Allen, Mel(vin)

views updated

Allen, Mel(vin)

(b. 14 February 1913 in Johns, Alabama; d. 16 June 1996 in Greenwich, Connecticut), Hall of Fame sports broadcaster whose decades-long association with the New York Yankees baseball franchise made him known as the “voice of the Yankees.”

Melvin Allen Israel was the son of Julius Israel and Anna Lieb, Russian immigrants who owned a general store. He had one brother and one sister. Allen was an excellent student, graduating at age fifteen from Philips High School in Birmingham, Alabama. There he played both football and baseball. He might have become a professional athlete, but a childhood accident broke both legs and left him a slow runner.

At age nineteen Allen received his B.A. degree in political science from the University of Alabama. He was student manager of the football team and public-address announcer at football games. He admired the radio style of Graham McNamee. In his senior year he was awarded a speech “gradership,” which later became a teaching position when his professor became ill. After graduation Allen attended law school at the University of Alabama. He received his LL.B. in 1936 at the age of twenty-three. In 1935, while still in law school, he taught speech at the university. During this time he was also the radio announcer of football games for the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide on a Birmingham station that was an affiliate of CBS in New York City.

On a Christmas vacation in New York in 1936, Allen met a friend at CBS who talked him into auditioning for a radio job with the network. He won the job over a field of twenty other applicants, and he began working as a staff announcer the next year. At the request of CBS, he shortened his name to Mel Allen; he had the change legalized in 1943. Allen was assigned to various jobs at CBS, including disk jockey, news announcer, and announcer for the bands of Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman, when these bands performed in New York hotels.

Allen’s career received a boost in 1939 when he covered the Vanderbilt Cup boat races from an airplane for radio audiences, displaying impressive knowledge of the races and a quick wit. He also reported on tennis matches being held on Long Island, New York, while in an airplane, further enhancing his reputation as a promising announcer. Ironically, Allen was leery of flying; he would read detective novels to divert his attention on commercial flights for years to come.

Allen’s association with baseball began in 1939, when he began broadcasting New York Yankee baseball games with Arch McDonald and New York Giant games with Joe Bolton. By 1943 he had broadcast three World Series and had become one of the most popular broadcasters in baseball. His career was interrupted by World War II. In 1943 Allen entered the U.S. Army as a private. He eventually rose to the rank of staff sergeant. Nevertheless, Allen continued to hone his broadcasting skills during the war, as he was assigned to the Armed Forces Radio Service and became a featured announcer for the “Army Hour” broadcasts.

In 1946 Allen became a full-time broadcaster for the Yankees. He quickly perfected his unique style of broadcasting. Showing an emotional and infectious enthusiasm, he began each game with an energetic “Hello everybody!” He gave nicknames to players that quickly captured the imagination of fans: Phil Rizzuto was “Scooter,” for his quickness; Joe DiMaggio was the “Yankee Clipper,” a reference to fast and majestic sailing ships; Tommy Henrich was “Old Reliable,” for clutch hitting. Allen also developed numerous expressions that would be associated with him for years after, such as “How about that?,” which he used to highlight surprisingly good plays, and “Going, going, gone!,” his call for home runs.

Although Allen openly rooted for the Yankees, he gave due praise to players of other teams. Allen also showed enthusiasm for the Yankee broadcast sponsors. For instance, a home run would be called a “Ballantine blast” or a “White Owl wallop,” sayings that served to increase sales of beer and cigars, respectively. Allen’s response to criticism of his display of emotion was that he was showing fans his appreciation for being at the ballpark and his respect for those at home or work who could only listen to the game.

Allen was known for his accuracy in describing people or events. Rizzuto, who became a broadcaster after his playing career ended, noted that Allen would correct any broadcaster, even while on the air, if he thought a mistake had been made. Another hallmark of his announcing style was his copious use of statistics, which were usually provided by his brother Larry, who worked as Allen’s longtime statistician.

By the 1940s Allen, having been involved in many of the team’s most memorable events, was known as the “voice of the Yankees.” For instance, on two occasions he introduced famed ballplayers who were saying goodbye to Yankee fans. The first of these took place on 4 July 1939, when beloved first baseman Lou Gehrig, who had recently retired and who had just learned that he was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), was honored in a ceremony at Yankee Stadium. The second took place in 1948 when legendary player Babe Ruth announced his retirement. Allen also witnessed notable on-the-field events during his tenure, such as DiMaggio’s fifty-six game hitting streak in 1941 and the home-run duel in 1961 between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. In all, Allen was the announcer for twenty World Series and twenty-four all-star games.

Allen worked well with others who joined him in the broadcast booth. For example, he helped Rizzuto make the transition from Yankee shortstop to broadcaster, and his energetic style meshed well with the unemotional approach of Walter “Red” Barber when Barber came from the Brooklyn Dodgers to the Yankees. Allen and Barber, who worked together on Yankee broadcasts from 1954 to 1964, were known as “fire and ice,” respectively. In 1978 the pair became the first two inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame’s broadcasting wing.

Allen was personally impressive. He stood over six-feet, one-inch tall, weighed 195 pounds, and had perfect posture, engaging speech, and a warm smile. He often said he would like to marry if he “found the right girl,” but that never happened. He was a lifelong bachelor.

After the 1964 season, the Yankees did not renew Allen’s contract. Controversy clouds this incident. Close observers note that the Yankees were in the process of being sold; therefore, many high-salaried coaches, managers, administrators, and broadcasters saw their contracts go unrenewed, perhaps to make the price of the team more affordable to prospective buyers. Between 1965 and 1978 Allen was absent from the broadcast booth for all but one year—1968, when he was the announcer for the Cleveland Indians.

But Allen’s broadcast career was not yet finished. In 1977 he was hired to host the syndicated TV show This Week in Baseball, a job he would hold until his death in 1996. Then, in 1978 George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees and immediately brought Allen back on the Yankees’ payroll. Allen subsequently broadcast forty games a year for eight years over SportsChannel, a local cable channel. From 1986 to 1996 Allen also hosted the TV show Yankees Magazine, which aired on the Madison Square Garden regional television network.

Allen lived with his sister, Ester Kaufman, after her husband’s death in 1977. He died of natural causes on 16 June 1996 and was buried in Temple Beth El cemetery in Stamford, Connecticut.

On 27 August 1950 the Yankees honored him with a day of appreciation at Yankee Stadium; he donated his entire financial award to college-scholarship funds. It was a fitting gesture from a man whose gracious air and colorful commentary made him synonymous with Yankee baseball during the middle decades of the twentieth century. A plaque in Yankee Stadium, in its old center field region, honors Allen’s contribution to Yankee history.

Allen wrote two memoirs that offer a wealth of information about his life and career: it Takes Heart, written with Frank Graham, Jr. (1959), and You Can’t Beat the Hours: A Long, Loving Look at Big-League Baseball, Including Some Yankees I Have Known, written with Ed Fitzgerald. Details about his career are also on view at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Coopers-town, New York. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 17 June 1996).

Lawrence Rocks