Wed May 11, 2005
How About That! The Life of Mel Allen
Alabama native and baseball announcer Mel Allen is painstakingly profiled in this latest biography.
By Don Noble
Mel Allen is one of those public individuals, one of those celebrities, who has been so much a part of American everyday life we feel we know him well. Of course, we don?t, but readers will know a lot more after reading Stephen Borelli?s biography of Allen, who died at age 83, in 1996.
Mel Allen was a familiar part of the American sports landscape for many years. For 25 years, from 1939 to 1964, he was the Voice of the New York Yankees. As their chief broadcaster he became buddies with?really a confidante to?the greats: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Phil Rizzuto, in fact a couple of generations of Yankees.
Allen moved along in sportscasting from the earliest days of radio when he, like young "Dutch" Reagan, re-created baseball games on the radio from wire service teletype, all the way into the middle 90s.
Mel Allen with his smooth, correct, but Southern voice could keep up color and patter with anyone. He became famous for a cluster of trademark expressions, most notably "How about that!" when something remarkable occurred, and also "going, going, gone."
He was also a very convincing pitchman for the Yankee sponsors and for a while we all thought a homer was a "Ballantine Blast."
Allen may also have been the first to suggest a camera in center field, behind the pitcher?s shoulder, and the first to use instant replays and split screens.
(He also gave Coach Paul Bryant his first houndstooth hat.)
He was the complete professional, who was fully prepared for every assignment and combined a respect for tradition, like never saying aloud that a pitcher had a no-hitter going, with an eagerness to innovate technically.
Mel Allen was what we now call a workaholic, taking every opportunity that arose, earning a quarter of a million a year with his voice in the 1950s. He announced baseball and college and pro football and basketball, everything but hockey.
In the 30s, he announced radio music shows with the big Dorsey and Fred Waring bands, he announced the radio precursors to soap operas, and he had a major role in the radio version of Truth or Consequences.
In the 1980s, he even cut a rap song. The only real bump in Allen?s career was in the middle 60s, when he lost his baseball job with the Yankees; sadly, that was the beginning of "creeping Rizzutoism"?using retired players as announcers. This unfortunate and linguistically ugly business continues.
Also, Allen took care of his family, supporting his parents as long as they lived and helping his siblings. Raised in Alabama, in what was then wild and woolly West Blocton, and in many other towns as his store-owner father struggled to keep his family afloat during the Depression, Mel Israel, the child of Anna and Julius Israel-?yes, Mel changed his name in 1937?-took a BA and a law degree from the University of Alabama.
He was a brilliant and athletic young man, 6 feet 2 inches tall, at 15 entering UA, where he joined Kappa Nu, and finishing both degrees by age 23. He passed the bar but soon got his first New York announcing job. Of course, he had announced while on campus and had acted a good deal in the Blackfriars, a campus dramatic organization, as well as writing sports stories for the Crimson White.
In sum, Mel Allen is well served in this biography. The English language, however, is not. Borelli needed editing, and if he got any, it wasn?t enough.
Besides pronoun errors such as "[issues] between he and Belinfante," there are uglinesses like "Maris would have to tie or equal Ruth?s record in 154 games." Borelli writes: "I accomplished a large portion of my research thanks to the gratitude of Mel?s family.? Surely he means ?graciousness? or ?generosity.? He writes of Allen, ?He began voraciously writing football articles.? Surely he means ?energetically.? Voracious suggests eating, not producing. And finally, there is my favorite, describing Mel ?picking up a fishing rod and casting its reel into the lake." Are there no editors or fishermen in publishing any more?
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.