Happy Birthday Radio Baseball!

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Hi all.  August 5 is a historic date in the history of baseball that some fans might not know about.  It was on this day in 1921 that the first baseball game went out over the air.

The earliest radio station was KDKA in Pittsburgh.  Their debut broadcast was the election returns for the 1920 presidential election where Warren G. Harding took a prize he would come to hate.  Few families had radio then but KDKA ownership thought they had something in the new gizmo.  9 months after the election, on August 5, 1921 their staff announcer Harold Arlin sat at a table at ground level at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.  His mission was to broadcast the first game ever on radio.  On that Friday The Pirates were to face the Phillies.  The home team were challenging the Giants who would win the 1921 World Series. The Pirates had a 64-35 record on August 5 while the Phillies were 30–68. The Pirates sealed a come-from-behind win with 2 runs in the 6th and 3 in the 8th. Both pitchers of record were named Jimmy. Jimmy Zinn won for Pittsburgh in relief of Hal Carlson who had given up 5 runs in 3 innings.   Jimmy Ring got his bell rung. In cavernous Forbes Field, Cy Williams hit a home run for the Phillies that day. The Pirates had Max Carey and Rabbit Maranville, not to mention future manager Charlie Grimm in that day’s lineup.  No Pirate left the lot, but the team won and back then that was all that counted. The affair was done in an hour and 57 minutes.

Not much was written about the game broadcast.  No columnist preserved what Harold Arlin said when Cy Williams’ home run soared beyond the fence. Arlin himself never thought baseball on the radio would work and, while he did tennis and other things for KDKA he never called another baseball game.  In 1924, Hal Totten would pioneer daily broadcasts, calling the action of the Cubs or White Sox on various Chicago stations depending which team was at home.  He went as far as to write a book about how to keep score and follow a game as it was being broadcast.  I have no doubt the book came in handy. Starting with Totten, broadcasts were done high above ground level, sometimes on the roof of a stadium so the broadcaster might see the action more fully than he would at ground level.  To this day some college games are done from ground level but if a school can afford a press box, they build one.

The first game broadcast wasn’t sponsored.  Texaco sponsored the White Sox early on, and Mobile Oil (the sign of the flying red horse) sponsored the earliest Tigers’ broadcasts.  The Ford Motor Company sponsored the World Series until Gillette  got the rights in 1939. On what recordings exist from those days, there was a mention of the sponsor at the beginning and the end of the game, but not between innings.  The action was usually recapped at the end of each half-inning. Gillette put a stop to that, insisting that ads for their razors and blades fill the time between half-innings.

Static was a major issue in early radio.  The earliest recordings that have survived are from 1934 and, while some parts are relatively clean other parts are filled with static almost to the point where the listener couldn’t follow the action. In spite of this baseball went on the air in most cities other than New York.  The World Series was aired coast-to-coast by the 1930’s and until 1939 multiple broadcasts of the annual Fall Classic were allowed.

As for Pittsburgh, Albert Kennedy “Rosey” Rowswell became the first Pirates’ broadcaster to make a lasting name for himself at Forbes Field. He began calling them the Buccos.  He hadn’t missed a game as a fan from 1909 until he began to broadcast in 1936.  Before then he made his living as a church secretary. On what we would call a “no doubter” home run  he would yell “Raise the window, Aunt Minnie,” then use a sound effect to simulate the mythical Aunt Minnie’s  window breaking.  Starting in 1948 Bob Prince joined him and did the sound effects.  Prince, aka “The Gunner” would replace Rowswell after his death and would carry the Pirates’ baton through 1975.  The city where baseball began produced two of its best broadcasters.  Happy birthday, baseball radio.

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