Play-Ask-It-Ball: Army vs. Navy on the Air, pt. 1

Originally published in the Radio Listeners Lyceum, 2013.

            The radio quiz show was a staple of the airwaves during the 1940s and by the end of the decade the genre could claim enough listeners that Bert Park’s Stop the Music! is credited with knocking the number one show of the 1947-48 season, The Fred Allen Show, entirely out of the top 20 the next year. The earliest quiz program is unknown but John Dunning points to Professor Quiz in 1936, an assessment which Jim Cox, author of the authoritative guide to radio quiz and audience participation shows, does not dispute.

In 1941 staff at Chicago’s WGN developed a twist on the quiz show concept by pitting Naval seamen against Army soldiers. Though not yet engulfed in World War II, the eyes of America were warily watching Europe and East Asia erupting in war. The military services were gearing up in case the United States found itself dragged into the overseas conflicts and it seemed natural to bring the good-natured rivalry between service branches to the airwaves.

Whether Paul Fogarty originated the concept, he was called on to develop and act as producer of the new show, Play-Ask-It-Ball. Fogarty had been with WGN for over a decade, starting first as a writer and actor on local series such as Big Leaguers and Bushers and The Devil Bird in 1932. He had gradually been given more sports-related broadcasts and most of his responsibilities were off-mike by 1941.

The series would be broadcast from a number of military bases and at each location a five-person team would be chosen from audience members. They were brought up on a stage on which was laid out a replica of a baseball diamond. Despite its name, the game show was an adaptation of baseball, not basketball. Play-Ask-It-Ball required little physical movement; rather, hits and runs were earned not by athletic prowess but by correctly answering questions. Graded on four degrees of difficulty, questions from fifteen possible subjects could be worth either a singe, double, triple, or home run. Topics ranged from sports and movies to geography, the Army, and the Navy.

Jack Brickhouse, a Peoria, IL-born sports announcer was called upon to act as emcee and “pitch” questions to the participants. Brickhouse had arrived at WGN only the year before in 1940 primarily to serve as announcer for Cubs and White Sox baseball games. Jess Kirkpatrick, a local actor who went on to a long career first in radio and then in television, handled the new program’s announcing duties. He umpired the games and called all the plays.

Contestants were moved around the diamond as teammates answered additional questions correctly. A question assigned the difficulty of a single was worth one dollar to the answerer. A double earned the player two dollars, a triple three dollars, and a home run a whopping four dollars. An incorrect answer was rung up as an out.

Six sites were chosen to host the show, three representing the Navy and three representing the Army. At each site the host team earned runs for their respective service and the runs would accumulate week after week. Play-Ask-It-Ball was to rotate through the six-team circuit three times for a total of eighteen broadcasts. After all eighteen quiz shows the winning service branch would be determined by the accumulated number of runs scored over the successive weeks.

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