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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.
Ken Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

The air is four-o'clock crisp. World Series crisp. Shadows from the three tiers of Yankee Stadium have crept past the mound and soon will envelop second base. It is Oct. 10, 1964, and the baseball shrine to end all shrines is staging a rivalry to end all rivalries. The World Series is tied at a game apiece and the St. Louis Cardinals are trying to capture their first world championship in 18 years.

At the mike for NBC is "Cowboy" Curt Gowdy, known for cowboy hats and a soothing Wyoming twang. A Gold Label Bonita lies smoking in an ashtray, waiting to be puffed between pitches. There are 67,101 fans in attendance, with a sea of Stetsons and cigar silhouettes emerging from the shadows. The game is tied, 1-1, with the Yankees coming to bat in the bottom half of the ninth to face reliever Barney Schultz.

It is Schultz's singular misfortune that he'll be pitching to a living legend, Mickey Mantle. Gowdy picks up the call: "Here's Mantle. He's grounded to short, he's walked, he's doubled to right. Facing 38-year-old Barney Schultz. The big Yankee crowd roaring now for some action." Gowdy's voice rises a notch, mirroring the excitement of the Bronx faithful. Schultz delivers. "There's a high drive to deep right! And...forget about it! It is gone. The ball game's over.... Mantle has just broken a World Series record. He now has 16 World Series home runs. He and Babe Ruth were tied with 15 apiece."

The ball lands in the stadium's second deck, a familiar resting place for Mantle's mammoth blasts. He hobbles around the bases on damaged legs, while Schultz, disgusted, hangs his head in a long walk to the dugout. Mantle is mobbed by teammates Tom Tresh, Joe Pepitone and Elston Howard. He did not pose at home plate and admire his drive. He hit a combined 554 career homers in the regular season and World Series in the same manner: He just hit them, he ran and the ball disappeared.

"It was a record-breaking homer," Gowdy recalls. "After games like that I usually went to Toots Shor's or Al Shack's (named after the "Clown Prince" of baseball) or Mama Leone's. I ate dinner, rehashed the game and smoked a cigar." For an eclectic smoker like Gowdy, a cigar might have been anything in those days. But he usually smoked a Dunhill or Partagas. "I like the small Partagas," he says. "I never liked a great big cigar."

When it comes to baseball, the men at the mike and cigars have gone together like cool Kentucky bluegrass and clay-colored infields. Dizzy Dean and Russ Hodges, Bob Prince and Howard Cosell, Ralph Kiner and Curt Gowdy, Steve Stone and Tim McCarver--all found cigars suited the ebb and flow of baseball. And why not? Men in sports work in the "toy department of life," as baseball writer Jimmy Cannon once put it. And cigars are a pastime that fills time. Some announcers--such as Kiner with the Mets and Stone with the Cubs--still smoke in the booth. They'll tell you a slow smoke makes a slow game more palatable.

Baseball writers, on the other hand, usually didn't enjoy the luxury of time. Covering the Brooklyn Dodgers for the New York Herald Tribune in the early 1950s, Roger Kahn found that the leisurely rhythms of cigar smoking didn't suit the fevered pace of cranking out copy on deadline. "The game would end at 11:15 p.m. and the edition closed at five to twelve. You must write 700 words in half an hour; it's hectic. So Red Smith, Dick Young and Jimmy Cannon stayed with cigarettes." Then he laughs, recalling one of his sportswriting brethren. "At the New York Post, Arch Murray, a Princeton guy, smoked sloppily. Wherever he sat in the press box there would be a pile of ashes behind him. We used to call them 'Murray's Droppings.' "

A rare occasion it was when scribes lit up a cigar. But it did happen now and then. Kahn recalls Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley, who would later be despised by millions when he moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958. "He had a baronial manner and always had a cigar," recalls Kahn. "Actually he was part German, loved German food. When the Dodgers played the Braves in Milwaukee, he'd take the assembled press to a German restaurant for cigars. Later, when I was a sports editor at Newsweek, we would hire the cellar of Mama Leone's restaurant, have an annual banquet and the cigars would come out." Then, too, writers often lit up with the players on a train ride from city to city. But that was not on deadline. Cigars always suited the booth, however, especially during the late '40s and '50s, a time that Kahn calls the "golden age of baseball."

New York was baseball's capital city during that era. In the 12 seasons from 1947 to 1958, either the Giants, Yankees or Dodgers played in the fall classic an incredible 11 times. Only in 1948, when the Boston Braves and the Cleveland Indians squared off, did a New York team fail to make the Series.

It was a time of four-digit player salaries and four-digit World Series bonuses. Carousel and Oklahoma! were on Broadway, as was John Geilgud's production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca were starring live in "Your Show of Shows" at the Roxy on Seventh and 50th. And in sports there was no shortage of famous moments at the mike, courtesy of legendary voices like Red Barber, Mel Allen and Russ Hodges.


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