Al Michaels has been recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame as the winner of the Ford C. Frick Award, presented for “major contributions to baseball” by a broadcaster. The awards ceremony is scheduled for Saturday, July 24.
Al Michaels had called one hockey game in his life when he learned from an ABC producer in the weeks leading up to the network’s coverage of the 1980 Winter Olympics that he would be assigned to call the hockey tournament.
How did Michaels, who had joined ABC full-time in 1977, get the assignment? Simple. ABC certainly had an All-Star roster of veteran announcers and journalists at its disposal, but Jim McKay, Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford, Keith Jackson and Chris Schenkel had no hockey experience on their impressive resumes, while Al had called the 1972 Winter Olympics hockey gold-medal game for NBC.
So when the Olympic assignments were doled out, as expected, the bigger names were matched with the marquee events, which, for a U.S. audience watching the Winter Olympics, meant figure skating, speed skating and various ski competitions. Michaels, based on his, ahem, vast experience covering the sport, was chosen for what was thought to be the more rudimentary assignment of covering hockey (along with analyst Ken Dryden, the recently retired goaltender of the Montreal Canadiens). After all, the Soviet Union had won the hockey gold in each of the last four Olympics, and, just three days before the 1980 tournament started, it had throttled the U.S. team 10-3 in an exhibition game in New York City.
The rest, as they say, is history. A United States squad of youngsters (average age: 21), fashioned by coach Herb Brooks into a believe-in-yourself unit ready to take on all comers, did just that over a 13-day span in which they overcame the best teams the world had to offer to capture the unlikeliest of gold medals. Michaels called it all and became as identified with a particular event to as great a degree as any broadcaster ever has – particularly his iconic call in the closing moments of the Americans’ 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union. Al’s words as the clock ticked to zero are likely still the most famous ever uttered in U.S. sports television history, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” Two days later, as the U.S. team beat Finland to earn the gold medal, Al again punctuated the moment, “This impossible dream comes true!”
Not bad for a guy whose original passion was baseball, and whose primary goal from the time of a childhood visit to Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was to become a baseball broadcaster. The passion, dedication and talent that he brought to bear in fulfilling that pursuit was recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame in naming him the winner of the 2021 Ford C. Frick Award, presented annually by the Hall for “major contributions to baseball” by a broadcaster. The awards ceremony is scheduled for Saturday, July 24.
Michaels spent his early years in Brooklyn, listening to Vin Scully call Dodgers games on radio and television. By a quirk of fate, young Al’s family moved to Los Angeles a few months after the Dodgers did, so that by 1959, the team’s second season out west and one that ended with a World Series title, young Al was among the vast crowds at the L.A. Coliseum. And believe it or not, after graduating from Hamilton High School and Arizona State University, Michaels’ first TV job was… to help choose contestants on “The Dating Game” (then a popular staple of daytime TV), a rather amusing bullet point on his professional resume.
But Al’s dream of becoming a professional announcer never waned, and he soon got a job broadcasting the games of a minor-league baseball team. Not in Bakersfield, Peoria or Sioux Falls, mind you, but in Honolulu with the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders. There, Michaels honed his craft on baseball, and did the same by calling scores of high school basketball and football games.
After three years on Oahu, Al got the call to the majors, joining Joe Nuxhall to broadcast on radio the games of the Cincinnati Reds, who were merely the defending National League champions and in the process of forging an identity as “the Big Red Machine.” And so the young broadcaster received his Ph.D. in baseball from the likes of Sparky Anderson, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan. By the end of his second season, Michaels, at 27, found himself paired with veteran Curt Gowdy to call the Reds’ home games in the 1972 World Series on NBC-TV. Another box checked!
After one more year with the Reds, it was back to California to call San Francisco Giants’ games. That move gave him the opportunity to broadcast in a larger city at an increase in salary, and to work on both radio and TV. But the Giants of the mid-1970s were no match for the Reds on the field, so Al could only watch from home when the Reds won back-to-back World Series titles in 1975 and 1976.
Starting in 1976, baseball’s national television package, then the exclusive domain of NBC, was to be split between NBC and ABC. ABC asked Michaels to work part-time, calling games on “Monday Night Baseball” to a regional audience. With the blessing of his bosses in San Francisco, Al worked on Mondays for ABC while retaining the Giants’ job the other six days of the week. After that one season of hop-scotching the country, and with his Giants’ contract expiring, he joined ABC full-time. His new responsibilities included not only baseball, but also college football, auto racing, winter sports, and myriad events for the “Wide World of Sports” anthology series.
While Michaels at first did play-by-play on ABC’s “B” games on Monday nights – with Bob Prince and then Jackson doing the “A” games, shown to a more sizeable audience – it wasn’t long before Al’s obvious skills dictated his ascension to the top job. By 1979, he was back on the World Series, which ABC and NBC televised in alternate years. He would go on to broadcast eight World Series – the one with NBC in 1972, and then with ABC in odd-numbered years from 1979 to 1989, and again in 1995. He was the only announcer to call games during every season of “Monday Night Baseball’s” 14-year run on ABC. He also did play-by-play for eight League Championship Series and six All-Star Games while there.
During his first 10 years with ABC, Michaels was paired with an ever-changing series of partners. The list included Norm Cash, Bob Gibson, Warner Wolf, Tom Seaver, Bill White, Bob Uecker, Mark (The Bird) Fidrych, Lou Brock, Steve Stone, Don Drysdale, Johnny Bench, Billy Martin, Earl Weaver, Tommy Lasorda, Howard Cosell and Jim Palmer. But in the fall of 1985, the revolving-door approach was set aside, as Tim McCarver joined Michaels and Palmer to call the Royals-Cardinals World Series. That trio is widely regarded as the best three-man baseball announcing team in U.S. network-TV history, and it’s the only one to work as a unit on four World Series.
If Michaels has a style, in baseball and in the other sports he has covered, it might be defined as intelligent commentary, born of diligent preparation, that wastes neither words nor the viewer’s time. Once asked whether he ever tires of spending his week memorizing uniform numbers of offensive linemen, he noted that he spends very little time on that sort of thing. More of his time, he said, was spent trying to determine what the viewer already knows, what he (Michaels) knows that the viewer would like to know, and what he knows that the viewer should know.
That’s advice as succinct as it comes for young or would-be broadcasters, especially on TV, where a literal description of the goings-on can be somewhat superfluous. Al is not an announcer lauded by reviewers who count the number of different verbs that he has used to describe the action. Instead, he’ll often go long stretches without using a single action verb to describe what the viewer can see. “Base hit to right, let’s see if Jones will score, Evans has a great arm” does the trick nicely: Identify the players involved, the result of the play, and what may happen next, all within a five-second play-call. The fact that Al has never had a go-to home-run call, or touchdown call – and has never repurposed his organic “do you believe in miracles?” line every time there’s a surprising result – speaks volumes. It’s a far cry from the “whenever-this-happens-I-say-this, whenever-that-happens-I-say-that” school of announcing.
Michaels considers Game 5 of the 1986 American League Championship Series as the best baseball game he has ever called. Entering that game, the California Angels, then without a world championship since their birth in 1961, held a 3-1 series lead over the Boston Red Sox, then without a world championship since 1918, and the Angels owned a 5-2 advantage entering the ninth inning. Moreover, Angels skipper Gene Mauch, a baseball lifer if there ever was one, had never been to a World Series.
Police and ushers ringed the field anticipating the celebration of an Angels victory. In the ninth, however, Don Baylor belted a two-run homer off Angels starter and ace Mike Witt to narrow the lead. Later in the inning, just an out from the pennant, Mauch called on his best reliever, Donnie Moore, to face Dave Henderson, who was only playing because of an earlier injury to center fielder Tony Armas. (One inning after entering the game, Henderson had inadvertently tipped a deep fly ball by Bobby Grich over the center-field fence for a go-ahead two-run homer.)
Henderson battled Moore to a 2-2 count. As he stepped out of the box, Al noted, “It’s a long way from Seattle,” referencing Boston’s acquisition of the outfielder from the lowly Mariners in August. Henderson stepped back in and launched a home run that gave the Sox a 6-5 lead. Here’s Al, with his voice rising in excitement. “To left field and deep, and Downing goes back and it’s gone! Unbelievable!” Then, after 20 seconds of pictures contrasting the Sox’ euphoria with the Angles anguish, he added the perfect coda: “You’re looking at one for the ages here” and “Anaheim Stadium was a strike away from turning into Fantasyland!”
That was hardly the end. The Angels rallied in the ninth, tying the score on an unlikely hit by Rob Wilfong, barely scoring pinch-runner Ruppert Jones from second base on a bang-bang play. With the bases full and one out, the Sox turned to Steve Crawford, a last-minute addition to the postseason roster due to an injury to the future Hall-of-Famer Seaver. Making his postseason debut without a safety net, Crawford retired Doug DeCinces (on a short fly ball) and Grich (on a broken-bat looper back to Crawford) to end the inning. Al noted the pressure, “We go to the 10th, if you can take it.” After some more ups and downs, the Sox pushed over a run in the 11th inning, and as the final out was made – on a foul pop caught by Boston’s backup first baseman Dave Stapleton (who had replaced a hobbled Bill Buckner), securing a 7-6 win – Al’s commentary was succinct. “Next plane to Boston.” The Sox captured two games at Fenway to complete their stirring comeback.
Three Octobers later, Michaels, McCarver and Palmer had just come on the air from San Francisco for Game 3 of the Giants-Athletics World Series. Prior to the scheduled start, as McCarver was narrating some highlights from the previous game, Candlestick Park began to shake. As the rumbling started to disrupt the video and audio emanating from ABC’s production truck parked outside, McCarver slowed his commentary and Michaels, who had lived in California for over 30 years at that point, jumped in. “I tell you what, we’re having an earth–” is all that viewers heard before video and audio were lost.
An earthquake eventually determined to be of a 6.9 magnitude had rattled the greater Bay Area; as it turned out, 63 people died throughout the area, and damages were estimated at $10 billion. When ABC engineers restored communications from the ballpark, Michaels joined a special report, anchored by top ABC journalist Ted Koppel, and provided clear and concise spot news coverage. He not only described the events that had happened at Candlestick Park, but also provided superb narration for pictures of the city and surrounding areas being generated by a blimp flying high above the ruptured community. Michaels was nominated for an Emmy Award for news coverage.
The ABC/NBC deals with Major League Baseball expired following the 1989 season, as MLB made an exclusive deal for over-the-air rights with CBS starting in 1990. As Michaels had also become the play-by-play man for “ABC’s NFL Monday Night Football” in 1986, he remained with the network. Accordingly, the 1990 season was the first in 20 years in which he did not broadcast Major League Baseball. After the CBS contract ended, ABC and NBC got back in the game, partnering with MLB in an effort branded as “The Baseball Network,” and Al called the ABC portion of those games. But after the 1994 season ended in August due to a players’ strike and after ABC declined to bid on the baseball package beyond the 1995 World Series, Al once again found himself sidelined from baseball. Only this time, there was no reprieve. Other than one-off booth cameos on ESPN in 2003 and on the MLB Network in 2011, and through no fault of his own, his baseball career was over. Such are the vagaries of a career in sports announcing.
Of course, Michaels has found some other things to do: two years as the lead network voice on the NBA, some horse racing, golf and boxing, and several more Olympics. But primarily, he continued as the most significant play-by-play voice of pro football. Al has been the voice of the NFL’s top-tier weekly prime-time telecast for a remarkable 35 years and counting – 20 with ABC’s “Monday Night Football” followed by 15 with NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” In addition to broadcasting those eight World Series, Michaels has called 10 Super Bowls and a pair of NBA Finals. He has won five Sports Emmy Awards, earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, is a Television Academy Hall of Famer, and won the 2013 Pete Rozelle Radio & Television Award presented by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And now, he joins former partners Gowdy, McCarver and Uecker (and, for one game, Bob Costas) as a recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award. Quite a life for a boy from Brooklyn, best expressed by the title of his autobiography – “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.”
Stats Perform’s Steve Hirdt worked closely with Al Michaels on nearly 1,000 MLB, NFL and NBA telecasts on ABC, serving as director of information. Design by Matt Sisneros.