This blog post is a piece I wrote for the “Pinch Hitter Series” over at The LoHud Yankees Blog. I want to thank Yankees beat writer Chad Jennings for giving me the opportunity to participate. I have a great appreciation for the rich history of this great franchise, and I thought it would be great to pay tribute to one of it’s finest characters. Here is the uncut version of my entry:
“Hello there, everybody!” That’s one of the many catchphrases you might have heard by Melvin Allen Israel during his Yankees broadcasts. He was born on February 14, 1913, in Birmingham, Alabama. His love for the game of baseball as a young boy would play a big role in his life.
The future sportscaster attended the University of Alabama where he was a member of Zeta Beta Tau Fraternity as an undergraduate. He served as the public address announcer at Alabama football games. In 1933, Birmingham’s WBRC was in need of a new play-by-play announcer and Alabama coach Frank Thomas suggested Israel to fill the position. It was his first job behind the microphone. Israel’s first broadcast was Alabama’s home opener that year, against Tulane. He went on to earn a law degree from Alabama, but that wasn’t a major priority in his life. His boyhood love for baseball led him to become first a sports columnist and then a radio announcer.
Soon after graduating from Alabama in 1937, Allen took a train to New York City for a vacation, and he never turned back. While on vacation, he auditioned for the CBS Radio Network as a staff announcer. They already knew about him, as the network’s top sportscaster, Ted Husing, had heard many of his Crimson Tide broadcasts. They hired him at $45 a week. In his first year at CBS, he announced the crash of the Hindenburg. CBS suggested that Mel go by a different on-air last name, so he chose Allen, his father’s middle name. He legally changed his last name to Allen in 1943. That week’s vacation became 60 years. He settled in New York and lived in the metro area for many years.
In 1938, Mel landed his first major league baseball assignment, as a color commentator for the World Series. Not long after that, Wheaties wanted Allen to replace Arch McDonald as the voice of the Senators, but Washington’s owner Clark Griffith wanted Walter Johnson behind the microphone. McDonald was moving to New York as the first full-time radio voice of the NY Yankees and NY Giants. His big break came in June 1939, when Garnett Marks, McDonald’s partner on Yankee broadcasts, twice mispronounced Ivory soap as “Ovary Soap.” He was fired and Allen replaced him. McDonald went back to Washington after only one season, so Allen became the Yankees and Giants lead announcer. He was able to do the work for both teams because only the home games were broadcast.
Among Allen’s many catchphrases, there was also “How about that?!”,”Going, going, gone!” on home runs and “Three and two. What’ll he do?” His trademark home run calls, “Ballantine Blasts” and “White Owl Wallops,” were ads for beer and cigars. Mel famously lost his voice during the 1963 World Series, in which the Dodgers defeated the Yankees in a four-game sweep.
Allen recounted a memory that occurred during his first full season as the announcer of the Yankees. Lou Gehrig had been forced to retire the previous year due to the disease he was fighting, which later turned out to be fatal. Gehrig spoke to Mel in the team’s dugout and said, “Mel, I never got a chance to listen to your games before, because I was playing every day. But I want you to know they’re the only thing that keeps me going.” Allen waited until Gehrig left the dugout, then broke down in tears.
Mel’s stint with the Yankees and Giants was interrupted in 1941, when there was no sponsor for both the Yankees and Giants and they went off the air. The broadcasts resumed in 1942, and Allen took over his old positions. In 1943, he entered the U.S. Army during World War II. While in the service, he broadcast on The Army Hour and the Armed Forces Radio. After the war, he did Yankees games exclusively because team’s road games were also part of the broadcast schedule. His gold standard was the Yankees. He was famously dubbed the “Voice of the Yankees” baseball team and worked for them from 1939 to 1964. Allen all together called 22 World Series on radio and television, including 18 in a row from 1946-1963. When the Yankees didn’t appear in the Fall Classic, he was called upon anyway to be the play-by-play man (which only happened four times in 18 years).
In 1964, he was fired at only 51-years of age. Back in September of that year, the Yankees informed Allen that his contract would not be renewed. Baseball Commissioner Ford C. Frick honored the Yankees request to have Phil Rizzuto join the broadcast crew instead. Allen had missed a World Series for which the Yankees were eligible for the first time since 1943, and only the second time since he began calling baseball games in 1938.
The Yankees received tons of letters from angry fans about Allen’s absence from the series. The team issued a press release announcing Allen’s firing, and he was replaced by Joe Garagiola. The Yankees never gave an explanation for Allen’s firing, and all you heard were rumors. Some of the rumors included that he was homosexual (because he never married or had any children), an alcoholic, a drug addict, had a nervous breakdown or the medications he was on affected his on-air performance. Some said that the heavy workload didn’t allow him to take care of his health. Years later, Allen said he was fired under pressure from the team’s longtime sponsor, Ballantine Beer as a cost-cutting move because they had poor sales for years. Mel left the Yankees and broadcasted games for the Milwaukee Braves in 1965 and the Cleveland Indians in 1968. He didn’t commit to either team full-time though. In 1977, he started “This Week in Baseball”, which was a show consisting of the past weeks baseball highlights.
Eventually, the Yankees allowed him to perform as a speaker at special Yankee Stadium ceremonies. He did Old-Timers’ Day, which he originally handled when he was the lead announcer. Even though Frank Messer (who joined the club in 1968) took the emcee’s role, Allen called the exhibition game between the old timers. He was also able to take part in the number-retirement ceremonies. He worked for the Yankees again from 1976 to 1985 and was brought back to the Yankees’ on-air team as a pre/post-game host for the cable telecasts with John Sterling. He also started called play-by-play again. Mel announced Yankees cable telecasts on SportsChannel New York with Phil Rizzuto, Bill White, Frank Messer, and occasionally, Fran Healy. Allen made several appearances on Yankee telecasts and commercials into the late 1980s. In 1990, Allen called play-by-play for a WPIX Yankees game to become baseball’s first seven-decade announcer.
- Inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame in 1972.
- 1978 – Mel was the first recipient (with Red Barber) of the Ford C. Frick Award
- Inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.
- Inducted into the American Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame in 1985.
- Inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1988.
- Inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1995.
- Ranked #2 by the American Sportscasters Association in its list of the Top 50 Sportscasters of All-Time (January 2009).
It’s about 71 years ago that Mel Allen first stepped behind the microphone for the New York Yankees. His knowledge of the game and his Southern charm was a big part of his popularity, especially from 1949-1964, when almost every October meant World Series time in the Bronx. He witnessed Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Roger Maris’ record breaking 61 home runs, Lou Gehrig’s famous speech (he actually introduced him) and also introduced the stricken Babe Ruth at his sad 1948 goodbye. He dubbed DiMaggio “Joltin’ Joe,” Tommy Henrich “Old Reliable,” and Phil Rizzuto “The Scooter.”
For a quarter-century, Allen’s voice defined sports radio and television. Variety Magazine called his among “the world’s 25 most recognizable voices.” He did numerous broadcasts for the World Series, All-Star Game, Rose Bowl, Movietone Newsreels, and other marquee events. After all that, he is best known for his long tenure as the primary play-by-play announcer for the New York Yankees.
Mr. Allen moved to Greenwich, Connecticut in his later years and died on June 16, 1996. Years after his death, he is still promoted as having been the “Voice of the New York Yankees.” On July 25, 1998, the Yankees dedicated a plaque in his memory for Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. The plaque stands in the new ballpark today and it calls him “A Yankee institution, a national treasure.”