- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2003

Seeing baseball on television is too confining, for the novelty would not hold up for more than an hour if it were not for the commentator. To see the fresh green of the field … is a thrill to the eye that cannot be electrified and flashed through space. … What would old-timers think of such a turn of affairs — [watching] baseball from a sofa!”

—New York Times, Aug. 27, 1939

The first telecast of a major league game — Cincinnati Reds vs. Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field 64 years ago this week — wasn’t close to being the most important event of that late summer. Six days later, Germany invaded Poland to start World War II.

Yet from the standpoint of how it affected American culture, the debut of major professional sports on the tube was truly momentous — even if the anonymous New York Times critic didn’t approve.

What would the lives of today’s sports fans be like without TV, snacks and beer? Perhaps there would be far fewer overweight couch potatoes. But certainly, for better or worse, our leisure hours would be less enjoyable, our arguments less heated, our insignificant others less ignored.

The first radio broadcast of a major league game occurred in 1921 on Pittsburgh station KDKA. By the late ‘30s, most major league teams had embraced radio as an effective device for creating new fans. The exceptions were the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers, who had agreed jointly not to broadcast games because of irrational fears that it would hurt attendance.

After uninhibited Larry MacPhail became general manager at Brooklyn, all that ended. The literally poor Dodgers had been New York’s third team and first object of baseball ridicule for years. So MacPhail, who had introduced night games to the majors four years earlier in Cincinnati, had nothing to lose by shaking up the establishment.

First, he anointed fiery shortstop Leo Durocher as his playing manager, a move that guaranteed banishment of the status quo. Between episodes of feuding with umpires, his players and even some fans, Leo the Lip prodded the ‘39 Dodgers from seventh place to third (and won a pennant two years later).

Second, MacPhail turned his new radio microphone over to Walter Lanier Barber, a fellow redhead every bit as genteel as MacPhail was coarse. You wouldn’t expect hard-nosed New Yorkers to cotton to a Southerner who used expressions like “rhubarb,” “the catbird seat” and “tearin’ up the pea patch,” but Barber was an instant hit. During his heyday with the “Boys of Summer,” it was said you could stroll down the streets of Flatbush and never miss a pitch as Barber’s voice resounded from every porch and stoop.

Television was something else again. Technically possible since the ‘20s, video remained a stranger to most Americans before the war. Commercial sets were introduced that April at the New York World’s Fair in Flushing, but only a few hundred of them existed in the United States — huge, boxy consoles that cost $1,000 or more and offered tiny, flickering images on a 7-inch screen.

How long ago was 1939, at the tail end of the Great Depression? A new car could be had for $750, a single-family house for $6,400. Gas cost 18 cents a gallon, bread 8 cents a loaf, milk 49 cents a gallon. Most folks could afford no more; the average annual salary of American workers was $1,850.

Heck, in 1939, even Larry King was young — a 6-year-old living in Brooklyn and just a few years away from rooting furiously for the Dodgers.

The first baseball telecast graced a game between Princeton and Columbia at Manhattan’s Baker Field that May. The ever-ponderous New York Times noted players “appeared like white flies running across the screen,” its high-and-mighty critic choosing to ignore the basic fact that flies don’t run anywhere.

Famed sportscaster Bill Stern, who never let facts get in the way of a good story, provided the commentary for NBC’s experimental telecast. If Stern misidentified a ball carrier on the football field during a radio broadcast, he often would have the wrong player lateral the ball to the correct one at the last minute. Once when Stern was assigned to cover the Preakness, a rival broadcaster grumbled, “Let’s see the S.O.B. lateral a horse.” After the war, television’s unerring eye eventually spelled an end to Stern’s fictions and his fame.

Red Barber was as different from Stern as any announcer could be. His strengths were integrity, accurate and dispassionate reporting and the ability to educate listeners on baseball’s nuances. One notable example came in 1951, when Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” deprived the Dodgers of a pennant that once had seemed assured. While Russ Hodges was screaming, “The Giants win the pennant!” over and over on that team’s radio network, Barber said simply, “It’s in there for the pennant.”

After a break, he attempted to place the most dramatic moment in baseball history in perspective by citing the number of Americans killed that week in Korea. “The Dodgers will get over this,” Barber said, “and so will their fans.”

In his memoir “Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat,” Barber described television in 1939 as “a little tiny baby that was cute, but nobody took its gurgling seriously.” Nonetheless, NBC had begun daily programming that spring, and in early August a network vice president called Barber to inquire if MacPhail might allow the televising of a game at Ebbets Field. So Barber asked his boss, knowing that he loved to be first in anything.

MacPhail’s answer was unequivocal: “Yes.”

NBC set up its equipment to telecast the first game of a doubleheader over experimental station W2XBS on Saturday, Aug.26, but MacPhail extracted a heavy price. He demanded NBC install a set in the press room so he and a few cronies could watch.

Barber did not broadcast from the radio booth area, perching instead in an upper deck box behind third base. Earphones connected him to director Burke Crotty in a truck beneath the stands. There was no monitor, forcing him to guess what pictures were being shown by the two cameras. With no precedent to guide Barber, we can only assume that common sense told him to shut up and let the video tell the story whenever possible.

There were commercials, too, although not the elaborate sort we know today. Each of the Dodgers’ three radio sponsors — Ivory Soap, Mobil and Wheaties — was given one minute of airtime as a courtesy for allowing NBC to show the game. Barber did the spots live and impromptu; for the cereal company, he poured Wheaties into a bowl, added milk, sliced a banana and said, “That’s the Breakfast of Champions.” For Mobil he held up a can of oil, for Ivory a bar of soap.

NBC did not televise the second game, but during the break Barber was shown interviewing Durocher, Cincinnati manager Bill McKechnie and several players on the field. At one point, he asked Dodgers first baseman Dolph Camilli to display his large hands for viewers.

Desiring a memento of the event afterward, Barber asked NBC for an engraved silver cigarette box. The network sent it with this inscription: “To Red Barber, Pioneer Television Sports Announcer, in Grateful Appreciation.”

Sad to say, this evidence of gratitude came with a price tag. Accompanying the cigarette box was a bill for $35.

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