Nat Allbright wasn’t the most accurate play-by-play sportscaster around — he once described a high school running back as crossing the “40-yard line, the 50, the 55, the 60” — but it would have been hard to find anybody more exciting.
Allbright, who died of pneumonia Monday at 87 at Virginia Medical Center, was a master of baseball re-creations — the forgotten art where a guy sat in a radio studio, got scraps of game information off a Western Union ticker and tried to make listeners feel like he and they were in the ballpark.
From the 1920s to the early 1950s, relatively few major league announcers went on the road. It was a lot cheaper for teams and stations to pretend they were covering games this way. One early purveyor of this fantasy was Ronald Reagan, who first gained attention by recreating Chicago Cubs games for an outlet in Des Moines, Iowa.
Like most folks who become public successes, Allbright was in the right place at the right time. A native of Dallas who grew up in Southwest Virginia, he was doing live broadcasts and re-creations for a minor league team in 1949 when Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley decided to form his own auxiliary network. Club vice president Buzzie Bavasi heard about Allbright and told him to show up at spring training with tapes. Soon afterward Nat was a major league broadcaster, sort of, at 24.
Allbright hammed it up wonderfully for Dodgers teams that won six pennants in 10 years and missed two others on the last day of the season. Imaginary vendors strolled past his microphone yowling, “Getcher redhots!” Imaginary crowds buzzed constantly between pitches and roared when something big happened. Imaginary bats cracked loudly across airwaves.
Nat also came equipped with a distinctively high-pitched voice that could be mistaken for no other. All in all, his melodramatic accounts made the great Dodgers clubs sound even better than they were.
Meanwhile, Arch McDonald and Bob Wolff were doing more sedate radio accounts for the mostly mediocre Washington Senators. The only gimmick either of them employed was a xylophone that McDonald struck with a gong to indicate hits — “BONG!” for a single, “BONG! BONG!” for a double and so on. Contemporary reports indicated that Dodgers broadcasts often outdrew those of the Senators.
“Nat was very clever, and what he did was unique,” Wolff said Tuesday. “All of his sound effects and other techniques were very well done.”
Of course, there were occasional problems. One night in Cincinnati, the ticker stopped working, and Western Union told Allbright it would take a half-hour to fix the line.
“So we had a rain delay — there was nothing else I could do,” Allbright said. “You know, if you take the cellophane off a pack of cigarettes and crumple it up near the microphone, it sounds just like thunder.”
In the Washington area, the Dodgers were carried on WOOK in the District, WEAM in Arlington and WINX in Rockville, with Allbright broadcasting from a perch at Eighth and I streets NW. First he used the ticker for information. Later, the Dodgers arranged for their regular broadcasts to be piped in. Allbright’s assistant would listen on a headset in the next room, type out abbreviated accounts of the action and rush them into the studio.
By the early ‘50s, the Dodgers were heroes to millions of black fans because they had led the integration of the major leagues with first Jackie Robinson and then such stars as Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe.
“Everybody wanted to hear the Dodgers — people who loved them, people who hated them, white fans, black fans,” Allbright recalled a half-century later.
When the club moved to Los Angeles in 1958, some of the magic vanished. For one thing, the Boys of Summer were getting old or had retired; the team finished seventh that season. For another, most of the team’s home games started at 11 p.m. in the East, too late for many fans. Finally, in 1963, Allbright and his network boss, Richard Eaton, told the Dodgers it was time to pack it in.