My Favorite Voices
Over the years, I’ve heard many excellent play-by-play broadcasters and analysts and some that I found wanting.
For me, what made some broadcasters heads above others wasn’t necessarily the way they described a play. Often, listening to one of my favorite broadcasters depict the action, was often similar to some that I thought were not so proficient.
Some years ago, when I was invited as a guest speaker at a university sports writing class, I was asked by a student who my favorite sportswriters and broadcasters were and why.
Naming my favorite sportswriters was easy. The ones I most admired were: Dave Anderson, whom I replaced on the race desk when he was promoted to the baseball beat for a New York City daily, before he became a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, and Dick Young, the baseball writer for the New York Daily News.
I liked Anderson because of his ability to cover any sporting event. He never was mean-spirited. Always a gentleman. In some ways he changed American sports writing columns. Instead of reminiscing about the “olden days,” his column most often read like a “today” event. Young changed the way baseball was covered, leaving the press box to interview ballplayers and others for the latest news. (Full disclosure: Anderson never forgot the days when we both worked at the same newspaper. Like Young, he never looked down at PR people.)
But naming my favorite announcers was not so easy for me. After listening to hundreds, maybe thousands of games through the years and asked the same question today, I would have a ready answer. These are my favorite broadcasters and why:
Bob Costas: His ability to engage with the audience is enough to put him at the top of the list. But wait, there’s more. Unlike many broadcasters, Costas is not afraid to share his opinion on matters. That quality puts him in a league of his own.
The others, in alphabetical order:
Mel Allen: The long-time New York Yankee broadcaster had a smooth and mellifluous voice that was easy on the ears. Few broadcasters, in my opinion, had or have those combined qualities.
Red Barber: His broadcasting for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees was a fun listen. With his southern drawl, Red’s captivating storytelling was delivered in a relaxed manner, that was mixed with descriptions of happenings. A few of them were: “He’s sitting in the catbird seat,” “Hold the phone,” “Running like a bunny with his tail on fire,” and “The bases are F. O. B’s,” (Full of Brooklyn(s) Dodger players.) Not every play was “terrific,” as so many of today’s broadcaster claim.
Marty Glickman: Marty was a great announcer, who changed the way basketball was called on radio. He had a voice that could be described as exciting without having to yell at the top of his lungs. (Full Disclosure: I worked with Marty for eight or nine years – it was a long time ago – when he was a mainstay on “The Schaefer Circle of Sports” and I was the publicist for the program.)
John Madden: Madden, in addition to his broadcasting prowess, was fun to listen to. I don’t think anyone came close to keeping an audience tuned to the game, regardless of the score. He was sports broadcasting’s P.T. Barnum, inventive, easy to listen to and an excellent analyst. No one since or now can inform and entertain viewers like Madden.
Al Michaels: Michaels is considered by many observers as being the best ever football play-by-play announcer. Mike Tirico, who replaced Michaels on “Sunday Night Football,” does not convey the excitement of a play that Michaels did and does now Amazon Prime. He’s putting TV’s new Thursday night football on the map.
Of course, as with any greatest list or the best of my list is all subjective. –One exception is Costas, who because of his storytelling and not being afraid to express his opinions, is in my estimation at the apex.
As journalist and author Rich Podolsky wrote on this site in a July 27 essay: “With so many play-by-players today trying to yell or cram us with numbers, getting to listen to a Bob Costas broadcast has become a rare pleasure. Don’t let it go by next time.”
One of the finest baseball broadcasters I ever heard is largely forgotten. But if you check his bio on the Society for American Baseball Research, you’ll see how highly thought of he was. He is Connie Desmond, who was the number two man in the booth when Red Barber was the announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Desmond’s broadcasting skills matched the more famous announcers of the time. Unfortunately, his career was cut short by personal problems. He never made it out of Brooklyn to Los Angeles.
I realize that many so called “sports experts” will disagree with my list. But what makes their opinions more valid than yours or mine is a matter of opinion, not based on scientific facts. To coin a phrase: “One person’s chocolate ice cream sundae is another person’s cholesterol clogging arteries food.
Vin Scully, who many sports broadcast observers consider the best ever baseball announcer, including the publisher of this website and many other broadcast media mavins, once said, “Statistics are used the way a drunk uses a lamppost, for support not for illumination.” I couldn’t agree more.
That’s the way I feel about play-by-play announcers who consistently use thesaurus-speak and statistics. It’s as if they feel that saying a batted ball is a “hit” instead of saying it’s “punched” or “slapped” will diminish their reporting. (I’ve seen many hundreds of baseball games and I’ve never seen a batter “punch” or “slap” at a pitch or a football quarterback throw a “bomb” instead of the pigskin.)
One of the most egregious uses of thesaurus-words I heard occurred during the New York Mets-Atlanta Braves game on August 4, when Mets play-by-play announcer Gary Cohen described a batter hitting a pitch that was “off his wrist.” You don’t have to be a baseball expert to know that if a pitch hit a batter’s wrist two things would have occurred: The batter would have been awarded first base and his wrist would have been damaged. Cohen did it again on August 26, saying that a Met batter hit a foul ball off his wrist, and again on September 3 (instead of off the bat). On September 4, Cohen said a batter hit a foul off his “fist.” Time Out: Have to call my broker and tell him to sell my bat manufacturing stocks. (I’m waiting for Cohen to say that Batter A “hammered” a pitch, followed by Batter B “nailing” one.)
Cohen sees things on the field that viewers watching the game don’t see, like players “punching,” “slapping” or “slicing” hits, as well as using dozens of his anomalous non-baseball terms during his play-by-play performances. As youngsters growing up in New York City years ago know, “punching” a ball was a must for a popular street game and a “slice,” once cost 35 cents when you ordered a piece of pizza.
Cohen also leads all the play by play announcers I’ve heard in repeating the same stats throughout a game, many that are insignificant and meaningless: Like So and So just tied Ty Cobb for You Name It, when baseball was different and so were stats. Also letting viewers know of such important information as an outfielder making his first catch as a left fielder. (Revisit Vin Scully’s quote earlier in this article about announcers who use stats continuously.) In my opinion, instead of referring to stats every other minute a little quiet time letting the pictures do the talking would make for a better viewing experience. After all, there is a difference between dead time on radio and quiet time on television.
Different historians list different presidents as “the best.” Art critics differ on which play or book is America’s “best.” Why should sports be any different when lists are made about who is the “best” player or sports announcer.
Perhaps it’s time for the best list to fade into history and be replaced by my favorite lists. But that is not likely to happen because so much of sports is associated with the past. And broadcasters use the doings of past bests as an integral part of their commentary, even though it is a matter of opinion, and more important, many broadcasters never saw their best play
Addressed to Arthur Solomon by Seth Arenstein, an editor of PR Website:
“What a fun column. Glad to see Marty Glickman on the list. And, as ever, you hammer Gary Cohen, justly, I think.”