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On This Date in Sports August 26, 1939: Baseball on TV

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

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A doubleheader between the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field becomes the first Major League Baseball games to air on television. Television was still in its experimental stage at the time, as only 400 people in the New York area had television receivers. Much of the audience was at the World’s Fair, where television was on exhibition. The teams would split, with the Reds winning the opener 5-2 and the Dodgers winning the nightcap 6-1.

Soon after commercial radio took a foothold, work began on transmitting pictures over the airwaves. The National Broadcast Company (NBC) owned by RCA had a developed network of national radio stations based out of New York. It was there they created W2XBS to begin running experimental broadcasts of television. Over ten years, various advances were made, setting the stage for broadcast television, to begin with, the 1939 World’s Fair in New York playing a central role.

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W2XBS began broadcasting regularly into the World’s Fair with a variety of programs that included sports, with a college baseball game between Princeton and Columbia on May 17th was the first game shown over the air. As part of the World’s Fair, television sales began. By the end of August, approximately 400 television receivers had been sold, capable of seeing the broadcast signal from W2XBS. On a Saturday Afternoon in Brooklyn, a Doubleheader between the Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds got the stage for the first Major League Games on Television.

For the first games on television just two cameras were used, one behind home plate to catch the pitches thrown to the batter, and a second to capture any ball hit and plays on the bases. The first game aired without announcers, as Red Barber was working for the NBC National Radio Game of the week. In that first game, the Dodgers got two runs in the first inning on a passed ball from Ernie Lombardi. Those runs stood up until the eighth inning when the Reds offense finally got on track against Luke Hamlin, scoring five runs, with Frank McCormick providing the big blow with a two-run double, as Bucky Walters, allowing just two hits pitched a complete game to earn his 21st win of the season for the first-place Reds.

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The second game would be the first game with an announcer, as Red Barber sitting in the stands near the Homeplate camera called the action for W2XBS. Barber got to call the first home run in the second game as Dolph Camilli went deep against Johnny Niggeling in the second inning with Art Parks on base to give Brooklyn an early 2-0 lead. In the third, the Dodgers chased Niggeling, as Cookie Lavagetto and Camilli each had run-scoring doubles, while Ernie Koy plated two runs with a single off Whitey Moore to give the Dodgers a 6-0 lead. Hugh Casey meanwhile, danced around trouble all game, spreading around eight hits as the Reds only managed to score one run on a single by Nino Bongiovanni, with Brooklyn winning 1-0.

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The first broadcast turned out to be a difficult one for Red Barber, as his headset communication malfunctioned throughout the game, leaving him to wing it on many occasions, not knowing whether or not he was being heard over the air or not.

There would be more sports television experiments for W2XBS in 1939, before the baseball broadcast, they aired the first televised boxing match between aired from Yankee Stadium with Max Baer taking on Lou Nova on June 1st. Over the next year, the experimental channel would air the first college football and NFL games, the first hockey games, the first track and field events, and the first basketball games.

W2XBS was beginning to become a full commercial broadcast channel in 1941 as it became WNBT, with rival WCBW also hitting the airwaves. However, further development in television was slowed after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Once the war was over, television got back on track, leading its golden age in the 1950s.