Throwback Wednesday to June 4, 2014. The Night the "Voice" came to Torrington. By Dan Lovallo.
The Knights of Columbus building stands at the corner of Litchfield and Prospect Streets in Torrington, a gateway to downtown. Its brick exterior and facade look much the same as it did that cold, winter night in February of 1968, when the "Voice of the Yankees," Mel Allen came to town.
Allen had been fired by the Yankees in 1964, but make no mistake about it, he was still the "Voice of the Yankees." His appearance was a big deal. He had been asked to speak by the Torrington Varsity Alumni Club, as part of a fundraiser by the group. The VAC was and still is made up of former Torrington High School athletes, who run youth sports leagues and contribute to the community in other endeavors.
In the 1940s, 50s and early 60s, there was no more popular sportscaster than Mel Allen. First on radio and then on television, he called all the big sporting events, from World Series games to All Star games to college football, when that sport was king. Mel Allen at the mike, calling the Rose Bowl game on New Year's Day, was a staple. But he was most associated with his beloved Yankees, whose games he broadcast from 1939 through 1964, until he was inexplicably given the ax.
Allen's firing turned out to be a public relations nightmare for the Yankees. Then they hit the skids, quickly, tumbling into last place two years later.
"I appreciate those people who say the reason they (the Yankees) have gone down was because I left, although I had nothing to do with what happened on that field," Allen told a packed K of C hall that night.
Allen's appearance harkened to a different era, when baseball players and broadcasters toured the hot stove league circuit in the off season, speaking at banquets. They would pick up a much needed paycheck. The fans would get the chance to rub elbows with their heroes, break bread and hear an after dinner talk. They might even get an autograph; at no charge, of course.
Allen had been my broadcast hero. I, like everyone else, could not understand how the New York Yankees could fire him. According to former Yankees public relations director Marty Appel, it was the question fans asked the most, even years after his dismissal.
I was in the audience that night at the K of C. Like everyone else, I was enthralled with his stories, told in that deep, southern drawl. He had "great pipes" was how the industry would describe his voice. He made "Going, Going, Gone," "How about that," and "the Ballentine blast," famous. That cold winter's night long ago, he was a home run, regaling his audience with stories about Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Joe McCarthy, Waterbury's Jimmy Piersall and several others.
Fortunately, WTOR radio, Torrington's lone radio station at the time, covered the event. Its news director, Paul Pagano, had the foresight to record Allen's talk. Years later, he gave me a copy of the tape, and Allen's performance was as rich, as I had remembered it that night.
"The greatest hitter I ever saw was Ted Williams," Allen told the audience, which included many Red Sox fans. But he saved his highest praise for Joe DiMaggio.
"You could get into arguments all night long. This fella did that better, that fella did this better. The thing was, about Joe DiMaggio, there wasn't any department in baseball in which he wasn't supreme."
Allen also said Williams, the last man to hit .400 in a season, (.406 in 1941), could have hit .400 more times, if he hit to the opposite field. He noted Williams wanted the challenge of hitting into the shift, instead of away from it.
In 1968, the year of the banquet, he listed Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Mickey Mantle as the greatest players of the era, although his analysis of Mantle was probably jaundiced. "The Mick" was in the twilight of his career at that point.
Many of Allen's stories left the audience laughing, especially the ones about Berra, whom he admired.
Allen ended his talk by praising the work of the Varsity Alumni Club and then recited "A Game Guys Prayer." The audience gave him a standing ovation.
As it turned out, Mel Allen, voted one of the "most recognizable voices of the 20th Century," was no stranger to the Torrington area. It so happened his best friend in the Army became a priest and was assigned to a Litchfield parish. Allen visited him many times.
Allen and his brother Larry also owned a Canada Dry soda distributorship based in Stamford, Connecticut. The business gave them a reason to visit Torrington on occasion to meet up with the operator of another soda distributorship, Bill Fox.
Allen would also return to his first loves, baseball and the Yankees. He became the host of "This Week In Major League Baseball," a popular weekly highlight show before the proliferation of sports channels on cable. And when George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees, he brought Allen back to call some of the television games. He had come full circle.
So as he broadcast Yankee games again, including Dave Righetti's no-hitter against the Red Sox on July 4, 1983, many people in Torrington would remember the night the "Voice of the Yankees" came to town.