SABR

Connie Desmond

This article was written by Rob Edelman.

In the 1940s Red Barber was solidly entrenched as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ lead broadcaster. But he was not the team’s lone play-by-play man. The “Old Redhead” was ably assisted by Connie Desmond, whose delivery befitted the era in that it was unhurried, calming, and wholly agreeable.

Decades after Desmond last described a game in Brooklyn, those in the know acknowledged his flair for painting verbal portraits of ballgames. Jack Craig, writing in the Boston Globe, referred to Desmond as “late and legendary.”1 The New York Times’ George Vecsey called him “vastly underrated.”2 Fellow Times sportswriter Gerald Eskenazi wrote, “He had a classic radio voice, with no regional accent, and a smooth if nondramatic delivery.”3 Barber himself noted, “He had a warm personality, a warm, pleasant voice. He knew his business impeccably.”4

Given his abilities, Desmond might have emerged as a broadcaster of the stature of a Barber, a Mel Allen, or a Vin Scully. What held him back was an inability to control his intake of alcohol.  

Cornelius “Connie” Desmond, Jr. was born in Toledo, Ohio on January 31, 1908, the youngest of four children born to Cornelius and Ruth Desmond. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1931 and began his career the following January in his hometown, where his pleasant voice won him a spot crooning and introducing dance bands on WSPD radio. But Connie yearned to broadcast baseball and emulate his idol, the velvety-voiced Ty Tyson, the announcer of University of Michigan football games and Detroit Tigers baseball games. 

He got his opportunity a couple of years later when General Mills began sponsoring baseball broadcasts, including approximately twenty-five Toledo Mud Hens games. A play-by-play man was needed, and Desmond won the job. He labored to perfect his low-key style and, in 1940, General Mills promoted him to the Columbus Red Birds, the St. Louis Cardinals’ top farm club. For the following two seasons he called Red Birds games on WCOL radio. 

In 1942, while in spring training with Columbus, Desmond was offered what a young play-by-play man then would have considered an ideal job: coming to New York and working with Mel Allen as a New York Yankees and New York Giants home-game broadcaster. Desmond readily accepted, but his tenure with Allen was brief. After the season, he was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers as a replacement for Al Helfer, who had joined the navy. The April 15, 1943, Sporting News announced that Desmond “has been selected by the J. Walter Thompson Agency as Red Barber’s new assistant in the Old Gold broadcasts of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ games.”5

The key word here is “assistant.” With Barber established as the Dodgers’ celebrity broadcaster, chances for career enhancement within the Brooklyn organization were limited. Desmond instead remained the supporting player, a mop-up man rather than a full-fledged broadcast partner. His duties included preparing and updating the statistics that would be at the Barber’s fingertips as he called the game, broadcasting the fifth inning, reporting the out-of-town scores, and reading most of the commercials.  

At this time, recalled soon-to-be Dodgers play-by-play man Vin Scully, “There was never any interplay on the air. I know Red always felt one man, one voice.” And so it only could be Barber, and not Desmond, who broadcast the break-up of Bill Bevens’s no-hitter by Cookie Lavagetto in the ninth inning of Game Four of the 1947 World Series. It only could be Barber, and not Desmond, who made the call on Al Gionfriddo’s catch of a ball hit by Joe DiMaggio in Game Six. 

It was for good reason, then, that a 1948 newspaper ad hyping Dodgers radio and television broadcasts featured Barber’s name before Desmond’s—and in a larger type size.7 (CBS-TV began airing Brooklyn’s home games in 1947. The team switched its affiliation to WOR-TV three years later.) Also in 1948, the New York Times reported that Barber and Desmond gave blood in response to a newly instituted Red Cross blood donor program. Yet the emphasis on Barber’s participation further reflected on his massive popularity and Desmond’s second-string status. The piece was headlined “Red Barber Gives Blood.” The “Old Redhead” was cited at the top of the account, with the third and final paragraph beginning, “Mr. Barber was accompanied by his broadcasting associate, Connie Desmond, who also donated blood.”8

What's more, during the 1948 campaign, Barber temporarily left his position to recover from a bleeding ulcer. Instead of elevating Desmond, Dodgers president Branch Rickey summoned Ernie Harwell, then broadcasting Atlanta Crackers games on WSB radio, as Barber’s substitute. In securing Harwell’s services, Rickey even agreed to send the Crackers one of his players, catcher Cliff Dapper.   

What, then, prevented Desmond from emerging out of Barber’s shadow? “Many thought [Desmond] rivaled Barber in ability,” wrote Ted Patterson in The Golden Voices of Baseball.9 One only can assume that his fondness for the bottle was damaging him professionally. Knowledge of his penchant for drinking at the time can only be speculated upon. However, Patterson observed that “alcoholism plagued him throughout his career, limiting his great potential.”10

So Desmond’s status in the broadcast booth remained unchanged. By 1950 it was Barber who had his own television program, Red Barber’s Club House, broadcast on CBS-TV. It was announced in February that Barber would be heading south to cover spring training. His show would be temporarily replaced by Saturday Sports Review, with Desmond filling in and reporting the sports news. During the offseason, Desmond also assisted Barber on WHN’s New York Giants football broadcasts and worked on the Barber-hosted CBS Football Roundup. He accepted other on-air assignments, including broadcasting National Invitation Tournament college basketball games and offering play-by-play of college football, including Bowl games.  

By the late 1940s Barber had become the director of sports at CBS. In November 1949 he assigned Scully, a freshly-minted Fordham University graduate, to work the CBS Radio booth at the Boston University-University of Maryland football game at Fenway Park. It was Scully’s first post-college play-by-play work, and he accomplished the equivalent of tossing a game-winning touchdown. Barber asked Scully to broadcast the Harvard-Yale contest in New Haven the following weekend. That winter, at Barber’s urging, Scully was hired to join him and Desmond in the Dodgers’ broadcast booth to replace the departing Ernie Harwell.  

Clearly, Scully was on the rise with the Dodgers. In 2003 he recalled his connection with his two older colleagues when he noted, “That relationship boiled down to, and came out over the air as the father, Red Barber; the older brother, Connie Desmond, and the kid. Whatever that relationship brought to the booth, it apparently came out over the air. Those people in Brooklyn who were exposed to it have told me that they don’t expect to ever hear anything like it again.”11

“That relationship” was fated to last just four seasons. During the 1953 campaign, Walter O’Malley, now in control of the Dodgers, began pressuring Barber to become more of an on-air team rooter, a tactic that was not to Barber’s taste. When O’Malley failed to back Barber’s request for extra payment by the Gillette Company for broadcasting the 1953 World Series, Barber resigned.  

The 1954 baseball season began with Scully and Desmond as the primary Dodgers broadcasters, with André Baruch hired to do some reporting and play-by-play and read most of the commercials.  real beer,” and the visual featured a smiling Desmond, with Barber nowhere in sight.12

A WOR-TV camera sat behind Desmond as he hoisted a glass of brew. The only problem was, he did not just “drink for enjoyment”—and his predilection for alcohol was about to demolish his career in Brooklyn. According to Barber, Desmond simply could not hold his liquor—and occasionally even failed to appear for Dodgers broadcasts.

So almost immediately, Scully was anointed the team’s prime broadcaster. Fittingly, it was Scully rather than Desmond who pronounced over the air, on October 4, 1955, after Elston Howard grounded out to Pee Wee Reese to give Brooklyn its first World Series title, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Brooklyn Dodgers are the champions of the world.”13

Midway through that campaign, Desmond’s drinking had resulted in his sudden disappearance from the Dodgers’ broadcast booth. The Sporting News noted that he was “on sick leave,” and he apparently was fired at season’s end.14 He begged to be reinstated, and Walter O’Malley agreed to afford him one final opportunity. In February 1956 the media reported that Desmond was slated to remain a member of the Dodgers play-by-play team, which now consisted of Scully and Al Helfer.  

Then on August 10, 1956, the New York Times tersely announced that Desmond had “resigned as a baseball announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers.”15 No explanation was given for his departure. But according to Boston Globe columnist Jack Craig, Desmond clearly “lost his job because of alcoholism.”16 Observed baseball broadcasting historian Curt Smith, “Connie took a knockout future—and flushed it down the flask.”17

While Desmond did not completely disappear from the world of sports and media, never again did he enjoy the stature of working beside someone of the caliber of a Red Barber or Vin Scully. His plight, in fact, was quite the opposite. In the early 1960s, future New York Times sportswriter Gerald Eskenazi was working at the paper as a copyboy. One day, a secretary informed him that a Mr. Desmond wished to speak with someone in the sports department. “I came to the reception area and was greeted by a quick-smiling Connie Desmond, who stood up, shakily,” Eskenazi recalled. “Clearly, he was drunk.”18 Desmond first asked for Arthur Daley, the paper’s sports columnist, who was out of the office. Then, he attempted to borrow $5 from young Eskenazi.

In 1964 Desmond’s name surfaced in a report about the Red Carpet Network, a new FM radio station that would provide music, news reports, and stock quotations for taxi drivers and their passengers. Desmond was listed as executive vice president and general manager of the company. Suffice to say that the Red Carpet Network did not revolutionize FM radio. 

Desmond eventually resettled in Toledo, where he returned to his professional roots as a Mud Hens broadcaster. He died on March 10, 1983.

In his time, Desmond may have been a top-quality play-by-play man. “If you never heard the late Connie Desmond, you missed a great baseball broadcaster,” wrote Joe Falls in The Sporting News.19 But in relation to his legacy, perhaps most telling was his obituary, published with no byline in the New York Times. It consisted of one sparse paragraph:

“Connie Desmond, who broadcast Brooklyn Dodger baseball games in the 1940’s and 1950’s with Red Barber, died last Thursday in Toledo, Ohio. He was seventy-five years old. Mr. Desmond is survived by his wife, Virginia; a sister, Bette; a son, Jim; a daughter, Cathy, and three grandchildren.”20

 

Sources

McNeil, William. The Dodgers Encyclopedia: Second Edition. Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing LLC, 2003.

Patterson, Ted. The Golden Voices of Baseball. Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing LLC, 2002.

Smith, Curt. Voices of Summer: Ranking Baseball’s 101 All-Time Best Announcers. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005.

Adams, Val. “N.B.C. Gives Role to Marisa Pavan.” New York Times, August 10, 1956.

------. “TV Series Slated for Perry Mason.” New York Times, February 7, 1956.

Best, Neil. “Vin Scully grew up as a...New York Giants fan!” Newsday, May 3, 2008.

Craig, Jack. “Schembechler about to silence voice of Tigers; Sportview.” Boston Globe, December 21, 1990.

------. “Scully completes cycle at Fenway; Sportview.” Boston Globe, July 9, 1989.

Falls, Joe. “Oh, to See Gehrig Play!” Sporting News, May 16, 1983.

Hutchens, John K. “Brooklyn’s Red Barber.” New York Times, May 2, 1943.

Lohman, Sidney. “News and Notes from the Studios.” New York Times, December 31, 1950.

Rodenbush, Jim. “Q & A With Vin Scully.” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 27, 2003.

Roeder, Bill. “Make-Believe Microphone Vin’s Step to Broadcasting.” Sporting News, August 3, 1955.

Rosenthal, Harold. “Scully Earns TV Plum Four Years Out of Fordham.” Sporting News, October 14, 1953.

Vecsey, George. “Sports of the Times: Don’t Support Local Cable Shell Game.” New York Times, March 29, 2002.

Young, Dick. “Clubhouse Confidential.” The Sporting News, February 22, 1956.

------. “Young Ideas: Sleeper: Jays Ahead of Yanks.” Sporting News, April 18, 1983.

Barber on Air Again.” Sporting News, March 22, 1945.

“Connie Desmond.” New York Times, March 13, 1983.

“On the Radio Airlines.” Sporting News, April 23, 1942.

“On the Radio Airlines.” Sporting News, April 15, 1943.

“Radio and Television.” New York Times, February 25, 1950.

“Radio Network for Taxis Proposed.” New York Times, December 10, 1964.

“Radio-Video.” New York Times, January 10, 1950.

“Red Barber Gives Blood.” New York Times, May 12, 1948.

“Tuning In.” Sporting News, February 15,1956.

“Tuning In.” Sporting News, August 29, 1956.

derkeiler.com: http://newsgroups.derkeiler.com/Archive/Alt/alt.sports.baseball.ny-mets/2006-09/msg00661.html

Social Security Death Index: http://ssdi.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/ssdi.cgi

wikipedia.com: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Barber#Brooklyn_Dodgers

 

Notes

1. Craig, Jack. “Schembechler about to silence voice of Tigers; Sportview.” Boston Globe, December 21, 1990.

2. Vecsey, George. “Sports of the Times: Don’t Support Local Cable Shell Game.” New York Times, March 29, 2002.

3. Eskenazi, Gerald. I Hid It Under the Sheets: Growing Up With Radio. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2005.

4. McNeil, William. The Dodgers Encyclopedia: Second Edition. Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing LLC, 2003.

5. “On the Radio Airlines.” Sporting News, April 15, 1943.

6. Best, Neil. “Vin Scully grew up as a...New York Giants fan!” Newsday, May 3, 2008.

7. Display Ad. New York Times, April 16, 1948.

8. “Red Barber Gives Blood.” New York Times, May 12, 1948.

9. Patterson, Ted. The Golden Voices of Baseball. Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing LLC, 2002.

10. Patterson, Ted. The Golden Voices of Baseball. Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing LLC, 2002.

11. Rodenbush, Jim. “Q & A With Vin Scully.” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 27, 2003.

12. Display Ad. New York Times, August 25, 1954.

13. Kepner, Tyler. “Sixty Years in Dodgers’ Booth, and Scully Is Still in Awe.” New York Times, June 24, 2010.

14. Roeder, Bill. “Make-Believe Microphone Vin’s Step to Broadcasting.” Sporting News, August 3, 1955.

15. Adams, Val. “N.B.C. Gives Role to Marisa Pavan.” New York Times, August 10, 1956.

16. Craig, Jack. “Scully completes cycle at Fenway; Sportview.” Boston Globe, July 9, 1989.

17. Smith, Curt. Voices of Summer: Ranking Baseball’s 101 All-Time Best Announcers. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005.

18. Eskenazi, Gerald. I Hid It Under the Sheets: Growing Up With Radio. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2005.

19. Falls, Joe. “Oh, to See Gehrig Play!” Sporting News, May 16, 1983.

20. “Connie Desmond.” New York Times, March 13, 1983; Eskenazi, Gerald. I Hid It Under the Sheets: Growing Up With Radio. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2005.

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