A story about Elvis, pretend baseball and wooden blocks
By By Stan Torgeson / sports columnist
Aug. 20, 2002
So what's a column about Elvis Presley doing on the sports page of this paper today? Simple. The 25th anniversary of his death and the sport of baseball put it here.
In 1954 I was broadcasting Memphis Chicks baseball. The team was a farm club of the Chicago White Sox, playing at Russwood Park in Memphis, a true old-fashioned made-out-of-wood baseball stadium. The press box, and therefore the broadcasting booth, was on top of the grandstand. There was room for three or four people, but I seldom sat alone.
Sam Phillips, the discoverer of Presley and owner of Sun records, was a baseball nut. He loved it and most nights he would leave his office and come sit in the broadcast booth with me to watch and critique the games.
Between innings, during commercial breaks, we would talk. One night he told me he had found a new singer that he thought had tremendous talent and that he believed was going to make it big. The kid's name was Presley, Elvis Presley. Sam had recorded the young man's first record a few days before, "That's All Right" on one side and "Blue Moon of Kentucky" on the other. Sam told me he was convinced it was going to be a hit.
In those days only the home games were broadcast live. The road games were recreated in the studio. Western Union offered a service whereby they would have an operator at the other team's park when the Chicks were on the road.
The operator would type out a play-by-play of the game, balls, strikes, runs hits and errors which came into our studio on what was called a teletype machine. I would read his description and with a crowd noise record in the background make it sound as if I was really there. When there was an exciting moment we would blend in the sound of a crowd cheering.
When the ball was hit I had a block of wood on the table in front of me with a wooden mallet. Strike the block of wood with the mallet and a sound similar to the crack of the bat against the ball was heard. I would make up the pitches, fast balls, curve balls, change-ups, high, low, inside or outside. Announcer's choice.
The radio station was WHBQ, located in the Chisca Hotel and the nighttime disc jockey was Dewey Phillips, a good old boy to top all good old boys. Dewey was perhaps the first American Deejay to discover rock and roll and he was enormously popular. His sponsor was Falstaff beer, by far number one in Memphis, and a typical Dewey Phillips ad lib commercial was that Falstaff was so good you could freeze it and eat it.
Dewey also hated me. Well, not me exactly, but my baseball broadcasts. During the season his program didn't go on the air until the game was finished. That way the station made money on both of us.
When the team was at home we, of course, didn't see each other so I didn't know what tantrums he was throwing over slow or extra inning games. But when the team was on the road and I was in the studio he would pace up and down telling me in nice, round four letter words to get that blankety blank baseball game over so he could get on the air. As if I had any control over the length of a baseball game.
The night Sam brought him the Elvis Presley record for air play the phones went crazy. Dewey could have played that thing for two hours non-stop and never heard a complaint. But the team was out of town at the time and instead of getting on the air at 9 p.m. his regular time, I was doing my baseball gig all week until 10, even 11 p.m. depending on the game.
One night Sam Phillips brought Elvis to the station for a live interview with Dewey. Now the only thing I knew about Elvis was what Sam had told me and the things Dewey was saying after I got off the air.
So I'm in the studio telling the engineer to let the crowd cheer, knocking my mallet on the wooden block, feigning excitement on curve balls that just caught the corner of the plate and I look up and here is this kid staring at me through the glass window in the studio.
I can close my eyes and see him now. He was indeed a handsome devil, dark hair slicked back, just watching me do my thing and reacting to none of it.
He came several other times. Never said a word to me, really never said much to anybody except Dewey. I don't think he liked baseball much, especially make believe baseball.
I really didn't appreciate what he had and what he was until 1956 when I became manager of Radio Station WMC and hired George Klein, one of Elvis' high school buddies, as a disc jockey. The station was in the old Goodwin Institute and downstairs in the building was an auditorium. Elvis came to appear on Klein's show several times and when he did we had to move the program out of the studio and downstairs to the stage of that auditorium because so many fans crowded the building to see him. It was the only way to maintain order.
I've broadcast many games of all kinds to appreciative audiences. But my work has never been more thoroughly disliked than in 1954 while broadcasting recreated baseball to an audience that didn't want anything more than for me to shut up and get out of Dewey and Elvis' way.
That's why Elvis is on your sports page today. And if he and Dewey Phillips were still around they'd probably still be telling me to shut up and get out of the way.
Except this time I'd know why.