working briefly with Allen in the late 1940s, Curt Gowdy watched another live spot go up in smoke. "Mel had a network show, 'The Wednesday Night Fights,'" Gowdy recalls. "They were also known as 'White Owl Spotlights,' since White Owl was the chief sponsor. One night in 1949, the famous Alabama football coach, Bear Bryant, was his guest. So, on camera, Mel says, 'Here Bear, have a White Owl.' Bryant says, 'Nah, Mel; they make me sick.' During a commercial, a friend of Mel's says to Bear, 'You can't say that; you just killed Mel. White Owl is the sponsor and we're going to get a lot of complaints about this.' So Bear apologizes and says, 'I'll go back out and make amends.' He interrupts Mel on camera during a commercial and says, 'Excuse me, Mel, I think I will have one of those fine White Owls after all.' So Bear lights up and immediately starts coughing and wheezing. They got the camera right off him." Gowdy laughs. "He says, 'I'll make amends' and ends up making the situation even worse." It was a slip born of live television, but with Allen it was forgiven.
Allen became a master voice almost overnight. "I remember coming to New York after a successful voice test at CBS," Allen recalls. "Coming from Birmingham, it seemed at first that New Yorkers were always shouting. Of course, they had to compete with all that subway noise."
Getting his start with the Yankees in 1939, Allen was immediately known as a Southern gentleman with a voice as smooth as corn silk. "I think New Yorkers like Southern voices because they're slow, conversational, even musical," he says, still speaking in the same dulcet tones that entertain modern-day viewers on "This Week in Baseball." He joined a franchise that had already seen names like Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio. But joining the Yankees had its price. He passed up a career in law to go behind the mike. "At first, I made $45 a week," he recalls, "and $50 more doing General Tobacco commercials."
In his first year the Yankees won their fourth consecutive world championship. Allen was already employing expressions that will live as long as the game itself. His signature greeting was "Hello there, everybody." Registering surprise at a great play he'd exclaim, "How about that!"
His epithets for Yankees players resonated with verve and swagger. In the lexicon according to Mel, Ed Lopat would forever be "Steady Eddie;" Tommy Henrich, "Old Reliable;" Vic Raschi, "The Springfield Rifle." And of course, Joe DiMaggio was "The Yankee Clipper." Mel even came up with names for the enemy. The lithe and indomitable Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox was dubbed "The Splendid Splinter."
While "How about that!" and "Hello there, everybody" became synonymous with Mel Allen, his most famous coinage was derived through more practical concerns. Three short words--"Going, going, gone!" served their speaker two purposes. "For one," Allen claims, "I could build drama. And then, often I couldn't tell where the ball would land. So I gave myself a little time and kept up the excitement by saying 'Going....going...gone!'"
By 1954, Barber had done the unthinkable, leaving his "catbird seat" in Brooklyn's Ebbets Field for the cavernous Yankee Stadium. The move may have been traitorous to Dodgers fans, but not to Red. "I was a reporter," Barber said with a shrug.
Besides legends Mel and Red, the Yankees booth included a broadcasting newcomer, Jim Woods. "It was baseball's greatest threesome ever," Barber would say just two years before his death in 1992. "Can you think of a better one?"
No one can. While one might question whether moments make the broadcaster, or broadcasters make the moment, one thing can't be doubted. Barber and Allen owned more than their share of the game's greatest memories. In the 1947 Series alone, Barber immortalized Al Gionfriddo's sensational catch of DiMaggio's 400-foot drive in Game 6 and Cookie Lavagetto's breakup of Bill Bevin's no-hitter with two outs in the ninth of Game 4. Allen described the end of DiMaggio's 56-game streak in Cleveland on July 17, 1941, not to mention the Dodgers' wait-till-next-year dream come true in Game 7 of the 1955 Series. Each had so many other famous calls that they can't be counted.
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