SBJ/October 17-23, 2011/Opinion

Broadcast 90 years ago was first to help listeners ‘see’ Series

This fall marks 90 years since America first “saw” the World Series on radio. “I watch a lot of baseball on the radio,” Gerald Ford once observed, a poignant nod to radio as perhaps the most visual of all the electronic media, its word pictures luring our imaginations into the game itself.

Famed sportswriter Grantland Rice took the microphone for Game 1 on Oct. 5, 1921, and the World Series would never be the same. Neither would America. Most early broadcasters were print journalists, purists who refrained from speaking unless there was action on the field, so they generated a lot of dead air until radio caught on. Baseball, after all, is a game of deliberate action and strategic intervals, the perfect game for the talking box.

The 1921 Series featured the New York Giants against Babe Ruth’s New York Yankees, the very first subway Series — without the subway, since both teams played their home games in the cavernous Polo Grounds. This was also the first World Series the Yankees ever played. They lost to the Giants that year and again the next, but by 1923, playing in their own newly built Yankee Stadium, they would finally take the Series title. And radio was there.

The history of baseball broadcasting began, in part, as the result of a bet. In 1912, a young Westinghouse assistant engineer named Frank Conrad built a crude operating receiver in his garage, then won a $5 wager by intercepting signals from the U.S. Navy. Conrad then built a transmitter and turned his garage into a virtual radio station that in 1916 would be assigned the call letters 8XK and would become Pittsburgh’s KDKA in 1920.

AP IMAGES
Grantland Rice (right, with Amos Alonzo Stagg) manned the microphone for a groundbreaking broadcast 90 years ago.
In 1921, a curious engineer named Harold Arlin wandered into the fledgling KDKA studios and emerged as the world’s first baseball broadcaster. On Aug. 5, 1921, Arlin took a seat at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, plopped a crude microphone onto the makeshift board across his lap, and began relaying the Pirates-Phillies game back to the studio where the game’s events could be retransmitted.

The 1921 World Series was a groundbreaking broadcast experiment covered by two radio stations. Game accounts were relayed back to KDKA, where results were broadcast to a handful of East Coast listeners. New Jersey station WJZ did the same thing, utilizing Sandy Hunt from the Newark Sunday Call newspaper. No one paid any rights fees for the privilege. Within one year there were 30 radio stations operating in the U.S.; by 1923 the total had multiplied to 556; and by 1934, Ford Motor Co. had agreed to pay $100,000 a year for four years of sponsorship rights to the World Series on radio.

Radio exploded across America, transmitting the first radio commercial in 1922, the 1925 Cubs-Pirates season opener, the 1925 Scopes monkey trial, and in 1927 alone the Charles Lindbergh Paris landing, the Jack Dempsey “long count fight,” and the first national broadcast of the World Series via the newly formed National Broadcasting Co.

The World Series audience mushroomed from a handful in 1921 to 5 million listeners in 1922. Rice was the first Series announcer, sort of, since the first transmission was technically a recreated relay system. Rice was a prolific sportswriter who penned 22,000 columns and christened the famous “Four Horsemen” moniker for Notre Dame football’s 1924 backfield. It may be his typewriter that is in the Hall of Fame, but it was his voice that helped launch baseball broadcasting and the voices to follow — from Graham McNamee to Red Barber, Mel Allen, Bob Elson, Harry Caray, Jack Buck, Ernie Harwell, Vin Scully, and all the rest.

Many owners originally feared that radio would ruin the game’s gate receipts, and the three New York teams conspired to ban regular-season baseball from the airwaves from 1934 to 1939. But in 1925, the marketing genius William Wrigley saw the billboard potential of radio as a means to generate interest and build even more fans. He was right. Soon after Wrigley began broadcasting Chicago Cubs games in 1925, attendance increased by 117 percent. Nationally, total radio advertising jumped to $40.5 million from 1927 to 1930, almost a tenfold increase.

The World Series immediately embraced radio, and so the talking box has delivered some of the great fall images of baseball on the air, such as Kirk Gibson’s stirring limp-off home run in 1988, a miracle “seen” on the radio by many courtesy of the exuberant Jack Buck. “I don’t believe what I just saw. I don’t BELIEVE what I just saw!” Indeed.

Eldon L. Ham (elhlaw1@aol.com) is the author of “Broadcasting Baseball: A History of the National Pastime on Radio and Television” (McFarland & Co., 2011). He is a professor of sports, law and society at Chicago-Kent College of Law and sports legal analyst for WSCR sports radio in Chicago.

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