Mel Allen is front and center. Broadcast partner Russ Hodges is to his right. Engineer Al Werner is on Allen’s left. A figure more difficult to make out than the other three stands over Hodges’ right shoulder. Wiring in front of the booth even partially covers the man’s face.
Such a snapshot was the story of Larry Allen’s career in the shadow of his world-famous brother. Yet Larry’s presence, mostly hidden away, was crucial to everything running smoothly on Mel Allen’s broadcasts. In many ways, Larry was essential to them. He was the extra set of eyes and ears that helped Mel’s euphonious voice describe precise accounts of the New York Yankees during their most dynastic years and of the Rose Bowl, Army-Navy game and numerous other marquee college football contests.
Mel became perhaps the most famous name in sportscasting history. His brother?
“I was named after a man I never met,” Larry Allen said.
Larry Allen died last week after six months in hospice care. He was 99. Decades ago, he was always in close enough proximity to his brother to sit with Joe DiMaggio at baseball writers dinners. Or to have Billy Martin, then a fearless Yankees second baseman, kiss him on the cheek when he spotted Mel’s younger brother. Or to be part of the conversations with visiting broadcasters as they passed in and out of the booth.
“It always looked like he wanted to tell something funny,” Vin Scully said. “As soon as (Mel would) finish, Larry would step in and say, ‘What Mel was trying to say was … ’ ”
It was Larry who squirted lemon juice into the eyes of one of Mel’s dates when he was aiming for a shrimp. Or who happened to be in the room when Yankees owner Dan Topping was listening to recordings of announcers who could be Mel’s assistant in 1949.
“Which one do you like the best?” Topping asked Larry after playing the warm sounds of a kid from Wyoming.
“Gowdy,” Larry said, helping to make the decision.
Working alongside Mel and his partners like Hodges and Curt Gowdy, who would both become famous, Larry held a position that didn’t have an official title. Yet it involved endless tasks, none of them glamorous yet all of them paramount to helping his brother seek – and often achieve – perfection during his broadcasts. Larry painstakingly researched stats so his brother would have them at his fingertips. He answered endless fan letters in Mel’s voice and even signed them off as “Mel Allen.” He compiled elaborate lineup cards and football depth charts so the names could quickly and effortlessly roll off his brother’s tongue. He scoured the field for last-minute substitutions so they wouldn’t be caught off guard.
And he did it all with almost zero fanfare.
Larry was always around to assist Mel, and when his older brother died in 1996, he was a voracious keeper of Mel’s legacy and unfailingly loyal in preserving it.
“My dad was always with him,” said Larry’s son, Andy. “My dad never went off – he was talking about going to law school and all this stuff – but he stayed with my uncle. My uncle kind of coerced him into being a team of brothers – ‘We need to stick together and I’ll look after you.’ I think in one respect, my dad got to do stuff that people just dream of doing, but in other respects, he didn’t get to break off and do his own thing.”
Laurens Irving Israel was born on July 6, 1920, in Bessemer, Alabama. His parents, Julius and Anna Israel, were Russian Jewish immigrants. He was named after Laurens Bloch, who admired the hardworking family running his women’s clothing store called The Parisian. Bloch operated a similar store in Birmingham and hoped to expand to Atlanta. He wanted Julius to take over in Birmingham but died before they had signed a contract.
It was another in a series of setbacks for Julius Israel, whose family had fled the pogroms, a period of persecution and slaughtering of Jews in Russia in the 1880s that presaged Nazi Germany. Julius faced prejudice as he struggled to make a living in the Deep South, and his family became extremely close knit as they tried to survive.
Larry, as he became known, was 7½ years younger than Mel and nearly six years younger than their sister, Esther. The family ended up Tuscaloosa, where Larry majored in political science and minored in speech and journalism at the University of Alabama. Mel, who entered at 15, had blazed a path. Mel studied to be a lawyer but had also called football games for Alabama and Auburn. His resonant, Southern voice helped land him a lark audition at CBS during a trip with friends to New York. It catapulted his career.
Larry didn’t join him there until serving three years in France during World War II and taking part in the Normandy invasion on Omaha Beach.
“I think my dad came back from World War II and was sort of lost,” said Larry’s daughter, Carolyn Bern. “And my uncle was trying to help him find a way. After my dad went over and – he was something like the third wave or the second wave at Normandy Beach – and I think he came back, probably traumatized, and so he was pretty lost. And I think my uncle took him under his wing.
“I don’t think they recognized things back then like today they do. People come back, they get more counseling and things like that. But in World War II, I don’t think there was any type of counseling. And my dad was really in the middle of all that. That was before my time, but from what I understand, he came back and he didn’t know what he wanted to do.”
CBS’ first request of Mel in New York had been to change his last name. Israel, he was told, was “a little too all-inclusive.” Mel wasn’t happy about the request but chose “Allen,” which was Julius’ middle name. Larry followed suit. Brothers had to stick together.
Mel had moved his parents and sister to New York and, after the war, established himself as the voice of the Yankees during a period when they won pennants by the bushelful. When Jack Slocum, the son of famous sportswriter Bill Slocum, left his position as the Yankees’ statistician, urged Larry to apply.
“I can’t recommend you for the job,” Larry remembered his brother telling him. “I’m gonna have to recommend someone else, but I would rather have you and you can apply and see what happens.”
Larry got the job and soon became a fixture beside his brother. As Mel grew in stature and influence, he demanded Larry always be with him.
“When he went up with the Yankees, in my understanding of things, he wanted my dad to stick with him because he trusted my dad,” Andy Allen said. “Not everybody could be trusted as far as helping him. A lot of people wanted his position. He obviously trusted my dad.”
According to Mel, nobody could work a game like Larry. Decades before the internet, Larry could find just about any baseball stat Mel could dream up. When Mel momentarily struggled to identify a player during the scramble on the football field, Larry could point to the player’s name on their spotting board, which he constructed with poster board and rectangular stickers. Larry wrote the names of positions on the field across the top of the board and typed each player’s name, number, height, weight, hometown and school year onto the stickers. He placed the stickers under each position and used colored pins to indicate which players were in the game.
But even the elaborate board didn’t help late in the 1956 Rose bowl, when Michigan State players rushed onto the field as the Spartans attempted a game-winning field goal against UCLA. As Michigan State lined up for the kick, Mel hadn’t identified the kicker’s name. Larry turned to him. “It’s Dave Kaiser,” he said. He was right. Kaiser had been injured all season, but Larry knew he was the team’s best long-distance kicker and could be used.
Every once in a while, to Larry’s surprise, Mel would put him on the air, such as on Aug. 27, 1950, when the Yankees were observing “Mel Allen Day.”
“I was so annoyed with him,” Larry said. “I was thinking, ‘What am I gonna say? What am I gonna do?’ Mel did certain things like that with me. One minute I’d think he didn’t have a lot of confidence in me and the next minute he’d make me feel like I could do anything in the world.
“I didn’t have the desire to be the announcer.”
Larry came to that realization when the Cleveland Indians hired him to be a broadcaster for the 1951 season. He found himself in the middle of a bitter dispute between team sponsors.
“It was a miserable – probably the most miserable time in my whole life,” he said.
But the experience may have changed Larry’s life. Larry, whom his son describes as more of a dreamer than Mel, could have suffered the same personal fate as Mel, who went from World Series games to football games and back to the New York to record sports newsreels, never stopping to take a breath. When Larry met Marjorie Martin in the early 1950s, and the two began dating, she wondered why he was always running around the country with his brother. Larry waited 2½ years before proposing.
“I was 23 years old,” Margie Allen said. “I was an old maid already going on 24.”
When Larry finally popped the question, Margie said, “No,” before reconsidering the next day.
“If you don’t marry that girl, I will,” Mel told him.
At the time of Larry’s death, he and Margie were married 64 years. Mel never married, though Carolyn and Andy saw him as a second father. Mel even lived with Larry and his family in New York’s Connecticut suburbs during the 1960s and 1970s when the kids were growing up.
Larry happily shared him, coaching Andy’s Little League team while stepping aside to allow Mel to take them to Yankee Stadium. The Little League dads fawned over Mel, not Larry. One of Carolyn’s dates was so worked up after meeting Uncle Mel he wasn’t paying attention as he backed down their long, curvy driveway and ran into something.
“Stop!” Carolyn said.
“He said, ‘No, your uncle’s gonna be in the kitchen. I’m not gonna stop,’ ” she recalled. Embarrassed, he kept driving.
“The whole side of his car was dented.”
When Andy’s friends came over, Mel tried to tell his nephew to project his voice when he conversed with them.
“He felt that you needed to speak clearly, enunciate,” Andy said. “My dad was like, ‘You are not gonna change his speech patterns when he’s hanging out with all his friends,’ which is true.”
After Mel was dismisse by the Yankees in 1964, Larry ran a Canada Dry soft drinbottling distributorship with him. When Mel wanted the family to have a presence in the South again, Larry ran a radio station in Bessemer they went in on together.
Back in Alabama, Larry and Margie would become proud grandparents of three and great grandparents of two. Larry became the proud patriarch of the family. Andy became a Birmingham physician specializing in internal medicine. Carolyn is now working for a COVID-19 response team in Alabama and reports to state health officer Scott Harris.
When Larry died, Margie and the family gathered by his side. He never wanted the spotlight of his brother, always gracefully taking second billing.
But this time, he was the center of attention.
Stephen Borelli is the editor of Sports Weekly and USA TODAY’s sports-related special editions and the author of “How about That! The Life of Mel Allen.”