The face of the man behind the microphone in Studio 5-C of New York's RCA Building one afternoon last week was familiar, but it was not until he opened his mouth that a bystander felt a nostalgic twinge and said to himself, "How about that!" Mel Allen is back on the air, not in his famous role as broadcaster for the Yankees but in a new one guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings of old Yankee lovers and haters alike.
Allen will be the voice on Memories from the Spoils Page, a two-minute radio program that will premiere this week in nine U.S. cities with big "drive-time" audiences. And only Allen's presence at the mike makes the show significantly different from the other marchers in the lengthening nostalgia parade in sports broadcasting. Most of them, including Memories, are lower-quality copies of Mobil Oil's The Way It Was, one of the most popular television series ever produced for the Public Broadcasting Service.
Memories takes a past personality, event or vignette and attempts to enliven it with dashes of humor or pathos. The first 10 shows have already been taped: ultimately there will be 130 to provide five broadcasts a week for 26 weeks.
"Even though the shows are nostalgic, we want them to be in season," says Producer Frank Fitzgerald. "During the basketball season, we want basketball programs." The first 10 shows deal with six sports: basketball, hockey, boxing, tennis, golf and horse racing. Some of the programs are genuinely interesting, but too many of the others are thin stuff. Almost all of them recall occurrences familiar to hard-core sports fans, but one tells a charming anecdote of the time Bill Russell was out of the country on his wife's birthday and prearranged the delivery of a new car to her as a present. The scripts were written by Bob Cooke, from 1948 to 1958 sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune.
March 2, 1975
Mostly it is rehearing Allen's voice, one of the finest in sports broadcasting history, that makes Memories an enjoyable trip into the past. During his 38 years on the air. he was the first to call Joe DiMaggio "Joltin" Joe" and Tommy Henrich "Old Reliable." Allen once said, "International Falls is the coldest spot in the United States—temperaturewise, that is." And, of course, he turned "How about that!" into an American idiom.
The studio where Allen worked last week had been rented for an hour, in the hope that the first 10 shows could be done in that time. Allen had not had a chance to read all the scripts, but once he got that lush voice rolling he dominated the scene. Crowd noise came up in the background as he said, "This is Mel Allen with Memories from the Sports Page!" He read on, making occasional fluffs and saying to Director Ken Davis, "I glided that together," or "I'm not happy with that at all."
With the hour coming to an end, Allen finished a segment about Bill Bradley. "I don't like it," he said.
"Mel, it's fine," said Davis.
"I want to do it over," said Allen, and he did.
When he was finished, Davis said, "Mel, I'm glad you did. It's so much better."
Allen's voice has been almost silent in the decade since the Yankees fired him in November 1964 after 25 years with the team. Even before the Yanks dismissed him ("It is time for a change," they said), some members of the organization had treated Allen like a skunk at a picnic. When they finally shooed him away, he was hurt and bewildered. But even today he will not damn the Yankees, and one suspects that under his dark suit is pinstriped underwear.
Over the past 10 years Allen has been working at oddments: airing the 1966 Little League World Series for KRAK in Sacramento, broadcasting the lame-duck 1965 Milwaukee Braves' games to Atlanta, doing the play by play of about a third of the Indians' games in 1968, making appearances for Canada Dry at restaurant and store openings. "I could do a banquet almost every night, but I only like to do those which are for good charities," he says. "I still get a lot of letters from youngsters interested in announcing and I answer the questions by mail, or call the kids on the phone and talk to them."
Nobody is likely ever to have to run a charity affair for the 62-year-old Allen, who invested his Yankee income well. "I'm just trying now to keep my feet wet and my Blue Cross active," he says. And wherever Allen's activities take him, people hear his voice and turn their heads. "I always thought I had the kind of a voice that was not unpleasant," he says. "But some years ago Variety ran a list of the most recognizable voices in the world. Churchill, Roosevelt, people like that. I was the only sports announcer on the list. I guess then I realized that I had a special voice. A couple of years ago I did some commercials for Ballantine Beer. They were just 30-second spots about old teams and ball parks, but the letters I got were very flattering. I couldn't understand the response until I was reading a story in TIME one morning. It was on the nostalgia wave and I sat up in bed and said to myself, 'I guess I'm part of the wave.' "
This week over WMCA in New York, WBBM-AM in Chicago, WEEI-AM in Boston, WIBG in Philadelphia, WTOP in Washington, WJR in Detroit, WWWE in Cleveland, KABC in Los Angeles and KSF in San Francisco, Allen will become an even bigger part of it. How about that!