Veteran sportscaster reflects on timely developments of career, life
WE are prone to take everything around us for granted. We rarely pause to wonder where things of today came from, and when and how. Most of all, we don't measure the timing of our lives. I will be 80 years old next month. I have been broadcasting since 1930. As I look back over my span of years that began in 1908 in Columbus, Miss., and shifted to Sanford, Fla., in 1918, I am struck with the fortunate timing of my life with the changing events.
There were no paved roads in Columbus in 1908. Horses didn't need hard surfaces. I remember when our house stopped using oil lamps and began using electricity. I remember our first telephone, and the first automobiles that frightened horses. When I was a boy, I was awestruck to see small airplanes. Radio wouldn't burst upon us until 1920.
The world of sports was very simple. The fifth World Series was won by the Chicago Cubs in 1908. There was a most memorable game that year when Fred Merkle failed to touch second base, turning an apparent New York Giants victory into a tie and setting up a replay at the end of the season, which the Cubs won to take the pennant by one game.
Let's see about timing and the events that gave me my chances. When I entered the University of Florida in 1928, radion station WRUF, on the campus, had gone on the air earlier that year. We almost got there together. By chance I went to work on that station as a student announcer in 1930.
In 1934, I went to Cincinnati to announce for the Reds. The Great Depression had forced Sidney Weil to lose the Reds to a bank. This brought about the entrance of Larry MacPhail to run the ball club, and he got Powell Crosley to buy control. Crosley had two radio stations. He decided to put some of his ball club's games on his smaller station. There was no sports announcer on WSAI. I had been to Cincinnati for auditions, said I did sports, and was brought in to do the games for $25 a week.
That summer the Reds flew to Chicago in two Ford trimotor planes, the first time a big league team had flown during a pennant race. I was put on one of the planes for a shortwave broadcast to Crosley's big station, WLW. It was the first time I had flown after watching those World War I two-wing open-air planes as a boy.
Electricity? I saw it light our house in Mississippi. Now in 1935 at Cincinnati, I announced the first night game in the major leagues. MacPhail turned on the lights for a seven-games-a-season experiment. Now there are few day games.
I have no idea what my life would have been had I not come to Cincinnati when MacPhail did. He didn't bring me there, but he did to Brooklyn in 1939 when he broke the radio silence imposed for five years by the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers.
Timing? Being in the right place?
Opening day at Brooklyn 1942, the first season after Pearl Harbor. The Red Cross asked me to appeal for blood donors, saying they were not getting donors to come in, and that all Brooklyn would be listening to opening day. Blood was not to be mentioned on radio in those days, but with backing by MacPhail who said, ``There's a war on!'' I did the first such appeals. They worked completely, all through the terrible war.
Television? In 1939, NBC had an experimental station and asked me to get MacPhail's permission to do the first major league game on TV. He agreed, and I announced it. The timing was right.
About Fred Merkle: When Bill Corum went to Louisville to head Churchill Downs, he asked me to write his New York Journal-American column for six weeks. One of the stories I wrote was on Merkle, which brought him back to New York after his long self-imposed exile. It all tied together, year by year, person by person.
I was at Brooklyn when Branch Rickey brought in Jackie Robinson in 1947. That was the hottest microphone any sports announcer ever had to face. I was born in Mississippi, and raised in Florida, but I recalled how before my first World Series broadcast in 1935, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had told all the assembled radio people, ``Report ... let the players play. Report ... let the managers manage. Report ... let the umpires umpire. You announcers leave your opinions in your hotel rooms. Report.'' And in 1947, that's what I did. Robinson and Rickey did the rest.
When you hit 80 and look back, you must be humbled by your creation, by your preservation, and certainly by your timing.