Near the end of the regular season 20 years ago, just before the World Series, a young, sandy-haired enthusiast named Burke Crotty led a television crew to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn for the first broadcast of a major league game. They were glad to be there. In those early days of television, in 1939, almost all television programs originated in studios, and in the blaze of the lights, the heat made stage whiskers curl and crisped the pages of books like burned toast. Engineers, technicians, directors, cameramen, actors and dreamers of all kinds thought of the day when there might be broadcasts under the open sky, in the clear fresh air—even the air of Brooklyn.
The day arrived on a Saturday, with the Dodgers, in fourth place, playing a double-header with the Cincinnati Reds, who were leading the National League comfortably. The 16 men in the National Broadcasting Company's mobile unit placed one camera near the visiting players' dugout, and behind a right-hand batter's position. They hoisted the other up to the second deck and started to put it into the press box. But the sportswriters wouldn't permit the one-eyed monster in the same quarters with them. In those days television cables were several inches thick and looked dangerous. "There wasn't any trouble about it," Crotty remembers. "They just told us we couldn't put it in there."
Thus eased out of literature, the technical crew stewed about for awhile and finally got the second camera in a second-tier box back of the catcher. There was just time for a few pregame shots—Leo Durocher beaming at the camera for Brooklyn as Red Barber introduced the teams, with the sun beaming down on the 33,535 paid attendance in the stands—before the first game started. And thereafter the crew was kept hopping.
In those days, according to the best recollection of people present, the lenses couldn't be adjusted for distance. Now they zoom into the field for a closeup or draw back for a long view of the outfield after a fly. But in 1939, the announcer stood beside the camera, his ears flattened with earphones, and spelled out what was happening into a microphone—an absolute necessity, for without him there was no way of telling what was going on. In this case Red Barber told the television audience that Luke Hamlin, known as Hot Potato Hamlin, was on the mound for the Dodgers. Almost at once McCormick, the solid Cincinnati batter who at the time stood seventh in the league, hit Hot Potato hard, but you couldn't see it on the television screen. The cameras were helpless when it came to following the ball in flight.
For some reason the Dodgers, who were not sparkling just then, blossomed as soon as they had the cameras on them. That old actor Leo Durocher was leaping and pivoting around the field like a ballet dancer. He made the most spectacular play of the game when he backhanded Eddie Joost's certain hit and tossed it to first. That showed plainly on the screen. A new era in baseball had begun. And perhaps a new era in ham acting. Cincinnati eventually won the game, giving Bucky Walters his 21st win of the year. Hamlin, who won 20 in 1939, never had another good year after that.
At this point we come to a perplexing historical interlude. A group of Hawaiian dancing girls appeared before the cameras. What they were doing there has never been made clear. It seems that a ceremony was planned to honor Alexander Cartwright, the baseball pioneer.
Cartwright was a big old gray-beard who could have been cast for Moses in Cecil B. de Mille's Ten Commandments. He died in Honolulu in 1893, and the impression prevailed that he must have been a native Hawaiian. Hence these native girls singing aloha and draping leis around the necks of the players. They also went through what was called a native pineapple-juice-drinking ceremony. Hmm. At any rate, whatever the tribal significance of these rites in Brooklyn, the effect on the Dodgers was electrifying. Cookie Lavagetto, previously undistinguished, immediately got on base. Dolf Camilli drove him in with his 22nd homer of the season. The Dodgers piled up six runs. They won the second game 6-1. Burke Crotty and his crew coiled up their cables in the twilight without even knowing who had won. They were merely aware, according to Crotty, of a great relief.
It is impossible for a generation familiar with the clear pictures and the fast action of modern television to comprehend what experimental programs had been like. "That heat!" said Sid Desfor, a photographer who was present at Ebbets Field for the first major league broadcast and who had been taking publicity pictures of NBC studio broadcasts. "It was murder!" And the first remote programs—anything not sent from the studio was a remote—"were pretty crummy pictures."
But they had improved significantly in the few months since the first televised ball game. That was the Columbia-Princeton game on May 17, 1939 at Baker Field. The game was a fiasco, PLAYERS ARE LIKE FLIES, ran a headline. The troubles were so monumental that nobody thought to call them bugs. Nobody could be recognized on the screen. All faces were dark. The outfielders were entirely invisible. Only rarely could three players be seen at one time. The only time a viewer could tell what was happening was when there was a bunt or infield play. It was a good game—Princeton won 2-1 in 10 innings—but watchers would never have guessed it if Announcer Bill Stern had not been there. The Times concluded, somewhat unprophetically, that baseball "is a thrill to the eye that cannot be electrified and flashed through space."
By comparison, the Brooklyn experiment was a roaring success. At the time (Aug. 26, 1939) only an estimated 500 sets had been sold. Four months of regular programs had already passed. But lively indoor programs were almost impossible, if only because the heat of the lights melted the inspiration of everybody concerned. Television folklore abounds in tales of misadventures caused by the heat. That thriller The Gorilla, for example, ends with the gorilla driven from a cellar by a smoke grenade, something that had been shown without incident on the stage. The prop man, an engineer and inventor named Bill Eddy, was waiting behind the door with the smoke-producing ingredients, consisting of asthma powder, blowtorch and breakers, accompanied by the gorilla, a sensible young actor in a moth-eaten gorilla skin. At his cue Eddy lit the mixture. But the heat waves did terrific things to the ventilation; vast billows of smoke poured up. The actors on the stage were still dawdling over their lines when, way ahead of time, the audience was startled by the appearance of a gorilla, shouting hoarsely, "I'm getting out of here!"