‘Aug.26, 1939: Baseball Meets Television’

“On this day in 1939, the first televised Major League baseball game was broadcast on station ‘W2XBS’, the station that was to become ‘WNBC-TV’. Announcer Red Barber called the game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York.

“At the time, television was still in its infancy. Regular programming did not yet exist, and very few people owned television sets – there were only about 400 in the New York area. Not until 1946 did regular network broadcasting catch on in the United States, and only in the mid-1950s did television sets become more common in the American household.

“In 1939, the World’s Fair – which was being held in New York – became the catalyst for the historic broadcast. The television was one of fair’s prize exhibits, and organizers believed that the Dodgers-Reds doubleheader on August 26 was the perfect event to showcase America’s grasp on the new technology.

“By today’s standards, the video coverage was somewhat crude. There were only two stationary camera angles: The first was placed down the third base line to pick up infield throws to first, and the second was placed high above home plate to get an extensive view of the field. It was also difficult to capture fast-moving plays: Swinging bats looked like paper fans, and the ball was all but invisible during pitches and hits.

“Nevertheless, the experiment was a success, driving interest in the development of television technology, particularly for sporting events. Though baseball owners were initially concerned that televising baseball would sap actual attendance, they soon warmed to the idea, and the possibilities for revenue generation that came with increased exposure of the game, including the sale of rights to air certain teams or games, and television advertising.

“Today, televised sports is a multi-billion dollar industry, with technology that gives viewers an astounding amount of visual and audio detail. Cameras are now so precise that they can capture the way a ball changes shape when struck by a bat, and athletes are wired to pick up field-level and sideline conversation.”

–‘1939: First televised Major League baseball game’,
This Day In History, Aug.26, 2017

Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, NY, August 26, 1939 – First MLB game broadcast on TV.jpg
(Red Barber interviewing Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher at Ebbets Field before the first major league game ever televised. Nearby are Reds manager Bill McKechnie (1), Dixie Walker, behind Barber, and Dolph Camilli, right.)

From 1939:
“The pennant fever hit Flatbush today when 33,535 of the most hopeful fans in any major league city swarmed into Ebbets Field to see the double-header with the league-leading Reds. Their temperature dropped a bit when Bill McKechnie’s men took the opener, 5‚2, but rose again with a 6‚1 Dodger triumph in the nightcap. The double-header marked major league baseball’s television debut before two prying “eyes” of station W2XBS in the Empire State Building. One “eye” or camera was placed near the visiting players’ dugout, or behind the right-hand batters’ position. The other was in a second-tier box back of the catcher’s box and commanded an extensive view of the field when outfield plays were made.

“Over the video-sound channels of the station, television-set owners as far away as fifty miles viewed the action and heard the roar of the crowd, according to the National Broadcasting Company. It was not the first time baseball was televised by the NBC. Last May at Baker Field a game between Columbia and Princeton was caught by the cameras. However, to those who, over the television receivers, saw last May’s contest as well as those of today, it was apparent that considerable progress has been made in the technical requirements and apparatus for this sort of outdoor pick-up, where the action is fast. At times it was possible to catch a fleeting glimpse of the ball as it sped from the pitcher’s hand toward home plate.

“Bucky Walters, Dodger nemesis, allowed only two hits in the opener in annexing his 21st victory and his sixth straight over Brooklyn. Luke (Hot Potato) Hamlin, trying for No. 16, blew a 2‚0 lead over Walters in the eighth and was knocked out, charged with his 10th loss. In the nightcap Hugh Casey breezed through to his ninth triumph, aided by Dolph Camilli’s twenty-second homer of the year off Johnny Niggeling with Cookie Lavagetto aboard in the second frame. Dolf also contributed a scorching double in the third that knocked the veteran knuckleball hurler out. The Dodgers scored four times in that frame, Lavagetto’s double driving in one run, Camilli’s another and Ernie Koy’s single off Whitey Moore bringing the other pair home.”

–‘First Day for the Small Screen’,
ROSCOE McGOWEN, New York Times, August 26, 1939

Baseball TV broadcast, 2017.

“Instant replay. Night games. The designated hitter.

“Sounds like a baseball purist’s list of grievances. Over the past century, America’s pastime has proven that it’s willing to change (sometimes at a faster pace than the country itself), but why? Well, an obvious answer is to make the game better. A more specific answer is to make it more watchable.

“The real answer? Television.

“Almost every decision the game makes concerns its impact – positive or negative – on TV ratings. So, no matter how loudly the dude in the St. Louis Browns short-billed cap complains about the game today, turns out that the most important change has nothing to do with the rules, and everything to do with television.

“And on this day in 1939, the first Major League Baseball game – between the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Dodgers – was televised. Or, more specifically, games, since the teams played a doubleheader at Ebbets Field that day, one broadcast on station ‘W2XBS’ (which would eventually become ‘WNBC) and called by radio man Red Barber.

“Less than a decade later, thanks to the spread of the television set, MLB attendance would reach a high of 21 million. But beyond ticket sales, the new technology helped raise the sport’s profile: TV literally did for baseball what eyeglasses did for reading, bringing the game to people without having to watch it up close at the park.

“People liked it so much that now every major league team has a regional TV deal and the league has national contracts with multiple networks. And, boy, has that changed the game. All 30 major league teams were scheduled to play on TV today. There’s such a demand that a team like the Yankees even has its own network.

“The billions the league generates in TV rights alone turned players into multimillionaires…

“Executives in the league office are constantly concerned with improving the televised product. It quite possibly might be baseball’s biggest overarching initiative. Some of those earlier tweaks to the game? Well, more night games were added because that’s when most people aren’t working and able to watch TV. The DH? More offense, which brings in more viewers. When the popularity of the All-Star Game began to wane, it was decreed that the winning league would get home-field advantage in the World Series. And when instant replay was initially considered, the major league office considered that it could lengthen games and, subsequently, hurt viewership. The speed-of-play argument is shaping up to be a catalyst for even more change in the future.

“No change is made to the game without first considering television. And if purists are mad now, just wait until we’ve got ‘iUmps’ and ‘Snapchat’ strike zones. It’s only a matter of time.”

–‘Lights, Camera, Acrimony: Baseball’s First Televised Game Changed Everything’,
Seth Gruen, Rolling Stone, August 26, 2014

Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, NY, August 26, 1939 – First MLB game broadcast on TV between Reds and Dodgers

Feature Photo:
“One of the two cameras, or “electric eye” as it was called sometimes, was positioned by the visitors dugout for the first televised Major League baseball game in history. It would be for the second game of a doubleheader between the home team Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds. Earlier in May the National Broadcasting Company, eager to become the pioneer in sports broadcasting, televised a college baseball game between Columbia and Princeton using just one camera, to mixed reviews. This time in Brooklyn they would use two cameras, the second one positioned in a box seat behind home plate.

“The Dodgers, behind a Dolph Camilli home run and three RBIs, beat the Reds 6-1 to split the doubleheader. The Reds won the first game, 5-2.”

–‘Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, NY, August 26, 1939 – First MLB game broadcast on TV between Reds & Dodgers’,
Ron Bolton, Baseball History Comes Alive, July 11, 2016

Andy Coakley Field, Manhattan, NY, May 17, 1939 – Princeton at Columbia

“Baseball hasn’t always been broadcast in the high definition that we enjoy today. It didn’t always have a bunch of camera angles, either; in fact, most early broadcasts only had one camera, which was located behind the plate, far from the standard center-field angle we have since become used to.

“The first baseball game to be broadcast was on May 17, 1939, when Princeton and Columbia played an Ivy League game. The game was aired on an experimental television station in New York, called ‘W2XBS’, which later became ‘WNBC-TV’. Just a few months later, the first Major League Baseball game was broadcast, as Red Barber called the Brooklyn Dodgers vs. Cincinnati Reds doubleheader of August 26. That game featured two cameras, one located behind home plate, near the press box, and the other was located above the visitor’s dugout on the third base side.

“Soon, Major League Baseball would realize the potential of the medium, and by 1947, most games were broadcast on television. That year, the World Series was broadcast for the first time. Those games were carried by ‘NBC’ on ‘WNBT Channel 4’, which later became ‘WNBC’. The 1947 World Series had a total viewership of 3.9 million, with most of those coming from public places, like bars, where people gathered to watch.

“The next season, ‘WGN-TV’ broadcast its first baseball game, as Jack Brickhouse called the April 16 White Sox vs. Cubs game. Brickhouse later said,

“It worked because the Cubs and White Sox weren’t home at the same time. You aired the Sox at Comiskey, or Cubs at Wrigley Field. Daytime scheduling gave the Cubs a decided edge, as Wrigley didn’t have lights, so kids came home from school, had a sandwich, and turned the TV on.”

“The first televised All-Star game was on July 11, 1950, out of Comiskey Park in Chicago. Later that year, MLB Commissioner Happy Chandler and the player reps agreed on the split of the radio and TV rights from the World Series. On August 11, 1951, ‘WCBS-TV’ in New York aired the first baseball game in color, while ‘NBC’ would provide the first coast-to-coast broadcast of a baseball game on October 1, as the Brooklyn Dodgers defeated the New York Giants in a tiebreaker game, in which Bobby Thompson hit his famous “Shot Heard ’round the World”.

“‘NBC’ had another first in 1955, when they offered a World Series broadcast entirely in color, while in 1958, ‘KTTV’ in Los Angeles broadcast the first baseball game played on the west coast, with Vin Scully announcing the game.

“Instant replay, something that is commonly used nowadays, was first used on July 17, 1959, when broadcaster Mel Allen asked his director to replay a base hit off the bat of Jim McAnay, who broke up the no-hitter that Ralph Terry was pitching.

“The first baseball game televised via satellite was on July 23, 1962, when Jack Brickhouse called the Chicago Cubs vs. Philadelphia Phillies. ‘ABC’ made history in 1965 when they had Jackie Robinson call a game, which was the first time that an African American had done so. ‘ABC’ also made history later that year when they started the tradition of Saturday-afternoon national broadcasts, a format that eventually turned into the ‘Game of the Week’.

“The World Series made broadcast history in 1971, when MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn scheduled the first series game that was played at night. He felt that the game could attract a larger audience in prime time. The idea worked, and eventually became the standard, as all World Series games are played at night.”

–‘The History of Baseball Broadcasting: Early Television’,
Stevie Larson, Baseball Essential, Dec. 19, 2015

See also:
Farewell to the Babe{June 2, 2017}:

Base Ball’s Origins — A Clearer Picture{March 1, 2016}:


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