History In The Headlines

Major League Baseball Makes Television Debut, 75 Years Ago

By Evan Andrews
On August 26, 1939, the Brooklyn Dodgers hosted the Cincinnati Reds in a double-header at Ebbets Field. Some 33,000 fans came to watch the matchup in person, but for the first time, roughly 3,000 others saw the action and heard the roar of the crowd from television sets. The two-camera broadcast was rudimentary at best—some viewers had trouble even seeing the ball—but it signaled the beginning of a new era in entertainment. On its 75th anniversary, take a look back at the first televised Major League Baseball game in history.
first televised baseball game

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On the afternoon of August 26, 1939, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Dolph Camilli stepped up to the plate against Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Niggeling. The Dodgers had lost the first game of a doubleheader 5-2 to the visiting Reds earlier that day, and now the fans at Ebbets field were looking to Camilli revenge. The big first baseman was a classic slugger, notorious for either blasting the ball out of the park or going down swinging, but this time, luck was with him. When Niggeling’s pitch came, Camilli connected for his 22nd home run of the season. Of the 33,000 spectators who watched as the ball sailed over the fence, two in particular stood out—a pair of cameras positioned by the visiting players’ dugout and behind the catcher’s box. These “electric eyes” were part of a historic experiment engineered by the National Broadcasting Company, which was airing a Major League Baseball game live on television for the first time. Camilli had not only helped seal a 6-1 Dodgers victory—he’d also hit the first televised home run in big league history.

The first real attempts to bring the national pastime to the small screen had only arrived earlier that year, when the New York World’s Fair opened with television as one of its major exhibits. To promote what they dubbed “Television’s First Year,” NBC and its parent outfit RCA sent cameras to cover important events around New York and used mobile vans to relay the programming to an experimental station called W2XBS. From its home base atop the Empire State Building, W2XBS beamed the coverage to television sets across the city, including several on display at the World’s Fair.

NBC planned to dazzle fairgoers with live coverage of athletic events, in particular baseball, then the country’s most popular sport. “It’s merely a question of keeping the tele-photo eye of the camera, or two or three cameras, on the action,” NBC program director Thomas Hutchison told The New York Times in April 1939. “The answer for telecasting sports is ‘yes.’” The first televised baseball game came a few weeks later on May 17, when W2XBS carried coverage of a college matchup between Columbia and Princeton at New York’s Baker Field. The results were decidedly mixed. The crew only had a single camera to cover all the action, and often lost track of the ball while panning between the pitcher and the batter. A New York Times editorial later criticized the poor picture and complained, “television is no substitute for being in the bleachers.” The magazine Variety, meanwhile, quipped that without the radio-style commentary, the broadcast would have been the equivalent of a “42nd Street flea circus.”

Brooklyn Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds face of on August 26, 1939. (Credit: MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Brooklyn Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds face of on August 26, 1939. (Credit: MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Despite the lukewarm response, RCA and NBC continued to push for sports on television. The companies hoped to cover a Major League Baseball game, but getting one of New York’s three big league clubs to agree to the experiment was no easy task. The teams had previously instituted a five-year ban on radio broadcasts, which they believed reduced game attendance, and some appeared even more vehemently opposed to television. NBC program manager Alfred “Doc” Morton was stonewalled by the Yankees and the Giants, and only got through to the Dodgers by contacting Red Barber, the team’s radio commentator. Barber brought the proposal to the Dodgers innovative general manager, Larry MacPhail, who jumped at the chance for his team to be the first to host a live telecast. As a fee, he asked only for a television set for his club’s pressroom.

On Saturday, August 26, NBC’s mobile “radio camera” team arrived at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field to broadcast a doubleheader between the Dodgers and the Reds. The company had bought ads in local papers encouraging fans to “See big league baseball for the first time by television,” but their audience was guaranteed to be tiny. There were only around 400 privately owned televisions within the 50-mile radius of the W2XBS signal, and most viewers watched from the exhibits at the World’s Fair or on display models at RCA television stores. All told, the TV audience would number only around 3,000 people.

Having learned from the spotty response to the Columbia-Princeton game, the network upped the ante on their coverage. This time, they came armed with two cameras. The first was positioned behind the third base line to cover the infield, while the other was placed in a second tier box behind home plate to provide a bird’s eye view of the action. Combined with a more sophisticated telephoto lens, the new setup offered a more comprehensive view of the park. The picture was still crude—some described the players looking like “silhouettes” and the swinging bat resembling a “big Japanese fan”—but the feedback was largely positive. “The spheroid which appeared only occasionally as a white streak across home plate at Baker Field was clearly followed at Ebbets Field,” wrote the New York Times. “The idea that the electric ‘eyes’ could never handle the scattered action of a baseball field faded at the Brooklyn diamond. It sparkled on the air.” Watching on their tiny seven by ten inch black and white displays, TV owners were treated to never-before-seen close-ups of the players in the dugout. Some of the big leaguers even got up and demonstrated their pitching and batting techniques for the camera.

Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber interviews Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher, August 26, 1939. (Credit: Sporting News via Getty Images)

Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber interviews Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher, August 26, 1939. (Credit: Sporting News via Getty Images)

Dodgers radio commentator Red Barber stepped in as baseball’s first ever television announcer, using his trademark homespun style to give context to the still-limited coverage. Barber wore headphones so he could hear the broadcast’s director, but he later claimed that he effectively did the commentary blind. “I had to guess which way the camera was pointing, and I never knew for sure what was on the picture,” he recalled in his biography. “There was no monitor—this was years before anyone ever dreamed of a monitor.”

In a preview of the days to come, Barber also conducted some of the first ever television commercials when he improvised on-air spots for Wheaties cereal, Ivory Soap and Mobilgas—the usual sponsors of the Dodgers’ radio broadcast. “They put the camera on me, and I held up a box of Wheaties and poured them in a bowl,” he later wrote. “I took a banana and a knife, and I sliced the banana onto the Wheaties. Then I poured in some milk and said, ‘That’s the Breakfast of Champions.’” The announcer also did brief commercials for the other two sponsors, both of them “completely ad lib. Not a cue card in sight.” After the games were over, Barber and the NBC crew achieved another historic first when they conducted an on-field interview with manager Bill McKechnie and pitcher Bucky Walters of the Reds, and player-manager Leo Durocher and home run hero Dolph Camilli of the Dodgers.

Dodgers GM Larry MacPhail was delighted with NBC’s experimental coverage, and vowed to allow more televised big league games the following season. On April 19, 1940, the “electric eyes” returned to Ebbets Field to broadcast the Dodgers opening day matchup against the Giants. Other clubs soon followed suit, and by the 1941 season, Major League Baseball was averaging around one televised game a week. Fans and commentators called for the World Series to be televised, but the rights to the games proved too expensive until 1947, when some 4 million people tuned in to watch the championship series between the Yankees and the Dodgers. As more televisions found their way into American homes, the audience grew by leaps and bounds. Only 3,000 curious viewers had watched the first televised game in 1939, but by 1950, the World Series was pulling an estimated audience of 38 million people.

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Categories: Baseball, Television