Monday, September 16, 2013

You can CALL me, Al.

Now that the NFL season has begun (this is week three or twelve – I dunno. Los Angeles is too small a town to have an NFL team so I don’t follow as closely.), Al Michaels is back for another year on NBC’s Sunday Night Football. So to get you in the mood, thought I’d share a nice Al Michaels story.

Personally, I think Al is the best all-around play-by-play guy in the business. He of course, will be forever remembered for the US Olympic hockey team’s victory over the heavily-favored USSR in 1980 (“Do you believe in miracles? YES!”) That’s way better than my signature home run call: “It’s gone!...No, wait a minute.”

Now he’s the number one sportscaster in the country. But back in 1974 he was the radio voice of the San Francisco Giants. At the time I was in the bay area as a disc jockey on KYA.  As much as I hated the Giants, I loved Al's broadcasts. 

I got fired of course, and a year later was back in Los Angeles writing spec scripts with David Isaacs trying to break into television writing. I heard that the Dodgers were looking to add a third voice to their broadcast team of Vin Scully & Jerry Doggett. So I wrote a letter to Peter O’Malley, the president of the Dodgers, recommending Al Michaels. Now I had no idea whether he’d even want to give up being the number one guy on the Giants to become the number three guy on the Dodgers, but that was his problem.

In my letter I said I had never met Al Michaels (which was true) and had no idea whether he’d even be interested, but I thought he was a terrific young talent and should be considered.

About a month later I received a very nice note back from Mr. O’Malley thanking me and saying he would look into it. (I had included my contact information so that my letter might be taken seriously. When you get a letter with no return address it’s usually from Cliff Clavin.)

They didn’t hire him. They hired Ross Porter instead.

The following year, David and I had broken in. We were in my apartment one day writing our first MASH script when the phone rang. This was before all the robo-calls and people actually answered their phones.

I said, “Hello?” and a voice asked if this was Ken Levine? I said yes and the person identified himself as Al Michaels. Somehow he had received a copy of my letter and called out of the blue to thank me. It was a very cool gesture, and quite frankly, it floored me.

Over the years I’ve met him several times. We were even booked on the same Roy Firestone interview program on ESPN once. He’s always gracious, always treats me like a peer even though on the food chain he’s the king of the jungle and I’m a titmouse.

So there you have it. Do you believe in mensches? YES!


Mike Barer said...

Good piece, Al has just the right delivery, so he adds to the broadcast rather than overshadows it.

Michael said...

A lovely story, but it leads to an interesting point. Early in his career, a lot of people thought Michaels sounded too much like The Vin--and when Michaels realized it, even before he got started, when he was just a southern California kid studying broadcasting, he said he quit listening to him for a while. Lon Simmons, the wonderful Bay Area announcer who worked with him on Giants games in 1976, said he once sat in a booth at Dodger Stadium between their booths and he said it was like stereo. All of which suggests that for him to have worked for the Dodgers might have been a problem?

Markus said...

Not getting US television I mostly remember him for "Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Hardball 4. I'm Al Michaels." but then that's "just" a computer game. But hey, you do need to be king of the jungle before they ask you to be in a computer game.

OrangeTom said...

Not to be a curmudgeon, but then again it is after all a Monday, so I must confess to never having been a member of the Al Michaels fan club. He too often lets his conservative politics seep over into his broadcasts and I always thought the hype he received for the "Miracles' call was overblown given that he was doing the game on a tape-delayed basis.

VP81955 said...

Remembering Al Michaels for hockey would be like remembering Mike Emrick (a nonpareil hockey announcer) for baseball.

Mario S. said...

@OrangeTom - Confused about your "tape-delayed basis" comment. I'm fairly certain he called the game live. It was broadcast to the US on a tape-delayed basis but the commentary, while cut, was not modified after the fact. It's not like he overdubbed the play-by-play over a videotape of the game while knowing the outcome. It was a spur of the moment call, and a good one.

Jeffro said...


I guess it's just a matter of preference but I can stand Doc Emrick. Perhaps it's his nasally honking delivery. And every other word out of his mouth seems to be "DRRRRIIIIIIIIVE!!!" Yeah, that's way more eloquent than "Do you believe in miracles? YES!"

To make matters worse, he's paired with the most annoying Pierre McGuire—King of the Mumblers. In my opinion, they're part of the worst hockey announcing team for a national broadcast ever.

chuckcd said...

I was surprised to find out that Al Michaels has announced more World Series than Super Bowls.

John said...

First heard Michaels doing a Giants call during a trip to visit family in the San Francisco area in 1977. You could tell even then he fell into the Scully-Red Barber camp of announcing styles, and those are the types to tend to do well on the national stage (Harry Carey's was the other camp, totally rooting for whatever team was signing their paycheck at the moment. Those equally tied to that team can love the style, but it turns off others and doesn't translate well to national broadcasts).

And, yes, Michaels did call Lake Placid live, but since ABC was expecting a Soviet rout -- based on the fact they routed the U.S. team at Madison Square Garden in an Olympic warm-up game a few weeks earlier -- they opted not to air the game live and hold it for delayed broadcast (they ended up running the game in its entirety, but delaying it allowed the network the option of editing the thing down if it had turned into another 10-2 rout).

chalmers said...

Most observers didn't give the U.S. team a chance to make the medal round, so when the schedule called for a 5 p.m. game pitting the first-place team in the USSR's group against the second-place team in the USA's group, no one even noticed.

When it became obvious that it would be a huge event, they tried to switch the game to prime-time, the USSR refused to agree to the schedule change.

ABC aired the game in its entirety in the format now known as "plausibly live." There was a major giveaway for those who knew that the game had actually been played by the time Jim McKay took the air at 8 p.m.

Roone Arledge and McKay loved incorporating the local environment into their sportscasts, so much of McKay's studio work was green-screened with a view of the Lake Placid Village streets running behind him.

When McKay went on the air shortly after the actual game ended, they should have cut off the green screen, but they didn't. Instead of the usual scene of chilly people moving along, there was a frenzy of deliriously happy American fans screaming and mugging for the camera.

And the game was shot live. If the commentary had been added "in post," Ken Dryden wouldn't have jumped on Al's famous line.

Breadbaker said...

You seem to be Mental Floss's man of the month.

Anonymous said...

Al Michaels did radio play-by-play for the Reds from 1971-73 and I listened to him all the time where I grew up near Cincinnati. By the time he left to do Giants games in 1974, when I was 14, he had become my broadcasting idol. He had a wonderful voice and personality, and could sound upbeat without being a homer. The Reds replaced him with the great Marty Brennaman, who is beloved in Cincy, but I never really got over Al leaving to take the Giants job.

stone said...

Hi Ken Levine, good post.

Michael said...

Al Michaels left Cincinnati because he didn't get along with Reds executive Dick Wagner, who was one of the least liked people in baseball, apparently, and because Wagner wouldn't pay him what he was worth. In San Francisco, Michaels became known for pulling no punches, which fit into the tradition of sarcasm and humor that Lon Simmons did a lot to establish--when teams were bad. So, when the Giants were losing big one night to the Padres, Michaels said, "It's Padres nine, Giants nine,, but the Giants unfortunately are playing in German."

Anonymous said...

I saw that Jamie Farr was at the 1980 USA USSR hockey match. Im wondering if Ken ever ask him about it?

Linkmeister said...

Just FYI, before Michaels moved to the Giants he did a season or two of Hawai'i Islanders AAA games. He was followed there by another legend, Les Keiter.

darmund said...

Orange Tom, What the hell are you on about?


I can NEVER recall Michaels talking about politics, in fact he is so good because unlike someone like Berman, he doesn't make the game or the situation about him and though he does have a favorite phrase, "WOOOOOW," he doesn't use it 10 times a game, it's only after hearing for so many years that I realized he had one and used it. Listen to Dick Enberg now and the "Oh my," comes off so horribly and utterly not spontaneous, it's like he;s reading a script.