More from Curt Smith on baseball: Disappointing news why Mel Allen was fired; His rehabilitation
Continuing our conversation with Curt Smith, the wonderful baseball broadcast historian and former U.S. presidential speechwriter:
Mel Allen, NBC, and baseball were synonymous in the 1950s and early ’60s. Vin Scully, his partner, did three Series with him in that decade. It gave you your first opportunity to taste some of the all-time best? Any recollections?
From 1940-64, Allen was the Voice of the Yankees—indeed, baseball. Many preferred hearing him to being at the park. Others prayed that laryngitis would silence Mel forever. At that time the Voices of each league titlist did the World Series on network radio and TV. Since the Bombers made it almost yearly, Allen aired each Fall Classic but one from 1947-63. A florist must have decorated his voice: Southern, deeply-voweled, and dramatic. Once in Omaha, hailing a cab at night, he said simply, “Sheraton, please.” The cabby almost drove off the road. In 1955, Variety magazine named Mel’s “one of the world’s 25 most recognizable voices,” with Churchill’s and Sinatra’s. (Mel Allen, Rival of Red Barber)
Allen invented “Going, going … gone,” called home runs a “Ballantine [beer] blast” or “White Owl [cigar] wallop,” and made “How about that” a national institution. He did 21 Series, 24 All-Star Games, 14 Rose Bowls, and nearly 3,000 Twentieth Century Fox film newsreels and short subjects, beaming “This is your Movietone reporter.” Up to 80 million heard him weekly. To film critic Jeffrey Lyons, “He could make the telephone directory sound like the Sermon on the Mount.” In Upstate New York, a Baby Boomer could not frequent a beach, zoo, or picnic without hearing him by transistor—”The Voice” long before a TV show of the same name was born.
The Dodgers’ Vin Scully did the 1953, 1955, and 1956 Series with Mel, though I was too young to grasp it. In 1957, his team left Brooklyn, so I never heard him till 1959’s Los Angeles-Chicago Classic. My first real memory was Vin and Allen doing play-by-play on 1963’s four-game Dodgers sweep: Mel’s last Series. In the final, Allen “began to omit croaking, almost choking sounds,” wrote critic Ron Powers. In the seventh inning, Mickey Mantle homered to tie the score. Mel “started to roar,” he said. “Then suddenly I lost my voice.” Allen tried to talk, but couldn’t. Vin took over as Mel left the booth, a nasal condition flaring, like someone dropping a hand over his mouth. It marked a changing of the guard, Scully becoming baseball’s ’s premier Voice. I remember wishing that I could hear him more, in time that wish fulfilled.
Unfortunately, Mel faded quickly in the early 1960s. Unless he read from a script, it could be a pretty lachrymose listen.
Out of nowhere, Mel in the early ’60s began to struggle on air. One night he froze on a WNBC New York newscast, unable to finish the show. J. Anthony Lukas said, “He belabored the obvious and qualified explanations to death.” In a two-hour Yankees rain delay, not paid by the word, Mel acted like he was. “It kept raining,” said Jerry Coleman. “He kept talking and talking. I couldn’t interrupt. He was wild.” In November 1964, the Yankees dismissed Allen, only 51. New Yorkers found themselves, for once, truly shocked.
The Yanks did not explain, fueling rumor of drug use, alcoholism, or worse. He became a pariah, losing the Bombers, the Rose Bowl, and Movietone, as in a phased withdrawal. Ron Powers wrote, “As far as the larger American public was concerned, [he] simply ceased to exist.” Meanwhile, the Yankees collapsed, many irrationally blaming his removal. In 1972, I called Mel from SUNY at Geneseo, asking if we could meet for a story in my college paper. Later, I learned that Allen, “a gentle soul,” wrote Stan Isaacs, “with hardly the confidence in himself that people thought,” often took time to respond to letters from students.
Thereafter, Mel and I kept in touch by phone. He was lucid, then errant, like 1960s radio/TV. “This argues against strokes,” a physician said. “The patient’s behavior doesn’t vary.” What occurred was that his celebrity doctor, Max Jacobson, prescribed pills for Allen for several years to sustain his manic schedule, Mel’s speech and thought devolving. He never grasped the change, I think, even as it occurred. For a decade, he vanished. Then in 1977, Allen began a remarkable comeback as host and voice-over of This Week In Baseball (TWIB), using a script, at which he excelled, not ad-lib, where he did not.
Ultimately, perhaps no sports serial so bespoke one person. The show’s first year a sometime fan entered our family’s living room. My mother could not possibly have heard The Voice since 1964. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “Is that Mel Allen?” In 1990, SUNY at Geneseo launched the annual Mel Allen Scholarship to be awarded to a nascent sportscaster. A year later, I introduced Mel in Washington as he entered the B’nai B’rith Sport Hall of Fame. On June 19, 1996, Mel was buried. Said Rabbi Joshua Hammerman: “To silence his voice would have been to silence his soul.”
I love the clip of Mel calling Dave Righetti’s 4th of July no-hitter. It was for TV but it was more of a radio call, and I think it should have been. Mel Brooks wrote the song about “That Face.” Well, that voice.
In the early 1980’s while working as a Sports Associate in Sports for the KTLA Channel 5 ‘News at Ten’, the Angels games were broadcast by KTLA and there was a home game vs the Yankees. I was to help with remote Sportscast after the game with Joe Buttitta (Sportscaster and Angels play-by-play man). In the press box hallway, I crossed path with Mel Allen and he asked for a piece of paper from the legal paper I was carrying. I said ‘in exchange for your autograph, Mr. Allen and we got a deal’. He said ‘Deal’. I said, ‘thank… Read more »