Today pinch hitter is Kevin Rozell, who looked beyond the roster and the front office to write about a different sort of Yankees legend.
You might know Kevin’s work from Zell’s Pinstripe Blog, but his Yankees roots run much deeper. “My Grandpa Danny was fortunate enough to see Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig play at the original Yankee Stadium when he was a child,” Kevin wrote. Kevin has been blogging since March of 2008 and hopes to eventually work for the Yankees in some capacity.
“I haven’t been around to witness all the Yankees great moments,” he wrote. “But trust me when I say that I’ve done my research and I know the history. I love watching them play, but at the same time I like to act as if I’m the GM and manager.”
“Hello there, everybody!” That’s one of the many catchphrases you might have heard by Melvin Allen Israel during his Yankees broadcasts. He was born on February 14, 1913, in Birmingham, Alabama. His love for the game of baseball as a young boy would play a big role in his life.
The future sportscaster attended the University of Alabama where he was a member of Zeta Beta Tau fraternity. He served as the public address announcer at Alabama football games. In 1933, Birmingham’s WBRC was in need of a new play-by-play announcer and Alabama coach Frank Thomas suggested Israel fill the position. It was his first job behind the microphone. Israel’s first broadcast was Alabama’s home opener that year, against Tulane. He went on to earn a law degree from Alabama, but his boyhood love for baseball led him to become first a sports columnist and then a radio announcer.
Soon after graduating from Alabama in 1937, Allen took a train to New York City for a vacation, and he never turned back. While on vacation, he auditioned for the CBS Radio Network as a staff announcer. They already knew about him, as the network’s top sportscaster, Ted Husing, had heard many of his Crimson Tide broadcasts. They hired him at $45 a week. In his first year at CBS, he announced the crash of the Hindenburg. CBS suggested that Mel go by a different on-air last name, so he chose Allen, his father’s middle name. He legally changed his last name to Allen in 1943.
In 1938, Mel landed his first Major League Baseball assignment, as a color commentator for the World Series. Not long after that, Wheaties wanted Allen to replace Arch McDonald as the voice of the Senators, but Washington’s owner Clark Griffith wanted Walter Johnson behind the microphone. McDonald was moving to New York as the first full-time radio voice of the NY Yankees and NY Giants. Allen’s big break came in June 1939, when Garnett Marks, McDonald’s partner on Yankee broadcasts, twice mispronounced Ivory soap as “Ovary Soap.” He was fired and Allen replaced him. McDonald went back to Washington after only one season, so Allen became the Yankees and Giants lead announcer. He was able to do the work for both teams because only the home games were broadcasted.
Allen recounted a memory that occurred during his first full season as the announcer of the Yankees. Lou Gehrig had been forced to retire the previous year due to the disease he was fighting. Gehrig spoke to Mel in the team’s dugout and said, “Mel, I never got a chance to listen to your games before, because I was playing every day. But I want you to know they’re the only thing that keeps me going.” Allen waited until Gehrig left the dugout, and then broke down in tears.
Allen all together called 22 World Series on radio and television, including 18 in a row from 1946-1963. When the Yankees didn’t appear in the Fall Classic, he was called upon anyway to be the play-by-play man (which only happened four times in 18 years).
In 1964, he was fired at only 51-years of age. Back in September of that year, the Yankees informed Allen that his contract would not be renewed. Baseball Commissioner Ford C. Frick honored the Yankees request to have Phil Rizzuto join the broadcast crew instead. The Yankees received tons of letters from angry fans about Allen’s absence from the booth during the World Series. The team issued a press release announcing Allen’s firing — he was replaced by Joe Gargoyle — but the Yankees never gave an explanation. Years later, Allen said he was fired under pressure from the team’s longtime sponsor, Ballantine Beer, as a cost-cutting move because they had poor sales for years.
Eventually, the Yankees allowed Allen to perform as a speaker at special Yankee Stadium ceremonies. He did Old Timers’ Day, which he originally handled when he was the lead announcer. He was also able to take part in the number-retirement ceremonies. He worked for the Yankees again from 1976 to 1985 and was brought back to the Yankees’ on-air team as a pre/post-game host for the cable telecasts with John Sterling. He also started called play-by-play again. Mel announced Yankees cable telecasts on Sports Channel New York with Phil Rizzuto, Bill White, Frank Messer, and occasionally, Fran Healy. Allen made several appearances on Yankee telecasts and commercials into the late 1980s. In 1990, Allen called play-by-play for a WPIX Yankees game to become baseball’s first seven-decade announcer.
Awards and Accolades
• Inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame in 1972.
• 1978 – Mel was the first recipient (with Red Barber) of the Ford C. Frick Award
• Inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.
• Inducted into the American Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame in 1985.
• Inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1988.
• Inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1995.
• Ranked #2 by the American Sportscasters Association in its list of the Top 50 Sportscasters of All-Time (January 2009).
Allen moved to Greenwich, Connecticut in his later years and died on June 16, 1996. Years after his death, he is still promoted as having been the “Voice of the New York Yankees.” On July 25, 1998, the Yankees dedicated a plaque in his memory for Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. The plaque stands in the new ballpark today and calls him “A Yankee institution, a national treasure.”