|In his usual ineffable
prose, Effrat noted: "This encounter, listed for seven innings, was
televised by the National Broadcasting Company, the first
regularly-scheduled sporting event to be pictured over the air
That's the complete and only mention
of the occasion in that Thursday paper. But a small item in the
business section, without referring to it directly, ultimately
underscored its importance. The item said that dealers were
abandoning attempts to sell television sets to an indifferent
public and concentrating their efforts on the rising sale of more
elaborate radio sets.
World War II soon intervened,
putting the development of television on hold. But once the war was
over, baseball games became the crucial item in selling enough
television sets to attract advertising. That assessment came from
Gen. David Sarnoff, head of RCA and a dominant figure in the
broadcasting world of that time.
So Columbia bears the distinction of
(if not the responsibility for) launching the vehicle that would
lead to the Super Bowl, March Madness, runaway Olympics, and a
wrestling craze that could lift a man to the governorship of
Baker Field was the site of the very first
televised sports event.
What was it like on that Wednesday
60 years ago? What was the world like, and who were the
One must remember the setting. In
March, Hitler had invaded Czechoslovakia, marking the final failure
of appeasement. The Spanish Civil War had ended in victory for
fascism with the fall of Madrid. Japan had conquered all of eastern
China. And although no outsiders knew it, physicists Enrico Fermi,
Leo Szilard, and our own John Dunning, right here at Columbia,
confirmed the fact that uranium was indeed fissionable. It was
quite a month of March.
A major question in America was
whether President Roosevelt might run for an unprecedented third
term. And in April, the New York World's Fair, whose theme was "The
World of Tomorrow," opened to great fanfare.
In sports, the most startling story
came on May 2, when Lou Gehrig -- Columbia Lou -- voluntarily ended
his streak of 2,130 consecutive games played. However, it wouldn't
become known until weeks later (June 21) that he was suffering from
a soon-to-be fatal disease.
The top news of the day (at least in
The New York Times of Thursday, May 18) was the warm welcome
given King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England in Quebec on
the first visit by a reigning monarch to Canada. The King spoke
French, delighting his listeners as much as President Roosevelt had
done on an earlier visit, the Times reported.
Lesser first-page attention was
given to a White Paper issued by the British Government planning to
make Palestine independent by 1949, with restrictions on Jewish
immigration that would make Arabs permanently twice as numerous as
Jews. It sparked riots there, protests here.
Page One also reported that the
British had rejected the Soviet Union's request for a full-scale
anti-Nazi military alliance, a decision that led to the
Hitler-Stalin pact in August that would start World War
Here's a look at the angle some
400 households would have seen had they all been tuned into the
second game of the Princeton-Columbia doubleheader on May 17,
Even less prominently placed was a
report that joint action by the United States, Britain and France
would make the Japanese withdraw from the island of Amoy off the
Chinese coast opposite Formosa, the once and future Taiwan.
Meanwhile, on the home front, Congress rejected a plan to build a
canal across Florida, connecting the Gulf of Mexico with the
In other news, the New York State
Legislature approved, by one vote, letting the legalization of
parimutuel betting at racetracks go before the voters in the fall
(Did they pass it? You bet).
The first page of the sports section
was devoted, as usual in May, to major league baseball. The
Yankees, who had responded to the shock of Gehrig's decision by
averaging 8.7 runs a game while winning 10 of the next 12 on the
road, were back home in the Bronx, halfway through a 12-game
winning streak en route to a 24-4 record for May. On that
Wednesday, their 4-3 victory over St. Louis before 7,573 came on a
home run by Tommy Henrich. More interesting was the announcement by
the Yankees that they had agreed to play two night games for the
first time, June 26 in Philadelphia and Aug. 30 in
The Dodgers, in Chicago, played a
19-inning 9-9 tie before a crowd of 4,582. (Six weeks later, they
would play a 2-2 tie in Boston that would last 23 innings). In St
Louis, the Giants won with the aid of a homer by Mel Ott. But the
game in Cincinnati also got attention.
The Reds (who would win the pennant)
were beating Boston 6-1 when Ernie Lombardi complained that Freddie
Frankhouse, the Boston pitcher, struck him out using the illegal
spitball. Frankhouse promptly hit the next batter, Harry Craft, in
the head, knocking him unconscious. Frankhouse then bowed to the
booing fans at the end of the inning. Even though players didn't
wear helmets in those days, Craft was soon back in action. But the
play underscored how 1939 was a rough time on the diamond as well
as in the rest of the world.
The Columbia doubleheader led the
second sports page, which was devoted to college and minor league
games. Princeton won the first game, 8-6. When the second game
began, famed broadcaster Bill Stern was at the microphone, Burke
Crotty was the director in the truck, and the camera was placed on
a 12-foot platform erected to the third-base side of home plate. On
the TV screen, one could make out the players but could barely see
the ball, if at all.
Columbia's shortstop was Sid
Luckman '39, who had completed his All-America football career in
the fall and was headed for the Chicago Bears, to be groomed for
the revolutionary T-formation quarterback position that would soon
transform football and make him a Hall of Famer. But on the Baker
Field diamond that day, Sid did not shine. He was 1-for-8 at bat in
the two games, made an error in the first game and failed to make a
key play in the second.
Coach Andy Coakley chose Hector Dowd
to pitch against Princeton's Dan Carmichael in the second game. Ken
Pill hit a home run for Columbia in the fifth inning, but Dowd's
wild pitch let in an unearned run in the sixth, tying the score,
which remained 1-1 after nine innings.
The 10th began with a single by
Carmichael. The next hitter, Bill Moore, had just made seven hits
in nine times up, but now followed orders and put down a sacrifice
bunt. As Effrat liked to say, "In that situation, even Babe Ruth
The next man fouled out, but Mark
Hill followed by beating out a grounder to Luckman for an infield
hit while Carmichael took third. After Hill stole second, Stanley
Pearson (who happened to be intercollegiate squash racquets
champion) hit a slow roller toward second that allowed Carmichael
to score, and that's how it ended, 2-l, as Carmichael completed a
six-hitter without walking anyone.
NBC was satisfied enough with its
$3,000 experiment to try a big
league game. Three months later, on Saturday, Aug. 26, with Crotty
again directing (this time with two cameras), NBC aired the first
game of a doubleheader at Ebbets Field between the Dodgers and
Cincinnati. The broadcaster was Red Barber, already well-known as
the radio voice of the Brooklyn team. Larry MacPhail, who ran the
Dodgers, demanded a fee from the network: one TV set to be
installed in the press room so that he, his friends, and the
writers could watch.
Columbia's ties to sports television
thus go right back to the very beginning. You read in the last
issue of Columbia College Today about Roone Arledge '52 and
his illustrious career at NBC and ABC. Lou Kusserow '49, Columbia's
best-ever running back, became an NBC producer, and Chet Forte '57,
Columbia's best-ever basketball shooter, became a brilliant and
innovative director of Monday Night Football and other
events for ABC.
But there was a more arcane
Columbia connection to that first telecast. The network, remember,
was NBC, which was part of RCA, which was based in the still-new
Radio City skyscraper at Rockefeller Center -- which was on land
owned by Columbia.
You can blame Stanford for Silicon
Valley, but sports television is our baby and we are stuck with
Leonard Koppett '44 is an
award-winning sports writer for The New York Times and other
newspapers, and the author of many sports books, including
Koppett's Concise History of Major League Baseball (Temple
University Press). He is a member of the writers and broadcasters
wings of the Baseball and Basketball Halls of Fame.