Musings: Anyone Remember Jim Britt?

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

ANYONE REMEMBER JIM BRITT?

Are you long-in-the-tooth enough remember Jim Britt?

You have to be pretty old to recall him, but there was a time that Britt’s voice was the

most recognizable in all New England; he reigned supreme. Then it all disappeared.

In the 1940s he was the undisputed king of sports broadcasters in New England. Back in

the day when road games of baseball teams were not broadcast, he called the home games

of both the Red Sox and the Boston Braves. Even then there was a network of local

stations that carried the games, so his voice was heard throughout New England. Baseball

telecasts came along in the last few years of the decade although they were few and far

between. On June 15, 1948, when the first baseball game in New England ever to be

televised (Braves versus Chicago Cubs) went on the air, Jim Britt was the man behind the

microphone. His was the voice of baseball in New England.

Back then the New England Patriots did not even exist. The Boston Celtics were just in

their infancy; the Celtics played in what was then considered to be an insignificant

league. The Bruins did exist and had their hard core fans, but most people thought of

hockey as a strictly Canadian game. Baseball was practically the only thing that mattered

in sports around here; and Jim Britt ruled the roost.

If a home game was rained out, Britt would call the game of whichever team was on the

road by telegraphic recreation. He would sit in a studio with a telegraph machine

clattering out bare-bones information such as, “Henrich grounds out to second,” and dress

it up by saying something like, “Henrich slaps a ground ball up the middle but Doerr

makes a backhand stop, spins and fires to first, getting him by half a step.”

In addition to calling ballgames on a daily basis he hosted a popular radio show, “Jim

Britt’s Sports Round Up,” five nights a week. His signature sign-off, “Remember, if you

can’t play a sport, be one anyway,” might sound corny by today’s standards but it was an

iconic phrase back then. He had a silky smooth delivery and was very articulate; he was

by far the most famous and most influential broadcaster in New England.

But nothing lasts forever. At the end of the 1950 season Jim Britt made what turned out

to be a fatal misjudgement.

The Red Sox and Braves both decided that they would begin broadcasting all their

games, home and away, beginning in 1951. It required that broadcasters travel with the

team. The days of calling home games for two teams were over. Both teams wanted Britt

as their full-time voice, but the reality was he could only do one, and the choice was up to

him.

He could choose the Red Sox, who still had their post-World War II core of Ted

Williams, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, and Johnny Pesky although they were all in

their thirties by then. Or he could choose the Braves, who had won the National League

pennant just two years earlier, and who had prospects like Hank Aaron and Eddie

Matthews in their system. After giving the matter some serious thought, he placed his bet

on the Braves.

Big mistake.

Aaron and Matthews did, of course, go on to have Hall of Fame careers and the Braves

eventually enjoyed great success but not in Boston; further, his decision proved to be the

ruination of Jim Britt’s career.

After two years of woeful attendance in 1951 and ’52, the Braves, on short notice, packed

up and moved to Milwaukee where in a few short years they would win a World Series.

But when they moved they decided to use local talent for their radio and television

broadcasts and Jim Britt was suddenly out of a job. The Red Sox were no longer an

option for him because the guy the Sox chose when Britt spurned them two years earlier

turned out to be a pretty good announcer – better, even, than Britt. His name was Curt

Gowdy.

After several years in limbo, Britt was hired by the Cleveland Indians where he was

paired with a young broadcaster who had idolized him when he was growing up listening

to the ballgames on the radio back in Quincy, Massachusetts. One of the two would

eventually make a triumphant return to Boston. It wouldn’t be Britt.

The young guy was Ken Coleman who, in addition to calling the Indians games, was also

the voice of the Cleveland Browns. This was back in the days when the Browns were the

class of the National Football League (that’s a loooong time ago). It was during the

heyday of Otto Graham and Jim Brown; in fact, Coleman called every NFL touchdown

the great Brown ever scored. He had become an institution in Cleveland but when, in the

mid-sixties, the national television networks wooed Gowdy away from the Red Sox job,

Coleman saw an opportunity to return to his roots as the voice of the team he had grown

up rooting for. He grabbed it. He arrived back in Boston just in time to become the voice

of the Impossible Dream team of 1967.

Britt’s career, meanwhile, continued on a downhill spiral, aided greatly by his enduring

affection for Old Demon Rum. He never really caught on in Cleveland and after a few

years he found himself back in Boston hosting a bowling show. But bowling isn’t

baseball. When the show was cancelled he faded into obscurity.

He died alone in Monterey, California in 1980 at the age of seventy. Little note was made

of his passing. He left no heirs and there was no one to keep his memory alive.

But let the record show that there once was a time when Jim Britt was the king of New

England broadcasters, the master of all he surveyed. The lesson is that there are some

professions – and sports broadcasting is one of them - in which even kings don’t have job

security.