FW: ANB - Bio of the Day [Alabama native Mel Allen]
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Subject: ANB - Bio of the Day
American National Biography Online
[ illustration ]
Mel Allen, 1955.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-112027).
Allen, Mel (14 Feb. 1913-16 June 1996), sportscaster, was born
Melvin Allen Israel in Birmingham, Alabama, the eldest child
of Julius Israel and Anna Leib Israel. His parents were Russian
immigrants who made their home in the small town of Johns, outside
Birmingham. Julius Israel ran a general store in Johns and later
sold women's apparel to support his family, which included Melvin's
younger brother and sister. The elder Israel moved his family
to various small towns in Alabama and to Greensboro, North Carolina,
while he pursued his selling career; by Melvin's early teens
the family had settled in Birmingham.
Melvin Israel showed an early aptitude for sports as well as
academic achievement. At Phillips High School in Birmingham he
earned letters in basketball and football as well as baseball,
which he had played since the age of nine. He graduated from
high school at age fifteen, in 1928, and that fall entered the
University of Alabama. In college he continued to play all three
sports until his junior year, when he began writing a sports
column for the school newspaper. Melvin Israel received a B.A.
degree in political science in 1932 and went on to the University
of Alabama School of Law, from which he graduated four years
later. To support himself during his eight years at the university,
he worked for a while as a clerk in a shoe store. As a graduate
student he received a fellowship to teach speech, a subject in
which he showed exceptional aptitude. Because of his skills he
was appointed manager of the campus public address system, but
at this point he was still intent on becoming a lawyer.
Melvin Israel's future career as a sportscaster was initiated
in the fall of 1935, when Alabama's football coach asked him
to give play-by-play details of a Crimson Tide game over the
stadium loudspeakers. He was soon hired to do the same thing
for other Alabama games on a Birmingham radio station. He went
on to graduate from law school in 1936 and passed the Alabama
bar exam that summer. Meanwhile, his distinctive voice and manner
on his football broadcasts had attracted favorable attention
from executives of the Columbia Broadcasting System, and in December
1936, during a visit with friends in New York City, he auditioned
at CBS. He was immediately offered a job, which he accepted,
as an announcer in New York. Although Melvin Israel could probably
have earned a more than respectable living as a lawyer, the fact
that the country was suffering through the darkest days of the
Great Depression undoubtedly influenced his decision to go into
broadcasting. He began work in January 1937, assuming the on-air
name of Mel Allen. Six years later he made Mel Allen his legal
name when he joined the army.
For more than two and a half years Mel Allen worked as a disk
jockey and newscaster for CBS Radio in New York. His debut as
a sportscaster for the network occurred in the summer of 1939,
when he was asked at the last minute to cover a major boat race,
the Vanderbilt Cup, off Long Island, broadcasting from an airplane.
Such aerial coverage was then a novelty, initiated days earlier
by the major CBS rival, the National Broadcasting Company. Although
nervous about plane travel--he remained afraid of flying throughout
his life--Allen ad-libbed for more than an hour, reporting on
the progress of the yachts as well as tennis matches he could
see from the air. The broadcast was a huge success, and Allen
was launched on his lifetime career as a sportscaster. He began
doing play-by-play broadcasts of major league baseball games
that same year, and soon he was also broadcasting basketball
games played at Madison Square Garden. By 1941 he had become
a regular sportscaster of both Yankee and Giant baseball games
on the CBS network, with an annual income of $30,000.
In 1943, as U.S. troops fought overseas in World War II, Allen
enlisted in the army as a private. By this time he had broadcast
three World Series games for CBS and had earned a national following
as a sportscaster. For two years Allen served in the infantry
in Europe, achieving the rank of staff sergeant. Toward the end
of the war, in early 1945, he was reassigned to the Armed Forces
Radio Service, where he worked as an announcer on the program Army Hour.
In 1946 Allen left the army and returned to New York, where
he was hired by the Yankees as their radio "voice." Under the
terms of his contract, he became the game announcer over CBS
radio station WINS-AM, and his play-by-play coverage was carried
throughout the United States. During the next eighteen years
Allen became known as the "Golden Voice of the Yankees." He covered
not only all Yankee games but also All-Star games and the World
Series. Allen's affable and exuberant personality and his muted
southern accent were an irresistible draw for millions of listeners,
who heard him open every broadcast with a friendly "Hello, everybody,
this is Mel Allen!" His often repeated exclamation, "How about
that!," first used after an injured Joe DiMaggio hit a home run
in a 1949 game, became a national slogan, and his enthusiastic
on-air promotion of Ballantine Ale and White Owl cigars endeared
him to his broadcast sponsors. Several famous players earned
their nicknames courtesy of Allen, including "Joltin' Joe" DiMaggio
and Tommy "Old Reliable" Henrich. Allen was in the radio booth
for many memorable moments in Yankee history, including the moving
farewells of Lou Gehrig in 1939 and Babe Ruth in 1948, and the
celebrated hitting streak of DiMaggio in 1941. In the course
of his career he trained several other sportscasters who became
nationally known and with whom he sometimes shared the microphone,
including Red Barber and Phil Rizzuto.
When the Yankees began televised coverage of their games in
the 1950s, Allen also appeared on TV broadcasts as a commentator
and increasingly as the game announcer. However, in the 1964
World Series between the Yankees and the Cardinals, he was abruptly
replaced by Phil Rizzuto, and when the series ended he was fired
altogether. Allen was stunned by this action, which has never
been fully explained. According to some sources, he was dismissed
at the behest of one broadcast sponsor, Ballantine, in an attempt
to cut costs; there were also rumors that his garrulous style
had worn thin among Ballantine management.
Allen was to spend most of the next thirteen years away from
broadcasting, an interval that included only one on-air stint--as
an announcer for the Cleveland Indians during the 1968 season.
His long absence from the airwaves finally ended nearly a decade
later, in 1977, when he became the host of the syndicated TV
show "This Week in Baseball." A year later, in 1978, the new
Yankees owner, George Steinbrenner, hired Allen as the sportscaster
for the team's games on cable TV's SportsChannel, and he remained
at that post for eight seasons. Allen's affiliation with "This
Week in Baseball" continued until his death.
In 1978 Mel Allen, along with Red Barber, was the first inductee
into the newly founded broadcasting wing of the Baseball Hall
of Fame. Allen, who never married, lived for many years in Greenwich,
Connecticut, and had shared his home with his sister since 1977.
He died at his home.
For biographical information on Mel Allen, see H. Horn, "Baseball's
Babbling Brook," Sports Illustrated, 9 July 1962, pp. 54-58ff;
B. Davidson, "Mel Allen: Baseball's Most Controversial Voice,"
Look, 27 Sept. 1960, pp. 97-98ff; "Allen, Mel," in Current Biography
Yearbook for 1950 and 1996; and Who's Who in America, vol. 32,
1963-1964. For a posthumous assessment of his career, see R.
B. Cramer, "Mel Allen," New York Times Magazine, 29 Dec. 1996,
p. 20. An obituary appears in the New York Times, 17 June 1996.
Ann T. Keene
Back to the top
Ann T. Keene. "Allen, Mel";
American National Biography Online June 2000 Update.
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