Howie Rose photo by Kevin Ryan

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Hello There, Everybody!

     Twenty-nine years to the day before Bucky Dent lofted his long fly ball into the netting above Fenway Park's Green Monster, the game that probably defined and inflamed sport's greatest rivalry, the Yanks 5-3 win over the Bosox on the 1949 regular season's 154th and final game must be considered on high.

A link to a recording can be found among the games posted here:

     The pennant races of both leagues in '49 were two of baseball's greatest with two of three the key games coming down to the final at bats before the deal was sealed. David Halbertram's opus on the subject, Summer of '49, will give the obsessive far greater insight and prose not only on baseball but the socio-political-economic backdrop informing the era than might be found here. But one basic fact might spell things out adequately enough: the Bostons traveled to the big ballpark in the Bronx for Saturday and Sunday afternoon games needing but a single addition to their W column to wave the AL flag high atop the Fens. After blowing a 4-0 en route to a 5-4 loss in the first game capped off by Yankee outfield Johnny Lindell's solo shot in the bottom of the 8th that ultimately gave the Yanks the win, the ears of at least both cities were adhered to their radios when the 20-10 righty Vic Raschi threw strike one shortly after 2 pm to commence the Sabbath Day hostility.

     The extant recording from this classic puts the venerated broadcaster, the still beloved and legendary Mel Allen front and center throughout. And from his trademark salutation, "Hello there, everybody" on through the clubhouse celebration, the Yankee radio host comes off as a compelling, mostly objective pro. Allen's excitement is more than palpable but, despite his acknowledged allegiance to the home team, he manages to bring equal enthusiasm to the clutch exploits of both squads.
     Some sixty-plus years down the pike, Allen's style might seem a little dated and, well, dry by most modern standards. Still, his gregarious tone abounds and his little catch phrases creep into the mix contribute to the prevailing attitude that he was breaking some sort of mythopoetic ground. Dom DiMaggio moves "like a greyhound" to gather a drive in center and when Raschi snares a rocket smashed up the middle, Allen remarks that he has a horse shoe in his mitt in reference to the pitcher's lucky catch. Mel even manages to squeeze in a plug for the Yank's longtime suds sponsor when he describes a hot shot down the first base line as being foul by the width of a Ballantine beer bottle cap. Those waiting to hear the most famous exclamatory Melism — "How about that!" — will be disappointed. Not sure when he began employing that particular signature phrase but he calls Tommy Henrich's key lead-off 8th inning homer to right with a "Going, going, it's gone!" we get a little taste of his longest lasting contribution to the national lexicon.

     A small added bonus is Allen's partner, a young Curt Gowdy who shared the Yankee broadcasting duties during the 1949 and 1950s seasons before going on to make his mark with long stints as a Red Sox broadcaster and a nationally renowned man in the booth. But, as Allen's sidekick here, Gowdy does little more than help sell beer between innings. And while he handles the mic for a half-inning or so in the middle of the game while Mel goes to take a leak, he presence is fairly negligible. I'm not sure he is ever even introduced by name and unless you knew it was him, there is virtually nothing to distinguish the son of Green River, Wyoming (a town that stranded me on a 1980 hitch hiking excursion taking me to the Yucatan). Not that I was ever much of a Curt Gowdy fan to begin with. Though I hear he was pretty great during that run as a Bosox voice, by the time I caught up with him as the "Game of the Week" guy on NBC, he was (even to my young ears) presenting a pretty bland version of baseball and just about any other sport he narrated which is probably exactly why he lasted so long on the national scene so very long ago. He was, at least, likable.

     I started sneaking my little RCA transistor radio under the covers around 1964 as a seven-year-old (my, how little things have changed!) so I probably heard a little Mel Allen at the end of his prime run with the Yanks which ended that year. Thereafter, he was mostly familiar to me as the host of TV's This Week in Baseball. And though I understand he handled the Yanks' cable television broadcasting duties in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was only a little more off-the-grid then than now to give much of a valuable critique of his artifice during that very late phase of his career.

    By all accounts he lived a rather fraught life, one of those great rags to riches to rags to riches American tales marked by controversy, isolation, rumor, and more than a little mystery. At least two biographies have been published chronicling his rise and fall and rise but a pretty good sense of things can be had here:

     Certainly as one who shares his roots in both Judaism and the American south, he remains to me an endearing figure.

     Allen's narrative of this apocalyptic 1949 Yanks-Sox game is mostly strikes and balls reportage with little strategic insight and certainly not the kind of historical gravitas such a monumental showdown would be handled in the new millennium's second decade. Still, the grinding strain of the whirlwind pennant race's roller coaster stretch drive are in his voice and permeate the stadium as each big out recorded or hit lands safely on the outfield lawn.

     The game itself more than lives up to its hype as a classic with all the familiar names (Ted Williams, Phil Rizutto, Henrich, les frères DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, et. al.) playing key roles with pivotal at bats and fielding exploits. Rizutto and Dom DiMaggio, in particular, have standout games —  it seems at times that every ball hit ends up in the mitt of one or the other. And Rizutto does it with his ash as well, leading off the bottom of the first with a triple before scoring the game's first run on a Henrich ground out. But after Joe D. reached third on a two out triple of his own, Boston's starting pitcher, Ellis Kinder, a little known righty from Arkansas who stepped to the mound that day with an eye-popping 23-6 record, took over and was nearly untouchable until pulled for a pinch hitter in the 8th. Raschi nearly matches him and combined with big Ks, rally-killing DPs, great plays, near misses, consequential managerial risks, and stirring 11th hour rallies by both teams, the Yanks emerge victorious as Boston leaves the go ahead run in the batter's box when the 27th out nestles in Henrich's first baseman's paw.

    And in the post-game clubhouse celebration (certainly a broadcast novelty at the time, no?), Allen lets it all hang out with gregarious generosity and enthusiasm of a good ol' boy, enjoying the moment as Stengel, Rizutto, DiMag, Raschi, and others rest on their laurels for at least a day.
The game's box score:

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