The First Televised Baseball Interview

By Robert D. Warrington

This article was published in the Fall 2015 Baseball Research Journal.

Baseball’s relationship with the media can be traced back to the earliest days of the game. It started with newspapers in the nineteenth century, broadened to radio in the early twentieth century, then expanded to television by mid-century. While the innumerable, pervasive connections that bind baseball and the media today bear little resemblance to their modest beginnings, each linkage had to start somewhere. For baseball and television, that somewhere was in an experimental television station in Philadelphia in 1937, when an interview featuring Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack was broadcast to demonstrate a qualitative leap forward in television technology.

THE EMERGENCE OF TELEVISION

Television was not invented by one person, nor was the invention created in one place. Multiple enterprises located in the United States and abroad contributed to the development of television over decades of work starting in the nineteenth century.1 Television’s feasibility as a mass consumer product depended on overcoming technological challenges. The greatest of these was improving the image definition of an analog television screen so that its quality approximated what moviegoers saw in theaters.2 By the mid-1930s, significant progress had been made in creating greater television picture detail and stability by increasing the number of horizontal lines that together comprise the picture on an analog television screen.3 Additional refinements in screen image quality were inevitable, but by whom, when, and how much?

PHILCO AND THE 441-LINE BREAKTHROUGH

Founded in the late nineteenth century, the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company—Philco—expanded its product line in the late 1920s to include radios. The move was a highly profitable one for the company; with an eye fixed on the future of home entertainment, Philco was an early leader in the effort to transform television into a marketable commodity.4 The company was granted permission by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1932 to operate an experimental television station—one of the first in the country—in its plant in Philadelphia.5 Philco engineers strove to improve screen resolution quality.

In mid-1936, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA)—a rival of Philco’s in television development— held the initial public demonstration of its new 343-horizontal-line screen technology, a substantial advancement over the previous 240-line standard.6 Unbeknownst to RCA, however, Philco engineers had achieved an even more dramatic breakthrough in screen image quality—a 441-line picture definition.7 Eager to unveil this achievement with maximum publicity, Philco invited 150 media, publishing, and communications industry representatives—along with FCC executives—from around the country to join senior company officials in witnessing the first public transmission of a 441-line television screen image.8

Still, a critical question faced company leaders: “What program would be shown on the screen to the audience?” Star power was the answer, and Philco brought together for the occasion two of the most famous personalities residing in the city: Connie Mack and Boake Carter.

CONNIE MACK

Readers of the BRJ should know the name Connie Mack. In his thirty-seventh year of managing the Philadelphia Athletics, Mack was by 1937 an iconic figure in major league baseball and a sports luminary in Philadelphia. His A’s teams had won nine American League pennants and five World Series titles. Mack was selected to manage the American League squad in the first All-Star Game in 1933. The following year he led an impressive roster of major leaguers to play a series of exhibition games in Japan, China, and the Philippines. The City of Philadelphia acknowledged Mack’s esteemed status as one of its leading citizens by presenting the Philadelphia Award to him in 1929— the first sports personality recognized with this highly prestigious honor.9

In January 1937, the Philadelphia Athletics Board of Directors elected Mack to be the franchise president, adding that position to his already-existing jobs as club manager and treasurer. The year also saw Mack voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.10 To these laurels would be added the role of serving as the guest on the first televised baseball interview.

BOAKE CARTER

British-born Harold Thomas Henry “Boake” Carter was a journalist and foreign correspondent who by 1930 had migrated to Philadelphia, working as a reporter and commentator at radio station WCAU, a CBS affiliate broadcasting in the city.11 Carter’s big break came in 1935 when he covered the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the man charged with kidnapping the infant son of famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh. His narratives describing the lurid details of the crime that more discreet reporters believed should not be broadcast across the country made Carter an instant celebrity.12 Once the trial ended, Philco sponsored him to host a national radio news program on CBS, and Carter’s voice could be heard coast to coast from the WCAU studio. He became one of the most influential commentators of his time, and given Philco’s determination to attract the utmost public attention to the unveiling of its 441-line definitional television screen, he was as obvious a choice to conduct the interview as Connie Mack was to be interviewed.13

THE DEMONSTRATION

The date selected for the demonstration and accompanying luncheon was February 11, 1937, and the ballroom of the Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia was chosen as the place to hold it.14 The television screen on which the interview was to be shown measured 12 inches in diameter,15 and Philco placed several television sets in the ballroom so people could have an up-close look at the picture being broadcast.16 The program lasted one hour.17

The Mack-Carter interview took place at Philco’s experimental television station, located at C & Tioga Streets in Philadelphia and bearing the call letters W3XE. The television station and cricket club were approximately three miles apart.18

Reporting on the demonstration indicates that Philco earned the positive reviews it sought in displaying the 441-line screen image resolution. A reporter from Etude Music Magazine who attended the event provided a description of what he witnessed:

We have recently attended a private demonstration in which the Philco Company presented to publishers and editors from all parts of the United States the “last word” in the advancement of television. The program lasted one hour and was given in the ballroom of the Germantown Cricket Club. The pictures were reproduced in what is known as 441 lines, a big advance over the 335 [sic] lines previously possible. One of the striking pictures was a television interview between Boake Carter and “Connie” Mack, well known news commentator and famous baseball manager, who were televised three miles away from the receiving set.

From the standpoint of sound, the transmission is no different from that of an ordinary radio. The pictures show the individuals televised (in black and white) at almost the same relative size as that seen in the full page illustrations in a magazine. The pictures came in with surprisingly little flicker and light variation, but they are not yet as steady in this respect as the ordinary good movie. That they are as good as they are is so marvelous that one continuously feels a desire to pinch himself to realize that it is all actually happening.19

As part of the campaign to publicize its improved television screen technology, Philco distributed a photo of Mack and Carter taken during the interview. The caption that accompanied the photo illustrates the company’s eagerness to promote the groundbreaking nature of the demonstration:

America’s No. 1 News Commentator Interviews America’s No 1 Base Ball Manager… Connie Mack (left) engaged in first Televised sports interview with Boake Carter, famous Philco news commentator, in Philco Television Demonstration at Philadelphia, February 11th, 1937.

Cleverly, Philco switched the screen image quality between 441 lines and the previous horizontal line standard during the demonstration. By highlighting the comparison, as one observer stated, “The improvement was obvious.” This same commentator also noted presciently when evaluating the remarks made by Philco’s vice president Sayre Ramsdell, “Mr. Ramsdell definitely spiked the impression that has gotten around to the effect that television would supersede sound broadcasting.”20

The demonstration did not go entirely uncriticized, however. A reporter from The New York Times who attended the event wrote: “The greenish tint that has characterized television pictures in the majority of past demonstrations has been overcome. Black and white advances television closer to the cinema, but television has a long way to go to equal the movies in clarity.”21

Improving picture clarity and stability was only one of the challenges Philco had to overcome to make television a marketable commodity. The opinion of another attendee at the demonstration illustrates this point:

I’d like to have one of those sets in my home, and so would lots of other people. However, I understand that the first television sets may cost four or five hundred dollars. That’s too much money to spend for any radio set, with or without pictures. But if they can get the cost down to, say, two hundred, it’s my guess that the average person would feel that he had his money’s worth with entertainment such as that given here.22

A HISTORIC MOMENT, BUT NOT FOR SPORTS

Any significance Philco attempted to attach to Mack and Carter engaging in the “first Televised sports interview” went completely unnoticed in contemporary accounts of the demonstration. While the unprecedented nature of the interview was noted in the caption accompanying the photograph of the men distributed by the company, none of the sports sections of newspapers in Philadelphia and New York touched upon it, nor was the interview ever mentioned in The Sporting News. It is not surprising, however, that the interview was overlooked at the time as an epochal event in sports, and that the potential of a future relationship between baseball and television went unrecognized. 

In 1937, television still was in its infancy, judged by many to be nothing more than an exotic toy for the rich. It was far from certain television would ever equal—let alone supplant—radio as the primary home entertainment medium nationwide. Satisfactory screen quality and an affordable purchase price were still daunting hurdles to be overcome.

In addition, the demonstration was intended to promote Philco’s breakthrough in television picture definition and stability. Mack and Carter were included on the program because their celebrity status helped publicize the event, and because the interview broadcast illustrated the magnitude of the qualitative improvement in screen image resolution. Attendees were drawn to the event to witness a major leap forward in television technology, not to experience the novelty of the “first Televised sports interview.” That is why the demonstration was covered by entertainment reporters, not sports reporters.

The fact that the interview’s purpose was confined to supporting the demonstration is further evidenced by the fact that no video or audio recording of it is known to survive. If Philco hoped the demonstration would be historic, it was based on the marvel a great advance in television technology would inspire, not on the curiosity the first televised sports interview would trigger. It is highly unlikely anyone at the company considered the greater significance for baseball and the media of including a sports interview as part of the program shown to attendees. The role television could play in bringing baseball into the homes of American families was an intriguing question, but one too soon to ask in 1937. The development of television had not reached the point where such a relationship could be realistically envisioned. That would come later.

BEYOND THE INTERVIEW

Despite Philco’s claim that the 441-line definitional image was the “last word” in the advancement of television screen quality, its status at the forefront of picture technology lasted only a brief period. The company itself recognized that its 441-line image would not stand the test of time, and in 1940, Philco engineers increased the resolution of its television screen picture to 525 lines.23 The need to fight and win World War II interrupted the emergence of television as a mass consumer product, although research to improve it as a marketable commodity continued.24 Once the war ended, television’s popularity skyrocketed.25 

Baseball’s relationship with television matured as additional “firsts” occurred in the aftermath of the Mack-Carter interview. The first televised baseball game took place on May 17, 1939, between Princeton University and Columbia University at the latter’s Baker Field. Princeton won, 2–1. It was shown on W2XBS, an experimental station in New York. The first professional baseball game ever to be aired on television took place several months later on August 26, 1939, when W2XBS, using one camera near the visitors’ dugout along the third base line and one in the second tier behind home plate, showed a doubleheader between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds at Ebbets Field. The first batter to appear on television: Reds third baseman Bill Werber. The first pitch was thrown by Luke Hamlin. The Reds took the first game, 5–2, while the Dodgers came back and captured the nightcap, 6–1. Although the start of scheduled broadcasts of major league baseball games as part of regular commercial television programming was delayed by World War II, it followed rapidly once the war concluded.26

TELEVISED GAMES AT SHIBE PARK

In 1947, just ten years after the Mack-Carter pioneering broadcast in a small experimental studio in a city that could count televisions in only 100–150 homes,27 televised broadcasts of Philadelphia Athletics games (and Philadelphia Phillies games) began.28 Coverage of games at Shibe Park was rudimentary by today’s standards. A single camera was used, and it was located in a small cage under the sloping tier of the upper-deck seats, first level, behind home plate. People watching at home could see only the infield.29 By 1950, two more cameras were added—one each in the photographers’ boxes along the first and third base lines— which provided multiple views of the infield and coverage of the outfield.30

Technicians manning television cameras at the ballpark worked under primitive and dangerous conditions. Don Paine, a cameraman at Shibe Park, remembered: 

You worked in this little cage behind home plate that hung down from the upper deck. To get to it, you had to climb down a ladder. My back was right up against the screen. The lens in the camera pointed out through an opening about 18 inches wide in the cage. A foul ball could go through there and knock the camera out. One time, a cameraman got knocked out when a ball hit him right in the head.31

A photograph that accompanies this article shows two boys climbing up the protective screen behind home plate at Shibe Park to retrieve a foul ball that had become lodged in the screen’s wire mesh.32 The photo provides an excellent view of the television camera cage. The opening cut in the screen for the camera to shoot through is visible, and the photo also reveals that a shade was present on the front of the screen that could be pulled down to cover the opening when the camera was not shooting through it. This presumably was done to provide protection for the camera and crew during batting practice, and to cover the opening when games were not being played at Shibe Park.

THE INTERVIEW IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

The Mack-Carter interview introduced baseball to television, although it is highly doubtful either man understood or even imagined how remarkable the moment was. It is only in retrospect that we can recognize the occasion’s importance in the evolution and confluence of baseball and television. The significance of the interview as a milestone in baseball’s relationship with the media is that it happened, not what was said or the circumstances under which it took place. Despite Philco’s best efforts to etch its technological achievement in the annals of time, the 441-line analog screen image is consigned to the past, while sports interviews have flourished on television and are now as much a part of the baseball viewing experience as the games themselves. The Mack-Carter interview heralded symbolically what swiftly became a paramount realization by baseball and television of the benefits both could reap by a close and continuing affiliation.

While early television coverage of baseball was hardly comprehensive or elegant, it changed the relationship that existed between baseball and its fans, and it forced baseball to redefine its understanding of the role of mass media in that relationship.33 For the first time, a person could “see” a game without leaving home. In generating revenue through broadcast rights, promoting ticket sales, publicizing upcoming games, expanding the fan base through advertising, and marketing teams beyond the confines of a ballpark, the prospect for financial gain offered by television broadcasts of baseball games was enormous. In this fundamental and important way, television contributed significantly to baseball’s transformation from a game being played to a commodity being merchandised.

ROBERT D. WARRINGTON is a native Philadelphian who writes about the city’s baseball history.

  • 1. Two of the best books describing the invention and history of television are: Erik Barnouw, Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television, Second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), and David E. and Marshall J. Fisher, Tube: The Invention of the Television, (Boston: Mariner Books, 1997).
  • 2. An analog television operates by having optical images sent from the transmitting equipment converted from images to electrical signals by a camera tube. The signals are transmitted by UHF or VHF radio waves or by cable and reconverted into optical images by means of a television tube inside a television set. http://dictionary.reverso.net/english-definition/television%20set
  • 3. The first all-electronic television had 120 lines in 1932. The number doubled the next year to 240. Despite this remarkable improvement, the technological hurdle of increasing horizontal line density was difficult to overcome. Research was costly and progress uneven. Additional information on early improvements in analog screen image resolution can be found in “Television,” http://www.clemenson.edu/caaah/history/FacultyPages/PamMack/lec1., and in “Television systems before 1940,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Television_systems_before_1940. For a more general treatment of the horizontal line density technological hurdle within the overall context of the invention of television, see, Samidha Verma, “Invention of Television,” http://engineersgarage.com/invention-stories/history-of-telev .
  • 4. A chronological history of Philco is provided in, “The History of Philco,” http://www.philcoradio.com/history/htm .
  • 5. “Channel 3’s History: The Early Years,” http://www.broadcastpioneers.com/bpl/3history.html. The FCC was called the Federal Radio Commission in 1932. It became the Federal Communications Commission in 1934 in recognition that its jurisdiction over communications mediums would transcend just radio.
  • 6. RCA’s demonstration of its new screen technology is noted at http://www.tvhistory.tv/1936%20QF.htm.
  • 7. A description of the 441-line screen resolution image breakthrough achieved by Philco engineers is contained in Chapter 3 of “The History of Philco.” The company was also the first to employ interlacing to improve definitional screen imaging. “By interlacing and scanning at a faster rate of 30 frames (or 30 complete scans of both odd and even lines), all noticeable flicker is removed.” Nat Pendleton, “The Dawn of Modern, Electronic Television,” http://www.earlytelevision.org/pendelton_ paper.html.
  • 8. “441-Line Television,” Radio Engineering, February, 1937.
  • 9. Frederick G. Lieb, Connie Mack: Grand Old Man of Baseball (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1945), 231, 251, 253–54.
  • 10. Ibid., 263, 268
  • 11. Carter’s initial broadcast assignment was as the announcer for a rugby game. WCAU covered the game, and Carter was the only person at the station who was familiar with the sport. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boake_Carter.
  • 12. http://www.otr.com/bcarter.html.
  • 13. http://en.metapedia.org.wiki/Boake_Carter and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boake_Carter. Despite his overall popularity, Carter’s star began to dim when he became increasingly vitriolic in his criticism of President Franklin Roosevelt and his “New Deal” and foreign policies. Philco did not renew Carter’s contract in 1938, and he migrated the next year to the Mutual Broadcasting System. Carter never returned to the prominence he had previously enjoyed, however, and he died in 1944 of a heart attack. Readers interested in learning more about Carter can read, David H. Culbert, News for Everyman: Radio and Foreign Affairs in Thirties America, Reprint edition (Santa Barbara: Praeger Publishers, 1976).
  • 14. Radio Engineering, February, 1937. The irony of the first televised baseball interview being shown at a cricket club should not be lost on readers. Cricket is one of the antecedents from which the game of baseball is derived, organized and structured. See, Fred Lieb, The Baseball Story (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1950), 3–8.
  • 15. The dimensions of the actual image were 7½ by 10 inches. A black border around the picture covered the rest of the screen. “Television, When?,” Etude Music Magazine, June, 1937.
  • 16. A history of Philco provides more technical details on the transmissionreceiver set-up as arranged for the demonstration. “The company's prototype TV sets on display at the demonstration were housed in leftover 1936 Model 116PX radio-phonograph cabinets, with no dial or controls on the front panels. When the lid of a set was lifted, instead of a phonograph, the television screen and controls were revealed. A mirror under the lid allowed normal television viewing from across the room to take place. Each of the sets used twenty-six tubes.” “The History of Philco.” Details can be found in Chapter 3, “Leadership in Radio.” http://www.philcoradio.com/history/indix/htm. For readers wishing to immerse themselves even more deeply into the technical details of the demonstration, Philco’s transmitter used for the broadcast had a peak power of four kilowatts and operated on a frequency of 49 megacycles. Sound transmission was over a separate channel (54 megacycles). Radio Engineering, February, 1937.
  • 17. The program consisted of interviews, newsreels and a fashion show, and it was preceded by remarks from James M. Skinner, president of Philco, Sayre M. Ramsdell, vice-president, and Albert F. Murray, engineer in charge of the company’s television work. Radio Engineering, February, 1937. The highlight of the demonstration, nevertheless, was the MackCarter interview, which is the only segment of the program mentioned specifically by reviewers. Etude Music Magazine, June, 1937.
  • 18. “Channel 3’s History.”
  • 19. Etude Music Magazine, June 1937. The number of horizontal lines in an analog television screen picture prior to the 441 perfected by Philco was actually 343—shown by RCA in mid-1936—not the 335 lines stated in the article.
  • 20. Radio Engineering, February, 1937.
  • 21. Orrin E. Dunlap Jr., “Television Show Reveals Current State of the Art,” The New York Times, February 21, 1937.
  • 22. Radio Engineering, February, 1937. Price continued to be a drag on sales despite advancements in screen quality. RCA initially marketed its line of TV sets in New York City in 1939 with poor results. The company then reduced the price and met with better, albeit still tepid, success. America was not yet ready to embrace television as a mass consumer product. See, “Early Electronic Television,” http://www.earlytelevision.org/prewar.html.
  • 23. “The History of Philco.” More information about Philco’s efforts to improve definitional screen image quality beyond 441 lines can be found in Chapter 4, “Diversification and War.” http://www.philcoradio.com/history/hist4.htm. On May 3, 1941, the FCC authorized a 525-line definitional image, and it became the industry standard for analog television screens thereafter. In September, 1941, Philco’s experimental television station became one of the first in the country to be granted a commercial broadcasting license by the FCC. The station’s call letters were changed from W3XE to WPTZ. “Channel 3’s History.” http://www.broadcastpioneers. com/bpl/3history.html. Analog television technology became obsolete in 2009 when television stations stopped broadcasting in that format and switched to digital transmission. http://www.fcc.gov/digital-television.
  • 24. Mitchell Stephens, “History of Television,” http://www.nyu.edu/classes/stephens/History
  • 25. Although large-scale production of TV sets started in the United States in 1946, by the end of that year, only 44,000 homes in the country had a TV set. By 1953, 50% of American homes had television. http://www.earlytelevision.org/american_postwar.html.
  • 26. The Dodgers-Reds games at Ebbets Field were broadcast by an experimental television station and were not part of commercial programming. Indeed, in 1939, there were less than 2,000 homes with televisions in New York. More people saw the Dodgers-Reds doubleheader at the ballpark than at home. “Baseball broadcasting firsts,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baseball_broadcasting_firsts. Also see, “75 years ago today, the first MLB game was televised,” http://wapc.mlb.com/cutfour/2014/08/25/91371436/75-years-ago-tl
  • 27. “Early Television Stations,” http://www.earlytelevision.org/w3xe.html and “Channel 3’s History.” http://www.broadcastpioneers.com/bpl/3history.html.
  • 28. Bruce Kuklick, To Every Thing A Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia, 1909–1976 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 104.
  • 29. Ibid.
  • 30. Rich Westcott, Philadelphia’s Old Ballparks (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), 180–81
  • 31. Ibid., 181
  • 32. The photograph was taken at Shibe Park on September 7, 1947 during a doubleheader between the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Red Sox. The Mackmen won both ends of the twin bill 7–4 and 4–3. http://www.baseball-almanac.com/teamsrars/schedule.php?y= 1947t=PHA.
  • 33. For a more extensive treatment of baseball’s relationship with radio and television, see, Eldon L. Ham, Broadcasting Baseball: A History of the National Pastime on Radio and Television (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2011).