If baseball is back, Mel Allen must be, too. Allen, 72, is beginning his 31st season with the New York Yankees and his ninth as the narrator for This Week in Baseball. Salaries and cities and even the grass may change, but Allen, the venerable Voice of Summer, remains forever the same. "Hello, everybody, this is Mel Allen!" he says at the start of each Yankee game on cable TV. The voice is rich, thick and Southern, to many the most recognizable in baseball. When you hear it, it's summer again, a lazy July or August afternoon with sunlight creeping across the infield. Like the game itself, Allen is timeless.
Allen was at the Yankee camp this spring, cranking up the old vocal cords. For the eighth straight year he will announce 40 games for the Yankees' Sports-Channel service, beginning April 18. He's constantly on the banquet circuit. And having unpacked his bag of outrageous puns and cornball-wholesome rhymes, he also will narrate baseball's popular syndicated series of weekly highlights. For years he was a forgotten man, but it has all come back to him in abundance. The taste must be sweet.
Allen was born Melvin Israel in Birmingham, Ala. (He took his father's middle name, Allen, when he joined CBS Radio in 1939.) Though he graduated from the University of Alabama Law School in 1934 and passed the bar in 1936, he never did hang out a shingle. As his colleague Red Barber once said, "The Yankees became his life and his wife." Actually, his parents were also his life; he brought them north to live with him in 1939 and cared for them until they died.
A homer through and through ("I've always been partisan, but not prejudiced, and there's a difference," he says), Allen and the Yankees reigned supreme together from 1939 through '64. He was a friend of the Babe and Larrupin' Lou. He named DiMaggio "Joltin' Joe." He started a generation of fans yelling, "How about that!" and "It's going, going, gone!" And, oh, the memories of those years. In 1940, Gehrig, dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, made a rare visit to the dugout before a game. Word spread among the players as he came down the runway. "It's Lou! Lou's coming!" they said. Gehrig shuffled over and sat beside Allen on the bench. They were quiet for a while, gazing out at the field. Finally Gehrig patted Allen on the knee. "Mel, I never got a chance to listen to your games before because I was playing every day. I want you to know they're the only thing that keep me going."
Twenty years ago the Yankees fired Allen. Dropped him without the decency of explaining why. One reason may be the fact that the Yankees and their sponsor, Ballantine Beer, thought he had become increasingly prolix in the booth. They felt he couldn't finish a story in time to go to a commercial, still a problem but beside the point for hard-core fans. In the absence of any explanation, Allen, a gentle soul, became a victim of rumors. He was supposed to be a drunkard, a drug user. Neither rumor was true, but he couldn't fight them. He worked briefly for the Braves and Indians. It was as if he had leprosy.
Say what you want about George Steinbrenner, but it was the new Yankee boss who returned Allen to baseball, first at an Old Timers' Day in '76 and later in the SportsChannel booth. The sentimental Steinbrenner says he brought Allen back because in 1955 Mel spent an hour on the phone advising a kid just out of college about a possible broadcasting career. The kid, whom Allen didn't know and wouldn't remember, was George Steinbrenner.
And so Mel Allen is back where he belongs, an old campaigner, a keeper of tradition. We were watching the Yankees play the Expos in West Palm Beach this spring. "What do you hope they will say about you when you finally retire?" I asked. He said the question was unfair because an answer would make him sound pompous. But eventually he responded. "That I was one of the best," he said. "And you know what else you can put down? That 'He loved people and hoped they loved him.' No, no, maybe 'loved' isn't the right word. Make it, 'He loved people and hoped they liked him.' "
One of the best? Absolutely. Liked? Always.