- The Washington Times - Monday, March 10, 2003

"I announced that Clem Labine was coming in to pitch, then had to change it to Ralph Branca when that was corrected. Suddenly, my associate in the next room started waving his arms like the ball was gone. When he handed me a piece of paper confirming what had happened, I said, 'A drive to left field back, back, and that ball is gone! … Unbelievable! It's out, and I'll see you next season.'"
As the sportscaster relived his radio call of Bobby Thomson's 1951 "Shot Heard 'Round the World" for the New York Giants, his dramatic voice carried through the Northern Virginia restaurant. Moments later, two men approached his booth. "Excuse me, but we couldn't help overhearing," one of them said. "Are you Nat Allbright?"
The sportscaster admitted it and chatted with the men for a few moments. They left with broad smiles, but Allbright's was even broader. It's nice to be remembered, particularly when the prime years of your career came a half-century ago.
These days Allbright, 77, sells cars at Jerry's Ford in Annandale and faces a microphone just twice monthly on a Fairfax County cable access TV show called "Sports Scope." But from 1950 to 1963, he was a little giant among baseball broadcasters, recreating all the games played by the Brooklyn Dodgers on the club's secondary radio network that included as many as 107 stations.
Probably his voice was heard by many more people than those of Red Barber and Vin Scully, the Dodgers' Hall of Fame-bound regular announcers. In fact, Allbright says, "people used to come to spring training and say, 'Who's Red Barber? Where's Nat?'"
In an era when live sports events clutter TV practically 24/7, the concept of recreated broadcasts seems as archaic as a radio with a megaphone speaker. Before and after World War II, however, they were common. Few teams could afford to send broadcasters on the road, especially when pitch-by-pitch accounts were available from Western Union.
Many announcers of varying ability practiced this forgotten craft, among them in the mid-'30s a young man who did Chicago Cubs games for a Des Moines, Iowa, station while awaiting a career break or two. His name was Ronald Reagan.
In Washington during the late '40s and early '50s, Senators broadcasters Arch McDonald and Bob Wolff played it relatively straight during road games. Listeners could hear the sound of the ticker, and when it persisted for a long time you knew something complicated had happened. There was only one gimmick. McDonald, the senior partner, used a gong that he rang once for a single, twice for a double, etc. And if you never heard it, you'll never understand how it stirred the blood when Arch uttered his standard home run call, "There it goes, Mrs. Murphy," followed by BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG!
Allbright's accounts were far different. He hammed it up wonderfully with canned crowd noise, phony cracks of the bat, imaginary vendors yowling, "Hey, getcher redhots," and the best asset a broadcaster can have an instantly recognizable, dramatic voice that sounds like no other.
Allbright started his recreations at precisely the right time, too. In the early '50s, the Dodgers were heroes to millions of white and 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.
Besides, the Dodgers were a magnificent team that won six pennants in 10 years and lost two others on the final day. Meanwhile, the lily-white Senators were languishing in the nether regions of the American League.
Contemporary newspaper accounts indicate that Allbright's Dodgers broadcasts regularly drew higher ratings than McDonald and Wolff enjoyed with the Senators. Recalls Allbright: "Everybody wanted to hear the Dodgers people who loved them, people who hated them, white fans, black fans."
When McDonald and Wolff began going to all the Senators' road games in 1956, Allbright says McDonald grumbled, "Thanks a lot, Nat. Our sponsors say our recreations aren't exciting enough [by comparison], so we have to hit the road."
A native of Dallas who grew up in Southwest Virginia, Allbright was doing live and recreated games for the Columbus (Ga.) Redbirds of the old Class A Sally League in 1949 when 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 in hand. Soon afterward, at 24, Nat was a major league broadcaster, sort of.
"O'Malley was a genius," Allbright says. "He wanted the name 'Brooklyn Dodgers' to go into every nook and cranny, and he didn't want to use the Barber-Scully broadcasts because he thought they would sound too foreign to people in small towns. He wanted somebody who could relate to those people, and that was me. Heck, we used to get 100,000 letters a year thanking us for what we were doing."
In this area, the Dodgers were carried on WOOK in the District, WEAM in Arlington and WINX in Rockville, with Allbright broadcasting from a studio 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.
"I might be talking about Willie Mays being at bat with the bases loaded and one out, and my man would hand me a message that said, 'DP, 6-4-3,'" Allbright said. "You could build up the suspense because you knew what was going to happen. So I might say, 'The infield is halfway, shaded to the left, ready for anything. And there's a hard grounder to short, Pee Wee Reese flips over to Jackie Robinson and on to Gil Hodges double play, and the Dodgers are out of the inning!'"
Of course, there were problems. One night in Cincinnati, in the early days, 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 says. "You know, if you take the cellophane off a pack of cigarettes and crumple it up near the microphone, it sounds just like thunder."
When the Dodgers 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, all the team's home games started at 11p.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.
After that, Allbright did live broadcasts of Redskins, Orioles and college football and basketball games, but it wasn't the same. His style was better suited to recreations, where he could control every aspect. When working live, Nat sometimes let his enthusiasm get away from him. I recall him describing a Washington-Lee High School touchdown this way in his heyday: "He's in the clear, he's at the 45-yard-line, the 50, the 55, the 60 …" Allbright says he doesn't remember the incident.
If Allbright's style sometimes invited caricature WRC's old "Joy Boys," Willard Scott and Ed Walker, used to call him "Not" Allbright he deserves credit for being perhaps the best ever at what he did. He made baseball fun to listen to, which is more than a lot of current guys can say.
And if anyone should complain belatedly that Allbright wasn't a real baseball broadcaster, the third finger on Nat's left hand should settle the argument. On it rests a real 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers World Series ring.


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