By Josh Croup, Point Park News Service:
Like a young couple in love, broadcasting and baseball matured together, were criticized together and flourished together.
Radio’s first voice was heard on Christmas Eve 1906. Reginald Fessenden set out to create the first radio broadcast and he did that and so much more. Fessenden opened up a world for radio that was not before known. He paved the way for broadcasters and stations across America to begin transmitting. The first of these was KDKA in Pittsburgh. As the first station to receive a license in America in 1920, KDKA intrigued a young engineer by the name of Harold Arlin. The 25-year-old wandered into the station on a January evening in 1921. The youthful Arlin showed up to inspect the new radio facility after seeing so much interesting equipment stacked on the roof. While there, he applied for an opening as a full-time announcer with the station. Arlin got the job and the history of baseball radio broadcasting was soon underway.
Around eight months later on August 5, 1921, Arlin purchased a ground-level seat at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. There, he set up a wooden plank across the arms on the seat to create a makeshift table. Arlin set a telephone with a long chord on the improvised table and began “calling” a Pirates game against the Philadelphia Phillies. This made Arlin the first play-by-play broadcaster in baseball history. Arlin was not a play-by-play broadcaster that we would hear today, however.
“No one told me I had to talk between pitches,” Arlin later said.
There was occasionally just dead air time because Arlin simply did not know what he was getting himself into. It was something that had not been attempted before. The equipment sometimes failed, the crowd was often too loud and there was occasional silence. Despite this, he was not just talking to himself. There were only a few hundred radio receivers in use throughout Western Pennsylvania at the time, but it was enough to start an industry. Arlin also would be the voice for the first-ever football broadcast on radio between the University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia University.
That year, 1921, featured other major steps in getting baseball on the radio. The 1921 World Series between the New York Giants and the New York Yankees became the first Fall Classic to be broadcast live on the air. KDKA covered the game live from the Polo Grounds in New York. Even though it was stationed in Pittsburgh and the games were in New York, KDKA installed a direct wire from New York and broadcast the play-by-play reports of the game delivered by sportswriter Grantland Rice.
KDKA was not the only station broadcasting the game. WJZ in Newark, N.J., was a sister station to KDKA. Both stations, owned by Westinghouse, broadcast Game One of the Subway Series in different ways. While KDKA was live, WJZ’s Tommy Cowan received game reports phoned from the Polo Grounds directly to him in Newark. He read the reports over the air and recreated its events. The Yankees would go on to win game one 3-0 in their first World Series appearance, but the Giants would take the series 5-3.
Secret to baseball marketing
Arguably even more significant to the progression of baseball on radio was William Wrigley Jr. Wrigley took sole ownership of the Chicago Cubs in 1921. He had a vision. He had a profound interest in the possibilities of baseball on the radio. It was more than just broadcasting a game here or there. Wrigley saw a future with regular baseball broadcasting, and when he took sole ownership of the Cubs in 1921, his plan was set in motion.
Wrigley also was the owner and founder of Wrigley’s Chewing Gum, which included the Juicy Fruit brand. Wrigley understood how radio advertising could expand his chewing gum company. He knew that the new medium could help expand his reach and attract new consumers. He applied the same method to his newly acquired baseball team. By the mid-1920s, Wrigley opened his park to any station interested in covering the games. He understood that if more people could access his product, the more popular it would be. He was not just competing with other teams in the league for fans. He was competing within his own city. The Chicago White Sox shared the city of Chicago with the Cubs, and Wrigley wanted the Cubs to be “Chicago’s Team.” In 1925, the powerhouse station WGN in Chicago transmitted an exhibition series between the Cubs and White Sox. On opening day in 1925, WGN went all in and set up a remote broadcast facility atop the Wrigley Field roof. The game was played in front of a record crowd of 40,000 and was the first wholly live broadcast for WGN. Not only was it the first completely live remote broadcast for WGN, but for all of baseball.
The rest of the leagues’ owners thought Wrigley was crazy. Why would he give so many people the chance to experience his games without charging them? Owners hated radio. In fact, they were terrified of radio. If games were on the radio, why would fans pay to come to the ballpark if they could just find out what happened from the comfort of their own home? Owners were not opposed to broadcasting World Series games at the time, however. They were comfortable broadcasting World Series games because they believed fans would not want to miss out on the biggest games of the year and therefore their gate receipts would not be affected.
But Wrigley knew the value of radio in marketing chewing gum and saw the potential for Major League Baseball. He believed radio broadcasts did not give away the product, but, instead, increased interest and set his team apart from the others in baseball. He was not so much concerned with the small rights fees that are so important today, but he believed that broadcasting Cubs games would create more fans and attract them to the park. He did not think that it would keep them home, but quite the opposite.
The Sporting News was extremely critical of baseball on the radio. The magazine said, “Broadcasting stories of games as the games go along is the equivalent of a succotash party with neither corn nor beans.” WGN announcer Quin Ryan understood the art of live entertainment and brought the game to viewers in a way that was interesting and unique. He did not simply tell the story of the game, but described everything in detail to make his broadcasts better. This was what owners feared. Would baseball on the radio be so good and so entertaining that it could keep paying fans at home instead at the ballparks? The short answer, as history revealed, is no.
While the Cubs were broadcasting games on the radio regularly from 1926 to 1931, the team reported a 117 percent increase in attendance. The team was not too much better from year to year, but its fan base was growing, just as Wrigley imagined. The economic climb in the late 1920s helped not only the Cubs’ attendance, but also all of baseball. Teams not utilizing radio also saw attendance increases, but not to the extent that the Cubs experienced. The rest of baseball averaged just a 27 percent increase.
Wrigley discovered a gold mine in baseball marketing: As more members of the public became engaged, more developed an interest in the local team. Surely, other owners would open up to the idea of radio after the Cubs’ success.
Not so fast.
Owners still did not trust radio even after the Cubs’ proven success through 1931. Back in 1926, Ban Johnson, the long-time president of the American League, actually issued an edict banning radio from broadcasting American League games. The Cubs’ cross-town rival ignored this edict. White Sox owner Charles Comiskey broadcast games anyway. The competition over the airwaves was heating up in Chicago. By 1927, WGN began regular broadcasts of home games for both the Cubs and White Sox. As the Great Depression was approaching in the latter half of the 1920s, baseball owners still felt hesitant to baseball broadcasting. In 1929, the last year of economic affluence until the end of World War II, the Cincinnati Reds became the first team to broadcast all their games, and in 1930, Chicago’s WMAQ broadcast all home games of both the Cubs and White Sox.
Then the Depression hit and attendance plummeted, making owners even more hesitant to adapt. The St. Louis Browns banned all Sunday and holiday broadcasts of their games. They even prohibited commentary in an attempt to make broadcasts sound like boring news bulletins. The Pittsburgh Pirates followed suit by banning Sunday and holiday broadcasts. Baseball as a whole considered eliminating radio coverage altogether. In 1934, regular baseball coverage existed only in Chicago, Cincinnati and Boston. In the 1930’s, New York City issued a ban on broadcasts. The depression was bad for all things American, including its national pastime.
In the mid-1930’s, baseball began experimenting with night games. This opened a whole new world for broadcasting baseball. Night games helped to improve sluggish attendance and an evening listening audience offered a demographic that intrigued a large number of different advertisers. A larger audience was now available to listen to baseball games in prime time.
As baseball and broadcasting progressed, as the two grew together and learned, a golden age was defined. It lasted from 1935 through 1950. The owners eventually lightened up and took advantage of radio by selling rights and using that as a new revenue source as well as something to expand their fan bases. Fans could fall in love with their favorite players such as Babe Ruth and Stan Musial through the descriptions of them on the radio — or by going to the movie theaters.
Shorts at the movies
Newsreels were “shorts” that lasted anywhere from five to ten minutes. Made by Fox Movie Tone, Universal and other studios that specialized in filming news events, newsreels brought the game to the big screen. Over 80 percent of America did not have baseball teams in their cities and, therefore, watched the players at the theaters.
In May 1939, NBC began experimenting with baseball on television at a college game at Columbia University’s Baker Field. The ball was so small that it was impossible to see on any of the television screens of the day and the camera was placed along the third base line. Without the play-by-play commentary, the production would have been hard to understand.
Like radio, advertisers flocked to television. They did not just buy advertisements for the broadcasts themselves, but also purchased more signage on the walls inside the stadiums. When cameras framed the action with the outfield walls in the background, the companies paying for the ads to be viewed by patrons at the park were also getting shown on TVs across the country.
The Wrigley family jumped on television. P.K. Wrigley followed his father’s radio plan: As early as 1945, he began looking for ways to produce baseball television broadcasts. WGN purchased television equipment and began broadcasting games. Cubs’ home games were all televised by 1955. While much of baseball had entered the world of night games, the Cubs remained an exception and therefore did not have prime-time broadcasts. But they could attract an important demographic: kids. A new generation of Cubs fans was born when when children came home from school and could turn on the game. That is, unless Mom already had it on. The Cubs attracted a daytime TV audience of women, children and retired workers.
Television helped baseball become a greater part of the national culture. Baseball Weekly listed television as second only to the Dodgers’ signing of Jackie Robinson, Major League Baseball’s first black player, in its list of the “Top 100 Things That Impacted Baseball in the 20th Century.”
Robinson’s career and baseball’s television broadcasts grew up together. Four years after Robinson made his debut in the majors on August 11, 1951, New York’s WCBS televised the first game in color.
During the seven years leading to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which eliminated segregtaed schools, black baseball players made headlines on an almost daily basis. Don Newcombe was named Rookie of the Year for the 1949 season. Roy Campanella was National League MVP in 1951, 1953 and again in 1955. Willie Mays exploded into baseball in 1951 when he was named rookie of the year, Minnie Minoso led the American League in stolen bases, Larry Doby led the league in home runs.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education ruling three weeks after one of the greatest black ballplayers Hank Aaron hit the first of his record 755 home runs. When he hit his 715th career home run on April 8, 1974, in Atlanta to break Ruth’s record, the stadium erupted with cheers and celebration. As he rounded second, two white fans ran on the field to congratulate him. The moment was captured live on television for the whole country to see. Without television broadcasting the careers of Robinson and other black pioneers, the country might not have made as much progress in civil rights.
Today, baseball broadcasting is bigger than ever. Satellite radio allows fans anywhere to have access to their team’s broadcasts. Major League Baseball broadcasts every game live on its mobile device app and on its website, for a small subscription fee. Every team in the league has its own radio and television network broadcasting most, if not all of its games.
The same questions remain today that existed when radio and television started: Will broadcasts and announcers get so good that fans will stop going to games? Teams have embraced social media and sports talk shows to not fall behind with the times. Like the Wrigleys, teams today are using the new media to promote and expand their brands.
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