With smart phones at the ready, today's sports fans can now follow real-time video streaming from the game du jour. Most recently, they followed college basketball's March Madness bounce by bounce using wireless technology that is developing at warp speed. But instant sports programming isn't all that new; it actually started 90 years ago this month.
Radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh produced the first complete broadcast of a sports event on April 11, 1921. Pittsburgh Post sports editor Florent Gibson offered blow-by-blow commentary during a lightweight prize fight between Johnny Ray and Johnny Dundee at Pittsburgh's Motor City Square. Ringside, Gibson used a converted telephone as a mike, and his words traveled over a line to a nearby transmitter, where engineers sent his commentary on the air. Those city residents with radio receivers enjoyed their first, um, wireless connection.
In 1921, reporters routinely created word images of sports events for newspapers, then the preeminent source of sports reporting. Gibson simply switched from his typewriter to the microphone and used spoken, if not shouted, words to create what was then the "next best thing to being there."
According to the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, a newspaper reported that the boxing broadcast brought "the action of the ring battle with all the realism of each blow. (Radio) brought the sounds of the conflict, the clang of the gong and the shouts of the fans."
Pioneering KDKA had established a series of "firsts" before the April fight. On Nov. 2, 1920, the station initiated the world's first broadcast by a commercially licensed radio station, using the occasion to report results from the U.S. presidential election between Warren Harding and James Cox. The first broadcast of a regularly scheduled church service followed in January 1921, and on March 4, the station became the first to carry live a presidential inaugural address -- Harding, again. Music programming, selected vaudeville acts, and public service announcements soon followed, and advertising quickly leapt to the new mass medium.
Early in the Roaring Twenties, folks began to have a little more leisure time and cash in their pockets. They wanted to follow drama and excitement, and the era's vast newspaper industry responded with scandal, crime, and sex on the front pages. But editors also tried to balance the titillating and lurid with safe subjects, and sports filled the bill. As journalism professor Robert McChesney wrote in "Media, Sports, & Society," sports "offered the spirit and excitement of conflict and struggle in a politically trivial area."
Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, which owned KDKA, must have followed the newspapers' model of sports coverage. However, the company also knew that broadcasting was the best means to sell the radio receivers that it manufactured. Likely seeing a great potential market, they pressed quickly into sports reporting.
Westinghouse soon produced another sports radio first when KDKA's Harold Arlin broadcast the first baseball game on Aug. 5, 1921. Arlin, a Westinghouse employee and KDKA studio announcer, set up in a box seat in Forbes Field as the Pittsburgh Pirates hosted the Philadelphia Phillies. He sparked what became a summertime love affair between baseball fans and their radios, one that lasted in full bloom until television began to offer more lively charms.
"Our guys at KDKA didn't even think baseball would last on radio," Arlin said to sportswriter Curt Smith in 1984. "I did it sort of as a one-shot project." Arlin went on to describe his experiences in Smith's book, Voices of the Game. "Quite frankly, we didn't know what the reaction would be -- whether we'd be talking into a total vacuum or somebody would actually hear us."
Westinghouse and KDKA hit the sports trifecta on Oct. 8, 1921 when Arlin called the University of Pittsburgh-West Virginia football game. During this first gridiron broadcast, the Panthers beat the Mountaineers at Forbes Field, 21-13.
Once aware of radio's broad vistas, the American public thirsted for it. According to Frederick Lewis Allen in his landmark book, "Only Yesterday," 350 new radio stations had joined KDKA by mid-1922. Allen also reported that consumer spending on radio sets and accessories skyrocketed from $60M in 1922 to $843M in 1929. An estimated 5 million people listened as the Giants beat the Yankees in the 1922 World Series, and by 1928, 25 million fans listened to the Rose Bowl game.
This rush to radio broadcasting finalized what McChesney called "the nationalization of sports." Radio created the first national audience, and on that basis, the medium cemented sports as a cornerstone of American culture.
Later in life, Arlin enjoyed watching his grandson Steve play baseball. The younger Arlin pitched for six seasons in the big leagues, mostly with the San Diego Padres in the early 1970s. Now a retired dentist living in San Diego, Steve recently recalled when his baseball career, his grandfather, and radio all came together.
"I was pitching against Pittsburgh, and the long-time Pirates radio broadcaster Bob Prince asked Granddad to call an inning of the game. He was pretty excited about that, although his turn in front of the microphone turned out to be not much more than saying 'strike' or 'ball.' He sort of froze."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael K. Bohn is the author of "Money Golf," a history of the gentlemanly wager on the golf course, and more recently, "Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports."
Bohn also has written "The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism" (2004), and "Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room" (2003). He served as director of the White House Situation Room, the president's alert center and crisis management facility, during Ronald Reagan's second term. Bohn was a U.S. naval intelligence officer from 1968 to 1988.