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
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.
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.'"
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.
But many observers agree that the greatest call in baseball history was made by neither Red nor Mel. Russ Hodges--an equal opportunity smoker of Phillies, Admirations, El Productos and most anything else he came upon--broadcast the Giants from 1949 until his death in 1971.
One moment--3:58 p.m. on Oct. 3, 1951--would outstrip all his other hours and days and years in the booth. It was the third game of a best-of-three playoff series between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Dodgers led the Giants by 13 1/2 games on Aug. 7, but the Giants streaked to a 37 and 7 record in their last 44 games and drew even to force the playoff series. The teams split the first two games and now the deciding game was at the Polo Grounds. The powerful Dodgers--with Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson and Gil Hodges--clung to a 4-1 lead going into the bottom of the ninth.
The Giants got three hits in the bottom of the inning to close the score to 4-2. They had runners on second and third with one out when Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen called Ralph Branca from the bullpen to replace Don Newcombe. Branca would face Bobby Thomson, who had homered off Branca to win the first playoff game.
Russ Hodges' raspy voice, rising in volume as it competed with 34,320 clamoring fans, told us the rest. "Bobby Thomson up there swinging. He's had two out of three, a single and a double, and Billy Cox is playing him right on the third-base line.... One out, last of the ninth, Branca pitches. Bobby Thomson takes a strike call on the inside corner! Bobby hitting at .292.... He's had a single and a double and he drove in the Giants' first run with a long fly to center. Brooklyn leads it, 4 to 2. Hartung down the line at third, not taking any chances. Lockman without too big of a lead at second--but he'll be running like the wind if Thomson hits one. Branca throws...there's a long drive! It's going to be, I believe! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands! The Giants win the pennant! And they're going crazy! They're going crazy! Oh-ho...[silence in booth, pandemonium in background] I don't believe it! I don't believe it! I do not believe it! Bobby Thomson...hit a line drive into the lower deck of the left-field stands...and this whole place is going crazy! The Giants--Horace Stoneham is now a winner--the Giants won it by a score of 5 to 4, and they're picking Bobby Thomson up and carrying him off the field!"
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