As I was saying, when I was so rudely interrupted. Three months ago I filed my last column for MLBlog.com. Since then I have been completing a book, The Voice: Mel Allen?s Untold Story, to be published by The Lyons Press in April. May I tell you about it, and him?
To post-World War II America, Mel Allen defined radio and TV baseball. The philosopher Plato said, ?Before we talk, let us first define our terms.? Vin Scully made baseball a sun, moon, and stars. Harry Caray spun existential pleasure. Red Barber forged an alchemy of look, sound, and feel. They were not, however, the best to broadcast the game.
At his peak, that was the lonely, valiant, and ambitious man who had all, lost all, and against likelihood, came back. Many preferred Allen to being at the park. Others prayed that laryngitis would silence him forever. He likely sold more cigars, cans of beer, safety razors, and Americans on baseball than any announcer who ever lived.
Except for the Equator, everything begins somewhere. Mel began with a voice — to writer Huston Horn, ?an indefatigable, hinged-in-the-middle tongue? — that a florist must have decorated. In Omaha, hailing a cab, he said simply, ?Sheraton, please.? The cabby?s head jerked around like a swivel. Bob Costas grew up on 1960s Long Island. ?His voice should be in a time capsule — how baseball was for us.?
Allen rose and fell like a buoy off Long Island Sound: riveting and inexhaustible, tying Alexander Scourby and James Earl Jones. In 1955, Variety Magazine named his ?one of the world?s 25 most recognizable voices,? akin to Churchill?s and Sinatra?s. It was then, Mel said, as his manner spoke of propriety and a modesty, not newly-formed, that was neither bogus nor offensive, ?that I knew mine was not unpleasant.?
His life had no sportscast parallel: neither, his appeal.
Team & Life: A Gold Standard
Once Mel spied two teenagers kissing at Yankee Stadium. ?That?s interesting,? he said. ?He?s kissing her on the strikes, and she?s kissing him on the balls.?
Colleague Phil Rizzuto shook his head. ?Mel, this is just not your day.? For a long time, most of Allen?s were.
?Hello there, everybody!? turned national idiom: a home run, ?White Owl Wallop? or ?Ballantine Blast.? When Hank Bauer doubled, Warren Spahn sawed batsmen, or bad-ball Yogi Berra begot good, ?How about that!? followed. You felt the sunlight, dusk, and heat; fielder crouched, batter cocked, and pitcher draped against the seats; above all, a surety that there was nowhere you would rather be.
In 1957, Allen became the first sportscaster profiled on CBS Television?s prime- time ?Person to Person.? Host Edward R. Murrow sat, cigarette in hand, one knee upon the other. ?Where are you, Mel? Murrow said. Suddenly The Voice appeared, in a rowboat, paddling toward his Bedford Village, New York home. It never occurred to you that he would not sail with the wind
In 1940, Mel was named Voice of the New York Yankees. By 1964, he had aired 18 pennants, 12 world titles, and nearly four thousand games: to Sports Illustrated, ?the most successful, best-known, highest-paid, most voluble figure in sportscasting, and one of the biggest names in broadcasting generally.? At high tide, Allen did 21 World Series, 24 All-Star Games, 14 Rose Bowls, CBS Television?s ?Mel Allen Sports Spot,? NBC Radio?s ?Monitor,? and nearly three thousand Twentieth Century Fox film newsreels and short subjects, saying, ?This is your Movietone reporter.? Up to 80 million heard each week.
Jibs tethered Army-Navy, Blue-Gray, and East-West football, ?Jackpot Bowling,? heavyweight boxing, Triple Crown racing, and Little League World Series: 10-time The Sporting News Announcer of the Year, three-time National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association best broadcaster, and first Voice to enter Cooperstown (Class of 1978). At one time or another, Mel graced each U.S. network: ABC, CBS, Mutual, and NBC?s Red and Blue.
?You?re like ****,? Yankees skipper Ralph Houk told Howard Cosell in 1963. ?You?re everywhere.? Yearly Allen filled about 600 TV, radio, and motion picture hours. For a quarter-century, depending on your view, he was a Salad in, chatterer, or surpassing personality of the big city in the flesh. ?He did things no one else could,? said the Mets? Ralph Kiner. Antipodal, raconteur Tex O?Rourke sniped, ?Mel is Alabama?s answer to the babbling brook.? A viewer telegrammed in the 1958 World Series: ?Shut up, you Yankee-lover!? It arrived four hours before Game Two.
Take Costas, twist Al Michaels, and add Chris Berman, Curt Gowdy suggested. ?That?s how big Allen was? — to a 1950s and early ?60s shabby-genteel boy in Upstate New York, as big as Ike or JFK. Beach, yard, sun porch, or car: The Voice, said a writer, was ?forever linked with the golden age of baseball on the air.? A bystander could walk down the street, a hundred windows open, and not miss a pitch.
?Freeze-frame the age,? said 1952-64 NBC colleague Lindsey Nelson. ?The Yanks? season was one platform.? October built another. Till 1976 team Voices did the network Series. Allen aired each on 1947-63 radio or TV. ?Welcome to this country?s greatest sports event!? he blared. To many, the Classic meant the great actor of our baseball time.
?If Mel sold fish, he could make it sound as if Puccini wrote the score,? wrote the Los Angeles Times? Bud Furillo. Tom Gallery was 1952-63 Peacocks sports director. ?I always thought there was a theater and exuberance about Allen that brought a special drama to the occasion.?
Before long, Mel?s life acquired a drama of its own.
Rise, Ruin, and Recovery
One day in 1964, near his apex as an institution, Mel?s prepotency crashed. Movietone dropped its newsreel division. NBC removed the ?Granddaddy of Them All.? In December, without even an announcement, the Yankees released Allen, only 51. ?They never even held a press conference,? said The Voice. ?They left people to believe whatever they wanted — and people believed the worst.?
Thirty years later color still flushed his face. ?The lies that started were horrible, that I was a lush or *** or had a breakdown or stroke or was numb from taking medications for my voice.? Lacking any ?[explanation],? S.I. wrote, ?Allen became a victim of rumors. 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.?
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, ?There are no second acts in America.? Overnight, disappearing from the playing fields of America, Allen despaired of a second chance. Childless, unmarried, he began a decade of banquets, voice-overs, peewee baseball, and other curiosa, becoming a non-person, for reasons he never grasped nor understood. Said Red Barber: ?He gave the Yankees his life, and they broke his heart.?
An unknown 1940s and ?50s admirer had sent one red rose a day. The Voice?s garden now looked bare. ?I?ve written since 1959 about every famous name in sport,? said the New York Post?s Maury Allen. ?No topic?s caused more mail than why the Yankees fired Mel.? The Voice: Mel Allen?s Untold Story is the first book to explain why.
At the time, hearing dry-as-paint pretenders, you recalled the hypothetical, what might have been. Then, in 1977, Mel began hosting ?This Week In Baseball?: eventually, sport?s highest-rated TV serial. Each Saturday he etched players, isolated in his attention, talking sotto voce, a semi-Marceau at ease.
?For years he was a forgotten man,? wrote William Leggett, ?but it has all come back to him in abundance? — rise, ruin, and rebirth. Allen?s coda became the rest of his life. ?Kids knew him from ?This Week,?? said executive producer Geoff Belinfante. ?Older folks remembered the salad days. Everyone had a frame of reference?: Mel, as Rorschach test.
It must have been awful to be The Voice when life as he defined it withered — also great to later grasp millions with him, with him because they loved him, and sense himself complete. Recall a grand and painful, stirring, then despairing, and ultimately redeeming life. I will try this spring with my book, The Voice. Stay tuned ? and thanks for welcoming me back.