White Sox Wormhole: Bob Elson

Bob Elson in the 40's.

A look at the man who followed the White Sox from Ted Lyons to Bill Melton.

This was going to be another post discussing the long and controversial tenure of Hawk Harrelson. But then I fell into a time/space phenomenon known as the...

WHITE SOX WORMHOLE

The White Sox Wormhole pulled me away from the intended topic into a much more interesting subject, and that is the late Bob Elson.

There is a connection between Elson and Harrelson. Both are the longest-tenured announcers in White Sox history. Elson got his start in radio in 1929, when he entered -- and won -- an announcer's contest in St. Louis. His work for KWK was short-lived, though. Staffers at WGN wondered why a Chicago boy was working for a station in St. Louis, and offered him another job.

WGN had been on the air for four years at that point. It was Col. McCormick's high-tech toy and the wave of the future. The Tribune devoted lots of space to the offerings you could hear on WGN (or "W-G-N" as it was called), and that meant lots of free publicity for Bob Elson.

He broadcast Cubs and White Sox games at first. He also interviewed players and managers, allowing people to actually hear Jimmy Foxx and Connie Mack. Elson's interviews were promoted heavily by the Trib and WGN.

From the Tribune on June 19, 1932:

"Stars of the Philadelphia Athletics, champions of the American League last season, will hold the spotlight on the W-G-N baseball broadcasts during the coming week. The Athletics appear at Comiskey park to play the White Sox in a four game series starting tomorrow. During this period several of the players will be presented over the W-G-N mike.

"Chief among the players who are to talk is Robert Moses Grove, the brilliant left handed pitcher of the Philadelphia club. Jimmy Foxx, the hard-hitting first baseman, Mickey Cochran, the star catcher, and the veteran manager, Connie Mack, are among the others who will speak to the W-G-N listeners."

During spring training, Elson would hit the road (or more accurately, the tracks) to check out the Sox and Cubs at their facilities in California. Announcers would read his spring training reports, which were relayed back to Chicago by telegraph.

Elson was the announcer for the first All-Star Game at Comiskey Park in 1933. He, along with Red Barber, broadcast the World Series from 1930 to 1943. He earned the nickname "The Commander" after he enlisted in the Navy during World War II. Despite his military service, President Roosevelt called him back to the U.S. so he could broadcast the 1943 World Series.

Elson worked exclusively for the White Sox from 1946 through 1970. In 1971, he left Chicago to do play-by-play for the Oakland A's (Elson replaced Harry Caray in Oakland, and Caray replaced Elson in Chicago). Elson would return to Chicago, calling Blackhawks games with Lloyd Petit. Elson won the Baseball Hall of Fame's Ford C. Frick Award in 1979, and he died in March of 1981.

Bob Elson spent 41 years around White Sox baseball. Just think of how the world, the sport, and the technology of broadcasting changed around him.

When Elson arrived in Chicago in 1929, the Black Sox scandal was still a recent memory. It had only been 8 years since Judge Landis banned 8 players for life. The '29 Sox had Willie Kamm, Moe Berg (the catcher who became a spy), and Ted Lyons. If I had the chance, I would have loved to ask him about the White Sox teams of the 1930s and 40s, which have fallen down the memory hole. He got to watch Luke Appling foul off pitch after pitch. He was around for the renaissance in the 1950s and the heartbreak of the 1960s (always falling just short of the Yankees).

Elson's final season with the White Sox was 1970, which was the worst year in the history of the franchise. They went 56-106, and attracted only 495,000 customers.

In 1970, the Tribune had a feature called "Sports Fans Sound Off." Before sports-talk radio, it was the only way fans could publicly spout about their favorite teams. Sox fans had theories about how to fix the team ("Fire the manager!" - which they did), and how to improve the less-than-stellar numbers at the box office.

Stop me when this starts to sound familiar.

By 1970, Bob Elson was certainly a throwback to an earlier time. His laid back, "Hello Sports Fans!" style seemed downright sleepy compared to Howard Cosell. Some fans believed Elson was actually boring fans away from the ballpark.

A letter from April 8, 1970:

"The first thing I would do is fire Bob Elson, Red Rush, and Jack Drees. They add absolutely no color to the game; if anything, they detract from the excitement."

August 19, 1970:

"Listening to Elson is about as exciting as watching paint dry."

April 14, 1970:

"As far as Bob Elson is concerned, all I can say that it's too bad Lou and Vince (Cubs announcers Lou Boudreau and Vince Lloyd) weren't born twins. Maybe I will go back to reading about the White Sox and watching night games when I can."

It just goes to show you that familiarity breeds contempt - with some people. Elson is in the Hall of Fame, and is considered a pioneer of sports broadcasting. But in 1970, he was old hat.

Hit the road, old man, your time is up.

After he retired, of course, Elson became a living link to a more innocent era. He was the voice of summer for generations of Sox fans.

Sadly, there's very little Bob Elson audio available online. He did host a sports interview show on Channel 44 in the mid 70's. The always wonderful Museum of Classic Chicago Television has some highlights here.

Incidentally, nearly everyone in the video is dead. Rick Talley, sportswriter for the Tribune, died in 1995. Cosell died the same year. Elson died in '81. Tribune columnist Dave Condon died in 1994. Only Bulls coach Ed Badger is still living. He turned 80 last Nov. 5.

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