Ford Frick Award Goes to Al Helfer;

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Hi all. Here’s how I see baseball on this Friday, December 14. For the second year in a row, the Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in baseball will be given posthumously. Meantime, the Yankees brain trust have lost both outfielder Andrew McCutchen and Lance Lynn, a pitcher who would have done well on a team that used several pitchers without much ability a year ago.
If you’re under 60 you may never have heard Al Helfer broadcast a game live. Thankfully, youtube makes it possible to hear more than a dozen games broadcast by the latest Ford C. Frick award recipient. Helfer was born in 1911 in Elmora, PA., some 100 miles from Harrisburg. After graduating from nearby Washington and Jefferson college, he joined both the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and radio station WWSW as a football commentator. His first taste of baseball came from doing 2 seasons of re-created Pirates games, as the Buccos wouldn’t broadcast live until the late thirties. Helfer headed west to join Red Barber on Cincinnati Reds’ games. Sadly, none of his Reds’ commentaries from 1935 and 1936 have survived. He joined the CBS network mostly to broadcast football. in 1939 he rejoined Red Barber in Brooklyn where the “ol’ Redhead” would call him “Brother Al.” Brother Al joined the Navy before any of the other famous broadcasters did. With both Mel Allen and Bob Elson still in the Service, Helfer handled the 1945 World Series with Bill Slater. Most if not all of these games are available to listen to, though you need to remember their age as you consider the sound quality. When Helfer joined Mutual in 1950 he gained exposure like none he had ever received. 1950 was the first year of Mutual’s “Game of the Day” series. The smallest of the 4 major networks then operating, Mutual needed a major item to fill a ton of airtime, and the Game of the Day filled the bill. One of these broadcasts from 1950 still exists where Helfer can be heard alongside Art Gleason. Another exists from 1953 where the White Sox tangle with the St. Louis Browns-the only Browns’ game known to have survived. Sadly, we have no recordings of Al Helfer and Dizzy Dean working side by side. Mutual kept them together although they got along as well as the Israelis and the Arabs. They were both huge men with huge egoes as Curt Smith described them in “Voices of the Game.” Mutual had the contract for, and appointed the announcers for the World Series going back to 1939. Helfer was part of the World Series on radio for Mutual as early as 1951. By 1954 he and Jimmy Dudley of the Indians carried all 4 games of that year’s World Series. Helfer called Dusty Rhodes’ 3-run walk-off home run to win game 1 of that series while Jimmy Dudley called Willie Mays’ amazing catch off the bat of Vic Wertz. Sadly, water damage has made it impossible to play that call. The one you hear now and then is the TV call made by Jack Brickhouse. Helfer, Mel Allen and the Indians’ Bob Neal all took a hand in the 1955 World Series where the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only World Series. He handled a number of All-Star games while with Mutual. The one known to exist on recording is the 1954 MidSummer Classic and its quality is the best other than the 1955 World Series.
Al Helfer left Mutual to call the last years of the Dodgers in Brooklyn with Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett. Helfer was the senior man, as Scully had begun in 1950 and Doggett’s first year in the bigs was 1956. Once the Dodgers left, we know less about Helfer’s career. We know he did tv coverage of Phillies games for WOR channel 9 in New York as the station hoped fans mourning their lost teams would watch. He surfaced again with the Houston Colt .45’s in 1962 after which NBC radio chose him to call the playoff between the Giants and Dodgers. In 1962 and 1963 he called the Denver Broncos football games of the fledgling AFL. He was heard for the last time calling games for the Oakland A’s in their first two seasons in the East Bay, 1968 and 1969. That position allowed him to call the finish of Jim Catfish Hunter’s perfect game against the Minnesota Twins. While he had called at least one no-hitter (thrown by Jim Wilson in 1954) Helfer wasn’t handling radio or TV when Don Larsen twirled his perfecto two years later. Mel Allen and Vin Scully called it on TV while Bob Wolf and Bob Neal were on the radio side.
Al Helfer died in Sacramento in 1975, at age 63. He wasn’t on the short list of candidates for 2018 when the award went to Bob Costas. In 2017 I did thumbnail sketches for the 8 finalists in this forum, and to the best of my recollection he wasn’t short-listed at that time either. The A’s late broadcasting icon Bill King won the award then. I regret that I didn’t see the short list in October when it came out because Mr. Helfer won from a field of some of the best pioneering broadcasters. Here are the men Helfer was up against:
Connie Desmond who broadcast with Red Barber in Brooklyn;
Pat Flanagan, Cubs’ broadcaster of the 1930’s;
Jack Graney and Harry Heilmann, arguably the first two former athletes to broadcast baseball. Graney called Indians games and Heilmann calling the Tigers outside of Detroit;
Ty Tyson who called the Tigers games on WWJ in Detroit for decades and handled several World Series for NBC in the 1930’s;
Rosey Rowswell, the first long-term voice of the Pirates;
Waite Hoyt who broadcast the Reds from 1942–1965 and made an art of telling baseball stories during rain delays.

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