Nat Allbright died last week in a Virginia hospital at age 87. Unless you’re an American over 60, an ardent baseball fan, and a bit of a history buff, you’ve probably never heard of him.
In his day, Nat Allbright was a legend — a craftsman, an artist, a master teller of baseball tales so vivid, you believed every word.
When radio came along in the 1920s, baseball was one of the first sports to go on the air. Before long, all the major-league teams were broadcasting their games.
From their own ballparks, anyway. It was frightfully expensive to send play-by-play audio descriptions from distant stadiums because of the high Western Union charges for dedicated broadcast lines.
So, as Tony Silva writes in a 2007 Journal of Baseball History and Culture story, frugal team owners turned to art and artifice to bring their games to fans. “Due partly to the lack of a budget, inadequate technology, and the resistance of team owners to broadcasting games live for fear of hurting business at the gate, early radio broadcasts actually were imaginative re-enactments of games that had already been played moments or even hours earlier.”
They were performances, in other words — sometimes of Shakespearean proportions — based only in part on the facts of games that the talented announcers were describing but not really watching.
The idea evolved somewhat from the days before radio, when big-city newspapers and local taverns set up huge display boards outside their offices on which constantly updated scores and other game details relayed by Western Union would be posted for passersby to follow.
If the game was crucial and the whole town was keen on following its every development, traffic jams, stopped trolleys, and packed sidewalks ensued.
In 1912, one barkeeper in Oakland, California, even sued his landlord for tearing down the makeshift scoreboard he’d erected on the roof. It had brought in lots of business.
Using nothing but telegraphed or wire-service accounts of pitches and plays in the field, baseball’s radio re-creators turned the idea of updating game action into an artform. They sat in a studio and painted exaggerated “word pictures” of what was happening on fields far away.
To make the broadcasts believable and exciting, many of these natural-born hams employed clever sound effects such as canned crowd noise and phony “steee-rike” calls by umpires.
An assistant off in an echo-y bathroom might even pretend to be the field announcer or a beer vendor.
Before each game, some re-creators would play recordings of singers belting out the U.S. national anthem that had been gathered in each and every opponent’s stadium.
To give the broadcasts a natural, leisurely pace, the re-creators occupied the time between pitches with descriptions much more elaborate and creative than today’s mostly mundane “fill material” of player statistics and commercial plugs.
“That is where the imagination comes in,” pioneer broadcaster Graham McNamee, who was at the mike for history’s first baseball broadcast from New York’s Polo Grounds in 1921, once explained.
Although it’s not thought that he did re-creations, McNamee was the first of a long line of word artists who inspired the re-creations by making their listeners feel as if they were sitting in the stands. When some of them spoke, you could almost smell the fresh grass, popcorn and beer, and — in those days — cigar smoke.
Gordon McLendon, who would later found the Liberty Network that broadcast major-league baseball on 458 stations nationwide, was one of the best at using a nimble vocabulary and vivid imagination to describe a game out of whole cloth. In his book North Toward Home, author Willie Morris praised McLendon’s storytelling and noted that the glib Texan had made him a lot of money. That’s because Morris had previously and slyly tuned in to shortwave broadcasts of the actual games in real time, then invited friends to join him in listening to McLendon’s enthusiastic, and re-created, “play by play.”
Already knowing the outcome of key parts of the action, he’d place bets with his pals and make a killing.
Anyone who has listened to stories on grampa’s knee knows that he can reach into his imagination and spin tales that are bigger than life. “As [baseball historian] Jules Tygiel observes, ‘the process had become more familial or individualistic, replacing the [stadium] experience with a more isolated one,” Bob Barrier writes. “In separate rooms, fans could now follow their favorite teams, joined by imagination with thousands nationwide. [It was] truly Roger Angell’s ‘stadiums of the mind.’”
Barrier, a semi-retired Kennesaw State University English professor in Georgia, is also a big baseball buff and historian. “These broadcasters studied everything they could about the stadiums, even though they never got to many of them,” he told me. “They knew the life stories and on-field habits of the players, too.”
And so the re-enactors could “describe” all sorts of twitches and batting stances, uniform preferences and unique pitching motions, including some that the players did not know they had. And didn’t have, as a matter of fact.
Baseball re-creations had begun in 1921 in Newark, New Jersey, when a radio announcer told his tiny audience — radio was but a year old — game details relayed to him on the telephone by a colleague at a stadium.
Future president Ronald Reagan, who, no one can deny, had the “gift of gab,” took a brief turn at this craft in the 1930s while working as a sportscaster. From the studios of station WHO in Des Moines, Iowa, Reagan re-created games of the Chicago Cubs, who had a big following throughout the Farm Belt.
And as Barrier points out in a 2008 essay on the history of baseball re-creations, even W. O. “Bull” Connor once did them in Birmingham, Alabama, where he would signal a home run by the minor-league Barons by striking a gong four times with a mallet. “This is the same Bull Connor infamous 20 years later for using water cannons on civil-rights marchers at Selma [Alabama]” when he was Birmingham’s public-safety commissioner,” Barrier notes.
But the “Rembrandt of Re-Creations” was Arch McDonald, a country boy from Arkansas who made it to New York City, where he employed trademark baseball expressions such as “ducks on the pond,” meaning men on first, second, and third bases; “right down Broadway” for a pitch thrown straight across the middle of the plate; and “Yankee Clipper” as a nickname for the graceful Yankee star Joe DiMaggio.
But McDonald got his biggest audiences when he left New York to broadcast from Washington, D.C. More precisely, from a drug store three blocks from the White House. There, he cooked up his ad-libbed re-creations of Washington Senators’ games for 30 or so fans sitting in makeshift “stands” in the drug store, a standing-room crowd that spilled into the street, and a mesmerized radio audience.
McDonald used few sound effects, although listeners could hear the wire-service ticker clacking in the background. And like Bull Connor, he would bang a gong every time a Senators batter struck a single and got to first base, twice for a double, three times for a triple, and perhaps a mighty crash or four for a home run.
Then there was Jack Macdonald — no relation to Arch — who re-created road games of the minor-league San Francisco Seals. He called himself “the Old Walnut Farmer,” reporter Dick Meister once recounted, even though he was a city fella who quite possibly never set foot on sod.
During one game simulation, according to Meister, Macdonald told his audience that a pitcher threw so low that “it dang near bounced off’n old Frenchy’s toe.” Another ball was hit so hard that it was sent, “back, back, back — a sure homer through Aunt Maggie’s window.”
Macdonald was making up these images in his mind as he went, remember.
Nat Allbright, the baseball entertainer we lost last week, was another classic teller of borderline tall tales. In an unmistakable high-pitched voice, Allbright belted out descriptions of Brooklyn Dodgers’ home and road games on 117 radio stations in states throughout the South and Midwest. He did so from a little studio in Virginia, hundreds of kilometers from anywhere the Dodgers played.
The “Bums” — Brooklynites’ fond term for their team — also had their own on-site radio broadcasters, Red Barber and Vin Scully, who described game action from the ballpark as it happened, mostly to New York City and Northeast U.S. listeners. Allbright had a much wider audience for his delayed, pretend calls of the game on the Dodgers’ auxiliary network.
“People used to come to spring training [when the Dodgers prepared for each season in Florida] and say, ‘Who’s Red Barber? Where’s Nat?” Allbright told Dick Heller, a former columnist and continuing contributor to the Washington Times.
For Allbright’s fanciful broadcasts, “Imaginary vendors strolled past the microphone yowling, ‘Getcher redhots!” Heller wrote. “Imaginary crowds buzzed constantly between pitches and roared when something big happened. Imaginary bats cracked loudly across airwaves.”
Cracks of the bat created by rapping a pencil sharply on the table. “A science,” Nat Allbright called such techniques.
One night when the Dodgers were playing in Cincinnati, Ohio, Heller relates, “the ticker stopped working, and Western Union told Allbright it would take a half-hour to fix the line.
No problem. “We had a ‘rain delay,’” Allbright remembered. “There was nothing else I could do. You know, if you take the cellophane off a pack of cigarettes and crumple it up near the microphone, it sounds just like thunder.”
Once, another re-creator got mixed up and somehow missed a play. So he told his audience, in a seat-of-the-pants fabrication, that a runner had been caught off base by a throw from the pitcher and called out.
It so happened that the manager of the runner’s team was home sick with the flu and listening. He shot a telegram to the stadium, telling the offending player he was fining him $25, only to find out later that the base-running gaffe had never happened.
Things could get tricky for re-creators, all right. Late in a legendary one-game playoff between the Dodgers and the New York Giants to decide the National League championship in 1951, Allbright told Brooklyn fans glued to their radios that the Dodgers were bringing in relief pitcher Clem Labine to pitch to Giants’ slugger Bobby Thomson as a Dodger victory appeared imminent.
But the wire account on which he was relying had it wrong. It was Ralph Branca, not Labine, coming in. When a correction moved, Allbright had to do some fancy verbal dancing. This is memorable because Branca then gave up Thomson’s game-winning home run that came to be called “The Shot Heard Round the World,” giving the Giants the pennant.
“A drive to left field — back, back, and that ball is gone . . .” Allbright later remembered his call of that titanic blast when Dick Heller asked him to re-create the re-creation years later.
“Unbelievable! It’s out . . . and I’ll see you next season!”
Long out of broadcasting and selling Ford automobiles at a nearby dealership, Allbright was emoting to Heller on a phone from a restaurant in Arlington, Virginia. Even in his 80s, he worked his twangy voice to such a fever pitch that someone approached and asked, “Are you Nat Allbright?”
Night after night well into the 1950s, Bob Barrier listened to Allbright’s embellished Dodger games when Barrier was living in North Carolina. “It took me a year before I realized that the broadcasts weren’t real, weren’t from the stadiums,” he told me.
Bob Barrier also caught actual game broadcasts aired on the nationwide Mutual Network but found Allbright’s re-created games more appealing. “The constant hum and ebb and flow of canned background ‘noise’ were far louder than any real stadium could be,” he says. “Each inning, it rose to a climactic sound level, like 18 racehorses.”
Barrier believes that Nat Allbright’s pretend play-by-play from that little radio studio in Arlington helped soften racial animus throughout the segregated South. One of Brooklyn’s stars was Jackie Robinson, who had broken baseball’s color barrier in 1948. “People white and black rooted for the Dodgers all through the South,” Barrier says. “Jackie Robinson and the other black Dodgers [including pitcher Don Newcombe and catcher Roy Campanella], too.
“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that these broadcasts of baseball’s most integrated team contributed to the ultimate desegregation of the South.”
Nat Allbright and many of the other acclaimed baseball broadcasters were also southerners, steeped in what Barrier calls “the southern oral tradition [of] stories told at evening on the porch or in the kitchen.”
From these men came idiosyncratic but unforgettable sayings such as Texan McLendon’s “Well I’ll be a suck-egg mule,” and Georgian Ernie Harwell’s call of a batter’s “standing there like a house on the side of the road” when he let a pitch go by to strike out.
Allbright, though, was more of a call-‘em-as-he-saw-’em — or imagined seeing them — reporter than a wordsmith.
Once the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, big-league games were routinely televised, and Dodger home games began at 10 at night Eastern time, too late for fans to follow back east. For re-created radio accounts, “some of the magic vanished,” as Dick Heller puts it.
Allbright and the Dodgers kept at it for awhile but finally called it quits in 1963.
That’s the year in which the feminist movement took off with the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and NASA’s Mercury 9 spacecraft took off, period. How quaint must Nat Allbright have sounded with his made-up calls and tapping pencils and crumpled-paper thunder on the radio.
Bob Barrier never met Nat, but he found the old broadcaster-turned-car salesman and interviewed him by phone. Allbright was making a few bucks on the side creating “fantasy” broadcasts of baseball games in which he’d substitute his client for the game’s hero. Something like this:
Landphair steps in. The cagey old veteran pounds the plate with the business end of his bat and gives that steely-eyed look of his out to Halladay. Doc just stares right back at him. Halladay winds, kicks that left leg high, and fires. [cracking sound, crowd groan] Big Ted connects and drives it deep, deep to left. [crowd noise swells] Ibañez can only turn and watch as the future Hall of Famer rounds the bases. Landphair’s done it again!
Hey, a guy can dream.
For Bob Barrier in 2006, Allbright agreed to make up a game, using players from the 1950s.
As he got into it, Allbright described a “bright, sunny day with a temperature of about 84 degrees — at Ebbets Field, and the wind is blowing — toward right.” The dashes represent Allbright’s deliberate pauses for effect, Barrier says, “as if he’s checking the pennants blowing in the outfield. It’s like we’re there.”
By federal law before signing off his re-created broadcasts half a century earlier, Nat had to fess up, quickly and quietly, that the whole thing had been an embellishment of real events. But thousands of listeners paid no attention. They thought that every umpire’s call and smack of the ball into a fielder’s glove was the real thing.
In Allbright’s case, often better than real.
If you’d like to hear some re-creations and an interview with Nat, check out the podcast of this posting. Thanks to Bob Barrier, who passed some great audio along to me, you can hear them at the end of my narration.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Artifice. A clever or cunning trick.
Fabrication. A made-up story.
Gaffe. A blunder or embarrassing faux pas.
Ham. This is the upper part of a pig’s leg, of course, but it has also come to describe a person who outrageously overdramatizes stories. “Hamming it up” means the person is really adding flourishes. On stage, this is frowned upon, because the “ham” is stealing scenes from other actors. Two of the theories of the origin of this meaning: It traces to Hamlet, or it may refer to the ham fat that actors once used to remove their make-up.
Mesmerized. Enchanted, spellbound, almost to the point of being hypnotized.
Seat of the Pants. Derived from the expression “flying by the seat of his pants,” meaning to decide on a course of action quickly with little time for deliberation. The saying traces to the early days of aviation — especially accounts of Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan’s 1938 flight from New York to Ireland without benefit of instruments or a radio. Problem was, he was supposed to fly the other way, across the continent to California.
Whole cloth. Something made up or false. This term was originally positive, referring to cloth cut from fine, original fabric. Then so many 19th-century American tailors began advertising whole-cloth products that were actually patched or falsely stretched that the term took on a negative connotation.