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The Ford C. Frick Award

Jacob Pomrenke begins his eight-part series on major media personalities and Major League Baseball with the history of the Ford C. Frick Award, presented annually by the Baseball Hall of Fame and established following Frick’s death in 1978. During his lifetime, sportswriter and baseball executive Ford C. Frick could not have imagined that baseball’s best broadcasters would one day be honored with an award bearing his name.

By Jacob Pomrenke , April 17, 2017
Ford Frick and his wife Eleanor were married for 61 years.

In 1932, when The Sporting News set out to honor the best baseball broadcasters for the first time, Ford C. Frick could have hardly imagined a day when every announcer would dream of winning an award bearing his name at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Frick would later become the National League’s most celebrated president and then, unexpectedly, the game’s third commissioner, succeeding Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis and A. B. “Happy” Chandler. Frick patiently steered baseball through a tumultuous period of franchise relocation, antitrust hearings, and expansion in the 1950s and ’60s, leading to his Hall of Fame induction in 1970. An award honoring the game’s top TV and radio announcers was established following his death in 1978.

But back in 1932, the 38-year-old sportswriter’s most celebrated role was behind the scenes as Babe Ruth’s ghostwriter, helping the Bambino “write” several syndicated columns a week that appeared in newspapers around the country. Frick, a Yankees beat writer for the New York Evening Journal, was a regular part of the Babe’s entourage during the Roaring Twenties, and he even wrote Ruth’s autobiography, Babe Ruth’s Own Book of Baseball.

In addition to his own regular newspaper column and hosting events around town, Frick spent his spare time behind the microphone at the WINS radio station. There, he called live and sometimes re-created game broadcasts, delivered commentary on all pro and amateur sports, and produced two or three newscasts a day—a demanding schedule that left him little time for his family or anyone else, even the aging Babe Ruth. In his own words, Frick’s work in those years was “lousy” because he was pulled in every direction.

Baseball broadcasting was in its infancy in the 1930s, but there were already some well-known and popular announcers like Graham McNamee (New York), Ty Tyson (Detroit), and Bob Elson (Chicago) filling the airwaves. Frick, however, wasn’t in their class. His style as an announcer could best be described as professional, which helped set him apart from his more gregarious peers. Historian Lee Allen once wrote, kindly, “Baseball announcers on radio in those days considered their profession a branch of show business. Few of them had any newspaper training so Frick, with a penchant for accuracy, provided something new.”

While Frick’s style kept him employed, it didn’t garner him much acclaim. When TSN’s Announcer of the Year Award was unveiled in 1932—Arch McDonald, broadcaster for the minor league Chattanooga Lookouts in Tennessee, was the surprise winner—Frick finished far out of first place, receiving just 600 of the more than 260,000 votes cast by fans around the country. Still, that was better than the 500 votes received by McNamee, a pioneering broadcaster who had been calling World Series games nationally for a decade (and, like McDonald, a future Ford C. Frick Award winner).

While Frick’s own history as a broadcaster was unremarkable, he recognized the power of the medium and encouraged its growing popularity in baseball. “Like Carl Sandburg’s fog,” he once wrote, “radio sneaked in on ‘little cat feet’ before baseball owners and fans realized what was going on. Yet radio and its offspring, television, have had greater and more revolutionary impact on baseball than any other development in more than a century of the game’s history.”

Following his brief stint with WINS and later WOR, little did Frick know how his path in life would change. Two years later, he gave up his hectic writing and radio career to take over as publicity director for the National League. When NL president John Heydler suddenly resigned in the fall of 1934, Frick found himself, as he often liked to say, “in the right place at the right time,” and he was tabbed for the big job—running the league office himself. He was considered an overnight success at the age of 40.

Frick’s most famous act during his 17-year tenure as NL president was to support Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers in their effort to integrate big league baseball in 1947. When St. Louis Cardinals players threatened to boycott games against the Dodgers if Robinson stepped onto the field, Frick forcefully squashed the rebellion. “I do not care if half the league strikes,” he said. “Those who do it will encounter quick retribution. All will be suspended and I don’t care if it wrecks the National League for five years. This is the United States of America and one citizen has as much right to play as another. The National League will go down the line with Robinson whatever the consequences.”

 National League President Ford Frick presents Jackie Robinson with the 1949 MVP Award.

Frick also championed another cause that would give him a lasting legacy. In 1935, Frick helped popularize an idea to build a baseball museum in Cooperstown, New York, the ancestral (albeit apocryphal) home of the National Pastime. If you look closely at Frick’s Hall of Fame plaque, he is credited as the “Founder of the Baseball Hall of Fame.” Few men in baseball worked as hard as Frick to make the Hall of Fame real.          

In Jerome Holtzman’s classic oral history on sportswriters, No Cheering in the Press Box, Frick explained his role:

The whole thing started with the discovery of the so-called Doubleday Baseball. That was the excuse. . . . Stephen Clark, a resident of Cooperstown, heard about the ball and bought it for five dollars. Mr. Clark is a historian, a philanthropist, very museum-minded. . . . And he assigned a member of his staff, Alexander Cleland, to look around and find other authentic baseball relics.

Mr. Cleland then came down to New York, to the National League office, to see me. . . . He said the people in Cooperstown wanted to have some sort of baseball celebration. They wanted to get some publicity and get the newspapermen up there. He suggested we pick an all-star team and play a game up there—sort of a one-day holiday.

I said, “Hell, why do that? If you’re going to do that, why not start a baseball museum—a Hall of Fame, and have something that will last?” That’s the way the Hall of Fame started.

Frick helped persuade his former sportswriting colleagues to support his vision, calling for a meeting of wire-service reporters to publicize the vote for baseball’s first class of Hall of Famers in 1936 and beating the drum over and over until the museum’s grand opening in 1939. Without Frick, the Hall of Fame might have been confined to a small regional gathering that drew little attention except from the people involved. Instead, it’s now a world-class historical shrine that should be on any baseball fan’s bucket list.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum opened its doors for the first time on June 12, 1939.

That was the legacy the Hall of Fame wanted to honor upon Frick’s death in 1978. The idea for a broadcasters award began that spring in conversations between Hall of Fame President Edward Stack, Joe Reichler and Bob Wirz of the commissioner’s office, Robert Fishel of the American League office, and Blake Cullen of the National League.

“For some time now,” Stack wrote in a June 9 memo to the Hall of Fame’s executive committee, “many of us have felt that a similar honor [the J. G. Taylor Spink Award] should be paid to the outstanding broadcasters who have covered and reported baseball on TV and radio.” In a press release sent out weeks later, Stack added, “Baseball broadcasters are an important part of the national game and we want to recognize those who excel.”

All active and former Major League broadcasters were asked for their help in nominating candidates for the award, and then a selection committee chose the first recipients: Mel Allen, the legendary voice of the New York Yankees who had covered the Hall of Fame’s inaugural induction ceremony back in 1939; and Red Barber, the “Old Redhead” who had called games for the Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Yankees. The process to establish the Ford C. Frick Award took just four months, from the ex-commissioner’s death in April to the induction ceremony in August.

Allen was especially grateful to receive recognition for his career accomplishments. “I am awed and humbled, and as happy as I could ever possibly be . . . in receiving this honor, the first paid to our profession, which we know will serve as an added and everlasting incentive to those who will be coming along in the future to justify the highest pinnacle of achievement in baseball reporting,” he said.

Over the years, the Frick Award recipient’s speech has often been a highlight of the annual ceremony in Cooperstown. These are the familiar and iconic voices we have all grown up listening to on TV and radio, and their skill and comfort behind a microphone can lead to some memorable moments on Induction Day. In 1981, Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell recited his classic essay “Baseball — A Game for All America” at the Hall of Fame, and you won’t have to search too hard to hear the recording of his speech replayed somewhere every spring, usually right around Opening Day.

The following year, Vin Scully was honored with the Frick Award after what was then 32 years of service as the Dodgers’ announcer from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Could anyone have predicted that the beloved broadcaster would last another three decades, describing the exploits of Clayton Kershaw and Corey Seager in the same lyrical rhythms as he had done so long ago for Sandy Koufax and Jackie Robinson? Scully was still going strong in 2016 at the age of 88 when he decided to close his scorebook after 67 seasons in the Major Leagues.

At the same time Scully was winding down his unprecedented career, the Hall of Fame decided to honor baseball’s first star broadcaster, Graham McNamee, with the Ford C. Frick Award in the summer of 2016. McNamee became a celebrity with his call of the Yankees-Giants World Series in 1923, and he went on to call 11 more fall classics. He also pioneered many broadcasting techniques that are still in use today.

One of McNamee’s contemporaries described his voice this way: “For nearly 20 years it thrilled those who heard it. Things, places, and people became alive in the homes of America when he spoke.” Any baseball fan who has listened to a Frick Award winner surely knows the same feeling.

Legendary Vin Scully shown here at his last broadcast on October 2, 2016.
Flickr credit: 
Photographer Exile on Ontario St.   
https://creativecommns.org/license/by/2.0/

 

 

 

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