Before Harold Arlin voiced Major League Baseball’s first broadcast on August 5, 1921, the only way to experience a game was to go to the stadium. The only way to keep track of the scores was to look at a wooden scoreboard to see them manually edited.
Legends sat behind microphones and since then have developed a rich tradition of broadcasting baseball. Each major city has had its own play-by-play icon, with some becoming national figures: Vin Scully (Los Angeles Dodgers), Red Barber (Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees), Mel Allen (New York Yankees), Harry Caray (Chicago Cubs), Harry Kalas (Philadelphia Phillies) and Jack and Joe Buck (St. Louis Cardinals).
But Arlin was the Wilbur Wright of baseball broadcast. Without Orville making color commentary, he sat behind a makeshift microphone in the summer of 1921 and delivered the first play-by-play radio. Her Kitty Hawk sat behind the plate at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. His audience was a small group of shortwave radio enthusiasts who tapped into KDKA from the Westinghouse Company in Pittsburgh, the first commercial radio station in the United States.
A 25-year-old electrical engineer for Westinghouse, Arlin out of curiosity checked the new radio setup, he told the Mansfield (Ohio) News-Journal in an interview in 1981. After hearing Arlin’s rich voice, the powers that be convinced him to go on the air.
Within a few years, Arlin was described by the London Times as “the most famous American voice in England”. KDKA’s signal reached all the way across the Atlantic. This created a challenge for KDKA. With this kind of audience potential, the station had to be creative in its programming.
KDKA broadcasts the results of the presidential elections of 1920
The years following the end of World War I in 1918 sparked a flood of talent and innovation on the public airwaves. Westinghouse’s in-house station KDKA made history by broadcasting the results of the 1920 presidential election. About five hundred listeners, a Pittsburgh newspaper later reported, learned that Warren G. Harding had defeated James Cox. There were five licensed radio stations in the United States in 1921. By 1924, there were over 500.
But for a while, Arlin and KDKA had the field largely to themselves, and they tried to plow as much as they could.
“Baseball,” someone suggested.
“Too boring” was the answer.
Nonetheless, the station decided to give it a try, a “one-off” show just to see how it would go. Technicians concocted a microphone from a phone – the “mushiphone” looked like a mushroom or a can of tomatoes with a felt liner. KDKA distributed radios to friends and families of employees, simply to create a potential audience.
The game that day was between host Pittsburgh Pirates and the visiting Philadelphia Phillies. With mystified fans sitting around him in the stands, Arlin delivered a description of the match into his mushiphone.
Arlin had never listened to a baseball game on the radio. No one had. He couldn’t joke with a sarcastic colored commentator. He didn’t have any commercials to break the action. He did not give his name. He didn’t have a signature home run call.
“Let’s think about Harold Arlin and that first broadcast,” wrote Pat Hughes, longtime Chicago Cubs player and broadcast history student. “Was he nervous? How much preparation did he do? How detailed was his description of the game, if any? How often did he give the score? Did he even consider things like personality, humor, or style? Probably not. ”No first-run tape exists, so no one knows.
1921: a year of broadcasting premieres
The day after the Pirates 8-5 win over the Phillies, Arlin broadcast a Davis Cup match between Great Britain and Australia in Pittsburgh, the premier tennis event on the radio. It was relayed match information provided by phone. Two months later, Arlin was the play-by-play voice of the first radio-broadcast college football game, a contest between the University of West Virginia and the University of Pittsburgh.
That year was a pivotal year for radio: the first presidential inauguration speech was broadcast along with the first live boxing match, the first weather report and the first church service.
Arlin has become a regular presence on KDKA’s airwaves and has been called “the world’s first radio disc jockey”. One day he was interviewing Babe Ruth, who brought a prepared text to read. Ruth got nervous when the microphone was in front of him, so Arlin read her speech while Ruth smoked a cigar. Arlin then received letters praising Ruth for her polite voice.
Arlin’s broadcast wasn’t always smooth. On his second college football show, he was so excited when the University of Pittsburgh scored against Nebraska that he broke a piece of equipment. The station fell silent. It happened again, but this time it was boxer Jack Dempsey, falling out of the ring and on Arlin’s gear.
Jack Dempsey. Baby Ruth. Soccer. Tennis. Baseball. After a few years and a number of broadcast firsts, Arlin stepped away from the mic and moved to Mansfield, Ohio, taking on another role at Westinghouse. In Pittsburgh on August 30, 1972, he was recalled from retirement to call an inning pitched by his grandson, Steve, of the San Diego Padres.
Harold Arlin invents sports broadcasting
the Mansfield News-Journal reported that in 1981 Arlin, who died at Mansfield in 1986, still had the roster cards from that 1921 Phillies-Pirates match. Quite by accident, the young electrical engineer had wandered into a radio booth and into the history of broadcasting.
Arlin invented sports broadcasting.
The world did not change immediately. Baseball teams were reluctant to broadcast games for fear that fans would listen rather than go to the stadium. Sports news even editorialized against games on the radio in 1925: “Broadcasting game stories as the games unfold is the equivalent of a succotash night without corn and beans. It wasn’t until 1939, 18 years after Arlin’s first flight, that all Major League Baseball teams broadcast their games locally. Games on the radio have become very popular.
“Harold Arlin was a pioneer,” wrote Hughes, the voice of the Cubs. “While his first attempt was probably a little awkward, it started the marriage of radio to baseball, a game of heaven that continues to thrive to this day.”