1953 World Series, Al Helfer, baseball, baseball broadcasts, Baseball Hall of Fame, big brother, Boston, Boston University, Branch Rickey, Brooklyn Dodgers, Brooklyn Trust Company, CBS, Cliff Dapper, College Football, Connie Desmond, Dodger fan, Ebbets Field, Ernie Harwell, family, father figure, Fenway Park, Ford Frick, Gillette, horrendous conditions, Jerry Doggett, Larry MacPhail, Los Angeles, Madison Square Garden, Mel Allen, National League, NBC, New York Rangers, Red Barber, Ridgewood NY, taskmaster, University of Maryland, Vin Scully, Walter O'Malley, WOR-AM, X-Files, Youngstown Ohio
My family: fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Red Barber
To trace my love affair with the Dodgers and my admiration for Vin Scully, it goes back to July 15, 1910 when my dad was born in the Ridgewood neighborhood of New York City on the Brooklyn-Queens border. My dad contracted polio when he was four years old and it prevented the muscle in his left calf from properly developing. So he was never an athlete, although he loved to fish and occasionally go hunting. But he knew his sports and he talked about going to different sporting events in his younger days such as watching the New York Rangers play hockey in their early years. He took my brother and me to our first Dodger games before they left for California and our first hockey game to watch the Rangers play the Red Wings in Madison Square Garden (the one between 49th and 50th Streets) in the early 60’s. And it was natural that he would be a Dodger fan based on where he lived from the day he was born to the day the Dodgers left town.
When we were younger, my dad would play catch with us. And one of my memories is when we bought a sheet of plywood to become a basketball backboard, tied it to the car, got on the Thruway and had to reach out the window to hold it down until we could get off at the next exit and travel at a slower, safer speed. My brother and I would always have a supply of sports equipment at our disposal.
In the early 1930’s my mom moved to NYC from Ohio with her mother. She also was no athlete. But she loved to dance and she loved watching the boys play baseball in the neighborhood parks. And based on her pictures as a young woman, I know they enjoyed watching her, too. But the boys of Youngstown’s loss was my dad’s gain. After a few years of courting, my parents married in September 1937. It was a marriage that lasted until my dad died in March 2002. As fate would have it, the marriage began at one of the biggest turning points in Dodger history.
While the Dodgers’ crosstown rivals, the Giants and Yankees would be going to their second straight World Series, the Dodgers not only limped home to one of their typical 6th places finishes (ahead of Philadelphia and Cincinnati), they were close to going out of business. Bill collectors waited in the team’s office to get paid. They couldn’t call: the phones had been shut off for non-payment.
The Dodger owners had been squabbling, which was part of the team’s problem. Finally in desperation, they asked NL President Ford Frick in early 1938 what he thought they should do. Frick suggested they hire a strong general manager, someone who could rebuild the team. When they asked Frick for a name, Frick asked Branch Rickey for a suggestion on who could turn the team around. Rickey gave them the name of Larry MacPhail who had begun to turn the Cincinnati Reds around (even though they finished last in 1937, the team MacPhail started to build won the NL Pennant in 1939 and 1940) until he had a falling out with Reds’ owner Powell Crosley.
MacPhail took the job only when given the assurance that he would have the money necessary to rebuild the team. Even though the Dodgers were deep in debt at the time, the Brooklyn Trust Company (already heavily involved financially with the team) gave the assurance to MacPhail and team owners. Whether it was due to MacPhail’s reputation as a shrewd baseball man, his family’s wealth or sheer desperation to recoup their investment, MacPhail now had working capital. Before he left the team at the end of the 1942 season, what had been the financially weakest team in baseball was now on solid footing and with a solid team that only needed to wait until the end of World War II to dominate the National League for the next decade.
MacPhail did three things to make the Dodgers a respectable contending team. He fixed up Ebbets Field to make it a comfortable experience for the fans, and also installed lights for night baseball, just as he had done in Cincinnati. His eye for talent and bargains enabled him to build a competitive veteran team from carefully chosen castoffs like Dixie Walker, Hugh Casey and Whitlow Wyatt and acquire others like Dolph Camilli, Billy Herman, Mickey Owen, Pee Wee Reese and Kirby Higbe from teams looking to unload them for one reason or another. Meanwhile, he hired scouts and bought minor league teams to obtain one talented potential major league regular. A future Dodger star who came to the Dodgers with the rest of his minor league team was Carl Furillo. And to promote the team, he ignored the agreement the three NYC teams had made to not broadcast their games on radio. He didn’t have enough time to do that for his first season in Brooklyn. But he negotiated with General Mills to sponsor the broadcasts and entered into an agreement with 50,000 watt station WOR to air the games. By the start of the 1939 season, he was ready to go. To complete the process, he hired the broadcaster that he previously hired in Cincinnati: Red Barber.
My mom already enjoyed baseball, but Red Barber made her a Dodger fan. Once the Dodgers started broadcasting their games, my dad asked my mom to keep track of what happened during the Dodger game while he was at work. It was Red Barber’s descriptions that kept her interest and made it easy. She loved his laid-back, down home style and his calm voice. She became a Red Barber fan for life. And many baseball fans in the New York Metropolitan Area, especially Dodger fans, felt the same way.
Red Barber and Vin Scully first connected a little over ten years after Barber arrived in New York. The native New Yorker met the transplanted Southerner in the fall of 1949. Scully was a recent Fordham graduate, and he had done summer fill-in work in Washington, DC, on a CBS affiliate. Once he returned to New York, one of his stops was CBS to deliver his resume and letters of reference. Redhead briefly met redhead that day and something about that young man impressed Barber. Ironically, their first work together involved football, not baseball.
In 1949, CBS Radio had a college football program, Football Roundup, featuring the top games each week on Saturday with broadcasters at each game providing a remote feed to give updates on the progress of their game. Barber was in the CBS studio in NYC coordinating the program switching from game to game and giving the cue to the next announcer to give a quick update. As Vin recalls, there were 4 games covered simultaneously on any given Saturday, so each announcer had to stick to the basics.
As Saturday was fast approaching one week in November, they suddenly found themselves an announcer short. Try as they might, no other sportscaster was available on such short notice. Barber remembered that “young fellow” who had stopped by recently. And soon Vin was heading up to Boston to broadcast the Boston University-Maryland game from Fenway Park.
Fortune smiled on Vin just to get this opportunity. It smiled on him again during the game. By the second half, none of the other games were close. The only interesting contest was the game at Fenway (which Maryland won, 14-13). And pretty soon, Vin would say, “And back to you in New York, Red.” And Barber would reply, “And we’re sending it right back to you, young fellow.”
Vin also had some bad luck that day. Or so he thought. It turned out that his alma mater, Fordham, was playing Boston College that day, also in Boston. There was going to be a dance after the Fordham game that he wanted to attend, being single at the time. He didn’t want to be encumbered with extra clothes at the dance, so he left his hat, coat and gloves in his hotel room. Since he was working for CBS, he assumed he would be broadcasting from the broadcasting booth.
Instead, he found himself up on the roof of Fenway, with the sound engineer, a card table and a long length of cable. The chilly winds quickly blew away his notes. The temperature was in the low 40’s. And at the end of the game, Vin thought he blew his big chance, that the cold, windy conditions adversely affected the quality of his broadcast. But even though he expected a booth, he was still young and green enough that he didn’t complain.
On Monday, a representative of Boston University called Barber to apologize for the horrendous conditions under which the announcer had to work. When he explained the details, both the quality of Vin’s work and the quality of his character rose in Barber’s mind. Barber called Vin to tell him he would have a booth the following week at the Yale Bowl. He was assigned to the Harvard-Yale game.
Ernie Harwell was the broadcaster originally assigned to the Boston University-Maryland game. He was not the announcer who became ill. He was reassigned to replace that announcer for what was considered to be a better game, the North Carolina-Notre Dame contest at Yankee Stadium. But North Carolina’s star running back, Charlie Justice, was injured, and Notre Dame was en route to an undefeated season and #1 ranking in the country. Notre Dame won easily, 42-6. So Scully ended up with the best game instead of Harwell.
Harwell had a second role in this narrative. In 1948, Barber was suffering from a bleeding ulcer. Harwell was an up and coming, highly regarded announcer for his hometown Atlanta Crackers team in the Southern Association. There was only time in major league history that a player was traded for a broadcaster. Branch Rickey traded a minor league catcher, Cliff Dapper, to Atlanta to acquire the services of Harwell to fill the breach left by Barber’s infirmity. Harwell stayed as part of the Dodgers broadcasting team in 1949, but he was chafing under Barber’s demanding nature as the top man in the booth. He found a temporary home uptown.
Through 1948, the Yankees and Giants shared broadcasters and a radio network, but in 1949, they each went their own way to broadcast their team’s entire 154 game schedule. Mel Allen went with the Yankees and Russ Hodges went with the Giants as the respective #1 announcer. And the Giants gladly grabbed the dissatisfied Harwell to add to their broadcast booth in 1950. This was a time of baseball sportscasting excellence in New York City. All five broadcasters mentioned are in the Baseball Hall of Fame and have received numerous similar honors.
Barber had the lead role in choosing a successor to Harwell, to join him and Connie Desmond in the Dodgers broadcast booth. He might have chosen Al Helfer, with whom he had worked in Cincinnati and Brooklyn before Al enlisted in the Navy at the start of WWII. He was not tied to any particular baseball team at the time. Or he might have chosen another experienced baseball announcer. But he had a dream for quite a while of taking a promising but inexperienced announcer and molding him into a top flight broadcaster. He decided that Scully filled the bill and Branch Rickey seconded his decision. Never was the perspicacious Barber more correct.
Indeed Scully found Barber to be as stern a taskmaster as Harwell did in those early years. But the easy-going Desmond was a counterbalancing force, quick to throw his arm around the chastised young broadcaster, console him and encourage him. Where Barber was the strict father figure (indeed he thought of Vin as the son he never had), Desmond was the big brother who lifted his spirits and told him it would all work out.
Then fortune smiled on Vin again during his fourth season with the Dodgers. In 1953, the Dodgers and Yankees repeated as league champions and met in the World Series. The year before, NBC had the #1 announcer from each team split the play by play for every game. That paired Mel Allen and Red Barber. But they weren’t paid by NBC. They were paid by the primary sponsor, Gillette. They offered a tiny sum to the broadcasters, believing they should consider it an honor to be chosen. Barber wanted more, but Gillette felt no reason to budge. By 1953, Walter O’Malley had become principal owner of the Dodgers. Even though Barber was brought into major league baseball in Cincinnati and Brooklyn by Larry MacPhail, Barber and Branch Rickey had developed a close friendship. Barber felt a strong loyalty to Rickey and that stuck in O’Malley’s craw after he forced out Rickey as Dodgers President.
Barber informed O’Malley of the impasse with Gillette. O’Malley, as a powerful owner of a very successful team in the number one media market, could have gone to bat for Barber and put pressure on Gillette and NBC. Instead, he chose not to, telling Barber it was not his problem. That led to two important vacancies. Most immediate was who would be the Dodgers representative on the national telecasts. The choice was between the more experienced Desmond and Scully who was fairly well-seasoned by now. But Desmond also declined to work the Series for reasons not reported, but it might have been related to some obligations to broadcast college football. That’s how Scully became the youngest person to broadcast a World Series game.
(Scully worked the World Series with the Yankees #1 broadcaster, Mel Allen. Here’s Mel doing the voice over on a vintage Gillette TV commercial of the era. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9KVfn2-EEU )
The second choice that had to be made was who would be the new number one man in the Dodger broadcast booth in 1954. The logical choice was Desmond. But the pressure of being number one drove him to the bottle even more. Helfer was brought back in to the job he left after the 1941 season, but more and more Scully was emerging as the top man. Finally during the 1955 season, O’Malley fired Desmond because of missed broadcasts. Desmond pleaded for one more chance and was reinstated for the 1956 season, but the O’Malley’s patience was exhausted that year. He never announced for another major league baseball team again.
The Dodgers brought in Jerry Doggett to finish out the 1956 season. Even though Doggett was ten years older, Scully had seven full years of major league broadcasting experience. Doggett had only three years doing one major league game a week on the Mutual network. By that season, less than 30 years of age, Vin Scully was the number one Dodger announcer and would eventually be recognized by most observers as the number one baseball announcer anywhere.
Knowing a good thing when he had it, O’Malley resisted the pressure to leave Scully and Doggett behind when the team moved to Los Angeles in the 1958 season. Soon the Los Angelenos forgot all about the idea of their local favorites doing the broadcasts. Doggett, still another redhead, was well-liked and stayed behind the mike for Dodger games until the end of the 1987 season when he was 71 years old, just missing out on the Dodgers most recent World Championship season. He passed away in 1997. Chris Carter, creator of the X-Files, named characters after both Scully and Doggett on the show.
The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage. – Psalm 16:6