The humble (ad-free!) origins of the first World Series broadcasts
By James Walker
Saint Xavier University
This year, FOX Sports paid Major League Baseball about half a billion dollars for the rights to broadcast the national pastime.
While the package includes some playoff games and regular season contests, the crown jewel is still the World Series; despite decades of declining ratings, baseball’s postseason is still a revenue machine.
But World Series radio broadcasts had humble beginnings, which I detail in my recent book Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio.
In fact, for the first 13 World Series broadcasts, radio networks paid zilch to carry the national pastime’s showcase tournament. The broadcasts started as a promotion for a new radio station and coverage was amateurish. In fact, the first voice on the first live broadcast of a World Series didn’t even know the score at the end of one game.
In October 1921, WJZ, a new station based out of Newark, New Jersey, needed a big event to announce its arrival in the New York metro area. The all-Gotham series between the Giants and Yankees (eventually won by the Giants, five games to three) provided the perfect opportunity.
The voice for this first radio World Series belonged to a Westinghouse engineer named Tom Cowan, but its eyes belonged to another. Unlike Cowan, Newark Call newspaper reporter Sandy Hunt was actually at the Polo Grounds.
Hunt relayed the plays by telephone to Cowan, who was lodged in a cramped 15-by-20-foot “contractor’s shack” atop Newark’s Edison plant, where the WJZ transmitter was located. In his calls of the games, Cowan simply parroted whatever Hunt told him – mind-numbing work that offered few breaks.
After one exhausting game, Cowan reported he “couldn’t even collect [his] thoughts enough to tell who had won.” When a WJZ colleague asked him who won, he could only say, “I don’t know, I just work here.”
In 1922, the two-person team was replaced by a single eyewitness at the games – and a famous one, at that. Grantland Rice, perhaps the best-known sportswriter of the day, traded in his typewriter for a microphone during the World Series rematch between the Yankees and Giants.
While offering solid description, Rice would occasionally take extended breaks to “rest his voice,” leaving listeners adrift for minutes at a time. Like Cowan, Rice found the new communication medium daunting; he would later tell legendary commentator Red Barber that one radio World Series “was enough for me for all of my life.”
After these early experiments, National League owners, fearing that broadcasts would hurt World Series attendance, voted to end all World Series coverage. But the new commissioner, a former federal judge named Kenesaw Mountain Landis, overruled them. Landis viewed the nation’s newest mass medium as a potent promotional machine, and developed a policy promoting the widest possible coverage of the games: all stations and networks would be welcomed to cover the games for free.
The next year, 1923, Graham McNamee, a failed singer, became the nation’s first “superstar” sports announcer. For the next several years, he announced the World Series over RCA’s regional network and, later, NBC’s national network. In 1927, CBS joined NBC in providing national radio coverage for the World Series. A third radio network, the Mutual Broadcasting System, would join the fray in 1935.
Interestingly, the networks initially saw coverage of the World Series as a public service, with no sponsors and no commercials. The radio networks supplied the announcers, paid the AT&T line charges and essentially donated airtime to bring the World Series to the nation’s rapidly expanding radio audience.
In the process, Major League Baseball reached a national audience, while the networks became identified with the country’s most popular sport.
However, as attendance and revenues declined in the pit of the Great Depression, Commissioner Landis looked to radio for a new revenue stream.
Over the years, many companies approached the networks with offers to sponsor the World Series. But the networks feared a backlash if the games were broadcast with a commercial sponsor.
Back then, the advertising supported model of broadcasting was not fully entrenched; unlike today, listeners didn’t simply assume commercial interruptions would take place.
Even the pro-business, future Republican president Herbert Hoover thought it “inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for [radio] service…to be drowned in advertising chatter.”
As one NBC executive put it, “The minute we begin to commercialize this type of service we will soon have difficulties on our hands from various groups that are not friendly to broadcasting.”
Despite the chance of listener backlash for signing on sponsors, in 1934 Landis went on to sign a US$100,000 deal with the Ford Motor Company to sponsor the World Series.
The players got 42% of the take, and the clubs took the rest. Both parties were overjoyed with the commissioner’s radio windfall. The Ford deal made the World Series too valuable to remain unsponsored, ending the era of sports programming as a public service.
Landis still insisted that the maximum number of networks and stations carry the games, and throughout the 1930s, the World Series saturated the airways each October. Sponsors, however, balked at paying network charges for redundant coverage on multiple networks; by 1938 no sponsor could be found.
Landis quickly adjusted to the changing realities of radio advertising by granting exclusive rights to broadcast and sponsor the event, which would focus the attention of audiences on one network and one company.
In 1939, Landis granted Mutual exclusive rights to broadcast that year’s World Series, with an option for the 1940 contests. Meanwhile, Gillette signed on to sponsor the World Series at a cost of $100,000. But in paying only one network, they dramatically reduced the distribution costs. (Other stations could take the feed if they paid the line charges.)
Mutual would maintain exclusive radio rights until 1957 while Gillette was the exclusive sponsor on radio – and, later, television – until 1966.
Landis’ contract established the modern structure of World Series rights: sponsorship on a single network. Network exclusivity made the games more valuable for the carrying network, but also reduced the radio (and, eventfully, television) footprint of the World Series.
As the NFL exploded in popularity and the number of postseason baseball games and competing television networks rose in the 1980s and 1990s, the supremacy of the World Series in the national consciousness faded. While networks continued to pay higher rights fees to cover the World Series, the television audience for the games declined from a high of 44.3 million viewers in 1978 to a low of 12.7 million in 2012.
When it was unsponsored and on every network, the World Series became the “Fall Classic.” Meanwhile, sponsorship and exclusivity increased revenue beyond Judge Landis’ wildest dreams.
And, fortunately for fans, every announcer since 1921 has known the score at game’s end.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Top photo: Yankees’ shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh (L) and Giants’ shortstop Dave Bancroft (R) meet with umpires Cy Rigler, George Moriarty, Ernie Quigley and Ollie Chill before Game 1 of the 1921 World Series, at the Polo Grounds, New York. Bain News Service/Library of Congress