Are you long-in-the-tooth enough to remember Jim Britt?
You have to be pretty old to recall him, but there was a time that Britt's voice was the most recognizable in all New England; he reigned supreme. Then, it all disappeared.
In the 1940s, he was the undisputed king of sports broadcasters in New England. Back in the day when road games of baseball teams were not broadcast, he called the home games of both the Red Sox and the Boston Braves. Even then there was a network of local stations that carried the games, so his voice was heard throughout New England. Baseball telecasts came along in the last few years of the decade, although they were few and far between. On June 15, 1948, when the first baseball game in New England ever to be televised (Braves versus Chicago Cubs) went on the air, Jim Britt was the man behind the microphone. His was the voice of baseball in New England.
Back then, the New England Patriots did not even exist. The Boston Celtics were just in their infancy; the Celtics played in what was then considered to be an insignificant league. The Bruins did exist and had their hard core fans, but most people thought of hockey as a strictly Canadian game. Baseball was practically the only thing that mattered in sports around here; and Jim Britt ruled the roost.
If a home game was rained out, Britt would call the game of whichever team was on the road by telegraphic recreation. He would sit in a studio with a telegraph machine clattering out bare-bones information such as, "Henrich grounds out to second," and dress it up by saying something like, "Henrich slaps a ground ball up the middle but Doerr makes a backhand stop, spins and fires to first, getting him by half a step."
In addition to calling ballgames on a daily basis, he hosted a popular radio show, "Jim Britt's Sports Round Up," five nights a week. His signature sign-off, "Remember, if you can't play a sport, be one anyway," might sound corny by today's standards but it was an iconic phrase back then. He had a silky smooth delivery and was very articulate; he was by far the most famous and most influential broadcaster in New England.
But nothing lasts forever. At the end of the 1950 season, Jim Britt made what turned out to be a fatal misjudgment.
The Red Sox and Braves both decided that they would begin broadcasting all their games, home and away, beginning in 1951. It required that broadcasters travel with the team. The days of calling home games for two teams were over. Both teams wanted Britt as their full-time voice, but the reality was he could only do one, and the choice was up to him.
He could choose the Red Sox, who still had their post-World War II core of Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, and Johnny Pesky, although they were all in their thirties by then. Or he could choose the Braves, who had won the National League pennant just two years earlier, and who had prospects like Hank Aaron and Eddie Matthews in their system. After giving the matter some serious thought, he placed his bet on the Braves.
Aaron and Matthews did, of course, go on to have Hall of Fame careers and the Braves eventually enjoyed great success but not in Boston; further, his decision proved to be the ruination of Jim Britt's career.
After two years of woeful attendance in 1951 and 1952, the Braves, on short notice, packed up and moved to Milwaukee, where in a few short years they would win a World Series. But when they moved they decided to use local talent for their radio and television broadcasts and Jim Britt was suddenly out of a job. The Red Sox were no longer an option for him because the guy the Sox chose when Britt spurned them two years earlier turned out to be a pretty good announcer -- better, even, than Britt. His name was Curt Gowdy.
After several years in limbo, Britt was hired by the Cleveland Indians, where he was paired with a young broadcaster who had idolized him when he was growing up listening to the ballgames on the radio back in Quincy, Massachusetts. One of the two would eventually make a triumphant return to Boston. It wouldn't be Britt.
The young guy was Ken Coleman who, in addition to calling the Indians games, was also the voice of the Cleveland Browns. This was back in the days when the Browns were the class of the National Football League (that's a long time ago). It was during the heyday of Otto Graham and Jim Brown; in fact, Coleman called every NFL touchdown the great Brown ever scored. He had become an institution in Cleveland but when, in the mid-1960s, the national television networks wooed Gowdy away from the Red Sox job, Coleman saw an opportunity to return to his roots as the voice of the team he had grown up rooting for. He grabbed it. He arrived back in Boston just in time to become the voice of the Impossible Dream team of 1967.
Britt's career, meanwhile, continued on a downhill spiral, aided greatly by his enduring affection for Old Demon Rum. He never really caught on in Cleveland and after a few years he found himself back in Boston hosting a bowling show. But bowling isn't baseball. When the show was cancelled, he faded into obscurity.
He died alone in Monterey, California, in 1980 at the age of seventy. Little note was made of his passing. He left no heirs and there was no one to keep his memory alive.
But let the record show that there once was a time when Jim Britt was the king of New England broadcasters, the master of all he surveyed. The lesson is that there are some professions -- and sports broadcasting is one of them -- in which even kings don't have job security.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.
Recent articles in the Culture & Events section
Archbishop Cheverus writes to a friend in BostonThomas Lester
The pride of the jury boxDick Flavin
Flannery O'Connor and friends, revisitedGeorge Weigel
Goodbye to Roe?Russell Shaw
The Ratzingerian constants and the maintenance of harmony in the ChurchBishop Robert Barron