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August 26, 1939 – The First Televised Professional Baseball Game

Posted August 26, 2009 6:01 AM by ShakespeareTheEngineer

On this day in engineering history, Major League Baseball (MLB) experimented with a medium that would become an enormous cash cow and lead countless fans to watch professional baseball games for the next seventy years. On August 26, 1939, from Ebbets Field in New York City, Major League Baseball telecasted its first game. The contest between the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers reached 500 homes, the press room at Ebbets Field, and the World's Fair in New York City. The "instantaneous and amazing" response was exactly what the league had hoped for.

Then and Now

The August '39 broadcast by NBC was groundbreaking for professional sports in a variety of ways, especially when one considers that round-the-clock media is now at the average fan's disposal. Today, websites update stats and scores instantaneously, providing instant information for both casual fans and hard-core fantasy sports fanatics. With each swing of the bat or pass of the football, a fantasy team "owner" can see his or her progress against other foes in the league.

Now turn back the calendar back to 1939 and imagine a time when those who could tune in saw only a black and white image supplied by two cameras. It was impossible to see the ball, and only the voice of the Dodger's Red Barber was supplied to narrate the action.

Today, most ballparks use upwards of fifteen cameras and have a three-person crew of commentators for telecasts. There is high definition, slow motion and freeze frame so that every iota of the game can be dissected immediately. Then highlights are cut and immediately uploaded to the Web for viewing by those who were unable to see the game and don't subscribe to the MLB.tv package. Ebbets Field was torn down and replaced by Shea Stadium, which was then torn down last year and replaced by the Ebbets-like (but high tech) CitiField.

Buckying Up to Celebrity

When the Dodgers fell 6-1 in the first of two scheduled contests on August 26, 1939, the Red's Bucky Walters became the first professional pitcher to win a televised baseball game. The 1939 season was also Walter's best year in baseball. He sported a 27-11 record with 31 complete games, 319 innings pitched, a 2.29 ERA, an All-Star selection, and an NL-MVP Award. Putting the league's best pitcher on the mound was a wise step by NBC and MLB in appealing to the masses.

College Teams Get Their Due

Just as Union College (Schenectady, New York) boasted the first radio broadcast of a baseball game in 1920, it was college baseball and not the big leagues that blazed the telecast trail that Major League Baseball was quick to follow. The first televised baseball game at any level had occurred earlier in the year, on May 17, 1939, when W2XBS (which would become WNBC-TV) telecasted Princeton playing Columbia. Princeton won by a score of 2-1 with Bill Stern commentating.

Have We Come Too Far?

As we survey our own times, it becomes a question not of how far we've come in seventy years, but if we have come too far. Do we really need twenty-four hour sport coverage with mock drafts for football starting the day after the previous year's draft has concluded? With TiVo, DVR, DVD-R, VCRs and SlingBox, fans never have to miss a single second of an entire season. And if they do, they have the Web as a resource. It even allows someone like me to become an expert on Bucky Walters in just a few seconds.

Have we become so obsessed with sports that ESPN's televising the World Series of Poker and the National Spelling Bee has become a necessity, or is our obsession with sports just another example of American overindulgence? Perhaps it's because we've become a nation of spectators, watching the home run derby instead of playing it in the backyard. This also provides an ironic insight into the national obesity issue when you consider that millions of Americans tune in each day to sit back and watch other people work out.

Resources:

http://www.ballparks.com/baseball/national/ebbets.htm

http://www.baseball-statistics.com/Ballparks/LA/Ebbetts.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_26

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1208/is_35_225/ai_77811419/

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/w/waltebu01.shtml?redir

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#1

Re: August 26, 1939 – The First Televised Professional Baseball Game

08/27/2009 8:16 AM

Go Mets!

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#2

Re: August 26, 1939 – The First Televised Professional Baseball Game

08/27/2009 9:21 AM

Go Mets, indeed!

One little clarification:

Ebbets Field was torn down and replaced by Shea Stadium, which was then torn down last year and replaced by the Ebbets-like (but high tech) CitiField.

Lest anyone think these stadia occupied the same space--Ebbets was in Brooklyn, Shea and Citifield in Queens. This makes a huge difference to the territory-conscious denizens of the five boroughs of New York City.

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Re: August 26, 1939 – The First Televised Professional Baseball Game

08/31/2009 11:08 AM

Great call, sue. As a life long Mets fan, I didn't even think to point that out as it is ingrained in my brain as common knowledge that Shea's replace of Ebbets Field was in terms of where the Mets played, rather than location.

I should have made note of the geographic change in that sentence. Thanks for clarifying, especially as I was out on vacation last week.

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Re: August 26, 1939 – The First Televised Professional Baseball Game

08/31/2009 11:50 AM

My pleasure, especially since I was raised within walking distance of what was once Ebbets Field (but torn down before I was hatched, I might add).

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Re: August 26, 1939 – The First Televised Professional Baseball Game

08/31/2009 11:53 AM

Bummer. It would have been awesome to see that place.

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