The following is an excerpt from Here’s the Pitch: The Amazing, True, New, and Improved Story of Baseball and Advertising by Roberta J. Newman (March 2019) .
From Chapter 5: Baseball, Hotdogs, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet . . . and Beer, Cigarettes, Cat Food, and Margarine
On July 1, 1941, a cataclysmic event shook the world, though it would take the better part a decade for its full impact to be felt. At 2:30 p.m., in New York City, many of those lucky enough to have access to television sets bore witness to the sight of something like a test pattern. But this was no ordinary test pattern. Instead of the usual abstract shapes, viewers saw a clock—a Bulova clock—splashed across a silhouette of the United States, ticking off a full minute. Finally, eager to watch the first-place Brooklyn Dodgers take on the historically bad, last-place Philadelphia Phillies, the audience heard the silken voice of an announcer. At once they all knew that “America runs on Bulova time.” So was born commercial television with the first paid advertisement, and baseball attended the delivery.
This was not the professional game’s television debut. Three years earlier, televised Major League Baseball premiered at the New York World’s Fair and several other locations, conveniently including Macy’s and other RCA retail outlets. Quick to realize the potential of televised baseball’s power to boost the popularity of the experimental medium, the New York Times took notice, suggesting that “the greatest autumnal spur to television as an industry would be to telecast the world series [sic].” But, asked the Times, if somewhat rhetorically, “Who will pay for it?” The answer, of course, was “advertisers, known in radio parlance as ‘sponsors.’”1 This assertion no doubt resonated with the curious spectators who watched that first Major League broadcast on August 26, as it included three promotional spots. According to the Times:
Between the fifth and sixth inning [the announcer] spreads a tablecloth on his stand, reaches for a bowl, lifts up a package of cereal with the name of the box facing the camera, and then partakes of what he calls “a breakfast-sized sample,” although he confesses it is rather late in the day. Mindful that he also is at the “mike” for an oil sponsor and for another who manufactures soap he displays a machine to spray bugs, and then two cakes of soap. There is said to be no violation of the FCC’s regulations because the time is not sold for advertising purposes.2
Others also benefited from unpaid advertising during the telecast. The trade publication Broadcasting observed, “Advertisers whose messages are painted on the ball park’s fence got extra value that day, as well, for their signs, especially the Gem razor ad in the right field, which showed up as well on the television receiver screens as in the park. It seems probable that when sponsored television arrives, sponsors of ball games will have to take over the billboards at the parks as well, or see other advertisers get as much benefit from telecast as they do.”3 Or as the New York Times put it, “Billboards do the trick!”4 Whether Gem sold any more razors, Calvert any more blended whiskey, or whether any other company with Ebbets Field signage that happened to be captured by the camera sold any more of whatever they were selling is highly debatable. But once commercially televised baseball commenced in earnest, cameras would be judiciously placed in order to avoid including unpaid advertising during game broadcasts.5 Television advertisers, in turn, would make certain to place billboards where they would have the most on-air impact.
A Brooklyn Dodgers game provided the content for another important experimental broadcast, this time the team’s 1940 home opener, and unpaid commercials were part of the package. Procter and Gamble was the manufacturer, Compton Advertising was the agency, and Ivory Soap was the star of two one-minute promotions. Broadcasting described it in this way: “In one spot, Ken Towers, announcer, showed how the soap foams up by making suds in a glass; in the other, by wearing one red mitten and one white glove, he illustrated how Ivory keeps hands white.”6 This was but the beginning, an experiment in commercialism on a technically noncommercial, experimental medium. Following a protracted struggle between RCA and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over broadcast standards, the Bulova time-signal commercial made manifest that all this experimentation would eventually, if not immediately, come to an end. This was commercial television, and it was inevitable.7 Not only would it change the face of American entertainment and American consumerism, and ultimately consumerism and entertainment on a global scale, it would also change the way in which Americans would consume baseball.
1. “Watching a Televised Baseball Game,” New York Times, September 3, 1939, x10.
2. “Watching a Televised Baseball Game,” x10.
3. “Baseball Telecast,” Broadcasting, September 1, 1939, 17.
4. “Watching a Televised Baseball Game,” x10.
5. Walker and Bellamy, Center Field Shot, 14.
6. “Television Notes,” Broadcasting, May 1, 1940, 63.
7. Berkman, “Long Before Arledge,” 54.