Al Michaels (NBC SPORTS)

Al Michaels

This article was written by Eric Golanty

Al Michaels (NBC SPORTS)Popular broadcaster Al Michaels has informed and entertained American sports fans for over half a century. His intelligent commentary and friendly demeanor can make a viewer or listener feel part of a sporting event as much as, or even more than, being in actual attendance.

Alan Richard Michaels (only his mother calls him “Alan”) was born in Brooklyn, New York on November 12, 1944. Al’s father, Jay Michaels, and mother, Lila (Roginsky), were high school classmates in Brooklyn and married before graduating. Al has a younger brother, David, and a younger sister, Susan. He has been married to Linda Stamaton, a high school classmate, since 1966. They have three grown children and four grandchildren.

Al’s ancestry traces back to Russian Jews who came to the United States near the turn of the 20th century. His paternal grandfather was born Albert Michel Michelousky (or Michelrosky, according to a different Census record) and later anglicized his name to Michaels.

When Al was young, his father was an up-and-coming television executive, whose interest in show business began when he was in high school. He credits his father’s career as sparking his own interest in, and connection to, the TV business.1 Jay Michaels was also a big sports fan, which had a foundational effect on his son. “He taught me the rules, the nuances, the history of sports – everything. I was immersed. I couldn’t get enough.”2

The Michaels family lived only a few blocks from Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. “My first memory in life is going to Ebbets Field in the summer of 1950. I was almost six. … We walked in on the first-base side … and more than sixty years later, I can still see the colors vividly in my mind’s eye. The grass was a stunning shade of green. The red-brown infield dirt. The uniforms that seemed almost too white to be real – what Vin Scully has described through the years as ‘wedding cake white’. … And I remember the faces of the players. Jackie Robinson, taking infield practice. Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese, walking out from the dugout to the batting cage. … The Dodgers were playing the Cardinals. I don’t remember if they won or lost. It didn’t matter. By the time we left I was enthralled. I wanted to come back to Ebbets Field the next day, and the next day, and the day after that.”3

Michaels attended a number of Dodgers games until age 13. After the 1957 season, the team moved to Los Angeles. Not long after attending his first baseball game, Al’s father took him to Madison Square Garden to see his first hockey game. “[J]ust like when I walked into Ebbets Field, I was transfixed by the scene … the combination of lighting and the just-resurfaced rink made the ice shimmer. As was the case with my first baseball game, I don’t remember who won, but it was the ambience, the environment, the whole package. That’s what stuck with me … and it still does.”4

Although he was a die-hard Dodgers fan, growing up in New York also exposed Michaels to the Giants and the Yankees. Hardly a day passed that he wasn’t plugged into his transistor radio to be “transported to cities across the country. One night I’d be in Chicago, the next night St. Louis, and another night Detroit, listening to the game unfold through the words of the broadcaster. Red Barber. Russ Hodges. Mel Allen. Jack Brickhouse. Curt Gowdy. Every play, every anecdote, every insight.”5

Michaels got the broadcasting bug as a boy attending games at Ebbets Field. He would look up and see the Dodgers announcing team of Red Barber, Connie Desmond, and a young Vin Scully in the broadcast booth and think that announcing must be the best job in the world. “A job where you’d go to the ballpark every day and get in for free. A job where you’d get to meet the players, travel with the team, and I presumed, get paid.”6 Although Michaels played baseball in his youth, playing the sport wasn’t it for him. “Most kids dream of playing Major League Baseball. I dreamed of announcing Major League Baseball.”7

The Dodgers’ move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles was a tearful occurrence for many, including Michaels.8 But he was rescued from years of fan disappointment and bitterness because his father had been transferred to Los Angeles for work soon after the Dodgers had relocated to the West Coast. This was highly propitious for his future career because Vin Scully made the move and continued as the Dodgers’ primary announcer in Los Angeles.

Day after day, listening to Scully’s erudite game-calling, Michaels learned the essence of what it is to be a top announcer. “At that time, a lot of announcing was black-and-white — here’s what happened, and here’s what happened next. Vin, though, was full-blown color, breathing life and detail into every moment of the game.”9 Precious few games were broadcast on TV back then, so Michaels’s experience came from the images that Scully’s words formed in his mind.10 In his youth, Michaels hoped that one day he would be the Dodgers announcer after Vin Scully retired. That never happened, and Scully remained active with the Dodgers until he was 88 years old, leading Michaels to quip to his childhood idol, “Let me get this straight: I’m going to retire before you do?”11

From 1959 to 1962, Michaels attended Alexander Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, where he pursued his goal of being a professional sports announcer with a singular dedication and passion.12 “There was never a point in my life that I wanted to be something else. I was one track and focused.”13 “I collected baseball cards – didn’t just collect them. Memorized them. I’d have other kids quiz me for batting averages, home runs, pitching stats, even place of birth.”14, 15

Michaels’s determination to be a top-notch sports announcer led him to Arizona State University because the school had a dedicated radio and television program that provided students the opportunity to learn their craft by practicing it. In his four years in Tempe, Michaels broadcast more than 200 ASU baseball, football, and basketball games, and also track meets. Walking from class to class, he would “dream of doing the World Series and the Olympics. The dreams were as big as they could be.”16

Minoring in journalism, Michaels worked as the sports editor and wrote columns for the ASU student newspaper. He also became friends with players on the Sun Devils baseball team, including Rick Monday, Sal Bando, and Reggie Jackson. Because the Boston Red Sox held their spring training in Arizona, Michaels also met Red Sox announcer Curt Gowdy, who mentored the young student and remained his good friend for many years.

After college, Michaels sent resumes to several minor league baseball teams. While waiting to land a job, he worked for a short time as a broadcast assistant to Chick Hearn, the Hall of Fame announcer for the Los Angeles Lakers, calling a halftime scoring summary on radio. According to Alan Rothenberg, then Vice President of the Lakers and NHL’s Kings, Hearn felt threatened by Michaels’s talent. Hearn reportedly once said before leaving for a road trip to Boston, “If the kid gets on the plane, I don’t.” That ended Michaels’s brief career with the Lakers. “It was as low as I’ve been,” he recalled in 1988.17

In 1968, at age 23, Michaels was hired as the lead announcer for the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League. Preparing for his new job, Al told himself, “Just sound like Scully … the authority, warmth, knowledge, creativity, and maybe most important of all, the rhythm.”18 Michaels trained himself to imitate his idol’s style, cadence, delivery, and even his voice.19 In fact, Rothenberg described Al’s audition tape for the L.A. Kings as: “He sounded like a mini-Vin Scully.”20

Working in Hawaii “was thrilling – the golden opportunity. I was a lot like many of the players: hoping to get to the majors one day, but for the moment, happy to be there, getting paid to do something I would have done for free,” Michaels said.21 He knew that getting ahead meant being on the air as much as possible.22 He called all 73 of the Islanders’ home games and also re-created the play-by-play for their 73 away games each season, a la broadcaster Ronald Reagan decades earlier for the Cubs.23 In the offseason, Michaels called games for the University of Hawaii football team and other high school football and basketball teams, worked a regular stint for a local TV news station at 6:00 and 10:00 p.m., and he wrote a column in a local sports magazine. In 1969, he was honored as Hawaii Sportscaster of the Year. Although his schedule was chaotic, Michaels estimated that each calendar year of work provided the equivalent of five years of regular professional experience.24

In Hawaii, Michaels learned never to embellish or pass along hearsay or rumor to an audience. His credo became “Get everything exactly right before you say it on the air.”25 This included correctly pronouncing the names of players, which was a special challenge when calling Hawaii high school games. Michaels discovered that if he “screwed up, I’d often hear from the family. On the flip side, they would really appreciate that you took the extra effort to get it right. … When you can identify five Samoan players running a fast break – and get it right! – it’s a beautiful melody.”26

His star rose fast in Hawaii, and after three years with the Islanders, he was offered the job as radio play-by-play announcer for the Cincinnati Reds in the fall of 1970. It was tough for Al and his wife, Linda, to leave their friends in Honolulu and the Hawaiian lifestyle for life on the banks of the Ohio River, and they agonized over the decision. The Reds had just won the National League pennant and Al’s mentors were encouraging him to accept the offer.27

“When minor league players get called up to the majors, they’re ecstatic. No one would agonize whether to stay in Triple-A. This was my call-up to the bigs. But … the Hawaii Islanders were an elixir. Still, in the end, there was absolutely no decision. It was on to Cincinnati, the Big Red Machine, and the big time.”28 The Reds paired Al with former pitcher Joe Nuxhall, who was known best at the time for making his major-league debut at the age of 15, the youngest person ever to appear in a game. Since his retirement as a player in 1967, Nuxhall had been a color commentator and he remained in the Reds broadcast booth for more than 40 years.

The Reds’ Opening Day game against the Atlanta Braves on April 5, 1971, in a packed Riverfront Stadium, was a momentous occasion in Michaels’s life. “A lot like a player making his major league debut, I felt a mix of excitement and nervousness, and ‘Oh my god, look where I am’ awe.”29

Besides calling 30 spring training and 162 regular season games on radio with the Reds, Michaels also hosted a 10-minute pregame radio show called The Main Spark with manager Sparky Anderson. That professional partnership grew into a solid friendship. With Sparky’s tutoring, Al learned the intricacies of the game, what he called his “Ph.D. in baseball.”30

In Michaels’s second season with the Reds, the team won 95 games and faced the Oakland A’s in the World Series. NBC broadcast the World Series on national TV and the 27-year-old Michaels was asked to share the microphone with NBC’s regular announcers, Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek. “I still get goose pimples when I think about that day. Fantasy had become reality. Delicious.”31

Before Gowdy introduced Michaels to millions of viewers in the TV audience, Al recalled, “I was beyond nervous. The only thought I had was ‘Please God, when I open my mouth, let air come out.’ Fortunately, some words did come out, and I think they even made sense.”32 When the Series ended with the A’s winning in seven games, Michaels said to himself, “No matter what happens for the rest of your life, you did it. You got there. You did it. Phenomenal.”33

When he signed with the Reds, Michaels’s contract initially restricted him from accepting other announcing opportunities. However, the Reds made an allowance so he could join NBC’s broadcast team for the 1972 Winter Olympic Games in Sapporo, Japan. Even though Michaels had never called ice hockey, he was assigned to call the final game that decided the gold medal between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia because no other announcers were available. It was a fortunate break for the emerging TV star, as the rest of the hockey world would learn a few years later.

Michaels left the Reds following the 1973 season, when the San Francisco Giants offered him a large pay raise and allowed him to accept other broadcasting gigs. Even before the Giants’ season began, he called UCLA men’s basketball games and became friends with coach John Wooden. He also began calling regional NFL games for CBS, which brought him into contact with John Madden, then coach of the Oakland Raiders. Years later, they commenced a nine-year partnership on ABC’s Monday Night Football as one of the most popular sports announcing duos in television history. In 1976, his third and final season with the Giants, Michaels joined ABC’s Monday Night Baseball team for national broadcasts, including the playoffs, while still carrying out his regular duties with the team during the rest of the week.

All of this activity whet Al’s appetite for engaging any kind of sport and his ambition to be a top sports announcer — as did his occasional role on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, covering events such as cliff diving in Acapulco, barrel jumping in Illinois, and stranger spectacles.34

In January 1977, Michaels left the Giants to join ABC’s national broadcast team on a full-time basis. At that time, due to the foresight, creativity, and leadership of renowned television executive Roone Arledge, ABC was the premier U.S. sportscasting network. ESPN, TNT, and other cable outlets were not yet in existence.

Michaels credited Arledge, his boss at ABC Sports, for teaching him the cardinal rule for success in sports broadcasting: “Sports are great. They’re fun, and games are fun. But there’s a sameness to an event. What makes that event unique and different from another event of that ilk is the human element. And [Roone] was always big on people and getting you to think about … people, telling stories about people. You’re talking about the game. You’re discussing strategy and certain things. But it comes back to the connection with the human element. People want to hear stories about people. They want to develop a connection, whether it’s pro or con – to feel an emotion toward something. Roone understood that you [as broadcaster] had to make people have a connection with them [the participants], and then that would almost transcend the sport. That’s the greatest lesson all of us who worked with Roone took away from it.”35

Michaels spent the next three decades, from 1977 to 2006, covering a variety of sports on ABC with the likes of Howard Cosell, Jim McKay, Frank Gifford, Chris Schenkel, and Keith Jackson. In addition to high-profile assignments for the World Series, Super Bowls, and Olympics, Michaels held a regular spot as the play-by-play voice of Monday Night Baseball from 1977 to 1989 and Monday Night Football from 1986 to 2005. He also called college and NBA basketball, college football, horse racing, NHL and Olympic ice hockey, figure skating, track and field, and many other sports.

Perhaps Michaels’s most unusual assignment at ABC was covering the “Motorcycles on Ice” competition from Inzell, Germany, for Wide World of Sports. The event was a motorcycle race on a quarter-mile speed skating track with metal spikes protruding from the bikes’ tires for traction. Al’s producer wanted him to introduce the event by riding one of the spiked bikes toward the TV camera. “[But] I’d never been on a motorcycle, much less driven one. … One of the ABC crew borrowed a too-small set of motorcycle leathers and a helmet. I felt like I was being poured into a straitjacket. … One of the Soviet riders (near me) kept the clutch engaged, clearly preventing me from taking off and either killing myself or just launching me into space, never to come back. At that point we killed the idea.”36

Without a doubt, the most notable broadcast of Michaels’s career was his iconic call of the American ice hockey team’s upset victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York.37 Despite the fact that he has called many thousands of sporting events in his life, Al says the “Miracle on Ice” call, as it came to be known, did more to enhance his career than anything he has ever done.38 For years after those Olympics, he received letters from people telling him how much the hockey team’s victory meant to them. 

At the time, the game had significance beyond the athletic competition with the Soviets. The Cold War was as cold as could be. The Soviets had recently invaded Afghanistan. Fifty-two Americans were being held hostage in Iran, long gasoline lines with an accompanying spike in prices, and the United States had not mended from the divisions that arose during the Vietnam War. Because of the Olympics, Americans “went from attempts at burning flags to waving flags.”39 Ever since Lake Placid, wherever in the world he goes, people tell Al how excited they get when they hear a recording of his outburst at the end of the game, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

Michaels ended the decade with another prominent TV moment that had real-world implications. Just before the start of Game Three of the 1989 World Series at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, an earthquake began at 5:04 p.m. as Michaels and his partners, Tim McCarver and Jim Palmer, were live on television with thousands of fans in the stadium. In the midst of 15 seconds of shaking, Michaels looked into the camera and said, “I’ll tell you what, we’re having an earthq—” before power went out at the stadium and across most of the Bay Area.

Some buildings collapsed, some structures caught fire from the magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake. A big chunk of the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland collapsed. When power at the stadium was restored, Michaels took the reins as a reporter. “Well, folks, that’s the greatest open in the history of television, bar none. We’re still here, and we’ll be back, we hope, from San Francisco in just a moment.”40 They were back on the air, but not for baseball, at least not that night.

Michaels spent the next eight hours transmitting news of the event to the world, with the help of a blimp that was hired for the game. For his earthquake reporting, he received an Emmy nomination for news. Rather than bask in accolades, Michaels said he was just doing what he had been trained to do as a journalist: who, what, where, when, why, and how. “Reporting is reporting, and many of my (sports) colleagues would have been just as prepared to do what I did that day. Just because you’re broadcasting sports, you’re not blind to the rest of the world.” After a ten-day hiatus, the Series continued in San Francisco with the Oakland A’s sweeping the Giants, in what Michaels still considers to be the most unusual World Series of all.41

In 2006, Michaels was involved in a “trade” that enabled him to become the play-by-play announcer for NBC’s Sunday Night Football. Before the 2006 NFL season, The Disney Company made plans to move Monday Night Football from its longtime home on ABC to ESPN, a cable network. When John Madden chose to make the leap to NBC’s prime-time broadcast, Al decided to go with his partner and close friend. Negotiations to free him from his ABC contract included a humorous trade — in exchange for signing Michaels, NBC gave away the rights to an early Walt Disney-created cartoon character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The Disney Company subsequently launched Oswald as a character in video games, theme parks, and films.

Meanwhile, Michaels, Madden, and Cris Collinsworth propelled Sunday Night Football into the stratosphere of sports broadcasting. The show quickly began a multi-year run as the most watched show on prime-time television. In the show’s first 14 seasons (2006-2019), those associated with the telecast won 28 Emmy awards. Since 2010, he has served as a studio host for NBC’s Olympic Games coverage.

In his career, Michaels has called an estimated 5,000 broadcasts, including 10 Super Bowls, eight World Series, two NBA Finals, and three Stanley Cup Finals. He is the only person to call the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, and host the Stanley Cup Finals on network television. He has been awarded eight Emmys, been selected multiple times as Sportscaster of the Year, was elected to the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2013, and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2004.42

In 2013, he received the ultimate football broadcasting/media award, the Pete Rozelle Radio & Television Award, from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and in 2021 he was awarded baseball’s equivalent, the Ford C. Frick Award, making him just the fifth broadcaster to be honored by the Halls of Fame in both sports (along with Dick Enberg, Lindsey Nelson, Jack Buck, and Curt Gowdy.)

Michaels’s forte is his ability to make a personal connection with the audience. Even on a Super Bowl telecast, with the entire world watching, he says he is thinking, “To the hundred million fans, I know you’re all back there, but, really, it’s just me talking to you, one-on-one.”43 When Michaels anticipates that something particularly important in a game is about to happen, he signals the audience to pay close attention through his distinct voice inflection. “It may only be the third inning or the second quarter, but you know what, folks? This is an important juncture.” His goal is to match his emotions with what is being seen on the TV screen. “The game itself is pretty much a melody, and I am there to provide the lyrics. You want the lyrics to match the melody, because if you are composing a song or recording a song, it’s cacophonous if they don’t match.”44

Among his broadcasting colleagues and peers, Michaels is known to be one of the best prepared. “I never saw him do anything that he wasn’t prepared to do,” said Frank Gifford, who worked alongside Michaels on Monday Night Football from 1986 to 1997. “That’s the most important factor, I think, in broadcasting. He was always a consummate professional.45 Michaels describes his approach to preparation this way: “No one would compare my job to hard physical labor, but it is a lot of work. There are meetings upon meetings. There is a ton of preparation. You have to keep up and stay ahead of everything that’s going on that can impact a telecast. You have to be able to anticipate intelligently.”46

At the beginning of Michaels’s broadcasting career, his mentor, Curt Gowdy, said “You’re gonna have a good career. Just do me a favor. Don’t ever get jaded.”47 Michaels never did. “It’s been an incredible and amazing ride. No day goes by without me thinking, ‘How did I wind up here, and then wind up there, and meet and get to know some of the most accomplished men and women of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries? And still get into games for free.’ “48 “From minor-league baseball in Hawaii to the Miracle on Ice to Monday Night Football to Sunday Night Football and so much in between … I’m always remembering how lucky I’ve been. And I have this crazy, unscripted drama known as sports to thank for it.”49

Last revised: May 21, 2021

 

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Paul Proia and Bruce Harris and fact-checked by Steve Ferenchick.

 

Notes

1 Television Academy Foundation (2005), Chapter 1, 00:01:09-00:01:25, https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/al-michaels?clip=47424#interview-clips.

2 Al Michaels and Jon Wertheim, You Can’t Make This Up (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014), 3.

3 Michaels and Wertheim, 1.

4 Michaels and Wertheim, 2.

5 Michaels and Wertheim, 4.

6 Michaels and Wertheim, 5.

7 Michaels and Wertheim, 5.

8 Television Academy Foundation (2005), Chapter 1, 00:04:50-00:04:55, https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/al-michaels?clip=47424#interview-clips.

9 Michaels and Wertheim, 8.

10 Michaels and Wertheim, 9.

11 Michaels and Wertheim, 9.

12 Author’s Note: Al Michaels and I were high school classmates. Everyone who knew Al was aware of his passion and dedication to becoming a professional sports broadcaster. Everyone was happy that Al got accepted to the broadcasting program at Arizona State. No one was surprised that his career turned out as it did.

13 Television Academy Foundation (2005), Chapter 1, 00:01:35-00:02:42, https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/al-michaels?clip=47424#interview-clips.

14 Michaels and Wertheim, 4.

15 Author’s Note: In high school, while walking into the locker room after baseball practice, I saw Al and a friend sitting in the stands of the empty gym going at it with the baseball quiz of the day. Al called me over and handed me a massive book of baseball statistics and asked me to check the correctness of their responses to obscure baseball questions they would ask each other, like, “Who pitched the fourth and final game of the 1929 World Series?”

16 Michaels and Wertheim, 11.

17 Frank Lidz, “This Mouth Talks Back,” Sports Illustrated, February 15, 1988, https://vault.si.com/vault/1988/02/15/this-mouth-talks-back-al-michaels-is-one-of-the-best-sportscasters-on-tv-and-dont-dare-tell-him-otherwise.

18 Michaels and Wertheim, 31.

19 Michaels and Wertheim, 31.

20 Lidz.

21 Michaels and Wertheim, 32.

22 Michaels and Wertheim, 38.

23 Lidz.

24 Michaels and Wertheim, 39.

25 Michaels and Wertheim, 36.

26 Michaels and Wertheim, 39.

27 Michaels and Wertheim, 46.

28 Michaels and Wertheim, 47.

29 Michaels and Wertheim, 51.

30 Michaels and Wertheim, 51.

31 Michaels and Wertheim, 62.

32 Michaels and Wertheim, 62.

33 Television Academy Foundation (2005), Chapter 2, 00:11:20-00:11:26, https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/al-michaels?clip=47424#interview-clips.

34 Michaels and Wertheim, 97.

35 Television Academy Foundation (2005), Chapter 2, 00:20:28-00:22:07,

https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/al-michaels?clip=47424#interview-clips.

36 Michaels and Wertheim, 103.

37 U.S. upset victory over the Soviet team in the1980 Lake Placid Olympics, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYscemhnf88.

38 Michaels and Wertheim, 123.

39 Michaels and Wertheim, 123.

40 Michaels and Wertheim, 199.

41 Michaels and Wertheim, 195.

42 “Al Michaels,” NBC Sports Pressbox, accessed May 20, 2021, https://nbcsportsgrouppressbox.com/bio/al-michaels/.

43 Michaels and Wertheim, 173.

44 “Broadcaster Al Michaels Gets Ready To Provide ‘Lyrics’ For The Super Bowl,” Fresh Air, January 22, 2015, 00:02:15- 00:02:20, https://www.npr.org/2015/01/22/379097673/broadcaster-al-michaels-gets-ready-to-provide-lyrics-for-the-super-bowl.

45 Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame, 2013: Al Michaels Induction, http://www.sportsbroadcastinghalloffame.org/inductee/al-michaels/.

46 Michaels and Wertheim, 247.

47 Michaels and Wertheim, 63.

48 Michaels and Wertheim, 288.

49 Michaels and Wertheim, xv.

Full Name

Alan Richard Michaels

Born

November 12, 1944 at Brooklyn, NY (US)

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