But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
[Romans 10:14-15]

On August 5, 1921, KDKA in Pittsburgh became the first station to ever broadcast a Major League Baseball game on the radio.

That historic event was a game-changer, literally and figuratively.

Before radio, if one didn’t attend a game, or spoke to someone who did, you had to wait until the next day to read about it in the local newspaper. It’s hard to imagine, in this age of instant communication, waiting nearly a full 24 hours to learn the results of a sporting event.

For the past two weeks, millions upon millions of people all over the world have been glued to their television sets watching the Tokyo Olympics, either live as the events are unfolding, or a video rebroadcast at a more convenient time.

Yet 100 years ago no one realized what a profound effect one groundbreaking broadcast would have upon sports – baseball in particular – or the entire industry.

Harold Arlin

The man who brought that momentous game to life was named Harold Arlin, an unassuming, 26-year-old studio announcer who did the broadcast as an experiment that he thought would be a “one-shot deal.” Little did he realize the sensation it would become.

Shortly before his death in 1986, Arlin humbly described his seminal experience to author Curt Smith for his book, Voices of the Game.

“I was just a nobody,” Arlin said, “and our broadcast – back then at least – wasn’t that big a deal.

“Sometimes the transmitter worked and sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes the crowd noise would drown us out and sometimes it wouldn’t. And, quite frankly, we didn’t know what the reaction would be – whether we’d be talking into a total vacuum or whether somebody would actually hear us.” [pp. 7-8]

Today, thanks in no small part to sports broadcasting, athletes have evolved into millionaires, announcers into celebrities, and just about every human alive into legions of adoring fans.

Surprisingly, there were those who opposed the idea of broadcasting games as they unfolded. Team owners relied on ticket sales as their main source of revenue, and the fear was that if people didn’t have to come to the ballpark to witness the game in person, attendance would plummet, as would the profits. One hundred years later we can see the folly of that misguided thinking.

When the Coronavirus pandemic shut down the entire world, or so it seemed, back in March of 2020, I recall many broadcast outlets replaying archived baseball games as well as other sports. It brought a certain measure of comfort to those who were quarantined in our homes, unable to enjoy much of anything else. We had sports to listen to or watch. It wasn’t live, but it was the next-best thing.

Back then, we also wondered whether it would be the death knell for many of our churches, especially the smaller congregations. Technology, of course, has quelled many of those concerns. From those first rudimentary broadcasts, many churches have become adept at generating a calming presence in many homes on Sunday morning. We are that welcome visitor who eases the fears of those who need to hear the word of God at a time of crisis and uncertainty.

As we slowly resume in-person worship we look back on the past 18 months and realize that many people who would have never set foot inside a church building, have turned to, of all things, the reassurance that a live-streamed worship service has brought them. Our churches have become better known to others through the wonders of electronic transmission.

As in sports, faith grows when it is shared. Harold Arlin didn’t know the effect his voice would have on those who listened to that first baseball broadcast a century ago. Likewise, we don’t know whether someone will believe us when we share what God in Christ has done for us. But all we are called to do is to tell, to proclaim to others the good news of the Gospel. The rest is up to the Holy Spirit.

[The cover photo is that of Harold Arlin and Pirates broadcaster Bob Prince. On August 30, 1972, Harold Arlin (right) was called out of retirement to call an inning pitched by his grandson, Steve, a San Diego Padres pitcher. | Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.]

Published by pastorallende

Retired Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Social justice and immigration reform advocate. Micah 6:8. Fluent in English and Spanish. I enjoy music and sports.

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