GORDON WHITE: TV Baseball Celebrates 70 Years
A majority of Americans living today, meaning those 40 and under, may never have seen a black and white telecast since color TV took over the market by 1968. They missed out on the snow and waving lines that interfered with clear pictures that were never a constant in TV's early days.
Just think of watching a baseball game when you could not see the white ball and the outfielders were distant, moving blotches on a fuzzy screen. That is just what it was like 70 years ago today when a baseball game was televised for the first time in history. That game was not seen around the world as are today's major sporting events. It was seen only a few blocks away from where the game was played at the very northern tip of Manhattan Island in New York City.
That initial baseball telecast, which was also the first sports telecast in the United States, was a college baseball game between Columbia University and Princeton University. It was played, May 17, 1939, at Columbia's Baker Field situated high above the treacherous, tidal waters of Spuyten Duyvil Creek. The National Broadcasting Company televised the game that was seen on about 400 sets around the city. But it was primarily shown for promotional purposes in the RCA Pavilion at the New York World's Fair that had opened just 17 days earlier on April 30, 1939. The telecast was also shown on tiny, 12-inch by 9-inch screens at the NBC headquarters in the RCA Building located in Radio City at midtown Manhattan. It was there that news critics got a chance to see this new fangled gimmick make its sports debut. They were not too enthusiastic about what they saw or failed to see.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president of the United States to be telecast making a speech when he did the honors during the grand opening ceremonies of the 1939-1940 World's Fair just over two weeks prior to the first baseball telecast. But following a bouncing baseball over a diamond with a TV camera was a lot more difficult in those days than keeping a camera focused on a person speaking from a fixed position. That's why FDR got better reviews than Abner Doubleday's game received in 1939.
NBC chose to televise the second game of a double-header between Columbia and Princeton. As was the case with all college double-headers in those days the nightcap was set for seven innings unless there was a tie.
As fate would have it for this historic event, there was a tie so that the first televised baseball game lasted 10 innings. Princeton scored in the tenth to win the game, 2-1. The Tigers also won the nine-inning first game of the double-header, 8-6. Bill Stern was the sportscaster for the memorable TV event. There was only one camera used. It was placed atop a tripod that was standing on a 12-foot high platform constructed for the purpose and set a few feet back of the third base line. This camera had only one focus and could not zoom in and out for close-ups and distance shots. The camera man was barely able to follow the ball from mound to home plate. When a batter hit the ball the camera man was lucky to transmit a picture of the ball in motion.
The New York Times review of the game said, "The ball was seldom seen, except on bunts and infield plays comparatively close to the camera, stationed between third base and home plate. When the ball flashed across the grass it appeared as a comet like pin point. The umpires in the dark uniforms stood out more vividly than the players in white suits."
This report on the game also stated, "The mobile television van stationed at the field relayed the pictures and associated sounds on ultra-short waves to the main transmitter atop the Empire State Building from where they were picked up at Radio City, at the World's Fair and other receiving outposts in the metropolitan area."
Among those who played in that first baseball telecast was Sid Luckman, who was much more famous as Columbia's football all-American quarterback than as the Lions' shortstop, which he played that day in May, 1939.
Ken Pill, Columbia's left fielder, had the distinction of hitting the first home run ever seen on television when he put the Lions ahead, 1-0, in the fifth inning.
The TV camera was unable to keep the ball in focus as it sailed high in the sky over right field and on over the fence before dropping into the churning waters of Spuyten Duyvil. Therefore, no viewer actually saw the home run ball go over the fence. They knew it was a home run because Bill Stern said so and because the camera was just able to follow Pill trotting around the bases unmolested by Princeton fielders.
Princeton tied the game at 1-1 in the sixth.
The star of Princeton's televised victory was Dan Carmichael, a sophomore pitcher from Columbus, Ohio, who went the distance for the Tigers and scored the winning run after leading off the Princeton tenth with a single.
Carmichael graduated in 1941, six months before we entered World War II. He became a Navy pilot flying missions in the Pacific off of three carriers--the Enterprise, Hornet and Randolph.
Following WW II, Carmichael came home to a career as an architect and is now retired and still living in Columbus, Ohio.
It was WW II that delayed continued development of television and sports telecasts. But during the remainder of the six months the World's Fair was open in 1939, NBC and RCA staged a number of "firsts" in television and particularly in sports telecasts. Even then at the birth of the medium that was to become such a large part of everyone's life in the United States and the world, the executives of TV saw the great value of sports on television. But they would have to wait until we finished off Hitler and the other Axis forces. Then TV would become the big enterprise that now pervades all of our lives.
Although American television personnel have led the world in sports programming, the first televised sports event is believed to have been the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. Those were the infamous games known as "Hitler's Olympics." Track and field and other competitions and programs during those Olympic Games were televised from Berlin's Olympiastadion to the central Post Office building in downtown Berlin. Those pictures were even more grainy and unclear than the pictures of the Columbia-Princeton baseball game three years later.
Within days of the 1939 Columbia--Princeton baseball telecast, NBC televised parts of a six-day bike race from Madison Square Garden. In another May, 1939, telecast, NBC televised the annual IC4A track meet from Randall's Island in New York City. The first boxing match was televised from Yankee Stadium in June, 1939. It was a non title heavyweight fight between Max Baer and Lou Nova.
The first telecast of a major league baseball game took place in August of 1939 from Ebbets Field. This was a game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds. Also in August of 1939, NBC televised tennis for the first time with a telecast of the Eastern Grass Court Tennis Championships.
In another Ebbets Field event, NBC showed the first telecast of a professional football game when it put on an October contest between the Brooklyn Dodgers (now defunct) and Philadelphia Eagles. The first telecast of a college football game took place, September 30, 1939, between Fordham, then one of the nation's strongest teams, and Waynesburg College from Western Pennsylvania. Also during 1939, NBC televised diving competitions, hockey, basketball, wrestling, soccer and fencing contests for the first time. All of these events took place in New York City in order to display the new device at the World's Fair.
I remember attending the World's Fair numerous times during its two-year stint in Flushing Meadow, Queens, where now the Mets have their stadium and the National Tennis Center is located. I also remember going to the RCA Pavilion, one of the fair's most popular exhibits, and standing before a TV camera. I then got an official looking certificate stating I had been televised.
Who knows if anyone saw me? No one in my family had a TV set until the early 1950's.
But sports, one of the most important components of present-day television, began its very successful run in the United States, May 17, 1939, when the Tigers and Lions went at it.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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