The History of Baseball Broadcasting: Early Radio

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This is the first of a four part series taking a look at the History of Baseball Broadcasting. The second part will be published next week, and will cover the first television broadcasts of MLB games.

Today, if you wanted to see a baseball game, you would just turn on the TV or fire up your computer and go to mlb.tv. If you happened to be driving, you could either fire up your phone and watch the games on your phone, or turn on the radio and listen to them.

Before television and radio became big mediums, the first “broadcast” of a baseball game was not a broadcast at all. It was similar to what ESPN does on their gamecast. It was a large board with mechanical players who had to be physically moved, with a light up section for balls, strikes, and outs. The game was updated through a game account sent through a telegraph. These “viewing parties” were shown in bars and movie theatres, and were considered very popular, especially during the World Series.

This went on until 1921 when the first baseball game was broadcast on KDKA from Pittsburgh. The game was played on August 5, and saw the Pittsburgh Pirates defeat the Philadelphia Phillies 8-5. The game had only one announcer (imagine that!). Later that year, KDKA and WJZ in New Jersey broadcast the World Series on radio for the first time, with Grantland Rice and Tommy Cowan giving the calls. However, the broadcasters were not actually present at the game, they were actually at the station’s studios, and read a play by play account from a telegraph wire.

Radio was not recognized as a legitimate medium by owners for a while, as even in the 1930’s, teams that shared a city with another team were fighting to prevent road games from being broadcast while one team was at home. These deals were common throughout the league, and were constructed on the grounds that if the fans can hear a game on the radio, they were less likely to attend the game in person. Home games could still be broadcast, but if you lived in Boston or New York, and your favorite team was on the road, then you were unable to listen to their game.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was installed as commissioner after the 1919 “Black Sox” incident, orchestrated a deal in 1935 that allowed the World Series to be broadcast on the radio on all three major networks. In exchange, baseball was paid $400,000 for the radio rights. This marked the end of the radio bans, as by 1939, all MLB teams were able to broadcast all their games on the radio.

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