Last time it was scrappy Boston reporters heading for Connecticut to cover Yale-Harvard baseball. This week we jump to another sport and season, to watch an investigative New Haven newspaperman get the scent of a sports scandal for a Front Page Story.
Yale’s coach, meanwhile, accuses the reporter of spying on his team’s practice and threatens to get him fired for relaying its new secret plays to the opposing team. It’s sports-ethics versus media-ethics, with plenty of suspicions all around!
By the end of the program, there’s even an innovative “active readership” response to the threat of a false newspaper report harming a player’s reputation.
Set in 1902, the “Adventures of Frank Merriwell” series was based on the dime-novel sports hero created by Gilbert Patten under the pseudonym Burt L. Standish. A newspaper reporter for several years, Patten ran a weekly paper for a year, but gave it up when his dime-novel Merriwell character took off.
His “brains and brawn” collegiate hero not only excelled at all sports, but at selling dime-novels, full-length novels, a comic strip, movies and two radio series.
The Internet Archive has 39 half-hour Frank Merriwell episodes from this 1946-49 incarnation. Not all the stories worked journalists into the plot, but I’m listening to those that do, curious whether they carry classic stereotypes of journalists or suggest any insights into the craft and history of the newspaper business.
This 1948 broadcast opens with a confrontation in a newspaper editor’s office, one of those bantering reporter-editor scenes common in popular culture portrayals of journalists. Sarcasm flies in both directions.
The editor asks his reporter, “What’s on your alleged mind this afternoon?”
The reporter tells the editor his assignment is so insignificant, “You could cover it yourself.”
Part of it is about status. An experienced sportswriter, Terry Reid expects to cover Ivy League football rivalries and protests being assigned to cover Yale’s game against a small Midwestern school identified only as “State College.”
But the editor brushes off the “cover it yourself” insult and informs Reid there really is a story worthy of his seniority: The game isn’t the main assignment; Reid is to profile Yale’s three candidates for the All-America team. Along with Merriwell and his pal Bart Hodge, they include a new tackle named Joe Marcy.
That’s where reporter Reid smells an even bigger scoop. Having covered western teams in a previous job, he recognizes the 23-year-old Marcy as a former star tackle at Western Tech, where he played under a different name four years earlier. It looks like Yale is fielding a ringer who has already played four years of college ball.
Single-mindedly, the reporter heads for the practice field to interview Marcy and his teammates, but cuts the visit short when Marcy isn’t available after all.
Merriwell and Hodge were friendly with a reporter in the baseball story, Frank Merriwell’s Promise, but this time Hodge expresses a low opinion when the reporter cancels their interview.
Merriwell: “He certainly acts like he was on the trail of a big story.”
Hodge: “All those reporters act the same way, Frank. He’s probably one of those so-called ‘experts’ who are always predicting an upset.”
Using the best turn-of-the-century reporting techniques, Reid races to Bridgeport to catch a special train into New Haven so that he can interview the State coach on route to the game.
Without revealing his actual suspicions, Reid asks the coach, “just for the sake of argument,” how he would respond if Yale was breaking the rules. He gets a spicy quote for his afternoon edition, “I’d register a protest that would singe the eyebrows off the whole Yale faculty.” The coach discloses that he has a heavier team and a bunch of secret plays.
On the field, the State team seems on its way to an upset when Merriwell and the Yale coach come to the conclusion that the reporter relayed those secret plays to the State coach before the game. The reporter denies it — the State coach and Yale coach were both borrowing a third team’s playbook, and State started practicing the new plays earlier.
Then he springs his allegations about Marcy, who Marcy admits to changing his name, but insists he didn’t play for all four years at Tech. Lacking proof and fearing a scandal, Yale’s coach pulls the player from the game — while the reporter races to get his scoop into print. Perhaps he’s in too big a hurry; perhaps he doesn’t give Marcy enough of a hearing.
Rather than spoil the suspense, I’ll stop there. But here’s a hint: There’s one more historic “newspaper role” on the way to the ending, along with a legal alternative to “prior restraint of the press” that might have worked with a small-town paper in 1902. Would it really work in this case? It depends on the “real” circulation statistics of a presumably fictional New Haven newspaper.
Background source on Patten and Merriwell:
“Patten, William G.” in Albert Johannsen, “The House of Beadle and Adams and Its Dime and Nickel Novels,” Northern Illinois University Libraries.
For another example of old-time sports journalism as portrayed on radio, try these radio biographies of sportswriter Grantland Rice.