April 10, 2021

This week in TV Guide: April 12, 1958

In 1958, the major league baseball season began on April 14, and the final game was played on October 15. There were 16 teams in the major leagues, only three of which were located west of the Mississippi River. The average salary for a player was about $17,000. There were no divisions, no interleague games in the regular season, no league playoffs (except for ties), and only two teams made the postseason, which was colorfully referred to as the "World Series." Baseball was known to one and all as the National Pastime.
In 2019, the last year that baseball conducted a normal season, Opening Day was March 28 (two games were played on March 20 in Tokyo), and the World Series ended on October 30. There were now 30 teams in the majors, 12 of which resided west of the Mississippi, and one of which was located in Canada. The average salary had risen to $4.38 million. There were six divisions (three in each league), ten teams qualified for the playoffs (five in each league, two of which being runners-up in their division), and each team played 20 games against teams from the opposing league. The World Series was, to the time, the third-lowest rated in television history; Game 3, which took 18 innings, lasted seven hours and 20 minutes, longer than the lengths of 1958's Games 4, 5 and 7 combined (it also ended at 3:30 a.m. Eastern time), and while the game remained popular on a regional basis, nationally fewer than 10 percent listed baseball as their favorite sport.

No runs, no hits, many errors.

Baseball is big in 1958, though, and it's the lead story in this week's issue, with an in-depth look at the state of the game on television. Pertinent to the topic of this website, there were 70 regular-season games broadcast on television on two networks: CBS, with Dizzy Dean and Buddy Blattner, and NBC, with Lindsey Nelson and Leo Durocher,  plus the All-Star Game and World Series. In 2018, games were broadcast on one network, Fox—a network that didn't even exist in 1958—and there were only 12 of them; all other nationally televised games were on cable, something else that didn't exist in 1958.

And the game isn't limited to national TV, either; more than ever, teams are using television to spread interest. The New York Yankees, now the only team in town, plan to televise all 77 home games, as well as 63 from the road. The Philadelphia Phillies, betting that there are still National League fans in New York despire the departures of the Giants and Dodgers, plan to televise nearly 80 of their games into the Big Apple, more than their own fans in Philly will get. The Cubs will be on local TV 77 times, the crosstown White Sox 53. Not all owners have jumped on the TV bandwagon, though; home games are blacked out in St. Louis and Pittsburgh, and in Milwaukee, Kansas City and Los Angeles, there's no baseball on TV at all; San Francisco, meanwhile, is exploring the Pay-TV route.

What could be better, right? Well, some see clouds on the horizon. Frank Shaughnessy, president of the minor league International League, warns that weekend games could wreck the miniors becuase "folks would rather see a major-league team on TV than a minor-league team in the flesh." (The same philosophy has led the NCAA to limit the number of college football games on television.) And Larry MacPhail, known as the man who brought night baseball to the majors, issues perhaps the most prescient warning, that TV is changing baseball from a sport to "mere" entertainment. "The way things are going, baseball soon will be at the mercy of a push-button audience."

Baseball has changed a great deal over the past 63 years. To a great extent, television does call the shots, determining everything from start times (games that begin too early in the West, too late in the East) to the number of commercials between innings (more than twice what they once were). One sportswriter derisively refers to "baseball’s lifeblood—once its devoted fans but now whatever-it-takes TV revenue." And, in the view of many, the game continues to drift into irrelevance. The problem today is that not enough people are pushing the right buttons.

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Starting in 1954, Steve Allen helmed his own NBC variety show which, at the beginning, aired opposite that of Ed Sullivan. It didn't run as long as Ed's, of course, but then Allen said his goal was never to conquer Ed, just to coexist with him, which he did for several seasons. Let's see who gets the best of the contest this week. 

Sullivan: Ed's guests tonight are singer Nat King Cole; New York Yankee baseball stars Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berr and Whitey Ford; Jack Norworth, cmposer of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game"; British comedienne Joyce Grenfell; 14-year-old singer Laurie London, who does his current hit "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands"; the La Faye Marionettes; comedians Professor Backwards and Jack Durant; songstress Eileen Rodgers; the Texas Tech Gle Club; Texas drum major Dale Robins; Paul and Peta Page with their puppets; the Four Whirlwinds, acrobats.

Allen: Steve is joined by his wife, actress Jayne Meadows and her sister, comedienne Audrey Meadows; singer Carmen McRae; and comedienne Dody Goodman. Regulars: Don Knotts, Louis Nye and Tom Poston.

Steve has one definite advantage in tonight's matchup: his show is in color, while Ed's is still in living black-and-white. And—well, that's about it. Don't misunderstand me; I think Steve and Jayne are very funny together, and with Audrey on hand it's probably even better. But let's be real: Nat King Cole probably wins it right there, but when you throw in Mantle, Berra and Ford, it doesn't really matter who the rest of the guests are. Yes, I'll go for the obvious joke here: this week, Sullivan hits a home run.

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"Bottom of the Sixth," Norman Rockwell
As we saw earlier, baseball's Opening Day is Monday in Washington, D.C., with President Eisenhower on hand to throw out the traditional first pitch for the Senators-Red Sox game. But television gets a head start on Saturday with a pair of exhibition games: the Philadelphia Phillies take on the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium (10:55 a.m. PT, CBS) and the Detroit Tigers at the Milwaukee Braves (11:30 a.m., NBC). Exhibition games weren't uncommon back in the day; following the end of spring training, teams would often play their way up North for the start of the season, and it was the only time outside of the World Series and the All-Star Game that fans could see. live and in-person, players from the other league. 

The baseball theme continues on Friday, with a doubleheader of sorts. Some of those same Yankees from the Sullivan show are back on The Phil Silvers Show (8:00 p.m., CBS). In this case, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford are joined by teammate Gil McDougald and legendary announcers Phil Rizzuto and Red Barber; the story finds Bilko trying to sell his amazing new pitching find, Hillbilly Hank Wiggins, to the Yanks. That's followed at 8:30 p.m. by the real thing, as the hometown Portland Beavers appear on local television for the first time, taking on the Sacramento Solons in Pacific Coast League action from Multnomah Stadium in Portland. (8:30 p.m., KGW) Calling the game are Portland sportscaster Doug LaMear and Los Angeles Rams quarterback (and future Hall of Famer) Norm Van Brocklin, who played his college football at the University of Oregon. I wonder how well the Dutchman did calling baseball.

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Some more big shows on NBC Tuesday, starting at 9:00 p.m. with a Jerry Lewis color special, starring opera and nightclub singer Helen Traubel and actor Everett Stone. It's one of the specials that's survived to YouTube, although this copy is in B&W (and is misdated as April 5 rather than April 15).

That's the lead-in to the 10th Annual Emmy Awards, shown on a kinescope delay from earlier in the evening; Phil Silvers hosts the festivities from New York, while Danny Thomas does the honors from Hollywood. Only a few of the nominees appear in the close-up; the major winners include The Phil Silvers Show as Best Comedy, Playhouse 90 as Best Drama Anthology, Gunsmoke as Best Drama, and The Dinah Shore Chevy Show as Best Variety Show; Playhouse 90s "The Comedian," starring Mickey Rooney, Edmund O'Brien, Mel Torme and Kim Hunter, directed by John Frankenheimer, and written by Rod Serling, wins Best Single Program of the Year. Peter Ustinov (Omnibus, "The Life of Samuel Johnson") and Polly Bergen (Playhouse 90, "Helen Morgan") won single performance honors, while Jack Benny, Robert Young, Dinah Shore and Jane Wyatt took home the series awards. The show is scheduled for 90 minutes, which would take us through the technical awards today.

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The highlight of Wednesday night's lineup is Kraft Theatre's "Three Plays by Tennessee Williams" (9:00 p.m., NBC), directed by Sidney Lumet and introduced by Williams himself. The three plays are "Moony's Kid Don't Cry," with Ben Gazzara and Lee Grant; "The Last of My Solid Gold Watches," with Thomas Chalmers and Gene Sacs; and "This Property is Condemned," with Zina Bethune and Martin Huston. An ad heralds Williams as "Today's most talked about playwright," which is certainly true, considering his string of hits including The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but these are all early, less well-known plays; probably the best-known is "This Property is Condemned," which was made into a 1966 movie directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Natalie Wood and Robert Redford, which bore little resemblance to the play. If you're interested in learning more about this production, there's this excellent story at The Classic TV History Blog. What's really interesting, though, is the idea of a "most talked about playwright." Aside from theater critics who review plays for a living, how relevant is contemporary theater to the lowbrow, popular audience anymore?

None of these shows would be possible without local channels, of course, and we're reminded of that at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, as KVAL-TV, the NBC affiliate in Eugene, Oregon, celebrates its fourth anniversary, with local personalities on hand for the festivities. The station was locally owned by Eugene Television, and I'll be there was a lot of local pride on display; hard to think people would feel the same way today. KVAL has gone through several ownership changes over the years, but it's still on the air today, as a CBS affiliate.

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People sometimes wonder how I pick the things I write about from each issue. (Well, a few people might occasionally wonder that; let's just call it artistic license.) Well, mostly I'm looking for something that makes a cultural statement, something that shows the role television has played over the years in history or pop culture, or gives us insight into a particular time or place. TV Guide's Close-Ups are always useful, because they tend to spotlight programs that are big or special, and they often suggest themes that were of interest at the time (or that producers thought should be of interest). Sometimes, I choose shows simply because they catch my fancy, and since I'm the boss around here, that's all the explanation required. There's plenty I didn't get to this week, including the cover story about Hugh O'Brian, star since 1955 of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp—generally considered the first "adult" Western on television, as well as one of the first to tell a continuous story from beginning to end. (I can tell you, though, that he has a reputation for being tight with a buck, very ambitious, hard on press agents, but a pretty good guy overall.)

Sometimes, though, there's something that's not particularly historic or significant or anything else: it just demonstrates that we live in different times. Such a case is this week's profile of "The Explosive" Lloyd Bridges, currently starring in the syndicated hit Sea Hunt. Bridges is known as one of the most powerful, intense actors on stage, and one of the most nicest and most gentlemanly off it. Which brings us to "Tragedy in a Temporary Town," an episode from two years ago on The Alcoa Hour. As we join the action, Bridges, playing a man called Alec Beggs, is attempting to shield a Puerto Rican boy from a mob determined to lynch him for attacking a young woman. 

Later newspaper accounts will point out that during rehearsals, "Bridges several times got so worked up over the scene that he broke down and wept." It is an exceptionally emotional scene, particularly considering that, in the teleplay, Beggs' son had just confessed to his father that he was the one who'd assulted the girl. Faced with this bloodthirsty mob, Bridges, caught up in the the moment and doubtless channeling his inner Method, lashed out at the crowd, calling them "You God damned stinking pigs!" (The article doesn't actually spell out what Bridges said, but the combination of letters and dashes doesn't leave any doubt.) 

By the way, did I mention this was on live TV?

"At first I couldn't understand why the cast was looking at me so strangely," Bridges says in the profile. "Then, when I realized what I had said, I just wanted to get swallowed up somewhere. But, of course, nothing could be done about it." 

Understandably, the switchboard at NBC lit up like a Christmas tree, and letters were soon to pour in. (The network wound up clipping the line out of the kinescope shown on the West Coast.) However, almost all of the reaction to Bridges' faux pas was sympathetic; most people understood that the actor had simply been carried away and reacted as he would have in real life. (It doesn't hurt that Bridges, in the play, is on the side of the angels.) A writer from the Yale Divinity School hoped that Bridges would not be punished, and added that "he did not consider the words blasphemous." The Anti-Defamation League chose the program as "show of the year." A representative of NBC called Bridges' slip "perfectly understandable." Everything soon blew over.

Now imagine that same scene today. Social media would be all over something like that, of course, but I expect the discussion would be far more harsh, profane and unforgiving, probably winding up getting tied in somehow to Donald Trump. That is, if that kind of language bothered anyone in the first place. Maybe this is what it means to live in more enlightened times.

At a time when that kind of profanity was definitely a no-no on television, not to mention most living rooms, it's kind of nice to see people being so understanding about it, though, isn't it? A nice way to end this week, in fact. TV  

1 comment:

  1. At long last, an issue I've got (Chicago edition, but it counts).

    - By any chance, did you happen to actually watch that Jerry Lewis special you imbedded here?
    I just did, and got a few surprises, to say the least.
    Starting with the fact that Everett Sloane isn't in it - at all.
    Apparently, there were last-minute changes up to air time; that happened a lot in those days.
    Ordinarily, the listing might have mentioned that Jerry's father Danny Lewis, and oldest son Gary Lewis, make a "surprise" appearance that takes up about a quarter of the show, but there you are ...
    Also, there's that "River Kwai" skit at the beginning, which was definitely something else altogether ...
    And those "Things Go Wrong" skits, which came awfully close to being funny (I'm guessing that Everett Sloane was supposed to be the interviewer in one of them, but was unable to do the show for whatever reason) ...

    - Once again, you've paid little or no attention to the everyday listings, which is where much of the gold is here.
    One example to serve for many: Sunday evening's Alfred Hitchcock Presents - and I'll leave it to you to go back and look it up.
    I'll only say that this particular episode (in its first airing ever) did have that element of "special interest" that you always seem to be harping on ...

    - In Chicago in 1958, the White Sox were always in the American League race - for second place; this was the era of the Stengel Yankees, who usually had the AL clinched by the end of spring training.
    The Cubs, on the other hand, were always out of the NL running early on ("Every year the Cubs are going places - and it usually turns out to be the beach.").
    Anyway, all anybody cared about in '58 was the move of the Dodgers and Giants to California, which forced the redesign of Topps Baseball Cards - but that's another story ...

    - If there's an overall "theme" to all of this, it's probably that we in the USA have always been lousy at prophecy.
    For further evidence, see both of the Teletype pages: just about every "forecast" turns out to be wrong.

    I'm feeling off-center today, so please excuse the testy tone.
    As the old Tribune humor column used to say:
    "Maybe The WEEK Will Get Better!"
    (But I doubt it ...)


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!