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McNamee: ‘Radio’s First Leading Man’

Long before the mega-channel cable/satellite universe, long before we could overdose on baseball games available on local and national packages, and XM Satellite Radio, decades before anybody ever dreamed of ESPN, there was baseball on network radio. The most dominant early voice was that of Graham McNamee.

Long before the mega-channel cable/satellite universe, long before we could overdose on baseball games available on local and national packages, and XM Satellite Radio, decades before anybody ever dreamed of ESPN, there was baseball on network radio.

The most dominant early voice was that of Graham McNamee.

GRAHAM McNAMEE: 13 years (1923-35) and retired, for Westinghouse (1923-25) and NBC (1926-35). A pioneer in sports broadcasting, he called 12 World Series on radio, beginning in 1923. Gave instant credibility to the birth of the National Broadcast Company (NBC) in 1926. Dubbed “the greatest announcer we ever had” by Red Barber. A former Broadway singer, he also pioneered radio broadcasts in 10 other sports, including boxing, tennis and football.

That thumbnail sketch comes from the official National Baseball Hall of Fame Web site. It barely begins to tell the story of just how much Graham McNamee meant to the early days of radio, and in particular, radio sports.


Hall of Fame broadcaster Red Barber wrote about McNamee in his 1970 book “The Broadcasters,” in a chapter appropriately called “The Pioneers.” He described McNamee as a talented singer who went to New York to further his career. After some success, in 1923 he auditioned for WEAF(AM), was hired as an announcer and was soon assigned to broadcast a boxing match – which, of course, he’d never done.
Coleman HonoredJerry Coleman, voice of the San Diego Padres and a pro former baseball player, is this year’s recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, which recognizes contributions to baseball broadcasting.

Coleman, 80, also broadcast games for the Yankees, Angels and CBS Radio’s “Game of the Week.” He’ll be honored during induction ceremonies in July.

He played with the Yankees from 1949 to 1957, began broadcast work in 1960 and has spent 32 seasons covering the Padres. Hall of Fame officials noted his “strong and concise play-by-play calling style, which he effectively mixes with malapropisms, much to delight of his listening audience.”

Past recipients are Mel Allen, Jack Buck, Jimmy Dudley, Red Barber, Lindsey Nelson, Jaime Jarrin, Bob Elson, Harry Caray, Arch McDonald, Russ Hodges, By Saam, Marty Brennaman, Ernie Harwell, Joe Garagiola, Felo Ramirez, Vin Scully, Milo Hamilton, Harry Kalas, Jack Brickhouse, Chuck Thompson, Bob Uecker, Curt Gowdy, Bob Murphy, Lon Simmons, Buck Canel, Bob Wolff, Bob Prince and Herb Carneal.
That fall, he broadcast his first World Series as the “color” man to sportswriter Grantland Rice. This is considered the first World Series carried via a national radio network broadcast.

“In the fourth inning of the third game, Rice decided he’d had enough of the microphone, and McNamee was handed the entire broadcast,” Barber wrote.

The future would bring more sports, along with historic political events, including a two-week Democratic convention in 1924. Barber says audiences responded. “Nobody got the mail the way McNamee got it,” whether it be good or bad. He got 50,000 letters after broadcasting the 1925 World Series.

This was not only a tribute to McNamee’s magnetism, Barber wrote; it also reflects radio’s initial impact.

Curt Smith, who wrote about McNamee in his history of baseball broadcasting “Voices of the Game,” told Radio World it was easy to see why McNamee developed such a huge following.

“He had a marvelous voice, he had a great ability to paint word pictures, to set a stage, set the scene. McNamee made (listeners) see it on the radio. He made it come alive. He certainly was not simply a cause of radio’s development, but a great mirror.”

McNamee, he says, was among the first to understand how to make radio work.

An entertainer first Ronald Reagan once wrote about the impact of sports announcers on his life:

“Broadcasting play-by-play reports of football games, people like Graham McNamee and Ted Husing had become as famous as some Hollywood stars,” Reagan recalled, “and often they were more famous than the athletes they reported on.”

Curt Smith calls McNamee controversial because he was an entertainer, not a die-hard sports guy. This rubbed some people wrong.

“He would much rather embellish a game … than broadcast it literally,” Smith said. “He understood the listener would remain with you as long as you entertained. His first commandment was ‘I will not bore you,’ and he never did. He freely admitted to being an entertainer first and a broadcaster second.”

In a 1926 book “You’re on the Air,” co-authored by Robert Gordon Anderson (quoted online by Prof. Jules Tygiel of San Francisco State University), McNamee described what it was like to broadcast baseball:

“The broadcaster must see to it that in his announcement are very few … ‘breaks’ on the air. For, with the breaks, the listeners immediately imagine that something has gone wrong with his set. Besides, he did not buy it just to listen to dead silence.

“So I found myself more than ever falling back on general description. And that is where the imagination comes in … You must make each of your listeners, though miles from the spot, feel that he or she, too, is there with you in that press stand, watching the movements of the game, the color, and flags; the pop-bottles thrown in the air … Gloria Swanson arriving in her new ermine coat; McGraw in his dugout, apparently motionless, but giving signals all the time.”

His growing popularity in the 1920s created jealousy among competitors. Many print journalists resented that McNamee could reach a larger audience with one broadcast than they could with a week’s worth of writing.

McNamee was known to take liberties to make a broadcast more dramatic. After sitting near the announcer during an event in 1927, sports journalist Ring Lardner wrote, “I don’t know which game to write about; the one I saw or the one I heard Graham McNamee announce.”

Barber said McNamee made mistakes, but owned up to them. McNamee, often working alone, did not have the support enjoyed by many of today’s broadcasters.

Rather than try to cover up a mistake or lack of knowledge, said Barber, McNamee would laugh right on the air. “And the nation smiled … knew he was human.”

According to a recent Radio History Society article, McNamee also was a straight man for Ed Wynn’s “Texaco Fire Chief” program. He covered the Kentucky Derby and described Charles Lindbergh’s return from France and Admiral Richard Byrd’s return from an Antarctic expedition.

An ‘institution’

McNamee was among the finalists for this year’s baseball Ford C. Frick Award, but did not win (see sidebar).

Smith calls McNamee an “extraordinary institution” who belongs in Cooperstown. But he says few of today’s media and fans are familiar with his name.

“To kids and teenagers growing up today, 10 years ago is ancient history,” Smith said. “McNamee has not been forgotten, but certainly, I think, (he) has been slighted, which is unfortunate.”

Another factor that works against McNamee, says Smith, is that he never broadcast baseball on a regular, day-to-day basis for a single team over a full season. “He was strictly a network guy who never did an inning of play by play outside the networks.”

But in a forthcoming book, Smith ranks McNamee in the top third of his picks for the Top 101 baseball broadcasters of all time. Without him, he says, “Who knows what happens to network radio? … In the 1920s and ’30s … Graham McNamee was radio. He was radio’s first leading man.”

Indeed, network radio linked small towns to the rest of the world. Baseball Hall of Famer Curt Gowdy, who broadcast baseball for the Red Sox, NBC-TV’s “Game of the Week and CBS Radio, remembers growing up in Wyoming, listening to McNamee broadcast the Rose Bowl and several World Series.

“He led the way in some instances,” says Gowdy, but, chuckling, added, “He was better at describing a sunset at the Rose Bowl than the game.”

Gowdy says McNamee may not have had a great knowledge of sports, but belongs in the Hall of Fame as a founding father of baseball broadcasting.

“He had a good voice. He was great at setting scenes … and could really paint a picture. He was a good ad-libber.”

McNamee broadcast at least 10 sports during his radio years but likely will be best remembered for baseball. What remains to be seen is whether McNamee can beat out some of the more recent “voices of the game” to get into the Hall. For now, it’s wait ’til next year.