TV Sports

Baker Field:

Birthplace of Sports Television

By Leonard Koppett '44

 No single subject consumes more television time, worldwide, than live sports events. No other kind of programming had as much impact on making television commercially viable in its infancy, since sports -- so widely publicized and producing an unrehearsed outcome -- motivated enough people to buy the newfangled gadget to generate a mass audience.

And it all started at Columbia.

On May 17, 1939 -- a mere 60 years ago -- televising a regular athletic event was tried for the first time. A Columbia-Princeton baseball game at Baker Field was carried by the National Broadcasting Company to the 400 or so sets then capable of receiving its broadcast signal. Satisfied with the result, NBC decided to try doing a major league game. Five months later it did, from Brooklyn's Ebbets Field.

But our own Baker Field was site of the very first televised sports event -- one small step for a broadcasting pioneer, a giant leap for mankind's appetite for spectatoritis.

The New York Times, whose proud boast is that it is "the paper of record," duly recorded the historical innovation. Louis Effrat, one of its most distinguished sportswriters, covered the Columbia-Princeton doubleheader that Wednesday. Only the second game was to be televised.

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 waves."

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 Minnesota.

Our own 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 participants?

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 II.

baseball 40s/75%

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, 1939.

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 Atlantic.

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 Cleveland.

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 bunts."

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 it.

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.