Gene Kelly

This article was written by Curt Smith

Gene Kelly heard of Joe McCarthy’s death during a 1957 Phillies game at Connie Mack Stadium. On the air, he praised the man who never played in the big leagues, but played them like a cello. Some called McCarthy a pushbutton skipper, Kelly said over flagship WIP Radio. Others hailed perhaps the best manager of all time. “I couldn’t write a better eulogy,” Gene later said, learning that the Joe McCarthy who died was the U.S. Senator, not former Yankees and Cubs manager. “Of all people, I should be the most careful about names,” he laughed, alluding to the famed actor, dancer, and singer. Meeting him, baseball’s Kelly said, strangers expected to hear “Singing in the Rain.”

Raised in Philadelphia, Bob Brinker, host of the national radio financial show Moneytalk, never mistook his Gene Kelly for any other craft’s. Think of broadcasters as playing bass. Speaking, some seem to squeak. The 1950-59 Phillies and 1962-63 Reds announcer showed Brinker his soul. “Poetry in motion,” Bob rhymed of his youth. “Gene brought baseball play-by-play to its highest level.” Kelly’s seventh-inning stretch chanted “rub your noses, cross your fingers, tug on your caps, and knock on wood.” Gene’s talisman was ironic since Kelly relied less on superstition than sheer skill.

“You gotta’ expect a strange life when you come from Brooklyn,” Kelly mused of his October 6, 1918 birth as Eugene K. Sims. By 1937, his surname now Kelly, Gene entered Marshall College in Huntington, West Virginia. On February 22, 1939, the fledgling journalism major, soon to work for newspapers in Huntington and Charleston, West Virginia, made his radio debut. “It wasn’t play-by-play, but I was on the P.A. system [basketball, not baseball: Gene played both.]. They needed a guy to fill in. I got $3 a game.”

In 1941, Kelly graduated from Marshall, inked a Brooklyn Dodgers minor-league Class-C pact, hurt his arm, and left playing baseball to the healthy. “I’d planned on throwing nothing but strikes,” Gene said. Instead, he became gifted at, among other things, calling them. Ahead lay a pre/post-World War II radio career above, not on, the field: WGUA Washington, Pennsylvania; WIBC Indianapolis, airing the division-winning 1948 Triple-A American Association Indians; and Mutual Broadcasting System’s 1946-49 Indianapolis 500, ferrying the Memorial Day 500-mile race coast-to-coast. He and wife Jean also had two daughters and two sons.

In World War II, Kelly showed why General of the Army George Marshall called U.S. troops “our secret weapon.” Gene operated two radio stations for the Army, bringing the first wireless to the Asian Theater, including Japan’s surrender of Rangoon to the British. Discharged at war’s end, Kelly became WIBC sports editor, then Indianapolis’s WXLW general manager. In 1949, the third-place Phillies spun their best record in more than a decade after missing the first division since 1932. Infielder Eddie Waitkus was shot in the chest by a crazed young woman — the plot of Bernard Malamud’s later book-turned-film The Natural. Ahead lay 1950’s healthy Waitkus, the Phils’ new pinstriped uniform, new broadcast format, and radio mikemen. Their N.W. Ayer & Son advertising agency helped “re-create” a road game, the ballpark operator sending Western Union teletype to a distant studio, letting the mikeman call a match he never saw.

In 1949, lead Voice Byrum Saam, Claude Haring, and George Walsh aired the National League Phillies and the city’s American League Athletics on flagship WIBG AM/FM over a nine-outlet network: in New Jersey, Morrisville; in Pennsylvania, Doylestown, Lemoyne, Lewiston AM/FM, Lock Haven, Stroudsburg, Sunbury, and York. Like radio, TV’s WPTZ (Channel 3), WFIL (6), and WCAU (10) pooled crew, equipment, and on-air talent, dividing each team’s home schedule. P. Ballantine & Sons’ mot “Hey, getcha’ cold beeh” hawked what Kelly styled “the largest-selling beer from Maine to Florida.” Another angel, Atlantic Refining Co., hailed “Red Ball Service,” its aria the sublime “Atlantic Keeps Your Car on the Go.” The book Tales From the Phillies’ Dugout credits Gene for a home-run “Ballantine Blast” and strikeout call “Whiteflash whifferoo” after an Atlantic product. Kelly was a sponsor’s dream.

Each Philly club tried for the first time in 1949 to air its 154-game regular-season schedule live or by re-creation. “As long as game times do not conflict,” wrote The Sporting News (TSN), “the network will do all games.” When time overlapped, it “will carry the home team’s games.” The snag was space: No station could carry the entire inventory — 308 games. In 1950, the A’s stayed at WIBG — but would their 1938 stylist? “By[rum] had to weigh a close relationship,” said Phils center fielder Richie Ashburn, “with the kindest man who ever lived” — A’s skipper, owner, and patriarch Connie Mack. Saam reciprocated Mack’s loyalty. By contrast, the Phillies moved to WPEN, picking Kelly as By’s successor over 136 other candidates. Wrote ISN News Service: “The Phillies carried their youth movement today [February 1950] right into the radio booth at Shibe Park [later Connie Mack Stadium].” Kelly’s smile lit TSN’s preview issue: hair, full and neat; face, broad and sunny.

Under misery loves company, the 1950 Sporting News chose a yearly 1938-49 All-Star squad. Only three of 16 big-team clubs lacked a player: the Browns, A’s — and Phils a.k.a. Quakers for the city founders. By now Kelly and Bill Brundige and A’s Saam and Haring spoke over each entry’s radio network. Meanwhile, tyro Bill Campbell telecast each Phillies home day game on their three-channel network, outlets later added in Lancaster, Lebanon, and Scranton-Wilkes-Barre. Four million U.S. homes owned a TV. By 1960, 44 million did. Baseball's languor — dead air — can show a Voice’s ignorance. Gene made baseball on radio even more riveting than it was. Each 1949 Philly team finished 81-73, the A’s barely outdrawn, 816,514 v. 819,698. The N.L.ers at least presaged a better future, though a flag seemed as far away as men landing on the moon.

In 1949, Del Ennis had 39 doubles and, with Ashburn, fourth-best 11 triples. The outfielder placed fourth with 320 N.L. total bases and a .525 slugging average and fifth with 110 RBIs. Pitcher Robin Roberts’ 15-15 mark was his last .500 or worse season till 1957. Russ Meyer and Don Newcombe tied for fourth in win percentage. Jim Konstanty was second in games and tied for second in saves with seven. Ken Heintzelman tied with three others for first with five shutouts and was fourth in innings and fifth in ERA. Given history — the Quakers’ last flag was 1915 — what ensued amazed: an honest to goodness pennant race! The Korean War began. Arthur Miller gloried in Death of a Salesman. William Faulkner received the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature, declining “to accept the end of man. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” For 35 years Philly had been the exception.”

Gene’s rookie Phils began with games that didn’t count: the traditional City Series v. the cross-town A’s. Snow and cold postponed the opener, after which the A.L.ers and soon-to-be famed Whiz Kids — their lineup’s average age, 26 — split, 7-4 and 11-2, respectively. Wooden Baker Bowl had been the Phillies’ 1887-1938 home. Between 1909 and 1923, 14 urban, intimate, mainly steel, and reinforced “classic” concrete parks opened: Shibe Park, then Forbes Field via Comiskey Park by way of Fenway Park to Yankee Stadium. Shibe opened April 12, 1909, Mack’s A’s fleeing Columbia Park for their new digs at North 21st Street and West Lehigh Avenue. “Once the A’s went to Shibe,” said Kelly, “it was only time [July 4, 1938] till the Phils became a tenant.” Baseball’s first concrete and steel site made tiny Baker seem more Jurassic than it was, evolving, like each classic park, from a grid of city streets. “[They] fit on an urban parcel, which made for some unique angles,” wrote author Michael Gershman. Each also had a personal identity. Shibe’s included a Beaux Arts tower and churchlike dome behind the plate, miming the French Renaissance.

At the last wooden park, a fan amended Baker Bowl’s right-field Lifebuoy Soap sign: “The Phillies use Lifebuoy and they still stink.” At Shibe, Lifebuoy was again a sponsor, sight up-close (two decks circled three-fourths of the field), outfield, large (up to 468 feet from the plate), and spectators, boo-birds who knew baseball more than breeding. (Fourteen times the 1938-49 A’s or Phils placed eighth in an eight-team league.) The ballpark touted the first baseball ramps, umpire and visiting team rooms, terra-cotta trim above each archway and window, and the cupola — the then-sky box. Double-decked, Shibe marked a dividing line that few doubled back upon, built by modern material and design that let supports link most upper and lower levels and brought you nearer the field. The 1950 Phils’ and Gene’s regular-season opener was April 18, Philly crushing Brooklyn, 9-1, at home. To generations in Delaware, eastern Pennsylvania, and western New Jersey, going there meant coming home. The park was the street where they lived.

Mack retired in 1950 and died in 1956, at age 93, Shibe’s board of directors renaming it Connie Mack Stadium. A year later Sports Illustrated wrote in its April 15, 1957 preview issue: “Park is clean, brightly painted. Easily accessible refreshment counters. No beer is sold. Lack of beer in park prompts some Philly fans to bring their own in, and they usually bring plenty. Last season this resulted in an at least one near riot when irate spectators (for some reason, sedate Philadelphia has the rowdiest clientele in major leagues) started to pitch empty bottles on field.” The 1950 A’s placed last, Saam already grieving. “Of course it bothered him,” said Ashburn of By missing the Quakers’ season of light. “You do the Phillies so long, then leave the year they win.” Out of nowhere the Whiz Kids glowed, a perceptible, inexplicable thing.

The Phillies’ opening-day 1950 lineup avoided injury most of the year. Catcher Andy Seminick hit .288 with 24 home runs. Third to first base meant Willie (Puddin’ Head) Jones of 25 dingers and 88 runs batted in; Granville “Granny” Hamner, among four Phils with more than 80 RBIs; Mike Goliat (.234), the sole regular with a sub-.267 average; and Waitkus, behind only Ennis’s’ 185 hits. The outfield, left to right, tied Dick Sisler, who hit a third-best .296; Ashburn, batting .303 with “center-field [statistics that were],” wrote statistician Bill James, “the best to ever play the game”; and Ennis, with a club-high .311 average, 31 homers, and 126 RBIs. Stan Lopata, Dick Whitman, and Jimmy Bloodworth keyed the bench. “They weren’t deep,” said Kelly, “but the stars were good enough to compensate.”

Whiz Kid pitching jolted, like a shot of bourbon, leading the league in such statistics as least runs allowed (624), earned run average (3.50), and walks (530). Roberts was 20-11, his first of six straight 20-victory years, leading the NL in 315 innings pitched and rivals .278 lowest batting average. In time, he won 286 games, 234 for Philadelphia, including first in team innings, victories, complete games, shutouts, and tied the Phils’ Curt Simmons with 146 strikeouts. Simmons was 17-8. The bespectacled six-foot-two — “Big Professor” — Konstanty’s 16-7 record presaged the reliance on relief v. starting pitching: He was third in win percentage (.696), led in most games (74) and games saved (22), and became relief’s first NL MVP. Meyer was 9-11, Heintzelman 3-9, and Bob Miller 11-6 — as Gene punned of 8-6 Bubba Church, “a staff divine.” Offense was tamer, like a warm glass of milk, leading only in league runs yielded. The Bums outhomered, 194-125, outhit, .272-.265, and outscored them, 847-722 runs. Ennis contended or topped the league in average, RBI, and 328 total bases. Ashburn led with 14 triples. Waitkus was fifth in hits, Ennis, fourth, in batting. Associated Press voted Konstanty and two Eddies, Sawyer and Waitkus, Athlete, National League Manager, and NL Comeback Player of the Year, respectively.

The Whiz Kids sired a lot to see, 1,217,035 paying to see it, breaking 1946’s then-home record 1,045,247. The 1951-59ers only once hit a million, in 1957. Kelly’s last Phillies club wooed just 1,517 more than Cincinnati’s 1959 league low. A pyrrhic victory was his missing 1961, Philadelphia losing a post-1900 major league record 23 straight games. “More losing would have been tough,” said Gene, fired in late 1959, “but at least I’d have had a job.” His first road set was April 21, 1950, at Braves Field, called 2-all by rain. That month ended 6-6-1, Philly starting a six-game winning streak. May ended like many past skeins, with three straight defeats, preceding the Phils’ 35-24 June and July. Philadelphia started August 58-39 and finished 78-47, its 21-8-1 record offsetting 12-16 September. Tri-Staters echoed Gene’s “rub your noses, cross your fingers, tug on your caps, and knock on wood.” The Kids led or contended from mid-summer on, losing only the season series to New York and tying Brooklyn. They beat every other team in every kind of game, including shutout (13 won, 11 lost) and one-run (30-16), forging the league’s second straight last-day denouement.

By Wednesday, September 20, with 10 days left, history’s would-be Whiz Kids topped Dem Bums by a margin of seven and a half games.. Casual fans became addicts. The Delaware Valley turned upside down. Phillies Series tickets were printed, even as Brooklyn surged. In the final month the National Guard called Simmons, making Roberts start thrice in the last five games. A flag, or fiasco? No one knew — only that to 1950 Philadelphia kibitzing meant baseball. On Saturday, September 30, the Quakers, exhausted and inexhaustible, trekked to Flatbush for their next-to-final regular-season match, leading Brooklyn by two games and only needing to win one. Players “were so tired we could barely see,” said Kelly: announcers, too. “We were realistic. If we lost two, the Bums’d have momentum [in a then-best-of-three N.L. playoff].” Would Phils’ youth be served, or shatter? Cal Abrams’ lunging catch of Hamner’s drive preserved an early tie, helping the home team win, 7-3. Next day the visitors led early, 1-0. In the sixth inning, Dodgers captain Pee Wee Reese’s drive stuck on the right-field wall ledge as he circled the bases for an inside-the-park 1-all homer.

Before the last of the ninth inning, a WPEN station break urged, “Keep fighting, Phillies. Win today’s game.” Abrams walked, leading off. Reese then singled. Next, Duke “Snider takes a full cut,” said Kelly. “Line drive to center field.” Ashburn nabbed it on a hop, “throws from center field,” and nabbed the potential winning run. “He is … out! A beautiful throw by Ashburn! The throw had Abrams standing up. He didn’t even go for the slide!” The inning continued: painful to watch, impossible not to. Roberts loaded the bases with one out, then got Carl Furillo to pop to Waitkus at first base, after which Gil Hodges batted. “Youthful veteran against youthful veteran,” said Kelly. Brooklyn’s Quiet Man flew deep to right to preserve the tie. Gene started the next frame by noting how “the Brooklyn crowd applauded Roberts” for thwarting the Bums rally in “his great display of courage.” Robin began the tenth inning by singling “up the middle” against starter Don Newcombe. Waitkus then singled in front of a charging Snider. Ashburn made out, bringing Dick Sisler up, who fouled two pitches, took a ball “high and away,” and fouled into the press box: one out, runners on first and second against Newk, “who is set, delivering. Swinging, a fly, very, very deep to left field. Moving back, Abrams, way, way back, he can’t get it! He can’t get it! It’s a home run! A home run for Dick Sisler!” Gene bayed, clamor all around.

“The Phillies lead, 4 to 1,” Kelly resumed of Sisler’s three-run flag-winning poke. “One out and Dick gets an opposite-field homer. It just cleared the barrier, 350 feet from home plate! Pandemonium is unloosed at Ebbets Field.” Another half-inning put the Quakers on the cusp of a pennant few had felt possible. “If you’d told [Philly] fans last night [after Saturday’s loss] that these kids could do it, they would … weakly say, ‘Gees. We hope so.’” Their frame of reference suggested Murphy’s Law: If things could go wrong, they would. With two out, Dodgers reserve Tommy Brown swung at a 0-1 pitch. “[Lofted] first-base side!” Kelly said. “Waitkus under it. The Phils win the pennant!” Later, Philadelphia Bulletin columnist and author of The Phillies Encyclopedia Frank Bilovsky got to know Gene, “a nice man and wonderful announcer.” He recalls being ten in 1950 and Ashburn’s throw, Sisler’s blast, and how Kelly “gave you goose pimples.” In Center City, along the Main Line, in nearby States, many viewed store window TV. More heard by radio, passing pitch-by-pitch like a chain letter. “With games in the afternoon, life stopped,” Gene said. “What a year to break in.”

Comparatively few in the Philadelphia vicinity recalled the Quakers’ only flag in the next-to-last full year of Woodrow Wilson’s first Presidential term. Commercial radio had not existed in 1915. Now World Series coverage pit the wireless’s immovable object v. television’s irresistible force. Jim Britt of the Braves and Red Sox and Jack Brickhouse of the Cubs and White Sox broadcast CBS’s Yankees-Phillies Fall Classic west to Omaha; 38 million watched. Most of America still preferred radio, Mutual Broadcasting System’s Kelly and Al Helfer and the Yanks’

regal Mel Allen telling how New York ran the table. A highlight film observed, “Each autumn comes a day in this great land of ours when the wheels of industry turn a little slower … when the white-collar worker takes a little more time [at] lunch … when almost everyone is stricken with WORLD SERIES fever.” The Phils were soon stricken, period.

Mutual coverage began with a preview a night before the Series opener from the Commissioner of Baseball’s suite in Manhattan. Kelly noted each team’s record: Yanks 98-56, Phils 91-53.

Many saw the Whiz Kids’ new red pinstriped uniform for the first time, TV being black-and-white. Their pitching staff was so weary that Konstanty started his first big-league game in four years. On October 4, the Voice of the Phillies introduced Gillette Cavalcade of Sports. “Look sharp. Feel sharp. Be sharp,” he repeated its slogan. “Use Gillette’s blue blades for the sharpest edges ever honed.” Then: “Good afternoon, baseball fans everywhere. This is Gene Kelly …greeting you from Shibe Park in Philadelphia.” Before 30,746, Bobby Brown doubled in the fourth inning and scored on two flies: Yanks, 1-0. Vic Raschi limited Philly to two hits. Sisler batted in a two-out ninth, having not reached the outfield in three at-bats. “He swings and misses! … And Yogi Berra leaps into the air, holding the victory ball!” Kelly had predicted a four-game Phillies sweep. Was he right about the number of games — but wrong about the victor?

Next day the Americans scored on a second-inning walk to Jerry Coleman and two singles, the latter to Gene Woodling scoring Coleman, off Roberts. In the fifth, two singles and Ashburn’s fly v. Allie Reynolds tied the score. Inning after inning pitchers evaded harm till Joe D. led off the tenth. “DiMaggio has come up with fine play today, particularly off of Ennis’s deep drive earlier in the ballgame,” said Gene. By contrast, “Joe hasn’t got the ball out of the infield … in four trips. Roberts throwing. A fly ball deep toward left field! This one may go all the way! … A home run for Joe DiMaggio!” Kelly and the 32,660 at Shibe turned their lonely eyes to him. “Way out of there into the upper tier in left-center field! A drive that took off — and stayed hit!” — Joe’s seventh homer in his ninth Fall Classic. Worthy of recall are Gene’s brilliant prose and diction, Southern lilt — “Yes, suh” evoking Red Barber — rhythm allegretto, easy listening, and lasting wearability. “Swinging and missing,” he said. “Shakes off one of Berra’s signs. Says no to the second.” A runner led off second. “Big Allie in the stretch. Strike three! It was a half-swing by Dick Sisler! Called him out! The ballgame is over,” Reynolds winning a 10-inning 2-1 epic. Straightaway the teams’ train set northeast for New York.

The two Series cities were so close geographically that the 1950 Fall Occasion had no off-day scheduled. Game Three occurred Friday, October 6, Gene’s 42nd birthday. “No rest,” rued Eddie Sawyer, later. “It really stressed our pitching staff.” Konstanty and Roberts forged a 2.40 and 1.64 ERA in 15 and 11 innings, respectively. The rest of Sawyer’s staff threw only 9 2/3 innings. Perhaps the change of venue to Yankee Stadium confused the Quakers, Allen using “atypically uneven” as his euphemism for their play. In the third inning, Phil Rizzuto walked off Heintzelman, stole second, went to third on Seminick’s bad throw, and scored on Coleman’s single: 1-0, Yanks. Mel was then sport’s Sinatra, his phrasing and lexicon as intimate as a first-row box seat. Kelly succeeded him after 4 ½ innings, also employing color. The “immortal DiMaggio” defined the last 15 years. Berra aped “a stocky catcher in a rocking chair.” The Yankees’ “wonderful rookie Ed Ford” — Whitey had a 9-1 record — would start tomorrow. Time was “the Phils’ enemy without them even knowing it. They have yet to find an answer.” With any Game Three luck before a crowd of 64,505 in the Big Ballpark in the Bronx, they might at least reply.

With two out in the sixth inning, Yanks up, 1-0, Phils strongman Del Ennis batted sans Classic hit. “A swing, a line drive toward right field!” said Kelly. “It’s may be good for extra bases! It’s rolling toward the wall. [Cliff] Mapes plays it … throws to second. It’s a stand-up double!” Sisler, also slumping, hit “a line drive, left field, base hit! Ennis rounding third. He’s going to score! And the game is tied, 1 to 1.” Next inning Hamner singled. Seminick bunted him to second base, pitcher Ed Lopat throwing to first. Heretofore a Series bust, Goliat sought redemption: “the man upon whom it seems that every time Mel and I look up he has runners on for him,” said Gene, “but [has] failed to produce consistently.” The Quakers welcomed Mike’s exception — “a line drive to center field, in there for a base hit. Hamner rounding third, heading for the plate. He’s safe!” — Philly lead, 2-1, its sole edge in the Series. Gene Woodling batted for Lopat to lead off the home eighth, popping to shortstop Granny Hamner. Rizzuto hit “a zipper [hard drive] to third,” said Kelly, “a true grass-cutter.” Coleman, Berra, and DiMag each then worked a two-out walk, filling the bases, before Bobby Brown pinch-hit for Hank Bauer. For the Whiz Kids, Game Three’s dissolution now began.

An infielder, doctor, and future AL president, Brown “sends a [two-out first pitch] ground ball to Hamner,” said Gene. “Up with it — he bobbles it! The run scores! Hamner charged up and had plenty of time for a force on DiMaggio at second.” Instead, he “lost the handle. The two-all tying run comes in.” Much later Seminick mused, “I can still see that ball that Granny booted. He took his eyes off [it] for an instant and that’s all you have to do.” To err was Hamner, whose at-bat to begin the ninth inning helped some forgive. “Long drive to left-center field! DiMaggio going way, way back! Can’t get it,” said Kelly. “The ball rolling around. Hamner going to second base. But a great save by … DiMaggio holds him to two!” — Joe’s back toward the infield, grabbing the ball bare-handed, and spearing the smash — “a second-deck job at Shibe,” Gene noted. An intentional bunt put Granny on third. Goliat walked, his pinch-runner Jimmy Bloodworth. Pinch-hitter Dick Whitman hit a bouncer to Joe Collins, who “throw[s] to the plate.” Berra blocked it, putting “Hamner out!” In the home ninth, Konstanty got the first two Yanks, Woodling topped “a hopper” that Bloodworth caught, dropped, and threw late, and Rizzuto laced a drive that Jimmy briefly speared, dropped, hesitated over, and was lost, Woodling reaching third. With two out, Coleman proceeded to line the Big Professor’s offering "toward deep left-center field. [Ashburn and Jackie Mayo] moving over for the ball! Can’t get it! Game’s over — the Yankees win!” 3 to 2, Gene said. “Coming across the plate is Gene Woodling — the game fraught with consistent thrills!” The Whiz Kids were becoming the Katzenjammer Kids.

Next day 68,098 filled the triple tiers to see Whitey Ford, 21, almost hurl his first Classic shutout in his first Series set. The tyro was tested early. After Waitkus’s first-inning walk, Jones doubled into the right-field stands, the lead runner making third. Ennis only needed to ground to a middle infielder playing back to score. Instead, he hit a “high, chopping ground ball to third,” said Kelly. “A throw to the plate. He is out!” Sisler then fanned. To open the home half, Woodling “hit a ground ball right behind the mound” that Goliat booted. An infield out preceded Berra’s “sharp single to right field. Here is Woodling rounding third, heading for the plate! The throw comes in from Ennis! He is safe!”: Yanks, 1-0. The Stadium’s back screen was the A.L.’s farthest from home plate. Yogi used its acreage to lope from first base to third on Bob Miller’s wild pitch. Next, Joe D. hit “a line drive to right field! In there for a base hit!” Berra scored, Miller got the heave, and Konstanty graced his third Series game.

In the sixth, the pinstripes scored thrice for a 5-0 lead — insurance on a Series policy they more often than not redeemed. Philly finally tallied a two-out two-spot in the ninth. Seminick and Goliat then reached, bringing the tying run up. Stengel replaced Ford with Reynolds, sure, said Mel Allen, “to throw his aspirin tablet.” Stan Lopata pinch-hit: “And the Yankees are world champions for the 13th time [final score: 5-2] as Allie Reynolds powered another fastball past him.” Sawyer crossed the field to congratulate Stengel. New York outhit, .222-.203, outscored, 11-5, and outpitched, 0.73-2.27 ERA, the Phils. The Bombers also had only two errors to the Whiz Kids’ four. Hamner hit .429, Jones .286, Waitkus .267. No other Phillies regular averaged over .182. “The Series showed how reliant we were on pitching,” Ashburn said of the Yankees’ sweep. An old saw says: “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a hell of a Christmas.” Even Kelly’s Irish lilt and Eastern swank couldn’t help him sing through his tears.

Like a boomerang, the mid-century Phillies returned to WIBG Radio, aired all home and most road sets, and shared TV Channels 3,6, and 10. It could be hard to know when and where they played. How — erratically — was easier to discern. 1951: The 73-81 Quakers needed more than Ashburn’s league-high 221 hits. 1952: The fourth-placers led in five pitching categories, including ERA. Roberts’ best year topped the N.L. in innings, complete games, and record (28-7). 1953: Philly went less back to the future to fourth. Ennis again had 125 RBIs. For the second in three years Ashburn led in hits. 1954: The Phils finished 75-79. The last-place A’s drew just 304,666, were sold to businessman Arnold Johnson, and moved to Kansas City for 1955. The Phillies bought renamed Connie Mack Stadium, painted box and reserved seats red and pale pink, and put the in-play batting cage behind a new center-field fence 447 feet from home plate. In right-center, a Ballantine Beer scoreboard sign loomed 60 feet above the field. Later, Philly added a 75-foot-high clock. For Gene, it was a harbinger. Without knowing it, time was running out.

“I hated Mr. Mack leaving, but I’d missed the Phillies,” said Saam, already famed for malapropisms, rejoining Kelly and Haring in 1955. “Hello, Byrum Saam,” he began his career, “this is everyone speaking.” One night: “And now for all you guys scoring in bed.” Ashburn said, “By’d innocently say the wrong thing, then wonder why people laughed.” Even listeners turned comical. A woman asked By to speak louder on the air, explaining “My battery is getting weaker.” For Kelly, the ’50s spawned one smile after another: Big Ten and Ivy League football, Philly and Cincinnati pro hoops, and American Hockey League. “Hockey to horse racing … you name it, I’ve done it.” Gene also coordinated Phils publicity, touting players at schools, parent-teacher groups, and father-and-son nights. Like Saam, “Gene had a ‘golden voice,’” said Mel Marmer, co-editor of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) book, The Year of the Blue Snow: The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies. “Kelly was passionate about all sports,” especially baseball. “Saam was the baritone, Bill Campbell raw emotion, Kelly eminently trustable.”

For Mutual Radio, Gene aired 1952-53’s All-Star Game at Shibe Park and Crosley Field, respectively, the N.L. winning, 3-2 and 5-1, then the 1954 slugfest with Mel Allen at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, Americans, 11-9. In fall 1953 Kelly and Al Helfer did the Yanks-Brooks World Series in Kelly’s boyhood borough. All were sponsored by the Gillette Safety Razor Company. Company. “When you’re walking to the bank with that World Series check every November,” New York’s Hank Bauer groused, “you don’t want to leave. There were no Yankees saying play me or trade me.” October serialized the fifth chapter of the two teams’ arresting novel. The Dodgers had already lost the 1941, 1947, 1949, and 1952 Series to the Bronx Bombers. Could they lose again? Flatbush prayed not. A best-selling button read: “MOIDER DEM YANKS.”

The Dodgers lost Games One and Two at Yankee Stadium, 9-5 and 4-2, where a box seat for “a downstairs occupant,” as Kelly said, cost $10 and a grandstand reserved ticket $7. Next day, in chilly sunshine, before 35,270, the largest Classic crowd to elbow into Ebbets Field, Brooklyn’s Carl Erskine targeted the Cubs’ Howard Ehmke’s record of 13 in 1929. By a 1-1 sixth inning, “the play has been strictly out of the world today,” said Gene. “The crowd rides on every delivery.” One reason was the score; another, Oisk had just Kd Woodling for strikeout No. 10; another, the Bums’ best fielding of the Classic. “There’s a high fly deep into right-center,” Kelly said. “[Carl] Furillo back! Snider back! Furillo makes a backhanded grab! What a catch at the old exit gate in the deepest right-center corner!” Snider singled and Gil Hodges walked to start Brooklyn’s sixth. Two outs preceded Robinson’s “base hit! Snider going to try to score! He will! Jackie Robinson registers his first RBI of the 1953 World Series after his team stranded 22 runners in the first two games!”

In Game Three, Kelly showed why he was a hustler, intellectual, and linguist above all. He could sell The Gillette World Series Record Book. “Just buy a one-piece Gillette shaving kit, then get the Record Book free,” Gene said. “So many of the records were set right here in Brooklyn.” Ebbets Field organist Miss Gladys Goodding made her own record, playing "The Dodgers Theme Song" and "The Gillette Blue Blades March." “There isn’t a ballpark in America,” Kelly allowed, “that seems to promote such good will for the visitor as this park.” He read much, expressing lyrically what he knew. “The fastball is Erskine’s stock in trade.” “He [Ford] is a picture-type of pitcher.” “The outfield sun is not as wicked as at The Stadium.” “This Erskine will keep you on tenderhooks.” “There’s a confab at the mound with Stengel, Reynolds, and Berra,” almost as personal as Gene’s confab with a listener.

In the eighth inning, Joe Collins fanned. Mantle did, too, after a single and hit-by-pitch in past at-bats. Woodling, Woodling, in what Kelly called “his King Cobra batting stance,” then hit a “line drive, center field! Base hit! The tying run is about to score in Bauer! It’s tied at 2! Gene Woodling, the new Old Reliable of the New York Yankees” — Allen having named Tommy Henrich the first. The Series tide ran in and out. Several days earlier Campanella hurt his hand, Gene noted, “but [the catcher] insisted on playing despite the fact that most every one expected him not to be in the lineup.” In Brooklyn’s eighth, Campy smashed “a line drive to left! Way back! Way back! It is … a home run!” Kelly continued. “Campanella has just belted out his first 1953 World Series home run. Brooklyn, 3 to 2.” Pitching to win a game more than set a record, Erskine still Kd Don Bollweg to open New York’s ninth — No. 13. The Hoosier “equals a world record for 24 years by one man — Howard Ehmke.”

Veteran John Mize, 40, hitting .308 in four prior Series, batted for Raschi in the Bombers’ last chance. “The fans know that Erskine has either equaled or bettered a record. You can sense it,” Gene said after Erskine got an 0-2 count. “They want to see him beat it now. You don’t get this guy very often on strikes, but you never can tell. The Big Cat is one of the best free swingers in the business! Oh and two. Erskine delivers. He struck him out! Carl Erskine has set a new all-time World Series record! He has struck out fourteen men! And to a man, woman, and child — they’re up on their feet out here in Flatbush!” The foils split Games Four-Five. Back at The Stadium, New York up, three games to two, Woodling walked to launch the home team’s at-bats, Bauer then singling. Next, Berra slapped “a drive to right! Here is Woodling turning third. The ball gets away from Furillo and bounces into the stands! A ground rule double!” caroming off Furillo’s glove” — Yogi batting .438 in the 1953 Classic before that hit, Berra's sixth. Another run scored on Jim Gilliam’s misplay of Billy Martin’s infield smash: after an inning, 2-0, Yanks.

“The pitchers have gone hit-happy in this World Series,” Kelly said after Ford’s single succeeded Rizzuto’s in the second inning. Woodling drove “to left field, Robinson, fairly shallow. The runner at third is tagging. Jack grabs [the fly]” and threw to second. “He gave up on Rizzuto, who scores easily on the play.” One goose egg followed another till Jackie doubled, stole third, and scored on Campy’s sixth-inning ground out: 3-1, New York. As scripted, in the ninth Al Helfer took the mike from Gene. With one out, Snider walked, starter Ford having been replaced by Allie Reynolds. Furillo batted, Al saying, “You can buy pressure by the ton.” Then: “Swung on. There’s a high fly ball deep into right field! Bauer cannot get it! It’s a home run! It ties the ballgame at three! [Helfer hushed; the noise made a radio quiver.] Well, good people, we have a brand new affair at Yankee Stadium right now. Carl Furillo waited for one of the most dramatic moments in the entire Series to unleash his first home run!” — a righty hitter reaching the deep right-field stands. How to top the topper? The Yankees found a way.

To get to Yankee Stadium, many took the IRT Woodlawn Road-Jerome Avenue subway. To get to Game Six’s Everest, you trekked to what Helfer dubbed “a storybook finish to this fiftieth World Series.” In the home ninth, New York put Bauer and Mantle on base against Clem Labine. The Fall Occasion-winning run led off second base. The one-out batter: Martin, “sort of on a rampage in this Series,” said Al. “Martin swings. It’s up the middle for a base hit! Here comes Bauer tearing around third! He’s in to score!” — Martin’s 12 hits tying another namesake, Pepper Martin’s 1931 World Series record dozen v. the Yankees mpions — “The Yankees are world champions once again! Four runs for the New York Yankees! Three runs for the Brooklyn Dodgers! The Yankees Series record is now 16 and 4.” Said Gene of a record fifth straight world title: “Once again it’s the Yankees!” Allen’s NBC-TV partner Vin Scully added: “For the seventh time in their history, the Dodgers go into their dressing room a broken-hearted crew. The Brooklyn ball club suffers perhaps its most bitter and disappointing defeat.” National Leaguers had tired of the script.

In 1954-55, the Giants and Dodgers, respectively, won the pennant. Meanwhile, the Phillies inched upward to 152-156. r Richie Ashburn batted a league-high .338, Del Ennis clearing 100 RBIs for the sixth time in seven years. 1956: Phillies cigars became a TV sponsor. Their radio network sprawled from Atlantic City to Harrisburg. The ex-Whiz Kids finished 71-83, almost a million seeing the home team flop. 1957: At age 31, Robin Roberts crashed — his 10-22 record baseball’s worst. Improbably, 1,146,230 filled the Phils’ barn to watch a curious definition of progress: 77-77 reprise. 1958: The Dodgers and Giants deserted a city part of the N.L. since 1876, making New York a one-club town by moving to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively. To fill the Apple’s N.L. void, WOR telecast a 77-game Quakers slate, felled by high costs that killed the experiment after a year — like the decade, schizophrenic for the last-placers. Ashburn’s .350 average took a last title. Roberts’ rule was 17-14. In 1962, the Nationals expanded to 10 teams to kill an embryonic third big — Continental — league. A new team was Houston, the other the Metropolitan Baseball Club of New York, Inc. The ’62 Mets ended 40-120. “I don’t ask how we lost 120,” skipper Casey Stengel said. “I ask how we won 40.” Dealt to the Cubs, then drafted by the Mets, Ashburn became an aging Merlin, team-high .306 hitter, and New York’s 1962 MVP.

Yearly the five-time All-Star tried to stem Phillies mediocrity: an artisan at bat and paladin in the field. Said the National Pastime: “Each year [Ashburn] would catch about fifty balls that Willie Mays wouldn’t get to.” Once Richie accidentally hit a season ticket-holder in the head. She took a stretcher to the hospital, where next day he went to visit. The woman’s leg was in traction from the roof of the bed. “Gee,” said Ashburn, “I knew I got you with that foul, but what on earth happened to your leg?” The woman said: “Richie, you won’t believe this, but as they were carrying me off on the stretcher you hit another foul …that broke a bone in my knee.” Another day a Cub approached him. “Whitey,” he told the towhead, “you hit a lot of fouls. My wife, Madge, and I aren’t getting along. You know where the wives sit here. Why don’t you take a shot at her your first up?” Obliging, Ashburn lined toward Madge. Her spouse waved a towel: “Two rows back and one to the left and you got her.”`

For Gene and Richie, 1959 meant brief adieu to Philadelphia. “What timing,” Kelly barbed of the .308 career hitter. “His first Philly season was two years before mine, and we left the same year.” The ’59ers earned ignominy: last in hitting, pitching, and place. Late that year one station agreed to carry the 1960 Phillies exclusively — their first solo video coverage since 1948. The “other stations pulled out,” said TSN, leaving WFIL, Channel 6, to do alone the entire radio and a 64-game TV schedule. Few dreamt of Kelly missing both 1960 media — until WFIL axed him for “accepting payola” from the Phillies’ ad agency for a video/radio sponsor that hired him, wrote Matt Zabitka in the May 26, 1960 Delaware County (Pennsylvania) Times. Gene affirmed taking money for promotion. “I have spent practically my whole adult life getting to know the players, averages, and so forth, and then all of a sudden I get sliced,” he said. “I was fired because I took payola in trying to build a last-place club into a first-place team,” guilty only of “getting too wrapped up in doing a good job and in building up the Phillies.”

Paraphrasing Ring Lardner, the Phils treated Kelly’s status like a side dish they declined to order, “not backing me [with WFIL],” he said, “after all my loyalty.” Gene braved guilt by association from a Congressional probe of radio payola: “disc jockeys accepting payment from record labels for [airing] songs,” wrote Bob Neira of the Modesto, CA, Radio Museum. Kelly said he had only “thirty days to find a job in Baltimore,” the Orioles’ Ernie Harwell having left for Detroit. “I didn’t get it.” A decade later, another Phils Voice left. “People ask, ‘What do you think of what happened to Bill Campbell [knifed in 1970]?’” Gene said. “I feel like asking, ‘What do you think of what happened to me?’” At 40-something, baseball’s six-foot-eight tallest non-jock-turned mikeman spent 1960-61 out of baseball. Meantime, Jack Moran did Cincy wireless, including the 93-61 ’61ers waving the N.L. flag by four games over L.A. Kelly replaced him in 1962, the 98-64 Reds third as Frank Robinson became first in slugging and doubles, second batting and total bases, tied for second, hits, and third in homers (39) and RBIs (136). Bob Purkey and Joey Jay won 44 games. “The Dodgers and Giants each won over a hundred,” said Kelly. “In a normal year, we win.”

The 1963 Reds fell to 86-76 despite Jim Maloney’s 23-7 Arcadia and Vada Pinson’s year redolent of F. Robbie’s ’62: first in hits (204) and triples (14), second in doubles, third in total bases and steals, and fourth in RBIs. Kelly worked for the WKRC Burger Beer network and at Crosley Field, where home talk buzzed like cicadas on a screen. Crosley led the league in smallest capacity (27,603) anotnd turf (387 feet to center field, 328 left, 366 right; Pygmy power alleys) and most brown-bagging visitors. A berm flanked its left-field wall. Home runs dented cars between the wall and a laundry whose sign read “Hit This Sign and Win a Spiedler Suit!” Gene long before found why Waite Hoyt loathed the rooftop booth. “It was open,” said the 1942-65 Reds announcer. “When it it rains, it flooded.” Save 1961, lightning struck Crosley Field more often than the club. It used radio to beam baseball’s oldest professional club to Lynchburg and Loudonville and Springdale and Sardinia. John Gunther had noted Cincinnati’s “stately and also sleepy quality.” Reds’ 1962-63 attendance was aleague fourth and seventh, respectively. Kelly’s uberswift delivery seemed miscast for the franchise’s mostly rural and small-town network. Missing the East, he was released in late 1963. “No one likes to be put in the street,” Gene said. “On the other hand, I thought I might be free.”

Kelly had been the decade-long Voice of Philadelphia baseball. Now, baseball closed its door. Gene even lost a weekly three-hour Sunday radio series. “I’m a maverick, and I like to do things with no prior planning,” he said in the Delaware County Time. “But I was hamstrung as the director wanted everything in the proper pigeonhole” before the show began, curbing spontaneity — Kelly’s forte. Gene did oddities like the Delaware County High School All-Star football game, Enterprise Corporation’s auto racing, and Liberty Bell football, but wasn’t the same. In 1965, he called Notre Dame football, lasting three games. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Frank Dolson praised Kelly’s “old warmth, the old flair, the old corn … the machine-gun voice.” His view was an exception, not rule. What followed lasted longer than a rain delay. “One day Gene fell, had a concussion, and went to the hospital,” said Bulletin columnist Frank Bilovsky. “When he regained consciousness, the fall’d erased his memory. Gene didn’t know what he’d done or who he was.”

According to Bilovsky, Kelly thereafter “came into the Bulletin office, read its files, and looked at past Phillies coverage” — hoping that a newspaper game here, a home stand there, “would restore Gene’s memory of the person he’d been.” It didn’t. A future stroke reimprisoned him, causing exhaustion, more memory loss, and “an awful lot of medical mistakes.” Despite the damage, Merrill Reese remained an admirer: Temple University ’64, Naval public affairs officer, then 1977- Philadelphia Eagles mikeman. From Gene’s tone, the teen knew if the Quakers had won or lost by turning on the radio. Yearly Reese entered a junior sportscasting contest for the chance to call an inning of a Phillies game — mostly for the chance to meet the man “I just loved listening to.” Though never a finalist, Merrill wrote a letter and to his shock got Kelly’s reply. The advice on how to properly prepare so stirred Reese that he wrote in his high school yearbook: “Wants to be a sportscaster like Gene Kelly.”

At Temple, Merrill worked on the campus radio station, which annually held a banquet. Recently canned by the Phils, Kelly was Reese’s freshman year speaker. At dinner he revealed that Merrill had been named station sports director. “I almost passed out,” said Reese, overwhelmed. In a moment, shaking Kelly’s hand, he asked how the Quakers would fare that year. “To be honest with you, kid,” Gene said, “I don’t worry about the Phillies. I worry about Gene Kelly. And besides, I root for people, not teams.” Merrill was crushed, decades later repeating each word. “Those statements ruined that night, which should have been a great night, for me.”

In time, the Temple alumnus discharged from the Navy began looking for a job. Kelly had just joined a new remote Philadelphia Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) station, Channel 48. Merrill approached his boyhood hero asking how he could help. “He couldn’t give me a paid job,” said Reese, “so he let me help him by having me drive him places. He’d been injured and wasn’t in great health, and I became his driver,” hearing Gene tell one story after another. One day Merrill became stuck in an expressway traffic jam. Suddenly, the front-seat passenger, tired of failure and fatigue, looked at his driver and said, “Who would have ever thought that me, Gene Kelly, would need a ride from you, Merrill Reese, a nothing.”

Stunned — “it was like a building toppled on my head” — Reese drove Kelly back to Channel 48. Merrill and “the man I’d wanted to be like. My hero,” never spoke again. Ultimately the channel fired Kelly. “They got scared,” he recalled. “Scared I was going to die.” In 1970, the once-Voice of Philadelphia tried his first pro basketball game in a decade. “I had a lot of doubt,” Gene said, having reason to. The national pastime was not even considered doing: too much dead air to fill. In 1979, Gene Kelly had a stroke too far at his home in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion, dying that September 18, at 60. Manager Joe McCarthy’s death preceded his by a year.

 

This biography appears in "The Whiz Kids Take the Pennant: The 1950 Philadelphia Phillies" (SABR, 2018), edited by C. Paul Rogers III and Bill Nowlin.

 

Sources

Grateful appreciation is made to reprint quotes from Bill Campbell: The Voice of Philadelphia Sports, by Sam Carchidi (Middle Atlantic Press, 2006) and Harry The K.: The Remarkable Life of Harry Kalas, by Randy Miller (Running Press, 2011). All play-by-play and color radio text courtesy of John Miley’s The Miley Collection (812-479-9143). Except when noted, virtually all material in this chapter is derived from my books Voices of The Game: The Acclaimed Chronicle of Baseball Radio & Television Broadcasting — from 1921 to the Present (published by Simon & Schuster, 1992); Voices of Summer: Ranking Baseball’s All-time Best Announcers (Carroll & Graf, 2005); The Voice: Mel Allen’s Untold Story (The Lyons Press, 2007); and Pull Up a Chair: The Vin Scully Story; A Talk in the Park: Nine Decades of Baseball Tales from the Broadcast Booth; and George H.W. Bush: Character at the Core (Potomac Press, 2009, 2011, and 2014, respectively.)