The Inventor of Play-by-Play
by Bill McCurdy
“The father of us all.” That’s how renowned sports broadcaster Dick Enberg described Graham McNamee, the man who invented play-by-play broadcasting as e know it today. Deservedly, McNamee stood out as one the first class inductees when the American Sportscasters Association (ASA) formed and created their Hall of Fame in 1984. The other members of that tribute to high standards in sports broadcasting included Red Barber, Don Dunphy, Ted Husing, and Bill Stern. Only Barber was strictly baseball, but none did baseball earlier, or contributed anything more basic to the performing art than Graham McNamee. Yet, when the National Baseball Hall of Fame organized its own annual Ford C. Frick Award in 1978 for contributions to baseball broadcasting it chose Mel Allen and Red Barber, plus a hot of others since, but never Graham McNamee for his most essential contribution to baseball over the airways, first and foremost, among all American sports.
What did Graham McNamee do? All he did was invent play-by-play broadcasting in real-time. All he did in 1923 was to become the first broadcaster to cover baseball on a more than sporadic basis from the Polo Grounds – and then to broadcast all games of the 1923 World Series between the Giants and Yankees. All he did was become the guy who called the phenomenal fourth game of the 1929 World Series in which the Philadelphia Athletics came roaring back from an 8-0 deficit to the Chicago Cubs be scoring 10 runs in the bottom of the seventh for a 10-8 win and a 3-1 lead in games. All he did was broadcast Babe Ruth’s “called shot” home run for the New York Yankees in the 1932 World Series against the Chicago Cubs.
All he did too, unfortunately, was get so good at what he did that he was the man people wanted to hear whenever a major sporting event came down the pike in America. He had a national relationship with his audience back in the time when nobody wrote or spoke of such things in such highfalutin social science terms. All the advertisers knew was that people listened when Graham did the contest, no matter what it was. Graham NcNamee, for example, was the guy that called the famous “long count” win for Gene Tunney over Jack Dempsey for the world heavyweight boxing title in 1927. He also worked radio shows with famous stars of the day, Ed Wynn and Rudy Vallee – and he did a lot newsreel voice-over work too.
Sadly, that explosive demand for McNamee’s talents in the early days of a medium that he practically invented single-handedly now costs him due recognition among those who annually vote on the Ford C. Frick Award.
I once asked Astros broadcaster Milo Hamilton for his thoughts on the long-neglect of Graham McNamee by the Ford C. Frick voters. I found his answer to be quite revealing. “He didn’t broadcast baseball long enough (to be recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame with a Frick Award),” Milo told me. I’ve since learned that Milo isn’t alone in that opinion. I just beg to differ with it.
No, he didn’t do it very long by comparison to today’s full season, baseball-only broadcasters. All he did was invent and continue to improve upon play-by-play in the nineteen years that passed between his first radio game in 1923 and his death in 1942.
The Graham McNamee story is straight out of the mind of a 1930s or 1940s screenplay writer: A young man from Minnesota goes to New York City in the early 1920s with hopes of becoming an opera singer. Early on, he takes what work he can find, but draws jury duty one day. While walking to the courthouse in 1923, he spies a “help wanted” ad in the window at radio station WEAF. On a whim, he decides to drop in and check it out.
McNamee walks right into an audition for an announcing job and is hired on the spot. He soon finds himself working as a sort of back-up man with a rotating crew of writers who are starting to cover the New York Giants over the radio at the Polo Grounds. The writers cover the game as though it were a typed report for their newspapers. If a batter grounds out 6-3, the writer/announcer would simply watch as the play was transpiring. Then he would say something like: “The batter just hit a ground ball to the shortstop. The shortstop threw the ball to first base for a put out.” Then the air would just go silent until something else happened that could be reported in the past tense.
McNamee jumped on the dead air. He started telling people what the day looked like, what the fans were doing, and, sin-of-sins, he started talking about the game in real-time, speculating on strategies and the like. What he mainly got in return from his colleagues was silence, but that didn’t stop young 33-year old Graham McNamee. He was going to inject some color into the game or die trying.
Then, one destiny-day it happened. Not death, but life descended upon baseball broadcasting. While working with the iconic writer Grantland Rice, who hated the radio responsibility, anyway, McNamee suddenly found himself on the air alone. Rice told him to just finish the game by himself, that he had worked it all he wanted and was moving on.
Whoa! All of a sudden, young McNamee has the plane to himself as pilot Rice hits the silk. What does he do?
You bet right. He starts describing the game in real-time – and in a most informal and conversational way – one that speaks for his desire to be the listener’s partner in “seeing” this game fully as it plays out in the theater of the mind. He was wildly successful at these efforts from the start – so much so that the call for his radio services reached quickly beyond baseball alone.
Does Graham McNamee deserve better recognition by Cooperstown for his primal contributions to sports broadcasting than he has so far received to date? You tell me. Then tell the Hall of Fame. I’m tired of watching politics rather than serious contribution win out in the battle for recognition by so many various halls of honor. To me, the Ford C Frick Award without Graham McNamee is like any building that leaves out a serious foundation plank. The thing is going to wobble.