About six weeks ago I was visiting a historic site with a friend when we had the opportunity to meet someone affiliated with the institution. We had no idea upon arriving that this would happen and were pleased as punch that it did. Back in the day our host had spent thirty years doing radio in the Midwest before changing careers. Hearing his mellifluous voice and gift of gab, I immediately understood why he would have been drawn to that calling. I have no doubt either that the was very good at it. The uses and misuses of communications technology have justifiably been in the news a lot lately. Today, August 5, 2021, however marks a technology anniversary of a happier note: it was one hundred years ago today that the first Major League Baseball game was broadcast on the radio. To say it was an experiment would be an understatement. Harold Arlin of Pittsburgh’s KDKA purchased a ticket like every other attendee that afternoon at Forbes Field, set himself up along the first base line, and called the play-by-play into what radio men referred to at the time as “the tomato can,” a reference to the unwieldy microphones in use at the time. The Pirates defeated the Phillies 8-5.
No one knew how the broadcast would would go. Westinghouse, which owned KDKA, certainly had nothing to lose in what was very much an experiment. It all makes sense though. If you manufacture and sell radios for a living you have to show people why they might want to buy a radio and what they might do with it. How many of us knew that we “needed” a smart phone or tablet until Steve Jobs and others convinced us fifteen or so years ago that we did? Westinghouse was naturally determined to see what radio might do. The previous fall KDKA had scored another first when on November 2, 1920 it transmitted the first commercial broadcast, of the presidential election that put Harding in the White House. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the losing vice-residential candidate but certainly grasped where the future was heading. Then again Mussolini and Hitler soon understood radio’s possibilities as well.
The retired radio man I was describing at the top of this post has been over 270 major and minor league ballparks across the decades and had the memorabilia scattered across his apartment to show for it. Our conversation could not help but go to baseball and we agreed that the game is best consumed via the wireless as opposed to the telly. For one thing the ball is in play so little in baseball, allowing for conversation in a way not possible over the airwaves in hockey, basketball, and other sports. The best radio men–Bob Uecker, thankfully still going strong at 87 comes to mind–weave a narrative as they bring you each pitch and at bat. They tell a story, which itself gets bigger as the games pass and the season moves along.
How did I learn that today was the one hundredth anniversary of Harold Arlin’s KDKA radio broadcast? I was listening to the Mets-Marlins game on the MLB App earlier this afternoon when the radio guys started talking about.