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Books | Sports

April 2, 2007

A Voice Above All Others

Sportscaster Mel Allen was at the top of his profession. Then, he lost everything, and climbed back. His friend and biographer explains why he thinks Allen 'was the best ever to call the game.'

Carl Bialik

When he was growing up in upstate New York, Curt Smith would listen to Mel Allen broadcast the New York Yankees. Allen was the voice of baseball's most-glamorous and most-successful team, and his articulate gamecasts and signature "How about that!" call made him a celebrity. Then his game started to slip, the Yankees fired him, and he was suddenly a Voice without a sport to call.

Curt Smith
"Allen said that he was partisan, not prejudiced. Mel told me that prejudice meant seeing only one side and disliking the other. Partisan meant appreciating each side, but favoring one. Some felt he crossed the line. I don't."

Curt Smith

As an adult, Smith befriended his boyhood hero after Allen had returned to baseball TV with dignity in an unlikely comeback. (Allen died in 1996.) Smith, a speechwriter to the first President Bush and a radio and TV host, has written a half-dozen baseball books. Now he's written The Voice about Allen, exploring his rise, fall, and comeback. Allen had a second go-around with the Yankees, hosted the highlights show This Week in Baseball, voiced video games, and generally connected with a new generation of baseball fans before his death in 1996.

In the following email interview, edited for clarity, Smith—writing in the spirit and style of his book—explains how anti-Semitism spurred Mel to trade "Israel" for the surname "Allen," how Allen was partisan but not prejudiced, and why World Series games should be played in daylight hours. (Also, you can hear Smith and other baseball-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, April 4, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: Who's the closest to Mel Allen today? Is anyone even close?

Curt Smith: Allen defined post-World War II sports radio/TV. He announced for CBS, NBC, ABC, and Mutual, did 21 World Series, 24 All-Star Games, 14 Rose Bowls, and nearly 3,000 Twentieth Century Fox film newsreels, saying, "This is your Movietone reporter." Up to 80 million heard him each week. Anything big, he did—above all, baseball's Yankees. On Yankees radio, you could walk down the street, a hundred windows open, and not miss a pitch. Nationally, Mel was everywhere. Today cable and free-TV networks divide voices, events, and rights. Mel thrived in a smaller universe: A broadcaster could more easily dominate. No one will ever dominate like Allen.

GM: What would Mel have thought of your book?

CS: I interviewed him for ESPN TV, the Smithsonian Institution, and various books, including Voices of the Game. I knew him as a friend since college, introduced him into B'nai B'rith's Sports Hall of Fame, and talked with him in good times and bad. I tried to make the book—as Mel, a lawyer, might qualify—respectful but critical; above all, fair. I did 105 interviews, listened to audio/video play-by-play, and researched at sites including the Hall of Fame, Library of Congess, and Mel's alma mater, the University of Alabama. I hope that he would like the book because it etches an amazing voyage: rise, ruin, and recovery. Until now, Mel's 1964 Yankees firing has never been explained. This book explains it, and how he reacted: stoically, valiantly. He had grace. He had heart: a man who fought the fight, endured, and somehow came back.

GM: How severe was anti-Semitism in baseball at the time? Could he have been as successful as Mel Israel?

CS: Anti-Semitism was fairly common in baseball—also in America, especially but not exclusively in Mel's native South. He was born February 14, 1913, Valentine's Day, in Birmingham, Alabama, to Russian emigr…s. In 1937, he arrived in New York, changed his name to Mel Allen, and tried to assimilate into America's majority Anglo-Saxon cast. I doubt he could have been as successful as Melvin Israel. He never regretted the change, which arguably spurred his appeal to the generic middle class. Mel was extremely moral, but not overtly doctrinal. I suspect that formal religion meant less to him than achievement: In that sense, he was like many, then and now. He was a farm boy who wowed New York; an Orthodox Jew who visited the Vatican to show the annual World Series highlight film. He became what George W. Bush vowed, but failed, to be: a uniter, not divider.

"He had grace. He had heart: a man who fought the fight, endured, and somehow came back."
GM: Did Mel risk derailing his career to serve in the military?

CS: In a sense, he was lucky. Bandleader Glenn Miller was a friend from their time at CBS Radio. Miller asked Mel to join his tour, but he couldn't because of a scheduling conflict. Otherwise, Allen might have been on Miller's plane, disappearing in December 1944. Leaving the infantry probably saved his life, too. Mel's old outfit assaulted Anzio that year, with heavy casualties. In love with his work, Allen was always afraid it would end. He told a friend, "I hope they remember me when I get back." It's safe to say they did.

GM: Mel was superstitious when it came to broadcasting no-hitters and such. What do you think? Do you cringe when announcers let the audience in on a no-no in progress?

CS: Mel could be kind, impatient, courteous, loyal, garrulous, and always superstitious. In 1947, Allen refused to note Bill Bevens's near-no-hitter in the Series against Brooklyn. He knew what he did or didn't say wouldn't affect the outcome—but that players thought you jinxed a no-hitter by talking. "It's part of the romance," he said, "one of the things that separates baseball from other sports." Often he and brother Larry, his statistician, traded pencils to change team luck. If it worked, Mel used them the next day. He'd wear the same shoes, suit, hat, and tie, in a winning streak, even drive the same daily route to Yankee Stadium. When they lost, said broadcast partner Phil Rizzuto, Allen drove miles out of his way to help break the jinx. I really don't care if a Voice respects a no-hitter by saying, for example, "There are four hits in the game—all by Boston." Give me an announcer who has personality, panache, who can tell a story, utilize the language. Superstition pales beside that.

"At peak, he was the best ever to call the game."
GM: Was Mel a homer? Is that OK?

CS: As Plato said, "Before we talk, let us first define our terms." Allen said that he was partisan, not prejudiced. Mel told me that prejudice meant seeing only one side and disliking the other. Partisan meant appreciating each side, but favoring one. Some felt he crossed the line. I don't. Take Pittsburgh, where Bob Prince yelped, "Come on, time for a run!" Or St. Louis, with Harry Caray: "OK, boys, let's get a hit!" That's homerism! Yankee-haters hated Mel because they hated the Yankees, who kept winning. His friend, the Mets' Lindsey Nelson, likened him to a drinking friend who takes home the town drunk. "Since the anti-Yankee wasn't able to change the team," he said, "they'd hit the nearest thing to a rolling pin"—Mel. Allen said he called a Ted Williams home run like one of Mickey Mantle's. The fan who didn't think so, he said, didn't want Mantle to homer, period. Partisan, not prejudiced: The distinction works.

GM: You write with seeming nostalgia for Mel's golden age, and the golden age for his Yankees. But Brad Snyder, the biographer of Curt Flood who read at December's Varsity Letters, says those years were grim for most baseball fans because just a few teams won nearly all the pennants. What do you say to that?

CS: From 1936 to 1964, the Yankees won 22 pennants and 16 World Series. Was the era grim? Depends on who you ask. If you liked the Yankees, the age was a carnival. Robert Creamer wrote: "People said rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel. Nonsense. There's nothing as wonderful as a team that wins." Retrieve that time: The Dodgers, Giants, and Red Sox, among others, won, but less often. What baseball lacked was balance. For a fan of the Cubs, Phillies, Athletics, and worst of all, Senators, life meant luckless latters. Wait Till Next Year? Next year almost never came. Irrefutable: As the last decade shows, the Yanks' winning was good for baseball. It matters enormously—always has, in media, interest, advertising—for New York teams to do well. And I say that as a Red Sox fan.

"I know today of no openly homosexual baseball announcer. How would one be accepted? Knowing baseball's culture, not extremely well."
GM: In writing the book, did you go through old transcripts, or listen to audio of his broadcasts?

CS: My dad impressed the need to do a job thoroughly. Doing this book was a thorough treat, not a job. I read many transcripts of Allen's quarter-century of play-by-play. I also listened to hundreds of hours of audio and video. Tape from 1959, for example, showed that Mel had become slower and more syrupy. By the early 1960s, he would often labor, misstate, brook dead air. Something was happening—but what? That led to why the Yankees fired him in 1964—and why a household name turned non-person, overnight. This is the first book to explain sportscasting's most mysterious dismissal. I should add that tape also caught Mel in bloom. Listen, say, to the 1952 World Series, or 1959's or 1960's. Mel was taut, sharp, and vivid: a fabulous announcer. Lindsey Nelson and I talked about Allen, and we agreed: At his peak, he was the best ever to call the game.

GM: How much of a factor were rumors of his homosexuality in Mel's firing? Do you think things would be different today—could sports handle an openly gay big-time broadcaster? (Are there any?)

CS: The Yankees refused to explain Mel's firing. "They left people to believe what they wanted," he said, "and people believed the worst. The lies that started were horrible." One lie was disease. Another: ministrokes or a major stroke. Alcoholism was rumored. Also a breakdown, or heroin. My research indicated that each charge was false. Mel was childless, and unmarried. Inevitably, gossip called him gay. I talked to friends, relatives, and colleagues. No evidence backs the claim. Twice, Mel came close to marrying—but his frantic schedule took precedent. "He was too busy for a relationship," said brother Larrry. His mother added: "He never married anybody but those New York Yankees." The irony is that anyone knowing Mel knew he would have been a terrific dad.
Being gay was then a career-killer: For a long time after 1964 the smear hurt his career. In the 1970s, announcer Charley Steiner talked to Casey Stengel, asking, "What happened to Mel?" Casey formed a limp wrist. "That gay rumor," said Charley. "It haunted him for years." I know today of no openly homosexual baseball announcer. How would one be accepted? Knowing baseball's culture, not extremely well.

GM: Was Mel's drug problem the fault of a quack? Did Mel ever blame the doctor?

CS: My book is precise about what I know, and don't. Mel's early '60s New York physician was Max Jacobson: "Dr. Feelgood." [New York Sun] In 1961, Allen sent him ailing Mickey Mantle: "You'll get well in a day." Instead, Jacobson's needle struck Mick's hip bone. Blood soon poured from an open sore. Mel never blamed him. Feelgood's client included Eddie Fisher, Truman Capote, and John F. Kennedy, who took his strange mix of vitamins, human placenta, and amphetamines—"speed," now curbed by federal law. Attorney General Robert Kennedy wanted Jacobson thrown out of the White House. "I don't care if it's horse piss," protested JFK. "It works." Allen's early '60s schedule was crazed: Movietone, NBC, Yanks. Once Mel said, "Man, what he [Jacobson] can do. Those pills, they work." We don't know what Feelgood prescribed, or provided. We know now that he was more Hannibal Lector than Marcus Welby. I believe that Mel's decline stemmed from nothing he did—but a doctor who wrongly gained his trust.

GM: You're a critic of late starts for World Series games. If you're commissioner, how do you change the system?

CS: From 1947-63, Mel called each World Series on network radio or TV. It was daytime, in the sun, a small boy's Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Fourth of July. You smuggled a radio into class, hearing play-by-play by earplug. Your teacher feigned rage, really wanting to hear the score. "Mel was a ritual," said George Will, "like a play opening on Broadway." At school, ESPN's Jon Miller asked friends "about the Series like the world depended on it." Today the event is prime-time. What an error. What a loss. My wife and I have two young children, asleep by 8 p.m. How can they watch baseball that starts at 8:30? "Prime time coverage wrote off kids." Allen told me. "It's like smoking. By the time you see the problem, the damage is done." What would I do, as commissioner? Air weekend games in the afternoon—probably, weekday, too. Daytime might help revive the Series as kids' sun, moon, and stars. Having talked with Mel, I know he agreed.

You can hear Smith and other baseball-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, April 4, in New York's Lower East Side.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.







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Comments

- Sports
- posted on May 25, 07
Ken Parlier

As a young kid in the 1950's Mel Allen's voice was symbolic of my favorite time of year October/World Series time.It was almost as if God was speeking directly to me.Sports fans today have no idea how one talented man's voice would come to help define a generation of sports fans,in the 1950's when baseball really was this countries national pastime.


Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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