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Time Travel on the Tube
Steve Rushin
October 27, 1992
Our intrepid viewer takes an electronic tumble through the history of sports television, from blue blades to yellow blazers
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October 27, 1992

Time Travel On The Tube

Our intrepid viewer takes an electronic tumble through the history of sports television, from blue blades to yellow blazers

I would have liked to have liked Ike, watched Bilko on a Philco, seen the U.S.A. in a Chevrolet, spent Friday night at the lights, smoked a Chesterfield at Ebbets Field...but I was born at the wrong time.

I would have loved to have loved Lucy, rocked around the clock, had a "Ballantine Blast" somewhere in my past...but I got robbed, like Gionfriddo robbed DiMaggio. Born at the wrong time.

My time should have been Howdy Doody Time, but I was not even a gleam in the logo eye of CBS when television was in its Wonder years. I should have been a little shaver when the Gillette Safety Razor Company came "on...the...air!" with its Cavalcade of Sports. The first major sponsor of sports on television, Gillette filled the gaps during baseball games and football games and Friday night fights as Mays must have filled the gaps at the Polo Grounds. Which is to say with pizzazz, as the company pitched its "Ultra-Modern Gillette Super-Speed razors with Blue-Blade dispenser and attractive Styrene travel case."

Ultra-Modern! Super-Speed! Blue-Blade! Styrene! Like television itself, everything was Ultra-New, Super-New, Brand-Spanking, Space-Age-Polymer New in the 1950s. Everything but me.

When at last I was a little shaver, in the 1970s, TV was wildly whiskered and the centerfielder du jour was not DiMaggio of the Yankees nor the Duke of Flatbush nor Mays of the Giants but Fred Lynn of the Boston Red Sox. He appeared in a shaving-related commercial of his own: Flanked by winking Baseball Annies in half shirts, his face bookended by sideburns like shag-carpet samples, Lynn sang, "There's something about an Aqua Velva man."

By the time Lynn's commercials for Aqua Velva and Jovan Musk were airing in 1976, the lamp of good taste had long since been extinguished on television; the path of programming and advertising was now lit, instead, by the lava lamp of excess that burns to this day, reflected in the one good eye of Dick Vitale.

For the love of Man, how did we get there from...here: May 17, 1939—the first television sports broadcast in the United States. Princeton is playing at Columbia for fourth place in the Ivy League baseball standings, as announcer Bill Stern informs his viewing audience on experimental station W2XBS in New York City, where there are fewer than 400 television sets in existence. There is one camera, and it is fixed: When the ball leaves the infield, it also leaves the screen, leaving the audience to use its imagination until such time as the ball returns to the diamond. Afterward, home viewers describe the players as "while flies" on the screen.

Soon enough, though, black-and-white television achieves clarity, and remains as simple and unambiguous as...as black and white. The game is the thing. For green grass and blue skies there is Red Barber. When the Brooklyn Dodger announcer calls Game 7 of the 1952 World Series for Gillette's Cavalcade, he is not hostage to a camera but quite the opposite: Barber tells the panning camera where to look. In trying to locate the Yankee owners' box at Ebbets Field, the Redhead instructs the cameraman over the air, "Over, over, down and to the left, there." He sounds like a man having his back scratched, and his listeners are similarly soothed, for Barber's voice is a southerly breeze in the brick-oven Brooklyn of early autumn.

I know, because in the early New York City autumn of 1992, I watched this telecast of Game 7 of the 1952 World Series. In fact, for days I randomly channel-surfed through a whole sea of spoils television history, spending much of the time at the Museum of Television & Radio in Manhattan. It is a wonderful repository of broadcast archives and curiosa where a celluloid Alan Ameche will never age, like Don Ameche in Cocoon. In the darkness and warmth of a third-floor videotape viewing room—you could grow mushrooms in this place—I traveled through time. In an attractive Styrene travel case.

Flip, and here is Game 7 of the '52 Series, Yankees versus Dodgers, Eddie Lopat versus Joe Black, at Ebbets Field. Few saw this broadcast—there were maybe 12 million TV sets in America by 1952—and it is a shame. Three minutes into his pregame show, Mel Allen is reading forest-fire prevention tips. (A tree grows in Brooklyn, yes, Mel, but doesn't a brushfire seem rather unlikely?) Gladys Goodding sings the national anthem, accompanied by herself on the organ. Allen turns the broadcast over to Barber. Everyone in the stands wears a hat. Jockey Johnny Longden does a Gillette commercial. Dodger owner Walter O'Malley sits behind bunting, smoking a cigar. On behalf of Gillette, Gene Hermanki, outfielder for the Chicago Cubs, implores viewers to "Look Sharp, Feel Sharp, Be Sharp."

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