The ceremony honoring this year’s Ford Frick winner, Bob Costas, will be held Saturday evening in Cooperstown, New York, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Bob is the 42nd winner of the coveted award, recognizing excellence in baseball broadcasting. Most of the recipients through the years have been longtime play-by-play announcers for local clubs. A few made their marks on both national television and on team broadcasts; folks like Tim McCarver, Tony Kubek and Joe Garagiola. Costas is the first honoree to date who earned his stripes strictly on network television.
In advance of Saturday’s ceremony, baseball broadcast historian Curt Smith beefs up our pages with some color on the first two Frick winners, Mel Allen and Red Barber. Both men were honored the same year, 1978, after they enjoyed enormous followings, particularly in New York. Barber built his popularity broadcasting the games of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s, the first New York baseball team to air all their games on radio. Games at Ebbets Field were done live and road games were recreated brilliantly from the studio. In mid-1948 the Dodgers started traveling their announcers.
Allen made his mark in the years immediately after the war. His popularity swelled along with the great Yankee success from 1947-64. You didn’t have to be a sports fan those years to know the name, Mel Allen. To a man, woman and child then, Mel was, and to many today will forever be, the Voice of the Yankees.
We’ll get right to the heart of the issues with Curt. Today, we’ll talk Mel and Friday Red.
Let’s address what is likely the most mysterious unanswered question. Why was Mel Allen fired by the Yankees after the 1964 season? At the time, it was unthinkable. He was enjoying unparalleled popularity.
Growing up in mid-century America, I thought Mel Allen as large a personality as the President of the United States. In Upstate New York, you couldn’t go to a picnic, the beach, a park as a kid and not hear the man about whom a critic wrote, “If Mel sold fish, he could make it sound as if Puccini wrote the score.” Our view had ample company, Sports Illustrated terming him “the most successful, best-known, highest-paid, most voluble figure in sportscasting.” Even a casual fan could be counted on to say “How About That!”—my mother. In 1963, Mel aired his eighteenth World Series, baseball’s last age as unrivaled Big-Game America. Next fall, out of the blue, the Yanks and NBC fired sportscasting’s marquee Voice. More than a quarter-century later the New York Post’s Maury Allen told me it was still “the single most mysterious, controversial sports decision that crosses my desk. People still writing and calling, ‘Why’d the Yankees fire Mel?”
Mel was indirectly referenced in a 1993 book invoking mistreatment by his and, among other celebrities, John F. Kennedy’s physician. In President Kennedy: Profile of Power, journalist Richard Reeves related Max Jacobson, a.k.a. “Dr. Feelgood,” prescribing for JFK a mix of vitamins, human placenta, and amphetamines for back pain. “I don’t care if it’s horse piss,” said the president, “it works.” Alarmed, his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, banned the doctor from the White House. My 2007 book, The Voice: Mel Allen’s Untold Story, details Mel’s schedule, the broadcaster trying manically to fulfill charitable, sponsor, and play-by-play obligation. Jacobson misprescribed treatment to keep Allen going—“He gives you a pill, then another, it really works,” Mel said—even as it slowed the patient’s speech and thought. Allen never grasped the change as it occurred—betrayed by a physician more Hannibal Lecter than Marcus Welby, helping Mel’s life go belly up.
Even by broadcast criteria, rumors that began were vicious. Childless, unmarried, his career his life, Allen was said to have had a stroke, need mental aid, be a drunk, an illicit drug-user, even gay, then a career-killer. None were true, “but I couldn’t fight them,” Mel said. He had nowhere to hide; no one for perspective. For a quarter-century Allen had done virtually every major sports event: now, overnight, like that, he vanished, a non-person. Yet Mel reacted stoically, gallantly, without blame or rage. He got rid of Jacobson, whose license was later revoked by the New York State Board of Regents. Harder was to rid his stigma. It took a decade—treated like leprosy, Mel braved hell—but he staged a great comeback as 1977-1996 host of the syndicated and wildly successful This Week In Baseball—its success due to him. Allen had all, lost all, and improbably, came back. There is still no sportscast precedent for his rise, ruin, and return—and no parallel since.
What kind of backlash would the Allen firing have triggered today in the explosive world of social media?
Keep in mind the backdrop. Allen aired the Yankees from the late 1930s to 1964, almost yearly aired the World Series, Rose Bowl, All-Star Game, and was Fox film newsreel weekly voice-over: “This is your Movietone reporter!” He was the ultimate broadcast celebrity—the Voice of America’s Greatest Team in America’s Greatest Game. Nationally, he was everywhere, and almost everyone knew his voice. As noted, Mel began This Week In baseball in 1977 after being blacklisted—a strong word: it fits—for a decade. My mother, a sometime fan, couldn’t possibly have heard him since 1964. One Saturday I was watching This Week when she entered the room, saying, “I can’t believe it. Is that Mel Allen?” Imagining a response today to his firing is like throwing darts in the fog. On one hand, Allen could not be as huge as then. His major sport, baseball, sadly means less. Too, Mel and NBC aired all of America’s major sports events. Such a monopoly of Voice or network would be unthinkable now. By contrast, much of social media would be in a lather, all privacy gone, trolls scorching Mel, each false rumor poisoning print and air. It was hard enough to survive the decade between the Yankees’ severance and This Week In Baseball’s debut. Recalling Allen’s This Week audition tape, a producer said, “He was in the depths. Many thought he was dead. He looked it.” Given social media, Mel’s sense of being wronged might have spiraled—inherently kind and vulnerable, smeared beyond ability to cope. There is a terrible lesson here for those cretins on social media who casually play with lives. Little of the black hole of Mel Allen’s life was due to him—instead, a physician to whom he gave his trust and who unconscionably betrayed it.