National Cartwright Day and the First Televised Major-League Game

This article was written by Frank Ardolino

This article was published in the 2008 Baseball Research Journal


On Saturday, August 26, 1939, the Brooklyn Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds played a doubleheader at Ebbets Field. The opening game is noted for being the first televised major-league game and for the celebrations afterward in honor of Alexander Cartwright Jr., who had been admitted into the Hall of Fame that year, which Major League Baseball had designated as its centennial.1 Cartwright moved to Hawaii in 1849, and his standing as a baseball pioneer was eventually overshadowed by Abner Doubleday, whom the Mills Commission in 1908 certified as the inventor of baseball. In moving to the faraway island kingdom, Cartwright had in effect obscured his contribution to the development of baseball.

Perhaps Cartwright’s personality also served to undercut his stature as a pioneer. When he died on July 12, 1892, an elaborate funeral procession was conducted to honor him, but in his obituaries no mention was made of his baseball activities in New York and Hawaii.2 Although Cartwright certainly was public-spirited and exercised considerable power behind the scenes, he was not one to seek public office or publicize his achievements. Cartwright might have been more assertive about his role had he been able to anticipate debates about baseball’s origin. “Could great grandfather have foreseen the development of his game to such proportions,” his great-grandson William Cart-wright said, “I am sure he would have clearly set down for generations all the details of the beginnings of this sport and saved many historians a great deal of conjecture.”3 When the newly created Hall of Fame was making plans to mark the centennial through the induction of great players and important figures, Cartwright was not on the list. After his grandson Bruce Cartwright Jr. sent the Hall of Fame committee evidence of his grandfather’s importance, Alexander Cartwright’s name was added. He was elected in 1938, and induction ceremonies were held in June of the following year.4

Meanwhile, in Honolulu, a Cartwright plaque, consisting of an incised figure of him and a list of his baseball accomplishments, was presented at a ballgame at Honolulu Stadium; a graveside service honoring him was held, and the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown was broadcast on radio. In the Honolulu Advertiser, a full-page ad saluting Cartwright “as beloved kamaaina (native) and founder of baseball” affirmed the relationship between baseball, America, and Hawaii: “National Base Ball Week Is Being Celebrated by Fans all over America. Here in Hawaii, the National Game Has Taken Hold in a Manner That Serves as Much as Any Other to Indicate the True spirit of our Americanism.”5

At Cooperstown, a replica of the Honolulu Cartwright plaque was unveiled and a pageant about his cross-country journey in 1849 was performed. William M. Beattie, curator of the Baseball Hall of Fame, saluted Cartwright as the “Father of Modern Baseball,” who formalized the rules of the game and was the subject of one of the “most popular and interesting” exhibits at Cooperstown.6 

Two and a half months later, in August, the centennial celebrations continued as National Cartwright Day was celebrated in Honolulu, at Ebbets Field and other major-league ballparks, and in Cooperstown. In Honolulu, Cartwright was honored with ceremonies at city hall, where William Cartwright, his great-grandson, formally presented the Cartwright plaque to the city. He said quite simply, “It is my hope that his plaque . . . will impress upon the minds of all those who see it the two prime factors great-grandfather had in mind in developing the game of baseball—good sportsmanship and fair play.”7

Greetings were sent by Acting Mayor Akana to Larry MacPhail, business manager of the Dodgers, on behalf of the people of Honolulu. At Honolulu Stadium, before the game between the Chinese and Braves in the “Cartwright Playoff Series” of the Hawaii Baseball League, two flags (American and Hawaiian) and a 15 foot banner representing the Cartwright Series were raised at right-center-field flagpoles located behind the football Abe Lewis Jr., a baseball pioneer in Hawaii and teammate of Herbert Hoover at Stanford University, was the speaker and master of ceremonies.8 In the major leagues, Hawaiian ceremonies were planned in all parks, which consisted of pineapplejuice toasts among the players, leis presented by barefoot girls in grass skirts to each manager, the broadcasting of the Hawaii Calls radio show, and the presentation of a summary of Cartwright’s life. In addition, leis were sent to the mayor of each city where games were played. At Cooperstown, a man impersonating Cartwright led a parade to Doubleday Field, where one hundred players wearing leis exchanged pineapple-juice toasts. The arrangements for the double ceremony in Brooklyn and Cooperstown were handled by the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce and the advertising agency N. W. Ayer and Son in New York.9

At Ebbets Field, 33,535 fans saw the league-leading Reds win the first game 5—2. The Dodgers won the second game 6—1 behind Hugh Casey to cut the Reds’ lead to 41⁄2  games over the Cardinals. (The Dodgers were 121⁄2  back, and the Reds would win the pennant in the end.) Between games, territorial treasurer William McGonagle and three Hawaiian girls hung leis around the necks of the players after a pineapple-juice drinking ceremony at home plate. McGonagle spoke about Cartwright’s life and delivered greetings from Governor Poindexter of Hawaii. After these ceremonies, players from both teams autographed a large photo of Cartwright. These activities were broadcast over the radio along with the telecast. Both the New York Times and the Honolulu Advertiser, perhaps overcome by the occasion, mistakenly reported that Cartwright “was born in Honolulu, hence the Hawaiian touch.”10

The TV coverage by NBC’s experimental station W2XBS, based in the Empire State Building, consisted of two cameras, one behind home plate and the other in an upper deck behind third base, where announcer Red Barber was stationed. He broadcast the game using earphones, which connected him with the director, Burke Crotty, who was located in a truck outside the park. There was no monitor, and Crotty relayed to Barber what the camera was looking at. The range of the broadcast was only fifty miles, and the audience consisted of probably no more than a hundred households, but the coverage marked a significant advance over the first baseball game of any kind ever televised—Princeton versus Columbia, broadcast by NBC on May 17 from Columbia’s Baker Field in upper Manhattan, with one camera and Bill Stern as the announcer.11 The inchoate quality of the Dodger telecast was captured by the remark that “at times it was possible to catch a fleeting glimpse of the ball as it sped from the pitcher’s hand toward home plate.”12 Cartwright, who throughout his life strove to avoid publicity, was now fêted as a national and Hawaiian hero at the first televised game in major-league history. What would he have thought?

FRANK ARDOLINO is a professor of English at the University of Hawaii, where he teaches Shakespeare and drama. He has written articles on the history of baseball in Hawaii.

 

Notes

  1. In light of the recent debunking of Cartwright’s role in the development of baseball, detractors will no doubt see the elaborate celebrations for him in 1939 as highly ironic. However, it is the purpose of this article to recreate the historical context of the first televised game and not to debate the nature of Cartwright’s actual contribution.
  1. The Friend 50, 8 (August 1892): 61; Hawaiian Gazette, 19 July 1892, p. 9; Pacific Commercial Advertiser, 13 July 1892, p. 1.“Cartwright Memorial Unveiled at the Stadium,” Honolulu Advertiser, 12 June 1939, 12.
  1. “Baseball Hall of Fame Niche Voted Alexander Cartwright,” Honolulu Advertiser, 4 October 1938, p. 2. Unfortunately, Bruce died before his grandfather was inducted.
  2. Honolulu Advertiser, 12 June 1939, 8.
  3. Loui Leong Hop, “Long Hops With Loui,” Honolulu Star Bulletin, 26 August 1939, p. 12.
  4. “Honolulu Pays Tribute to Father of Baseball,” Honolulu Advertiser, 27 August 1939, p. 12.
  5. “Cartwright Day to Be Celebrated by Hawaii Loop at Stadium Today,” Honolulu Advertiser, 26 August 1939, 12; Honolulu Star Bulletin, 28 August 1939, p. 11.
  6. “Cartwright Day, with Leis, on Television,” Honolulu Advertiser, 27 August 1939, 11.
  7. “Dodgers Triumph Over Reds by 6—1 After 5—2 Setback,” New York Times, 27 August 1939, 1; “Dodgers and Reds Split Double Bill,” Honolulu Advertiser, 27 August 1939, p. 4; the Advertiser reprinted the article from the Times verbatim.
  8. Richard Goldstein, Superstars and Screwballs: 100 Years of Brooklyn Baseball (New York: Penguin, 1991), 206—7.
  9. “Games Are Televised: Major League Baseball Makes Its Radio Camera Debut,” Honolulu Advertiser, 27 August 1939, 4.

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