Graham McNamee was America's first big-name sportscaster. He sold drama and excitement, to the exclusion of facts if they got in the way. For 19 years, starting in 1923, he was one of radio's top personalities, and for sports fans of the '20s and '30s he made most of the big events come alive, even though listeners often had to read the newspapers the next day to find out what actually had happened.
McNamee got into sports announcing by accident. He had little technical knowledge of any of the dozen or so sports he covered. As a boy in St. Paul he studied to be a concert singer. For a number of years he worked as a railroad clerk and then a salesman, and it was not until 1920, when he was 31, that he made his singing debut in New York's Aeolian Hall. The reviews were good, but for the next three years concert and church work was scarce.
In 1923, while picking up eating money doing jury duty downtown, McNamee wandered into the lower Broadway building of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, where its new radio station, WEAF, was sending out occasional nighttime broadcasts. He asked for an audition as a singer. Jack Hoins, an old radio hand who was then writing patter for the Happiness Boys at the station, recalls, "Every broadcast—they were all live then—was almost like a ceremony. The announcers wore tails in those first days. The only trouble was that the announcers were mostly engineers, and they talked like—well, like engineers. It dawned on somebody that the listeners couldn't see the tails, but they could hear those voices. Then Graham walked in and they grabbed him for his voice."
McNamee was hired by the program manager "to open and close pianos for artists, answer telephone calls, escort unaccompanied ladies home after programs, sing operatic and religious selections and do some announcing." His salary was $50 a week, and it was some time before he was able to afford a radio. His wife—he had married a concert singer—used to stand outside music stores to hear his broadcasts and report on crowd reaction.
Announcing was soon McNamee's forte. From the beginning he made every word sound earthshaking. He developed a technique of running down the hall to the studio so that his voice came over the air in breathless tones. He smiled at the microphone in the belief that this promoted a rapport with his listeners. And it did.
McNamee's voice became so well-known in the frantic new medium that, despite his lack of a sports background, he undertook his first athletic assignment on August 31, 1923, eight months after joining WEAF. This was the broadcast of the fight for the middleweight championship between Harry Greb and Johnny Wilson, staged at the Polo Grounds. Greb took the 15-round decision. During the fight McNamee realized that the usual broadcasting announcements would not do. For a singer the announcer would say simply, "Miss So-and-so will now sing such-and-such a number," and when she finished. "Miss So-and-so has sung such-and-such a number." But "Greb just hit Wilson" and " Wilson just hit Greb" did not describe what was happening in and around the ring. McNamee began to embellish the action, often imaginatively.
Shortly after the fight, McNamee worked his first World Series, the third meeting between the New York Yankees and Giants, which the Yankees won. Sportswriters had handled most of the previous sports events broadcast on the theory that they knew what they were talking about. Unfortunately, many of them were inarticulate or inaudible. McNamee got the assignment because he could be heard, but what came across to the listeners was a little confusing. He was feeling his way in the unfamiliar circumstances and often could not concentrate because of technical problems. The result was such phrases as, "The next ball is a strike." Ring Lardner said of an early McNamee baseball broadcast; "There was a doubleheader yesterday—the game that was played and the one McNamee announced."
Boxing fans had an even tougher time. McNamee was inclined to shout hysterically, "He's down, he's up!" without identifying the fighter. In a 1924 broadcast McNamee referred to one of the boxers, Abe Goldstein, as Bernstein, and then alternated the two names. Listeners wondered just who was fighting the opponent, Joe Lynch. This became the only three-sided boxing match in history. Over the air it sounded like a tag team wrestling match. First Goldstein would belt Lynch, then Bernstein would land a solid blow, with Lynch going it alone. The combination proved too much for Lynch, and he surrendered his bantamweight championship.
In McNamee's defense, it must be noted that he was a pioneer and that he created the techniques most of the modern broadcasters use. His main aim was to make the event interesting to the man who had bought a radio. McNamee also had to contend with familiar words that sounded strange over the air. One early letter-writing critic wanted to know how a certain boxer continued fighting after he had "feinted." McNamee concentrated on the color, and sometimes the statistics got sidetracked. George Hicks, the NBC announcer, says: "He was the first great ad-lib personality. He threw away the script. He was a showman. He had to make mistakes. You wouldn't knock Laurence Olivier for taking liberties with a part. Graham was in the same class—he was an artist."
As an example. Hicks cites an opening-day broadcast of a Yankee game. The weather was freezing the score was one-sided, but McNamee remained ebullient right up to the final out. The last batter hit a long fly that McNamee knew would be caught. But he played it up. "He made it sound as though the ball could go for a home run," says Hicks. "He built up the tension and then screamed. 'And he caught it!' "