Graham McNamee was America's first big-name sportscaster. He sold drama and excitement, to the exclusion of facts if they got in the way. For 19 years, starting in 1923, he was one of radio's top personalities, and for sports fans of the '20s and '30s he made most of the big events come alive, even though listeners often had to read the newspapers the next day to find out what actually had happened.
McNamee got into sports announcing by accident. He had little technical knowledge of any of the dozen or so sports he covered. As a boy in St. Paul he studied to be a concert singer. For a number of years he worked as a railroad clerk and then a salesman, and it was not until 1920, when he was 31, that he made his singing debut in New York's Aeolian Hall. The reviews were good, but for the next three years concert and church work was scarce.
In 1923, while picking up eating money doing jury duty downtown, McNamee wandered into the lower Broadway building of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, where its new radio station, WEAF, was sending out occasional nighttime broadcasts. He asked for an audition as a singer. Jack Hoins, an old radio hand who was then writing patter for the Happiness Boys at the station, recalls, "Every broadcast—they were all live then—was almost like a ceremony. The announcers wore tails in those first days. The only trouble was that the announcers were mostly engineers, and they talked like—well, like engineers. It dawned on somebody that the listeners couldn't see the tails, but they could hear those voices. Then Graham walked in and they grabbed him for his voice."
McNamee was hired by the program manager "to open and close pianos for artists, answer telephone calls, escort unaccompanied ladies home after programs, sing operatic and religious selections and do some announcing." His salary was $50 a week, and it was some time before he was able to afford a radio. His wife—he had married a concert singer—used to stand outside music stores to hear his broadcasts and report on crowd reaction.
Announcing was soon McNamee's forte. From the beginning he made every word sound earthshaking. He developed a technique of running down the hall to the studio so that his voice came over the air in breathless tones. He smiled at the microphone in the belief that this promoted a rapport with his listeners. And it did.
McNamee's voice became so well-known in the frantic new medium that, despite his lack of a sports background, he undertook his first athletic assignment on August 31, 1923, eight months after joining WEAF. This was the broadcast of the fight for the middleweight championship between Harry Greb and Johnny Wilson, staged at the Polo Grounds. Greb took the 15-round decision. During the fight McNamee realized that the usual broadcasting announcements would not do. For a singer the announcer would say simply, "Miss So-and-so will now sing such-and-such a number," and when she finished. "Miss So-and-so has sung such-and-such a number." But "Greb just hit Wilson" and "Wilson just hit Greb" did not describe what was happening in and around the ring. McNamee began to embellish the action, often imaginatively.
Shortly after the fight, McNamee worked his first World Series, the third meeting between the New York Yankees and Giants, which the Yankees won. Sportswriters had handled most of the previous sports events broadcast on the theory that they knew what they were talking about. Unfortunately, many of them were inarticulate or inaudible. McNamee got the assignment because he could be heard, but what came across to the listeners was a little confusing. He was feeling his way in the unfamiliar circumstances and often could not concentrate because of technical problems. The result was such phrases as, "The next ball is a strike." Ring Lardner said of an early McNamee baseball broadcast; "There was a doubleheader yesterday—the game that was played and the one McNamee announced."
Boxing fans had an even tougher time. McNamee was inclined to shout hysterically, "He's down, he's up!" without identifying the fighter. In a 1924 broadcast McNamee referred to one of the boxers, Abe Goldstein, as Bernstein, and then alternated the two names. Listeners wondered just who was fighting the opponent, Joe Lynch. This became the only three-sided boxing match in history. Over the air it sounded like a tag team wrestling match. First Goldstein would belt Lynch, then Bernstein would land a solid blow, with Lynch going it alone. The combination proved too much for Lynch, and he surrendered his bantamweight championship.
In McNamee's defense, it must be noted that he was a pioneer and that he created the techniques most of the modern broadcasters use. His main aim was to make the event interesting to the man who had bought a radio. McNamee also had to contend with familiar words that sounded strange over the air. One early letter-writing critic wanted to know how a certain boxer continued fighting after he had "feinted." McNamee concentrated on the color, and sometimes the statistics got sidetracked. George Hicks, the NBC announcer, says: "He was the first great ad-lib personality. He threw away the script. He was a showman. He had to make mistakes. You wouldn't knock Laurence Olivier for taking liberties with a part. Graham was in the same class—he was an artist."
As an example. Hicks cites an opening-day broadcast of a Yankee game. The weather was freezing the score was one-sided, but McNamee remained ebullient right up to the final out. The last batter hit a long fly that McNamee knew would be caught. But he played it up. "He made it sound as though the ball could go for a home run," says Hicks. "He built up the tension and then screamed. 'And he caught it!' "
McNamee broadcast under the most trying conditions. Prior to a 1925 World Series game at Pittsburgh, he talked for 60 minutes with the rain pouring down his collar. He used his raincoat to cover the mike. Yet he remained so cheerful and exuberant that he drew 50,000 fan letters. McNamee would tackle anything. During one emergency he had to broadcast a basketball game, a sport about which he knew absolutely nothing. Before the game he crammed from a rule book. He had a few drinks to work up enthusiasm for the task. Then he went on the air and made the game so exciting he was invited back for the following year.
Despite his occasional discomfort in sports. McNamee had no peer as an announcer in other areas. Most of the early sports events were broadcast over the single station, WEAF, but for the 1924 Democratic Convention from Madison Square Garden there was a hookup also taking in WJZ, the other major New York station, and 18 additional outlets. The convention turned into a deadlock between Al Smith and William Gibbs McAdoo. For 16 hours a day through 15 consecutive days McNamee talked, covering every facet of the convention.
In 1926 the Radio Corporation of America set up the National Broadcasting Company to handle two networks: the Red, with WEAF as the key station, and the Blue, with WJZ the principal outlet. NBC's new president, Merlin Hall Aylesworth, was asked to name radio's greatest asset. He said promptly, "Graham McNamee." During the '20s, McNamee sometimes broadcast over the combined networks. In 1927 he was the announcer for the first national hookup from the Coast, handling the Rose Bowl game between Stanford and Alabama.
The Rose Bowl always gave McNamee trouble. In the 1929 game, between California and Georgia Tech, he ran into a situation that confused not only him but also everyone who saw it: Roy Riegels' "wrong way run" that cost California the win. In the second quarter, Riegels, the California center, picked up a fumble deep in Tech territory, lost track of his surroundings and headed for his own goal where he was tackled on the one-yard line. Tech scored a safety on the next play and went on to win 8-7. McNamee blurted out the details of the weird run pretty much as it happened, but many listeners around the country thought that McNamee had goofed again.
The pep boy
McNamee took most of the early criticism good-naturedly. Later on, his Irish temper would erupt on occasion, and the normally shy and hesitant man, off-mike, would become enraged. He was at his best and worst in the "long-count" fight between Dempsey and Tunney in Chicago's Soldier Field on September 22, 1927. Eager to provide every detail for a combined network hookup—with short wave to London and relays around the world—he said, "Dempsey has come into the ring, dressed in white flannels and a long bathrobe." He missed nothing, however erratic the description. He noticed the pretty blue ribbon around the box in which the new gloves were kept.
McNamee was still the pep boy at the end of round two as he told his listeners, "I do not think either of the fighters has suffered particular damage, but the second round was far more thrilling than the first." As the action became more exciting, McNamee's hysteria was equal to it. In the controversial seventh round he screamed while the referee tried to get Dempsey into a neutral corner after the knockdown. "Tunney is down. Dempsey is on the other side of him. They are counting—six, seven, eight, nine—and Tunney is up and now they are at it again." At the bell McNamee said, "There was almost a new champion—almost but not quite." Then floridly but accurately, "Gene's look of confidence is somewhat dispelled now. But Dempsey may have lost his chance." McNamee caught every bit of the drama as Tunney backed away, with the tiring Dempsey laughing at him and challenging him to stand still. When the 10-round fight ended, with Tunney the winner and Dempsey almost out on his feet, McNamee, in view of the later controversy, summed up concisely with, "Gene Tunney managed to master Dempsey but by no great margin, and there were two times when Tunney himself might have taken the long, long road to oblivion."
So thrilling was McNamee's description that he was inadvertently responsible for radio's first rating audit. Emotion ran high around the world, with most fans rooting for the once unpopular Dempsey to win back his crown. Ten persons in this country died from heart attacks as a result of the broadcast. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company hastily calculated that in a half-hour of such excitement only 5.4 persons out of the estimated 50 million listeners should have died, which meant either that McNamee had a much larger audience or that his account was almost twice as stimulating as it should have been. McNamee always regarded this fight as the high point of his sportscasting career.
With the advent of the '30s, McNamee's marital troubles and divorce caused him to drink more, and even though he married again he drank heavily for the rest of his life. The legends about him grew. Talking pictures had started, and in some of them the sports announcer was a bumbling character: "Yale has the ball—no, wait a second—it's Harvard." Some audiences assumed that McNamee was the prototype for this caricature. That McNamee was slipping was evident from his account of the 1934 Max Baer-Primo Camera heavyweight championship fight, which prompted Variety to report: "In the first round Graham announced very excitedly, 'Oh, Camera landed three left jabs in Camera's face.' Newspapers had predicted anything might happen, so Carnera jabbing himself in the face, having no other face to jab at the moment, sounded plausible. Later on Graham screamed, 'Baer landed a terrific left hook to Baer's mid-section.' This did cause some doubt."
Such travesties did not help McNamee's reputation. Then McNamee's most famous boner occurred in the 1934 Poughkeepsie regatta. Two men providing background for NBC were stationed at good vantage points: on the observation train and at a bridge overlooking the Hudson. For some reason McNamee decided to call the race from a rowboat at water level. He arrived late and had trouble getting his bearings. The freshmen and juniors had completed their races, and dusk was settling by the time the seven varsity crews began their run. Visibility was poor, particularly so from McNamee's boat. In addition, an incorrect rumor seeped down that one of the shells had sunk, and McNamee kept trying to place the missing crew. He maintained a brave chatter of rowing jargon, giving the count, "31, 32, 33," while he tried to identify the various eights flashing by. When the blur reached the finish line he had to make a decision, and he named Navy. Actually, California was first by ¾ of a length, Washington second and Navy third, ¼ length behind Washington. One onlooker seems to remember that McNamee, straining to get the finish, fell into the water. At any rate, another voice cleared up the confusion and, to cover McNamee, said "Everything is becoming obscured by the mist."
After that, McNamee frequently confined himself to color, at which he was a master, in reporting sporting events. Through the '30s he specialized in announcing for variety shows. He was perhaps the busiest and highest paid performer in broadcasting. He was the announcer for Ed Wynn's program, for Rudy Vallee's hour, for the Atwater Kent Sunday concerts. Two days a week, he was the voice of Universal Newsreel, for which job alone he received $700 weekly. He created the style of narration still used in newsreels, viewing the film clips three times and then writing his own copy. Even here he had his critics, who objected to his puns. Once, describing a European marriage, McNamee concluded, "May they live scrappily ever after."
On April 24, 1942, while announcing the Elsa Maxwell's Party Line show, McNamee signed off with, "Good night all—and goodby." The "goodby" was prophetic: a day later he suffered a heart attack and entered a hospital, where he died from a brain clot. At the services for the man who gave up singing for talking there was no sermon, but a quartet sang his two favorite hymns.