“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
In 1921, radio wasn’t even called radio. Most newspapers called it either the “wireless telephone” or the “radiophone” and there were only a handful of stations nationwide. But despite the fact that only about 2000 people in greater Boston owned radio sets in 1921, radio was already doing amazing things for baseball fans.
In October, the World Series was broadcast; KDKA was one of the stations that provided listeners with the opportunity to hear this important sporting event. For the first time, fans who lived far from New York, where the games were taking place, could follow the play-by-play in real time, as if they were actually there, and not merely following a recreation. Radio was the first mass medium to provide real-time access to an event as it was happening. For those unable to receive the game from the few stations broadcasting it, ham radio operators stepped up, relaying the scores from the ballpark to anyone who wanted them.
By the summer of 1922, the radio craze was sweeping the country, and several hundred new stations went on the air. Among them was WNAC, owned by Boston department store owner John Shepard III. He installed a studio for his new radio station in the Shepard Department Store in downtown Boston. Many stations provided up-to-date sports scores on a regular basis. A small number of stations also experimented with remote broadcasts, occasionally putting sporting events on the air live, including boxing matches and the 1922 World Series.
The games were once again on the air from New York, but this time the Series had a much larger radio audience. By some accounts, about five million people tuned in, and fans on three continents heard the broadcasts.
The public’s love affair with radio put the newspapers in an awkward position: as interest in radio expanded, many print publications worried that the new mass medium would take people away from reading the paper. But a few newspaper editors saw real potential in aligning their publication with a radio station; they wanted to use radio to promote their reporters. In greater Boston, the Boston American was the first to make such an agreement. In mid-February 1922, reporters from that newspaper began working with WGI, making it possible for listeners to hear daily news reports, sports scores, and other information.
The newspapers needn’t have worried about losing readership; sports fans wanted more, not less, information. Baseball fans still wanted to read their favorite baseball writers, to get analysis, and they still enjoyed their favorite sports cartoonists. The Boston Traveler was the sister paper to the Boston Herald, and one of the first of the dailies to enthusiastically embrace radio, providing coverage of the new mass medium beginning in February 1921.
The Traveler hired its own radio editor, Guy Entwistle, and he wrote a column about it three times a week. (Three years later, both the Herald and the Traveler would become even more involved with radio: they entered into an agreement with WBZ, when the Westinghouse station opened a Boston studio in early 1924.) The Traveler was known for its hard-working sports staff. Among the writers who covered baseball was Gus Rooney. He covered college sports when baseball was not in season. And the Traveler had Charlie Donelan, who also wrote an occasional sports column. Both Gus Rooney and Charlie Donelan would soon become very important in the history of baseball on the radio in Boston.
Some of the earliest interactions between the Red Sox and radio occurred in 1923. No, the games weren’t on the air, but for perhaps the first time, the manager was. That courageous gentleman was the newly hired Lee Fohl. A former catcher who had only played five major league games, Fohl had managed successfully in the minors, as well as for the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns, before being named Red Sox manager for the 1924 season, succeeding Frank Chance.
Fohl’s willingness to go on the air was somewhat out of character for him, and not just because radio was new. By most accounts, Fohl didn’t like the limelight. It was probably exciting for the fans to hear from Fohl, in his own voice, in an era when access to newsmakers was limited.
There were still no local broadcasts of Red Sox games in 1923 or 1924. In early October 1924, Boston’s newest station, WEEI, had arranged to link up with New York station WEAF to broadcast the first game of the World Series from Washington, as the Nationals battled the Giants. The play-by-play announcer would be Graham McNamee, a name and voice very familiar to fans in many cities, Boston among them. It was not uncommon for fans in one city to listen to broadcasts from other cities. WEAF’s signal was easily heard in Boston. Local baseball fans had discovered WEAF broadcasting some New York Giants games, and even though they weren’t supporters of that team, they enjoyed hearing a ballgame on the radio. And they especially enjoyed Graham McNamee’s announcing. McNamee was already a radio veteran by 1924, having announced the 1923 World Series along with sportswriter William McGeehan.
For those eager to hear local baseball on the radio, things progressed in 1925. The Red Sox still weren’t winning, and the games still weren’t being broadcast, but something new came to Boston radio: baseball talk. In early April 1925, Charlie Donelan received a new opportunity, getting his own sports-talk radio program on WEEI. Twice a week during much of 1925, Charlie would talk baseball and give fans inside tips, as well as discussing people he had met while covering all the teams.
By most accounts, WBZ seems to have aired the first live baseball in Boston, but it wasn’t a Red Sox game. Rather, the station broadcast the opening game of the Boston Braves season from Braves Field on April 14, 1925.
Subsequently, the Braves games were announced by Charlie Donelan. Like McNamee, Donelan was praised by local reporters for being knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Fans seemed to agree, and attendance at his talks and appearances continued to increase.
Red Sox fans were still waiting patiently. Those who had a good radio tuned in to stations in other American League cities, because sometimes those stations broadcast a game where their team was playing against the Sox.
It is not surprising that WNAC got permission to broadcast the Red Sox games in 1926. Station owner John Shepard III loved sports, and he loved radio; he also loved being in the limelight. Once again, when seeking an announcer, Shepard turned to the Boston Traveler, where Gus Rooney still worked. Gus had tried his hand at broadcasting when he announced a boxing match, so Shepard asked if he wanted to be the announcer for the Red Sox opener on April 13, 1926. Gus agreed, but had he known what he just signed up for, he might have asked for combat pay. The weather was windy and cold, and the Red Sox were just as miserable, trailing early 11 to 1, causing many fans to head for the exits. But Gus persisted in trying to make the game interesting for the WNAC audience. He told stories of the old days, he discussed baseball strategy, and in the late innings the Sox began to mount a comeback. While they came up short in the end—losing 12–11 to the Yankees—it turned out to be an exciting game after all. Unlike today when a play-by-play announcer has assistants and sidekicks, Gus Rooney had nobody; the game dragged on for three hours, during which he was the only person talking. His colleagues at the Traveler noted that the next day, he was so hoarse he could barely speak at all. That didn’t stop him from doing several other ballgames in subsequent weeks; throughout much of 1926 he could be found doing play-by-play, although more often for the Braves.
He subsequently returned to his work as a sportswriter at the, retiring in 1938. In addition to sportswriting, his obituary notes that he was a publicist for Suffolk Downs when it opened.
Gus Rooney died in Buzzards Bay on December 21, 19787 at age 86.