Allen, Mel

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ALLEN, MEL (Melvin Israel ; 1913–1996), U.S. sportscaster, member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Allen was born in Birmingham, Alabama, to Julius, a traveling shirt salesman, and Anna, scion of a rabbinical family and related to Simon *Dubnow and Shmarya *Levin. Allen's Russian-born grandfather arranged for a shoḥet to come to Birmingham for the Bibb County Jewish community and built a synagogue next to his house. Julius and Anna kept a kosher home, celebrated all the Jewish holidays, and the family attended an Orthodox synagogue regularly. When Allen was working for the Yankees and would have the ballplayers out to his house for a cookout, Allen's mother brought out a separate set of dishes from the basement and would fry oysters and cook shrimps for the players.

The eldest of three children, Allen was bar mitzvah in 1926 in Greensboro, North Carolina, where his family had moved, giving his bar mitzvah speech in Hebrew. At age 15 he enrolled at the University of Alabama, where he received his undergraduate degree in 1932 and a law school degree in 1936. He got his start in broadcasting while still a law student, when the Alabama football coach asked him to replace the team's announcer for $5 a game.

During a Christmas vacation in New York with friends, in 1936, Allen stopped at cbs for an audition on a lark and was shortly hired as a $45-a-week announcer, understudying Ted Husing, cbs's top sports announcer, and Robert Trout in news. Allen's father thought his son was wasting a good education, and was less pleased when Mel explained that cbs wanted him to change his name. "They said, 'Not that we have any objection to the name Israel, but we just think it's a little too all-inclusive.' So I dropped the last name and kept my father's middle name, which was Allen, so that I still felt at least I had part of my father's name." Thus Melvin Israel became Mel Allen.

His broadcasting for cbs included interrupting Kate Smith's afternoon program with a news bulletin reporting the crash of the German zeppelin Hindenburg. The first baseball game Allen ever broadcast was the 1938 World Series for cbs, and in June 1939 he was hired to call New York Yankees and New York Giants home games.

Allen's garrulous, infectious style made him one of the first prominent American sportscasters, and the icon voice of baseball as television replaced radio as the primary form of mass entertainment. This occurred at the same time that the Yankees were playing in 15 of 18 World Series beginning in 1947. The "Voice of the New York Yankees" broadcast from 1939 to 1964, and was present for many major Yankees' events during that time, including introducing Lou Gehrig at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, when Gehrig made his famous "Today, I am the luckiest man" speech; introducing a dying Babe Ruth at his sad farewell in 1948; and Roger Maris' record-breaking 61 home runs in 1961. Allen saw Gehrig in the dugout one day in 1940, when the Yankee captain was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. "Lou patted me on the thigh and said, 'Kid, I never listened to the broadcasts when I was playing, but now they're what keep me going,'" said Allen, who was then 27. "I went down the steps and bawled like a baby."

It was Allen who gave the nicknames "Joltin' Joe" to Di Maggio, "Old Reliable" to Tommy Henrich, and "The Scooter" to Phil Rizzuto. His endearing signature phrases on the air were his sign-on, "Hello, everybody, this is Mel Allen," his exclamation at high points in a game, "How about that!" and his home run call, "That ball is going, going … gone!" His home run pronouncements were punctuated with reference to the team's sponsors, calling them "Ballantine Blasts" after the beer sponsor and "White Owl Wallops" for the cigar sponsor. Allen was abruptly fired after the 1964 season for reasons that have remained a mystery.

Allen broadcast Cleveland Indians games in 1968, and returned to call Yankees games on cable from 1978 to 1986. From 1977 he was the host of the long-running weekly television show, "This Week in Baseball," which continued to introduce the show with his voice even after his death. Allen also broadcast New York Giants baseball games from 1939 to 1943, 20 World Series, 24 All-Star baseball games, as well as 14 Rose Bowl games, five Orange Bowls, and two Sugar Bowls. He was the sports voice of Movietone newsreels and hosted boxing matches.

In 1978 he and sportscaster Red Barber were the first broadcasters awarded the National Baseball Hall of Fame's Ford C. Frick Award for "major contributions to baseball." Allen was the fourth person elected to the National (usa) Sportswriters and Broadcasters Hall of Fame in March 1972, was inducted into the American Sportscasters Hall of Fame in 1985, and was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1988. In 1959 he wrote It Takes Heart with Frank Graham Jr.

[Elli Wohlgelernter (2nd ed.)]