Newspapers Battle to Cover Merriwell at Yale

Tip Top Weekly baseball game cover, 1904
The game on this 1904 cover was in Cambridge; the radio episode’s action is in New Haven; home-team advantage: Merriwell, but difficult for Boston press.

“When a big story is involved, a good reporter doesn’t worry about what is or isn’t legal.”

Here’s nostalgia doubled, as we turn back the clock a half-century to hear 1949 radio do the same — back to the era of gaslights and horse-and-buggy. In this story, dime-novel sports hero Frank Merriwell has a ballgame to win, but also investigates turn-of-the-century media innovations to help a reporter get the story to his paper.

The episode Frank Merriwell’s Promise has all the latest gee-whiz gimmicks: The telegraph, typewriter, heliograph, telephone, even a gasoline-powered horseless carriage that plays a role  in the race for the story.

From our “newspaper heroes” perspective, this 1949 broadcast celebrates what already may have seemed an old-fashioned journalistic tradition: Competing big-city newspapers in a no-holds-barred fight to get a big story. Hear sports reporters employ state of the art technology to get the advantage, even if it means unsportsmanlike dirty tricks.

The dramatic conclusion of the episode’s Yale-Harvard baseball game is a bit far-fetched, but perhaps no more so than the idea that one of three Boston newspapers battling to get the story from New Haven would actually be partial to Yale, rather than the almost-local boys in Cambridge! The Banner, Standard and Chronicle are the three Boston papers (Connecticut papers apparently aren’t worth mentioning), and a Yale friend of Merriwell’s is the son of the Chronicle’s publisher, who says his father will pay anything to get the story.

At Merriwell’s suggestion, they have a secret telephone installed — hidden in a bench at the ballfield. They basically invent what will become a radio standard, a reporter giving a live play-by-play account of the game. (The actor even says “play-by-play” as if inventing the phrase.)

“This will make newspaper history if we can pull it off!” one of the conspirators says.

The young men also enlist a female assistant to help the Boston reporter identify the Yale players. Among other things she types! “You’ll do such a good job that Bruce’s father will probably offer you a position on the paper,” Frank says.

Along with its “new tech” twist, the media ethics questions raised by this adventure are worth a journalism class discussion. They range from monopolizing telegraph lines to stealing a horse, along with an issue that spans technological eras — the deadline temptation to fabricate the dramatic ending of a story that hasn’t actually ended yet. That “When a big story is involved, a good reporter doesn’t worry about what is or isn’t legal” line at the top of this article is delivered in all sincerity by either the “good” Boston reporter or his publisher’s son, at the suggestion that the competition might destroy special telephone.

There’s also a journalism ethics issue in the reporter’s accepting all that help from one of the teams — even borrowing the coach’s Daimler. (Come to think of it, could a Yale coach afford a Daimler back then? Automotive trivia: Daimlers were built in Connecticut in the 1890s, according to Mira Wilkins’ The History of Foreign Investment in the United States to 1914, p. 419.)

Give a listen. The audio quality is quite good, as are the production values for this post-war NBC broadcast. You can hear not only the echoes of the crowd on game-day, but the squeak of an old porch swing and perhaps even crickets in the New Haven evening as Merriwell and his friends plot their strategy.

As usual, the attached audio file is thanks to the Internet Archive, which has a good collection of the 1949 NBC “Adventures of Frank Merriwell” broadcasts, as well as digital copies of Gilbert Patten’s “Burt L. Standish” novels.

While sports, not journalism, was Merriwell’s usual passion, I’ve discovered another journalism plot in the radio collection, so I’ll showcase an encounter between Frank and a less supportive newspaperman soon.

More about Frank Merriwell

See Frank Merriwell is Back, from FrankMerriwell.com including Robert H. Boyle’s article “Frank Merriwell’s Triumph, or How Yale’s Great Athlete Captured America’s Fancy, Purified the Penny Dreadfuls, and Became Immortal.”

E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra overview of Frank Merriwell at Yesterday’s Papers.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.
This entry was posted in 1940s, 19th century, adaptations, competition, journalism, newspaper stunts, newspapers, reporters, reporting, sports, technology. Bookmark the permalink.

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