These are the “dog days” of summer, and as the RedState Department of History sat trying to cool off on a hot, humid afternoon, its thoughts naturally turned to the National Pastime, because that’s what fans do on hot August afternoons.
It so happens that today is the anniversary of an event which changed not only the Great American Game of baseball, but eventually the technology of our world.
The Great Depression had nearly ruined several major league teams. From 1932-1939, the St. Louis Browns never had a season where they averaged more than 2,000 fans per game. The Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Braves nearly went out of business.
So it was that when the World’s Fair arrived at New York in 1939, both baseball and the fair’s organizers were looking to show off something special. As a result, today’s date is the 79th anniversary of the first televised major league game, less than a week before the outbreak of the Second World War.
The Cincinnati Reds were having a great season, and when they traveled to Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field to take on the Dodgers in a Sunday doubleheader, experimental television station W2XBS of New York was there. The great Red Barber, the Dodgers’ radio announcer, handled the play-by-play.
The Reds were in first place at 72-43 and cruising to the pennant. Pitcher Bucky Walters was having a great season and earned his 21st win against only nine losses in beating the Dodgers 5-2 in the opener. Walters, though, trailed 2-0 heading into the visitors’ eighth but was the beneficiary of a five-run outburst from his teammates in a game that took – get this – one hour and 16 minutes to complete.
After a short break the teams were right back at it for game two, with the Reds’ Johnny Niggeling losing the nightcap 6-1 to the Dodgers, who got a complete game effort from Hugh Casey and Dolph Camilli’s 22nd home run of the season to help in the win, which took a comparatively pedestrian two hours and one minute to complete. The combined game times of 3:17 are about what it takes to play a modern nine-inning game.
But the television was the big story. The game had only two cameras: one behind home plate and another behind the third base dugout to show throws from the infield to first base. The world’s fair organizers still wanted to show that the United States had a handle on the new medium of television and so the games went on the air, with the peerless Barber calling the action.
But almost as soon as it was completed, the new medium was shrouded in controversy. Owners feared that putting the games on television would diminish the live gate – as they had thought when radio was first introduced. They were equally as wrong in the case of television, which helped raise attendance and start the ever-growing world of sports television. Less than ten years later, major league games drew 21 million spectators and television was there to stay.
W2XBS was, as mentioned, an experimental station which later became known as WNBC. The game wasn’t the first televised baseball game ever – that distinction goes to the station’s broadcast of the Princeton-Columbia game on May 17 of that year.
But a look at the station’s broadcast schedule during November 1939 showed that it was already ambitious:
Sunday, November 19th, 1939
2:15-4:45PM – Football: Brooklyn Dodgers vs. Green Bay Packers at Ebbets Field.
8:30-9:30PM – Sunday Varieties, with Paul Draper, tap dancer; explorers; Captain Johnny Craig; and the Harrison Sisters, quartet.
Wednesday, November 22nd, 1939
2:30-3:30PM – “The Right and the Wrong of It,” Elizabeth Watts, fashion expert; films, “Gold Diggers of 1946” and “Touchdown”; Madge Tucker’s Radio Children.
8:30-9:30PM – Rene Chaquaque, chef, on Carving the Turkey; Bob Eichberg’s “Visi Quiz,” and a review of “A Treasury of Art Masterpieces,” with Mable Cobb, narrator.
Thursday, November 23rd, 1939
12-1PM – Thanksgiving Day parade on Central Park West.
8:30-9:45PM – Film, “Stolen Sweets,” with Sally Blane and Charles Starrett.
Friday, November 24th, 1939
2:30-3:30PM – Films, “Take It Easy”; “Spanish Symphony”; “William Tell Overture”; “March of Time–Dixie U.S.A.”; “Streamlines.”
8:30-9:30PM – Play, “Three Men on a Horse.”
Saturday, November 25th, 1939
2:30-3:30PM – “Wings Over the Nation,” a series on aviation.
9-11PM – Boxing, at Ridgewood Grove.
The station had already been broadcasting for eleven years, though predominantly just test patterns and pictures of Felix the Cat on a two-inch screen in the very earliest days.
Of course, it later grew into much more. Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!