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Nation's First Baseball Broadcaster : Radio Pioneer Harold Arlin Dies at 90

March 18, 1986|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Harold W. Arlin, who broadcast what is believed to have been the first scheduled radio program--the results of the 1920 presidential election--is dead. Arlin was 90 and died Friday at his winter home in Bakersfield.

He was a little-known and unheralded engineer for the Westinghouse Electric Corp. in Pittsburgh when he was offered a regular announcer's job on radio station KDKA, one of the country's first two or three stations. Some source books indicate that he was the first full-time announcer on radio but all agree that he was the nation's first baseball broadcaster after he called the play by play of the Pittsburgh Pirates-Philadelphia Phillies game on Aug. 5, 1921. (The Pirates won, 8-5).

In 1920 a 24-year-old Arlin had sat in a wooden shack on the roof of the nine-story Westinghouse factory in Pittsburgh when the first returns from the Warren G. Harding-James M. Cox presidential race began trickling in. He had been asked to read the returns into a primitive microphone that he described in a 1952 interview by the Associated Press as "looking like a tomato can with a felt lining. We called it a mushophone."

The broadcast was the first ever scheduled ahead of time on the infant medium of radio.

The 1952 interview was brought about because Westinghouse had recalled Arlin from retirement for its broadcast of the Dwight D. Eisenhower-Adlai E. Stevenson presidential results coupled with a nostalgic look at the Harding-Cox contest.

Arlin's work in 1920 led to a job as a full-time, paid radio announcer and many radio old-timers say he was the first of that breed.

He also was believed to have been the first to broadcast a football game--Pittsburgh and West Virginia on Oct. 8, 1921, and the first to utilize the celebrity interview. Among those he talked with on the air were Will Rogers, Lillian Gish, William Jennings Bryan and Babe Ruth. Ruth, he recalled, had such a terrible case of "mike fright" that Arlin had to take the script out of his hands and read it himself.

When Jack Dempsey defended his heavyweight crown against Luis Firpo in 1923, Arlin's "mushophone" went dead at the same moment Firpo knocked Dempsey out of the ring. When power was restored after several minutes Arlin managed to reconstruct the fight as if it were still live.

Arlin spent five years at KDKA, earning the sobriquet "Voice of America" because listeners on several continents could pick up his broadcasts. The London Times once called him "the best known American voice in Europe."

In 1926, the year that Arlin returned to engineering, Westinghouse, General Electric and RCA formed the National Broadcasting Co., the first of the major networks.

Arlin, survived by two sons, a daughter, 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, will be buried Wednesday in Mansfield, Ohio, where he lived most of the year when not in Bakersfield.

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