Sports Collectors Digest: Mel Allen

By Marty Appel

I wonder sometimes if Mel Allen would get hired today to broadcast baseball. I mean, today’s top broadcasters come loaded with situational stats and the benefit of well spoken colormen, and the ability to brush up on opponents by easily following other teams on the Internet in the days before the games begin.

But then I remind myself that Mel was such a pro, had such a great voice, was bright and scholarly without being overbearing, and could don a professor’s role when needed to tell you things like, “For those of you who might be new to baseball, when the umpire raises his right arm, that means it’s a strike.”

Mel could do this without offending longtime fans because those fans knew you had to let the new ones in. And yes, I actually remember Mel explaining that arm gesture by the home plate umpire as I watched the Yankees on a ghostly-image Philco black and white set in the mid-fifties.

By 1964, he finally got around to writing a Yankee memoir, of sorts, and how ironic that was. 1964 would be his final Yankee season. He could not see it coming. Just when it was time for him to tell his story, he was on his way out at age 51.

The book was called “You Can’t Beat the Hours,” a little joke about being a broadcaster and working only two-and-a-half hours a day. Of course, to do the job well, you had to put a lot more than that into it. And while most would rate Vin Scully as the best baseball announcer ever – Mel in his day was certainly part of the debate, and certainly a worthy claimant to the title.

He wrote it with Ed Fitzgerald, who had ghost-written Yogi Berra’s autobiography and who had been editor at Sport Magazine before becoming president of The Literary Guild book club. Ed was not a guy who was at the ballpark a lot, not a newspaper guy. He was a respected editor and admired writer and it turned out, a good choice for Mel. The book they put together however, was not, in truth, very autobiographical at all. The key things you needed to know were found in the introductory pages, while the remainder of the book consisted of tales that Mel might tell during rain delays.

The truth was, we fans of that era loved those stories. It is not an exaggeration to say we would root for rain delays so that Mel could take us to days of yore, and in some ways, I think it is why we baby boomers knew all about Cobb and Wagner and Gehrig and Greenberg, but today’s young fans, avid though they are, do not know about Kiner and Killebrew, Musial and Marichal. We really leaned on every word Mel shared with us.

Mel had done a book five years earlier – not at all autobiographical – called “It Takes Heart: Inspiring Stories of Heroic Lives and Heroic Moments in Sports,” with Frank Graham, Jr. But this was the one Yankee fans were waiting for, coming as it did when you could count on a new Yankee book every year – Yogi, Mickey, Roger, Ralph Houk – they all took their turns.

So while the autobiographical part of this new one was brief, the stories were the ones that defined Mel’s story-telling ability.

Mel was born in Birmingham, Alabama on Valentine’s Day, 1913, went to the University of Alabama at age 15, where he got his start broadcasting Alabama and Auburn football games. In 1936 he went to work for the CBS station in Birmingham and later that year was hired by CBS in New York as a staff announcer. There his name was changed from Mel Allen Israel to Mel Allen, when he was told, “it wasn’t euphonious enough, or easy enough on the ears, for a professional radio announcer.”

In 1939, the Yankees instituted radio broadcasting of their home games, and Mel was hired to be assistant to Arch McDonald. The two of them would then do Giants home games from the Polo Grounds. Mel’s very first game, Yankees vs. Red Sox, was also Ted Williams’ first game.

Mel was on the field for Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day on July 4, when Lou told him (according to Mel) how much his broadcasts meant to him during his illness, and how it had reduced Mel to “crying like a baby.” (I always wondered about that story, as the Yankees had played all of 25 home games after Lou’s retirement. But, it could have been. It was an emotional time for Lou to not be with the team, and the connection through a broadcast is powerful).

In 1940 Arch McDonald went to Washington and Mel took the lead, with J.C. Flippen as his Yankee sidekick, and Joe Bolton (later “Officer Joe Bolton” on WPIX kids’ shows), worked with him on Giants games.

There were no broadcasts in 1941 and then Mel went off to military service, returning in 1946 when Larry MacPhail teamed him with Russ Hodges for the first of three seasons, and the first in which the team did road games.

Mel’s run continued through ’64, meaning he did calls in 20 seasons – it seemed like a lot more – before Yankee ownership felt his run was over. There were some who felt he had just gotten a little too powerful for his own good, and in the process, a little annoying. The book could have been part of that story. It offended no one, but the sight of Mel handing out inscribed copies of his book, adding another dimension to his big personality, could have simply been another nail in the coffin.

I loved Mel, he taught me baseball as a child, but I know people who didn’t like the Yankees didn’t like him as much as we Yankee fans did. When I later produced Yankee baseball games for WPIX, I brought Mel back to the booth for one inning in 1990 so that he could be a “seven-decade announcer,” (he had done cablecasts in the ‘70s and ‘80s), and I had him record our opening to be used on each telecast. He of course became the voice of This Week in Baseball and built a new following.

He never wrote another book. He lived until 1996, always with a sadness about him that he was no longer the “Voice of the Yankees.” He was never given a reason, leaving others to go in many directions with speculation. There have been two fine biographies of him in recent years, one by Steve Borelli, one by Curt Smith, but I’m glad Mel did that 1964 book, little knowing what fate had in store for him just months later.