This is the 87th season of Tigers baseball broadcast on radio, and during all those years fans have listened to a variety of play-by-play announcers. Some have been great, others have been only so-so, but only one can lay claim to having been first. That was a droll, bird-faced native of Tyrone, Pennsylvania named Edwin “Ty” Tyson.
The original “voice” of the Tigers was 39 years old that first radio summer of 1927. Calling the play-by-play over station WWJ (owned by the Detroit News), he quickly became Detroit’s first electronic media “star,” though nobody really thought in such terms then. To Detroit’s first generation of radio-listening baseball fans, his was simply the familiar voice that magically brought the immediacy of a distant ball game into their homes. His popularity was such that, when baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis ruled that “partisan” hometown announcers would not be allowed to broadcast the 1934 World Series between the Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals, a staggering 600,000 fans petitioned Landis to change his mind. He did.
According to longtime broadcast journalist Fran Harris, Tyson’s appeal was that “he did a straightforward report of the ball game. He didn’t embellish a great deal, but just described what was going on. And he was known on occasion, when there wasn’t anything going on, to say nothing. There’d be empty air.”
“Perhaps the best part of Ty’s baseball broadcast is that he does not yield to the temptation to become a wild-eyed fan,” Eddie Batchelor wrote in 1931. “He is naturally partial to the Tigers…[but] he does not make the mistake of constantly alibying the team when it is playing badly, or when the other side is playing better.”
Pittsburgh station KDKA aired the first broadcast of a big-league game on August 5, 1921, a contest between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. By the mid-1920s many major sporting events were being broadcast live. Detroit’s WWJ, which in 1920 had become the world’s first commercial radio station (though KDKA had been the first to be issued call letters), hired Tyson in 1924 to broadcast weather reports. He quickly progressed to broadcasting University of Michigan football and conducting live interviews with aviator Charles Lindbergh, humorist Will Rogers, and other celebrities.
Tyson handled the Tigers’ play-by-play until 1942. During that period only home games were broadcast, and, in the early years of the Great Depression of the 1930s, not even all of those. Throughout the late 1940s baseball owners remained ambivalent about radio, hoping that broadcasting would introduce the game to new fans while simultaneously fearing that “giving the game away” on the airwaves would hurt ballpark attendance.
To save the expense of sending a radio crew to another city, away games were reconstructed broadcasts. A telegraph operator in Boston’s Fenway Park, for example, would tap out a pitch-by-pitch description of the game in Morse code and send it to the WWJ studio in the Detroit News Building. There another operator typed out the dispatches and handed them to Tyson, who had to use every ounce of imagination to flesh out the rather terse game accounts into a palatable reconstruction.
For example, Tyson might reconstruct “Strike…Foul ball…Gehringer triples to right” into the following mini-drama: “Here’s the two-strike pitch by MacFayden…Gehringer hits it to right center…It’s between the outfielders…Gehringer races around second, heading for third…Here’s the throw by Rothrock…He slides…He’s in there safely with a three-base hit.”
Listeners weren’t fooled by reconstructions, nor with the distinctive tapping of the telegraph keys often audible in the background, were they expected to be. Reconstructed broadcasts were no different from the other primitive dramas that filled the airwaves and depended on that great theater of the mind to make fantasy come alive.
In addition to his radio work, Tyson was a television pioneer, handling the first telecasts of Tigers games in 1948 for WWJ. He remained an ardent fan in retirement. Ernie Harwell occasionally swung by the old broadcaster’s Grosse Pointe home and took him to the ballpark. One Sunday he even let him handle the play-by-play for an inning – a gesture appreciated by Tyson and oldtime Tigers fans alike.
Ty Tyson died in 1968. But in the memories of the first generation of radio listeners, now almost entirely gone themselves, his familiar voice lives on.