When the National Baseball Hall of Fame holds its 2016 induction ceremony on July 24, the names of the two player inductees – Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza – will be recognized by even the most casual baseball fan. Serious fans (and most New Englanders) will celebrate the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, the recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for baseball writers.
But the fourth name on this year’s list, Graham McNamee, winner of the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters, will resonate only with devoted historians of the national pastime. In “Crack of the Bat,” my history of baseball on the radio, I reviewed McNamee’s seminal contribution to the popularization of World Series broadcasts.
Most other Frick winners have been honored during their lifetimes. (Vin Scully won in 1982 and is still broadcasting today.) But McNamee hasn’t broadcast a game in 75 years; he died at 53 in 1942, when television was only an experiment and radio was just over two decades old.
McNamee’s long wait for recognition raises two questions: Who was Graham McNamee? And why did it take 74 years for the Hall of Fame to honor his contribution to baseball broadcasting?
The right voice at the right time
McNamee came to New York in the early 1920s to study singing, only to join the chorus of Gotham’s thousands of struggling vocalists. However, the city was also the center of a nascent network radio industry that had only just begun to generate substantial advertising revenues.
McNamee was in the right place at the right time, with the right voice. In 1923, he joined RCA-owned WEAF (later WNBC as a staff announcer. WEAF was the nation’s most popular station and ran the first-ever radio commercial, a 10-minute ad for apartments in Jackson Heights paid for by the Queensboro Corporation.
Like all first-generation radio announcers, McNamee did every kind of programming: music, news events and sports. His first significant sportscast was a middleweight championship fight in 1923. While boxing had been broadcast before, stations usually used a ringside reporter who relayed the action by phone to an announcer at the station, who then broadcast the play-by-play to listeners.
McNamee, however, broadcast live from ringside. His breathtaking firsthand account of the contest as it unfolded before his eyes captivated listeners. Big-time, live, emotional sportscasts – just like McNamee’s – were beginning to sell a skeptical public on the new medium of radio.
Boxing was a start, but McNamee’s big break in sports came at the 1923 World Series. The previous year’s World Series had been called by legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, but Rice loathed the assignment and refused to broadcast baseball again.
So in 1923, Rice’s colleague at the New York Tribune, W.O. McGeehan, took the mic on WEAF. But after two games he’d had enough. Like Rice, McGeehan found radio’s demand for a steady stream of words very challenging; the medium provided little time for composition and none for editing. So the newspaperman left his post in the fourth inning of Game 3, leaving the mic to his assistant, Graham McNamee.
A radio star was born.
The naysayers emerge
For the next eight years, McNamee became RCA’s voice of the World Series. As the Series’ broadcast reach expanded from the Eastern Seaboard to the Midwest and, finally, to the entire nation, McNamee’s fame grew exponentially. After the 1925 World Series, McNamee received 50,000 letters from fans of his broadcasts. Listeners loved his strong, pleasant voice and detailed, enthusiastic descriptions of the action, which allowed them to better visualize a game they could only see in their minds.
But not every baseball fan was a McNamee fan. From time to time, his attention would stray from the game and to the celebrities in the stands or a letter he had received. He’d be prone to forget the count and even the batter’s name. According to baseball broadcast historian Curt Smith, McNamee freely admitted to being “an entertainer first and broadcaster second.”
So as the novelty of World Series broadcasts faded, some baseball writers became less impressed with broadcasting’s first superstar.
After one game of the 1927 Series, columnist Ring Lardner famously observed, “I attended a double-header, the game [McNamee] was describing and the game I was watching”; a New York Sun headline read “M'Namee’s Eye not on the Ball: Radio Announcer Mixes Up World Series Fans”; and in a scathing criticism, the Boston Globe identified eight problems with McNamee’s call of the opening game, including forgetting to report balls and strikes and leaving the mic for several minutes to get a soft drink.
But most fans still loved McNamee’s style; plus they had few baseball broadcasts to compare with it. In the 1920s, not many teams – and none in New York, Philadelphia or Washington – regularly broadcast games. For most Americans, McNamee’s World Series calls were all they knew.
McNamee also added a number of other high-profile broadcasts to his resume: the inauguration of Calvin Coolidge, the 1927 Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney “long count” heavyweight fight, the 1927 Rose Bowl game and Charles Lindbergh’s return to New York after his solo transatlantic flight.
But by the end of the Roaring Twenties, many announcers began to specialize in covering the national pastime. They included Hal Totten, Quin Ryan and Pat Flanagan in Chicago; Ty Tyson in Detroit; Fred Hoey in Boston; France Laux in St. Louis; Tom Manning in Cleveland; and Harry Hartman in Cincinnati. Each developed his own unique style and vast, local followings.
Meanwhile, though he covered the World Series from 1923 to 1931, McNamee was only working a handful of baseball contests per year because New York teams rarely broadcast regular-season games.
Famous for being the first
Baseball broadcasting was passing him by. Major League Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis valued seasoned professional announcers and pushed NBC (RCA’s network) to move McNamee to pregame coverage for the 1932 World Series. Though McNamee continued to be involved in coverage of the Fall Classic – including narrating a newsreel of Game 3 of the 1935 World Series – he’d been marginalized.
Given his initial fame and role in pioneering the coverage of baseball on radio, why has McNamee been overlooked for so long by the Baseball Hall of Fame?
All previous Frick winners have had long careers, usually with one team. Although some eventually had national profiles, most cut their teeth on the day broadcasts, slowly winning the adulation of a team’s fans. But McNamee was baseball’s broadcast primal star, famous for being the first but not necessarily the best. Longtime Braves and Astros announcer Milo Hamilton, himself a Frick winner, gave a succinct explanation for why McNamee wasn’t in the Hall of Fame: “He didn’t broadcast baseball long enough.”
But in 2013 the Hall of Fame launched a new system for selecting winners that alternates consideration of announcers from three eras. The era for this batch of inductees – the one ending in the mid-1950s – gave McNamee a second chance.
It’s taken the Hall of Fame some time, and many would call it long overdue. In his 1970 book “The Broadcasters,” famous broadcaster Red Barber celebrated the medium’s pioneers, including Graham McNamee.
As Barber explained, what made them so great was “that nobody had ever been called upon before to do such work. They had to go out and do it from scratch. If ever a man did pure, original work, it was Graham McNamee.”