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Baseball Announcers of Yesteryear

Submitted by Jack Cullen - February 09, 2008

In anticipation of the impending baseball season I was reflecting on several aspects of how the game has changed. What came to mind is how the game was presented to the public. The original medium was newspapers. Written accounts and daily box scores was how earlier fans followed their teams through the season.

Radio broadcasts began in the 1920's with World Series games being aired first in 1921. Coverage was rarely live as the announcer, miles from the game in a studio, read the play-by-play from a news ticker while a sound effects man provided drama.

Chicago Cub fans had been the beneficiaries of free broadcasts in the mid 1920's, but most owners still feared that further broadcasting would hurt ticket sales. Larry McPhail, the GM of the Cincinnati Reds, was sure broadcasting would increase profits so he went into partnership with Powell Crosley, the owner of two local radio stations in Cincinnati to prove it. In 1933 he hired a young Southern announcer named Red Barber to do play-by-play. Real baseball fans know about Red Barber.

There was strong opposition to radio broadcasts by conservative owners who thought broadcasts of games "were giving away the product," and deemed it poor policy. Eventually, more people, owners included, realized that radio broadcasts were beneficial in that they made families into fans. Still, it was not popular in New York until 1939 when McPhail moved to Brooklyn in 1938 and brought Barber with him. From that time on, people realized - radio, television, more fans, more money.

In the late 1940's when I began to listen to baseball games on radio, and I did into the early 1960's, is the time frame from which I draw my recollections of various announcers, mostly in the Midwest and their unique styles and "trade mark" calls.

Prior to my personal experiences, none other than Ronald Reagan (then known as "Dutch Reagan") actually began his career as a sports announcer at WHO in DesMoines in the early 1930's recreating some Cub games via the "ticker tape". He would dramatize it with "canned crowd noise" and anecdotes. One story goes that the ticker tape broke down early in a game one day and so Reagan created an imaginary game to finish the broadcast. The next day when fans read the real results in the papers, which were quite different from Dutch's account, the calls flooded to the radio station. The callers were told the circumstances and the truth. Everybody got a kick out of it and Reagan was lauded for his creativity.

My earliest recollections are listening to Bert Wilson calling Cub games, Bob Elson on White Sox broadcasts and Harry Caray with sidekick Gabby Street doing Cardinal games on KMOX. Harry and Gabby were always entertaining. One of Gabby's claim to fame was that he was the only person to have caught a baseball tossed from the top of the Washington Monument. Harry's home run call of "It might be! It could be! It is! ... a home run!" was just one aspect of his unique skill as a broadcaster. His excited,"Holy Cow!" was a Caray trademark long before Phil Rizzuto used it.

Bert Wilson was an unabashed Cub fan, declaring, "We don't care who wins as long as it is the Cubs." The Cubs were in losing seasons much of Bert's tenure but he continued to extol "Beautiful Wrigley Field" and persisted in his optimism until he retired due to failing health - perhaps a broken heart.

Bob Elson, the White Sox announcer from the late 1940's into the early 1960's, was what might be described as "low key." After a Sox home run, he would declare it, "a White Owl Wallop" thereby touting one of the sponsors, White Owl cigars. Elson was an excellent interviewer and had a radio show in which he hosted many contemporary celebrities from the Pump Room of the Ambassador East Hotel. To some, he may have seemed to lack passion, but his genuine feelings were manifested when calling the game in late September 1959 in which the Sox clinched the pennant against the Indians. His voice cracked as he exclaimed " The Sox have won the pennant!" over and over.

Jack Quinlan was a later Cubs broadcaster who was considered one of the finest in the game until his career was cut short when he was killed in an auto accident in Arizona during spring training in the mid 1960-'s. Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau had the difficult task of following Quinlan.

After Caray left St. Louis, Jack Buck became the Cardinal's announcer. Buck was outstanding in every respect as an announcer and a person. He is in the Hall of Fame. When the Cardinal's won, Jack declared, "It's a winner!"

Another great announcer I recall as a kid was Harry Heilman for the Tigers. He was followed by the great Hall of Fame announcer, Ernie Harwell. In the early 1950's, I, along with millions of other baseball fans, would listen to Waite Hoyt call Cincinnati Reds games at night here in Central Illinois. After sunset we could pick up Cincinnati and Pittsburgh radio stations. Bob Prince was the very colorful Pirate announcer. His home run call was the most unique - "Open the window, Aunt Minnie!" - followed by the sound of breaking glass. On occasion he would attempt to stir Pirate fans and spark a rally by waving an oblong green object from his broadcast booth - he called it the hex of "The Green Weenie" on opponents.

Who can forget Mel Allen? It seemed like he was the World Series announcer as the Yankees from the late 1940's to the late 1950's, except for a few occasions, were usually in the Fall Classic. Allen was another Hall of Fame announcer and is remembered for his trademark exclamation, "How about that?!!"

There were numerous great radio announcers in the late 1940's through the 1950's and the 1960's.

Russ Hodges of the New York Giants was known for "The Giants have won the pennant!" being repeated almost ten times after Bobby Thomson's homer defeated the Dodgers in 1951 to clinch a miracle comeback from more than 13 and 1/2 games back in mid August.

Some other notable announcers included Chuck Thompson of the Orioles, Byron Sham for the Phillies, Herb Carneal for the Minnesota Twins, and Earl Gillespie and Blaine Walsh who excited Milwaukee Brave fans after their move from Boston in 1953. Vin Scully is broadcasting for the Dodgers and there are many grandpas today who can recall Vin beginning with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the early 1950's. He is also a Hall of Famer.

Another Hall of Fame sports radio voice familiar to Chicago sports fans is Jack Brickhouse. He had his start in Peoria. His trademark "Hey! Hey!" for a Cub home run is on the foul pole in Wrigley Field. He is also famous for his rationalization of the Cubs' championship drought - "Anybody can have a bad century."

There are other fine broadcasters not mentioned. Many fine young announcers call games today. We might consider Denny Mathews of Bloomington who calls for the Kansas City Royals.

However, for those of us from the senior citizen viewpoint, it is difficult to surpass the unique and entertaining guys we knew through the radio years ago.

Another baseball season is just around the corner! Baseball, beer and hot dogs - only a few other things are so American.

And - oh yes, sing that "Star Spangled Banner with gusto!

Play ball!