Great Voices

Red Barber and Mel Allen; First two honored HOF broadcast greats, but not the best of buddies

 

Mel Allen and his relationship with Red Barber +

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Halberstam

These two pioneers were held in such high esteem by fellow broadcasters and baseball people that they were enshrined together, on the Hall of Fame’s first ever ballot. They were honored together with the Ford Frick Award in 1978 and honored in Cooperstown.

Their stories are onto themselves. They include Red’s separation from the Dodgers in 1953 and thirteen years later in 1966, he was squeezed out by the Yankees. After the latter occurred, Barber ripped the ballclub on his way out out the door. He was considered by many as simply disagreeable. Barber also struggled with his own broadcast teammates. His rivalry with Mel and later Joe Garagiola got ugly and ended poorly. Barber and Allen both gave Phil Rizzuto a rough time when he began 1957. 

Red was particularly critical of the Yankees when they fired Jim Woods to bring up Rizzuto from the field. He thought that only announcers belonged in the booth, not players.

Mel Allen was driven from Yankee Stadium’s broadcast booth in 1964. Through the next eleven years, the club went into a steep decline, the likes of which the baseball world couldn’t have imagined.

Only UCLA in college basketball and the Celtics of the NBA sparkled like the Bronxites. Many said and accurately so that in his heyday, Mel used his sepulchral tone to dominate baseball broadcasts. No one can fight Mel’s dominance when baseball was a constant subject of conversation over our great land in the 1950s.

When Mel presided over Yankees’ broadcasts, from the late 1930s to 1964, the club won 14 World Series. He called virtually every Fall Classic on either network radio or TV. Talk about growing an intertwining identity with Yankee listeners as well as baseball fans around the country, the team’s nickname Bombers was hardly a misnomer.

Mel though overworked himself and started to lose his strength mentally and physically. When he was let go in ’64, the team’s GM was Ralph Houk. I reached Ralph in the 90s and he would not budge when asked why. Ralph was also known as The Major. He told me firmly to the effect, “I don’t want to get into why.”

All these years later, Curt Smith, baseball’s prolific writer about the game and the history of its broadcasting, suggested that Mel’s talent was beginning to wane and it manifested itself.

In 1963, the Yankees were about to be swept in Game #4 of the Series by the Dodgers. Allen began to make palpable errors. There were also rumors that Mel might have recommended medication to a member of the team’s roster.

Late in the game, Mel had a coughing fit and his younger partner Vin Scully took over the play-by-play. He was pulled off the Series and never returned. Remember these were our halcyon days. The teams for the most part chose the voices on network TV.

Red Barber was considered the true pioneer and Mel challenged him hard nationally. Ostensibly, the duo got along. Still there was bitterness between the two. They were both Southerners, Red from Florida and Mel from Alabama.

After Mel left, he was occasionally brought back to Yankee Stadium and introduced warmly. The Yankee Stadium crowd responded emotionally. They connected with him. He got standing ovations for years. His charming and convincing voice during the difficult years that followed, triggered winning memories. The Yankees took a terrible dive. The next 11 seasons (1965-1975) the Yanks didn’t partake in one Series. (1965-1975).

The back-view mirror had Mel’s face all over it. He did revive his career with his highlight shows in the 70s. He also did some work for Cablevision and on syndicated TV with This Week in Baseball. It was good to see that Mel played a role, even in his waning years.

Red didn’t have that kind of charisma. He often struck me as being angry. If he couldn’t win over fans, he wrote books and was critical of other announcers whom he didn’t like for various reason. He held an edge, a sharp pencil, writing one book after another, a few with anger.

In 1953, Red Barber’s continuing spat with Brooklyn team owner Walter O’Malley was insurmountable. By then though Walter had sufficient faith in young Vin. When Red then threatened to leave, O’Malley showed him the door and looked at Vinny. He must have asked himself why do I need the imperious Barber?  O’Malley was firm. He wouldn’t intercede on Red’s behalf with Gillette. The Dodgers boss embraced Vin, then only 25.

The real shocker occurred in 1954. Out of work, Red undertook a television Yankees’ pre-game show and some play-by-play. When Roger Maris hit #61 homeruns in 1961 Barber just so happened to have the inning on TV. Phil Rizzuto called it on radio and his emotion was uncontainable. After Roger whacked it into the right-field seats, it seemed to me that he spent more time talking about a fan in the bleachers who gripped it. the fellow won $5,000. At age nine, I wondered why the announcer had his priorities confused.

Mel Allen died of heart failure at age 83 on June 16, 1996, Red Barber on October 22, 1992. Vin Scully was there to honor his mentor, Barber.

 

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David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year + industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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Michael Green
1 year ago

I believe Jim Woods told Curt Smith that they were different people–that Allen might visit every table in a restaurant while Barber would go to his room. Red publicly said Mel was very good about him joining the Yankees, and had every right to be concerned about his presence. So I’ll give them that.

But they can’t all be Scully-Doggett or Brennaman-Nuxhall, I suppose. Curt Gowdy said it’s a long season and a small booth.