In the history of sports and the media, April 28 is a significant day. It’s the 50th anniversary of one of the strangest episodes in the history of broadcasting: the day an announcer broadcast a game within the field of play.
Today, Houston officials are talking about turning the Astrodome into an indoor park after serious discussions about leveling it. In 1965, when it had just opened, the hype described it as the “eighth wonder of the world.” The hype may have been correct, at least at the time. A completely enclosed indoor stadium that could seat 50,000 was unique and it led to the use of synthetic “astroturf” in many stadiums around the country. The Houston baseball team changed its name after three years as the Colt 45s to the Astros when they moved there.
That April 27, the other expansion team of 1962, the Mets, arrived for a two-game series. The Mets had become the darlings of New York City despite never coming close to emerging from last place. It helped that their manager, Casey Stengel, was a legend, having won ten pennants in twelve seasons with the Yankees.
It also helped that the Mets broadcasters had become popular in New York. Their broadcast team consisted of Ralph Kiner, a former great slugger who later was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame; Bob Murphy, who had broadcast for the Red Sox and Orioles; and Lindsey Nelson, who had been the voice of NBC’s coverage of baseball, football, basketball, and golf.
Nelson, Kiner, and Murphy agreed that they wouldn’t sugarcoat how bad the Mets were, and they were truly bad. The stories abounded of players missing bases, running the wrong way while chasing fly balls, and crashing into one another. The fans appreciated the broadcasters’ honesty. Nelson also realized that doing something different would be good for the broadcasts and the ratings. With the Mets televising about 125 of their 162 games, he started frequenting clothing stores and buying the most garish sports jackets he could find. Sure enough, he returned from a trip, climbed into a taxi, and the driver looked at him and said, “You’re the guy with the jackets.” His collection eventually topped 300 and included everything from patchwork sent in by fans to Hong Kong silk.
When the Mets reached the Astrodome, their radio producer, Joe Gallagher, saw a gondola above the field in the dome’s roof and began asking Houston officials about it. They told him it would hold several people and it was possible to broadcast from there.
Whether it was wise to do so was another matter, but Nelson had survived three years of the Mets, not to mention World War II. He agreed to go up. The gondola took 45 minutes to come down, and he and Joel Nixon, a broadcast executive, ascended to 208 feet above the Astrodome, above second base, in four minutes.
For the first few innings, Nelson was afraid to stand. Occasionally, he would communicate via walkie-talkie with Kiner and Murphy, on the air. That led to another problem: the walkie-talkies were on the same frequency as a Houston taxicab company. Sometimes Nelson heard Murphy describe a play; sometimes he heard requests to pick up passengers. Nor could he pick up much of the action. He said, “At first I couldn’t see anything except a lot of tiny figures. Everybody looked the same height, everybody looked short. You couldn’t tell a line drive from a pop fly.”
Finally, for the 7th and 8th innings, Nelson did the play-by-play. Other than the Astros scoring twice in the bottom of the eighth to pad their lead to the final score of 12-9, he had little to describe. When the game ended, he and Nixon returned to earth.
Murphy and Kiner would remain with the Mets for decades. Nelson left the team after the 1978 season, and announced for the San Francisco Giants and CBS Radio before retiring. Kiner would have the pleasure of introducing both Nelson and Murphy as recipients of the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
The award had nothing to do with Nelson’s Astrodome stunt, but his broadcast that night led to something that apparently has never happened before or since. As the game began, the managers and umpires met at home plate to go over the ground rules. As the discussion finished, Stengel turned to Tom Gorman, the crew chief, who was to work home plate that night. Stengel said, “What about my man up there?” Gorman replied, “What man?” Stengel said, “My man Lindsey. What if the ball hits my man Lindsey?”
Gorman looked up at Nelson, nearly 70 yards above him. He said, “Well, if the ball hits the roof, it’s in play, so I guess if it hits Lindsey, it’s in play, too.” Stengel said, “How about that? That’s the first time my man Lindsey was ever a ground rule.”
A first, indeed. When he owned the St. Louis Browns, Bill Veeck had the idea of adding one of his broadcasters, former infielder Bud Blattner, to the roster for a day and having him announce the game while playing it, but the cost proved prohibitive. Several broadcasters, most notably Harry Caray with the White Sox and Cubs, broadcast from the bleachers. Early announcers, lacking modern facilities, often sat in the stands. But Lindsey Nelson appears to have been the only person ever to broadcast a major league game from fair territory and become a ground rule.