GORDON WHITE: Game Changer: TV Debut Historic for MLB
The world was going mad 70 years ago this week as it was only days away from plunging into the worst war in human history.
American and European newspapers were full of front page stories telling how Hitler was blaming Poland for provoking trouble along the German-Polish border. The Nazi psychopathic killer and liar also made headlines with his worthless assurances that neutral countries like Belgium and Holland would never be attacked.
That was how things were when the sun rose over New York City, Saturday, August 26, 1939.
Right thinking Americans knew full well we would eventually be pulled into this war.
Still, New Yorkers were trying to put on a happy face by hosting the largest worlds fair in history. More than 20 million people had already visited the 1939--40 Worlds Fair that was in its fifth month at Flushing Meadow, Queens, where the theme of the fair was "The World of Tomorrow".
When you walked through the turnstiles into this Worlds Fair, the dark war clouds that had been gathering for the past few years were magically blown away. War had no place in this 1,200-acre futuristic world. Even the long years of the Great Depression were forgotten for a while at this wonderland about 30 minutes from Times Square. People wanted escape.
Hollywood served up its own super magical world just two weeks earlier on August 12, 1939, when MGM staged the premier of one of the most successful make-believe motion pictures ever made, "The Wizard of Oz."
But "The World of Tomorrow" that was on display in Flushing Meadow was a big place for hours and hours of oneiric escape from troubles and worries. It was all make believe even though many of the manufactured items featured at that Worlds Fair have become part of our present day lives.
Television was one of the new gimmicks displayed at the fair that eventually became a very large element in our lives after World War II.
Visitors to the fair's RCA Pavilion could watch television shows and also sit down before a TV camera and be televised to all the TV sets within range of the antennas atop the Empire State Building. That was probably a total of less than 1,000 television sets.
But if you were at the RCA Pavilion that Saturday afternoon, August 26, 1939, you could watch the first telecast of a major league baseball game. In fact, if you wanted to sit or stand through about 4 hours and 10 minutes of the telecast, you would see the first two major league baseball games to be televised.
Those two games were a double-header between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds played at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn 70 years ago this coming Wednesday.
The Dodgers were in third place in the eight-team National League, 12 games back of the league leading Reds.
Cincinnati would reach the 1939 World Series only to be swept, 4-0, by the mighty New York Yankees, who won their fourth consecutive World Series championship.
This was not the first telecast of a baseball game. That honor belongs to Columbia and Princeton Universities that played a double-header at Columbia's Baker Field three months earlier on May 12, 1939. The second game of that double-header was televised by the experimental NBC station, W2XBS. Princeton won, 2-1, in ten innings.
NBC did it again by televising the Dodgers and Reds from Ebbets Field, August 26, 1939, over the same station, W2XBS. This station eventually became WNBC in New York.
Instead of limiting themselves to just one game of the double-header, NBC officials telecast both games as the Reds won the opener, 5-2, and the Dodgers took the second game, 6-1.
That did not take too much extra time for the NBC crews. Back in those days, MLB games zipped along at a lively clip. The first game of this twin-bill took all of one hour and 46 minutes while the second game slowed down to two hours and one minute.
Toss in about 20 minutes between games of a double-header in those days and Ebbets Field fans plus those few TV viewers in and around New York City spent no more than about 4 hours and 10 minutes watching this historic pair of games. The main locations for viewing the first major league telecast were the RCA Pavilion at the Worlds Fair and the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan. Good eyesight was needed since the black and white TV screens in 1939 were roughly 9 inches by 12 inches.
Cincinnati's Bucky Walters, who led the NL with 27 victories and 137 strikeouts in 1939, pitched the first game victory that day thus becoming the first major league pitcher to win a televised game. He pitched the complete game as was the general practice for successful starters three quarters of a century ago.
The very few TV viewers in Metropolitan New York were treated to a magnificent effort by the big right-hander as he allowed only two hits for the 21st of those 27 victories he got that season. Errors in the second inning by the Reds led to both unearned Brooklyn runs.
Hugh Casey became the second person to be televised pitching a winning game in the major leagues as he tossed the nightcap victory for Brooklyn.
Ebbets Field was sold out as 33,535 of the Flatbush Faithful jammed the old ballpark in the belief that "Dem Bums" still had a chance for the NL pennant in 1939. There was no official count of TV viewers that day since Nielsen ratings were one of those things for "The World of Tomorrow". But it was estimated that about 3,000 persons saw this first MLB telecast. That might have been the first and last time a MLB game had a larger live audience than TV audience.
NBC claimed that TV viewers as far away as 50 miles from the Empire State Building could see the game. But then how many TV sets were there in Nyack, NY, or Red Bank, NJ, in 1939?
What TV viewers did see was something of a mishmash of moving baseball players and, once in a while, the baseball itself.
The New York Times' report on the telecast in its next day's editions said, "At times it was possible to catch a fleeting glimpse of the ball as it sped from the pitcher's hand toward home plate."
The baseball players involved but difficult to distinguish included many a famous MLB athlete of those days. In addition to Bucky Walters and Hugh Casey there were Ernie Lombardi, the huge, slugging Cincinnati catcher, and Bill Werber, the Reds' third baseman and leadoff batter. Werber became the first MLB player to be televised getting a base hit when he singled to start the first inning of the first game.
Brooklyn players of note in this telecast were Leo Durocher, the shortstop in his first year as player-manager of the Dodgers; Dolph Camilli, the first baseman; Cookie Lavagetto, the third baseman, and Dixie Walker, the right fielder. Lombardi and Durocher are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Providing the vocal for this first MLB telecast was another Baseball Hall of Fame member, Red Barber, who was in his first year as broadcaster for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He had been the radio voice of the Cincinnati Reds, 1934--1938.
Larry MacPhail was president of the Cincinnati Reds when he hired Barber to do his team's broadcasts in 1934. When MacPhail took the job as president of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1939 he took Red Barber with him from Cincinnati to Brooklyn.
Two TV cameras were used for the telecast at Ebbets Field. One was behind the first base line and another was in a box in the second deck behind home plate. That second camera covered outfield action and was used to show Red Barber at the microphone.
This was double the camera attention given to the May 12 Columbia-Princeton baseball telecast. For that game NBC used only one camera on a platform along the third base line at Baker Field.
For just a short fraction of a day in late August of 1939 a very few baseball fans escaped their fears of war while they were the first such spectators to watch their national pastime without going to the ballpark.
It would not be until after WW II that "The World of Tomorrow" arrived. With it came those televised baseball games that are now among our predictable daily pleasures.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is email@example.com.
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