By Marty Appel, November 10, 2016
Before there was an MLB Network, before there was ESPN’s Baseball Tonight, before local stations were able to run highlights from around the Major Leagues, there was the scrappy and much beloved This Week in Baseball.
The highlights and bloopers program was weekly, often running as a pregame show for Saturday afternoon local telecasts on the local station.
It ran from 1977 to 2011 (missing 1999) and accomplished two big things: it brought video of all teams into local markets, so that fans could now see more than just their hometown teams, and it revived the career of Mel Allen so that new generations knew him as more than the “Voice of the Yankees.”
And it did so much more! With skilled professionals tackling the production and editing, it made the “blooper” a fun part of the game; it showcased defensive plays as never before, and it gave fans the up-close-and-personal look at players that was previously reserved for only their local heroes. It truly played a big part in making the game more national—and more entertaining—than ever before.
Baseball people had talked of doing such a show for some time. NFL Films had created the concept, but they had just a few games a week to work with and a whole week in which to gather their material and produce it. Baseball was played daily to the tune of some 70 games a week. Videotape was in its early stages, and the process of getting such a show made was much more daunting.
Joe Podesta was fairly new to Major League Baseball Promotion Corporation as executive director and hadn’t yet established trusted relationships with baseball people. But he knew this was something he wanted to do. It was a matter of convincing people.
Clark Griffith of the Minnesota Twins was chairman of the corporation. “I thought it was very important to sell baseball via this kind of programming,” he says. “All of this was new to baseball, so there was a certain political peril at that time.”
“Here’s the hidden secret of the birth of the show,” says Podesta. “I used to drive a 16-year-old kid named Bruce Schecter into New York City. He ran audio-visual equipment at East Brunswick (NJ) High School. He figured out how we could get it done without spending $250,000 per team on two-inch recording tape equipment. At $250,000 per team, we were never going to get off the ground.”
“What we did,” recalls Geoff Belinfante, who was the show’s first line producer (with Larry Parker as executive producer and Jody Shapiro as creative producer), “was invest in SONY ¾ inch tape machines— this was before there was Beta tape—and we hired a kid in each of the 26 cities to record the games, changing tapes every hour, and then sending their three tapes to us by Emery Air Freight. So we would have our 70 games a week arriving in three tapes (210 tapes in total), and from that, we’d get to work, using young screeners to pick up bloopers, highlights and special moments. A team and a concept was forming.”
Part of the production team for This Week in Baseball in its first season, 1977 – seated (l-r) Geoff Belinfante, who would eventually become the Executive Producer, and sound mixer Vin Gizzi. Back row (l-r), Juan Vene, who narrated the Spanish-language version of the program, and Mel Allen, the program’s host.
Source: Geoffrey Belinfante
Writer Mark Durand recalls all-nighters on Tuesday, with recordings with Mel Allen on Wednesday so that “the big two inch tapes could be flown around the country to air on the weekends.”
“We first asked the NFL if they wanted to produce it for us, and they said no,” says Podesta. “I think they felt it was too much to take on.”
Robert Landau of Landau Associates was another early backer, having produced the 1975 All-Star Game film, and having run MLB’s Pitch, Hit and Run promotion.
With 1977 as the target for the launch, This Week in Baseball hired Mel Allen as the principal narrator of the show. Mel was well known to baseball fans for his World Series work, but it had been 14 years since he’d done a Series, and 13 years since he’d stood atop his profession with his long Yankee career that went back to 1939.
Dropped by the Yankees after 1964, he wandered in the desert of baseball with something here, something there, and a fading national reputation. He was now 64 years old, and baseball was very conscious that it needed to appeal to younger fans. (Juan Vene hosted the Spanish-language version; Ozzie Smith was also on for the 1997–98 seasons after Mel passed away.)
Still, he was Mel Allen . . .
Joe Reichler, the former AP baseball columnist who knew everyone in the game and was special assistant to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, was the one who secured Allen.
Mike Kostel, a driving force for the show, who was vice president of baseball programming for MLB, recalled, “I saw his 1976 audition tape and he looked 15 years older and sounded worse. But something happened when he was hired to be the voice of TWIB. He was reborn, rejuvenated and rediscovered by the fans for another 20 years.”
Mel Allen would host the show until he died in 1996. Few realized they were listening to an 83-year-old man. He was baseball, and he came alive working with the young crew and basking in the adulation of new generations.
“All the people working at TWIB were pretty young and he kind of adopted us all,” said Kostel. Indeed, Mel never married and had no children, and suddenly the TWIB team was family.
One of the greatest sports broadcasters of all time, Mel Allen—with his instantly recognizable voice— narrated “This Week In Baseball” for nearly two decades.
Source: The Trading Card Database
Among the family were George Roy, Steve Stern, Willie Weinbaum, David Israel, Mike Tollin, Ouisie Shapiro, Bob Bodziner, Helen Maier, Jody Shapiro, Rich Domich, John Bacchia, and Jeff Scott, who carved out long careers in broadcasting out of this gig.
Another was Warner Fusselle, Mel’s “backup” and successor, and, like Mel, he had an easy delivery with a tinge of a southern accent that always seems to work well with baseball. (Fusselle died in 2012 after a long stint as PA announcer for the Brooklyn Cyclones).
So people out of New York, who are now in their 40s and 50s, discovered Mel anew, without ties to his Yankee days. We asked for remembrances of Mel and the show on Facebook, and were overwhelmed with responses.
“Mel’s intro and that distinctive opening (“Jet Set”) and closing music (“Gathering Crowds”) make me think even now of Sundays,” recalls Sweeny Murti, now a New York sportscaster. “The highlight of the show was the highlights, the best plays that you now see seconds after they are made. What we saw was a week old, but it felt fresh and new to me.”
“Mel was a crucial link to those out of market images we rarely got to see before cable,” says Evan Rapp of Grenada Hills, California. “He had easy charm, a nice manner, and it all seemed to fit when he was behind the mic.”
“Kids began to stop him in the street and say, ‘hey Mel Allen, what’s this week’s Gillette Special?’ and he realized he had a whole new generation of followers,” says Durand.
“Now it’s time for TWIB notes,” many recalled.
“I loved the way he said ‘base-baaal’” added Julie Anne.
“Mel struck the perfect balance combining enthusiasm and newsworthiness,” said Bob Komoroski of Chicago.
Former Texas Ranger infielder Billy Sample remembered, “And that’s a sample Sample of [Doug] Rader Rangers’ baseball. How about that!” (The players often watched the show in their clubhouse in the half hour leading up to game time).
Recalls sports journalist Len Hochberg of Brooklyn, “I get a good feeling just thinking about the show, beginning with the bouncy, uplifting music and then hearing Mel’s voice.”
“I still have his voice in my head,” says super Mets fan Mary Estacion of Queens. “It was the precursor to Sportscenter. It brings me back to the days when the Mets were truly the Mutts.”
“With his amazing voice, Allen was like a news reel for baseball highlights of that era,” says Dan Holmes of Michigan. “He was a treasure and every time I see an old clip of TWIB, I feel like I’m eight years old again.”
The show premiered in June 1977, and as luck would have it, they had a classic blooper in the very first show—outfielder Pat Kelly closing his glove and the ball slipping over the fence for a home run. He had a terribly sad look.
In 2000, after missing one season in syndication, and now produced by MLB Productions, it returned on Fox Television, and ran through 2011. By then, of course, the daily cable programs had pretty much upended the need for This Week in Baseball.
But for a very long run, what a part of baseball it was.