70 Years Ago Today: A televised baseball game for the first time


For the record, the first-ever televised baseball game was on May 17, 1939, when Princeton defeated Columbia 2-1 at Columbia’s Baker Field.

The contest was aired on W2XBS, an experimental station in New York City which would ultimately become WNBC-TV. About 400 TV sets carried the game, announced by Bill Stern.

For some more history of the event, we turn to Leonard Koppett, Columbia class of 1944, New York Times writer and in the Baseball Hall of Fame writer’s wing, with a story he did on the event 10 years ago (linked here):

The New York Times, whose proud boast is that it is “the paper of record,” duly recorded the historical innovation. Louis Effrat, one of its most distinguished sportswriters, covered the Columbia-Princeton doubleheader that Wednesday. Only the second game was to be televised.

In his usual ineffable prose, Effrat noted: “This encounter, listed for seven innings, was televised by the National Broadcasting Company, the first regularly-scheduled sporting event to be pictured over the air waves.”

That’s the complete and only mention of the occasion in that Thursday paper. But a small item in the business section, without referring to it directly, ultimately underscored its importance. The item said that dealers were abandoning attempts to sell television sets to an indifferent public and concentrating their efforts on the rising sale of more elaborate radio sets.

World War II soon intervened, putting the development of television on hold. But once the war was over, baseball games became the crucial item in selling enough television sets to attract advertising. That assessment came from Gen. David Sarnoff, head of RCA and a dominant figure in the broadcasting world of that time.

One must remember the setting. In March (of 1939), Hitler had invaded Czechoslovakia, marking the final failure of appeasement. The Spanish Civil War had ended in victory for fascism with the fall of Madrid. Japan had conquered all of eastern China. A major question in America was whether President Roosevelt might run for an unprecedented third term. And in April, the New York World’s Fair, whose theme was “The World of Tomorrow,” opened to great fanfare.

In sports, the most startling story came on May 2, when Lou Gehrig voluntarily ended his streak of 2,130 consecutive games played. However, it wouldn’t become known until weeks later (June 21) that he was suffering from a soon-to-be fatal disease.

The Columbia-Princeton doubleheader led the second sports page, which was devoted to college and minor league games. Princeton won the first game, 8-6. When the second game began, Burke Crotty was the director in the truck, and the camera was placed on a 12-foot platform erected to the third-base side of home plate. On the TV screen, one could make out the players but could barely see the ball, if at all.

Columbia’s shortstop was Sid Luckman , who had completed his All-America football career in the fall and was headed for the Chicago Bears, to be groomed for the revolutionary T-formation quarterback position that would soon transform football and make him a Hall of Famer. But on the Baker Field diamond that day, Sid did not shine. He was 1-for-8 at bat in the two games, made an error in the first game and failed to make a key play in the second.

Columbia’s Hector Dowd pitched against Princeton’s Dan Carmichael in the second game. Ken Pill hit a home run for Columbia in the fifth inning, but Dowd’s wild pitch let in an unearned run in the sixth, tying the score, which remained 1-1 after nine innings.

The 10th began with a single by Carmichael. The next hitter, Bill Moore, had just made seven hits in nine times up, but now followed orders and put down a sacrifice bunt. As Effrat liked to say, “In that situation, even Babe Ruth bunts.”

The next man fouled out, but Mark Hill followed by beating out a grounder to Luckman for an infield hit while Carmichael took third. After Hill stole second, Stanley Pearson (who happened to be intercollegiate squash racquets champion) hit a slow roller toward second that allowed Carmichael to score, and that’s how it ended, 2-1, as Carmichael completed a six-hitter without walking anyone.

NBC was satisfied enough with its $3,000 experiment to try a big league game. Three months later, on Saturday, Aug. 26, with Crotty again directing (this time with two cameras), NBC aired the first game of a doubleheader at Ebbets Field between the Dodgers and Cincinnati. The broadcaster was Red Barber, already well-known as the radio voice of the Brooklyn team. Larry MacPhail, who ran the Dodgers, demanded a fee from the network: one TV set to be installed in the press room so that he, his friends, and the writers could watch.

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