Baseball on television has come a long way since primitive start in '39. Pioneer big league announcer recalls sharp contrast to today's modern technology and billion-dollar contract

IT took 50 years for television rights in baseball to escalate from the use of a receiving set, for one afternoon, to $1.1 billion, for four years, beginning in 1990. Fifty years from Saturday afternoon, first game of a doubleheader, Cincinnati at Brooklyn, Aug. 26, 1939, through the season of 1989. Incredible. The first TV game in the big leagues cost me money. I not only didn't get paid by NBC for announcing it, but I paid NBC $35. In 1939, NBC had an experimental television station, called W2XBS, atop the Empire State Building. Alfred H. Morton was in charge of programming. In the spring he televised a baseball game, Princeton at Columbia, with Bill Stern at the mike. That was the first sports event for this infant in the field of communications. There were fewer than 500 sets in New York City. The picture tube pointed straight up and was reflected on a mirror underneath a lid on the top of the set.

Radio braodcasting of games in New York was new in 1939. The Giants, Yankees, and Dodgers had not permitted a broadcast of their home games for five years, 1934 through 1938. The two New York teams wanted to continue this absolute prohibition because they feared radio accounts would hurt the gate attendance. But Larry MacPhail, who had taken over the Brooklyn franchise in 1938, believed in the positive effects of play-by-play. He went on the air in 1939, forcing the Giants and Yankees also to broadcast.

``Doc'' Morton, as he was known in the trade, and I knew each other slightly. One day in 1939, in midsummer, he asked me to come see him. He said he wanted very, very much to put a big league baseball game on his experimental TV station, that he knew it would be no use to ask either the Giants or Yankees, that he didn't know MacPhail but understood he could be a most difficult man to approach. (He was dead right on that point.)

Then he said, ``Would you, as a favor to me, ask MacPhail for permission to let us televise one game, any game he chooses?''

MacPhail was a genius in promotions. He was far-seeing. He and Branch Rickey brought baseball into the modern era. Rickey developed the farm system and integrated the game with Jackie Robinson. MacPhail was the first to fly a big league team, created the first season ticket plan, was an early believer in radio, revived dying franchises, and put in lights for night games.

It was easy.

I said, ``Larry, would you like another first?''

``Yes,'' he replied. ``What is it?''

``Put a game on television,'' I said.

He picked up the phone and called Morton. It was quick. He said NBC could bring in its TV equipment for Aug. 26 for the first game of the doubleheader.

But, he added, ``I want something for this permission. I want a receiving set installed for the game in the press room so the board of directors, the press, and I can see the telecast.''

World War II put TV in the deep freeze for the duration. MacPhail came out of the Army in 1945 a lieutenant colonel, and with Dan Topping and Del Webb bought the Yankees. In 1946, MacPhail was first to sell the TV season rights - to Dumont for $600,000.

That first telecast was, of course, primitive. There were two cameras, black and white. One was behind home plate, ground level. The other was in the upper third-base stands, right in with the fans. That's where I sat. There was no monitor. There were earphones to the director in the truck, and they malfunctioned. I watched when the red light came on a camera, and which way it was pointed. One newspaper report said the pictures were pretty good and that at times one could even see the ball itself. Nobody was overly impressed, unless it was MacPhail.

I asked Morton for a souvenir. He sent me an engraved silver box as ``Television's First Sports Announcer,'' and with a bill for $35.

My daughter has the box.

I certainly read with interest that CBS is going to buy the television rights from baseball for $1.1 billion, 50 years after I paid $35 for the privilege of announcing that first game.

But it was worth it.

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