Commentary

Network TV’s best ever ‘3-sport’ announcers: Gowdy, Enberg, Jackson, Stockton and Michaels

The top play-by-play announcers who've called baseball, football and basketball. Sean McDonugh is among the honorable mentions

 

With the intersection of the baseball, football and basketball seasons, the country’s most popular sports, I wondered the other day about the network play-by-play announcers who’ve covered all three and how they stack up. In other words, bundle the three sports and view the announcers through one broad lens.

Each sport requires a different rhythm. Baseball, as Vin Scully described it, can be a lumbering sport. Baseball announcers are extraneous if they caption the picture in only a skeletal way. Those who aren’t thoroughly prepared are exposed. If they don’t know the game it manifests itself embarrassingly .

There is a constellation of symptoms. One is a play-by-play broadcaster who doesn’t classify the kind of pitch; fastball, curve ball or the like. The second is an inability to share with viewers some rudimentary strategy; like when to expect a hit and run or a sacrifice. The third is nimbly weaving in an anecdote. Baseball on television is about storytelling. Fourth is embracing the game’s heritage, sprinkling and spicing the broadcast with captivating stories of the past. Announcers who provide a thousand stats and share one story will generally get feedback only on the story. Enough data!

Baseball on television has changed, particularly now when there are three man crews. Cataloging the lead voice as a play-by-play announcer is a misnomer. They’re just set up guys; dull, boring, programmed and scripted.

Even football nowadays has changed. Yes, football’s pace for the play-by-play voice has always been stop-and-go because the game is made up of short spurts. Yet, the graphics on the screen present all the basic data to follow a game without the aid of a play-by-play announcer. So much viewing, particularly of football, is consumed at gatherings of public consumption where viewers follow games where there’s no sound. There are few complaints. The confluence of the graphics, the television picture and the verbal exchange with nearby patrons suffice. The viewing experience lacks for little.

Years ago, getting graphics on television wasn’t always doable. It was tough to facilitate. Local stations were late to the graphics game. It took quite a bit more time for font to appear on the screen. The networks began presenting them for the most part in the early 60s but not in the overwhelming way they do today.

During World Series telecasts in the 1950s which featured icons like Red Barber, Mel Allen and Vin Scully, the play-by-play broadcaster was no more than a public address announcer. With the advent of television back then, the press started ridiculing announcers, carping about them not being on radio anymore. “We can see everything and they’re still talking a mile a minute,” they would write.

As such, network bosses instructed announcers to talk in only very measured intervals. So announcers were laconic. When Scully watches recordings of his 1950s calls, he almost cringes. Considering everything he did with the microphone during all these subsequent decades, he must have felt muzzled then, being able to say nothing more than ‘ball one, strike one’ and so on. In time, reins were loosened.

Basketball, a fluid sport, was always treated like an orphaned child by the networks. Think of the NCAA Tournament. The first Final Four on one of the traditional television networks was on NBC in 1969. The first NBA title series carried in full was on ABC in 1970.

Still, let me take a crack at the all-time top five on network television from a collective look; baseball, football and basketball.

  • 1) Curt Gowdy:
Curt Gowdy

The late Gowdy is one of only two broadcasters honored by the three Hall of Fames that govern the three sports. He’s won the Rozelle, the Frick and the basketball award which is actually named in his honor at the Naismith Hall.  Gowdy did Final Fours, covered the NBA Finals, mastered coverage of Super Bowls and was the warm, comforting and husky voiced play-by-player loved by American sports fans.  He called Bill Walton NCAA titles under John Wooden, Joe Namath’s stunning triumph over the Colts in 1969 and the World Series from the 1950s to the 70s. Gowdy told me that he felt basketball was his best sport. He played the game in college at Wyoming. Curt felt at ease doing just about anything .

 

  • 1) Dick Enberg

Dick is the only other voice in all 3 Halls. The erudite Enberg built his reputation in Southern California, doing UCLA basketball, Angels baseball and Rams football. He was always comfortable in front of the camera and at ease behind the microphone. Viewers got an immediate sense that he was happy to be at his assigned location. Dick was one of the real gentlemen of broadcasting. Marty Glickman would say that he had an uncanny ability to sound like he was smiling when he talked. Enberg voiced Super Bowls, Final Fours, NBA playoffs and baseball on NBC, although only a limited number of games. He was of course the lead announcer for football and college basketball at NBC.  He appealed to the white collar and blue collar alike. His warmth was contagious.

  • 3) Keith Jackson

Remember we’re looking at three sports as a whole. No one historically is more inextricably linked with college football than Jackson.  Still, he was the Voice of Monday Night Football in its first season in 1970.  Keith’s network baseball included multiple All-Star games, World Series and league championship series. His basketball included NBA Finals in the early 70s and college basketball regular season games in the 80s and early 90s .

It’s his lessened passion for baseball and basketball that drives him a notch below Enberg. Unlike Keith, Dick called Super Bowls and Final Fours. While Enberg’s network TV baseball was ‘incomplete,’ his work on football and basketball was overpowering. Dick, as such, wins the second spot by a hair.

  • 4) Dick Stockton

Rankings are about visibility, levels of assignments, popularity, passion, signature and skills. Yet, when you add up Stockton’s sheer numbers,  he might be number one.

There are not many on the baseball front who have worked MLB at four networks; NBC,  CBS ,  Turner and 17 seasons on Fox.  Furthermore, he’s done over 600 NFL games on network TV, dating back to 1975.  Basketball is where his career, you  might say, hit a top rung. He did nine NBA Finals for CBS (as many as Marv Albert) and later called the NBA for Turner. Stockton also did a considerable schedule of college hoops.

In other words, through his body of work, Stockton, who turns 76 in November, has been as prominent as any announcer you mention from a 3-sport collective perspective.  While silky smooth, he never developed signature lines like Enberg’s ‘Oh my!’ or Jackson’s ‘Oh Nellie!”  Now in the twilight of their careers, guys like Stockton and Albert deserve great respect. Each has been engaged through six decades.

  • 5) Al Michaels

There will be those who might say that Pat Summerall’s name  is the most interchangeable with the NFL. I don’t agree. Al Michaels has been the voice of primetime NFL telecasts for 33 years and has ten Super Bowls under his belt. No matter the sport, he’s been both stylish and seamless. While always identified with football, Al’s early dreams were baseball. He worked the 1972  World Series network telecast with Curt Gowdy on NBC and beginning in 1976, he did ABC’s baseball package. In all, Michaels called eight World Series. His years with partner Jim Palmer are remembered for featuring one of the best network baseball duos.

Michaels didn’t do a ton of basketball. If this was just a baseball and football ranking, Michaels might win; albeit Joe Buck’s staying power doing both sports can’t be easily dismissed. Michaels’ work on  NBA hoops in the early 2000s didn’t get rave reviews, likely due to lofty expectations, based on how he sparkles on other assignments. Still, given the heights he’s reached doing baseball and his dominance on football for decades, he earns top 5 honors in the collective classification.

 

Honorable mentions (no particular order!)

Sean McDonough

Sean is the son of  the late, highly praised writer, Will McDonough, himself a one time network television, contributing commentator.  The younger McDonough has an easygoing sound that has been music to most ears for some thirty years.  In 1992 at age 30, Sean covered Major League Baseball for CBS including the World Series. In the 2000s, he did baseball regularly for ESPN. He’s also broadcast football consistently through his career, starting in the 80s when he did the Ivy League on PBS. While much of his work has been  college football , he recently covered Monday Night Football for ESPN. His basketball presence has crossed four decades, essentially on CBS and ESPN. McDonough is an underrated and understated great in my book.

Bob Costas

History will  always recognize Costas for serving as sports television’s best ever host and interviewer. His command of the language is striking. Most importantly, he will leave an unforgettable legacy for helping so many others.

As for play-by-play of the three major sports, Bob’s done baseball at the highest of levels; NBC, the Baseball Network and MLB Network. It is his favorite sport and he’s the latest awardee of the prestigious Ford Frick Award given by the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He was the number two man for NBC when it had a game of the week in the 80s. He would do the backup game on Saturdays and in alternate years when NBC covered both the National League and American League Championship Series, he would do one of them. In the 1990s, Costas had his first opportunity to call the World Series, doing three on NBC. On the basketball front, Bob did a trio of NBA Finals for NBC in the late 1990s and lots of college basketball. While he was known for hosting NFL pre, halftime and post game shows, Bob did do some regular season play-by-play in the 80s.

Brian Anderson

Brian does a solid job across all three. He’s well prepared. He doesn’t over-speak when doing baseball. He is witty, understands the game and yes, he identifies pitches. As the talented Tim Brando said, the knowledge base of a play-by-play announcer should be sufficient to express a comment that stimulates an expanded discussion with his color commentator. Anderson has that. His call of basketball, both pro and college, is excellent and when I’ve heard him do football, which he hasn’t done much of on network TV, he’s been wonderful.

Jim Simpson

In the day, when NBC had exclusive rights to MLB, the Final Four and shared pro football with CBS, Curt Gowdy ruled the roost. If Curt had the top game, Simpson was somewhere else doing a second game. If Gowdy had the Roe Bowl, Simpson had the Orange Bowl. If Gowdy did the featured baseball Game of the Week, Simpson did the back-up game. Simpson was a well known name on network television in the 60s and 70s. If Gowdy had the number one NFL game, Simpson had the number two game. When ESPN went on air in 1979, president Chet Simmons, made Simpson the fledgling network’s lead play-by-play voice. In ESPN’s early years, the bulk of  live events were college basketball  games and Simpson voiced them.

Lindsey Nelson

Lindsey Nelson, 1950s on NBC, doing stand-up before a Knicks telecast at Madison Square Garden

Nationally, Lindsey is best known for his years behind the mic on college and pro football, first on NBC and later on CBS. . On the college front, Nelson is best known for handling the play-by-play of 26 straight Cotton Bowls. He would often say, “If it’s New Year’s Day, you know where you can find me.” In the 50s as well, NBC carried a baseball Game of the Week and Nelson was the lead voice. The broadcasts were run on Saturdays. In those days, they were blacked out in Major League Baseball cities. Of course, back then, baseball consisted of only 16 teams. If you’re wondering about Nelson’s basketball, NBC did a limited schedule of NBA games from the 1950s to the early 1960s. Nelson covered 6 NBA Finals when the NBA was still an embryo. (NBC didn’t do every NBA Finals game in those years.)

 

 

 

 

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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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Michael GreenChasG Recent comment authors
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ChasG
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ChasG

Agree with your top three – which would also be my top three. However, at #4 I would have Jim Simpson. Simpson had a similar style to Gowdy in that you wanted to hear their words to go with the pictures otherwise you felt something was missing.
Simpson May have been number 2 to Gowdy, but, it was always joy to listen to a really talented play by play man.

Michael Green
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Michael Green

I have a lawyer friend who calls this a barstool debate, because you sit on one to debate it. This was a lot of fun to read. The interesting thing is that Bill King may be the #1 with an asterisk: he did almost no TV in his career. He got the Frick Award a couple of years ago (Giants, 1959-64, A’s, 1981-2005), and the only TV he did was his first few years with the A’s. He did the Raiders on radio for more than 25 years, and the Warriors on radio for about 20. This adds to the… Read more »