Big Train, In Vain

One of the interesting discoveries in delving into the smaller details of the classic baseball era, is how many times personalities seem to intersect with one another, even indirectly, sort of filling in the gaps in the unique tapestry of the sport. A player goes down, allowing another to rise, or an owner or sponsor otherwise upsets the best laid plans by putting their foot down or pushing through a pet project of theirs, and changing history in the process.

One such instance that few people know about occurred in 1939. Fresh off doing football games while attending Alabama in the ’30’s, a young man by the name of Melvin Israel auditioned for CBS while on vacation in New York in 1937, and was hired to do a variety of work with the station, eventually doing color commentary for the 1938 World Series (although not exclusive to a single network in those days, a plum job nonetheless).

Mel broadcasting for CBS in 1938

Meanwhile, Wheaties, who sponsored the Washington Senators’ broadcasts, were in the market for a new announcer, as Arch McDonald was in the process of moving to New York to call both Yankees’ and Giants’ home games for the 1939 campaign, and they were confident that this young Crimson Tide up-and-comer would be a perfect fit for them. Unfortunately, Senators’ owner Clark Griffith had other ideas – with the Senators being largely “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League” for many years, Griffith thought he had a plan to stir fans’ interests.

Walter Johnson with Calvin Coolidge at Griffith Stadium in 1925

Walter Johnson, “The Big Train”, was the best pitcher in the franchise’s existence, and had been out of baseball since managing the Cleveland Indians in 1935. In addition, although part of the initial 1936 class, he was slated to be officially inducted into the newly dedicated Baseball Hall Of Fame in Cooperstown that summer, so why not? Surely he would be a more popular choice than some young guy virtually no one knew about.

Original HOF induction of the first 4 classes, 1939 (Johnson top right)

And it did work for a while. Johnson again became the most popular Senator, with fans at Griffith Stadium marveling at hearing their old hero’s voice through the PA system (he was also the park’s announcer), and both home and away ballparks clamoring for his autograph over any other.

Johnson behind the mike for WJSV in 1939

Arch McDonald with Johnson, before McDonald’s full-time move to New York

Unfortunately, while Johnson was a natural on the mound, he was much less so behind the microphone. His delivery was slow, stilted and largely indifferent, especially over the course of another long season in the second division. Also, he was not possessed with what one would call a classic broadcaster’s voice – high, thin, nasal and ordinary, it belied his stature as one of the game’s giant figures. What is possibly the only radio broadcast of Johnson’s work to exist, is linked below – starting at 1:45 until after the 44 minute mark, than again for the last 12 minutes or so. A fascinating document, including sounds from the fans, vendors, etc., but it sounds like Walter would rather be anywhere else than at the park that day.

September 21, 1939, Senators vs Indians at Griffith Stadium

After the 1939 season was over, Johnson was ready for greener pastures, although his lack of oratory skill would follow – in an unsuccessful run for Congress in the 1940’s, he was known for  his lack of experience as a public speaker, and would often read the wrong speeches to the wrong constituents, etc. Sadly, 1939 was his last direct involvement with baseball – he died in 1946 of a brain tumor at age 59.

And what became of young Melvin? Well he of course was the legendary broadcaster Mel Allen, who ended up being paired with Arch McDonald in New York in June of 1939 after McDonald’s partner, Garnett Marks, was fired after mispronouncing on multiple occasions a key sponsor over the air, extolling the virtues of “Ovary Soap” to millions of New York baseball fans. And what of McDonald? Well, his broadcasting style was considered too homespun for the New York listeners (Allen’s Alabama twang would not fully emerge for a few years, when I suppose New York, having gotten used to Red Barber, was just fine with it), and he returned to Washington in 1940 (remaining there well into the ’50’s), as Mr. Allen moved into the Yankees’ play-by-play seat, stayed there for almost 25 years, and became a legend in the process.

So, if not for the insistence of one Clark Griffith to hire his old buddy Walter way back when, Mel Allen may very well have become the “Voice of the Washington Senators”! How about that!

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