A look back at first TV broadcasts of World Series in 1947

A history-making rookie named Jackie Robinson helped make the Dodgers-Yankees Series in 1947 compelling.
A history-making rookie named Jackie Robinson helped make the Dodgers-Yankees Series in 1947 compelling. (Inquirer file photo)
Posted: October 21, 2012

In Kensington taverns and Center City restaurants that final afternoon of September 1947, business was unusually brisk.

For the first time, the World Series, America's preeminent sporting event, was being televised, and Philadelphians, as curious about the new technology as the baseball, bunched around 7- and 10-inch screens for a peek.

Not that there was much to see.

Sunlight and shadows obscured the NBC cameras' view. The vantage point was poor, a tiny cage suspended from Yankee Stadium's first-base stands. And the new and cumbersome equipment kept breaking down.

"When we asked for a spot in the press box, the Yankees laughed at us," the late Harry Coyle, who served as the director for that historic telecast and thousands more with NBC, recalled in a 1989 Inquirer interview. "We had to put a canvas cover over our heads to try to cut down on the sun glare. And the people watching probably saw the 'please stand by' sign on their screens as much as the game. It was uncharted terrain."

Sixty-five years later, TV has conquered the postseason terrain. The networks, which weren't even deemed worthy of press credentials in 1947, now call the shots, scheduling games in the shadows, lengthening them with extra commercials, interrupting the action with shameless promos, and broadcasting games continuously - as happened on one day this October - from noon to well past midnight.

Before the 2012 postseason concludes, Fox, TBS, and MLB Network, which have paid hundreds of millions of dollars for the rights, will have televised 40-plus games.

Each, shown around the globe to a vast and increasingly diverse audience, is a full-blown Hollywood production, entailing an armada of satellite and equipment trucks, miles of cable, state-of-the-art computer graphics, and hundreds of technicians.

But two years after the end of World War II, when baseball coverage belonged to radio and newspapers, TV was merely a quirky intruder.

"It took us five years before they even gave us press pins and proper passes to the World Series," Coyle recalled.

Commercial viability

Though a big-league baseball game had been televised in 1939, there were no commercially available sets at the time. By 1947, there were, by most estimates, fewer than 50,000 TVs, most in bars, restaurants, and private clubs in the major cities of the East Coast. (That year, by comparison, there were about 80 million radios.)

TV sets sold for between $225 and $2,800, and there wasn't much point to having one unless you lived within range of a functioning TV station. As of January 1946, only nine existed, including Philadelphia's Philco-owned WPZT.

But sports, particularly baseball and boxing, had helped fuel radio's rise, and TV, desperate then as now for programming, turned there as well.

The 1946 telecast of the Joe Louis-Billy Conn heavyweight title fight proved the new medium's commercial viability. An estimated 141,000 viewed that Gillette-sponsored bout.

A year later, the razor company teamed with Ford to pay $65,000 for sponsorship of the 1947 World Series. (Radio rights that year went for $175,000.)

Games 1 and 6 would be seen on NBC; Games 3 and 4 on CBS; and Games 2, 6, and 7 on DuMont. Most cities, however, lacked a link to any network, so the games could be seen only in Philadelphia, New York, Washington, and Schenectady, N.Y.

As it turned out, everyone got lucky.

Because the Series matched the crosstown Yankees and Dodgers, costly travel was not necessary. The networks, as well as their technicians and equipment, were located in New York, as was the biggest potential audience.

Baseball-wise, the Yankees were the game's best known and most followed attraction. And interest in the Dodgers had spiked that year thanks to a history-making rookie named Jackie Robinson.

Once NBC's crew got situated in the Bronx stadium crow's nest that Sept. 30, the 2:20 p.m. game went on the air with virtually no fanfare. Announcer Bob Stanton, who also hosted NBC's Cavalcade of Sports, welcomed the viewers and described the action much as a radio broadcaster would.

"Anybody watching could have reacted in one of two ways," Coyle told Curt Smith for that author's 1987 book on the history of baseball announcing, Voices of the Game.

"He could have been amazed . . . or he could have been appalled."

After Stanton, DuMont's Bill Slater, a West Point graduate and the host of radio's popular 20 Questions, did Game 2. Game 3 was handled by DuMont's Bob Edge.

If viewers managed to glean what was happening from the tiny, fuzzy images, they got to see a Series made memorable not just by Robinson's presence but by seven tautly contested games.

There was Cookie Lavagetto's hit with two outs in the ninth inning to win Game 4 for the Dodgers and spoil Bill Bevens' no-hitter. There was Al Gionfriddo's remarkable catch for Brooklyn in Game 6 and Joe DiMaggio's uncharacteristically frustrated reaction to it. And ultimately there was the Yankees' 5-2 win in Game 7, capping their first of six championships in seven years.

Audience exploded

While newsreel highlights from the Series remain, kinescopes of those original broadcasts do not. The productions undoubtedly would appear infantile by contemporary standards, but they drew contemporary praise from New York Times critic R.W. Stewart.

"Stanton did not intrude. His explanations were brief, at times amusing, and, in conformity with his assignment, enlightening," wrote Stewart. "Television's coverage of its first World Series is a credit to those, both telecasters and sponsors, interested in its furtherance. By continuing to sidestep the pitfalls made obvious by broadcasting, future efforts can thus be concentrated on measures of development instead of correction."

No one was quite sure how to measure audience size then, but Billboard magazine estimated that 3.9 million people saw some of the Series, the overwhelming majority at bars and restaurants.

Three years later, when the Phillies and Yanks met in the World Series and by which time manufacturers such as Philadelphia's Philco were churning out sets, the city's bars weren't quite as crowded.

TVs were becoming commonplace in America homes, and the audience for that World Series exploded to 20 million.

"Man, we didn't know exactly what to expect," Coyle told Smith about the historic 1947 telecast. "We just didn't want to be embarrassed."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com. Follow @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz

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