Indians Got Mel Allen for One Lackluster Year
Vince Guerrieri | On 02, Mar 2016
There aren’t a lot of deals made by the Indians that are front page news. But in 1968, as the team was in spring training in Arizona, the Indians made a big signing heralded on the front page – of an announcer.
On February 27, 1968, the Indians announced that their television voice on WJW for the upcoming season would be broadcasting legend Mel Allen. The Alabama transplant had been synonymous with the New York Yankees for a generation. He was the master of ceremonies for commemorative days for Lou Gehrig (after retirement, Gehrig told Allen that his broadcasts were the only thing that kept him going) and Babe Ruth. But the Bronx Bombers had dumped Allen unceremoniously after the 1964 season – not even allowing him to broadcast the World Series, which they ended up losing to the St. Louis Cardinals.
“He gave the Yankees his life, and they broke his heart,” said Red Barber, who would often share a broadcast booth with Allen.
No reason was given for Allen’s firing, so rumors abounded. Was he a drunk? A drug user? Nervous breakdown? Was there a reason he never married? In 1965, he called 65 Milwaukee Braves games for an Atlanta radio station (the Braves were all ready to move south, but a court order kept them playing in Milwaukee as a lame-duck team that year). When the Braves went down to Georgia, Allen didn’t go with them. The confirmed bachelor was wedded to New York City.
And that was going to be his arrangement with the Indians in 1968. He would call a total of 48 Indians games – the idea of a majority of games played by a team being televised was still more than a decade away – and planned to commute from New York City. He was still part of NBC’s Game of the Week team and had other radio and television obligations as well. But he was thrilled to be a part of the team.
“The opportunity to keep in baseball is something for which I’m very grateful,” said Allen, less than two weeks after his 54th birthday.
WJW was just as thrilled to have him. Station president and general manager Kenneth Bagwell said Allen was the only person offered the job, which became vacant after Herb Score moved from television to radio – a role he’d fulfill for another 30 years. Score replaced Jimmy Dudley, who had been forced out. (Chuck Heaton later reported that Bill Veeck of all people was considered for the job as well.)
The move was not universally heralded. Letters to the Plain Dealer called Allen “mush-mouthed” and “the bottom of the barrel.” “I hope he is fired before the year is up,” one letter writer said. Another suggested the hire was a ploy to get more people to watch the games – in person.
And the complaints continued throughout the season, as Allen’s tenure in Cleveland was a rocky one. The Indians weren’t as good as the Yankees teams he’d covered before (although, to be fair, 1968 wasn’t a banner year in the Bronx either). At one point in a game in Minnesota, Allen actually started reciting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” during a broadcast.
By June, even the Plain Dealer was ready to call the hire a disaster. “I get the impression that Mel suffers terribly on his forays to our great wilderness lands and he counts the minutes until he boards the plane for his return to the big town,” wrote radio-TV editor William Hickey. “His lack of interest in his job shows markedly in his broadcasting. Sometimes you get the impression that he isn’t quite certain just whom the Indians are playing, or if they are even playing at all.”
At the end of the season, Allen said he didn’t want to be considered for the job the following year – and there was serious doubt that he would have anyway.
Allen became the narrator for “This Week in Baseball,” a syndicated program that recapped baseball. And ultimately, he made peace with the Yankees, being brought back into the fold by George Steinbrenner and calling games for the Yankees’ new SportsChannel.
On June 16, 1996, Allen watched the Yankees beat the Indians at his home in Connecticut. A few hours later, he was dead of a heart attack. The obituaries reminded everyone of his lengthy association with the Yankees, but for one lackluster year, he called Indians games.