Al Michaels has won the 2021 Ford Frick Award which is emblematic of baseball broadcasting excellence. He joins an elite group of broadcasters who have won both the Pete Rozelle Radio and Television Award presented by the Pro football Hall of Fame and the Frick award. The others are Dick Enberg, Jack Buck, Lindsey Nelson and Curt Gowdy.
The younger generation knows Al Michaels for his 35 years as the Voice of NFL Prime Time. Although he wasn’t a regular hockey announcer, he’ll always be identified too for his spontaneous and perfect salute to the 1980 American Olympic hockey team after its unthinkable defeat of the Soviet Union: “Do you believe in miracles?”
Yet Al says that baseball was the cornerstone of his career. Indeed, his first twenty plus years on-air were dominated by his MLB work nationally and locally.
In 1968, through a contact of a contact of his father-in-law, Michaels, just a few years removed from Arizona State, landed in Hawaii as the Voice of the PCL’s AAA Hawaii Islanders. He would do the home games live and recreate road games off reports coming in from the mainland. Al also took a job doing the 6 and 11 o’clock sports for the ABC affiliate in Honolulu.
In Hawaii, he got to know Roland Hemond who would become the General Manager of the White Sox. When he did, Hemond pushed Al for the broadcast vacancy that developed after veteran Bob Elson left following the 1970 season. But team owner John Allyn felt that a 26-year old with only Minor League experience would be much for a big city like Chicago. Harry Caray got the gig and Elson took Harry’s job in Oakland.
Shortly after that, he was invited to Cincinnati to meet with executives Bob Howsam and Dick Wagner and was offered the Reds job. Al and his wife Linda were settled in Hawaii but in the end Cincinnati was the Big Leagues. Michaels made about $30,000 between all his jobs in Hawaii and the Reds paid less, yet he was on his way.
Michaels quickly made an impression. The Big Red Machine was beginning to rev up, the broadcasts were carried by WLW, a big 50,000 watt station, and not many games were on television. Radio was king. Regional cable hadn’t been born yet.
In 1972, when the Reds won the National League pennant and played the Oakland A’s in the World Series, Michaels joined Curt Goudy on the NBC telecasts. Not bad for a 27 year-old.
When Michaels did the standup-open with Gowdy in game one of the World Series he’ll tell you that he was so nervous that he said to himself, ‘Let the words just come out please.’ Gowdy was very reassuring.
Gowdy and Vin Scully were Al’s idols. As a little boy in Brooklyn, Al listened to Vin on the Dodgers. When the Michaels family moved to Southern California, his love-affair with Scully continued.
I was in college in 1972 and remember a bunch of us who heard him on the ’72 Series saying that Al sounded a little like Vin.
In 1974, Michaels took his on-air wares from Cincinnati to San Francisco where he joined the Giants’ broadcast booth. Among other things, Al says that the Giants tripled his salary. It was then, in the mid-1970s, that he started doing football and other events for networks like NBC and CBS. His career growth was in high gear.
In 1976, he joined ABC sports as a back-up announcer for Monday Night Baseball and wound up spending 30 years with the network. He became the lead announcer for the Monday night MLB series in 1983. In 1986, Michaels replaced Frank Gifford as the Voice of ABC’s Monday Night Football. For some years, he continued to do baseball for the network as well.
Michaels identifies game five of the 1986 ALCS as “the greatest of all the thousands of games I’ve done.” The Red Sox came from three behind in the ninth to beat the California Angels 7-6, in an 11 inning thriller.
Broadcasting the 1989 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s, Michaels covered the infamous earthquake in game three at Candlestick Park. His work was so thorough that he was nominated for a news Emmy for his heartfelt reporting inside and outside the stadium.
Michaels worked many baseball games with Howard Cosell and experienced the best and worst of the bigger than life and complicated Cosell. Both Howard and Al are so associated with football, but few know that they only worked a total of two NFL games together. It was baseball where they spent lots of time in the booth.
In his autobiography You Can’t Make This Up, Michaels maintains that Cosell was hardly a baseball expert. When Bob Uecker somewhat politely corrected something Howard shared with the audience, Howard told Uke on-air, “You don’t have to be so truculent,” derisively adding, “You do know what truculent means?” Bob didn’t waste a second: “Of course, Howard. If I had a truck and you lent it, it would be truck-u-lent!”
And there was the night in Kansas City when Cosell had a few pops at dinner and in the limo back to the hotel, he stepped out of the car in a ‘gritty’ neighborhood to break up a fistfight between two teenagers. Al and the woman limo driver were frightened. Cosell, wearing his ABC blazer, caught the kids’ attention with his bombastic language. The fighting ceased after Cosell’s flowery and pompous urging. And when it did, the teens asked Howard for his autograph. Cosell got back in the vehicle in victory mode, lighting up his cigar in the back seat.
Michaels did eight World Series on network television. He did his last in 1995, 25 years ago. That year, the rights were held by baseball itself. Both ABC and NBC split the games that year. Atlanta led the series three games to two over Cleveland. Bob Costas was to do game #6 for NBC and Michaels, game #7 if there was one. Both men went to Atlanta to get ready but the Braves won the series in six. No game seven for Al.
On the ride back to the airport the next morning he passed the old Fulton County Stadium. It was a melancholy moment for someone so successful. He had traveled to Atlanta without calling a game and eyed the same stadium which was to host some 1996 Olympic events the next summer. But NBC had outbid ABC for the rights.
Just after the announcement that Michaels won the Frick, his phone rang. “Welcome to the club,” said Vin Scully, the man Al’s idolized for even decades.