Red Barber does an interview with Dodgers manager Leo Durocher on camera before the first televised major league game on Aug. 26, 1939.
It was on W2XBS, later known as WNBC, where Red Barber called the Brooklyn Dodgers-Cincinnati Reds doubleheader on Saturday, August 26, 1939 from Ebbets Field — the first major-league baseball TV broadcast..
The Reds won the first, 5-2 while the Dodgers won the second, 6-1 (link to Retrosheet.org), and Barber did them both without the benefit of a monitor and with only two cameras capturing the action.
One camera was on Barber from ground level; the other was behind the plate in the upper deck. Barber had to guess from which light was on and where it pointed because he had no monitor and commication with NBC director Burke Crotty went out early in the game. Barber sat in an upper deck seat behind third base.
Televising both games, plus the 20 minutes in between, took only about four hours. The first game went 1 hour, 46 minutes. The second was 2 hours and 1 minute.
According to the book, “1939: Baseball’s Tipping Point” by Talmage Boston, Barber started his career with the Dodgers that year, coming to the team from Cincinnati with team president Larry MacPhail. MacPhail offered Barber $9,000 to come to Brooklyn with him; the Reds offered him $18,000 to stay.
Barber knew he could sell McPhail on getting to be the first to televise a game.
“In being around Larry MacPhail, it became rapidly apparent to me that one of the things he dearly loved was to be first,” Barber wrote in his autobiography, “Rhubarb.” “So it was obvious to me that if you wanted to get him to do something, all you had to do was show him how he could be first in it.”
Boston’s book points out that Barber had to ad-lib three live commercials, one for each Dodger sponsor. For Proctor & Gamble, he held up a bar of Ivory Soap. For General Mills, he poured Wheaties into a bowl, sliced a banana and poured milk on top, proclaming, “Now that’s the breakfast of champions.” For Socony, Barber put on a Mobile gas station cap and raised a can of oil.
“There was not a cue card in sight,” Barber said.
Imagine Vin Scully doing any of that today.
Most were only able to watch them at the RCA Pavilion at the 1939 Worlds Fair and the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, on 9×12 inch TV screens.
According to former New York Times reporter Gordon White (linked here), NBC claimed that TV viewers as far away as 50 miles from the Empire State Building could see the game. But then how many TV sets were there in Nyack, NY, or Red Bank, NJ, in 1939?
The Sporting News reported in its Aug. 31, 1939 issue, becoming the first TV sports critic: “The players were clearly distinguisable, but it was not possible to pick out the ball. The close-up images left a much better impression than did the general view of the field.”
Was it a success? MacPhail wanted more, and starting with the 1940 season he arranged for at least one game a week on TV.
Three months earlier, the first televised baseball game — between Princeton and Columbia, on May 17 — was carried at the World’s Fair in New York, also on W2XBS.
Our favorite researcher, David Schwartz at the Game Show Network, tracked down the New York Times archives reports on the game coverage.
In a six paragraph preview on Aug. 26, the story says in the deck headline that “Hamlin, Casey to Face Reds — Games to Be Televised — Giants Also Play Two” … and it mentions at the end of the fourth paragraph: “Adding significance to the occasion is the fact that the double feature will mark the first time in major league history that a ball game has been televised. Both games are to be carried by television by NBC.”
In a three paragraph followup on Aug. 27:
GAMES ARE TELEVISED
Major League Baseball Makes Its
Radio Camera Debut
Major league baseball made its television debut here yesterday as the Dodgers and Reds battled through two games at Ebbets Field before two prying electrical “eyes” of station W2XBS in the Empire State Building. One “eye” or camera was placed near the visiting players’ dugout, or behind the right-hand batters’ position. The other was in a second-tier box back of the catcher’s box and commanded an extensive view of the field when outfield plays were made.
Over the video-sound channels of the station, television-set owners as far away as fifth miles viewed the action an dheard the roar of the crowed, according to the National Broadcasting Company.
It was not the first time baseball was televised by NBC. Last May at Baker Field, a game between Columbia and Princeton was caught by the cameras. However, to those who, over the television receivers, saw last May’s contest as well as those yesterday, it was apparent that considerable progress has been made in the technical requirements and apparatus for this sort of outdoor pick-up, where the action is fast. At times it was possible to catch a fleeting glimpse of the ball as it sped from the pitcher’s hand toward home plate.
== More info on Gene Elston’s blog (linked here).