Since 1978, 28 men have received the Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award for broadcast excellence. This Sunday, July 31, its 29th recipient will enhance Cooperstown’s annual Induction Day. Few match him for gilding America’s greatest talking game.
"I used to worry about Colemanisms," Jerry Coleman chuckled. "Now I figure they add to my sex appeal."
Jesus Alou is "in the on-deck circus. " Cy Younger Randy Jones was "the left-hander with the Karl Marx hairdo. " Recall Dave "Winfield going back … back … he hits his head against the wall. It’s rolling toward second base!" Hail the man "sliding into second with a stand-up double.
" Sit back, "put a star on that baby," and laud the 1960 CBS, 1963-69 Yankees, 1970-71 Angels, and 1972-79 and 1981- Padres announcer. This week imagine evolution, going yard. "Sometimes big trees grow out of acorns. I think I heard that from a squirrel."
In/On the Air
Born September 14, 1924, our linguist knew the way from San Jose. His road led to high school in San Francisco, Yankees Class D Wellsville, Pacific Theater, and The Bronx in 1949. A year later the second baseman became Associated Press Rookie of the Year. "He can throw backwards [on the double play]," said Yanks manager Casey Stengel. "He must have a mirror hanging down his neck."
In World War II, a B-29 mirror helped spot Japanese. Soon the pilot of 57 bombing missions added 63 in Korea. "Bob Feller and Ted Williams were right," said the ex-Lieutenant Colonel. "What you do for America [13 Air Medals, three Navy citations, and two Distinguished Flying Crosses] counts most."
Retiring in 1957, Coleman became Yanks personnel director. His CBS-TV "[pre-] Game of the Week" began in 1960. Instantly it almost closed. Jerry was interviewing Cookie Lavagetto when the "Star-Spangled Banner" started. "Better keep talking," the tyro thought, and did through the Anthem. Letters swamped CBS. "Now, when the Anthem starts," he later said, "I stop, whether I’m taping, talking, or eating a banana."
By 1963, Coleman made Yanks radio/TV, having never even kept score. He was scheduled for a full inning. Instead, 12 men hit in the top half. "I think you’ve had enough," said his boss, Mel Allen. Jerry agreed. "I went over to the corner, got into a fetal position, curled up," and stayed.
One Coast to Another
Life on the point. "You’re so insecure at first that you need someone to pat you on the back. " Instead, a sadist mailed a record "Famous Jungle Sounds," writing, "Listen to yourself. " A road twin-bill upped angst. Tribe lefties Sam McDowell and Jack Kralick are to hurl. Game One’s starter blanks New York inning after inning. "Sam was a strikeout guy with erratic control, "Coleman gawked," but his control this day was astounding."
In the sixth inning, he learns why. WPIX New York telephones the booth. "Is that McDowell?"
Jerry turns to Indians Voice Bob Neal. "Who’s pitching?"
Bob lipsinks: "Kralick."
Four decades later the face still dropped. "They were similar in build," Coleman said. "But even that doesn’t explain how we had the wrong guy pitching."
Mary Poppins moaned, "Things began to happen to me." Jerry’s never stopped. "I guess you ladies wear the pants when your husbands are gone, " he told Dave McNally’s wife. She smiled: "And we take them off when they come home." One warm day Coleman stripped to shorts in Kansas City. A woman complained. "So I had to put my pants back on. Not that I took them off that often, anyway."
Jerry took off in 1970 for Angels television. In 1972, inheriting a hemophiliac, he tried to staunch the blood. The 1974 Padres were nearly sold to a Washington, D.C. buyer. Saving them for San Diego, McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc snatched the P.A. mike Opening Day: "This is the most stupid ballplaying I’ve ever seen." Next day he apologized. Jerry couldn’t grasp why.
Coleman managed the 73-89 1980 Pads. "There’s a generation gap between Jerry and the players," rued Gene Tenace. None split Jerry and his cult. In 1981, he returned to radio, "where I’m probably more comfortable. Most players think I was born at 45." At about that point "people began talking about Colemanisms."
It irks friends that Colemanisms cloud smart prose, a fine voice, and decency. "Beloved," said the White Sox’ John Rooney. "Like all of us, he goofs up, but the biggest would have been if he’d missed Cooperstown." Many Voices blur. Jerry toots identity.
Said Bob Costas: "His style makes him unforgettable" — Dizzy Dean via Casey Stengel via George W. Bush.
"He’s [John Grubb's] under the warning track." A hitter lined "up the alley … Oh, it’s foul." Dave Winfield led off first — "always a threat to grow." Nolan Ryan has "the most elastic arm ever made by human hands." The Pads waived Glenn Beckert. "Before he goes, I hope he stops by the booth so we can kiss him good-bye. He’s that kind of guy."
Coleman denies saying: "’Rick Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen.’ I said, ‘He’s throwing them up.’" Undeniable: "This is the only afternoon day game in the National League"; "Next up is Barry Carry Garry Templeton"; "Pete Rose has three thousand hits and 3,014 overall"; and "There’s a hard shot to LeMaster — and he throws Madlock in the dugout."
Put a star on these other babies:
?Shortstop Ozzie Smith was so stunned with the news, he lost his appetite right over the dinner plate."
- "Redfern won’t be 22 until October. Hey, he’s only 21."
- "Whenever you get an inflamed tendon, you got a problem. OK, here’s the pitch to Gene Tendon."
- "It’s swung on and Gamble sends a long fly to right, but Gamble goes back to the wall and makes the catch."
- "Swung on and fouled to the backstop. Wait a minute, that was a wild pitch and the runner moved over to second."
The envelope, please.
- "Gaylord Perry and McCovey should know each other like a book. They’ve been ex-teammates for years."
- "Ron Guidry is not very big, maybe 140 pounds, but he has an arm like a lion."
- "From the way Denny’s shaking his head, he’s either got an injured shoulder or a gnat in his eye."
- "Royster has gone six-for-seven against Shirley this year … and there’s a single that makes him five-for-eight."
- "Well, folks, that’s it for the ninth inning. We’re heading on into the 12th."
God bless them, every one.
- "Young Frank Pastore may have just pitched the biggest victory of 1979, maybe the biggest victory of the year."
- "The way he’s swinging the bat, he won’t get a hit until the twentieth century."
- "Bob Davis is wearing his hair differently, short and with curls like Randy [Jones] wears. I think you call it a Frisbee."
- "[George] Hendrick simply lost that sun-blown pop-up."
- "They throw Winfield out at second, and he’s safe."
- "Hi, folks, I’m Jerry Gross."
Cooperstown Class ’05
In 1979, Winfield nearly made a leaping catch. "If Winfield had made that play," said Jerry, "they’d be throwing babies from the upper deck." They fell in 1984. San Diego drew America’s Cubs in the League Championship Series. The pivot was a Game-Four poke. "Hit high to right-center field! Way back! Going! Going! It is gone! The Pads win it!" Coleman cried. "In a game that absolutely defies description, Steve Garvey, in the ninth inning, hit one over the 370-mark, and the Padres beat the Cubs, 7 to 5! Oh, doctor, you can hang a star on that baby!"
In the Series, Detroit mimicked Stengel’s Yanks. Punks burned cars, smashed windows, and assailed passersby upon its end. Motowners rushed the field. Jerry aired a post-game show. "At Tiger Stadium it’s only 30 feet from the field to the booth — so somebody picks up the idea of target practice." Dodging trash, he nearly charged the dry cleaning bill.
Next year Coleman added "Game of the Week" to CBS Radio’s 1976-83 and 1985 L.C.S. At 68, he took up skiing. By then, L.A.’s Orel Hershiser had broken Don Drysdale’s record 58 straight scoreless innings. The last 10 stung the Padres. "There’s a drive to right field!" said Jerry. "He’s going to put it away! Oh, doctor! History was born right here at San Diego!"
L.C.S. 1993 history matched Atlanta-Philadelphia. "It was a fantastic game last night," he told CBS. "I’m still trying to figure out who did what, and why." The ’98 Pads’ wrote another flag. The Series again fizzled: a Yanks sweep. A year later Tony Gwynn got hit 3,000. "Right-center field! Base hit! And there it is! Oh-ho, doctor, you can hang a star on that baby! A star for the ages for Tony Gwynn!" One Mr. Padre swings. Another speaks.
In 2002, Jerry, 78, became the bigs’ oldest full-time Voice. The ’04 Padres gave him an open-ended pact. On-deck circus. Karl Marx hairdo. Sliding stand-up double. Babies tumbling from the upper deck. "Sometimes big trees grow out of acorns."
This week in Cooperstown, Coleman’s legend will grow, too.
In 1953, Vin Scully, 25, became the youngest-ever World Series announcer. At 27, Fox TV’s Joe Buck did his first Classic in 1996. Mel Allen, 25, called the All-Star Game in 1938. Buck, 28, became the second-youngest in 1997.
"When I think of announcers who went before, it sends chills up your spine," said Buck, proving that youth in not wasted on the young. This week the still-tyro, 36, aired his seventh straight Mid-Summer Classic: Tuesday’s 7-5 American League victory at Comerica Park.
Monday Bobby Abreu hit 41 dingers in "Home Run Derby." Buck mused if next morning he "could lift his arms to shave." Boston skipper Terry Francona said, "See you this weekend [Fox's Sox-Yanks]"; by which point a graphic hyped the game; whereupon Joe said, "Right on cue, there’s the promo."
Pro: Buck was articulate and accurate. Analyst Tim McCarver, on his 14th All-Star Game. Fox’s in-ground "Diamond Cam," hailing the personal in an impersonal park. The pre-game salute to the London terrorist attack’s dead and wounded: apt, even elegiac.
Con: Pre-game glitz, more MTV than baseball. Said a friend: "Fireworks, players running [on field] like a bull toward a matador," the script "This One Counts [meaning home World Series edge]" burrowed in the ground. The game didn’t to most viewers, luring an all-time low 8.1. Nielsen rating.
"Wait till next year," Joe said of the National League. Next year he will air the Classic at PNC Park. By then, it will be 45 years since Joseph F. Kennedy told son Robert, then Attorney General: "You may solve the Berlin crisis or not, but nothing is as important as how you raise your family." Jack Buck’s second-youngest child would understand.
Buck was the 1954-2002 grand stylist of Cardinal Nation. He raised eight children to think independently — yet it was important to Joe to enter broadcasting. Said Joe: "Baseball is that which binded me to the man I most admire."
In 1989, Buck fils joined Triple-A Louisville. In 1991, he joined pere at KMOX St. Louis. Before long Joe aired Fox baseball and football: the youngest to regularly do either. "When Jack heard something by him," said mother Carole, a former actress, "he’d say, ‘God, he’s good.’"
Pop’s youth and game were umbilically attached. Some Generation Xers felt it an anachronism. A sport without attitude? Sooner grunge shirts with starch. Joe grew up as trash became king; deviance, first minister. The culture affected. It did not overwhelm.
Mojo, rising. Joe was born in St. Petersburg April 25, 1969. "If the Cardinals’d trained in Oklahoma," he said, "I’d have come out crying there." Hannibal lay 118 miles from St. Louis. Like Tom Sawyer, Joe soon began missing school. "I’d do homework on road trips." Mom signed absences. "She knew how important it was to me to be with my dad."
Buck never took geometry, diagrammed a sentence, or read An American Tragedy. "I’d follow Dad into the clubhouse, the parking lot, and hold his beer while he signed autographs." Joe copied him on a tape recorder. In Las Vegas, he watched the old man play craps. "On those trips the broadcasting was about the 10th most important thing."
In 1987, the Bucks and colleague Mike Shannon man the booth. Suddenly, pa says, "The birthday boy  will take us through the fifth inning." He and Shannon leave. Like Jack a half-century earlier, Joe was on his own. Entering Indiana University, he called ESPN’s 1989 Triple-A All-Star Game. Soon junior joined senior’s Cardinals firm.
"Even then, I had to remind myself that it wouldn’t be like this forever." Nightly Carole heard their father and son reunion. "You were never aware that they were related on the air," she said. "But if I had a choice of listening to one or the other, it was Joe. But that’s a mother talking."
In 1993, Buck began talking on CBS Radio’s "Game of the Week." Listening, I had no idea that, spoiled by the calendar, he was all of 24.
Crazy Like a Fox
Until 1987, network TV owned an NFL monopoly. Cable ESPN and TNT then joined the clan. In 1993, Godfather CBS lost rights to Fox. Weird to Joe was dad’s network out of luck. "I was working at KMOX when I heard the story. My first thought was all the days I spent at the stadium seeing my father do football [CBS-TV, then Radio]. Never did I think of whom Fox might hire."
In 1994, Carole collared Fox Sports head Ed Goren at the Super Bowl: "If you’re putting together football, you can’t do it without Joe!" Nodding, president David Hill added baseball, yelping, "No more dead guys!" Babe Ruth flunked the test. Nepotism passed. Buck, 26, became lead "Game of the Week"man. Other Voices were Chip Caray, Thom Brennaman, and John Rooney. Mickey Rooney denied DNA.
Ironically, Brat Pack leavening sprung from Jack’s ex-CBS analyst. Unlike dad, Joe and McCarver fused. "The play-by-play man [should] explain what and where and analyst answer why and how," Tim said. "He does both."
The 1996 Classic opened in the Bronx. Afterward Joe called home. "What time is the game on?" Jack asked: no swelled head for sonny. Interrupting, Mom assured that pop heard each word. A week later Fox announced a 17.4 Nielsen rating. "Three times our nightly norm," said Hill. "That’s why we got into baseball [for $120 million a year]."
Joe grasped the bottom line. "I refuse to fill a page about what baseball means to me with the typical syrup," he mocked, adding, "Oh, God, pass the syrup." Its symbol: a red-haired titan who seemed cleaner than a Gillette Blue Blades shave. "Not even Hemingway," Buck said, "could explain what Mr. McGwire meant."
In 1997, McGwire left Oakland for St. Louis a slugger but not a hero — "not especially known around the country," Joe mused. He ended the year with 58 homers, tying Jimmie Foxx for most by a righty. The ’98ers drew a franchise high 3,195,021. "McGwire is almost solely responsible," wrote Sports Illustrated, "for this era of unprecedented interest in the Cardinals."
On September 7, Mac’s No. 61 tied Roger Maris. Next night Fox showed Cards-Cubs. Buck had scripted No. 62. "There it goes," he planned to say. "Here it is. A new single-season home run champion, Mark McGwire, as he floats around the bases and into the history books." Instead, Mac hit a text-busting blast v. Steve Trachsel. "Down the left-field line, is it enough?" Joe said, no time to amplify. "Gone! There it is, 62. Touch first, Mark [he missed, then tagged, it], you are the new single-season home run king!"
I was flying to New York. The pilot announced Mac’s blast. Passengers began applauding. At Busch Stadium, history, fireworks, and 43,688 fused. "Everybody in the park was a fan," said Buck. "I broadcast like a fan. I’m not so sure that on a night like that it’s wrong to act like a fan." McGwire embraced members of the Maris family. Blacked out in Chicago, Fox still got a 14.5 Nielsen rating. "I’m worn out. How much can we take?" Mark took it to the limit: 5 homers in his last 11 ups.
Signs dappled Closing Day: "McGwire, You Are the Man." Buck was doing football. Mac faced Carl Pavano. "Swing! And it, get up, baby, get up, get up, get up!" caroled Mike Shannon. "He’s done it again! Seventy home runs! Take a ride on that for history! How — you — can you end a season better than Big Mac has just done?"
In 2001, Fox began six-year "Game," All-Star, and postseason exclusivity. Joe became its one size fits all. Next year his ninth TV Series will trail Gowdy (12) and Allen and Scully (11). Only Curt tops Buck’s seven, including 2000, in a row. On one hand, cable cut the audience. On the other, Fox’s quick cuts, miked managers, and FoxBox, a diamond graphic with updated score, inning, count, out, and base runner, wowed.
Buck won a 1999, 2001-02, and 2004 Emmy. "Baseball is my stock market, my assembly line, my court case, my operating table." Stock rose in 2002: The busy camper, 33, replaced lead NFL Voice Pat Summerall, 70. Said SI: "Curt Gowdy and Al Michaels are the only other broadcasters ever to have been their networks’ No. 1 Voice for baseball and football simultaneously."
Joe aired two NFL and two Division Series games in a week — "juggling them, marriage, kids, and my side job as a clown" — eager to seem cutting-edge. SI asked if he preferred nepotism or birthright. "Nepotism. It pisses people off a lot more." Gowdy grew up with Tyrone Power. Buck kept a life-sized cutout of Mike Myers as Austin Powers. Curt’s weekly "Game" was national. Fox’s 16-game menu was regional, began late May or early June, and vanished like Joe at season’s peak.
"That last month they stick him on the NFL," barbed an ex-Fox Voice. "Its baseball guy, on sabbatical, missing the most crucial time!" In 2004, "Game" appeared only thrice after August 28. "Fox is MIA on the pennant race, and Joe doesn’t even do [September 18's] Red Sox-Yankees," said the broadcaster. "What kind of sport would tolerate that?"
Plainly, baseball. "I don’t think I’m destined for more than 10 more years in baseball. I’m enjoying football," Buck told the New York Times. "The ‘Game of the Week’ isn’t what it was. I put a lot of work into those games, but you don’t get the same payoff as you get from a great football game." Fox was not your father’s baseball network. As clear: Joe’s grieving, over dad.
By 2002, Buck had cut his local schedule to 25 games. "I don’t want to be gone all the time. I was a part of this on the other end, with my dad gone a lot and trying to spend more time with his kids." Jack entered the hospital in January. Unable to speak, he heard Joe whisper, "You have to get out of here and help me through the season."
On June 18, doctors removed the respirator. Doing a game — "Dad woulda’ given me **** if I’d missed it" — Joe arrived at Barnes-Jewish Hospital near 11 p.m. "Go ahead and go," he said, unsure if Jack was breathing. "I have everybody covered back here. I know what you did in your lifetime and we all respect it. I’ve been given more than any son." He would admit to hero worship. There are worse ways to regard your father.
The son left without looking back. "I knew what he was thinking. ‘Get out of here, kid.’" Jack died minutes later. That week Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kyle also died. Buck, on "Game," didn’t miss a beat. "Dad would have wanted me to go get back to work. I just wish I could call him after a game to talk about it now."
In 2002-04, Joe was named National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters Announcer of the Year. On Opening Day 2004, President Bush graced the Redbirds home season. "Joe, how do you like my guys?" Bush said of sharpshooters on the roof. Buck still likes to call dad’s cellphone to hear his best friend’s voice.
Jack’s signet was "That’s a winner!" Forget Comerica Park’s sterility, All-Star ratings, or the event’s cachet. As we reheard this week, Papa Buck was likely speaking about his son.
In the film, The Way We Were, Robert Redford and a friend play a game while lounging in his boat. Best month? Redford asks. Best song? Best year? Best All-Star Game moment? Arguably July 8, 1941, at Detroit.
Ted Williams’ ninth-inning, three-run, two-out titan into Briggs Stadium’s upper deck beat the National League, 7-5. "What people still remember," said A.L. teammate Bobby Doerr, "is Ted jumping around the bases: joyous, aglow, utterly alight.
Bob Elson was at the mike. "Ted’s mother told me she did a backward somersault when she heard me call that homer," said the Old Commander. Mentally, peers did, too: Mel Allen, Red Barber, and France Laux, mooring year three of Mutual Radio’s All-Star exclusivity.
"It’s gone! The game is over!" said Ty Tyson, broadcasting locally on Detroit’s WWJ. Williams termed the blast "the biggest thrill I ever had in baseball." That September, he climaxed baseball lore as grand as Lou Gehrig’s farewell ode. The Kid began the final day hitting .3995 — .400 in the record book. No major-leaguer since 1930′s Bill Terry had got four hits every 10 times at bat.
Red Sox manager Joe Cronin pleaded with Williams to skip his season-ending double-header in Philadelphia. "You got your .400. Sit it out." Ted said, "No, I don’t want it that way. I’ll play." John Wayne was never more Aetean on film.
Only 23, Williams and friend/clubhouse attendant Johnny Orlando walked for miles that morning. Stout-hearted, or foolhardy? The Kid morphed from prodigy to myth. Whacking a Game-One home run and single, he added a pair of nightcap hits: six-for-eight and .406 average.
Baseball, George Will writes, flaunts proof of God’s perfection. Williams deemed perfection the least he should attain. This year’s All-Star game returns to Detroit for only the third time since 1941 (others, 1951 and 1971). Memory still retrieves Ted like a heliotrope turns toward the sun.
The first big-league game I saw was August 30, 1960, his 142nd birthday, at Fenway Park. Eleven years earlier, my parents had watched a Red Sox game on their honeymoon. Now, on a night so hot that, as Vin Scully once said, "the moon got sunburned," I saw on my father’s face why Williams became John Wayne to post-World War II America.
"Why is the crowd so loud," I recall asking, "When Number 9′s at bat?" Only time taught that he was the greatest menagerie since Babe Ruth — long-limbed like a pelican, elegant as a stallion, and jittery like a colt — an athlete-become-epic: part-Gibraltar and part-child.
Growing up, Williams wanted people to say, "There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived." He made it: two Triple Crowns, six batting titles, a .344 average, and last man to hit .400. "All that despite missing five years in World War II and Korea," said friend Curt Gowdy. "Otherwise there’d be no place in the records for anyone but Ted."
Quick, loose, and striking — to poet Donald Hall, "coiling on himself like a barber pole turning around" — he was the only player to literally stop batting practice. Other teams sought advice like pilgrims nearing Lourdes. Sox owner Tom Yawkey asked why Ted was going aid to the enemy. "When people cheer," he said, "they’re cheering hitting. It’s good for the game."
Hitting became his leitmotif: Elvis Presley’s hair, Barbara Bush’s pearls, or Phyllis Diller’s cackle. Williams awoke at night (rehearse that swing), wouldn’t see a film (fearing effect on vision), and walked around holding a bat (to keep its feel. Wait. Don’t swing at a bad ball. Concentrate. Think!)
In the cage, Ted screamed at himself for even grounding out. Fiorello LaGuardia said, "When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut." At bat, the Splinter almost never did.
Hitting keyed, not explained, the legend. "It’s his presence, that’s the word," No. 9 mused of 1948-50 Sox manager Joe McCarthy. Presence, not Samuel, was Williams’ real middle name. "In 1955, there were 77,263,127 male Americans," wrote Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris. "Every one of them would have given two arms, a leg, and his Davy Crockett ironons to be Teddy Ballgame." Why?
1. Character. Ted was loyal, hated "politicians" a.k.a. phonies, and always picked up the check. (The Sox clubhouse manager got his 1946 World Series share.) He raised more money to fight childhood cancer than any athlete, visiting countless patients on one condition — the press was not to know.
2. Excellence. Ted was a nonpareil hunter and fisherman. Once he roared, "There! Watch two ducks coming up at 3 o’clock." Gowdy said, "Where?" Two minutes later they appeared. Flying 36 combat missions, Williams was shot down in Korea. A future senator was his flight commander. Said John Glenn: "He was the best pilot I ever saw."
3. Individualism. Williams threw tantrums, spit at fans, and almost never wore a tie. He reviled the press, was a dazzling interview, and scorned front-runners, refusing to tip his cap.
Ted mocked political correctness, was a pre-recycling conservationist, and had an Old World sense of right v. wrong. Profane, profound, drop-dead handsome, he became a hero to Woody Hayes, John Updike, Bobby Knight, and George Herbert Walker Bush. I have never known anyone so lionized by men, say, now over fifty.
The Church of Baseball
I was fifteen in 1966 when I met this classic inner-directed man. Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, No. 9 gave an acceptance speech — written long-hand, the night before — that many still call the finest in its 66-year history.
Later, autograph hounds badgered him: Typically, Ted rebelled. "You kids pushing me to sign, learn some manners!" he roared. "Know whom I’ll sign? Kids at the outside of the circle who aren’t rude." Jostling pens and paper, he bulled his way toward me.
Years later I saw a Cadillac license plate, "BOSOX-9," near a D.C. restaurant. Was it Ted? I asked, waiting 30 minutes to leave. That month (June 1990) he was to get (and would have, save surgery) the Medal of Freedom (America’s highest civilian honor). The award swept the White House rumormill like Elvis sightings: the Kid-turned-King.
Waiting for Williams finally ended in July 1991, when Bush saluted him and Joe DiMaggio for their 1941 daybook — DiMag’s 56-game hit streak, No. 9′s grand .406. The President asked me to write the citations: I reverted to 1960 at Fenway Park. Amazed by middle-aged West Wing aides turned teeny/Teddy-boppers, one shook his head. "We’re parishioners," he said, "hoping to meet the Pope."
In 1960, Williams exited like a deity — with a home run, No. 521, in his final time at bat. "And now Boston knows," wrote Ed Linn, "how England felt when it lost India." The 1941 All-Star Game tied Joe D., Bob Feller, and Arky Vaughn, among others.
Only The Kid rivaled royalty even the British Empire would revere.
The Presidency still denotes Franklin Roosevelt. Some still find Chrysler and Lee Iacocca synonymous. To many, baseball’s Mid-Summer Classic, played July 12 in Detroit, means the Voice who broadcast more All-Star Games (24) than anyone who ever lived.
Walt Whitman wrote, "I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear." Mel Allen sang through 11 U.S. presidents, nine commissioners, and four major wars. From 1939-64, he was Voice of the Yankees. Mel left the air, knew private ****, then forged TV’s "This Week In Baseball." Allen had all, lost all, and, incredibly, came back.
At peak, Mel was sport’s five-star mouthpiece — to Variety Magazine, "one of the 25 most recognizable voices in the world." It was deep, full, and Southern, mixing Billy Graham and James Earl Jones. In Omaha, Allen hailed a cab. "Sheraton, please," he said, simply. The cabbie’s head jerked like a swivel. "The voice was astonishing," said colleague Jim Woods. Too, debate.
Depending on your view, Mel was a paladin, random chatterer, or surpassing personality of the big city in the flesh. Red Barber thought him prejudiced. The Mets’ Lindsey Nelson was antipodal: "The best of all time to broadcast the game."
Arguably, Allen sold more cigars, cans of beer, razors, and fans on baseball than any broadcaster. Unarguable: He was the All-Star Game’s signet for a quarter-century.
From Alabama to New York
"Give me a child until he is seven," vowed Saint Francis of Assisi, "and you may have him afterward." Melvin Israel was born in 1913 to Julius and Anna, Russian emigrants who owned a clothing store in Johns, Alabama, 25 miles from Birmingham. (In 1938, he dropped Israel and adopted his dad’s middle name. "The Yanks’ idea," Mel said, wryly. "They told me it was more generic.")
The child walked at nine months, spoke sentences at one year, read box scores at five. Allen graduated from grammar school at 11; high school, 15, the University of Alabama, 23. New York had the adult afterward. In 1936, he went there for a week’s vacation. The trip lasted 60 years.
On a lark, Mel auditioned as a $45 a week CBS Radio announcer. By 1939, the Yanks and Giants debuted on radio: Arch McDonald, Voice. An aide began one Ivory Soap ad by saying "ovary." He laughed, repeated it, and was axed. Mel replaced him, then McDonald. At 26, too fast, he often said, for his own good, Allen meant the Yankees: "more history to call," said Nelson, "than any sportscaster ever."
Ultimately, Mel aired 18 Bombers flags and 12 world titles: a national, not just local, star. His first All-Star Game was 1938 at Cincinnati. Next year The Stadium staged the Classic. Six Yanks started, including Joe DiMaggio. Said Allen, again on CBS: "pinstripes on parade." His tied "JackPot Bowling," Triple Crown, 14 Rose Bowls, and 3,000 Fox Newsreel shorts: "This is your Movietone reporter." To Baseball Nation, the All-Star Game dwarfed all.
Mel aired the 1940 and 1943 (CBS) and 1941-42 (Mutual)Classic, adding post-war’s 1946-51. In 1949, police led him from Ebbets Field to his steel gray Buick convertible with red wheels and license BB (for baseball) 65. "Groupies," brother Larry said. "Not Dodger fans trying to kill him." Next year Allen called the Nationals’ 4-3 14-inning triumph. "Ralph Kiner tied it in the ninth. The first pitch after I’d predicted he’d belt it out of the park."
Like America, Mel next turned to television: each 1952-58, both 1959, second 1960, first 1961, and second 1962 Game. "Freeze that age," said NBC TV’s Nelson. "No pro hoops, little golf, in summer just the All-Star." The Voice’s "How about that!" turned national idiom. "Hello there, everybody, this is Mel Allen!" fused
name and game.
A popular Broadway song of the time was "Happy Talk." Allen ensured that the All-Star Game’s was.
Hits, Runs, and Memories
The Voice did the Summer Classic with, among others, Jack Brickhouse, Curt Gowdy, Al Helfer, Russ Hodges, Gene Kelly, Vin Scully, and Barber.
In 1978, with Allen, Red made Cooperstown. He joined Mel at The Stadium in 1954. That July, training to Cleveland, Allen opened a bottle of soda, which exploded, leaving his right hand, wrote Melvin Durslag, "a bleeding, lacerated mess." Stopping at a station, he was ordered to a hospital. Mel refused; whereupon a medic fixed him; after which he aired the Americans’ 11-9 All-Star victory.
"Welcome to America’s greatest mid-summer spectacle!" Allen said, following the Gillette Company’s "The Blue Blades March." Welcomed, we inhaled. In July 1962, Mel aired his 24th and last All-Star Game from District of Columbia Stadium, a symmetrical, lights affixed to a dipping roof — "like a wet straw hat," said a critic — antiseptic oval.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy, 42, had met Stan Musial, 40. "They say you’re too old to play baseball and I’m too young to be President," said JFK, "but maybe we’ll fool them."
"Guess we fooled ‘em," The Man now recalled.
A pre-game picture showed Mel and Kennedy, each in black tie, at a White House reception. Next afternoon the Boston Brahmin threw out another ball.
"I just was thinking," Allen telecast on NBC. "This is the first time I have followed Joe Garagiola, who followed the President of the United States." The Game became "The Mid-Summer’s Day Dream." The camera eyed Orlando Cepeda’s feet: "Look at that wide stance." It is still hard to look at an All-Star Game without thinking of The Voice.
"Daily, Mel could wear you out," said then-NBC sports head Tom Gallery. "For a big event [Allen did a record 18 straight 1946-63 Series] there was something about him that brought a special drama to the event." Sadly, Mel’s life soon acquired a drama of its own.
The Hungry Years
In 1963, Allen froze on a local newscast. At The Stadium he began to struggle on the air. In 1963, Mickey Mantle homered in Game Four of the Series. "The [Dodger Stadium] crowd roared. I started to roar, too. Then suddenly I lost my voice" — a gasping, wheezing sound. Gallery yanked Mel from the booth. Outsiders ascribed causes to his silence: sinus, laryngitis, or shock. **** Young wrote that Allen couldn’t accept L.A.’s sweep. "His voice refused to believe it, and therefore he could not repeat it."
Yankees announcer Jerry Coleman recalled an earlier game that year. "In a rain delay, Mel wouldn’t stop talking. It was wild. Something was happening. You didn’t know what." In 1964, the Stripes played their first Series sans Allen since 1943. A month later — with no reason, not even a release — they fired their apotheosis. "He gave them his life," gaped Barber, "and they broke his heart."
They still had, years later. "The Yankees never held a press conference," Mel began, flushing color. "They left people to believe what they wanted. [NBC and Movietone also axed him in 1964.] The lies were horrible — that I was *** or a lush or beat people or had a breakdown." Lacking "[explanation], Allen became a victim of rumors," Sports Illustrated wrote. "He was supposed to be a drunkard, a drug user. Neither rumor was true, but he couldn’t fight them. It was as if he had leprosy."
Replacing him, the Yankees’ Garagiola got a telegram. "Mel said he hoped I’d stay on the job as long as him. I said — here he is, heart breaking — ‘I didn’t know there were still guys like you around.’" Vanishing, Allen — childless, unmarried — began a decade of curiosa: banquets, random Braves radio and Indians TV, and voiceovers.
For years, an unknown admirer had sent one red rose each day. Mel’s garden was now bare.
In 1966, Mel, Hank Aaron, Harmon Killibrew, Stan Musial, Brooks Robinson, and Joe Torre visited U.S. troops in Viet Nam. Allen showed that year’s official All-Star Game film in Saigon and Da Nang. Two years later, Minnesota hosted Cleveland. Mel interrupted Harry Jones: "This is the land of 10,000 lakes. They have these picturesque names."
Reciting them, he paddled to Lake Superior, site of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, "The Song of Hiawatha."
Did Harry know the poem? Wearily, Jones muttered that he does. "Let’s see now, how does it go?" asked The Voice, repeating its first 37 lines.
Jones glared. Coleman later laughed. "Who else could make Longfellow and baseball twins?" Nodding, I relived that good-bye song. For a long time Mel seemed deader than Marley’s Ghost. Baffled, the public felt a gentle protectiveness. "I mean, actors leave, they’re forgotten," Allen said in 1975. "Folks still writing the Yankees, asking where Mel is."
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that "In America, there are no second acts." Bereaved, but not bitter, Mel pined for his first. Then, in 1977, "This Week In Baseball" began on syndicated (later, NBC) TV — ultimately, sport’s highest-rated serial. One Saturday a sometime fan entered the living room. My mother could not have heard his crisp-voweled vent since 1964. "I can’t believe it. Is that Mel Allen?"
At that moment it seemed he had never been away.
"TWIB" revived Allen’s life. "Everywhere I go," said creator Joe Reichler, "players tell me, ‘Jesus, wait till Mel gets a hold of that play.’" Tug McGraw claimed "the world’s best Mel imitation." Young touted "The Comeback Kid." SI called "[him] back where he belongs, an old campaigner, a keeper of tradition. For years he was a forgotten man, but it has all come back to him in abundance. The taste must be sweet."
Each year "This Week" previewed and reviewed the Summer Classic: Mel, enuncing the All-Star Game. "He’d accent the ‘stars.’ It’s from when he started," said writer Warner Fusselle. "You emphasized players." One "TWIB" feature explored Alaskan baseball: "Penguins admitted free," Mel ad-libbed as eyeballs rolled. "Our show," said executive producer Geoff Belinfante, "introduced him to a whole new generation."
Allen died, at 83, June 16, 1996. The Stadium flag flew at half-mast. Robert Merrill sang the National Anthem at Stamford, Connecticut’s, Temple Beth-El. "TWIB" honored "Mel Allen: 1913-1996." Through 2002 his talking mannequin — "Hello there, everybody!" — began and closed each show.
Such a life deserved a coda, and got it, when in 1990 SUNY at Geneseo in Upstate New York celebrated the first annual Mel Allen Scholarship. I had seen politicians lay siege to, but not like this: The Voice, flanked by teenagers and 70-somethings, falling back on his career.
Allen later dubbed the night "among the most emotional of my life." Most still thought him better than being at the park. Even Yankee-haters no longer hoped for laryngitis. All prized the comeback — America with him, with him because it loved him.
Once Mel said, in his not immodest way, "I always thought I had the kind of a voice that was not unpleasant."
This week remember the Grand Old Man of Broadcasting. How about that!