This article was written by Warren Corbett
Arch McDonald was the first radio voice of the New York Yankees, New York Giants and Washington Senators, where he called games for 23 seasons.
He was known as “The Old Pine Tree” after the song he used as his on-air signature. It is a country tear-jerker that was recorded by the likes of singing cowboy Gene Autry and bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley, but was written by three Broadway songsmiths:
They cut down the old pine tree
And they hauled it away to the mill
To make a coffin of pine
For that sweetheart of mine
They cut down the old pine tree
But she’s not alone in her grave tonight,
For it’s there my heart will always be;
Though we’d drifted apart,
Still they cut down my heart,
When they cut down the old pine tree.
(Copyright 1929 Vincent Youmans Inc., copyright assigned 1931 to Miller Music Corp.)
When the Senators won, rarely in most seasons, McDonald would tell his listeners, “Well, they did it again. They cut down the old pine tree.” (If you think this makes no sense, you are not alone.)
Arch Linn McDonald was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, on May 23, 1901, but grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was the star center in football for the Tornadoes of McCallie School, a private military prep school. After graduation he tried to enlist in the Army during World War I, but was turned down because he was not yet 18. So he hit the road.
For several years McDonald wandered the country, working in Texas oil fields and Dakota wheat fields, as a towel handler for heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, a Hollywood extra and a patent-medicine salesman. Eventually he returned to Chattanooga to sell refrigerators and play country records on radio. He became the public-address announcer for the Southern Association Lookouts and in 1932 began broadcasting their games over station WDOD.
He hooked up with Lookouts owner Joe Engel, the flamboyant promoter known as “The Barnum of the Bushes.” When Engel brought the circus to the ballpark, Arch broadcast his pre-game show while riding a camel. He later called it “my crowning glory of radio.”
In 1932 “Baseball’s Bible,” The Sporting News, recognized the growing popularity of baseball on radio and invited readers to choose the nation’s favorite broadcaster. Although he worked in a relatively small minor-league market, McDonald won the poll. (One may logically suspect that many of the votes bore the handwriting of the promotion-minded Joe Engel and his disciple.) The paper described Arch as “tall, slightly heavy of frame, with regular features, sandy hair and a pleasing manner, but it is his clear, resonant voice and knowledge of sports that has made his name a household word in the South.”
In 1934 McDonald was called up to the majors. The Lookouts’ parent club, the Washington Senators, had won the 1933 American League pennant and owner Clark Griffith wanted to capitalize on the team’s renewed popularity by putting some of their games on the air for the first time. Engel recommended McDonald.
He broadcast the home opener for WJSV (later WTOP) but covered only road games by Western Union re-creation for the rest of the season. Griffith did not allow home broadcasts until 1938 for fear that fans would stay home and listen instead of paying their way into the ballpark. For his re-creations, Arch brought the outlandish spirit of Joe Engel to the nation’s capital. One day he told listeners, “The Senators are going to win this game or I’m Scarlett O’Hara.” When Washington lost, he broadcast the next day’s game wearing a full skirt and petticoats styled after the heroine of Gone With The Wind, sitting in the display window of his sponsor’s drugstore on G Street, three blocks from the White House.
Later the drugstore built a studio with bleachers so fans could cheer the re-created broadcasts. To celebrate Senators’ base hits, McDonald banged a huge gong once for a single, four times for a home run. The Senators’ rare homers brought on “There she goes, Mrs. Murphy.”
Sportswriter Carl T. Felker said, “Washington fans…discovered themselves listening to a cross between a hillbilly show and a carnival of some sort, as McDonald poured it on with irrelevant comment and loud sighs. But he was giving them baseball too, a smart account of what was happening on the field, and they loved it.”
McDonald became a local favorite, acting in amateur theater, emceeing charity banquets for practically any organization that would roast a chicken and clowning with his station’s morning personality, Arthur Godfrey, who became an early television star. In 1936 he and Godfrey bet on whose listeners would donate more Christmas gifts for poor children. The loser McDonald, as it turned out — had to appear at the children’s Christmas show and perform “The Dance of the Dying Swan” in a ballerina’s tutu.
In 1939 Wheaties, the sponsor of most baseball broadcasts, invited McDonald to bring his act to Broadway. The three New York teams were the last holdouts against radio, but the new Brooklyn general manager, Larry MacPhail, planned to put the Dodgers on the air. MacPhail brought announcer Red Barber with him from Cincinnati.
The Giants and Yankees, who never played at home on the same day, decided to broadcast their home games and avoid conflict by blacking out road games. McDonald was hired as the announcer for both teams. He was said to be the nation’s highest-paid sports broadcaster at $27,800 a year, “more than Joe DiMaggio,” according to the Washington Post.
On April 17 Time magazine covered the debut of baseball on New York radio. The glowing story described the “big, bearlike” McDonald as an “Ambassador of Sports.” What the story did not say got one reader’s attention. In his autobiography, Red Barber recalled, “It went on for about a column and a half the bulk of the story about how skillful this man McDonald was. They even ran his photograph.” Time did not mention Barber. “I don’t know when I have ever been as mad,” he wrote nearly thirty years later. He said the resentment spurred him on all season long.
When McDonald left Washington, Wheaties chose a New York announcer, Mel Allen, to replace him, but Clark Griffith had a better idea: He hired the Senators’ Hall of Fame pitcher, Walter Johnson, to go behind the mike. Allen stayed in New York and soon got his chance. McDonald’s assistant, Garnett Marks, delivered a commercial for Ivory soap, but the words came out “Ovary soap” twice. Marks was out. Allen was in, beginning his storied career as Voice of the Yankees.
McDonald made a signal contribution to pinstripe lore when he dubbed Joe DiMaggio “The Yankee Clipper” after the Pan Am Yankee Clipper, the first transatlantic airliner. But his stay in New York was short and unhappy. His low-key, down-home style simply did not play. McDonald had a repertoire of metaphors to rival Red Barber and his “catbird seat.” Runners on base were “ducks on the pond”; a perfect strike was “right down Broadway”; a double play was “two dead birds.” While fellow southerners Barber and Allen became institutions in New York, McDonald failed miserably. He could not match their vivid play-by-play descriptions. He was later called, perhaps sarcastically, “Master of the Pause.” He called the pitch, then waited silently for the next one.
After one season he returned to Washington, where he was an institution. Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich later said, “He had an informal way about him, and this then was a casual sort of city. Being from Arkansas, he had a southern voice, and this then was very much a southern town.”
He explained his broadcasting philosophy in a 1942 interview with Sporting News publisher J.G. Taylor Spink: “In a big field, you have a crowd of 50,000 fans. Of these, 2,000 sit in the box seats. They’re the upper crust. The other 48,000 are the dollar guys, the fellows you try to reach. Give them the game as they know it. Be as brief as possible. Above all, don’t be a know-it-all. Let the fans think you are telling them the story just as they would tell it. Use penny words and let the dollar words take care of themselves.
“Sum it all up this way: be human. Enthusiasm is part of being human. You get that from any good baseball broadcaster.”
During World War II McDonald was an enthusiastic salesman of War Bonds ($300,000 worth in 1942 alone) and entertained servicemen at military bases and hospitals. He served as an air raid warden in his neighborhood and boasted that “no enemy set foot in my territory.”
In 1945 he won the Sporting News award as top announcer for the third time. McDonald stayed with the Senators until 1956, but after the war he was usually paired with younger and more upbeat partners, including Russ Hodges, who would move on to the Yankees and Giants, and Bob Wolff, who was listed as the team’s number-one announcer by 1950.
In 1946 one of McDonald’s listeners, President Harry Truman, helped persuade him to run for Congress as a Democrat in Maryland’s sixth district, which included his home in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring. Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler, a former Democratic senator from Kentucky, appeared at a fund-raiser for the candidate.
McDonald stayed on the air during the campaign. Under modern FCC regulations, his station would be required to offer equal time to other candidates, but not then. He was chosen for the Mutual network broadcast of the 1946 World Series, where he stepped into another controversy.
McDonald worked the Series with Jim Britt, the broadcaster for the American League champion Boston Red Sox. No announcer from the NL champion St. Louis Cardinals was chosen, perhaps to avoid exposing the nation to the grammatically challenged Dizzy Dean. The East Side Journal of East St. Louis, Illinois, wrote that McDonald “broadcast a game with the same lack of animation with which the treasurer of a Morticians Association might read his annual report.”
The criticism spread beyond St. Louis. The entertainment newspaper Variety reported, “The World Series is over, but as far as radio, the sour taste lingers on. Thousands of squawks by wire, postcard, letter and phone calls thundered into network headquarters and individual stations complaining about the subpar work of the announcers.” Some writers blamed Commissioner Chandler for giving the Democratic candidate a national stage, but the commissioner insisted the sponsor, Gillette, had picked the announcers.
After his rejection by many in the national radio audience, McDonald suffered another rejection at the polls in November. The two-term Republican congressman, J. Glenn Beall, defeated him easily. McDonald quipped, “I ran second and paid $4.40.” He threw a dinner party for Beall, explaining, “In sports the loser always congratulates the winner.”
That same year a horse named “Arch McDonald” fared better, winning the Wardman Purse at the track in Charles Town, West Virginia.
The Senators’ announcers did not start traveling with the team until 1955; they were the last major-league broadcasters to regularly re-create road games. The local club faced competition in its home market from re-creations of Brooklyn Dodgers games. Washington’s large black population followed Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe rather than their hometown team, which did not field a black player until 1954. (The first one was not an African American but a Cuban, Carlos Paula.) Nat Allbright, who broadcast the Dodgers re-creations over a large network serving the South, claimed his ratings in Washington were higher than the home team’s, and that led Clark Griffith to begin live broadcasts of road games.
McDonald was a regular in Griffith’s afternoon pinochle games at the ballpark and a fixture on local radio. By 1956 The Sporting News said he was the longest-serving baseball announcer, with a career dating back to Chattanooga in 1932. After that season he was dropped from the Senators’ broadcast team, reportedly over a dispute with the sponsor, National Bohemian Beer.
He continued to broadcast University of Maryland football on fall Saturdays and Washington Redskins games on Sundays. He had daily sports shows on WTOP radio and television.
In 1960 he suffered a heart attack, but defied his doctor and went back to work, saying, “I could baby myself and live 10 or 20 more years, but I want to keep on doing the things I like to do.” Presumably that included eating; he was described as “portly” and “roly-poly” and once said, “I’ll eat anything that doesn’t eat me.”
On October 15 McDonald broadcast the Maryland-Clemson game, then went to New York to cover the Redskins and Giants the next day. On the train heading home, he toppled out of his chair while playing bridge, struck down by another heart attack. Post reporter Jack Walsh, who was nearby, said he collapsed at 10:03 p.m. after bidding three no trump. One of the Redskins’ trainers tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but McDonald was pronounced dead by a doctor on the train. He was 59.
Post columnist Bob Addie wrote, “He was a man full of laughter whose echoes will never end as long as his friends survive.”
Two days later Addie reported, “One of the most impressive sights I ever saw was the entire Redskins squad lined up as honorary pallbearers when the body of Arch McDonald was carried to the hearse for its last long journey.”
McDonald was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland, just outside Washington. He was survived by his wife Cynthia, son Arch Jr., daughters Mrs. Winston Barnard and Mrs. O.E. Shepherd and 11 grandchildren.
In 1999 the National Baseball Hall of Fame honored Arch McDonald with the Ford C. Frick Award for “major contributions to baseball.”
The Sporting News, various issues, 1934-1960. McDonald’s obituary appeared 10/26/60, p. 34.
The Washington Post, various issues, 1934-1960. Obituary 10/17/60, p. A1.
Red Barber and Robert Creamer, Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat. Doubleday and Company, 1968.
David J. Halberstam, Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History. Masters Press, 1999.
National Baseball Hall of Fame, www.baseballhall.org
Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. Oxford University Press, 1983.
Curt Smith, Voices of the Game. Diamond Communications, 1987.
May 23, 1901 at Hot Springs, AR (US)
October 15, 1960 at New York, NY (US)
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