Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
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How About That!
2005-07-13 09:54
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

Book Excerpt

A slow day in baseball makes for an ideal time to catch up on some current Yankee literature. So, for your reading pleasure, please enjoy the following cherce selection from Stephen Borelli's biography of legendary Yankee broadcaster Mel Allen, "How About That! The Life of Mel Allen." It's a blast, with or without the Ballantine.

Chapter 9: Yankee Doodle Dandy

When Horace Stoneham needed a new lead Giants broadcaster for the 1949 baseball season, he asked Mel for recommendations. "Russ Hodges," Mel said. Mel didn't want to lose his faithful partner, but he thought Hodges deserved a shot at a No. 1 job. Stoneham and Liggett & Myers tobacco scooped up Hodges, who, along with Mel and Barber, serenaded the city of New York with a trio of Southern baseball voices.

The Yankees conducted a national search for Hodges's replacement, sending out 300 letters to potential candidates. One of them reached Curt Gowdy, a kid announcer for station KOMA in Oklahoma City. Mel listened to a record of Gowdy's voice, which rolled over the airwaves steadily and harmonically, much like the wind whipped through Gowdy's home state of Wyoming. Allen and Gowdy met in person at the Yankees' Fifth Avenue offices in December 1948. "Curt," Mel said over lunch at Al Schacht's, "I'd like to have you with me and I'm pretty sure it will work out that way."

Later that day, general manager George Weiss offered Gowdy the job of assisting Mel with Yankees baseball and All-America Conference football. About as quickly as he accepted the position, Gowdy realized how far he was from Oklahoma. As KOMA's top announcer for University of Oklahoma football and Texas League baseball, he had broadcast alone. He wasn't used to bantering back and forth on the air, something Mel liked to do with Hodges. When Gowdy first started working games with Mel, he uncomfortably shook and nodded his head in response to his partner's questions. "Nobody can see you," Mel said.

When Gowdy read commercials for Ballantine beer and White Owl cigars, the Yankees' joint principal sponsors from 1947 through 1955, he sounded stiff and awkward. Meanwhile, Mel was as crisp as that first sip of Ballantine after hard day at the office: "Well, while the fans are out here takin' that stretch, it's a mighty good time for you to take a quick trip to the refrigerator for a bottle of Ballantine beer. If you're listening at your favorite tavern, don't just say, 'One up,' but be sure to ask the man for Ballantine. Enjoy the two B's, baseball and Ballantine. As you linger over that sparkling glass of Ballantine beer, as you feel it trickling down your throat, you'll say, 'Ah, man, this is the life.' Baseball and Ballantine beer. And while we're on this pleasant subject, folks, I'd like to remind you that it's a smart idea to keep plenty of Ballantine on ice at home at all times, to serve at mealtimes, to enjoy during leisure hours, so at your dealer's be sure to look for the three rings. Ask him for Ballantine beer."

Mel described a Yankees home run as a "Ballantine blast" or a "White Owl wallop." He could even work both sponsors into one call: "Folks, that ball was foul by no more than a bottle of Bal-...No, that ball was foul by the ash on a White Owl cigar!"

Between innings, Mel moved swiftly from game to commercial without changing his tone of voice: "Boy, that sure was close—a tough decision for the umpire. But you don't have a tough decision when it comes to White Owl cigars."

Though corny, Mel's plugs were extremely effective. For millions of fans, the mere sound of his voice conjured up as many images of the three interlocking rings on the label of a bottle of a Ballantine beer and thoughts of the mild flavor of a White Owl cigar as of baseball and the Yankees.

Mel coached Gowdy on how to deliver commercials with more punch. When his assistant didn't improve over a couple of months, Mel got testy. He was a perfectionist in the booth. He felt the Yankees and their legions of listeners demanded a sharp broadcast. Mel was known to throw pencils or papers when an assistant broadcaster or statistician made a mistake or wasn't paying attention.

"If I snap at you, it's just the intensity of the moment," he would say before a broadcast. "After it's over, we'll go and get a beer or a soda and forget about it."

Mel's prodding frightened and frustrated Gowdy. He had been a big fish in Oklahoma City, but in New York, he felt like a guppy. After the first game of a day-night doubleheader with the Senators in Washington, Gowdy told Yankees publicity director Red Patterson he wanted to quit. He stormed out of Griffith Stadium and went to the Shoreham Hotel to fetch his wife, Jerre.

"We're going back to Oklahoma," Gowdy told her.

"No we're not," Jerre replied. "I love it in New York."

Jerre was an Oklahoma girl who had just recently joined her husband in the Big Apple.

"What's the matter?" she said. "Mel get on you?"

"Yeah," Gowdy replied.

"Did you ever stop to think that if he didn't care for you, he wouldn't be trying to make you better?"

"You think so?"

"I know so," Jerre said. "He's very fond of you. He's told me so. Now go and apologize."

Gowdy went back to Griffith Stadium and told Mel he was sorry for his outburst. Mel grabbed his partner and bear-hugged him. The two never exchanged harsh words again.

Gowdy rededicated himself to commercials. He practiced reading them at home, at the ballpark or wherever else he had a spare moment. He eventually developed a casual style like Mel's. Mel schooled Gowdy on much more than just commercials. He taught his assistant to look for details that would help paint a robust picture of the game's atmosphere. Before he worked in New York, Gowdy thought a foul ball was just another strike. Mel had him follow the ball into the stands and describe where it landed. He made Gowdy tell listeners about the enormous shadows and blinding late-afternoon sun that tortured fielders at Yankee Stadium.

"Curt, the whole stadium is your field," Mel said, "not just the diamond."

Gowdy learned to constantly scan Yankee Stadium for broadcast color, moving his eyes from the big "Ballantine Ale and Beer" sign and Longines scoreboard beyond the right field wall to the "No Betting" sign in center to the billboard ads for Philip Morris cigarettes and Gem razor blades in left and through the triple-decked stands surrounding the rest of the field.

As he gained a keen eye for his surroundings, Gowdy saw a complimentary side of Mel. After Gowdy called a triple play as perfectly as the Yankees executed it in the field, Mel leaned over and said, "That was a great call you made. One of the best I ever heard."

As he did with Hodges, Mel recommended Gowdy for a No. 1 announcing job, pitching his partner to Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey. After two seasons with the Yankees, Gowdy left for Boston, where he spent the next 14 years before moving to NBC, for whom he would cover the network's showcase events like the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NCAA Final Four and the Rose Bowl.

More than a quarter-century after Mel served as the best man at Gowdy's wedding in 1949, the two were catching up in a Yankee Stadium dugout. A television reporter sat between them.

"He was my mentor," Gowdy told the man.

Mel poked his head into the conversation.

"Tor-mentor!" he cracked.

Gowdy smiled and said, "It was the greatest break I ever got in my life. I worked under the master."

*******

A debilitating heel injury sidelined DiMaggio for the Yankees' first 65 games of the 1949 season. In mid-June, he gingerly stepped out of bed and felt no pain. DiMaggio took batting practice until his hands bled to ready himself for a three-game series with the Red Sox. Even without their star, the Yankees had torn through April with a 10-2 record under the guidance of Casey Stengel, a lightly regarded manager who replaced Bucky Harris after Harris's team finished third in 1948. By June 28, when New York headed to Fenway Park, it led the second-place Philadelphia Athletics by four and a half games and was five games ahead of third-place Boston and Detroit.

Fenway's fans greeted DiMaggio with a standing ovation as he walked to the plate for his first at-bat of the series. DiMaggio lined a fastball from Mickey McDermott for a clean single. Up in the booth, Mel watched the ball travel over shortstop Junior Stephens's head and land safely in the outfield grass.

"Back in the lineup after 65 games, the incomparable Joe DiMaggio hits a single," he told his Yankees radio listeners. "How about that?"

In his next at-bat, DiMaggio clubbed a home run over Boston's Green Monster in left field.

"How about that! How about that! How about that!" Mel shouted in disbelief.

Over the three-game series, which the Yankees swept, DiMaggio blasted four homers and collected nine RBIs.
Mel set the performance to a symphony of "How about thats!"

Several days later, Mel was broadcasting in the open-air booth at Yankee Stadium when he heard fans collectively yelling something. When Phil Rizzuto made a spectacular play at shortstop, he figured out the chant: "How about that!"

Mel had said "How about that" throughout his childhood and even uttered it several times on the air during the 1942 World Series. But while calling DiMaggio's Boston breakout, Mel had attached himself to these three simple words. "How about that," which neatly bundled wonder with excitement, became his signature call and identifying phrase to describe something extraordinary in the field, such as a colossal Mickey Mantle home run or lumbering Larry Doby's ill-fated attempt at stealing home. "How about that" banners popped up in Yankee Stadium crowds. Organizations put the expression on billboards and fliers promoting Mel's speaking engagements. A letter even made it to Mel addressed simply: "How About That! New York City."

"Performers are always looking for some sort of tag line, some identifying label," Mel said in 1956. "Many never come up with one. Here I have one and I can't honestly say how I ever started using it. It's something you can't develop by trying. It just happens."

*******

In the late 1940s, the Yankees experimented with a handful of telecasts over the pioneering DuMont Network. Television wasn't a national craze yet, but there were 1.7 million sets in the greater New York City area alone by 1950. Mel's radio broadcasts served as the audio for some of DuMont's televised Yankees games. The colorful Dizzy Dean, who made butchering the English language an art form, helped out with the other telecasts. (To Dean, a country boy from Arkansas, runners "slud" into second and were "throwed" out at third.) Mel would climb down a small ladder from his radio booth and help out Dean for a couple of innings.
Baseball was still a pre-modern game in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Fans relied on radio broadcasts and teams traveled by rail. Mel stayed at the Yankees' road hotels—such as Philadelphia's Warwick, Cleveland's Statler, Boston's Kenmore and Detroit's Book Cadillac—and hustled to make team trains on getaway days. Once aboard, he and the Yankees ate together and played cards on rides that could take 30 hours if the team was traveling to St. Louis to play the Browns.

"There was a great togetherness that you don't have now," Mel said in 1981.

During the 1946 season, Mel's first covering road games for the Yankees, DiMaggio stopped him in the lobby of Chicago's Del Prado Hotel.

"What are you doing?" DiMaggio asked.

"Uh—nothing," Mel said.

"Come on," DiMaggio said, leading him to a hotel coffee shop.

For the rest of the afternoon, DiMaggio poured out his troubles with his estranged wife, actress Dorothy Arnold, to the wide-eyed broadcaster. DiMaggio was a staunchly private man, and Mel was one of the few people he trusted with his confidence. Mel would rather die than violate it. Talking to Mel, who had that priestly, angelic air about him, could be like going to confession.

The Yankees' Dan Topping and Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey once brought him into their discussion about swinging the biggest blockbuster in baseball history: DiMaggio for Ted Williams. But Topping and Yawkey feared a fan revolt, and they nixed the proposed trade, knowing that Mel would keep it confidential.

Mel and DiMaggio shared a pinstriped kinship. They ascended to fame in New York around the same time and approached their Yankees duties with similarly unflappable earnestness. DiMaggio's famous words on his tribute day at Yankee Stadium in 1949—"I want to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee"—could also have come out of Mel's mouth.

During a 1951 train ride, as Mel passed DiMaggio's cabin and noticed the door was open, he popped in to say "Hello."

"Joe, when did you change your stance?" Mel said.

"I haven't changed my stance," said DiMaggio, who was mired in a slump.

From his vantage point during games, Mel could usually see the entire "5" on the back of DiMaggio's jersey as the Yankee Clipper batted. But during DiMaggio's hitting drought, Mel only noticed half of the "5."

"Well, I could be wrong because of the perspective from the press box," he said, "but I thought you moved your right foot back."

DiMaggio grumbled a response and Mel excused himself.

During the Yankees' next game, DiMaggio moved his right foot forward so Mel could see the full No. 5 again and clocked three homers.

"I got a great boot out of being able to help such a great guy," Mel said later.

Mel aided many other Yankees, too. He told Whitey Ford where to find quality suits at a great price in New York and gave rookies Yogi Berra and Spec Shea rides from Yankee Stadium to their hotel in Manhattan. Mel owned a metallic-gray Buick convertible that had red-rimmed wheels and red seats. The engine purred so softly that the young players barely knew the car was running as it made its way through Harlem and Central Park.

"We wished we could get a ride all the time," Berra says.

Mel also gave the Yankees' manager a lift. After a game in Washington, Mel noticed a frown on Stengel's face in the lobby of the Shoreham Hotel.

"What's the matter, Skipper?" Mel asked.

"They didn't tell me this was a 'blue' town," Stengel said.

Stengel had hoped to have a few belts before bed, but it was after midnight on Sunday morning and D.C.'s bars had closed.

"Skipper, don't worry about it," Mel said. "I happen to carry a fifth of scotch with me in my bag. I use it in emergencies, and this is the first emergency I've ever run into."

Mel invited the Yankees' manager to his room for a drink.

"Boy, I never saw him move that fast," Mel said later.

When the two got upstairs, Mel called for soda and ice.

"We don't have to wait on ice, do we?" Stengel asked.

The Yankees' manager downed nearly two glasses of scotch before the ice arrived as Mel sipped from his drink.
After a while, Mel looked at his watch. It was 2:30 a.m.

"We have a doubleheader this afternoon, don't we, Skipper?" he said.

"Yep," Stengel replied, pouring another drink.

Sometime after 3 a.m., Stengel polished off the last drop of the bottle and got up to leave. He spent another 15 minutes at the door jabbering to Mel in his circuitous, ambiguous, adjective-laden double talk that was affectionately known in baseball circles as "Stengelese." Stengelese was rampant with dangling participles and it lacked proper names.

"These men, if their arms are good, I think they'll give a good account of themselves because they're not what you call frightened or anything because it is a World Series," he would say. "They've already been in a World Series and have a good record. Why should you be frightened if you did go into a World Series? The only thing is, it's a question of your arm. If their arms are good, I think they'll help our club hold our own in the Series."

Stengel relied more on psychology than diction. If a Yankee was sick or injured, the manager still wanted him to suit up and sit in the dugout to give the opposition the impression he could be used as a pinch-hitter. Or Stengel might chew out Andy Carey about how he handled a play in the field with the intention of sending a message to fellow infielder Gil McDougald, who was sitting next to Carey on the bench. Mel became an expert on Stengel's mind games, and he even used one of his own on the Yankees' skipper in 1953. As Yankees players raucously played 20 Questions on their train's dining car after a 12-4 loss at Washington, Mel turned to Stengel, who was sitting across the aisle.

"To hear all this chatter, you would have thought they won today," Mel said.

The manager, already steamed over the jovial atmosphere, exploded.

"I've got some questions to ask," Stengel growled to his players. "Where are you going to be playing next year?"

The manager fumed about how the Yankees couldn't afford to get soft after winning four straight World Series titles. After the tirade, the Yankees won 20 of their next 21 games and a record fifth consecutive Series championship. And they never played 20 Questions again.

*******

Mel liked to throw parties for Stengel, Yankees players and their wives at his house in Bedford Village, New York, a Westchester County hamlet about 40 miles northeast of Yankee Stadium. Mel set up a bar and fired up a grill, which cooked steaks and corn on the cob. Anna never had these affairs catered. She made her own hors d'oeuvres and fresh tossed green salad, which she served with Italian bread. Players sang and danced to the sounds of a band as they ate and drank.

During a 1952 party, Yankees Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin and Bill Miller took out a rowboat on one of the two lakes on Mel's property and tipped it over.

"We're going to lose tomorrow, and they'll blame it on the party," Mel said.

Sure enough, Detroit's Virgil Trucks pitched a no-hitter against the Yankees the next day.

Trucks's feat against New York was an aberration. During the 19 consecutive seasons Mel was the club's broadcast voice (1946-1964), the Yankees won 15 American League pennants and 10 World Series titles. Mel's voice, which called each championship season, was considered a major part of the team, both among fans and players.

"He died with us," says Tommy Henrich, a gritty Yankees outfielder and first baseman from 1937 through 1950. "When we'd lose a ballgame, he was just as mad and downcast as the rest of us."

Henrich was one of Mel's closest friends on the Yankees. "We had an open communication," Henrich says. "Anything he wanted to say to me, he said. I did it too. If I was with him, whatever he was gonna do, I'd do it with him."

Like DiMaggio, the hard-nosed Henrich was Mel's kind of player. After he broke a toe during the 1949 season and doctors told him he would be out of action for at least a week, Henrich played the next day. Henrich always seemed to come through with decisive hits in the late innings of games. He was a .282 career hitter, but pitchers dreaded facing him as much as anyone in the AL.

Mel dubbed Henrich "Old Reliable" for his clutch hitting, playing off the name of an old Louisville & Nashville train that rolled through Birmingham. Henrich says the nickname originated when he got the game-winning hit on a getaway day in Philadelphia.

"Old Reliable Tommy Henrich," Mel said at the time. "Looks like we'll catch the train after all."

Mel invented a lineup of other nicknames for Yankees players. "Joltin' Joe" DiMaggio was always a threat to profoundly influence a game. "Man of the Hour" Hank Bauer was also dependable with his bat and glove. The "Springfield Rifle," Vic Raschi, was a hard thrower from Springfield, Massachusetts. The "Naugatuck Nugget," pitcher Spec Shea, was from Naugatuck, Connecticut. "Chief" Allie Reynolds was part Creek Indian. (After he tossed two no-hitters in 1951, Reynolds became the "Superchief.") Junkballer "Steady Eddie" Lopat wasn't a hard-thrower like Reynolds and Raschi, but he was a dependable starting pitcher nonetheless.
Players might hear Mel use his monikers while listening to his broadcasts from the Yankee Stadium clubhouse before or after a game or if they took a cigarette break in the middle of one. The voice always took hold of the room, whether Mel was piped in on the radio or walking around with a microphone and calling casually to Yankees he wanted to interview.

"Hey Yogi, come here!" he shouted after the Yankees clinched the 1949 AL pennant by beating the Red Sox. "Yogi commere," he said more pointedly when Berra didn't immediately respond. Berra bashfully accepted Mel's invitation to chat.

"How'd ya feel catching Vic today?" Mel said.

"If he had to win one-nothin' he woulda done it Mel," Berra responded. "He had great stuff today."

"He really did?" Mel asked.

"Oh boy."

"You're really swingin' that bat pretty well."

"Well I'm tryin'."

"Elston Howard, come here right quick," Mel yelled to another Yankees catcher after New York beat Brooklyn in Game 7 of the 1956 World Series. "You got your second World Series homer off Don Newcombe. What'd he throw you?" he asked Howard.

"He threw me a straight changeup, Mel," Howard said.

Just like the questions Mel soft-tossed to Yankees players, whether he was covering the game locally or nationally.

"He didn't bother you, unlike some guys who go in there looking for something," Berra says. "If you played lousy or something, he never would say that. He was a good guy. Everybody like him. A hell of an announcer, too."

Instead of second-guessing Yankees players, Mel was a master of positive reinforcement.

"Yogi, I don't believe you ever had a greater World Series," Mel said to Berra in his lead-in statement to an interview after Game 7 of the 1956 World Series.

"We had a lot of respect for him," says Moose Skowron, a Yankees first baseman from 1954-62.

By the early 1960s, when the American League had expanded to the West Coast and teams traveled through the air, leaving baseball's intimate railroad era in its jet stream, Mel wasn't as close with Yankees players as he used to be. He often flew and met the team on his own from other assignments. But Yankees players still saw Mel as one of them.

"He was a true Yankee," says Johnny Blanchard, a reserve outfielder and catcher for the team from 1955 through 1965.

Says Luis Arroyo, a Yankees reliever from 1960 through 1963: "He was in the family."

This man who liked to wear a fedora and wield a microphone was a cheery, chattering constant in players' lives.

"I never socialized with Mel, I don't think any of the players did," Tony Kubek, a Yankees infielder and outfielder from 1957 through 1965, told the Daily News when Mel died. "But we knew he was a giant."

Says Bobby Richardson, a Yankees infielder from 1955 through 1966: "It was just like he was part of the locker room, he was part of the airplane, he was just part of the Yankees in every capacity. He was such a great broadcaster that his reputation preceded him, so that he had a celebrity about him."

*******

Millions of fans identified Mel with the Yankees' dominance.

"He's never won a ball game for the club, but you'd never know it from the number of scorecards he signs between innings," a writer from Cue magazine wrote in 1950.

Mel was fans' main connection to the Yankees' dynasty teams of the late 1940s through mid-1960s. That could be on 1010 WINS in New York or the dozens of other stations comprising the club's "Home of Champions" radio network, which stretched across northern and western Pennsylvania, upstate New York and New England and down into New Jersey. Or it could be at Yankee Stadium, where Mel was always the master of ceremonies for Old Timers' Day and manned the mike for the celebration day for a Yankees star like DiMaggio, Berra, Henrich or Ford.

"Since 1939 you have exemplified everything I have loved about baseball—quality, integrity and loyalty," wrote a fan from Kennebunkport, Maine, in a letter to Mel in 1964. "You have never been an announcer to me—you have been the game itself."

Wrote another man from Baldwin, New York, in a note to Mel that same year: "As long as I can remember, Mel Allen has represented not only the Yankees but a good way of life and has been sort of a public therapist at the same time. For instance, I recall driving down from Westchester on an early May afternoon some years ago and feeling out of sorts. … I turned on the car radio and caught your broadcast of a Yankee ballgame. Suddenly, everything assumed its proper perspective. Mel Allen was doing the play-by-play and all was right with the world."

Mel thought of himself as one Yankees fan telling others about happenings with their team. Some Dodgers and Red Sox supporters claimed that they could switch on a radio and immediately tell if the Yankees were leading or trailing by Mel's sanguine or somber tones. To the objective ear, though, Mel remained rosy in describing the achievements both sides. He always said he was partisan but not prejudiced toward the Yankees. He wrote numerous syndicated articles in an attempt to fend off accusations that he showed a bias toward the Yankees over the air.

"Partisanship, I think, is all right," he would write. "It gives color and excitement to a broadcast, and it makes the hometown fans happy. To be prejudiced means you can only see one side and dislike the other side. Partisanship means you appreciate both sides, but favor one."

Mel routinely made predictions that favored other teams besides the Yankees. When the son of Yankees publicity director Red Patterson graduated from Notre Dame in 1954, a radio interviewer asked him whom he thought would win the World Series. "The Dodgers," he said. When the young Patterson was asked if someone told him that, he replied, "Mel Allen." Mel never openly rooted for his team on the air like the Pirates' Bob Prince, the Cardinals' Harry Caray or other announcers in smaller baseball towns did. "We had 'em alllll the way!" Prince would exult after a Pittsburgh win. Mel didn't call the Yankees "we" during his broadcasts. He couldn't get away with being such a homer in New York, where thousands of transients rooted for teams other than the Yankees.

"I like the New York Yankees as a team and as individuals," Mel wrote in a 1958 column. "I have been broadcasting their games for 18 years. I am definitely a Yankees fan. But when I am in front of the microphone, I am a reporter. I try to broadcast the game from a reporter's viewpoint, impartially and factually. … Naturally, I want the Yankees to win. But I'll never color my descriptions of a game for the sake of making my team look good. I try to give the other team and players their just and accurate due, but I save my extra emotions for the Yankee side."

Mel would roar for opposing players on local broadcasts like a 1960 Yankees-Senators game that Washington's Bob Allison won with a homer off the Yankees' Art Ditmar: "Ditmar delivers and Allison swings and lines it deep to center field, it is going, going, it is gone and the ballgame is over!"

Yankees general manager George Weiss occasionally even questioned Mel as to whether he supported the Yankees enough. Mel's on-air demeanor was directly proportional to the intensity of the contest and the noise level of the crowd. He didn't like to work lightly attended games.

"I sometimes feel like a damn fool getting excited all by myself," he once said.

The Yankees received a stack of critical fan mail about Mel after a 5-1 victory over the Indians in a mundane game on a cold, dank, drab night in front of a sparse Cleveland crowd. After each Yankees base hit, Cleveland Stadium was virtually silent. Sometime after the game, Weiss called Mel into his office. "You were rooting for Cleveland," he said. Some fans thought Mel's uncharacteristically quiet on-air demeanor revealed he was upset the Yankees had won.

"Most fans are strongly partisan for one club or another and, when listening to the broadcast of a game, hear only what they wish to hear," Mel would say.

Mel's praise for the Yankees' opponents sounded even stronger on national broadcasts like the 1952 World Series between the Yankees and Dodgers.

"There's a smash … Reese grabs it! How about that play! The great Pee Wee!" he exclaimed after Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese snared a liner off the bat of the Yankees' Phil Rizzuto during Game 7.

When Brooklyn's Carl Furillo hit a two-run, ninth-inning homer off the Yankees' Reynolds to tie Game 6 of the 1953 Series, Mel screamed so loudly that Yankee Stadium's switchboard lit up with calls. Some Yankees fans temporarily thought Mel was a turncoat, as they did during Game 2 of the 1958 World Series when the Braves scored seven runs against the Yankees in the bottom of the first inning and Mel yelled right along with the delighted Milwaukee fans.

"I considered it complimentary, in a way, when some folks accused me of being anti-Yankee," Mel said later. "I felt such criticism by New Yorkers proved I wasn't letting my Yankee partisanship show through."
After the 1958 Series, in which the Yankees beat the Braves in seven games, one television critic wrote: "Although Allen is on the Yankees payroll in the regular season, he was eminently fair in his comments, as he always has been in his long turn at Series broadcasting."

Many fans also recognized Mel's even-handed approach to broadcasting.

"I can't see how anyone can accuse you of favoring Yankee players on great catches, or ability at the plate, when you, more than any other announcer, is the one to give credit where credit is due," wrote one fan from Manhattan in 1955.

Wrote another man, from Derby, Connecticut, in 1961: "I'm a Red Sox fan but I want to say I think you've always given the Red Sox credit, even though from my point of view the Red Sox have made me sick year after year."

Doing network broadcasts that extended beyond the Yankees, Mel was extremely careful to be unbiased. When asked to predict the winner of the Michigan State-UCLA Rose Bowl he was set to call in 1954, Mel said, grinning: "I'm not making any predictions. I can't. But people often accuse broadcasters of being prejudiced. It just sounds that way. The team that's winning gives a man more to talk about and more to praise. But you can bet I'll be playing it straight down the middle today as always."

Even in the waning minutes of Duke's 52-0 football blowout of Pennsylvania in 1954, which Mel covered for NBC, he managed to sneak in a compliment for the beleaguered Quakers: "And the Duke Blue Devils have overpowered an inspired red-and-blue team here in the second half."

Such a level approach got Mel in trouble with a contingent of irate University of Washington fans as they watched his telecast of the Huskies' 17-7 Rose Bowl win over Minnesota in 1961. Minnesota shut out the Huskies 7-0 in the second half, and Washington fans turned off their television sets with the memory of Mel calling Minnesota highlights. Several of them signed a letter from an Everett, Washington, dentist to NBC suggesting Mel was biased toward Minnesota:

Dear Sir:
I would like to express my dissatisfaction with Mel Allen regarding the coverage of the Rose Bowl Game. It was difficult to believe that the U. of Minn. was not at least five touchdowns ahead from the continuous and elaborate praise given them. It is a good thing we knew beforehand that the U. of Wash. was also playing because we may never have found out unless we had been listening very carefully.

Most of us in this area watched the game in groups of 10 to 20, and speaking for our group and individuals from other groups representing about 200 people, the opinion was unanimous—Mel Allen has to go! The situation was summed up nicely by one member of our group at half time when the camera was on the Minn. drum major just as he dropped his baton and the comment was, 'Did you see the significant manner in which he picked up that baton?'

A fan from Portland, Oregon, voiced similar sentiments in a letter to Gillette, the Rose Bowl's sponsor: "Minnesota didn't win; Washington did. Why continually praise the losers as though they are winners?" Wrote a male Washington rooter from Seattle: "The poorest loser seemed to be Mel Allen, and not Minnesota."

Mel explained himself in this excerpt of a letter responding to irate Washington fans:

In the broadcasting of any sports event the atmosphere is charged with emotion, and it is only natural that people react accordingly. We never have an interest in the outcome of the game but hope only for a good game. We always respect peoples' feelings and can readily understand how they might place interpretations on voice inflections and innocent comment that lead to conclusions never intended. We constantly strive toward a neutral report, hoping to balance comments for either side but it naturally follows that the winning team will give you more, as a rule, to talk about. On occasions, as in the Rose Bowl, the losing team provided us with the most verbal ammunition in the second half. Our statements are meant to be declarative rather than comparative. If we say something good about a team or player we don't mean to imply that the opposite group or individual is bad. … When emotions prevail logic is lost.

Mel couldn't win. He often got hate mail from fans of both teams he covered. After doing a network broadcast of a Notre Dame-Oklahoma college football game in 1952, Mel received about 1,000 letters from Irish rooters criticizing him for being one-sided toward Oklahoma but got nearly the same amount of mail from Sooners fans complaining of his Notre Dame bias. He had a similar experience with a 1957 Notre Dame-SMU game, another indicator that he was doing his job.

The New York Times actually called Mel's unbiased approach "unemotional" when it named him to its "Radio Honor Roll" in 1947. Mel was the only sportscaster on a list of personalities, stations, networks and programs that, in the words of Times writer Jack Gould, "made a contribution which … was fresh and distinctive."

Wrote Gould: "Mel Allen of WINS, both in his seasonal coverage of the Yankees and in giving part of the World Series play-by-play, exhibited a dispassionate and unemotional reportorial ability altogether too rare in sports announcing." Mel thanked Gould in a letter for bestowing upon him "the most wonderful honor I have ever received in radio."

*******

When the Yankees played the Red Sox in their regular-season finale on October 2, 1949, Mel felt a special obligation to his listeners over the Yankees' Home of Champions Network. New York and Boston were deadlocked atop the American League. The winner that day would advance to the World Series. The loser's season was over.
"We have had occasion to root for the Yankees during the course of the year, a very courageous team," Mel told his audience, "but today, against another great ball club, the Boston Red Sox, we're gonna give this broadcast the treatment that we feel both teams deserve—an equal treatment all the way through as if it were a World Series … Permit us to cast aside our partisan feelings to bring the broadcast, the most important of the year in the American League."

Sitting beside Mel in the booth, Gowdy noticed that his partner was completely calm. Mel lived for games like this one.

"We've been so full of tension all year long, that honest-to-goodness today I'm just forgetting about everything," Mel told listeners. "The Yankees have done an out-of-this-world job this year and the Red Sox have just been magnificent."

Throughout the ballgame, Mel, who had publicly predicted before the season that the Red Sox would win the American League pennant, echoed a consistent refrain: "The only tough part about it all is that one of these two teams has to lose."

Mel's descriptions were colorful and tight, his calls perfectly paced with the action, his transitions from one game sequence to another flawless. His voice was in constant motion, like an infielder before a pitch is delivered. Through Mel's words, fans saw Yankees third baseman Billy Johnson shade his eyes from the sun, Raschi squeeze the rosin bag and Henrich move to guard the line at first base. Mel described everything effortlessly: "Kinder into the windup, in comes the pitch … Henrich swings, sends a ground ball out toward second—Rizzuto will score—Doerr up with the ball, throws to Goodman, one-nothing New York!"

Henrich's first-inning RBI groundout, which followed Rizzuto's triple, gave New York a 1-0 lead, to which the Yankees clung for seven innings. Leading off the bottom of the eighth, Henrich greeted new pitcher Mel Parnell, who had relieved starter Ellis Kinder, with a solo homer that increased the Yankees' lead to 2-0. Two batters later, reliever Tex Hughson induced DiMaggio to ground into a double play. But Johnny Lindell singled and, after Stengel sent Bauer in to run for him, Billy Johnson followed with another single and deliberately walked Cliff Mapes to get to light-hitting second baseman Jerry Coleman. Coleman gave the Yankees a 5-0 lead with a flair down the right-field line that cleared the bases. As Red Sox right fielder Al Zarilla dove and missed Coleman's dying quail by a couple of inches, Mel's voice and the roar of 68,000 fans rose to a fever pitch: "Swung on, little looper into short right field...Zarilla comes fast and he CAN'T GET IT! Here comes Bauer! Here comes Johnson! Here comes Mapes digging for the plate...and Mapes scores...!"
After Coleman was thrown out trying to take third base, Mel went over his hit from Boston's angle.

"Zarilla tried desperately for the shoestring catch!" he said. "He almost got it and he didn't quite make it!"

Mel again tried his best stay impartial during a furious ninth-inning comeback bid. With Vern Stephens on second and Ted Williams on third and one out, Bobby Doerr drove a Raschi pitch to deep right-center.

"DiMaggio racing way back, the ball is OVER his head!" Mel screamed. "And there's two runs coming in and there's Doerr racing for second—he'll go for three. It's a three-base hit for Bobby Doerr and it's a 5-2 ballgame, and only one out … And the Red Sox are jamming at Yankee Stadium."

Boston got as close as 5-3, but with two outs, Birdie Tebbetts, representing the potential tying run, hit a foul popup just behind first base. As the ball rose, Mel's partisan feelings spilled out over the airwaves: "Look out now! Look out now! Henrich says he's got it … Tommyyyy … has and the Yankees win the PENNANT! And we're gonna have a special broadcast for you, ladies and gentlemen … I'm gonna go downstairs to the clubhouse right now. Curt, take over!"

Gowdy recapped the game for a few moments before the floor was Mel's again.

"Hello there everybody. We're down here—Casey!—we're down here in the clubhouse ladies and gentlemen, I want Casey Stengel to say a word after that terrific victory. Casey, how ya feel, buddy?"

"I never felt so great in all my life," said the teary-eyed Stengel, a manager with a .436 winning percentage over nine major league seasons before taking the Yankees job. "This is the greatest thing that ever happened to me since I was born."

"I want to get Phil Rizzuto," Mel continued. "Hey Phil! Hey Phil, you and Tommy come here! Here's Phil Rizzuto, the real sparkplug of the team. Phil, you and Tommy Henrich are both in line for the most valuable player award—you did a terrific job. I don't know which one of you might get it—I hope one of you do—but whichever, I'd like to give you about four awards …"

"Give it to the whole team, Mel," Rizzuto said. "No one guy ever won this pennant for us."

Many of Mel's interviewees used his now-trademark expression to describe the game.

"How about that one!" backup catcher Charlie Silvera yelled. Others were speechless, and Mel spoke for them, the weightless manner in which he bounced from player to player capturing the room's frenzied emotion.

"And here's the guy who gave his all out of the sick bed the last few days and did a tremendous job, Joe DiMaggio …!"

"And here's the guy who has played sensational ball all year at second base and was a sparkplug today, Jerry Coleman …!"

"Eh, here's Johnny Lindell!"

"And here's the Chief, Allie Reynolds!"

Mel had a special request of his pal Henrich. "How 'bout a little song, Tommy!?" he shouted. Several Yankees howled their approval. Henrich often led impromptu, barbershop-style numbers after victories, and this day's version, long and rollicking, was like the grand finale at a concert. "How 'bout that," Mel interjected in the middle of the song, as if on cue.

Boston manager Joe McCarthy, the Yankees' former skipper, waded through the crowd to congratulate Stengel. The men embraced right in front of Mel.

"Joe, would you just say a word?" Mel said. "People love ya! Joe, they love ya in New York! … Say a word here, buddy …"

"Well, I want to congratulate Casey Stengel," McCarthy said. "I think he's done a wonderful job this summer in handling the Yankees. And I feel bad that we both couldn't win but it's one of those things and Casey, good luck in the Series."

"Thank you, Joe," Stengel said. "You win so many it's nice for you to allow me to have one."

Mel belly-laughed. "That's very nice!" he gushed, his voice overpowering the din of victory.

"Well, just movin' around and Vic, I haven't had you say a word," he continued, settling next to Raschi. "Here's the guy, ladies and gentlemen, that pitched the Yankees to the pennant today with his 21st victory, Vic Raschi."

"Thank you, Mel," Raschi said. "It's a real pleasure to win this one, the best victory I've ever won."

"Thanks ever so much, Vic, and I'm so happy for ya."

"Freddy Sanford, how 'bout a word?" Mel said to another Yankees pitcher.

"Boy, this is the happiest day of my life, I'll guarantee you," Sanford replied.

"I know it is, Fred, and everybody feels that way."

Just when Mel appeared to have talked to everyone in the locker room, from players to Yankees coaches to co-owner Del Webb and the Red Sox's Yawkey to Bill Corum and other sportswriters, he found someone else.

"I guess we got about everybody … except Mr. Webb's father! This is Mr. Webb's father … How do you like that? Your son did a pretty good job, didn't he?"

"Yeah," the senior Webb said. "What do we know about baseball and go Yankees!"

"Thank you very much, sir," Mel said, chuckling. "That's swell of ya."

"I guess that's about all, friends," Mel said finally, beginning to sign off. "We could keep going around and around here all evening."

He made sure to squeeze in one final thought.

"It was a great ball club that lost the pennant, the Boston Red Sox, a magnificent team, one that your heart went out to in defeat—Joe McCarthy, a good personal friend of mine, as are all the Boston Red Sox players …" he said. "Naturally, broadcasting with a team and living with them day after day and in a season like this, you always get a little more excited for the home team. But never at any time did we ever minimize anything that the opposition ever did."

Comments
2005-07-13 11:24:23
1.   vockins
Ballantine Ale's reputation has declined over the years, but I believe that Ballantine in the half quart can is some of the finest beer available at any price.

Rheingold, however, is awful.

2005-07-13 13:18:40
2.   Murray
Somebody, send John Sterling a copy right away.
2005-07-13 13:18:54
3.   rbj
I can't stand TWIB's CGI version of Mel. Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should. I'd much prefer a grainy blackand white video clip of him.
2005-07-13 13:23:34
4.   Alex Belth
My old man was never much of a beer drinker when I was growing up but he always had Balantine ale in the house. I remember him letting take sips of it. Never did like the stuff, but I'll never forget those tall, dark green cans.

White Owls? Always been a Phillies Man myself.

2005-07-13 14:45:56
5.   Cliff Corcoran
Actually, Murray, reading those quotes, I can hear Sterling saying everything with that exact phraising. I think Sterling, for all his bluster, learned a lot from Allen about calling a game (which he does very well, it's his blubbering in between the bursts of action that drives every one insane). Indeed, Sterling blurbed the book:

"He was my hero. I loved every game he did. I thought it was an event." --John Sterling

2005-07-13 17:09:38
6.   Rich
Was Mel Allen as self-aggrandizing as John Sterling?
2005-07-13 19:56:55
7.   sborelli
Thanks to everyone for reading my excerpt. To answer your questions, I think to some extent, John Sterling does try to emulate Mel. They both have a style in which it sounds like they are talking to one person. And they both have a sense of drama and how to give their broadcasts a little show business. The two were actually friends. They worked a Yankees post-game show for a New York radio station in the late 1970s and Mel actually recommended Sterling to Steinbrenner. (Steinbrenner confirmed this to me himself.)

Sterling idolized Mel and, the day after Mel died, dedicated his broadcast to Mel Allen, "the once and forever voice of the Yankees." Sterling even invited me to join himself and Suzyn Waldman for an inning in the booth as the Yankees played the Pirates on June 14. That shows you how much respect he had for Mel. I think, like Mel did, Sterling enjoys being the voice of the New York Yankees and all the perks and excitement that go with it. (Also like Mel, he admits that a significant portion of his success is due to the Yankees' success.) I think enjoyment of the job and enjoyment of celebrity can be misconstrued as arrogance. But Sterling, similar to Mel, isn't an arrogant guy. Quite the contrary. Not even knowing me, he was as decent and generous with his time as anyone I interviewed for my book.

2005-07-13 20:11:19
8.   sborelli
Also, I mention TWIB's claymation Mel Allen in my book. It was something the show's producers tried to use as a tribute that went awry. For all you old-school TWIB fans, you can reminisce about the glory days of the show in Chapter 18.

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