Phillies Play Pirates in First Game Ever on the Radio

On August 5th, 1921, the Phillies travelled to Pittsburgh to take on the Pirates. The Phils were just starting that dreadful period from 1919-1947 when they would finish last or next to last 24 times. The Pirates, meanwhile, were leading the National League at the time (they would finish 2nd to the Giants after a late season swoon). The Pirates would win the game, 8-5. But what made the game special was that it was the first one every covered on radio. And though nobody knew it at the time (people thought baseball would be boring on the radio), they were starting a revolution. The man who called the game that afternoon was 26-year old Pittsburgh DeeJay Harold Arlin (left), who announced by talking into a telephone ¬†from a box seat in the crowd. Here’s the full story from explorepahistory.com:

On the afternoon of Friday, August 5, 1921, Harold Arlin sat down in a box seat behind home plate to watch the Pirates defeat the Phillies, 8-5. He wasn’t there just to watch, though; he was also there to tell fans beyond the ballpark what he was seeing. When he opened his mouth to speak into the telephone he was holding, Arlin changed the way Americans would enjoy baseball, and indeed, every other sport, forever…

“We were looking for programming,” Arlin recalled years later, “and baseball seemed a natural. I went to Forbes Field and set up shop.” The operation, a hand-held telephone connected to a transmitter in a box behind home plate, had a few glitches, though. “Nobody told me I had to talk between pitches,” he conceded, and when he did, his distinctive deep voice did not always come through. “Sometimes the transmitter didn’t work. Often the crowd noise would drown us out. We didn’t know whether we’d talk into a total vacuum or whether somebody would hear us.”

Plenty of “somebodies” did, and sports” broadcasting became a sensation. Radio sets flew off the shelves, and fans, intrigued by what they were hearing, arrived at Forbes Field in record numbers. The game took on a new dimension as Arlin learned to paint images with his words and infuse drama into the proceedings. For the first time, baseball fans could be in two places at once: in the stands and in their living rooms. It no longer became necessary to make a trip to the ballpark to take in a game; the game, instead, could come to you.¬†

Arlin got out of the radio game in 1925, but he did make a rather remarkable reappearance in 1972. His grandson Steve played several seasons for the Padres. In 1972, the Pads came to Pittsburgh to take on the Bucs. Arlin, by now a 77-year old man, got to call a few innings of his grandson playing baseball, in the same city where he had called the first game. How cool is that?


3 Comments on “Phillies Play Pirates in First Game Ever on the Radio”

  1. Dan Koch says:

    I’d love to hear some of those original broadcasts if they survive in any form. It’d be intriguing to see how the art of sports broadcasting developed — the concepts of weaving a narrative around the game beyond just a factual recitation of the action on the field. The irony is that as a good as radio would be in expanding the popularity of the sport, the owners originally saw it as the rapture. MLB’s embracing of the internet over the past few years is probably the first time that MLB ownership has actually embraced technology as something beyond the imminent doom of the sport.

  2. It’s not just baseball either. There are some really interesting stories about football in the early 70s going bananas when color tv went mainstream. They refused to let any games showing local teams be shown for years.

    It’s the same way baseball is now. I disagree with your assessment that they have “embraced the internet”. I think the blackout rules for MLB.com are absurd and anti-capitalist…in Philly you either have to subscribe to comcast or you can’t watch the Phillies. That just shows that baseball still doesn’t get the fact that more access means more fans.

    Furthermore, their refusal to let people embed until about 2 months ago, and their hoarding of all baseball footage, some of which they let trickle out, some of which they don’t, is Stone Age thinking. Finding footage of say the Dock Ellis no-hitter is like finding those extra pics from Abu Ghraib.

  3. Dan Koch says:

    I agree that the blackout rules are regressive (and infuriating), although I suspect that’s being driven more by Comcast and the local television contracts than the teams themselves. They’ve got less of an excuse for their policy on archival footage.

    My thoughts were more on how great a job they’ve done in actually implementing MLB.TV and their MLB AtBat mobile app — both which easily pace the other major sports. MLB.TV was implemented will full streaming video for every game by 2005, which is at least three years before streaming online video was considered a viable mainstream content carrier. Yes, they’re trying to squeeze every zinc penny out of it, but traditionally baseball would wait until they were about ten years behind the curve, and *then* try to strip mine the concept after everyone else has already moved on.


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