While there was very little of lasting interest about an editorial in the
Birmingham Age-Herald endorsing the presidential candidacy of James M. Cox one fall day in 1920, the newspaper's words had a galvanic effect upon an Alabama shopkeeper named Julius Allen Israel. "I remember that as I heard the words my hair stood up on end," Israel takes pleasure in relating today, "and goose bumps popped up all over my body." To appreciate the man's agitation, it is necessary to know that Israel was being read to at the time by his son Melvin, a little fellow not yet a month enrolled in the first grade. The revelation that the child could read the Birmingham papers, let alone the ponderous editorial pages, was an eye-opening experience from which the father has not yet completely recovered. "I had known all along that Melvin was brighter than most," says Israel with paternal candor, "but he'd never let on just how smart he really was. He was always such a modest and quiet little boy."
Modest he still is—he has not forgotten how to blush and, when asked for his autograph, never fails to say, "Thank you"—but quiet he is not, for the boy Melvin Israel has since grown up to become the man Mel Allen. As such he is the most successful, best known, highest paid, most voluble figure in sportscasting, and one of the bigger names in broadcasting generally. In New York City, his base of operations, Mel Allen has a following that only a politician, which Allen in some ways is, could love. There are people to whom his voice is a comfort, his handshake a benediction, his autograph an heirloom. "Write 'Good luck, George' and sign your name," a man named George demanded of Allen not long ago, and a bartender insisted that Mel sign a $5 bill. "This is illegal," said Allen, scribbling away.
"For this," said the bartender, "I don't mind dying."
To such a weird and wonderful estate, which over the last dozen years has annually paid him more than $100,000, most of it already spent, Mel Allen has risen on the strength of an indefatigable, hinged-in-the-middle tongue, an unsurpassed knowledge of and almost mystical involvement in sports. Riding the pinstriped coattails of his employers for the last two decades, the New York Yankees, has helped. Moreover, he has merrily made his way to the top of a field of limited opportunities without deceit, without guile, without cynicism and without, it would seem, half trying, fame having stalked him more than the other way around. His formula has been simply an open-faced and honest ambition to fulfill himself and to believe in himself.
Since self-satisfaction has always eluded Mel Allen, he sits today uncomfortable in his eminence, wondering what it amounts to and knowing at the same time that, whatever its worth, he has, in the words of a friend, "only one direction left—down." Goaded by this unnerving intelligence—and spurred along by loneliness that befalls him as a 49-year-old bachelor hopelessly embroiled in his job—Allen is a tireless worker, driving himself to accept as many obligations, commitments and duties as daylight and dark will allow and, like a tightrope walker, resisting the impulse to look beneath him. "He has so many things going for him," says fellow sports-caster Joe Garagiola, "that if he ever got the flu he'd be a one-man Depression." And one of Allen's favorite stories, one of the thousands he knows and cherishes, takes on the flavor of a morality play when he tells it. The story concerns a onetime major league pitcher named Bobo Holloman who had the bad luck to pitch a no-hitter for the St. Louis Browns on his very first start in the majors. By the end of the season they were saying, "Bobo? Bobo who?"
Bobo's flaw, says Allen, was a sore arm and serenity, and while a sore throat may now and then indispose Mel Allen it won't be complacency that goes before his fall. Attaching a peculiarly negative significance to the mark he has made, he lost his once abiding respect for Who's Who in America
, he says without coyness, when it requested his biography 10 years ago. Allen frankly protests that "if the New York Yankees had been an eighth-place team all the time I'd been with them I'd be an eighth-place announcer." Since the Yankees have done very well altogether during the 21 years, so has their official spokesman. Yet Allen, like a spinster with a rich daddy and a poor boy friend, wonders bleakly how much he is liked for himself and how much for his association with affluence. Says Julius Israel: "What Mel needs is the swelled head he deserves."
Whether or not Allen's popularity is as mercurial and subject to whim as he supposes, it is sufficient nowadays to keep him occupied on radio, television and motion picture film 600 hours each year, pitching athletic sweat, beer, smokes, razor blades, oatmeal, autos, soap, gasoline and lip balm. More than half of that time, of course, is devoted to Allen's folksy, garrulous descriptions of 162 Yankee ball games, while most of the remainder is parceled out to the World Series broadcasts, college football and Rose Bowl games, a three-hour, $3-a-minute segment of NBC Radio's Monitor on Saturday mornings and baseball All-Star games (his 23rd comes up next Tuesday).
Twice each week he lends his voice to the soundtrack of Fox Movietone sports newsreels. To earn his $12,000-a-year salary for that job, Allen is obliged to write as well as talk the scripts. He does both after a quick look at the film, with speed and efficiency, having a practiced ear for the catchy, punny phrasing that is the pattern of most newsreel features. ("The hull thing makes a fellow keel over from sheer delight," he wrote shamelessly for a girlie documentation of New York's winter boat show.) Somehow Allen has enough energy left over to write an occasional magazine article, to pick an All-America team for a magazine and to work away, somewhat desultorily, at his second book, which, like his first, will be a collection of uplifting sports stories. With so many demands on his reportorial sense, it is no wonder that his capacities are sometimes taxed to the limit, as they were several years ago when he tried his hand at song lyrics. "Let's play ball, play ball, you all," his song began—and went downhill from there.
Happy in his work, Mel Allen is likewise happy in his relative leisure, liking nothing better than to fill it by making speeches—which he makes often for free and always at the drop of the invitations that come in daily. His format, by and large, is the presentation of sports stories—straight-from-the shoulder, sometimes gamy stories for adults, inspirational stories for youngsters. He even makes speeches when no one has asked him to, in bars, on street corners, wherever there is an attentive—or captive—ear.
Mel Allen is the only sportscaster known to the modern world who has had his day in a major league ball park, in this case Mel Allen Day in Yankee Stadium in 1950, when he received clothes, a Cadillac and $10,000—which he in turn gave to Columbia and the University of Alabama for scholarships. He is certainly one of the few broadcasters who can draw better crowds leaving a stadium than many ballplayers, and is one of the few whom young boys and old women alike have smothered to the sidewalk in excessive shows of partiality. And while it is not a unique experience among radio and TV personalities, it is encouraging to Allen's frangible vanity that some of his mail still contains endearments of the "Dear little of celebrity, You don't know me, but..." kind.