Should either the Reds’ Waite Hoyt or the Tigers’ Harry Heilmann win, it would mark the first time a Frick selectee was already in the Hall as a player
Voters for the Ford Frick Award presented annually by Baseball’s Hall of Fame face a fascinating ballot that will determine the 2019 winner. The eight candidates all of whom are deceased were accomplished play-by-play baseball personalities during radio’s formative years. The working lives of all this year’s candidates ended anywhere from fifty to 75 years ago.Because of this great time lapse, personal and empirical observations will have little bearing on educated decisions. As such, the determining process will require a deeper dive into each broadcaster’s credentials; popularity, uniqueness of style, longevity and legacy.
The Hall instituted a three-year cycle beginning with the 2017 winner. First, an esteemed local broadcaster was selected, the late Bill King of the Oakland A’s. Although known for his passionate and refined broadcasts of Warriors basketball and Raiders football, baseball was Bill’s first love and he comfortably called A’s games on radio for some 25 years. Oddly, he’s not been honored with the Rozelle Award at the Pro Football Hall of Fame or the Gowdy Award given by the Naismith Hall of Fame.
In 2018, the nominees were made up of national broadcasters and Bob Costas was deservedly recognized. Bob has called baseball so eloquently on national platforms like NBC and MLB Network. He was behind the mic too for a couple World Series. More importantly perhaps, he’s been a great protagonist for baseball ever since hitting the airwaves as a prodigy, fresh out of Syracuse in the 1970s. Through all the sports he’s called so stirringly, Bob doesn’t hide the fact that baseball is his first love.
The third year of the cycle, the 2019 ballot, currently in front of the voters, recognizes an announcing pioneer. Baseball broadcasting began in earnest when it covered the 1922 World Series.The famous newspaper scribe Grantland Rice provided play-by-play of the Giants-Yankees match-up, albeit calling baseball to that point had never really been attempted seriously or regularly. Radio was just beginning to take off and sports like baseball, college football and boxing helped propel the exciting new medium’s growth .
In 1923, Graham McNamee radio’s first popular personality, provided coverage of the World Series and continued to do so through 1934. Baseball’s first play-by-play honed broadcaster, Red Barber, spoke highly of McNamee, saying that any criticism of him wasn’t warranted because Graham had no blueprint to follow. McNamee was given a blank canvas and told to get it done. He was awarded the Frick in 2016.
So this year the ballot is comprised of broadcasters who started anywhere from the 1920s to the 1940s. They are Connie Desmond, Pat Flanagan, Jack Graney, Harry Heilmann, Al Helfer, Waite Hoyt, Rosey Rowswell and Ty Tyson. I can’t imagine that many of our readers are familiar with all these candidates. Yet, back when, these gentlemen were household names in the communities they worked. Vin Scully worked with both Helfer and Desmond in Brooklyn and he overlapped in the National League with the Reds’ Hoyt.
Heilmann was a star player alongside the immortal Ty Cobb and was inducted posthumously into the Hall in 1952 for his playing feats. He was a Major Leaguer from 1914-32, after which he turned to broadcasting. The Tigers split their networks. Tyson’s broadcasts were heard in Detroit and Heilmann’s in the towns and hamlets outside the city stretching through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Tyson was so popular that when it appeared the Tigers were headed to the Series in 1934, 600,000 fans petitioned baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to allow him to call the World Series for Tigers fans on Detroit radio. Landis wanted only network broadcasts by non-biased national announcers. But the outpouring of support for Tyson convinced the commissioner to permit a local Tyson broadcast in the Motor City.
Graney was Canadian born and called Indians games beginning in 1932 . He had played for Cleveland and was the first batter to face Babe Ruth when the Babe was a pitcher. After retiring, he went to work in the booming radio business, becoming one of the first ex-players to do so. Having played in many of the ballparks and well aware of each field’s contour, Graney painted vivid pictures when he recreated Indians road games.
Helfer bounced around. He worked for eight teams beginning in 1933. His last gig was with Oakland in 1969. For a number of years in the early 1950s, Helfer called a national Game of the Day for Mutual which was quite popular. It introduced baseball to constituencies in many small towns across America and was carried regularly in cities where there was no baseball team. In those years, there were only 16 baseball clubs and they were spread through just ten cities. Helfer also did five World Series on Mutual.
Flanagan was solid and when multiple stations in Chicago aired Cubs and White Sox games, he did so for WBBM. Pat also did the first All-Star Game nationally in 1933 and the 1934 World Series on the CBS Radio Network. In the day of recreations off the wires, it is said that Pat was quite adept.
Desmond was very talented and accomplished. Connie made it in the biggest of markets, New York, working the Yankees and Giants with Mel Allen and the Dodgers with Red Barber. But he battled alcoholism, was fired once by Brooklyn, rehired and still couldn’t shake the addiction. He was let go again in 1956 and it was permanent.
Rowswell was an interesting character in Pittsburgh. He had phrases that might sound like a non sequitur. When a home run ball was sailing out of Forbes Field, Rosey would say, “Open the window, Aunt Minnie, Here it comes.” It was accompanied by sound effects, of a hypothetical ball shattering glass. Rowswell, as you would imagine, was unique and beloved in the Pittsburgh area.
Hoyt, played for the great 1927 Yankees and was installed in the Hall in 1969. After he retired from the field and once Barber was established in New York, Waite reached out to Red at WOR Radio and sought his assistance to learn the broadcast business. Barber said in one of his books, The Broadcasters, that he was happy to help but, because Hoyt was a big drinker, Red insisted that Waite be accompanied by his wife when he visited him at the station. Hoyt did so and eagerly learned the business. He called Reds games in Cincinnati beginning in 1942 for 24 years.
Waite was known as such a wonderful storyteller that fans hoped for rain delays so that Hoyt would regale them with baseball tales. Hoyt fashioned an awkward play-by-play style, referencing activity in the past tense. “High fly to right field. Frank Robinson is there and he caught the ball.”
Should either Heilmann or Hoyt win the award, the Frick would have its first winner who’s already in the Hall as a player.
All these pioneers are deceased and the winner will be recognized posthumously next summer in Cooperstown. The voters must now decide which of these gentlemen contributed to the development of on-air style and to the nomenclature of baseball broadcasting. Of course, their popularity will also be heavily weighed.
In the interest of transparency, I am humbled and honored to be one of the four non-Frick winners selected to vote. The others are Curt Smith, who authored the seminal book, Voices of the Game in 1987, historian Ted Patterson and sports media columnist Barry Horn.
The Frick Award has been given annually since 1978 when both Red Barber and Mel Allen were honored. The winner will be announced on December 12th at the winter meetings in Las Vegas.
Active period broadcasting Major League Baseball:
Connie Desmond (1942-56)
Pat Flanagan (1929-43)
Jack Graney (1932-53 with interruption)
Harry Heilmann (1934-50)
Al Helfer (1933-69 with interruption)
Waite Hoyt (1942-65)
Rosey Rowswell (1936-55)
Ty Tyson (1927-52 with interruption)