While there was very little of lasting interest about an editorial in the Birmingham Age-Herald endorsing the presidential candidacy of James M. Cox one fall day in 1920, the newspaper's words had a galvanic effect upon an Alabama shopkeeper named Julius Allen Israel. "I remember that as I heard the words my hair stood up on end," Israel takes pleasure in relating today, "and goose bumps popped up all over my body." To appreciate the man's agitation, it is necessary to know that Israel was being read to at the time by his son Melvin, a little fellow not yet a month enrolled in the first grade. The revelation that the child could read the Birmingham papers, let alone the ponderous editorial pages, was an eye-opening experience from which the father has not yet completely recovered. "I had known all along that Melvin was brighter than most," says Israel with paternal candor, "but he'd never let on just how smart he really was. He was always such a modest and quiet little boy."
Modest he still is—he has not forgotten how to blush and, when asked for his autograph, never fails to say, "Thank you"—but quiet he is not, for the boy Melvin Israel has since grown up to become the man Mel Allen. As such he is the most successful, best known, highest paid, most voluble figure in sportscasting, and one of the bigger names in broadcasting generally. In New York City, his base of operations, Mel Allen has a following that only a politician, which Allen in some ways is, could love. There are people to whom his voice is a comfort, his handshake a benediction, his autograph an heirloom. "Write 'Good luck, George' and sign your name," a man named George demanded of Allen not long ago, and a bartender insisted that Mel sign a $5 bill. "This is illegal," said Allen, scribbling away.
"For this," said the bartender, "I don't mind dying."
To such a weird and wonderful estate, which over the last dozen years has annually paid him more than $100,000, most of it already spent, Mel Allen has risen on the strength of an indefatigable, hinged-in-the-middle tongue, an unsurpassed knowledge of and almost mystical involvement in sports. Riding the pinstriped coattails of his employers for the last two decades, the New York Yankees, has helped. Moreover, he has merrily made his way to the top of a field of limited opportunities without deceit, without guile, without cynicism and without, it would seem, half trying, fame having stalked him more than the other way around. His formula has been simply an open-faced and honest ambition to fulfill himself and to believe in himself.
Since self-satisfaction has always eluded Mel Allen, he sits today uncomfortable in his eminence, wondering what it amounts to and knowing at the same time that, whatever its worth, he has, in the words of a friend, "only one direction left—down." Goaded by this unnerving intelligence—and spurred along by loneliness that befalls him as a 49-year-old bachelor hopelessly embroiled in his job—Allen is a tireless worker, driving himself to accept as many obligations, commitments and duties as daylight and dark will allow and, like a tightrope walker, resisting the impulse to look beneath him. "He has so many things going for him," says fellow sports-caster Joe Garagiola, "that if he ever got the flu he'd be a one-man Depression." And one of Allen's favorite stories, one of the thousands he knows and cherishes, takes on the flavor of a morality play when he tells it. The story concerns a onetime major league pitcher named Bobo Holloman who had the bad luck to pitch a no-hitter for the St. Louis Browns on his very first start in the majors. By the end of the season they were saying, "Bobo? Bobo who?"
Bobo's flaw, says Allen, was a sore arm and serenity, and while a sore throat may now and then indispose Mel Allen it won't be complacency that goes before his fall. Attaching a peculiarly negative significance to the mark he has made, he lost his once abiding respect for Who's Who in America, he says without coyness, when it requested his biography 10 years ago. Allen frankly protests that "if the New York Yankees had been an eighth-place team all the time I'd been with them I'd be an eighth-place announcer." Since the Yankees have done very well altogether during the 21 years, so has their official spokesman. Yet Allen, like a spinster with a rich daddy and a poor boy friend, wonders bleakly how much he is liked for himself and how much for his association with affluence. Says Julius Israel: "What Mel needs is the swelled head he deserves."
Whether or not Allen's popularity is as mercurial and subject to whim as he supposes, it is sufficient nowadays to keep him occupied on radio, television and motion picture film 600 hours each year, pitching athletic sweat, beer, smokes, razor blades, oatmeal, autos, soap, gasoline and lip balm. More than half of that time, of course, is devoted to Allen's folksy, garrulous descriptions of 162 Yankee ball games, while most of the remainder is parceled out to the World Series broadcasts, college football and Rose Bowl games, a three-hour, $3-a-minute segment of NBC Radio's Monitor on Saturday mornings and baseball All-Star games (his 23rd comes up next Tuesday).
Twice each week he lends his voice to the soundtrack of Fox Movietone sports newsreels. To earn his $12,000-a-year salary for that job, Allen is obliged to write as well as talk the scripts. He does both after a quick look at the film, with speed and efficiency, having a practiced ear for the catchy, punny phrasing that is the pattern of most newsreel features. ("The hull thing makes a fellow keel over from sheer delight," he wrote shamelessly for a girlie documentation of New York's winter boat show.) Somehow Allen has enough energy left over to write an occasional magazine article, to pick an All-America team for a magazine and to work away, somewhat desultorily, at his second book, which, like his first, will be a collection of uplifting sports stories. With so many demands on his reportorial sense, it is no wonder that his capacities are sometimes taxed to the limit, as they were several years ago when he tried his hand at song lyrics. "Let's play ball, play ball, you all," his song began—and went downhill from there.
Happy in his work, Mel Allen is likewise happy in his relative leisure, liking nothing better than to fill it by making speeches—which he makes often for free and always at the drop of the invitations that come in daily. His format, by and large, is the presentation of sports stories—straight-from-the shoulder, sometimes gamy stories for adults, inspirational stories for youngsters. He even makes speeches when no one has asked him to, in bars, on street corners, wherever there is an attentive—or captive—ear.
Mel Allen is the only sportscaster known to the modern world who has had his day in a major league ball park, in this case Mel Allen Day in Yankee Stadium in 1950, when he received clothes, a Cadillac and $10,000—which he in turn gave to Columbia and the University of Alabama for scholarships. He is certainly one of the few broadcasters who can draw better crowds leaving a stadium than many ballplayers, and is one of the few whom young boys and old women alike have smothered to the sidewalk in excessive shows of partiality. And while it is not a unique experience among radio and TV personalities, it is encouraging to Allen's frangible vanity that some of his mail still contains endearments of the "Dear little of celebrity, You don't know me, but..." kind.
To offset such effusions, Allen has a solid corps of detractors, too, one of whose doughtiest said gleefully not long ago: "Mel Allen talks more than a magpie—which isn't saying much." More specific critics point out that Allen dearly loves to labor a point or overwork a pet phrase ("How about that?"), that his voice, deep, rich and mellow as it is, has an irritating edge on it, and that his stilled but not fully hidden enthusiasm when the Yankees are winning violates his rights to the air waves. Sober, industrious and otherwise well-adjusted men have been known to fall into gargling, sputtering rages as, sitting helplessly before their TV sets, they feel themselves assaulted by Allen's tedious, drawn-out explanations ("For the benefit of those not so familiar with the game, the infield fly rule states that, with first and second base or first, second and third occupied and less than two out, a ball which in the judgment of the umpire," etc.. etc.), by his excessively elated descriptions of everyday Yankee catches, by his strangling compulsion to qualify, modify and amplify nearly every general truth he utters. "International Falls is the coldest spot in the U.S.," he said on TV once. "Temperaturewise, that is." And because New York teems with people who love baseball but refuse to pledge allegiance to the Yankee pennant, Allen's "objective but pro-Yankee" broadcasts can turn a ruly roomful of people into a hating, shouting, blaspheming mob. "In New York, Mel's like the drinking friend who takes home the town drunk," says Lindsey Nelson, a fellow sportscaster and a friend of Allen. "Since the anti-Yankees aren't able to change the team, they hit the nearest thing—Mel Allen—with a rolling pin." Says Raconteur Tex O'Rourke: "Mel is Alabama's answer to Tennyson's babbling brook."
After winning a radio-TV "best sports-caster" award in 1952, Allen's first reaction was to say, "It's nice, but what if I don't win it next year?" The fact is, he's won it, wonderingly, every year since. He can no more understand this unqualified praise than he can understand the ire and vitriol of his critics. He seeks to show the same courtesy and restraint in replying to both. If accused of favoring the Yankees, for instance, he answers that his technique is one he has carefully considered for many years, and he would do as much for anyone he worked for. If he is accused of being unfavorable to the opposite team, he bridles and denies it. "You listen," he will say, proudly professional. "I call a Colavito home run the same as I call a Mantle home run. The guy who doesn't think so didn't want Mantle to hit that home run in the first place." Only when accused of talking too much does Allen admit that perhaps he has a problem. "Somewhere," he says, "there must be a middle ground: enough explanation for those who don't understand the game and not too much for those who do. If I don't qualify everything I say, here come the letters. I have lain awake nights wondering where that happy medium is. I do the best I can."
Allen's best, as it turns out, is still this side of prolixity. Phrases like, "That brought the crowd to its collective feet," and, "There's no room for margin of error," will suggest why. Like most people who talk a lot, Allen exposes himself to easy ridicule. The New York Times once characterized him as a connoisseur of the obvious on the cliché matinee. A quotation the late John Lardner once attributed to Allen—and it sounds more like Allen than Lardner—found him in one of his typical on-the-one-hand-this-on-the-other-hand-that situations (a result, says Allen, who happens to be a law graduate, of his legal training). Lardner's quote, picked from a game several years back, went like this: "By sending Mize to the bat rack, Stengel may have kept Boudreau from replacing Brown, because—You see, Collins is a left-handed hitter—Well, we've got a right-handed pitcher in there now, but if Boudreau had called in a southpaw—Of course, Collins is a left-handed hitter, too. But what this might mean—Well, of course, it may mean nothing at all."
Sometimes Allen joins the Allen critics. "When somebody tells me I've done a good job making a bad ball game sound good," he says, "I know I've failed some way. They mean it as a compliment, but it's really a criticism. I never try to inflate a game. Instead I try to ride it like a boat on waves, and to make it sound like no more than it is. My job is reporting, not making up a press agent's release." Like any reporter, he sometimes fails on his face. Afterward he will brood about these gaffes for years. His worst mistake to date occurred in the seventh game of the 1960 World Series, when he prematurely blurted, "It's going foul," on a three-run homer by Yogi Berra. Stung by the recollection still, he takes some comfort from the fact that SPORTS ILLUSTRATED at the time called it the biggest boner "since Clem McCarthy's historic miscall of the 1947 Kentucky Derby."
"That," says Allen with relish, "was their biggest boner since Clem McCarthy's historic miscall of the 1947 Preakness."
Because he is usually sitting behind a microphone, Allen is pictured by most people as a short and dumpy man. He is not. Unbent, he stands taller than six feet, weighs about 200 and wraps his large, bearish frame in loose-fitting casual jackets and slacks. Like his father and his brother, he is balding, but unlike them he disguises the truth with a hairpiece. He has heavy features, translucent blue-gray eyes and is handsome in an aging way. He looked like a cupid when he was born on St. Valentine's Day in 1913.
Mel Allen's grandfather, William Israel, was a Russian Jew who came to the U.S. when he was 35, settled in West Blockton, Ala., where he ran a dry goods store and raised a family of seven. One of his sons, Julius Allen, Mel's father, remembers West Blockton as a tough mining town, and the meanest man around was an outlaw lyrically named Bart Thrasher. Julius Israel also remembers his father as a stern patriarch unfavorably disposed toward boyhood idleness and particularly inimical to baseball, since it interfered with Julius' chores. "How do you reckon he would like it if he knew his grandsons were making their living just looking at baseball games?" says Julius delightedly. "Ho!" Julius' other son, Larry, is a statistician and spotter on Mel's staff.
Mel Allen's mother, Anna Leibovitz, the daughter of a cantor, was born in Russia and came to this country when she was 9. She married Israel in 1912 and, by the time Melvin was born, Julius was well established in the dry goods business in Johns, Ala., a small mining town 30 miles southwest of Birmingham. Continuing to prosper, Julius moved his business and his family first to Sylacauga, Ala., later to Bessemer, a large steel-producing center, where he opened a ladies' ready-to-wear shop. It was in Bessemer that young Melvin began flabbergasting his elders by reading the papers, particularly the sports pages, and by reciting, at the slightest provocation, current batting averages, RBIs and ERAs of popular major league players.
Hit hard by the postwar depression, Bessemer's economy collapsed, and so did Julius Israel's business. In 1922 he moved it to Cordova, Ala., where things went sour again. The Ku Klux Klan, a phoenix in a dirty bed sheet, was re-emerging at about that time, and high on the Klan's list of un-American activities was being Jewish. Cordova's citizens began to boycott the Israel store, and before long, the $20.000 Israel had salvaged from his Bessemer operation was gone and, in declining health, he turned to selling shirts on the road. Bitter as Allen's mother is about Cordova's Klan, she cannot forget a second disappointment that took place there. Her ambitions that Melvin should become a concert violinist were shattered when he just about cut off his left forefinger while paring a peach.
By the time Julius Israel moved the family to Greensboro, N.C. the siren call of a career in major league baseball had become a real and vital thing to Melvin, age 11, and he got a job as bat boy with the Greensboro Patriots. Already beginning to spread his time thin, he also delivered dry cleaning on roller skates and spent Saturday afternoons at the corner cigar store posting baseball scores on a blackboard. "Always it was baseball this or that," Anna Israel recalls. "There was never the time to study his school-books or his music lesson [Mel was now supposed to become a concert cornettist]. One day—it was a beautiful sun-shining day just like I prophesied—I see the school principal coming up the walk. My God, he's been expelled, I thought. My God, let me fall down dead on this spot and I will welcome it, I thought." The principal had come not to expel Melvin, but to praise him. The principal announced that the boy had been selected by the Civitans to serve in Raleigh as North Carolina's lieutenant governor for one day. It was an occasion that comes back vividly to Mel Allen. He was introduced that day in round-eyed wonder to the Tar Heel electric chair.
Two years later Julius Israel moved his family again—this time to Birmingham—and there Melvin finished high school, dated the prettiest girl on the block and enrolled in the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He was only 15 years old and, because of his precocity, they called him Skyrocket. To save the expense of putting him up in a dormitory, the Israel family moved to Tuscaloosa, too. "About all I was able to afford was a roof over his head," says Julius Israel.
Characteristically, Mel Israel spent little time under that roof. Tall, skinny and physically immature, he was cut quickly from the varsity baseball team. He turned instead to intramural baseball, to writing sports for the school paper, to the drama club and, when necessary, to his books. To help his father meet expenses, he worked Saturday in Brown's Dollar Store selling shoes. After a good day he would take five of Brown's dollars home.
By the time he was a senior, Mel had entered law school, was teaching a class in speech and was sports editor of both the student paper and the annual. He was also earning his varsity A as student manager of the baseball team, working as sports stringer for out-of-town Alabama papers, writing scripts for the football coaches' radio show, playing sandlot baseball and announcing downs and yards to go on the P.A. system at Alabama football games. One fall afternoon in 1935 the late Frank Thomas, the football coach, got a call from a Birmingham radio station. It had suddenly lost its sportscaster for Alabama and Auburn football games. Did Thomas have any suggestions? Sure he did. Mel Israel.
"I wasn't really interested," says Allen now, "but it was a sure $5 a game if I got the job." To see that he did, Allen prepared for his audition by boning up on an earlier Rose Bowl game that he hadn't seen, and came to the station to deliver a stirring account of how Alabama tied the score against Stanford in the last minutes. Charmed as much by Allen's account as by the recollection of that happy day in Pasadena, the station manager hired him.
Allen was already in his third year of law school, and he took his broadcasting job so lightly that in one early game he lost track of a down. To square himself with the scoreboard he squeezed in a line buck for no gain while Alabama was still in its huddle. Nevertheless, he got the job again the next season, but was unavailable the one after that. He was busy instead on the CBS network. The following fall he called the first baseball games he'd ever seen from a broadcasting booth: the 1938 World Series.
As he had done in Birmingham, Allen got his job with CBS almost accidentally. In New York on a skylarking Christmas vacation, he strolled into the CBS studio one evening to see a program being broadcast. He mentioned his association with the CBS affiliate in Birmingham to a night supervisor, and for no better reason than curiosity let himself be induced to audition. The next question he heard was, "When can you start?"
"Gosh damn," says Allen, using one of his wild expressions (others are "dad gummit" and "jiminy cricket"). "I like to fell over when they said that. I didn't want to start anytime, I told them. I was a graduate lawyer, ready to start my practice most any day. And besides, I had a job teaching speech at the university and getting $1,800. So they said, $45 a week, think it over."
Mel thought it over when he got home. "I told him it was plain foolishness for a boy to go all the way through law school just to talk on the radio," says Julius Israel. "And I told him if he went he'd never come back." Neither was the elder Israel friendly to the network's suggestion that Mel change his name for, as they put it, a more euphonious sound and one not so—uh—inclusive of all the tribes. Mel answered his father that, well, he meant only to go on for a year. The experience would broaden him, he said, give him a bigger outlook on things. Oh, let the boy go, Mel's mother put in. What did it matter what he did for one year, and what did it matter what he called himself for that time? Call yourself Morgan Hall, a solicitous friend suggested, thinking of a euphoniously named building on the university campus. Or call yourself Mel Thomas, suggested Frank Thomas. So Melvin Israel, who has always liked travel and mellifluousness, packed his bags, borrowed his father's middle name and went north. He honestly meant to be home 12 months later, but he never made it.
Mel Allen began broadening his outlook by getting up in time to open the network at 6 a.m., introducing to the stirring nation organ stylings on the Mighty Wurlitzer. Three weeks later he was assigned to a sponsored nighttime show (his salary spurted up to $95 a week), and a couple of months after that he broke into sports.
A prerequisite for sports announcers is an ability to carry things along without benefit of script, and Allen demonstrated an unapproachable talent for that on his first assignment. In a day when networks pirated events from one another, CBS sent Allen aloft in a DC-3 to describe a Vanderbilt Cup race on Long Island (NBC had hoped for exclusive ground-based coverage). Circling over the course, Allen was obliged to talk for 52 minutes, describing nothing at all because the race was being delayed by a rain shower. The race never did get away, but from then on Mel Allen's career in sports announcing was off and running.
His first full season of baseball began in the spring of 1939, when he was the No. 2 announcer after Arch McDonald, broadcasting both for the Yankees and the New York Giants. The next season McDonald went to the Washington Senators, and Allen moved up. Allen was in the infantry from 1943 until early in 1946; in a rare burst of intelligence the Army made use of his broadcasting experience by assigning him to a public relations program. When he came back to New York he signed a contract with the Yankees (for $17,500 then, for he's not saying how much now) and has been with the club ever since. Along the way, he has also broadcast basketball games, tennis matches, dog shows and horse races. Once he recorded the offstage voice for the game sequence in the Broadway production of Damn Yankees, and in a movie called The Babe Ruth Story Allen's voice described Ruth's then remarkable 60th home run. "The fact that I was only 14 years old when Ruth hit that homer didn't seem to faze the director," says Allen of the movie. "That gives you a rough idea of what kind of movie it was."
Inasmuch as Mel Allen has been doing basically the same job for more than two decades, it would be reasonable to suppose that much of his enthusiasm has faded. But for Allen, with no wife or children, no hobbies and, with the exception of popular fiction and magazines, no interests beyond sport, it isn't so. Each game he sees is a new and challenging experience. He doesn't just look at it, he lives it. "My job on Monitor" he says, "is pleasant and it pays well, but it is not the sort of thing that keeps me in this business. I could never be just an announcer. I think I'd go back to law if I had to do that. But my work as a sportscaster, dad gummit, is a creative thing. The players on the field are the actors, and I, in a sense, am the narrator putting the things they do into a story." Allen sometimes gets so carried away by his narration that he paws the air and gesticulates, pounds his neighbors and shifts to the edge of his seat. It is a technique that leaves him completely bushed after a game.
"In a business never known for hard work, Mel has built a reputation for hard work that makes us all uneasy," says Lindsey Nelson. "In the early days of radio it was enough for the announcer to say, 'The sky is blue, folks, and the band sounds mighty pretty, so let's listen.' Now the listeners are too sophisticated for that, and Mel spends far more time getting ready for a broadcast than he does giving it. He gives the listener everything he could ask for."
Once Mel Allen got over the idea of returning to a law practice in Alabama and accustomed his family to the same thing, he moved them all to New York in 1940. His sister has married and gone her own way, his brother works for him and his mother and father live with Mel in a $75,000 house in Westchester County. It is a close-knit family, and everybody is fairly happy, except perhaps Mrs. Israel. She openly resents the fact that her son "never married anybody but those New York Yankees." She has seen Mel woo and abandon possible brides, and she doesn't laugh at the crack made by a friend: "Here comes Mel Allen with the future Miss Jones." And she begrudges the demands made on him by his public.
"Once I thought it would be nice to go to dinner with the whole family," she said the other day. "So we go to a little out-of-the-way restaurant out near Esther's house on Long Island. No sooner do we walk in the door, than here come the kids, the mommas, the poppas, the grandmommas and the grandpoppas, all holding these little autograph books. Later this man gets angry because Mel says he'll have to check his appointment book before promising to make a speech to the man's club. Then this boisterous blonde tries to sit in Mel's lap. It was too much. Me, I wanted to be at home in my kitchen, eating a sandwich with Larry."
But, she is asked, would she wish her son Mel to be anything less than the success he is? Anna Israel answers with rue: "I wish he was a shoemaker. A married shoemaker."