This article was written by Rob Edelman
This article was published in the Fall 2014 Baseball Research Journal
What’s My Line? was a popular primetime game show which ran on CBS-TV from 1950 through 1967, with a daytime syndicated version lasting from 1968 to 1975. Its format was simple and clever: a quartet of panelists questioned individuals to determine their often unusual or unlikely occupations, which ranged from the offbeat (safety pin maker, skunk breeder, mattress tester, flea powder seller, toupee manufacturer, zipper factory inspector) to the gender-bending (female doctor, plumber, private detective, truck driver, butcher, barber, bartender, architect, cab driver, real estate agent, horse trainer, wrestler).
Each program also featured the appearance of at least one mystery guest, a celebrity whose face and voice were known to the masses, and who was quizzed by the blindfold-wearing panelists. These luminaries usually were screen, stage, or television personalities who often comically disguised their voices while responding to the panel.
Occasionally, the mystery guests were baseball figures, primarily players but also managers or executives of renown. Unfamiliar or unheralded baseball-connected individuals also appeared sporadically. (Since the show primarily was produced in New York, a majority of the guests were affiliated with the New York nines.) These days, hearing and seeing sluggers and hurlers from stars to scrubs as well as non-playing baseball personnel is commonplace; they are familiar to fans because they frequently are interviewed in a range of venues. Such was not the case in the 1950s, when television was in its infancy, and so it is fascinating to observe the What’s My Line? baseball guests out of uniform, garbed in suits and ties, and casually comporting themselves.
During its CBS run, the show was hosted by John Daly, a noted journalist and broadcast personality. While he is best-remembered as the What’s My Line? master of ceremonies, Daly earned notoriety as the first national radio correspondent to report on the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the April 12, 1945, passing of President Franklin Roosevelt. A range of famous faces sat on the show’s panel; however, the “regulars” were a high-profile journalist and syndicated columnist who specialized in show-biz gossip but also was a chronicler of organized crime and politics (Dorothy Kilgallen), a humorist and lecturer who co-founded the Random House publishing company (Bennett Cerf), and a stage and occasional film actress and New York radio personality (Arlene Francis). As befitting the formality of the era, the panelists most often were stylishly garbed in evening wear. Daly usually referred to them by their surnames, particularly when passing the interrogating from one panelist to the next. Ever-so-appropriately, he asked the female contestants if they should be addressed as “Miss” or “Mrs.”
But the celebrity guest appearances were the What’s My Line? highlight—and the initial one was neither screen legend Gloria Swanson nor comic actor Phil Silvers, not burlesque star-striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee nor clarinetist-bandleader Benny Goodman, all of whom were on the show during its first year. It was, instead, a New York ballplayer. Years before he became an aging self-caricature on New York Yankees broadcasts whose “holy cannoli” banter has been deftly parodied by Billy Crystal, Phil Rizzuto was quiet and serious-minded in his various What’s My Line? appearances. Rizzuto’s initial gig was on the debut episode, which aired on February 2, 1950. (Dizzy Dean and Jackie Robinson followed The Scooter as 1950 mystery guests.)
Rizzuto also appeared in that capacity almost exactly two decades later, on February 5, 1970, when the Bronx Bombers were indeed bombing in the American League. They finished the previous season in fifth place in the six-team American League East with an 80–81 record; meanwhile, the crosstown New York Mets were the World Series champs.[fn]John Thorn, Pete Palmer, Michael Gershman, David Pietrusza. Total Baseball, Sixth Edition. New York: Total Sports, 1999.[/fn] Panelist Soupy Sales asked Rizzuto, “What kind of team the Yankees gonna have this coming year, Phil?” His response reflected a time in New York baseball when the Mets were superstars and the Yankees were also-rans: “Well, it’s gonna be a lot better, Soupy. Actually, the Mets have given everybody a lot of hope. You don’t think of the Yankees as a second-division team, but we are right now. And we figure if the Mets can have the ‘impossible dream,’ maybe the Yankees might be able to.”
On October 7, 1956, a month-and-a-half after being unceremoniously released by the Yankees and a year before the Brooklyn Dodgers abandoned the Borough of Churches for Los Angeles, Rizzuto was a guest panelist. The mystery guest was Sal Maglie, who was identified as “Pitcher–Brooklyn Dodgers.” Irony was the hallmark of the back-and-forth between the blindfolded Scooter and Sal the Barber:
Rizzuto: “Do you deal in services?”
Maglie: “I sure do.”
Rizzuto: “Is it the type of service that I could enjoy?”
Maglie: “Probably. Yes. I’d say yes.” (Laughter was heard from the audience.)
Rizzuto: “Do you work for a profit-making organization?”
Maglie: “I think so. Sometimes.” (More laughter was heard.)
After it was established that the mystery guest was a sportsman, the ever-astute Arlene Francis echoed the sentiment of many when she asked, “If Mr. Rizzuto were playing with the Yankees, where he belongs, would he be nervous about you?” Maglie responded, “I don’t think so.”
Francis: “You know what I meant by that. I meant, are you on the opposing team?”
Maglie: “I’d say yes.”
Francis: “Are you a member of the inevitable Dodgers?”
Maglie: “Uh huh.”
Francis: “Are you known to pitch a few now and again?”
Maglie: “Once in a while.”
Francis: “I think probably we all know together who this is. This is Sal Maglie.”
Yankee-Dodger dynamics 1950s-style were frequently on display on What’s My Line? The September 28, 1952, mystery guest was manager Chuck Dressen, whose Dodgers were about to face the Bronx Bombers in the World Series. As Dressen’s identity emerged during the questioning, the Bums’ determination to best the Yanks was emphasized. Just before identifying Dressen, Arlene Francis asked him, “Did you write an article in the [New York] Post that said [the Dodgers] weren’t going to blow it this time?”
But the New York Giants were not completely overlooked. On July 11, 1954, during the heart of the baseball season, the mystery guest was Willie Mays. After a round of spirited questioning, an animated Arlene Francis declared, “Well, sir, I think I’ve got you. Did you hit your 31st home run today? Did you play center field? Are you Say Hey Willie Mays?” (This particular contest was a near-record-breaker. Earlier that day, the Giants split a doubleheader with the Pittsburgh Pirates, winning 13–7 in the opener and falling 5–1 in the nightcap. Louis Effrat, covering the games in the New York Times, reported: “Home runs, for and against, told the story of the opener. The nine circuit wallops were one less than the National League record for two clubs in a game. The six by the Giants, including Mays’ thirty-first, were two short of the mark for one club in a game.”)[fn]Louis Effrat. “New Yorkers Win, Then Lose, 5 to 1.” New York Times, July 11, 1954.[/fn] Bennett Cerf then asked Mays if he would utter what then had become his nickname. (“I’d like to hear just how he says it. Do one for us, will you Willie?”) Mays declined, and explained that “it’s just a phrase that I use [sic] when I first came up” in order to greet those whose names he had not yet memorized. It also was noted that Mays momentarily would be heading for Cleveland to play in the All-Star Game.
Fourteen years later, on August 20, 1968, Mays reappeared on the show. He was greeted with loud cheers and whistles and, after being identified, insisted that he was “in show business. What do we think baseball is? Baseball is show biz.” Host Wally Bruner (who had replaced John Daly) asked if Willie could break Babe Ruth’s career home run record. “The Babe is 714, but I don’t think I can reach it,” Mays responded. He noted that he was at “569 or 570” and added, “If I can reach 600, I’d be very happy about it. The way the pitchers are coming along nowadays… I’m not getting any younger. They’re getting younger. I don’t think I can reach 714.” As he was asked if anyone else might, Hank Aaron’s name was dropped. “I don’t think so…,” Mays prognosticated. “If he can reach 600, or a little above 600…” Mays of course totaled 660 homers in his career but he underestimated Hammerin’ Hank, who of course bested the Babe with 755 dingers.
On September 6, 1953, Roy Campanella was the mystery guest. After he was identified by panelist Steve Allen, John Daly observed, “This is a great day in Roy’s life … Roy hit his 38th home run today, which beat Gabby Hartnett’s 19—what, 1930 Cubs record…” (Daly was only partially correct. The Dodgers beat the Giants, 6–3, and Louis Effrat, writing in the New York Times, reported that Campy’s dinger “set one major-league record and tied another for catchers. Gabby Hartnett of the 1930 Chicago Cubs held the previous homer mark with thirty-seven. [His] two runs batted in tied Campanella with Bill Dickey of the Yankees, who established the record of 133 RBIs for a season in 1937.”)[fn]Louis Effrat. “Furillo and Durocher Stage Battle; Dodger Player Fractures Left Hand.” New York Times, September 7, 1953.[/fn]
On another occasion, eleven baseballers comprised the “mystery guest.” (When two or more such guests were present, their number was not identified—and it was up to the panel to determine this.) The date was June 24, 1956, and they all played for the Cincinnati Reds, who had battled the Dodgers that day in a doubleheader. Ted Kluszewski was the spokesman, and was seated next to John Daly. Standing behind them were Johnny Temple, Wally Post, Gus Bell, Frank Robinson, Ed Bailey, Ray Jablonski, Smoky Burgess, Roy McMillan, Johnny Klippstein, and Joe Nuxhall. These Reds mirrored the demographics of big-league baseball mid-1950s-style as there were ten Caucasians, one African-American, and no Latinos.
After Arlene Francis identified the guests, it was noted that the Reds bested the Bums in both games by 10–6 and 2–1 scores. Bennett Cerf added that Ed Bailey had smashed three home runs in the first game. (Bailey was not the lone hero of the day. Kluszewski and Robinson also homered. Nuxhall started and completed the second game and John Drebinger reported in the New York Times: “Until yesterday not a left-hander had pitched and won a complete game against the Dodgers since Sept. 16, 1954, when this same Nuxhall achieved the feat.” Klippstein was not as fortunate. He started the first game but only lasted into the fourth inning, when he was replaced by ex-Dodger Joe Black.)[fn]John Drebinger. “Redlegs Wallop Six Home Runs In Conquering Brooks, 10–6, 2–1; Bailey Connects Three Times, Kluszewski Once in Opener—Frank Robinson and Thurman Hit 4-Baggers in 2nd Test.” New York Times, June 25, 1956.[/fn]
One of the more intriguing baseball personalities to appear on What’s My Line? was Bonnie Baker, a guest on August 17, 1952. Baker’s “line” was “Professional Baseball Player,” and she was identified as the second sacker on the Kalamazoo Lassies of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Given the conventions of the era, once it was determined that Baker was a “performer” who wore unusual clothing that did not cover her entire body, the supposition was that her artistry was of the striptease variety. Sex roles and assumptions certainly came into play when, after explaining her affiliation, John Daly noted, “For heaven’s sake, I must get more interest in baseball” while Dorothy Kilgallen pronounced, “I certainly think Mrs. Baker is an argument for allowing women to play in the big leagues.”
Occasionally, a non-athlete, manager, or executive made it into the What’s My Line? box score. One such non-mystery guest was Mrs. Beulah Gellert, who appeared on the July 29, 1962, broadcast. Gellert’s “line” was: “Makes Baseball Bats”; she was identified as the owner of the Adirondack Bat Company. Another was Harry B. Latina, who on the April 16, 1961, installment was identified as a “[Designer of] Baseball Gloves.” It was explained that for four decades Latina had worked for the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company and had created gloves for Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, among others. In a Smithsonianmag.com profile of Rawlings glove designer Bob Clevenhagen, Jim Morrison reported, “He is only the third glove designer in the history of the company, following the father-son team of Harry Latina, who worked from 1922 to 1961, and Rollie Latina, who retired in 1983.”[fn]Jim Morrison. “Baseball’s Glove Man.” Smithsonianmag.com, September 13, 2011.[/fn]
Given Latina’s profession, some panelist questions provoked audience amusement. After it was determined that Latina’s “line” involved something that was put on, Bennett Cerf asked him, “Is this something that might be worn in the bedroom?” Dorothy Kilgallen’s follow-up: “I hate to dismiss Mr. Cerf’s romantic notions, but would it be worn in the kitchen?”
On September 25, 1960, Joane Westermark, another non-celebrity guest, was identified as “Usher at Baseball Park (S.F. Giants).” Chuck Connors was a guest panelists and, after it was determined that Westermark resided in the City by the Bay, the ballplayer-turned-television star quipped, “San Francisco … the only thing I can remember recently that happened in San Francisco [is that] the Giants died. And I don’t blame the Giants. I blame the weather.” The Giants played their first game in the infamously windswept Candlestick Park on April 12, and Connors’s remark reflected the ball yard’s already controversial weather conditions and the fact that, during the just-concluded season, the Giants were a fifth-place ball club.[fn]John Thorn, Pete Palmer, Michael Gershman, David Pietrusza. Total Baseball, Sixth Edition. New York: Total Sports, 1999.[/fn]
A little over a year earlier, on September 13, 1959, Branch Rickey was the mystery guest. The recent departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants for western environs had generated interest in the formation of a third major baseball league. At the time, Rickey was at its forefront, and he was introduced as “President of New Continental Baseball League.” At one point, Bennett Cerf asked him, “Mr. Rickey, how ’bout that third league?” Rickey’s response was: “Inevitable as tomorrow morning.” But of course, with the advent of major league expansion, the Continental League ceased to exist.
The October 23, 1960, What’s My Line? mystery guest was Ralph Houk, the newly-hired New York Yankees skipper who had replaced the venerable Casey Stengel. Bennett Cerf asked him, “Mr. Houk, where do you think Casey’s gonna end up?” Houk responded, “Well, I know one thing. He’s gonna have a lot of money wherever he ends up.” Ten days earlier, Stengel’s Yankees had lost the seventh game of the World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Five days later, and five days before Houk’s What’s My Line? appearance, Stengel had been unceremoniously dumped by the Yankees. Houk likely was referring to the news that Stengel, then the highest-paid big league skipper, supposedly had been given a profit-sharing disbursement of $160,000 by his former employer.[fn]Bill Bishop. “Casey Stengel.” SABR Baseball Biography Project. http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/bd6a83d8[/fn]
But who could have prognosticated that the seventy-something Stengel was not through as a major league manager? On April 15, 1962, the ever-charming Ole Perfessor was a What’s My Line? guest. He then was the first-ever skipper of the expansion New York Mets. Two days earlier, on April 13, the Mets had made their debut at the Polo Grounds, losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates by a 4–3 score.[fn]John Thorn, Pete Palmer, Michael Gershman, David Pietrusza. Total Baseball, Sixth Edition. New York: Total Sports, 1999.[/fn]
A prime example of how memories play tricks may be found on the November 20, 1969, What’s My Line? broadcast. The mystery guest was “Baseball’s Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson,” and panelist Soupy Sales told him, “One of the big thrills of my life … was in 1944. And I was in the Navy, and I went to the Coliseum on Saturday afternoon, and UCLA in their backfield at the time had Jackie Robinson, Bob Waterfield, and Kenny Washington. You played USC that day, and you whipped ’em good.” This of course was misinformation, which Robinson quickly corrected. “I’m a little older than that,” he explained. “I played with Kenny Washington in 1939.”
The primary purpose of What’s My Line? was of course entertainment of the lighthearted variety, and accidental humor was one of the show’s hallmarks. When Ted Williams appeared as a mystery guest, on May 23, 1954, Dorothy Kilgallen asked him, “Would you describe yourself as a performer?” Williams answered in the affirmative. Kilgallen’s retort—“You have a very nice voice. Do you sing?”—resulted in audience laughter and a resounding “No!” from Teddy Ballgame. Then on October 7, 1962, the mystery guest signed in as “Mister X.” He was Russ Hodges, and his “line” was “Baseball Announcer (Currently Announcing World Series).” This was a time in which space exploration was much in the news and, regarding his profession, Arlene Francis innocently asked, “Does [your work] have anything to do with something that goes on in outer space?” Hodges answered in the negative, and elicited a hearty guffaw. Later on, John Daly placed Hodges’s presence into the context of the time when he observed, “…Russ was good enough to note that he had not been seen much on camera for six or seven years. [But] as you all know, Russ IS the Giants.” Ever the proud New Yorker, Daly was not referring to the San Francisco variety.
On September 5, 1954, the mystery guest was a two-headed monster: Sal Maglie, who then was pitching in the Polo Grounds; and Duke Snider, who was patrolling center field at Ebbets Field. When Bennett Cerf asked, “You’re either a Giant or a Dodger, is that correct?,” it was Snider who answered, “Yep.” But when he asked, “Are you a teammate of Willie Mays?,” Snider answered “Nope.” Minutes later, when Dorothy Kilgallen asked, “Are you a Dodger?,” it was Maglie who answered “Nope.” Finally, Arlene Francis figured out that the “guest” was in fact one Dodger and one Giant.
Snider returned as a mystery guest on January 12, 1958. Only here, the Bums no longer were in Brooklyn and the former Duke of Flatbush was identified as “Center Fielder: Los Angeles Dodgers.” After he was identified, John Daly observed, “Well, Duke… [the famed celebrity restaurateur] Toots [Shor] talks with great melancholy about our Brooklyn Dodgers moving to Los Angeles…” One of the panelists was actress Laraine Day; from 1947 to 1960, Day was wed to Leo Durocher, ex-skipper of the Dodgers as well as the New York Giants. Was Day reflecting her husband’s preferences (as well as her own) when she interrupted Daly and emphatically observed, “Toots is a Giants fan!” Daly chimed in, “He also likes the Dodgers, though, but after the Giants.” “WAY after,” Day added. “A Giant fan couldn’t possibly like the Dodgers.”
Several years earlier, on May 31, 1953, Day also was on the panel. Durocher was the mystery guest and, given the circumstance, her questions were unintentionally funny. Day of course was blindfolded, Durocher’s voice was disguised, and her first question to him was: “Are you a man?” After it was determined that Durocher was baseball-connected and affiliated with the National League, Day asked: “Should I know you? To speak to, I mean. If I met you on the street, would I speak to you? That would mean you weren’t working for Brooklyn.” John Daly piped in, “Yes, you would know our guest… I’m quite sure, Miss Day.” But it was Steve Allen who, soon after, correctly guessed the identity of Leo the Lip.
On January 13, 1957, Robin Roberts appeared—but as a regular contestant rather than mystery guest. This was because his “line” was not “Star Pitcher, Philadelphia Phillies” but “President of Frozen Shrimp Company.” John Daly played along by asking Roberts where he was from. Roberts responded, “Well, I’m from Philadelphia most of the time,” and Daly quipped, “…that’s funny. That’s a strange coincidence…” Could there be two Robin Robertses in the City of Brotherly Love? But Bennett Cerf, the first questioner, recognized him immediately and asked, “Aren’t you the star pitcher of the Philadelphia Phillies?” Over a half-century later, Roberts recalled, “I was on television once, on What’s My Line? The panel had to try and guess my off-season job, which was with the Neptunalia Seafood Company. I was president of Gold King and we sold frozen shrimp. No one could figure out what I did, but they sure came close.”[fn]Jeff Idelson. “Love of baseball grows in spring.” Cooperstown Chatter, April 3, 2009.[/fn]
Irony also was the order of the day when Joe DiMaggio was the mystery guest. The date was September 18, 1955. His appearance was greeted with unusually loud cheers, which reflected his mass popularity, and Arlene Francis observed, “Nobody’s ever had a hand like that but Eisenhower and Monroe.” Francis of course was referring to Dwight Eisenhower and Marilyn Monroe. The Yankee Clipper had been wed to Monroe, but not for long: they married in January 1954, and Monroe filed for divorce nine months later. The Brooklyn Dodgers clinched the NL pennant ten days before the broadcast. Game One of the World Series was set for September 28.
At the start of this particular show, Dorothy Kilgallen introduced a fellow panelist by quipping, “On my left, the surprise pinch-hitter for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series, Mr. Fred Allen.” It was a fitting reference. Allen, a popular radio personality, was one of the most celebrated humorists of the 1930s–50s and was famed for his long-running faux “feud” with Jack Benny, his good friend and fellow comedian. Allen scholar Alan Havig noted that his “scripts were especially sensitive to goings-on in his own town, New York City. More than on any other network radio program, the metropolis of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Coney Island, immigrant neighborhoods, the subway, and the Brooklyn Dodgers played a continuing role on Allen’s shows.”[fn]Alan Havig. Fred Allen’s Radio Comedy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.[/fn] Allen was a What’s My Line? regular from 1954 until his death in March 1956.
The March 25, 1956, mystery guest was Ford Frick, whose “line” was “Commissioner of Baseball.” Before his profession was determined, Bennett Cerf asked Frick, “Do you do any singing of any kind?” and Dorothy Kilgallen wondered, “Have you and I ever danced together?” After he was identified, John Daly observed, “…you occasionally hear nowadays… that baseball is losing its popularity. Do you think there’s anything to that?” The essence of Frick’s response easily might have been spouted by Bud Selig in 2014. “Well, I’ve heard baseball is dying,” Frick declared. “I don’t know what constitutes death, but I would say it’s a lively corpse. Attendance in baseball today is 50 per cent higher than it was before the war. There are twice as many colleges playing, twice as many high schools. There are more youngsters playing baseball than ever before in history. No, I think we’re going to survive.”
Seeing Frick, DiMaggio and the other baseball luminaries on the What’s My Line? episodes over a half-century after their broadcasts is at once attention-grabbing and illuminating. For one thing, their interactions with the panelists are reflections of the attitudes of the moment, the spirit of the era. For another, their presences are visual records of a place and time in baseball history.
ROB EDELMAN teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He is the author of “Great Baseball Films” and “Baseball on the Web,” and is co-author (with his wife, Audrey Kupferberg) of “Meet the Mertzes,” a double biography of I Love Lucy’s Vivian Vance and fabled baseball fan William Frawley, and “Matthau: A Life.” He is a film commentator on WAMC (Northeast) Public Radio and a contributing editor of Leonard Maltin’s “Movie Guide.” He is a frequent contributor to “Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game” and has written for “Baseball and American Culture: Across the Diamond”; “Total Baseball”; “Baseball in the Classroom”; “Memories and Dreams”; and “NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture.” His essay on early baseball films appears on the DVD “Reel Baseball: Baseball Films from the Silent Era, 1899–1926,” and he is an interviewee on the director’s cut DVD of “The Natural.”
Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com.