Gordon McLendon made it all up. He made up his radio persona, “the Old Scotchman,” an 83-year-old expert on American baseball. He made up the games he was describing, sitting in a studio hundreds of miles away from ballparks he had never seen.
When major-league owners denied him permission to broadcast, he went on the air and dared them to stop him. They did, but not until he had created the first national network of daily baseball broadcasts. Before McLendon, only the All-Star Game and World Series could be heard nationwide.
“The Liberty Broadcasting System is the largest baseball network in the history of radio,” he boasted, accurately. “From the lush tobacco fields of North Carolina to the sun-baked mesas of New Mexico, and from the waving cornfields of Kansas to the golden beaches of Florida, Liberty is carrying its baseball gospel to thirty million [listeners].”1
Minor-league owners accused him of killing their attendance. Other critics said his melodramatic play-by-play bore no resemblance to the action on the field. McLendon was a radio artist, but his word pictures of ball games were often so grotesque as to mystify Salvador Dali.
McLendon’s brief success and ultimate failure in baseball was the first of many innovations in a career that elevated him to Fortune magazine’s list of the wealthiest Americans and the Radio Hall of Fame.
Gordon Barton McLendon was born on June 8, 1921, in Paris, Texas, although his parents, Barton R. and Jeanette (Eyster), lived nearly 70 miles away in Idabel, Oklahoma. B.R. McLendon, a lawyer and native Mississippian, had decided for some unknown reason that his first child had to be born in Texas.
B.R. got rich through investments in oil, real estate, and a chain of movie houses, Tri-State Theaters. He sent Gordon to the Kemper Military School in Boonville, Missouri, where the boy finished first in his class, and to Yale, where he was chairman of the literary magazine and a member of the debate and tennis teams. He found time to break into radio on the campus station, WOCD. He said his fascination with radio began in childhood when he listened to sports announcers Graham McNamee, Bill Stern, and Ted Husing. He chose Husing as a model, paying close attention to the CBS star’s high-falutin’ vocabulary and smoothing his drawl by imitating Husing’s dramatic delivery.
Gordon majored in Oriental languages at Yale, leading to his assignment as a Navy translator during World War II. Broadcasting over Armed Forces Radio in the Pacific, he delivered satirical news commentary under the alias Lowell Gram Kaltenheatter, a mashup of the names of four famous newscasters. He was struck by the way soldiers and sailors crowded around the radios to listen to ball games no matter which teams were playing.
After a brief stop at Harvard Law School, trying to satisfy his father and grandfather, Gordon persuaded B.R. to buy a 100-watt radio station in tiny Palestine, Texas. With his father’s financial backing, he won a license for a new, daytime-only station in the Dallas suburb of Oak Cliffs and put KLIF on the air on September 1, 1947.
One of McLendon’s first programming moves was a re-creation of a National Football League game between the Chicago Cardinals and Detroit Lions. He believed sports were his best hope to draw listeners away from established stations. He tried other experiments: two Black bandleaders served as deejays, and a parrot was trained to squawk the station identification every half hour.
McLendon planned to build KLIF’s schedule around baseball the next spring, but the major leagues refused to sell him broadcasting rights. To protect minor-league teams, the majors had agreed that none of their games would be broadcast more than 50 miles from the club’s home ballpark. That meant there were tens of millions of people outside the Northeast and Midwest who could not hear big-league games. Nobody in baseball or radio thought there was much appetite for the broadcasts beyond a team’s home territory. McLendon, remembering the soldiers and sailors in the Pacific, disagreed.
Because of the majors’ rejection, Western Union would not sell McLendon its telegraphed play-by-play reports from the ballparks. That didn’t faze him. He hired a man in New York to listen to Mel Allen’s Yankee broadcasts, transcribe the pitch-by-pitch account, and transmit it to Dallas via a private teletype (TWX) circuit.
The 26-year-old station owner became the play-by-play announcer. He introduced himself: “Hallo, evvabody, evvawhere, this is the Old Scotchman, Gordon McLendon, 83 years old this very day”2 — and transported listeners into his fantasy baseball world — A. Bartlett Giamatti’s “enclosed green field of the mind.”3
Major-league teams asserted that they owned a property right to the broadcasts of their games. McLendon countered, “I do not believe that a radio station should have exclusive rights to any sports event, because the airwaves belong to the people.”4 Just a few weeks into the 1948 season, baseball gave in and permitted KLIF to broadcast the Western Union re-creation after the station paid $500 to Dallas’s Texas League team for invading its territory.
Re-creations were not new. Major-league teams’ announcers didn’t travel to road games until after World War II; they relied on Western Union’s shorthand accounts by wire. “B1OS” meant “ball one, outside.” A foul ball over the grandstand was “FOG.”5 The announcer in a distant studio took that button and sewed a vest on it.
The fake Scotchman strove to make the fake experience seem real by adding fake sound effects. His special sauce was fake drama. The entire broadcast was a Texas-sized fraud.
McLendon always claimed he built a network by accident when some small-town Texas stations began asking to carry his baseball broadcasts. He had no sales staff to line up affiliates, but news of his ratings success spread along the radio grapevine. By the end of the 1948 season, about 50 stations had signed up. “It just grew like Topsy,” he said.6
The US Justice Department provided a boost. In 1949 federal lawyers threatened an antitrust suit over the majors’ restrictions on radio. Fearing a legal challenge to its cherished exemption from antitrust laws, baseball scrapped its 50-mile rule to allow game broadcasts anywhere, as long as the local team was not playing at home at the same time. Major-league teams shut Liberty out of their markets, but that blacked out only 10 cities. The rest of the country was wide open for the Old Scotchman.
McLendon’s timing was perfect. The Federal Communications Commission began licensing new stations after a wartime moratorium, and startups went on the air in hundreds of towns, all hungry for programming. By June 1950, Liberty fed its games to 241 stations in 33 states from Florida to California, “Americans who had never before had the opportunity of hearing these games,” as McLendon pointed out in an ad in The Sporting News.7
No Americans had ever heard any games like Liberty’s. As his network expanded, McLendon’s fakery in search of authenticity grew more elaborate. He sent audio engineers to every big-league park to record the cheers of the fans, the cries of the vendors, the organist playing the national anthem. His technicians discovered that they could mimic the voice of a public-address announcer by taking a microphone into KLIF’s tiled men’s room, a natural echo chamber. A No. 2 pencil banged against a bat sounded just like bat meeting ball. Engineers in the control room presided over four turntables with different crowd noise ranging from an expectant rumble to a frenzied roar.
Orchestrating it all was the maestro behind the mike. McLendon possessed a deep, rich voice and the theatrical flair he had learned from Ted Husing. He developed his own colorful language, a backwoods lingo no Scotchman had ever spoken: “fast as the lead dog in a coon hunt … mad as a rooster that overslept … uncertain as a dish of Tuesday’s hash.”8 He hired a writer to invent his ad-libs.
Liberty’s millions of listeners, or most of them, lived in the Southeast, Southwest, and West, in small towns and on farms far from any major-league city. For many radio listeners, like the boy who grew up to become mystery writer Robert B. Parker, “it was as if I learned the shaman incantations of a magic sect.” At home in Springfield, Massachusetts, Parker wrote, “Listening to the scores — Pittsburgh 4, Chicago 2; Cleveland 8, Detroit 1 — I felt connected to all the great cities I’d never seen, across the vast rolling reaches of the Republic, connecting me with them and with the people there watching the games. I saw them. I smelled the steamy heat in their streets. Philadelphia, Washington, Cincinnati.”9
When the majors had an off-day or a game was rained out, McLendon re-created thrilling games of yesteryear. He once reached back for an 1886 matchup between the St. Louis Browns and Brooklyn Bridegrooms. He capped off that broadcast by interviewing St. Louis third baseman Arlie Latham, who was still alive and talking at 91.
Liberty’s broadcasts began at the same time every afternoon, appointment listening. “By two o’clock almost every radio in town was tuned in to the Old Scotchman,” Willie Morris wrote of his boyhood in Yazoo, Mississippi. “Under his handling a baseball game took on a life of its own. … [H]is games were rare and remarkable entities; casual pop flies had the flow of history behind them, double plays resembled the stark clashes of old armies, and home runs deserved acknowledgment on earthen urns. Later, when I came across Thomas Wolfe, I felt I had heard him before, from Shibe Park, Crosley Field, or the Yankee Stadium.”10
Morris recounted how, as a 12-year-old, he was tuning in around the radio dial when he found a live broadcast of the same game McLendon was calling on the Liberty network. He realized that Liberty was several innings behind, the first time he had known that the Old Scotchman was not at the ballpark. Young Willie wowed his neighbors by listening to the live broadcast and then predicting, with perfect accuracy, the plays they were about to hear from McLendon a few minutes later.
McLendon leveraged the success of his baseball broadcasts and the football games that filled the autumn air to grow Liberty into a full-fledged network with 16 hours of programming every day. He created game shows, mysteries, advice and how-to programs, and a children’s story hour. Liberty hired nationally known news commentators who had lost their jobs with the major networks, including William L. Shirer, Raymond Gram Swing, and Joseph C. Harsch. The older networks were pulling back from radio, surrendering to the onslaught of television, but McLendon was convinced that radio had a future. He thought TV would take over the evening hours, while radio controlled daytime.
By 1951 Liberty boasted 458 stations and was paying $225,000 for broadcast rights. But attendance in the majors and minors was beginning to sag after a brief postwar boom. Minor-league owners blamed the competition from television and McLendon’s radio broadcasts.
“No picture that is shown on television could be possibly as vivid as the picture I painted in my own mind of a baseball game,” he said.11 That was the problem: his re-creations were more exciting than the real thing. “The broadcasters are artists,” complained Bob Finch, spokesman for the minors’ governing body, the National Association. “They make every play a drama. When the fan hears this supercharged broadcast in the afternoon and goes out to the minor league park at night without seeing plays of similar drama, he feels let down.”12
McLendon proved he could bring drama to a live, on-the-scene broadcast as well. In 1951 Liberty began covering some games at the ballparks and hired additional play-by-play announcers to spell the Old Scotchman. The new voices were young men on their way to long careers in sports. Jerry Doggett later joined Vin Scully in the Dodgers’ booth; Don Wells moved on to the White Sox and Angels; and Lindsey Nelson became the first voice of the Mets and one of the premier football announcers on national television. Even Dizzy Dean worked occasional games for Liberty, including an unforgettable football broadcast when Diz followed the ball-carrier “to the 50-yard line, the 55, he’s to the 60…”13
According to Nelson, they went on the road to broadcast from the ballparks one week out of every month. In September, as the Giants chased down the Dodgers for the National League pennant, McLendon followed those two teams for the final weeks. When they finished in a tie, McLendon aired the playoff series that ended with the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” While Russ Hodges’s screaming call of Bobby Thomson’s home run — “The Giants win the pennant!” five times — has been replayed for decades, millions more listeners probably heard McLendon that day:
“Bobby swings. There’s a long drive out to left. It’s going, going. The Giants win the pennant! (14 seconds of crowd cheering) I don’t know what to say. I just don’t know what to say. It’s the greatest victory of all baseball history. The greatest come-from-behind triumph in the history of the game as Bobby Thomson, a two-out, two-on home run in the last half of the ninth inning. And the new National League champions are the New York Giants, who came back from the brink with grit and pluck and [inaudible] that will live down as long as they write baseball history.” (Transcribed from YouTube.)
McLendon remembered that broadcast as one of his best. It was also Liberty’s high tide. Beginning in 1950, the upstart’s success had sparked a copycat. Mutual, the nation’s largest network, began its Game of the Day in direct competition with Liberty. But Mutual went Liberty one better: its games were broadcast live from the park. Worse, Mutual stole McLendon’s biggest sponsor, Falstaff beer.
Falstaff’s defection punched a reported million-dollar hole in Liberty’s budget. The network was constantly teetering on precarious financial ground, and its president was far more interested in broadcasting than in business. McLendon claimed baseball was a money-loser because of the expense of AT&T line charges and rights fees. His entertainment programs were costly productions. Lindsey Nelson said Liberty ran on credit and McLendon’s optimism.14 His father had been covering the losses, but now father and son were forced to sell 50 percent of their company to an angel: Hugh Roy Cullen, an oil-soaked Texas multimillionaire known as “the king of the wildcatters.”
Baseball joined the assault on Liberty. After the 1951 season, 13 of the 16 major-league teams refused to renew their contracts with the network. It’s not clear why they cut McLendon off, but he had always been trouble. The minors were crying poverty and blaming Liberty. The network had begun carrying night games as well as daytime, increasing its threat to the minors’ gate receipts. It had expanded from its roots in the hinterlands to invade the majors’ territory with outlets in New York and New England. In addition, Liberty’s competitor, Mutual, was paying more for radio rights and promising no broadcasts at night or on Sunday, the biggest day for ballpark attendance in the majors and minors.
Facing the loss of his flagship programs, McLendon filed suit accusing the majors of freezing him out and seeking $12 million in damages. But the lawsuit was a long game, while he was scrambling to meet the next week’s payroll. On May 15, 1952, the Liberty network went off the air. It was soon forced into bankruptcy. The $12 million suit was settled for a token amount two and a half years later, with the payoff going to lawyers and creditors. Colorado Senator Edwin Johnson, who served simultaneously as president of the Western League, gloated, “Big as Liberty was, baseball broke it overnight.”15
Despite the bitter ending, for the rest of his life McLendon maintained that his five years jousting with the baseball establishment and bringing the games to distant fans were his happiest times. “They were years of a young man’s springtime,” he said. “And I cherish nothing but warm feelings about baseball, and I still love it.”16
By 1952 the McLendons owned stations in Houston and El Paso as well as Dallas’s KLIF, which had expanded to 24-hour broadcasting. Gordon had married Gay Noe, whose father, a former governor of Louisiana, owned more stations. Even though he had no choice but to fold Liberty, he got out of the network business just in time. Television was killing that radio era. McLendon was one of a handful of entrepreneurs who reinvented the medium on a new model.
The survival of radio as a profitable enterprise hinged on local rather than network programming and on a fundamental shift in philosophy: Instead of airing blocks of different programs appealing to the broadest spectrum of listeners, successful stations adopted an all-day, all-night formula aimed at a particular slice of the audience.
Todd Storz was a radio nerd like McLendon and, like McLendon, he had a rich father who bought him a station. Storz’s father, owner of the biggest brewery in Omaha, bought KOWH in their hometown. Casting about for a way to attract listeners, Todd began playing the best-selling records, based on an unscientific survey of local stores, reasoning that the largest slice of the audience wanted to hear the most popular music. Storz bought more stations and installed the hit-music format everywhere he went.
After Storz originated the formula, McLendon refined it and turned it into the dominant force in radio. He hired a program director from Storz, Bill Stewart, who wrested control of the music away from the disc jockeys and enforced a strict Top 40 playlist. They looked for deejays with personality but only allowed them to show it in brief, high-speed bursts of patter between records. McLendon ordered them to stand up when speaking, believing they would sound more energetic. He preached relentless promotion—jingles imprinting the station’s call letters in the listeners’ ears, contests, and giveaways, the more outlandish the better. A treasure hunt for hidden cash was a favorite. His goal was to get people talking about his station. If his gimmicks caused traffic jams and drew rebukes from police, that was a plus. By 1954 KLIF claimed the highest ratings of any station in the United States, with more than half of Dallas listeners tuned in.
McLendon added more stations—he owned as many as 25 AM, FM, and TV stations, though not all at the same time — spreading his format from coast to coast and border to border. Other stations copied it, and McLendon-trained executives and announcers took the formula with them to new jobs: “the deejays shouting, the hits repeating, the jingles and contests and promotions and ads flying out of the speakers, a locomotive of a generation,” in the memory of radio aficionado Marc Fisher.17
Top 40 stations prospered despite initial resistance from advertisers, who were sure that the only listeners were teenagers with nothing but nickels in their pockets, and parents who were sure that rock-and-roll was turning their kids into juvenile delinquents. When the FCC charged that stations were neglecting their obligation to serve the public interest by playing the same records hour after hour, McLendon responded, “The only public interest is what interests the public.”18
As he acquired outlets in new cities, McLendon found that Top 40 had gotten there before him, so he needed new lures for listeners. In Oakland-San Francisco his KABL played beautiful music —“elevator music,” but with McLendon flair. He added contests and promotions suitable for his target upscale audience, once persuading the San Francisco Symphony to stage a concert on a prize winner’s front lawn.
Trying to crack the huge, crowded Los Angeles market, he took control of a station across the border in Mexico (it had a Mexican owner of record to satisfy government regulators), boosted its signal to 500,000 watts, 10 times the maximum power allowed for AM stations in the United States, and named it XTRA, the first successful all-news station. He imported the format to WNUS in Chicago. Not all his ideas were winners: KADS in Los Angeles broadcast nothing but want-ads. It flopped.
McLendon stations were more than jukeboxes. His news departments sent brightly painted mobile units speeding around the cities, breathlessly reporting on bank robberies, fires, and wrecks. He became famous for his editorials, which aired up to 13 times a day on all his stations. His strident, often caustic opinions were generally conservative, but he opposed capital punishment and supported civil rights marches and abortion rights.19
Inevitably his strong political views and love of the spotlight propelled him into two unsuccessful runs for public office. Challenging Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough in the 1964 Democratic primary, he was buried in a landslide despite outspending the senator 3-to-1. Four years later he entered the race for governor, but withdrew before the primary.
During the 1960s the McLendons began selling their stations and gradually exiting the radio industry. Although Gordon said the sales were part of his father’s estate planning, his son, Bart, suspected another reason: “He had done virtually everything that he could” in radio.20
One more likely reason: Gordon McLendon’s frenetic energy spurred him to leap from one project to another, leaving some unfinished. While in radio, he created a lucrative side business producing commercials for movie studios. That naturally led to producing his own movies, beginning with a pair of shoestring-budget horror flicks, The Killer Shrews (“On an isolated island, a small group of people are terrorized by giant shrews in the midst of a hurricane”)21 and The Giant Gila Monsters. They were neither critically nor commercially successful.
His last production was a big-budget prisoner-of-war adventure, Victory, starring Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, and the soccer great Pelé, and directed by the legendary John Huston. Another flop.
McLendon became one of the biggest stockholders in Columbia Pictures and discovered a Midas touch for investing in gold and other precious metals. He and his father built the largest chain of movie theaters in Texas, expanded to other states, then sold much of the real estate where their drive-ins sat. Gordon’s fortune, estimated at more than $200 million by Forbes magazine, made him one of the wealthiest Americans by 1981. However, Bart McLendon said, “Granddad ran the company. Let there be no question about that. Dad was second in command at all times.”22
While he owned several homes in Texas, California, and Europe, McLendon never flaunted an ostentatious lifestyle. He dressed carelessly, sometimes sloppily, and his fanciest car was a Ford Thunderbird. He had divorced his first wife, Gay, with whom he had four children, and remarried and then divorced actress Susan Stafford.
B.R. McLendon died in 1982. Three years later, Gordon was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. During months of chemotherapy, he shot himself in the face with a .38 revolver, but survived. His son said the shooting was accidental, when he fumbled the gun while cleaning it.23 Gordon McLendon died of cancer at 65 on September 14, 1986, at his ranch north of Dallas.
McLendon’s pioneering connection to baseball was short. Although his contributions to radio were more lasting, he is a forgotten footnote in that constantly changing industry. But in baseball, where the past is “not even past,”24 histories of broadcasting and memoirs of childhood celebrate the master of fakery as “the poet laureate of the radio game.”25
Photo credit: Radio Hall of Fame. This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht, and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.
1 Liberty Broadcasting System ad, The Sporting News (hereafter TSN), August 24, 1949: 47.
2 Tony Silva, Baseball Over the Air (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2007), 77.
3 A. Bartlett Giamatti, A Great and Glorious Game (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin, 1998), 8.
4 “Judge Denies NFL’s Motion to Dismiss Suit,” TSN, February 18, 1953: 32.
5 Galyn Wilkins, “McLendon a Master of Illusion,” Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram, September 17, 1986: 2C.
6 Val Adams, “Just Like Topsy,” New York Times, September 17, 1950: 119.
7 Liberty ad, TSN, August 24, 1949: 47.
8 Robert Sullivan, “Scorecard,” Sports Illustrated, September 29, 1986, online archive.
9 Robert B. Parker, Double Play (New York: Putnam, 2004), 14.
10 Willie Morris, North Toward Home (New York: Vintage, 1967), 109.
11 Ronald Garay, Gordon McLendon, the Maverick of Radio (New York: Greenwood, 1992), 34.
12 “McLendon Swings to Radio Defense After Finch Blast,” TSN, November 1, 1950: 6.
13 Garay, 40.
14 Lindsey Nelson with Al Hirshberg, “A Stadium in a Studio,” Sports Illustrated, May 28, 1966: 45.
15 Jack Walsh, “Sen. Johnson Optimistic Over Aircast Relief,” TSN, May 20, 1953: 13.
16 Garay, 62.
17 Marc Fisher, Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation (New York: Random House, 2007), xii.
18 Fisher, 28
19 Descriptions of the McLendon stations’ programming come primarily from Garay.
20 Garay, 158.
21 “The Killer Shrews,” imdb.com.
22 Garay, 198.
23 Associated Press, “‘The Old Scotchman,’ pioneer in radio, dies,” Corpus Christi (Texas) Times, September 15, 1986: 12.
24 William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (repr. New York: Vantage 2012), 286.
25 Silva, 73.
Gordon Barton McLendon
June 8, 1921 at Paris, TX (US)
September 14, 1986 at Dallas, TX (US)
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