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On Ken Levine’s podcast: Al Michaels talks his career; From an NBC World Series at 27, it only got better

Starting as a behind the scene production assistant for TV's old Dating Game at $95 a week to presiding over ten Super Bowls

 

They don’t come like Al Michaels. His fifty year career calling sports is a true profile of unparalleled success. And they don’t come like Ken Levine either.

Both men have God given talent. It was Smokey Robinson who said, “Everyone is blessed with a dream. Some people discard it. Some people never realize it. Some let it carry them through life.” Ken’s an award winning Hollywood scriptwriter. Think M*A*S*H and Cheers, hardly your everyday short-lived television series.

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Levine

Levine’s also an accomplished broadcaster. He started as a disc jockey, wrote gripping scripts and later pursued play-by-play. His drive took him from the Tidewater Tides through the majors where he spent time in the booths of the Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres and Baltimore Orioles.  Ken is at ease writing comedy, producing plays, talking music and yes, discussing sportscasting.

It’s play-by-play where our interests intersected. I knew Ken’s late dad, Cliff who had a long and outstanding career in radio management and sales, including running ABC Radio’s affiliate in Chicago, WLS. For years prior, Cliff Levine headed up ad sales for Los Angeles’ KABC Radio which carried the Dodgers for a couple decades.

Most of the meals I’ve put on my table through my career were through the sales side of broadcasting where I got to know Cliff, who suggested that I meet Ken. So on one of my trips out west, Ken and I sat together at a Dodgers opener ( If memory serves me it was against the Giants in 1981 when the San Franciscans had a promising rookie named Chili Davis). Anyhow, I’m dating myself as well as Ken. We struck up a bit of a friendship  and we’ve stayed in touch for decades.

Levine has graced these pages too, particularly with his humorous reviews of network Super Bowl telecasts. If you want to enjoy Ken’s entertaining commentary regularly, I’d suggest that you follow his blog. It’s brilliant, funny and covers an array of subjects. It’s an easy and stimulating read. The link is Hollywood and Levine

Anyhow, Ken told me last week that he did a one-on-one podcast interview with the star-studded  Michaels who’s been part of all our football seasons for decades. In addition to ten Super Bowls, Al’s also gently and flawlessly guided us through World Series, Olympics, Monday Night Football on ABC and  Sunday Night Football on NBC. Through network television history, only Al and a man he idolized, Curt Gowdy, have broadcast World Series, Super Bowls and the NBA finals. You might call it, the Triple Crown of broadcasting.

Ken’s interview with Al is gripping. Think of the many events Michaels has covered including the 1989 Bay Area World Series which was so rudely interrupted, by none other than  a frightening earthquake. Al was in Lake Placid in 1980, calling the greatest upset in Olympic hockey history, an unthinkable American victory over the unbeatable Soviets. For Al, no matter the event, the game is the priority. He lets it breathe.

Then there are the characters. He’s worked and traveled with two of the most colorful network sports personalities ever, Howard Cosell and John Madden.

Levine covers Michaels’ career roots, working behind the scenes at the old Dating Game for $95 a week, his rise in the business and being a grandpa of four. Michaels shares two of what he calls, out of body experiences; working a network World Series with no bigger a network icon than Gowdy and then decades later, peeling open the New York Times and seeing his autobiography on the newspaper’s coveted best seller list, You Can’t Make This Up: Miracles, Memories, and the Perfect Marriage of Sports and Television.

Michaels attended Arizona State University in the 1960s when now Phoenix Suns’ voice Al McCoy was calling the school’s football games on commercial radio, At that point, Michaels was doing the broadcasts for the campus radio station.

Word was that the Phoenix Suns were about to launch as an NBA expansion franchise in 1968. Nothing to lose, Michaels applied for the radio job. A couple months ago, Jerry Colangelo, then the team’s general manager, remembered, “Yes, we didn’t even have permanent offices set up then. We were in a trailer. The doors knocks. I open it up, it’s Al. He was a kid then.” Al adds, “I didn’t get the job but Jerry couldn’t have been nicer.”

Fast forward, four decades later, Michaels is doing the NBA for ABC and is assigned to call a Suns playoff game. He bumps into Colangelo and says, “Jerry, it took 35 years but I’m finally doing a Suns game!”

Having grown up in Brooklyn until he was 14, Al absorbed Vin Scully’s early baseball broadcasts from Ebbets Field. By happenstance, the Michaels family moved west when Vin and  the Dodgers did too.

Calling baseball was always Al’s dream. It didn’t really take Michaels long to reach the top of his game. He got the job calling the minor league Hawaii Islanders in the late 60s and in ’71, he was in the big leagues with the Cincinnati Reds. Then that moment in ’72 when  the Reds advanced to the World Series against the Oakland A’s. In those years the team’s lead announcer joined Gowdy in the NBC booth. So at age 27, there he was on network TV calling a great Series against the Oakland A’s. He tells Ken that he was so nervous before the stand-up open that he said to himself, “Please God. When Curt calls on me, let air come out of my mouth.”

Hockey might represent his greatest line, “Do you believe in miracles?” and football represents his fame, yet baseball was always his love. And as he shares with Ken, it’s something he missed for years after doing his last baseball game on ABC in the mid-90s.

How long has Al been in broadcasting? When he left the Reds in 1974 for San Francisco, because the Giants tripled his salary, a guy named Marty Brennaman took over in Cincinnati. Well, here we are 45 years later and Brennaman is set to retire at the end of the season. Al though keeps going, pacing himself and working at the highest of levels for five months a year.

Just when many network sports announcers hang it up, Al ,74, sounds as sharp as a tack. He’s been married to his high school sweetheart Linda for 52 years and is living a dream.

The first segment of the two part podcast  is available at Ken Levine and Al Michaels. The second half of the interview will be posted next week. I thoroughly enjoyed it and can’t wait to hear the back half. You’ll really like it too.

 

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David J. Halberstam
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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