The Pioneers

The early sports voices were as popular as can be; Graham McNamee was most popular of all

The earliest broadcast giant Graham McNamee, launched sports on radio officially in the early 1920s. It was when NBC Radio hit the airwaves. On network, Red Barber and Mel Allen would follow in the 30s with echoes of Mac.

Barber would always say good things about founder McNamee because he himself had no mentors.  By the 40s after the war, Curt Gowdy, Lindsey Nelson and other voices would all be visible and eventually stars. Ray Scott did Super Bowls in the 1960s and 70s for CBS. Curt was the “Voice of Everything,” at the right place and the right time, on NBC. Allen dominated baseball, the World Series, the Rose Bowl and more on NBC. Before long though he was run down.  

A native Minnesotan, Graham was to the 1920s and early 30s on radio that Curt Gowdy was later in the 1960s and 70s, on television. He covered football, including the biggest gridiron event of the year, the Rose Bowl. Curt referenced the game, “The Granddaddy of them all.

Perhaps the biggest events he called early were heavyweight championships. Nothing in sports was comparable. Be they Dempsey-Tunney, Schmeling-Louis or lots later Liston-Clay (Ali).

The two Tunney wins over Dempsey in 1926 and 1927 were unsurpassed events. TV wasn’t invented yet and for that matter didn’t exist until after WWII. Radio was king. In February, 1964, in Miami, and in a country split politically, Les Keiter, blow-by-blower, put his riveting tone to work. Analyst Howard Cosell, never groped  for the correct sharp word on ABC Radio. Video was available only in movie theaters. Liston failed to come out after the seventh. Cosell stole thunder from Keiser, announcing that Ali is the winner. 

When it launched in 1926, CBS Radio still had an opportunity to transmit one major boxing broadcast. NBC Radio had many more affiliates than the younger CBS. The rematch in 1927 was limited to NBC. Another Tunney-Dempsey.

But in 1927, CBS lost a court case. The younger of the two networks claimed that NBC was violating American anti-trust laws. NBC, anticipating this, signed an exclusive contract for blow-by-blow coverage. CBS was in essence questioning anti-trust  violations. It was a win for commercial broadcasting. In essence NBC won the argument which was upheld by a Chicago judge on the morning of the fight. it’s been this way ever since. Except now, it’s billions. The second Dempsey-Tunney was known for “The Long Count.”

The NY Daily News reported that 20 million fans tuned in coast-to-coast for the first of the major fights on September 23, 1926. Afterward, McNamee received a letter from a Texas resident congratulating him on a fabulous job. The listener, an appreciative farmer, wondered whether the sponsor of the broadcast, Royal Typewriter, also sold shovels.

Television was a wild dream in the 1920s, McNamee was the radio trailblazer. He provided Sports-101 for millions of the uninitiated. In the 1960s, on the other hand, Gowdy and Allen might have made fanatics of the unexposed, as they blitzed into millions of new homes during television’s most explosive decade. (Cosell land Ali, below)

muhammed ali and howard cosell
Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali

While McNamee was Red Barber’s hero, he was hardly the founding father of radio baseball, but  was the Voice of the World Series, 12 of the first 14 years the Classic was broadcast.

With radio’s coverage of the World Series, school absenteeism increased. Students started staying home to listen. The Times reported how one school installed a radio in the auditorium. For decades, the Series was scheduled exclusively in the daylight. Radios bounced off blackboards.

Graham McNamee hardly mastered the sequential delivery that baseball requires, a mixture of description and storytelling. Graham had that magic of warmth. A big accepting smile. McNamee also did political conventions and was swarmed at public events he was covering. He could also be brutally honest. When Dempsey was losing his strength. “Jack Dempsey is only the hollow shell of his former self.”

In 1927, NBC acquired the Rose Bowl and McNamee was assigned to preside over the the broadcast. The executives counted on his golden tone and preparation. The next wave was the Cotton, Sugar and Orange Bowls. The NFL was floundering and fledgling, having been launched in 1920.

NBC Radio did the first NFL game on November 29, 1934, launching a Thanksgiving Day event that still carries a wave of tradition  It was the the first national radio broadcast of an NFL game. McNamee was the play-by-play announcer for the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears.

NBC strung together 20,000 miles of wire so it can transmit the Rose Bowl nationally in 1926. But McNamee on his 1928 presentation of the Rose: “Ah,” he told millions “The sun’s shining on those California Hills is a wonderful sight.” Nice, but the citizenry was slighted when the esteemed McNamee misidentified, the neighboring San Gabriel Mountains for the Sierra Madre Range.

As part of the rights agreement, the Rose Bowl Committee insisted that Pasadena be portrayed glowingly. Mac was restricted. He had to paint nothing but positive pictures. The audience was repeatedly reinforced about blue skies. Copy was prepared for McNamee to read verbatim. It looked foolish, especially when it was raining and he’s saying it’s sunny.

For his early years of contributions, McNamee was awarded with the Ford Frick Award in 2016. The ceremony is held in Cooperstown by the Baseball Hall of Fame.

When NBC cancelled Graham’s big events, including the Fall Classics, he was reduced to no more than a shell. Apparently, he couldn’t cope with less exposure and esteem. He died of a broken heart during World War II.

As the years went on, his assignments declined. His visibility was badly diminished. He died at age 53. (July 10, 1888 – May 9. 1942)



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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