Al Helfer and the Game of the Day

This article was written by Robert Cole

This article was published in 1981 Baseball Research Journal

Poems have been written about Mel Allen. Red Barber is in a James Thurber short story. But the man who was the featured announcer for the first years of the only national network of live daily baseball-game broadcasts in this country is almost forgotten.

That man was the late Al Helfer, the “sports voice” of the Mutual Broadcasting System’s unique Game of the Day radio broadcasts from 1950 through 1954. Mel Allen and Red Barber already were famous then because they had been broadcasting New York Yankee and Brooklyn Dodger games. But their broadcasts (except for the World Series) reached only a small area of the northeastern United States. Helfer’s went around the world almost every day of the season, as the Mutual Game of the Day was picked up by the Voice of America and the Armed Forces Radio Network.

At that time, and until the Dodgers and New York Giants moved to California in 1958, major league baseball teams were located only between Boston and St. Louis (with 11 of the 16 teams in only five cities). The rest of the country could only read about the games in newspapers the next day or hear brief summaries of games on radio. There were no live national radio broadcasts of baseball except for the World Series (television never carried daily national baseball) until 1950 when Mutual, which had affiliates in virtually every state, decided to try to reach that huge and presumably baseball-hungry grassroots audience.

Baseball games had been broadcast since the early 1920s, but the arrangements were with individual teams in the market areas for those teams, and rarely covered the road games of the teams. For road games, the announcer would sit in the studio of his radio station and receive brief pitch-by-pitch details from a Western Union telegrapher at the site of play. The announcer would pass that sporadic information on to his listeners, sometimes with dramatization, in what was known as a re-creation of the game. The recreation could verge more toward fiction than reality, but some teams didn’t offer even that. Some would allow no broadcasting of their games. The Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants had a formal agreement among themselves to that effect in New York until 1939, when the Dodgers broke it.

Resistance to outside networks was great. Early network radio and television negotiations with Organized Baseball were more controversial and irregular than were the network relationships with other professional and college sports. There was fear among baseball owners that the broadcast of major league games would hurt attendance and cause the end of first the minor leagues and then the majors.

In 1948 a bold young radio entrepreneur named Gordon McLendon, who called himself the Old Scotchman on the air, had begun to break through this resistance and make an effort at national baseball broadcasting, working from his radio station, KLIF, in Dallas, Texas. But his Liberty Broadcasting System, remarkable as it was, never reached much beyond the Southwest, Rocky Mountains, lower Midwest, and Deep South, and so never equaled Mutual’s network, which covered the country from Washington State to Florida.

Also, Liberty’s broadcasts were not live, but were re-creations for the most part, based on details telegraphed to KLIF by McLendon’s agents at the games. McLendon’s re-creations were far more imaginative and representative than anyone else’s. He called them “original” in his Sporting News advertisements. Even so, Liberty collapsed in May 1952 after four seasons when it lost the Falstaff Beer sponsorship to Mutual. After two years of competition, Mutual now had the Game of the Day to itself. The three larger networks — CBS, NBC, ABC — were not interested in the Game of the Day because they were preparing to expand into television.

Before getting Falstaff, Mutual had financed Game of the Day by directing its affiliates to find their own local sponsors for broadcasts of the games, as Liberty initially had done with its stations. The 312 stations on the first Mutual network found an ironic total of 1,950 sponsors when the broadcasts began in the spring of 1950, the network announced. By August the totals were said to be 387 stations with 3,000 sponsors. The highest number of stations announced by Mutual was 458. Almost all of these stations were located in states that did not have major league teams — the hinterlands, to use The Sporting News term of the day — because the major league teams would not allow the Game of the Day broadcast into their own network territories.

Mutual tried to have a live baseball broadcast on their air every day but Sunday. Since two-thirds of the major league schedule was day games in 1 950, there was usually a good choice of games. However, it meant an unprecedented amount of travel – usually flying — for the broadcasters at a time when major league teams still traveled by train. Here are two typical weeks for the Mutual broadcasting crew of Al Helfer, Art Gleeson, and Gene Kirby in 1950:

  • Friday, June 2 — Chicago at New York (AL), 2:30 p.m. EDST
  • Saturday, June 3 — Cleveland at Boston (AL), 2 p.m.
  • Monday, June 5 — Brooklyn at Chicago (NL), 2:30 p.m.
  • Tuesday, June 6 — Cleveland at New York (AL), 2:30 p.m.
  • Wednesday, June 7 — Detroit at New York (AL), 2:30 p.m.
  • Wednesday, Aug. 30 — Cleveland at New York (AL), 2:30 p.m.
  • Thursday, August 31 — Detroit at Washington (AL), 2:30 p.m.
  • Friday, September 1 — Cleveland at New York (AL), 3 p.m.
  • Saturday, September 2 — Boston at Philadelphia (AL), 2 p.m.

After some discouraging rainouts early in the season, Mutual sometimes split up the team and sent each man to a different city the same day in case an alternative broadcast was needed.

The man whose voice held it all together was George Alvin Helfer, 38, who had been one of the first daily baseball announcers in New York City in 1939, when the local teams finally allowed broadcasting rights. He worked with Red Barber doing Dodger games on station WOR in 1939 and 1940, after having worked with Barber doing Cincinnati Reds games on WLW in 1936 and 1937. They considered themselves the first broadcasting team in the business. Helfer then went into the Navy in 1940 as a lieutenant and rose to the rank of lieutenant commander with a brilliant combat record in North Africa and Italy. He was discharged in 1945 in time to help Bill Slater do the Yankee and Giant home games over WINS. Then Helfer returned to Cincinnati for two years to work in advertising and radio — partly, he said, because it was the hometown of the woman he had just married, the pianist Ramona of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. Helfer’s hometowns were Elrama, Pa., where he was born September 26, 1911, and Monongahela, Pa., both just south of Pittsburgh. He attended nearby Geneva and Washington & Jefferson colleges and began his radio career in Washington, Pa., and Pittsburgh.

Helfer returned to New York in 1949 to help Russ Hodges with the Giant broadcasts, and then was hired as the “Sports Voice of Mutual” in 1950. His main job was to do the Game of the Day, but he also covered the World Series and college football, including the Rose Bowl, and had his own 15-minute sports show on Mutual.

Al Helfer had the cheerful, hearty, deep voice of the big man he was (he had played football at W&J), and developed a mildly exhorting, low-key, neighborly style of describing baseball games. One of his nicknames, Brother Al, suggests his style. He used a lot of rural expressions, but also would lapse into the abstract figurative rhetoric of The Sporting Newswriters of that period. With Helfer, a ground ball went “down across the carpet to short” long before there were carpets in big league parks. A pitcher gave “a great big heave and a sigh,” then “pumps once, twice, delivers -.” Some critics liked him, some thought he was too casual and didn’t do enough preparation for games.

Helfer’s style seemed appropriate to Mutual’s needs. The network was trying to appeal to a national but essentially small- town audience, and to maintain the good will of Organized Base ball, majors and minors. Since Helfer would broadcast most of each game — sometimes six innings to three for the other announcers — he set the homey tone. He would urge listeners to write in “so we can visit back and forth with you,” then read their letters over the air, and encouraged everyone to attend minor league games in their hometown areas. Mutual occasionally would broadcast a minor league game when no major league day games were scheduled. The network also would re-broadcast past World Series games, and sometimes would broadcast a game a day after it was played.

A measure of the popularity of the broadcasts came one day in 1950 when Helfer caught a foul ball while announcing a game in Municipal Stadium, Cleveland. He offered it to the first youngster who wrote in, and said he received 5,200 letters. To those youngsters and to most fans outside the northeastern U.S., Helfer was the authoritative voice of baseball. Here are his words during a game recorded June 11, 1950, for broadcast June 12. The excerpts reveal Helfer’s style and broadcasting strategies as he related some of the definitive events and trends in baseball that season to this particular game. I transcribed the words from a recording provided by Helfer’s widow, Margaret Helfer, and inserted commentary:

Hi ya, sport, it’s baseball time from coast to coast. Good afternoon, everybody. This is Al Helfer with Art Gleeson, bringing you Mutual’s Game of the Day from sunny Shibe Park in the city of Philadelphia. And it is sunny Shibe Park here this afternoon, everybody, with the wind blowing directly in from behind left- center field, blowing diagonally across the diamond, and going out from behind first base. Right this very minute the crowd has come in here to Shibe Park, in anticipation of baseball being played between the Cleveland Indians and the homestanding Philadelphia Athletics under Jimmy Dykes. And it is, as you know now, under Jimmy Dykes, because Connie Mack has now appointed Jimmy Dykes his first lieutenant, and Jimmy Dykes has been given prac- tically the running of the Philadelphia Athletics for the rest of the season …

(Dykes had been named assistant manager of the Athletics May 26, 1950, after having been hired as a coach in 1949. He was named manager in 1951, when Connie Mack stepped down after having managed the Athletics since the beginning of the American League in 1901. Shibe Park was then renamed Connie Mack Stadium in 1953.)

The batter is Allie Clark, South Amboy, N.J., boy. South Amboy, where they had that great big explosion here a couple weeks back, and he’d like to have an explosion himself, here right now, he’d like to get hold of one.

(Helfer refers to a munitions explosion on a South Amboy dock, May 19, 1950, which killed more than 50 people. In the exaggerated comparative style of sports journalists of that day, he liked to try to relate events from a player’s life to his game, however farfetched the comparison.)

The first guy up here for Cleveland . . . is a guy that Florida is awfully proud of, a fellow by the name of Flip Rosen. And Al Rosen, from Spartansburg, South Carolina, who now winters in Kansas City, Missouri, has been adopted apparently by particularly the city of Miami, Florida, because of his great work with the kids down there in the off-season . . Righthanded batsman . . is hitting only .274, but as far as home run productivity, as far as Cleveland is concerned, he’s the boy that’s leading the show, with 14. . . . Rosen’s pretty stocky, sort of thick-chested, square shoulders, stands deep at the plate, and tight up against it, holds the bat way down at the knob.

(Rosen was beginning the first of five seasons as one of the top power hitters in the American League. He led the league in home runs that year and in 1953. The stress on hometowns was typical of Mutual broadcasters trying to make as many local associations as possible.)

Standing in is Bob Lemon, and they don’t monkey with him, he’s a good hitter for a pitcher . . . . No wonder he’s a good hitter. He . . . came up to the Cleveland Indians as a third baseman, and they kid him and laugh at him now and call him the “reject” third baseman. He’s quite a pitcher . . . . Bob Lemon is hitting at .263. That’s a pretty lofty batting percentage. They use him as a pinch-hitter quite often.

(Lemon won 20 games in 1950 for the third straight season, and for six of seven seasons. Gleeson made a point about the slider being Lemon’s best pitch. Gleeson was more likely to describe a pitch than Helfer was. The slider was quite controversial then. The lead article of The Sporting News that week, June 14, was an attack on the slider by Eddie Sawyer, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, who won the pennant that year. Page 3 was devoted to Bob Feller, enjoying a comeback season and quoted as saying he had given up the slider because it is “too risky a pitch.”)

. . . A few minutes ago Art Gleeson was talking about the All-Star Game, and . . . don’t forget that you, the fans, have your opportunity again this year of selecting the starting lineups .. . We’ll tell you about that . . . as Lemon pitches to the plate. Here’s how you do it . . . All you have to do is take a fresh clean piece of paper. On one side mark “American League,” and on the other side mark, “National League,” and then name your starting lineups, excluding the pitcher . . . Send them in to Mutual’s Game of the Day, Mutual Broadcasting System, New York 18, New York, and mark on the outside of the envelope, “Baseball Ballot.” . . . And then Art Gleeson and I will see to it that your vote is given to the proper authorities, so it can be counted. But you must do it before Friday, June the 23rd….

(This was well before fans voted by mailing a computer key-punch card to a counting house run by the commissioner’s office. In those days ballots were submitted to radio stations and newspapers, which printed ballots for the fans’ convenience. Lemon, who was striking out Eddie Joost while Helfer explained the voting procedure, pitched in the All-Star Game that summer at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.)

Well, we’ve had a home run here this afternoon, hit by Philadelphia’s Sam Chapman, his seventh of the year. . . You have a guess right now about how many home runs have been hit in the American and National Leagues, right up to this minute. Well, we’ll tell you. In the National League 322 home runs have been belted, in the American League, including the one just hit by Sam Chapman a few moments ago, the American League has hit 307 home runs…. That’s clouting that potato pretty well, and I can understand very much now why Pittsburgh wants to move the fences back, and so do the Cincinnati Reds. This ball just about as live as it can be.

(The lively ball was the biggest story of the season. Both leagues set home run records. Individual games were striking. The Red Sox had won two straight from the St. Louis Browns, 20-4 and 29-4, June 7 and 8. When the Indians and Athletics played at Cleveland the Sunday following this Game of the Day, the Indians scored a record 14 runs in the first inning (in another game recorded for delayed broadcast as a Game of the Day). On the weekend of June

23-25 eight home run records were set, including most home runs in one game (11) by the Yankees and Detroit Tigers. On June 29 the Red Sox beat the A’s, 22-14. Cleveland won this June 11 game in the 10th inning, 6-3, on homers by Rosen and Jim Hegan.

HELFER: . . . Lemon, over his head again, throws.. . . There’s that shirttail really flopping out now. According to that article written in Taylor Spink’s Sporting News, and it was a dandy, we’ll tell you about that in a minute, there’s a curve . . . according to that article, the harder Bob Lemon works, the more his shirttail flops out. Well, he must be working this afternoon because he’s got enough material there to put a jib on a sailboat.

GLEESON: Al, you notice that terrific stretch he takes with his hands over his head? I think that’s the cause.

HELFER: Oh, sure…. . . . .Well, everybody, you’ve probably noticed the absence of scores on this broadcast of other ballgames. Well, today there just aren’t any other ballgames being played . . . in the major leagues, period. And we thought we’d do a little thing, as directed by our very good friend and director of sports on the Mutual network, Mr. Paul Jonas. He said, “Boys, let’s go down on a Sunday afternoon and see if we can’t do that broadcast . . . because it isn’t being broadcast around the country anywhere, and I think the folks’d like to hear it.” So, if you folks like the idea, just write in, let us know, will ya? And if it meets with your approval, you like to listen to the ballgame that you haven’t heard, we’ll be glad, on days when the other teams are all scheduled to be idle, we’ll get you a ballgame somehow, be glad to…. (The practice of delayed broadcasts on Mutual began with that June 11 game.) . . . Two away in the top half of the eighth inning and that brings up Lou Boudreau, and the m-g-r hasn’t been able to hit one out of the infield . . . Boudreau up there batting from a very severe crouch. He bends way over at the waist, looks as though he’s about ready to sit down in a chair. Takes a curve in at the shins for ball one. . . . Must be pretty tough, Art, to carry all the managerial duties and to assume the duties of a player, too.. . Boudreau bending over even more severely. . . . Shantz gets a new ball from Passarella.

(Boudreau walked, and then he doubled during the Indians’ winning 10th-inning rally. But Cleveland collapsed in early September, the Yankees won the second of their five straight pennants and Boudreau was let go as manager after having held the job since 1942.)

Al Helfer left the Game of the Day after 1954, claiming the daily travel had become too much like work. Mutual carried the series through the 1960 season, using various announcers, including former major league players Bob Feller, Mel Ott, and Rex Barney. The last broadcast team was Van Patrick, Gene Elston, and John MacLean. According to Elston, now announcing for the Houston Astros and the only surviving member of the team — just as Gene Kirby, now in player relations with the Montreal Expos, is the only surviving member of Helfer’s original team — the Game of the Day was the victim of two trends in baseball: (1) the major leagues were going to be expanding in 1961 and 1962, taking some key advertising markets away from Mutual (the Game of the Day could not be broadcast into areas where the teams had their own networks), and thus advertising would be harder to sell for the games, and (2) there simply were fewer day games being scheduled by major league teams. The year the Game of the Day began, 1950, one-third of the major league games were at night — the most ever, since the trend started in 1942 — but by 1960 more than half the teams were playing the majority of their games at night.

The competition from television also may have been a factor, for CBS-TV had begun its Game of the Week series in 1955, NBC-TV followed with its weekend series in 1957, and ABC-TV in 1960. Advertisers preferred television to radio. Some sources also thought that Mutual, which changed management frequently in those years, had new executives who preferred less sports programming. Others thought that major league executives were losing interest in the Game of the Day.

Al Helfer held the top announcing spot on Game of the Day longer than anyone, and it turned out to be the high point of his career, along with the World Series he did during those years. He went from Game of the Day back to broadcasting the Dodger games (with Vince Scully), 1955 through 1957. When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, Helfer and Rex Barney did 100 games a year from eastern National League cities for WOR-TV that season and 1959. For the next eight seasons, Helfer had only one major league baseball assignment, helping Gene Elston do the Houston Colt 45’s in 1962, the expansion club’s first season. Helfer’s colleagues remember the early 1960’s as the low point in his career, and say he suffered emotionally because he no longer had the international exposure of the Game of the Day when he had fan mail from all over the world, including a ship-to-shore telegram during a broadcast from a U.S. submarine in the Pacific, and a gift of a gold nugget from a Utah prospector. Trying to rally himself, Helfer moved to Denver and worked for first the Inter-Mountain Network and then ABC, doing some college and professional football, but mostly news announcing. Unfortunately for Helfer, he was now overweight and his eyesight had declined. Sometimes he had difficulty following fly balls or football plays.

But in the twilight of his career, Helfer returned to the big leagues. In 1968, at age 56, he got a break when the Kansas City Athletics moved to Oakland and needed an announcer to help Monte Moore. An executive from an oil company sponsoring the A’s broadcasts had heard Helfer’s big, booming newscasts from Denver and asked if Moore would like him as an assistant. “Why, I used to idolize the guy,” Moore said, having listening to Helfer on the Game of the Day while growing up in Oklahoma. But Helfer’s physical problems continued, and his casual style wasn’t exciting enough for some listeners, who thought Helfer was too subdued in describing Catfish Hunter’s perfect game in 1968. After another season, Helfer was let go from the major league scene.

Helfer went to Station KRAK, Sacramento, in 1970 as a vice-president for news. His wife, Ramona, died in 1972, after a long illness. They had been married 28 years, and had a daughter, Mona Margaret. Helfer remarried, to a Sacramento woman. On December 16, 1974, he returned to New York to present the Heisman Trophy at the Downtown Athletic Club, as he had done for years. It proved to be his last big-league assignment. His health declined rapidly, and he died of cancer in a Sacramento hospital, May 16, 1975, at the age of 63.