Philadelphia Phillies 5-8 Pittsburgh Pirates (lost KDKA radio coverage of MLB game; 1921)
On 5th August 1921, Major League Baseball team the Pittsburgh Pirates hosted the Philadelphia Phillies for a National League game. Occurring at Forbes Field, the Pirates emerged victorious by an 8-5 margin. The encounter made media history for becoming the first baseball game to receive live radio coverage.
Before this encounter, both teams were experiencing vastly different regular seasons. The Pittsburgh Pirates were challenging the New York Giants in topping the National League, boasting a 63-35 record. In contrast, the Philadelphia Phillies was enduring a difficult campaign, rounding out the bottom of the League after acuminating only 30 wins and 67 losses. As this clash would take place on the Pirates' home soil, they were naturally deemed the favourites heading into the game. However, a poor run of form for the Pirates, including losing five of the past six games deep into July, gave the Phillies some hope. The game held on 5th August was the last in a best-of-three series, with the Pirates winning 9-5 in the first on 3rd August, and 5-0 the following day. The Phillies aimed to win the final game to boost morale prior to facing the Cincinnati Reds.
Meanwhile, pioneering radio station KDKA launched on 2nd November 1920, operated by the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company. The earliest commercial radio station, it was responsible for numerous firsts in radio broadcasts. Among them included providing the first ever presidential inaugural address, from Warren G. Harding on 4th March 1921, to airing the Johnny Ray-Johnny Dundee boxing match on 11th April 1921, the first coverage of live sport. In January that year, it had also employed Harold W. Arlin on a permanent basis as KDKA officials were impressed with the young Westinghouse engineer's powerful voice. He among other KDKA personnel were evaluating which sports to tackle next. Initially, scepticism arose regarding the entertainment value of a live baseball broadcast. Still, with only around a few pockets of early radio adopters present in Pittsburgh, an experimental broadcast was deemed low-risk for KDKA's future.
Radio broadcasts of baseball reports and results had been broadcast almost a decade prior. However, no play-by-play airing had previously occurred. Because of Forbes Field's geographical proximity to Pittsburgh-housed KDKA's shortwave operations, the upcoming Phillies-Pirates clash was declared ideal for this experiment. Arlin sat in a box seat slightly behind the Pirates' home plate. This allowed him to clearly view action occurring at the first base, calling the action using a telephone modified to act as a radio microphone, which was connected to a transmitter. Aside from the radio enthusiasts, many relatives and friends of KDKA personnel also listened in, as KDKA opted to provide them with radios to artificially increase listenership.
Overall, the broadcast was successful, helped by the game's exciting nature. Limited information of said airing is available, but Arlin did recall that the makeshift radio equipment suffered minor malfunctions, particularly with the transmitter cutting out and having crowd reactions sometimes dominate the airing. As no such broadcast had been achieved before, Arlin had no framework to follow, and it was not until post-broadcast that he learned he should have been commentating between pitches. He likely did not announce his name during the broadcast, as KDKA among other radio stations were worried that doing so would increase Arlin's fame, and with it his perceived salary. Nevertheless, one listener wrote in to claim Arlin's voice was "clear, crisp, resonant, and appealing."
Following this, KDKA would occasionally air Pirates games, but it would not ramp up its baseball coverage until 1936. However, with Arlin again honouring announcing duties, it provided the first live coverage of a football game between the West Virginia Mountaineers and the Pittsburgh Panthers. The 1921 World Series was also covered by KDKA and WJZ. Regular live baseball radio broadcasts did not emerge until the 1930s, when baseball team owners were finally convinced such airings, contrary to potentially taking people away from stadiums, actually helped increase attendance. Arlin likewise would become a prominent broadcaster, hosting early radio interviews including that of Babe Ruth, while also ending up as "the best-known American voice in Europe" thanks to the growing range of KDKA broadcasts.
The fixture itself occurred on 5th August 1921 at Forbes Field. Despite being clear underdogs, it was actually the Phillies who took the lead in the first innings, courtesy of Bevo Lebourveau. However, the Pirates retaliated in the second, as a single up the middle by Charlie Grimm allowed Possum Whitted and Clyde Barnhart, who were on the third and second bases respectively, to both score. Now 2-1 down, the Phillies needed a comeback in the third innings, which they accomplished. Following a sacrifice from Curt Walker, and a shot by ED Konetchy, Jimmy Smith was able to tie the game. Then, Konetchy and Cy Williams both made it home when Williams landed a two-run homer. Neither side scored any runs in the fourth, maintaining the Phillies' 4-2 lead.
Suffering a run drought, the Pirates finally returned to the scoreboard by Tony Brottem reaching third from a single. He was able to reach home courtesy of a right-centre shot by Carson Bigbee. In the sixth inning, a triple from Barnhart enabled Whitted to score, while a single delivered by Tierney subsequently allowing Barnhart to make it 5-4 to the Pirates. However, the team suffered a blow when Grimm broke his right shoulder, caused after he was hit from a Jimmy Ring throw. Neither side scored in the seventh, but Lebourveau levelled proceedings following a Walker sacrifice and a Konetchy single in the eighth. But the Pirates, courtesy of runs from Whitted, Tierney, and Rohwer, put themselves 8-5 ahead with Phillies having only one inning remaining. Zinn quickly contributed to the retirements of John Peters, Goldie Rapp, and Smith to achieve the 8-5 victory with one inning to spare.
Following the game, the Phillies were unable to turn their fortunes around, languishing in last place with 51 wins and 103 losses. Meanwhile, the Pirates looked on-course to win the National League and challenge the New York Yankees in the World Series. Ultimately, despite boasting a 7.5 lead by 22nd August over the Giants, another slump in form occurred, additionally losing all five series games to the Giants. They finished the season with 90 wins and 63 defeats. In contrast, the Giants had a 94-59 record, topping the League and ultimately going on to win the 1921 World Series.
The KDKA coverage occurred in an era where recordings of radio output seldom commenced. Some recordings were made in the 1920s courtesy of acetate or lacquer discs, but their impracticality made it virtually impossible to record radio broadcasts from outside radio studios. Ultimately, no recording of the game is known to exist, with research indicating no recordings are officially known to have survived prior to Woodrow Wilson's 1923 Armistice Day.
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- Baseball Reference detailing the 1921 National League regular season standings. Retrieved 19th May '23
- Society for American Baseball Research providing extensive detail of the game itself, and documenting the radio broadcast. Retrieved 19th May '23
- Baseball Almanac detailing the Pirates' season. Retrieved 19th May '23
- Baseball Almanac detailing the Phillies' season. Retrieved 19th May '23
- Sports Talk Philly summarising the radio broadcast and providing an Arlin quote from Play-by-Play: Radio, Television, and Big-Time College Sport summarising his coverage of the game. Retrieved 19th May '23
- KDKA Centennial summarising many pioneering KDKA broadcast, including that of sport. Retrieved 19th May '23
- Baseball Hall of Fame detailing the career of Arlin and the inaugural baseball broadcast. Retrieved 19th May '23
- The Games that Changed Baseball detailing the game's radio significance and its influence in future radio baseball coverage. Retrieved 19th May '23
- History detailing the first radio broadcast of a baseball game. Retrieved 19th May '23
- Chronology of Tech History summarising KDKA's pioneering baseball and football broadcasts. Retrieved 19th May '23
- Baseball Hall of Fame noting the limited information surrounding the broadcast, and that no recording of it exists. Retrieved 19th May '23
- Baseball Reference detailing the result of the game and other statistics. Retrieved 19th May '23
- Ngā Taonga noting most early-1920s airings were never recorded. Retrieved 19th May '23
- Old-Time detailing the oldest surviving radio broadcasts and noting no authenticated examples exist between 1920-1922. Retrieved 19th May '23
- National Archives stating the oldest surviving radio broadcast is Woodrow Wilson's Armistice Day Speech from 1923. Retrieved 19th May '23