Mel Allen, Dads and Baseball

by

06/19/2021

Neighborhood: Bronx, Yankee Stadium

My son (Sam) with me at CitiField in 2007.

My ear remembers that voice, even as my hearing has grown dim.

Mel Allen died 25 years ago, and time keeps on marching to the cadence of going, going, gone. But this isn’t meant to be morose.

Mel passed away on a Father’s Day. Here we are again on that commemorative third Sunday in June about to round first and head for summer. 

I look back on listening to him in youthful joy and celebration—my proof that time travel is real…

My dad takes his son to Yankee Stadium nearly 70 years ago. The spectacle of  the Stadium and the cheering crowd stir my senses: the emerald carpet; taste of a hot dog and smell of cigars; peanuts in fist-sized brown bags; and the security of being with my father in this Land of Oz.  

I learn to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner. Inexplicably, I feel excitement in the stands each time Number 5 comes to bat…

Soon I begin to listen to Mel Allen broadcast Yankee games on radio and watch them on a 10″ Admiral television set. In becoming passionate about baseball, I realize how much his descriptions and enthusiasm add to my knowledge and pleasure. He teaches insider stuff “for those keeping score at home.” I follow the team to hear his Alabama drawl and his call as much as for the games themselves.

One day I ask if there are any Jewish players on the Yanks. Dad says no, but Sid Gordon and Cal Abrams play for the Giants and Dodgers. Then he tells me the Yankee announcer is Jewish. It’s astounding. Who knew Jews came from the South?

With school out, I go to several games each year. A 45-minute bus ride down the Grand Concourse gets me there. Next, I’m on the ticket line, through the turnstile, watching players warm up. There’s my favorite, Hank Bauer, with Yogi and Mickey.

One day, right after a game, I see a cluster of fans around a tall man wearing a fedora. I ask, “Mr. Allen, would you autograph my scorecard?” You oblige and enjoy talking and answering questions. I want you to marry my beautiful cousin Beverly.

Now, it’s Old Timer’s Day. Fathers and sons pack the Stadium. You’re doing play-by-play over the PA system. DiMaggio is up once more. But the pitcher isn’t giving him anything to hit. The count reaches Ball 3. The next pitch is clearly outside. You again say, “Ball 3.” And another. “Ball 3!”  The crowd is howling. The pitcher finally puts the ball over and Joe D belts one. We go nuts.

The World Series is special. Your voice heralds the games nationally: “The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports is on the air.”  Hearts quicken.  Yanks vs Dodgers. All games are in the daytime. Everyone is riveted.

As kids in class until 3 o’clock we try to find out what’s happening. McDougal hit a homer; Gilliam too. Turns out Miss Farrell is a Yankee fan. School’s out by the 7th inning. Hustle home, turn on the TV and catch the ending.  

In ’55 the Dodgers finally do it. In ’56, I see the last three outs of Larsen’s perfect game…

My dad took me to see Willie at the Polo Grounds. He was a Giants fan who took wins and losses in stride. It sent a message to me about what really matters that I didn’t absorb until later.  

The Dodgers and Giants leave town in 1958. But the Bronx Bombers remain. I don’t fully grasp what’s going on but know something isn’t right. 

I must confess to not appreciating the Dodgers when I was a kid or the love of their fans. Nor did I understand their game-changing social impact. And I regret never taking the subway to see the Duke or feel the heartbeat of Ebbets Field.

Hank Bauer’s trade in 1959 comes as a shock. Still, Mel’s a constant, making every home run exciting.   

In 1960, the Yanks push Casey out. They say he’s too old. But the Mets arrive in 1962, filling New York’s National League void and he becomes their manager.

Suddenly, it’s 1964. JFK has come and gone. And the Yankees fire Mel—no reason given. Some unnamed executive decided it’s time for a change. This betrayal hurts and clinches my growing distrust of the establishment.  I refuse to return to the Stadium. Goodbye Yankees… 

Seasons pass. In 1978, I’m delighted to hear you’ve been honored by the Hall of Fame, a first-time award for broadcasters.  Just as Red Barber became your press booth partner with the Yankees after a storied career with the Dodgers, he joins you as a co-recipient of this tribute to two guys who had contrasting styles but were both true craftsmen.

Mel Allen at the microphone

Then, one Sunday, I’m home with my daughter, Jenny, and there’s that voice again.  “It’s time for This Week In Baseball.”  Instantly, I’m back nearly 30 years in front of a postage stamp TV.  I try telling my five-year old just what this means. “When I was a little boy…” 

A few years later, I re-enact the moment with my son. I’m sure he’s not following the week’s highlights, but as we watch, I catch Sam trying out one of your sweet, infectious inflections. “Hello there, everybody.” How about that!

My children and your show draw me back to baseball, but I must digress here, Mel. The game has taken many blows over the past 25 years.  

Getting to and seeing games in person has become a hassle—the traffic, parking and ticket prices; shelling out to buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack (and hot dogs and watery beer). Fans must weigh the charm versus cost of being there, when they can follow games on their devices.

Astronomical scoreboards have become the deus ex machina that defeats all the disruptions that make games a grind: waiting for batters to adjust their gloves; pitchers taking half a minute to shake off catchers; and streams of relief specialists slow-walking to the mound from the bull pen. These mammoth, high-amp entertainment centers tell spectators when to cheer and join in sing alongs, quizzes and silly contests between innings. 

Once teams were an extended family; today’s players are transients. Stars spend days on swollen disabled lists, pitch counts rule, and complete games are extinct. To fill the hours, broadcasts are glutted with commercials while announcers spout useless statistics.

It’s amazing, Mel. Baseball’s barons, players and their agents, greedy merchants and memorabilia hustlers can’t kill the game.  Having survived the steroid era, and flawed as it has become, it survives and is helping bring us out of the pandemic.

In the last 25 years, some things would’ve made him happy: The Yanks under Joe Torre winning four series rings; recognition of great Negro League players; and our national pastime’s inclusion of players from different countries. And Mel would have loved dads introducing young boys and girls to the game.

One July 4th, I’m watching the local evening news and get to hear a replay clip from ESPN Sports Channel. It’s the final out of this holiday game—a strike out of Wade Boggs. Mel’s voice once again rises to the climax: “A no-hitter for Dave Righetti!”  It’s 1983. Mel’s gone from radio to TV to cable. Times had changed, but in this instant, it stood still.

There are the undying echoes of his catch phrases in my head.  Who can forget “Ballentine blasts” or “White Owl wallops”—dream tie-ins—identifying his sponsors with every Yankee home run.  

And how this septuagenarian relished the way Mel filled rain delays with Yankee lore, storytelling about Ruth, Gehrig, Joltin’ Joe woven into tales of Satchel Paige, Ted Williams and Bob Feller.

Or his promotion of Ladies’ Day, when “Mothers and daughters, each for a quarter” were invited to afternoon games on weekdays. Who’s to say this inducement didn’t lower a barrier and turn women into lifelong fans?

Common folks and legends came to honor him at his funeral: Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto (whom he dubbed “the Scooter”), Yogi, Whitey Ford and George Steinbrenner were there at Temple Beth-El in Stamford. A few months later there was a tribute to him at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. 

Bob Costas had it right when he described Mel Allen as the eternal Voice of the Yankees. Yes, a timeless, resounding voice of love for the fans and the game. A special gift on Father’s Day.

***

Fred Smith grew up in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx and was an ardent Yankee fan from 1950-1964. His current association with sports is as a member of the New York Jets stats crew where he has kept records for 40 years.

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§ 4 Responses to “Mel Allen, Dads and Baseball”

  • Thanks for this fond remembrance of a classic figure in the mythology that is the New York Yankees and whose career arc reflects how American sports evolved (devolved?) into another arm of “show business.” Great piece! (My late dad, born in East Harlem, grew up in the Bronx, was a loyal Yankees fan even after marrying my mom and moving to Brooklyn, despite her 5 brothers who were fanatical Brooklyn Dodgers men through and through) ….Hope you have a Happy Fathers Day, Fred!

  • Timothy says:

    Beautiful, Mr. Smith. I remember those days, too. Thank you for sharing your memories.

  • Joann fraser says:

    Fred is an excellent writer..
    These are such wonderful words written to express his feelings…
    Love reading all that he has ever written

  • Thanks for this audio and visual reminder of a world I was never a legitimate particpant or fan of. (I grew up in Massachusetts; enough said.) However even I knew the voice of Mel Allen and I spent many years drenched in Yankee nostalgia: I was married to two men (not simultaneously) from Queens (Astoria & Flushing, respectively) who claimed bitterly — almost word for word — that their mothers had thrown away their collection of Yankee baseball cards. Thank you for the beautifully conveyed, bittersweet sentimental journey.

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