With 85 or so football games on network television this past weekend, I asked myself which prominent broadcasters differentiated themselves through the years?
We’re inundated with so many announcers that it’s intoxicating. Voices are indistinguishable. It’s a result of the explosion of television platforms beginning with cable outlets and now the unending world of streaming. In the football world, it was accelerated by the Supreme Court’s 1984 decision to loosen the television grips of the NCAA. The floodgates opened. Suddenly, more than just a couple games on a Saturday were available. Today, there are hundreds when streaming is included. A television scorecard doesn’t suffice anymore.
So I scribbled 25 on a sheet of paper, those who are truly unique?
On merit, style, numbers or even irreverence, this is my list. There are other star-studded broadcasters. Yet from a sense of uniqueness, these people are noteworthy.
Let me make myself clear as to what this list represents. It’s not Hall of Famers representing best in class. If so, I would be accused of nipping at the bottle for not including the likes of Barber, Caray, Enberg and others. It’s a list of unequaled achievements behind the microphone or off it; broadcast streaks, personal qualities, a commanding or entertaining use of the language, those remaining active late in life on the network stage or locally. Furthermore, announcers, whose outstanding merit or mix of talent won’t be equaled for decades, are also recognized. Those who helped foster fundamental changes in our viewing habits are also listed. Yes, there was some hair-splitting to differentiate achievement from uniqueness but I gave it a shot.
Presented in alphabetical order:
Mel Allen Let’s not forget network television’s early years. NBC was the sports leader in the 1950s. It carried the World Series, the Rose Bowl, All-Star Games, boxing and college football. Allen was the lead voice of the network and was voted the country’s most popular sports announcer. And through it all, Mel was also the prominent Voice of the Yankees and the biggest name in New York sports broadcasting. So if the decade of the 50s represented network television’s formative years, Mel Allen was America’s top sports announcer. Beginning in 1951, Mel called 11 of the next 13 Series on NBC. The World Series in those years was not what it is now. It dominated television and was by far the lead subject of sports conversation across America in early October. Today, no announcer would dominate a full decade and be known by most America.
He also did every Rose Bowl on network television from the first in 1952 through 1963. No one did as many consecutively, 12. It covers a span of time when the Rose Bowl was the biggest football game of the year, NFL or otherwise!
Chris Berman When he started at ESPN in 1979, the history of network television was not quite 30 years young. ESPN was a fledgling little puppy, its future uncertain. Forty years later he’s still there and not prepared to fully retire. To my knowledge, it’s a record that should stand for some time, at least for someone who started with a network on day one or close to it. Berman’s antics have grown old over time. Yet, he was recently asked to help launch a new version of NFL Primetime on ESPN +. Again, this is unlikely to happen again soon.
Hubie Brown Sharp as a tack! At 86, he’s as good as he’s always been. Watching a basketball game on ESPN, viewers always come away with something instructional or insightful. He never spews inanities and doesn’t fly chartered planes either. Hubie fights his way through those impassible security lines like the rest of us do who fly commercial airlines. Hubie was born 13 years before the NBA! Can he do it at 90? He might. Let’s hope so. Beating the inexorable process of aging is noteworthy.
Joe Buck A true prodigy, Buck did his first World Series at age 27 in 1996. He was 35 when he did his first Super Bowl, a record. It’s unlikely to happen again soon. Neither will there be anyone soon who called 21 World Series. Buck will do his 22nd next week and he’s only 50. Super Bowls you ask? Joe will do his seventh next February. He’s also fashioned his own style of brevity, giving viewers time to catch their breath. Joe’s grown on most of America and he’s building a legacy. From an historical lens, Joe’s achievements are for the archives.
Jerry Coleman How many resumes read: Rookie of the Year, a nearly 40 year big-league broadcaster (Yankees and Padres), network baseball for CBS Radio and Ford Frick Winner. Add a couple other things that stand out. Coleman served as a Marine Corps pilot in World War II and the Korean War, flying combat missions! Call it love of the country. Other broadcasters served in the military but how many fought in two wars? A true American hero and broadcast character. If he were still alive, President Trump would consider him for a presidential Medal of Freedom. And for a little spice, Coleman was the master of the Malaprop. “Rich Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen.”
Howard Cosell He once described himself as, “arrogant, pompous, vain, verbose, a show-off.” Howard was a complicated human being but unarguably was network sports’ first indomitable personality, the father of sports broadcast journalism. Howard made primetime NFL telecasts a wild success with the launch of Monday Night Football. There are too many viewing options for any broadcaster today to achieve the kind of dominance Cosell did in his day. A bold, brilliant and polarizing personality like Cosell, the cynosure of sports media, isn’t hitting the airwaves anytime soon.
Bob Costas Orator nonpareil, prodigy, a commanding presence, among the most recognizable network sportscasting faces and voices ever. A masterful interviewer who spent some 38 years at NBC. Blended splendid skills, opined without shouting, interviewed anyone from the president down, hosted events anywhere in the world and called games seamlessly. Felt equally comfortable on the Super Bowl field, the play-by-play booth or in the studio. Use of the language? Bob is among the best ever along with Scully, Cosell and Jack Whitaker. Bob’s mix of opinion, erudition and ease behind the microphone won’t be experienced again by viewers for a long time. One reason is that there’s less an appreciation today for the beauty of the language. Forever, America’s television sports host.
Dizzy Dean From Costas to Dean is the quintessential non-sequitur. In the 1950s, the Hall of Famer was known for badly butchering the language on CBS’ Game of the Week. Fans though loved Dean’s verbal mangling. “He slud into third.” As much as the use of language has gotten sloppy, I don’t believe Dizzy can make it today or for that matter, will there ever be anyone like him again. Yet in the ’50s, the Game of the Week went to the entire country other than cities with baseball teams. But with sixteen teams in just eleven cities, Dean was a sensation across America. When a school teacher wrote Dizzy asking him not to use the word ain’t on television, he said on air, “A lot of folks who ain’t sayin’ ‘ain’t,’ ain’t eatin’. So, Teach, you learn ’em English, and I’ll learn ’em baseball.”
Mike Emrick is among the best network hockey play-by-play announcers ever, along with Dan Kelly and Tim Ryan. What makes Mike rather unique in a world of 2019 TV rules, is his radio-like call. Ask Mike and he’ll simply say that’s the way he’s always done it. So Mike, who’s loved by viewers legitimized a radio call on TV. That’s tough to do on TV’s center stage. Television is about captioning the picture not describing it. But Mike is a wordsmith and feels more comfortable painting a rich picture than holding his call in succinct check.
Roy Firestone The sheer number of long-form interviews that this man did is staggering, likely not repeated. Television doesn’t touch thirty or sixty minute interviews today. In his television prime in the 80s and 90s, Up Close was appointment viewing. Firestone got any interview he wanted and his subjects opened up to him.
Curt Gowdy No one play-by-player ever dominated sports on network television the way Curt did at NBC for a decade beginning in the mid 1960s. He covered World Series, Super Bowls and Final Fours, year after year. NBC had the rights to all three events and more. Curt was the veritable face of American network television sports. No one network has rights across sports to sire another Gowdy. The television landscape is too massive.
Chick Hearn. A one-man Vaudeville Act. Hearn combined vivid descriptions, self-created phrases, immeasurable enthusiasm, speed of speech, self-effacing humor and an unrepeatable streak of attendance that spelled commitment. Hearn had his finger on the pulse of the Lakers from 1961 until his death in 2002. His name was as synonymous with the franchise as any of the team’s great stars through the years. That’s not about to happen again anywhere soon. Not in a major market.
Jamie Jarrin When you work in the shadows of a Hearn, Scully and Enberg and your mother tongue is Spanish, it’s hard to distinguish yourself. Jaime has been in the Dodgers Hispanic booth since 1959. That’s 61 seasons. What does that mean? Jarrin is a Ford Frick winner and like his good friend Vin Scully has his name on the Dodger Stadium Ring of Honor. Well done. Not to be repeated soon.
Bill King Forget the fact that King was a renaissance man who loved the arts, the opera and the ballet. No one will do what Bill did on-air. He called three pro teams in the Bay Area at the same time, the Warriors, Raiders and A’s. Invariably, his assertiveness, preparation and passion resonated. So did his honesty: “The referees tonight represent the paragon of ineptitude.”
John Madden In the 1980’s, as Cosell’s welcome faded, John Madden exploded onto the scene. Where Cosell was caustic, Madden was charming. Where Cosell’s tone was always stern, Madden’s was jovial. Madden grabbed viewers’ attention with a football nomenclature not heard before. Madden worked with Pat Summerall on CBS and Fox and with Michaels on ABC and NBC. No football analyst worked for all four networks other than John. He also did eleven Super Bowls. Unique for sure!
Tim McCarver While some say that he wore out his welcome after decades of being didactic and haughty, the former Cards catcher, now 78, worked for all four over-the-air TV networks at one point or another. He covered an unthinkable 24 World Series. McCarver did games at some point for Fox, NBC, CBS and ABC.
Al McCoy McCoy is breaking the perceived barriers of age. I’ll leave you the numbers and simply say that McCoy is a Hall of Fame, warm announcer, still spot-on behind the microphone. He’s 86, travels the enervating NBA circuit and calls games from the nosebleeds like other announcers a third his age. An amazing man! Al says it’s genes, rest, exercise and preparation. Not easy dealing with unending midnight charters. Sad to say, but when 35 year old voices today get to be Al’s age, I’m not sure radio will still run basketball games or what form of radio will still exist. Driverless vehicles? You’ll watch games in your car. Radio, your grandkids might ask. What was that?
Al Michaels Forget about the fact that Al is considered by most as the NFL’s best ever network television announcer. No one can say they’ve presided over prime time network football for over thirty years and done ten Super Bowls. Overall, Michaels has called 668 NFL games, working for ABC, NBC and yes, CBS. Pat Summerall did 736, 535 as a play-by-player, the others as an analyst. Nothing fancy with Al. He’s always prepared, but not scripted. He sounds natural and it’s why America loves him. Another Al Michaels? Not for a while unless, “Do you believe in miracles?”
Brent Musburger Versatility with an edge, pioneer and still going strong at age 80 on Raiders’ radio broadcasts. Tough to think of anyone else like him. In the 1970s, he popularized the CBS pre game show, NFL Today. Brent was as assertive in the studio as when he did play-by-play. In an age of color-man first, Brent never took a back seat to anyone. When he was fired by CBS in 1990, it made back-page news in the major tabloids across America. Brent bounced back at ABC and ESPN in a second network iteration. When he called NBA, college football or basketball, it was he who was in charge of the broadcast. Today, networks don’t want a Brent, a man with a strong personality at the play-by-play helm. Chris Fowler is fine. But weren’t the broadcasts more fun when Musburger wouldn’t let Herbie give speeches? Miss the memorable Brent!
Jim Nantz It’s unlikely that anyone soon will anchor 31 straight Masters, call 29 Final Fours and 5 Super Bowls. As interchangeable with the Tiffany network as the CBS eye. The likable Nantz brings storytelling and a commitment to teamwork to his broadcasts. From Billy Packer to Phil Simms and from Bill Raftery to Tony Romo, Nantz makes his partners feel at home and sound better.
Billy Packer Billy says he hasn’t gone to a basketball game since 2008 when he didn’t renew his contract with CBS. Yet he saw a ton of games before he stopped broadcasting. In fact, he was a network analyst through 34 straight NCAA Final Fours from 1975 to 2008. That’s a record for an analyst and it’s unlikely to be broken soon. A successful businessperson too, Billy says he couldn’t work broadcasts today even if he wanted to because of the climate of political correctness. Understood.
Vin Scully A measure of perfection, 67 seasons with just one team. Most voices will tell you that Vin’s on a planet of his own or that he’s the greatest sportscaster in broadcasting’s first century. No argument here. Between network television and radio, Scully called 24 World Series. A master of the language, he never groped for the graceful word to stamp any occasion perfectly. His call of the 1959 rhubarb at the Los Angeles Coliseum (Dodgers against Giants) and of course, the 1965 Koufax perfect game will be studied by budding broadcasters for decades to come. A master for the ages, the like of whom we might have to wait another century to find.
Lesley Visser First woman who truly broke unspoken constraints. A gifted writer with the Boston Globe, she was hired by CBS and grew into a prominent reporter. Lesley’s legacy transcends her air work. She has an open door, helping many as an informal coach by taking calls from budding women broadcasters and serving as a knowledgeable cheerleader who softly rose through the ranks without finger-pointing or making a fuss about herself.
Dick Vitale His neighborly warmth was contagious. Dick played the role of basketball protagonist during ESPN’s formative years. He was deservedly recognized by the Naismith Hall of Fame as a contributor, not just as a broadcaster. Before ESPN got rights to MLB, college football or the NFL, it relied heavily on college basketball. Vitale was in many ways the face of the network in the 80s.
Jack Whitaker An unscripted and unflinching vocal poet, who filed on the fly from the Triple Crown, the Masters or Olympics. He painted scene setters magnificently, delivering them seamlessly in a prescribed time, right to the second. They read like gripping essays and unforgettable summaries. For whatever reason, what Jack did isn’t fashionable on television any more. Perhaps because no one today could meet the standards set by Whitaker.