He would arrive at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn holding the hand of his father, his eyes wide at the prospect of watching the Dodgers play baseball. Before long, the active little mind of Al Michaels hatched an aspiration: “Oh, my God, I just want to spend every day at a baseball game or a hockey game. And get in for free.”
He found that exact course as a young adult when he broke into sports broadcasting, and has since built a superb body of work. But the key to Michaels’ success may be that he never lost that boyish wonder. It defines his play-by-play manner and undergirds his considerable popularity. He is the guest welcomed into your home to talk about the game you’re about to see. “This one should be exciting,” his pleasant smile seems to say. “Isn’t this great?”
“I’m always the six-year-old walking into Ebbets Field with my father,” Michaels says. “I never let escape that general feeling I have when I’m doing a game.”
Michaels has guided viewers through some of sports’ biggest events. He is the only announcer to call or host the four major championships on network television: baseball’s World Series, football’s Super Bowl, basketball’s NBA Finals and hockey’s Stanley Cup. Some of those events he’s done multiple times — his eighth Super Bowl, in 2012, was the most-viewed show in television history. And then there are the Olympics. Michaels’ exclamation point at the end of the United States hockey team’s unimaginable upset of the Soviet Union in 1980 — “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” — is one of the most famous calls in sports broadcasting history, and led to that game being universally referred to as the Miracle on Ice. For the past 27 years he has been the primary voice of NFL coverage in primetime, first with Monday Night Football on ABC and more recently with Sunday Night Football on NBC. Along the way he has won six Sports Emmys and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 2011.
Professionals who have worked with Michaels through the years identified many of the traits that have contributed to his success in the booth, not the least of which is his ability to weave a story thread through a telecast. “He has this great sense of storytelling ability, in that he can bring the thing to a crescendo,” says Cris Collinsworth, Michaels’ broadcast partner on Sunday Night Football. “And it’s left to me to just bang the cymbal once in a while.” Michaels cites several broadcasters who had an impact on his style — Red Barber and Connie Desmond from his youth. Curt Gowdy and Jim McKay in his early years at ABC — but he adds, “I’d have to say Vin Scully had the most influence.” Scully, the legendary Dodgers announcer and master of the story told well on the air, broke in with the Dodgers during Al’s youth in Brooklyn, and the Michaels family coincidentally moved to Los Angeles the same year the Dodgers and Scully did, 1958.
Fred Gaudelli, former producer of Monday Night Football who joined Michaels and John Madden in the exodus to NBC’s Sunday night telecasts for the 2006 season, said that Michaels also has a keen understanding of the sports enthusiasts who tune in: “He is such a fan himself that he understands what the fan wants to hear and needs to hear and when he wants to hear it. He always has the TV viewer in mind when he calls a game.”
Michaels prepares exhaustively for any given telecast, talking to coaches, players and league officials, reading press reports and gathering significant statistics. But he is said to have a deft touch in knowing what to use. Don Ohlmeyer, a former executive producer of Monday Night Football and former West Coast president of NBC, said, “Let’s say Al comes up with 100 pieces of information that would be germane to a telecast. Announcer B comes up with 100 pieces of information. What makes Al different is he understands that in a good game, a really good game, he may only have room for 52 to 53 of those pieces of information; in a mediocre game, 65 to 70. In a blowout, he might use 90. Announcer B is determined to get all 100 pieces of information in whether it’s appropriate or not. Al edits himself on the fly. He has a very facile mind.
It’s a style that Michaels has carefully honed over the course of his career. He tells of wanting his play-by-play to be “in concert with the game,” believing that “less is more,” and recognizing that any telecast can benefit from “a little air,” rather than being a relentless barrage of words. Radio play-by-play may require strong verbs, but for TV’s images, “it’s more along the line of ellipses than complete sentences; it’s captions.” He further describes a game “as the melody, and I’m doing the lyrics,” and the two need to flow together seamlessly. Michaels is aware that he has to be sensitive to these delicate balances, “otherwise it becomes cacophonous to the viewer. You can envision them saying, as we all do, ‘Hey, shut up!’”
This is a man who surveys the accomplishments of his career with a sense of marvel. “I had big dreams as a kid,” Michaels says. “A lot of it was naivete. As a kid, you think that anything is possible. And now I look back and I go, ‘Whoa! Boy, oh boy, was I in the right place at the right time — a lot. That was just serendipitous.’”
Sometimes he might have preferred to be someplace else. Michaels and sidekick Tim McCarver had just begun to set the scene for Game 3 of the 1989 World Series in San Francisco when the Loma Prieta earthquake began to shake Candlestick Park like a child’s dollhouse. Michaels was able to say into his mike, “I’ll tell you what, we’re having an earth ...” before the power went out. Five years later, after the O.J. Simpson car chase ended, ABC’s Peter Jennings conducted a sober interview with a supposed eyewitness on the ground in Brentwood, before Michaels, having heard code words that indicated a Howard Stern radio show prank, alertly broke in to declare it a hoax.
Michaels began his career calling the games of a minor-league baseball team in Hawaii. He wore a few other broadcast hats in the islands, including high school basketball. It was a play-by-play man’s baptism by fire. “You’ve got five kids of Samoan ancestry, all with 12 syllables in their names, running a fast break.”
Michaels parlayed his Hawaii experience into play-by-play work in Major League Baseball, in Cincinnati. At the time, ABC would incorporate a team’s local announcer into its TV coverage during the World Series, so when the Reds reached the World Series in 1972, Al Michaels — just 27 years old “and wearing a psychedelic tie” — felt the unblinking eye of network TV turn his way. “The only thought I had in my head,” he says, “was, ‘Please, God, when I open my mouth, let air come out.’”
An even more pivotal bit of serendipity came his way a few years later, when the Winter Olympic Games were played at Lake Placid, New York. The U.S. hockey team was scheduled to face the powerful Soviet team, and the play-by-play duty fell to Michaels, the rare ABC announcer who knew anything about hockey. The improbability of the U.S.’s 4-3 upset victory can’t be overstated today. Imagine some college kids in Spain learning how to play American football, forming a rag-tag team and defeating the Super Bowl champion. That was the magnitude of the victory, which would propel the U.S. team to the gold medal.
Michaels says he didn’t mull over what he might say the night before because “the unthinkable was so unthinkable, it wasn’t going to happen.” But there the Americans were, with a one-goal lead as the Soviets banged away at their goal in the final half-minute. “The building is going crazy,” Michaels recalls. “We [his color commentator was former hockey goaltender Ken Dryden] are on a wooden platform, and it is shaking. The [production] truck is going crazy; they’re screaming like banshees. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Stay in the game, stay with the game, you’ve got to call it to the end.’ The puck comes out to center ice with six seconds to go. There’s a moment where the U.S. is going to win the game. The word that came into my mind was ‘miraculous.’ That wound up as a question, with an answer. But if you’d said to me a minute after the game, ‘What did you say?’ I couldn’t have told you. It really came from my heart.”
Often overlooked in the retelling is this fact: After he spoke his enduring words – “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” — Al Michaels promptly clammed up. For a full 65 seconds — an eternity in any broadcast. He felt the delirious celebration in the arena was eloquence enough.
Once again, the little boy from Brooklyn was simply looking on in awestruck wonder.
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Al Michaels's induction in 2013.