Bill Stern (July 1, 1907 – November 19, 1971) was a U.S. actor and sportscaster who announced the nation's first remote sports broadcast and the first telecast of a baseball game. In 1984, Stern was part of the American Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame's inaugural class which included sportscasting legends Red Barber, Don Dunphy, Ted Husing and Graham McNamee. He was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame (1988) and has a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Born in Rochester, New York, Stern began doing radio play-by-play commentary in 1925, when he was hired by a local station, WHAM, to cover football games. Shortly after that, he enrolled at Pennsylvania Military College, graduating in 1930.
He broadcast the first televised sporting event, the second game of a baseball doubleheader between Princeton and Columbia at Columbia's Baker Field on May 17, 1939. On September 30, he called the first televised football game.
During his most successful years, Stern engaged in a fierce rivalry with Ted Husing of the CBS Radio Network. They competed not only for broadcast position during sports and news events, but also for the rights to cover the events themselves. They both served for many years as their networks' sports directors as well as being on-air stars.
According to the book Sports on New York Radio by sportscaster and Westwood One executive David J. Halberstam, Stern's remarkable career flourished despite a physical handicap. In 1935, on his way home from a football game in Texas, the car Stern was in got into an accident, injuring him severely enough that his left leg had to be amputated just above the knee.
Some observers consider Stern's style a blueprint in the 1940s for the style of Paul Harvey, ABC Entertainment Network social commentator, who adapted both Stern's newscasting (transforming his Reel One to Page One) and his stories about the famous and odd (to Rest Of The Story), although Stern made no effort to authenticate his stories and, in later years, introduced that segment of his show by saying that they "might be actual, may be mythical, but definitely interesting." Harvey, on the other hand, said he told only stories he had authenticated in some way.
Stern occasionally appeared in feature films as himself. Two of his more familiar credits are The Pride of the Yankees, starring Gary Cooper, and Here Come the Co-Eds, starring Abbott and Costello. He also narrated a long-running series of 10-minute short subjects for Columbia Pictures, "Bill Stern's World of Sports." He also served as sports commentator for News of the Day newsreels, as he acknowledged in his signoff message on his Colgate Shave Cream Sports Newsreel of the Air over NBC Radio ("Until then, I'll be seeing you in the News of the Day newsreel at your favorite Loews or Associated theaters!").
He caused a controversy on September 15, 1944, when he reported that a Chicago newspaper had broken word of some sort of arrangement for the St. Louis Browns of baseball's American League to lose their only World Series that year. He later expressed regret about writing the article; the Browns did lose the World Series that year, 4 games to 2, to their hometown rivals whose park (Sportman's Park) they shared, the St. Louis Cardinals.
One day, while doing radio play-by-play for a football game, as a player broke away towards a long run for a touchdown, Stern misidentified the runner several times as he ran toward the goal. Noticing the error just before he crossed the goal line, Stern "corrected" himself by saying that the misidentified runner had lateraled the ball to the player who actually made the run and scored. Sometime later, Clem McCarthy, that era's most prominent horse-racing announcer, described the wrong horse as having won a race. When the verbose and egotistical Stern chided him for this error, McCarthy replied, "You can't lateral a horse, Bill."
Bill Stern on the curveball
In 1949, Stern waded into "The Great Curveball Debate" about who invented the curveball in the 19th century, Candy Cummings or Fred Goldsmith. In his book of that year, Bill Stern's Favorite Baseball Stories, he came down solidly in Goldsmith's corner: "Some 80 years ago, an obscure kid pitcher on the Connecticut sandlots made a discovery that revolutionized baseball. He discovered that he could perform an amazing trick. He could actually pitch a baseball in such a way as to make it curve! In 1870, before a large but skeptical crowd, Freddy Goldsmith gave a demonstration of his new invention. The test was made by drawing a chalk line along the ground for 45 feet. Poles were set upright at each end of the line, and another was placed midway between these two. Freddy Goldsmith stood at the first pole and his catcher at the other end. To the amazement of the crowd, Freddy demonstrated that he could throw a baseball so that it went on the outside of the center pole and the inside of the others, in a curve. Thus the baseball world came to know of Freddy Goldsmith and his invention -- 'the curve ball.' Freddy Goldsmith became nationally famous. Big league clubs fought for his pitching services. He became a star with the Chicago White Stockings. With his "curve ball", pitcher Goldsmith was soon the most talked-about ballplayer in America! But there is a curious ending to this story. For years, long after his days of baseball glory were over, Freddy Goldsmith lived happily in the knowledge that posterity would always know him as the inventor of the curve ball. However, another pitcher named Arthur Cummings popped up, claiming to be the inventor, and quite a few baseball men believed him. When Freddy Goldsmith heard about this, it broke him up completely. Ill and bed-ridden at the time, he died a broken-hearted man, pathetically maintaining to the end that he, and only he, was the original inventor of 'the curve ball.'"
After many years with NBC he switched to ABC, where he lasted until 1956. While at ABC, Stern was a regular panelist on the game show The Name's the Same. Most of the program was played for laughs but Stern, with his reporter training, could always be counted on to ask shrewd, probing questions stressing the factual aspects of the show.
According to the Halberstam book, Stern's tenures at both networks were cut short due to health problems caused by his addiction to painkillers, which dated back to the period after his leg had been amputated.
After retiring from television broadcasting, Stern did radio sports reports and commentaries for the Mutual Broadcasting System in the late 1950s and 1960s. He lived the last 15 years of his life in Rye, New York.
- Patterson, Ted; Curt Gowdy (2002). The Golden Voices of Baseball. Sports Publishing LLC. ISBN 1-58261-498-9.
- Baker Field:Birthplace of Sports Television
- "First televised football game, Wanesberg vs Fordham, 1939". American Sportscasters Online. Retrieved February 11, 2011.
- Halberstam, David J. Sports on New York Radio. McGraw-Hill, (1999). ISBN 1-57028-197-1 ISBN 978-1-57028-197-6
- Dunning, John (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 163. ISBN 0-19-507678-8.
- Bill Stern at old-time.com
- Stern, Bill. Bill Stern's Favorite Baseball Stories. Garden City, New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1949.