I had the very good fortune in 1990 to visit the legendary Mel Allen at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut. I was there to collect memorabilia for the “Stars of David: Jews in Sports” exhibit that I was the curator and executive producer for at the Klutznik Museum in Washington, D.C.
My wife Myrna came along with me. Mel had his sister Esther at the ready. I had driven out from Long Island in my Toyota Celica. The thinking was that I would spend a few hours, collect whatever Mel Allen offered and go back home. It would up as a virtually an all-day affair. My car was too small and the time was all too brief.
I was a so impressed with the warmth and the kindness and intelligence of Mel Allen. His hospitality and that of his sister -food and beverages – was a kindly gesture to strangers in their midst. Growing up in Brooklyn, his was the “voice” I had listened to those long ago summer days and nights that so splendidly spun the tales of New York Yankee baseball. It was the pleasing southern voice that got me interested in writing about sports, especially baseball, especially the Yankees.
At the top of his game as a broadcaster, Mel Allen received in excess of a thousand letters a week. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he born in Johns, Alabama, near Birmingham on Feb. 14, 1913. He enrolled at the University of Alabama at age 15, went on to earn degrees in political science and law and passed the bar.
And he joked “I took a class with the great football coach Bear Bryant and earned all A’s. I was absent all the time.”
Remaining close to home working as a speech instructor, covering football for a radio station in Birmingham, in 1936, Allen went to New York City with friends for a Christmas time break and on impulse stopped at CBS for an audition. By 1939, he was announcing home games for the network of the New York Giants and New York Yankees. By 1940, he held forth as the main voice on radio, then TV for the Yankees. His incredible time in the Yankee booth started in the sad days of the end of Lou Gehrig and ended in the final sad days the Yankee Empire of the 1960s. If you were a fan of the Yankees, chances were you loved him. Chance are that if you were anti-Yankee, you were anti-Allen.
EDDIE LOPAT: He was accused of being prejudiced for the Yankees. One year we won thirty-nine games in the seventh, eighth and ninth. He had to get riled up.
JERRY COLEMAN: I worked with Mel Allen was the personification of the great broadcast voice. He was magnificent in what he did and how he did it. And he could talk forever.
The articulate and enthusiastic Mel Allen brought the game to millions in a cultivated, resonant voice. He began broadcasts with “Hello, everybody, this is Mel Allen!” He created nick-names: “Joltin’ Joe” DiMaggio, “Scooter” for Phil Rizzuto, “Old Reliable” for Tommy Henrich,
Allen’s signature phrase “How about that!” originated in 1949, when Joe DiMaggio slammed three home runs in three games coming back from a severe heel injury. Each DiMaggio home run call was punctuated by Allen with “How about that!” “Going Going, Gone!” was Allen’s trademark call for a homer and a description of a four bagger as “Ballantine Blasts” and “White Owl Wallops” was a nod to sponsors.
MONTE IRVIN: Mel Allen had that golden voice. We thought he used to root more than anybody. Red Barber did less rooting. Mel was strictly a homer, but he was a truly fine announcer.
Allen’s resume highlighted his announcing 20 World Series and 24 All-Star Games, being there for nearly every major Yankees event. Suddenly, strangely, when the 1964 season ended, the great “Voice of the Yankees” was let go.
MEL ALLEN: They never even held a press conference to announce my leaving. They left people to believe whatever they wanted — and people believed the worst.
RED BARBER: He gave the Yankees his life and they broke his heart.
Pained, angered, confused, Mel Allen moved into the shadows for a time, disappeared from public view and consciousness. He broadcast Cleveland Indians games in 1968, called 40 Yankees’ broadcasts annually for several years on SportsChannel. He had a long run from 1977 on as the voice of “This Week in Baseball.” He became the host of the MSG Network program “Yankees Magazine” in 1986.
It was George Steinbrenner who is generally credited with bringing him back into the Yankee family, hiring Allen to do games on cable TV and emcee special events at Yankee Stadium. “The minute I bought the Yankees,” Steinbrenner said, “I wanted to know where Mel Allen was and I immediately brought him back to the organization.”
PAUL DOHERTY: Mel’s return to the Yankees organization actually occurred six years before George’s arrival in January 1973. His first return to the Yankees was to call the Old Timers Day Game on the field at the Stadium in 1967. After the return, Mel came back the Stadium to do the play by play on field for most all of the Old Timers Day games for next two decades. He also received a nice pat on the back from the Yankees brass when they had him call Mickey Mantle from the dugout on Mantle Day, June 9, 1969. So his exile from the Yankees didn’t last very long.
The long broadcasting run of Mel Israel Allen came to an end on June 16, 1996. The “Voice of the Yankees” was finally stilled. He passed away at his Greenwich, Connecticut home. The heart trouble that had afflicted him for several years was the cause of death. Fittingly, the 83-year old Mel Allen had just finished watching a Yankee game on television.
The above profile is excerpted from the author’s THE ULTIMATE YANKEE BOOK which debuts this fall. PRE ORDER from AMAZON: http://www.frommerbooks.com/ultimate-yankees.html .
About Harvey Frommer: One of the most prolific and respected sports journalists and oral historians in the United States, author of the autobiographies of legends Nolan Ryan, Tony Dorsett, and Red Holzman, Dr. Harvey Frommer is an expert on the New York Yankees and has arguably written more books, articles and reviews on the New York Yankees than anyone. In 2010, he was honored by the City of New York to serve as historical consultant for the re-imagined old Yankee Stadium site, Heritage Field. A professor for more than two decades in the MALS program at Dartmouth College, Frommer was dubbed “Dartmouth’s Mr. Baseball” by their alumni magazine.