- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2006

One of baseball’s greatest play-by-play men died 10 years ago at 83. But it’s reasonable to speculate that the most important parts of Mel Allen — his heart and soul — really went to that great broadcast booth in the sky in September 1964, when he learned he soon would become the ex-“voice” of the New York Yankees.

Summoned to a meeting by co-owner Dan Topping, Allen walked into the Yankees’ Broadway offices expecting to sign a new one-year contract, standard procedure since he had first broadcast the club’s games in 1939. As related in “Voices of the Game,” Curt Smith’s definitive 1987 history of baseball broadcasters, this is how the conversation went:

Topping: “Mel, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you. … We’re going to make some changes. We’re not going to renew your contract.”

Allen (with unaccustomed brevity): “Why?”

Topping (uncomfortably): “It wasn’t anything you did, Mel, and it wasn’t CBS [which was completing a deal to buy the club from Topping and Del Webb].”

Never given a reason for his dismissal, Allen determined that the culprit was the Yankees’ principal radio sponsor, Ballantine Ale and Beer of Newark, N.J. Profits were declining and, Allen said, “heads had to roll. … They never gave me a chance.”

Allen suffered in silence for the rest of the 1964 season. Although his departure was not immediately announced, rumors flew when Phil Rizzuto, rather than Mel, was selected as the Yankees’ announcer on the World Series telecasts. Then, on Dec. 17, rumor became fact: Allen was out and garrulous former catcher Joe Garagiola was in for the 1965 season.

An era of broadcast and baseball history was over. No longer would Yankees fans savor or suffer, as they had since 1939, Allenisms like “a Ballantine blast,” “a Whitey White Owl wallop” [on behalf of another sponsor] and his trademark “how about that!”

To borrow from his famous home run call, Allen was “going, going, gone” and the repercussions reverberated far beyond New York. He had worked 14 World Series in 16 years for Gillette’s “Cavalcade of Sports” on television, making him nearly as well known in Grand Rapids as Gotham. He also handled events like baseball’s All-Star Game and the Rose Bowl, making him the Curt Gowdy or Al Michaels of his day in terms of maximum exposure.

But most of all, Allen was the Yankees and vice versa. Fans sought his autograph and handshake almost as eagerly as those of stars like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford. In New York, he was frequently idolized. Elsewhere, he was often reviled simply because he personified the lordly and nearly always successful Yankees.

Then, it all ended with a few words and no real explanation from Topping and … Whomever Else? Was that fair? Of course not, but life often is unfair.

“When your voice was the most important thing, meaning in radio, he was the voice of baseball for millions,” said former Washington Senators play-by-play man Bob Wolff, a contemporary of Allen’s. “His voice was very distinctive — when you heard it, you knew instantly it was Mel — and he stood alone.”

The Yankees were good at shedding classic broadcasters. Two years later, after the aging team had collapsed into last place, they fired the equally acclaimed and respected Red Barber because he had the effrontery to inform his audience that merely 413 fans were at a weekday afternoon game at Yankee Stadium.

Because the Yankees never explained Allen’s ouster, rumors persisted: Mel was boring, a drunkard or — because he was a lifelong bachelor — sexually deviant. Longtime Yankees beat reporter Maury Allen (no relation) opted for boring.

“He was a wonderful broadcaster, a major figure on the New York and national sports scene and a very decent guy,” Maury Allen wrote on thecolumnists.com Web site in April 2005. “[But] at the end of his Yankee days, [he was] a terrible bore and a subject of jokes in every press gathering. … Think of the person who bores you the most. Mel Allen was 10 times worse.”

And of the sexual innuendos, Maury Allen said, “He was what we in the press box called in those days a neuter. He was a Hall of Fame neuter. While other members of the traveling party — players, club officials, press — lusted after beautiful women … Mel talked of DiMaggio and Charlie Keller and Tommy Henrich.”

Did somebody say, “To each his own?”

After 1964, Mel disappeared from public view for more than a decade. In 1976, perhaps trying to make belated amends on behalf of the Yankees, George Steinbrenner hired him to work the club’s games on cable TV and emcee special events at the Stadium.

The following year, Allen became host of “This Week in Baseball,” a popular weekly show that featured quirky highlights and interviews before widespread cable TV made such things commonplace. Now a different generation of fans could share Allen’s deep love of the game, expressed in the soft, southern tones that had been so familiar to their elders.

This wasn’t as good as being the voice of the Yankees, not by a long shot, but it was a lot better than being a voice nobody heard.

In 1978, Allen and Barber — also a longtime Brooklyn Dodgers broadcaster — were elected to the broadcasting wing of baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., further embarrassing the lunkheads who had fired them. Mel continued to do “TWIB” until 1995 — and nobody ever said he was boring.

And when Mel Allen died of a heart attack at his home in Greenwich, Conn., on June 16, 1996, we may assume he was a happy man. He had been watching a ballgame.

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