The ballot for the Democratic Primary on May 2, 1964, presented Texans of that political persuasion with the choice of keeping the incumbent in the U.S. Senate for six more years or replacing him with a colorful challenger who had been calling himself “The Old Scotchman” since his twenties.
Gordon Barton McClendon was born in 1920 at Paris in the northeastern corner of the Lone Star State but spent his childhood in rural Oklahoma. The family moved back to Texas in time for him to go to high school in Atlanta, a stone’s throw from the Arkansas line, before receiving his diploma from a Missouri military academy.
During his senior year, the exceptional student won first-place in a national essay contest judged by none other than Henry Luce, publisher of Time magazine, and famed newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann. On the strength of this prestigious prize, McLendon was accepted for admission to three Ivy League colleges and chose Yale.
The bright ball-of-fire majored in Far Eastern languages while juggling extracurricular activities that included the Yale Literary Magazine and the campus radio station, which got him hooked on broadcasting.
Weeks before graduation in 1942, McLendon dropped out of Yale to join the Navy. His flair for linguistics resulted in a commission as an intelligence officer, which lasted until superiors noticed his gift of gab and reassigned him to Armed Forces Radio.
After the war, McLendon flirted with the idea of becoming an attorney, but soon changed his mind and left Harvard Law School to return to his native state. Though short on cash, he came up with enough money to afford a part interest in a Palestine radio station.
Turning a quick profit on this investment, he bought KLIF, a struggling station in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, on the cheap. Then, in a stroke of pure genius, he figured out a way to air live broadcasts of major league baseball games. The Handbook of Texas describes how he bypassed the big-league teams and “paid people to sit in stadiums across the country and feed him play-by-play information about games via Western Union.” Combining this information with pre-recorded sound effects and his ability to ad lib, he “made routine games seem exciting.”
The innovative and entertaining gimmick launched McLendon’s phenomenal career in the radio industry. Sports-starved stations across America paid through the nose to carry “live” broadcasts most listeners thought were the real thing.
With the millions he was raking in from his baseball brainstorm, McLendon took advantage of the radio “fire sale” ignited by the arrival of television in Americans’ living rooms. In a five-year buying frenzy between 1947 and 1952, “The Old Scotchman” – a nickname of his own creation – acquired an astonishing 458 stations that he turned into the second largest radio network in the United States.
When the baseball owners belatedly pulled the legal plug on his unauthorized play-by-plays in 1952, McLendon was already hard at work saving AM radio from the TV invasion. He popularized the Top Forty music format and introduced such “firsts” as live traffic reports, commercial jingles, five-minute news reports and editorials that acquainted his huge audience, especially in Texas, with his particular brand of right-wing populism.
McLendon was riding high in 1964, when out of the blue and just half an hour before the filing deadline he entered the Democratic Party primary as a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
Those that knew him best were caught completely by surprise, and one old friend went so far as to say McLendon was motivated “by ego pure and simple.”
The political novice could not have picked a tougher opponent. Ralph Yarborough was a liberal outcast in Texas Democratic circles, who lost three bids for statewide office before finally winning a special election in 1957 to finish Price Daniel’s unexpired Senate term. He went on to win a full six years and was eager to renew his lease.
Three months until the May 2, 1964, primary did not give the inexperienced underdog much time to learn the ins and outs of campaigning that had taken Yarborough a lifetime to master. But his deep pockets and tireless grass-roots politicking had him nipping at the senator’s heels by early April.
Then two things happened that threatened to rain on Yarborough’s victory parade. John Wayne, “The Duke” himself, joined McLendon on the campaign trail, followed by a double bombshell the Dallas Morning News dropped on its April 12 front page accusing Yarborough of taking $50,000 under the table from West Texas swindler Billie Sol Estes and, alongside that article, the paper’s endorsement of McLendon.
But Yarborough knew how to take a punch and came back to beat McLendon by 100,000 votes. His confidence bolstered by his strong showing, he announced for governor in 1968 but never got out of the starting gate and quit the race after only 52 days.
No one needed to shed a tear for Gordon McClendon, however. He died at his ranch on Lake Dallas in 1986 a very rich man with a net worth of $200 million and secure in the knowledge he had saved radio from extinction.