Mel Allen


Mel Allen
Mel Allen

Mel Allen (1955)
Born February 14, 1913
Birmingham, Alabama
Died June 16, 1996(1996-06-16) (aged 83)
Nationality American
Alma mater University of Alabama
Occupation American sportscaster

Mel Allen (Hebrew name: Mordechai ben Yehuda Elya[1]; February 14, 1913 – June 16, 1996) was an American sportscaster, best known for his long tenure as the primary play-by-play announcer for the New York Yankees. During the peak of his career in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Allen was arguably the most prominent member of his profession, his voice familiar to millions. Years after his death, he is still promoted as having been the "Voice of the New York Yankees." In his later years, he gained a second professional life as the first host of This Week in Baseball.

Contents

Early life and career

Allen was born Melvin Allen Israel in Birmingham, Alabama. (Biographer Stephen Borelli notes Allen added the middle name Avrom, to honor a grandfather of his with that name who had died.) The future sportscaster was educated as a lawyer, but a boyhood love for baseball led him to become first a sports columnist and then a radio announcer. He attended the University of Alabama where he was a member of Kappa Nu Fraternity as an undergraduate. He went on to earn a law degree from Alabama as well.

During his time at Alabama, Israel served as the public address announcer at Alabama football games. In 1933, when Birmingham's WBRC asked Alabama coach Frank Thomas to recommend a new play-by-play announcer, Thomas suggested Israel. His first broadcast was Alabama's home opener that year, against Tulane.

Soon after graduating in 1937, Allen took a train to New York City for a week's vacation. As it turned out, one week became 60 years; he settled in New York and lived in the New York metro area (first New York State, then Connecticut) for the rest of his life.[2]

While on vacation, Allen auditioned for the CBS Radio Network as a staff announcer. CBS executives already knew of Allen; the network's top sportscaster, Ted Husing, had heard many of his Crimson Tide broadcasts. Allen was hired at $45 a week.[3] He often did non-sports announcing such as big band remotes or game show announcements. Among the game shows, he did Truth or Consequences. He would serve as an understudy to both sportscaster Husing and newscaster Bob Trout.

In his first year at CBS, he announced the crash of the Hindenburg, interrupting Kate Smith to do so. He first became a national celebrity when he ad libbed for a half-hour during the rain-delayed Vanderbilt Cup from an airplane.[2]

In 1939, he appeared as the announcer in the Warner Brothers & Vitaphone film musical short-subject, "On the Air", with Leith Stevens and the Saturday Night Swing Club.

Broadcasting career

Baseball

In 1938, Allen landed his first major baseball assignment, as color commentator for the World Series. This led Wheaties to tap him to replace Arch McDonald as the voice of the Washington Senators for the 1939 season; McDonald was moving to New York as the first full-time radio voice of the Yankees and New York Giants. However, Wheaties gave in to owner Clark Griffith's desire to have Walter Johnson behind the mike.[3]

Allen didn't have to wait long for a break, however. In June 1939, Garnett Marks, McDonald's partner on Yankee broadcasts, twice mispronounced Ivory soap, the Yankees' sponsor at the time, as "Ovary Soap." He was fired, and Allen was tapped to replace him. McDonald himself went back to Washington after only one season, and Allen became the Yankees' and Giants' lead announcer.[3] Allen was able to do double duty for both teams because only the home games were being broadcast.

In Stephen Borelli's biography How About That!, the author states that it was at CBS's suggestion in 1937, the year Melvin Israel joined the network, that Israel go by a different on-air last name. He chose Allen, his father's middle name. He legally changed his name to Allen in 1943.

Allen periodically recounted an anecdote that occurred during his first full season as the announcer of the Yankees. Lou Gehrig had been forced to retire the previous year due to what would be a fatal illness. Speaking with Allen in the team's dugout, Gehrig told him "Mel, I never got a chance to listen to your games before, because I was playing every day. But I want you to know they're the only thing that keeps me going." Allen waited until Gehrig left, then broke down in tears.[3]

Allen's stint with the Yankees and Giants was interrupted in 1941, when no sponsor could be found and both teams went off the air. The radio broadcasts resumed in 1942. Allen was the voice of both the Yankees and the Giants until 1943, when he entered the United States Army during World War II. While in the service, he broadcast on The Army Hour and Armed Forces Radio.

After the war, Allen began doing Yankees games exclusively. By this time, the team's road games were also part of the broadcast schedule. Before long, Allen and the Yankees were fused in the public consciousness, in part because of the Yankees' frequent World Series appearances. Allen eventually called 22 World Series on radio and television—including 18 in a row from 1946 to 1963. Even when the Yankees didn't appear in the Series (which only happened four times in 18 years), Allen's popularity was such that he was always tapped as the play-by-play man. He also called 24 All-Star Games.

Indicative of his popularity during the 1950s, he was one of the first three celebrities spoofed in the just-created Mad comic book. In the second issue, Allen, Leo Durocher and Yogi Berra were all caricatured in a baseball story, "Hex!", illustrated by Jack Davis.

After Russ Hodges departed from the Yankees booth for the New York Giants, a young Curt Gowdy was a broadcast partner for two seasons 1949-50, brought in from Oklahoma City after winning a national audition. Gowdy, originally from Wyoming, credited Mel Allen's mentoring as a big factor in his own success as a broadcaster. Gowdy became the play-by-play announcer for the Boston Red Sox in 1951.

Among Allen's many catchphrases were "Hello there, everybody!" to start a game, "How a-bout that?!" or "Going, going, gone!" on home runs and "Three and two. What'll he do?"[2] But Allen famously lost his voice during the 1963 World Series, in which the Dodgers defeated the Yankees in a four-game sweep.[3]

Other sports

Fittingly for a man who got his first breaks in Alabama and New York calling college football, Allen did a number of bowl games: 14 Rose Bowls, 2 Orange Bowls, and 2 Sugar Bowls.

In the National Football League, Allen served as play-by-play announcer for the Washington Redskins in 1952-53 and for the New York Football Giants on WCBS-AM in 1960 - with some of the latter broadcasts also being carried nationally by the CBS Radio Network. Allen was behind the WCBS mike when Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik levelled Giants running back Frank Gifford during a clash at Yankee Stadium. He also did radio play-by-play for the Miami Dolphins' inaugural season in 1966, and University of Miami football the following year.

Allen hosted Jackpot Bowling on NBC in 1959. He became host after Leo Durocher quit to return to coaching. Allen's lack of bowling knowledge made him an unpopular host,[4][5] and that April, Bud Palmer replaced him as the show's host.

Non-sports work

In the early 1960s, Allen hosted the three-hour Saturday morning segment of the weekend NBC Radio program Monitor. He also contributed sportscasts to the program until the late 1960s. Allen also provided voiceover narration for Fox Movietone newsreels for many years.

Fired by the Yankees

In 1964, the Yankees made the World Series for the 15th time in 19 years—but Allen wasn't there. Back in September, before the end of the season, the Yankees informed Allen that his contract with the team would not be renewed. In those days, the main announcers for the Series participants always called the World Series on NBC. Although Allen was thus technically eligible to call the Series, Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick honored the Yankees' request to have Phil Rizzuto join the Series crew instead. It was the first time Allen had missed a World Series for which the Yankees were eligible since 1943, and only the second World Series (not counting those missed during World War II) that he'd missed since he began calling baseball games in 1938.

On December 17, after much media speculation and many letters to the Yankees from fans disgruntled at Allen's absence from the Series, the Yankees issued a terse press release announcing Allen's firing; he was replaced by Joe Garagiola. NBC and Movietone dropped him soon afterward. To this day, the Yankees have never given an explanation for Allen's sudden firing, and rumors abounded. Depending on the rumor, Allen was either homosexual, an alcoholic, a drug addict, or had a nervous breakdown.[2] Allen's sexuality was sometimes a target in those more conservative days because he hadn't married (and never did).

Years later, Allen told author Curt Smith that the Yankees had fired him under pressure from the team's longtime sponsor, Ballantine Beer. According to Allen, he was fired as a cost-cutting move by Ballantine, which had been experiencing poor sales for years[2] (it would eventually be sold in 1969). Smith, in his book Voices of Summer, also indicated that the medications Allen took in order to maintain his busy schedule may have affected his on-air performance. (Stephen Borelli, another biographer, has also pointed out that Allen's heavy workload didn't allow him time to take care of his health.)

Allen became Merle Harmon's partner for Milwaukee Braves games in 1965, and worked Cleveland Indians games on television in 1968. But he would not commit to either team full-time, nor to the Oakland Athletics, who also wanted to hire him after the team's move from Kansas City. Despite the firing in 1964, Allen remained loyal to the Yankees for the remainder of his life, and to this day—years after his death—he is still popularly known as the "Voice of the Yankees."

Eventually, the Yankees allowed him to again perform as a speaker at special Yankee Stadium ceremonies, including Old Timers' Day, which Allen had originally handled when he was lead announcer. Though Yankees broadcaster Frank Messer (who joined the club in 1968) assumed the emcee's slot for Old Timers' Day and special events like Mickey Mantle Day from the 1960s onward, the Yankees made sure to also invite Allen to call the actual exhibition game between the Old Timers, and to take part in players' number-retirement ceremonies.

Return to the Yankees

Allen was brought back to the Yankees' on-air team in 1976 as a pre/post-game host for the cable telecasts with John Sterling, and also started calling play-by-play again. He announced Yankees cable telecasts on SportsChannel New York (now MSG Plus) with Phil Rizzuto, Bill White, Frank Messer, and occasionally, Fran Healy.

Allen remained with the Yankees' play-by-play crew until 1985 and made occasional appearances on Yankee telecasts and commercials into the late 1980s. In 1990, Allen called play-by-play for a WPIX Yankees game to officially make him baseball's first seven-decade announcer. Among the memorable moments Allen called in his latter stretch were Yankee outfielder Reggie Jackson's 400th home run in 1980, and Yankee pitcher Dave Righetti's no-hitter on July 4, 1983.

This Week in Baseball

In his later years, Allen was exposed to a new audience as the host of the syndicated highlights show This Week in Baseball, which he hosted from its inception in 1977 until his death. When FOX relaunched TWIB in 2000 (after a one-year hiatus), it used a claymation version of Allen to open and close the show until 2002.

Computer games

Mel Allen reached another generation of fans in 1994 when he recorded the play-by-play for two computer baseball games, Tony La Russa Baseball and Old Time Baseball, which were published by Stormfront Studios. The games included his signature "How about that?!" home run call. Allen also used that catch phrase during his cameo appearances in the films The Naked Gun (1988) and Needful Things (1993).

Although he completed the work only about a year before his death, producer Don Daglow said in a 1995 interview with Computer Gaming World that

Allen was a dream to work with. If something sounded the least bit off, he caught it himself and self-corrected before you even had a chance to ask for another take. Sometimes he'd hear a problem live that we would only have noticed later. When he was reading the long list of numbers that would be spliced into sentences to announce batting averages and so on, he stopped suddenly and said, 'That's not good.' Then he started again and finished the list. When we checked the tape we heard that he had just started to get a sing-song rhythm from repeating too many numbers in a row, and he'd noticed before anyone else had.

Awards

The National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association inducted Allen into its Hall of Fame in 1972. In 1978, he was one of the first two winners of the Baseball Hall of Fame's Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting. (The other was his old colleague Red Barber, who for some time served alongside Allen as the Yankees' announcer after making his name with the Brooklyn Dodgers.) In 1985, Allen was inducted into the American Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame along with the Voice of the Red Sox Curt Gowdy and Chicago legend Jack Brickhouse. Allen was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1988.

Death and legacy

Allen died on June 16, 1996 of heart failure (he had had open-heart surgery in 1989) at the age of 83. He was buried at Temple Beth El Cemetery in Stamford, Connecticut. On July 25, 1998, the Yankees dedicated a plaque in his memory for Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. The plaque calls him "A Yankee institution, a national treasure" and includes his much-spoken line, "How about that?"

References

External links

Preceded by
None
Ford C. Frick Award
1978
Succeeded by
Bob Elson

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