A little over a quarter of a century ago, on Wednesday, May 17, 1939, one of the least-noticed sports events of its time turned out to be a milestone in sports history. Some might argue that what it foreshadowed was more like a millstone. That day the second game of a baseball doubleheader between Princeton and Columbia at Columbia's Baker Field became the first sports event to be publicly televised.
Neither sports nor television has ever recovered. Within a year a dozen other types of contests had made their debut on the little screen. Within 10 years sports events were the backbone of television programming. Within 20 years any major sports promotion without some fundamental involvement with television income was unthinkable.
And yet at the time it seemed only a casual stunt, like television itself. About two weeks before, the first real telecast in the U.S. had taken place. President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended the opening of the New York World's Fair ("Building the World of Tomorrow"), and the National Broadcasting Company carried the ceremonies over its experimental station W2XBS. That program cost nearly $100,000 to produce.
There were fewer than 400 television sets in the New York area capable of picking up such a program. They had five-, nine-and 12-inch reflecting screens, and the cheapest set cost about $600. A few wealthy individuals perhaps had home sets, but most of those in existence were in the possession of people with some related professional interest—advertising agency executives, engineers and broadcasting industry personnel.
In those days a Columbia-Princeton game still had a certain amount of prestige, at least as far as newspapers were concerned. They were playing in the Eastern Intercollegiate League, and although the term Ivy League was just coming into use, the social status it implied was well understood.
Only a few dozen spectators showed up at Baker Field for the doubleheader with Princeton, even though it was a bright, sunny Wednesday right at the end of the semester. They found a better show than they expected. To the left of home plate, just 19 feet from the plate and back from the third-base line, a 12-foot-high platform had been erected. On the wooden platform 16 busy men, two card tables and a strange rectangular box on a tripod were crowded together.
The box was an iconoscope camera of primitive design. Cables ran from the camera and other equipment to a large vanlike truck parked nearby, a truck that is a commonplace sight today but seemed surrealistic then. From the truck wires were strung to the top of a flagpole, where a mysterious set of rods constituted the antenna. From the antenna the picture was to be transmitted to receiving equipment on the 85th floor of the Empire State Building, about nine miles away as the microwave flies. From there it would be retransmitted to whatever sets could receive it.
All through the first game, which Princeton won 8-6, the spectators and many of the players paid more attention to the setting up of this futuristic equipment than to the action on the field. Between games the program started in appallingly prophetic fashion: pregame interviews on camera of Andy Coakley, the Columbia coach, and Bill Clarke, the Princeton coach. Bill Stern was the commentator.
When it came time to start the second game, the director, Burke Crotty, actually had to wave the players to their positions so that they would be on the field when the camera panned the playing area for the first time.
That, however, was about all the camera could do. Once the game began, little could be seen but the pitcher or the batter, and only one at a time, because the camera couldn't focus on both. Its range could take in about 50 feet of playing area. None of the actual fielding plays could be shown.