Nat Allbright, announcer who relied on imagination to recreate ballgames, dies at 87

August 6, 2011

The Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s were one of the greatest teams in baseball history, with Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella and other stars. They had two storied broadcasters, Red Barber and Vin Scully, covering their games, but most people who listened to the Dodgers on the radio heard another voice.

For hundreds of thousands of fans throughout the eastern half of the country, listening on more than 100 radio stations, the voice of the Dodgers was Nat Allbright. He announced more than 1,500 games for the Dodgers, and all that time, he never saw a game he was broadcasting.

Mr. Allbright, who died July 18 of pneumonia at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington County, was one of baseball’s finest practitioners — and perhaps its last — of the forgotten art of game re-creation. He was 87.

During the 12 years that he broadcast Dodger games, he visited Brooklyn only once. Listeners to the far-flung Dodger radio network thought Mr. Allbright was sitting in the press box at Ebbets Field and other big league stadiums, but he was actually at a studio in Washington.

He received sketchy summaries of the game — whether a pitch was a ball or strike, where a batted ball landed — from telegrams or wire service reports. But everything else that brought baseball to life — from crowd noises to vendors hawking their wares to the crack of the bat — was improvised by Mr. Allbright.

He had recordings of crowds in various states of excitement and used a click of his tongue to mimic the sound of the bat striking a ball. Each time a player tugged at his cap or a manager shouted at an umpire, the drama was supplied by Mr. Allbright.

He was, in the words of former Washington Post sports columnist Bob Addie, “king of the baseball re-creators.”

The practice of re-creating baseball games dated to the earliest days of radio. Before he went into acting and politics, Ronald Reagan re-created Chicago Cubs games for a station in Des Moines.

Mr. Allbright had broadcast minor league games in Columbus, Ga. — often through re-creation — in the late 1940s. When the Dodgers hired him in 1950, he was working for WEAM in Arlington County.

It was too expensive in those years for the live play-by-play broadcast to be carried on many stations. Mr. Allbright, simulating the action in a studio, became the ideal solution.

By 1953, Mr. Allbright’s broadcasts were carried on 117 radio outlets from Cleveland to Miami Beach, according to “Voices of the Game,” Curt Smith’s authoritative history of baseball announcers. In the Washington area, Mr. Allbright was heard on WEAM, WINX and WOOK, often drawing larger audiences than the games of the hometown Senators.

Mr. Allbright spent a month each year at the Dodgers’ spring training camp in Vero Beach, Fla., where he interviewed players and learned their mannerisms on the field, from Robinson’s daring base running to Gil Hodges’s bulging biceps and Clem Labine’s sweeping curveball.

Mr. Allbright had a photograph of each National League stadium on his studio wall and recordings of the national anthem to correspond with the practices in each city. For color, he’d lean away from the microphone and shout, “Getcher cold beer here, cold beer!”

The games were so realistic that few people realized they were inventions.

“I’ll say this – it was more fun than being there,” Mr. Allbright said in “Voices of the Game.” “You could make baseball more entertaining, you could build up, not just report, the excitement.”

In 1955, when the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series for the first and only time, Mr. Allbright received a team ring. He continued his re-created broadcasts after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, but things weren’t quite the same.

Many of Brooklyn’s favorite players – later immortalized by author Roger Kahn as “The Boys of Summer” – had retired or were no longer with the team. Games on the West Coast didn’t start until 11 p.m., and by 1962 Mr. Allbright’s radio audience had withered away.

Nathan Matthew Allbright was born Nov. 26, 1923, in Dallas, and he moved with his family to the southwest Virginia town of Ridgeway when he was 5. As a boy, he recalled in 1985, “I’d rip the lineups out of the Roanoke Times every morning and walk down the street doing the games to myself. By the time I was 12, I was doing nine innings a day.”

He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II, attended a broadcasting school in Washington and did all kinds of radio work in addition to his re-creation of ballgames. He was a disc jockey (“Nat the Cat”) and the host of a teen dance show. He covered live sports — football, baseball, basketball and horse racing – and had sports highlight shows on various local stations.

He and his wife operated an advertising company for many years, and Mr. Allbright also worked as a car salesman.

Survivors include his wife of 58 years, the former Angela Lombardi, of Arlington; and two children, Amy Allbright of Arlington and Dr. Robert Allbright of Jackson, Miss.

In the 1980s, Mr. Allbright started a business, Fantasy Personalized Sports Tapes, in which he recorded realistic-sounding sporting events, with the names of ordinary folks – and not a few celebrities – interpolated into the action.

“People can say they played in the same outfield as Mickey Mantle, or won a game on a hit off of Bob Gibson, or Jim Palmer,” he told The Post in 1983. “Or they can get in the ring with Muhammad Ali. I had one guy wanted to get knocked out by Sugar Ray Leonard.”

In 1982, when the NFL players went on strike, Mr. Allbright re-created eight imaginary Redskins games on WEAM and had the team on the way to the Super Bowl before the strike ended and the real season began.

A year earlier, when major league baseball players went on strike, Mr. Allbright put his old skills back to use when he re-created an imaginary All Star Game.

“Nat Allbright’s voice had listeners sensing a breezy, summer Ohio night perfect for baseball, hearing the low roar of a crowd of 75,000 and even the crack of the bat in old Cleveland Stadium,” a Post editorial noted.

For one glorious night, “in the fantasy created by Mr. Allbright, [the] texture of the great game was alive again.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.