Time Travel on the Tube

Our intrepid viewer takes an electronic tumble through the history of sports television, from blue blades to yellow blazers
October 27, 1992

I would have liked to have liked Ike, watched Bilko on a Philco, seen the U.S.A. in a Chevrolet, spent Friday night at the lights, smoked a Chesterfield at Ebbets Field...but I was born at the wrong time.

I would have loved to have loved Lucy, rocked around the clock, had a "Ballantine Blast" somewhere in my past...but I got robbed, like Gionfriddo robbed DiMaggio. Born at the wrong time.

My time should have been Howdy Doody Time, but I was not even a gleam in the logo eye of CBS when television was in its Wonder years. I should have been a little shaver when the Gillette Safety Razor Company came "on...the...air!" with its Cavalcade of Sports. The first major sponsor of sports on television, Gillette filled the gaps during baseball games and football games and Friday night fights as Mays must have filled the gaps at the Polo Grounds. Which is to say with pizzazz, as the company pitched its "Ultra-Modern Gillette Super-Speed razors with Blue-Blade dispenser and attractive Styrene travel case."

Ultra-Modern! Super-Speed! Blue-Blade! Styrene! Like television itself, everything was Ultra-New, Super-New, Brand-Spanking, Space-Age-Polymer New in the 1950s. Everything but me.

When at last I was a little shaver, in the 1970s, TV was wildly whiskered and the centerfielder du jour was not DiMaggio of the Yankees nor the Duke of Flatbush nor Mays of the Giants but Fred Lynn of the Boston Red Sox. He appeared in a shaving-related commercial of his own: Flanked by winking Baseball Annies in half shirts, his face bookended by sideburns like shag-carpet samples, Lynn sang, "There's something about an Aqua Velva man."

By the time Lynn's commercials for Aqua Velva and Jovan Musk were airing in 1976, the lamp of good taste had long since been extinguished on television; the path of programming and advertising was now lit, instead, by the lava lamp of excess that burns to this day, reflected in the one good eye of Dick Vitale.

For the love of Man, how did we get there from...here: May 17, 1939—the first television sports broadcast in the United States. Princeton is playing at Columbia for fourth place in the Ivy League baseball standings, as announcer Bill Stern informs his viewing audience on experimental station W2XBS in New York City, where there are fewer than 400 television sets in existence. There is one camera, and it is fixed: When the ball leaves the infield, it also leaves the screen, leaving the audience to use its imagination until such time as the ball returns to the diamond. Afterward, home viewers describe the players as "while flies" on the screen.

Soon enough, though, black-and-white television achieves clarity, and remains as simple and unambiguous as...as black and white. The game is the thing. For green grass and blue skies there is Red Barber. When the Brooklyn Dodger announcer calls Game 7 of the 1952 World Series for Gillette's Cavalcade, he is not hostage to a camera but quite the opposite: Barber tells the panning camera where to look. In trying to locate the Yankee owners' box at Ebbets Field, the Redhead instructs the cameraman over the air, "Over, over, down and to the left, there." He sounds like a man having his back scratched, and his listeners are similarly soothed, for Barber's voice is a southerly breeze in the brick-oven Brooklyn of early autumn.

I know, because in the early New York City autumn of 1992, I watched this telecast of Game 7 of the 1952 World Series. In fact, for days I randomly channel-surfed through a whole sea of spoils television history, spending much of the time at the Museum of Television & Radio in Manhattan. It is a wonderful repository of broadcast archives and curiosa where a celluloid Alan Ameche will never age, like Don Ameche in Cocoon. In the darkness and warmth of a third-floor videotape viewing room—you could grow mushrooms in this place—I traveled through time. In an attractive Styrene travel case.

Flip, and here is Game 7 of the '52 Series, Yankees versus Dodgers, Eddie Lopat versus Joe Black, at Ebbets Field. Few saw this broadcast—there were maybe 12 million TV sets in America by 1952—and it is a shame. Three minutes into his pregame show, Mel Allen is reading forest-fire prevention tips. (A tree grows in Brooklyn, yes, Mel, but doesn't a brushfire seem rather unlikely?) Gladys Goodding sings the national anthem, accompanied by herself on the organ. Allen turns the broadcast over to Barber. Everyone in the stands wears a hat. Jockey Johnny Longden does a Gillette commercial. Dodger owner Walter O'Malley sits behind bunting, smoking a cigar. On behalf of Gillette, Gene Hermanki, outfielder for the Chicago Cubs, implores viewers to "Look Sharp, Feel Sharp, Be Sharp."

"Folks," Barber soon reminds his amnesiac audience, "the Gillette Safety Razor Company is mighty happy to bring you this game, and say, fellas, that reminds the Ol' Redhead: How're ya fixed for blades?" Cue the cartoon parrot, who sings: "How're ya fixed for blades? Please be sure you haaave enough, 'cause a worn out blade makes shavin' mighty tough...." Mickey Mantle hits a home run over the Schaefer Beer sign in right-field in the sixth to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead. "This series will go down as one of the greatest of all time," gushes Allen, who has returned to the mike. It will go down as the Battle of the Home Run." Black is then lifted for Preacher Roe and...the tape runs out. If anyone knows who won the 1952 World Series, please write in care of this magazine.

No matter. Flip, and 1 am watching the Harlem Globetrotters play a full-court game of five-on-live on The Sieve Allen Show in 1957. The Trotters' opponents: a slick-haired and uniformed quintet of Allen, Tom Poston, Skitch Henderson, Lou Costello and Don Knotts—a Dream Team in Brylcreem.

My flipping evokes the expected memorable moments—Al Michaels asking, "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"—and the unexpected Maalox moments: Phil Rizzuto, broadcasting for the Yankees in 1961, had weeks to prepare for the possibility of Roger Maris hitting his 61st home run, and when the historic occasion at last arrives, the Scooter summons up all of his oratorical skills and articulates, "Ho-o-o-oly cow!"

The broadcasting museum is at the mercy of whatever its donors donate. Thus, its lineup is a quirky combination of quality and crap, much like the lineups of those variety shows that were television's most durable product, and the medium's only constant, from the '50s through the '70s. Something called Burt Bacharach '14 can be found under "Sports" at the museum, whose computerized card catalog summarizes the special thusly: "Highlights include Burt Bacharach and Roger Moore talking about women, Sandy Duncan singing I'll Never Fall in Love Again, Duncan and Bacharach in the park, and the Globetrotters in a sketch about the invention of basketball. Continues as the Globetrotters imitate the Temptations, Bacharach and Moore portray two bums in the park, Jack Jones sings Alone Again Naturally, and the ensemble sings a medley of Bacharach hits. Closes with a musical tribute to George Gershwin."

Flip. Exactly seven days after the assassination of President Kennedy, Cassius Clay recites poetry on The Jack Paar Program while Liberace accompanies him on the piano.

Former New York Daily News sportswriter Ed Sullivan first turned the spigot that brought a stream of sports stars to television talk shows. Flip. Sept. 30, 1962: Newly crowned heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, seated in the audience, is introduced at the start of Sullivan's shew; next, onstage, come the Harvest Moon Ball Dancers, followed by a man lying on his back while simultaneously juggling and spinning a piano on his feet; then Ed makes more special introductions: Mantle and Whitey Ford...Flip. Jan. 6, 1957: Sullivan welcomes newly retired Jackie Robinson, newly defeated Sugar Ray Robinson, Don Budge and...Elvis. Flip. Dec. 3, 1961: Sullivan's guests are members of the All-America football team, Zippy the Ape, and Maurice Chevalier.

Flip. I see my life passing before my bleary eyes, and I realize that all of my living has been done "in living color," the NBC peacock having made its debut well before I made mine in the mid-1960s. The first thing I notice when TV turns to color is not the new palette of the playing field but the Crayola blazers in the broadcast booth: Hideous tartans, Kermit-the-Frog greens, robin's-egg blues, and the canary-yellow jackets of ABC Sports. Someone skinned a pool table to make the sport coat Curt Gowdy wears while announcing Super Bowl III; a pocket square like a burgundy silk bedsheet billows from the breast pocket of his green baize blazer.

Flip. I have dialed up Jim McKay, who is wearing one of ABC's Tweety-Bird blazers on a 1970 episode of Wide World of Sports. Yugoslav forklift-operator Vinko Bogataj has dutifully veered off a ski jump in Oberstdorf, Germany, like a human gutter ball; a disembodied voice has intoned, "Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat—the human drama of athletic competition"; and suddenly here it is, the human drama of athletic competition: McKay hitting a golf ball over the Great Wall of China. (White stakes are out, Great Wall is in.)

Howard Cosell is another who is always wearing that Dole-banana blazer. Flip. Here he is in Kingston, Jamaica—suddenly hysterical as George Foreman knocks down Joe Frazier in their 1973 heavyweight bout—shrieking, "Down goes Fraziuh! Down goes Fraziuh! Down goes Fraziuh!"

Flip. Now Cosell sits in rare and doleful silence as a Monday Night Football camera focuses on a bed sheet borne by Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans. WE LOVE THE BUGS, reads the sheet, which is then further unfurled to rhymingly reveal...HOWIE SUCKS!" The camera jerks away. The age of living color, it seems, has often been more off-color than colorful.

Here's colorful: When ABC threw in the towel in 1959 after six years of broadcasting the Wednesday Night Fights, it did so in part because the fight game had become rotten to the core, fixed, according to the Oct. 1, 1959, New York Post, by "four known hoodlums, including the notorious Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo."

Born at the wrong time. I want to wear a fedora with a press card in the hatband and roll out that sentence fragment for the Post on a clacketing Royal:...four known hoodlums, including the notorious Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo.... Born at the wrong time.

Flip, and familiar images from my childhood flicker onscreen. Brent Musburger is earnestly and breathlessly describing how competitors in refrigerator-racing must concentrate most of the weight of a Frigidaire "on the small of the back." Flip. Decathletes Oleg Cassini and Tim Conway and George Hamilton are competing on Battle of the Network Stars. Flip. Here is Battle of the Network Stars being parodied famously in a Second City Television sketch called "Battle of the PBS Stars": A mock Fred Rogers and Julia Child square off in a prizefight, and as Mr. Rogers pummels The French Chef, a disgusted, disconsolate Cosell announces, "He is beating the woman senseless with a puppet...."

I am being swept under in a '70s vortex, awash in images of a decade in which the only contribution to sports television was Rockin' Rollen's introduction of the rainbow fright wig. Flip. Evel Knievel and his rocket ship are plunging red, white and blue into the Snake River Canyon when, mercifully—-flip—a young Walter Cronkite appears in black and white wearing a comical sweater with a horizontal, zigzag, Charlie Brown pattern happening on it. He is hosting the 1960 Winter Olympics, for which CBS has paid a staggering $50,000 rights fee.

Jim McKay hosts that year's Summer Games from Manhattan, though the Games are held in Rome. He says things like "The videotape of today's great race has just arrived at Idlewild Airport here in New York. Let's try to switch now to our mobile unit at Idlewild...." You probably don't remember McKay as Jim McManus, because he changed his name when CBS hired him to host a show called The Real McKay. Less than a year after the Rome Olympics, ABC introduces McKay as host of the new Wide World, which in (he next three decades will bring America cliff diving in Acapulco, the Las Vegas "Helldorado" Rodeo, the Ladies Demolition Derby from Islip, Long Island, and Fabulous Magicians Basketball from Muskogee, Okla. And who could forget, on a December Saturday in 1962, the Wide World broadcast of I lie first half of the Grey Cup Canadian Football League championship, which is followed one week later by the second half of the Grey Cup Canadian Football League championship? (The marching band is near exhaustion.)

In 1963, CBS introduces instant replay, which—upon further review—will prove to be more trouble than it's worth. In 1964 the Friday night fights are stopped. And in January 1967 the Super Bowl debuts, ushering in the era of bad taste and excess that will endure for decades. Excess? Super Bowl I is televised on both NBC and CBS. The kick-off that opens the second half does not count, because NBC hasn't returned in time from a commercial. Thus, there is a "do-over" for the sake of TV. This is not a good sign.

Two years later, of course, on Nov. 17, 1968, NBC switches to Heidi at 7 p.m. Eastern as the Oakland Raiders trail the New York Jets by three points with 50 seconds left in their game. The Raiders score twice in nine seconds to win 43-32, and NBC flashes the final score during the climactic wheelchair scene of Heidi, effectively ruining the end of that program as well. The network receives so many calls of complaint that the entire Circle 7 exchange in Manhattan is paralyzed.

Flip, flip, flip. I search for one more program before I go blinking into the sunlight of modern-day Manhattan, where the Circle 7 exchange is gone, as are countless other relics of another time, including the notorious Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo. Friday night fights have given way to Friday Night Videos. I flip one more time, hoping to close with something big—a medley of Bacharach hits, perhaps, or a musical tribute to George Gershwin.

Instead, Tommy Lasorda appears singing Strangers in the Night on the stage of The Mike Douglas Show of May 29, 1979. I have spiraled as deeply into the '70s vortex as one can. Tony Orlando, sans Dawn, is co-hosting the show and asking the question of the day: Should women reporters be allowed in the locker room (which the hopelessly show-biz Orlando refers to as the "dressing room")?

"Women shouldn't want to be in a locker room where players are undressing and taking showers," says Lasorda, who is wearing a navy-blue kite in place of a necktie.

"I'm curious," asks Orlando, with a furrowed brow, "if Chris Everett [sic] has male reporters in her dressing room?" Enter another guest, Steve Garvey, who begins his response, "There are times when you may be in some state of undress...." Which is when I black out.

Too bad, since there is so much that I have missed. I did not get to see, for instance, David Letterman read the "Top Ten Least Popular Exhibits at the Baseball Flail of Fame." ("Number four: Steve Garvey's bed and on-deck circle.")

Nor did I get to see the 1958 special Dancing—a Man's Game, featuring Gene Kelly, Mickey Mantle and Johnny Unitas. Nor did I watch the documentary on professional wrestling, in which, according to the museum's description, "Host Clifton Jolley explores the myth that wrestling is fake." Nor did I enjoy the CBS year-end special from 1963, in which Dean Rusk plays badminton against Nikita Khrushchev. Nor did I....

Dean Rusk plays badminton against Nikita Khrushchev? Sigh.

Born at the wrong time.

TWO ILLUSTRATIONSJEFF FULVIMARI ILLUSTRATIONJEFF FULVIMARIThe world grew wide enough to include a deep canyon plunge and a Great Wall shot. ILLUSTRATIONJEFF FULVIMARIOn "The Jack Paar Program," Cassius Clay recited poetry to the music of Liberace. ILLUSTRATIONJEFF FULVIMARIEarly color TV was marked by Crayola blazers in the broadcast booth.

"Say, fellas, that reminds the Ol' Redhead," Barber said to his audience during a broadcast of the '52 World Series, ' 'How're ya fixed for blades?"

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)