All-Star Game Still Means Mel Allen
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!