Some broadcasters are enshrined in fans’ memories with a single call. The makers of the 2004 film Miracle had to use Al Michaels’ original call with the final scenes of the 1980 US-Soviet hockey game, just as the 2002 film The Miracle of Bern features announcer Herbert Zimmerman’s “Das Spiel ist aus!” at the end of the 1954 World Cup final. The distinctive sounds of their voices, the emotion of the moment, could not be re-created. At the same time, there are broadcasters we remember not for a single moment but for decades of adding insight and color and even welcome companionship to our lives as fans. We asked some of our writers to name the best in sports broadcasting, whether TV or radio, past or present – those we remember for a remarkable moment, or for a lifetime’s work.
The late Bob Sheppard, the long-time public address announcer for the New York Yankees, championed being clear, concise, and correct. That’s a good place to start for any broadcaster. It’s also important to have a sense of drama, the ability to tell a good, engaging story (and to know when to be quiet, to let the moment wash over the audience). A historical sensibility is valuable, too. A broadcaster needs to understand and provide some useful, relevant context. Of course, the timbre and cadences of a broadcaster’s voice are essential. Finally, I value longevity and consistency.
Considering all of these things, several broadcasters come to mind, past and present: Red Barber, Jack Buck, Ernie Harwell, Jack Brickhouse, and Vin Scully, who was Barber’s protégé. The 87-year-old Scully is still going strong for the Dodgers, in his 66th year on the air.
But the best? I don’t know. My sense is that these kinds of assessments are mostly based on local, personal experiences.
So if I could listen to anyone, I’d go with Chuck Thompson, the long-time broadcaster for the Baltimore Orioles, who is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Like sportswriter Frank Deford, who eulogized Thompson on NPR in 2011, I found Thompson’s deep, rich voice comforting and the way he called a game informative and, well, satisfying. A congenial, unassuming man with a friendly manner, on and off the air, Thompson was well liked and widely respected in Baltimore and beyond. His signature phrases, “Go to war, Miss Agnes” and “Ain’t the beer cold,” tickled many local fancies. In his autobiography, Ain’t the Beer Cold! (2002), Thompson explained the genesis of those lines.
What is less easily explained, though, is how a broadcaster like Thompson sometimes voices a community’s values and sense of itself. While Thompson exhibited all of the qualities I note above, what made him especially meaningful, perhaps even joyful, to many of his listeners was his ability to convey his own decency, his humanity and that of the ballplayers at work below him.
–Daniel Nathan is chair of the American studies department at Skidmore College.
While he’s often dubbed the poet laureate of baseball, Vin Scully does with his smooth and dulcet baritone voice what Raphael did with his hands and a paintbrush. Consider for instance, “It’s a cotton candy sky with a canopy of blue. It looks good enough to eat.” Few can paint a picture like he can. For nearly seventy years he’s called on listeners to “pull up a chair,” and though I might be 2,500 miles away from Los Angeles, when Vin Scully calls a Dodgers’ game, it feels like he’s sitting right next to me. Since 1950, he’s peppered his commentary with eloquent soliloquies, clever metaphors, amusing anecdotes, and sometimes even a good history lesson. It’s nearly impossible to select a single call, but here are three personal favourites: Sandy Koufax’s perfect game, Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, and his commemoration of the Normandy landings.
–Amanda Coletta is a reporter for FactsCan, the fact-checking site of Canadian politics.
I’m going for Brian Moore, rugby union commentator for the BBC and Talksport. Moore’s tactical knowledge and extensive playing experience make a strong contribution to any broadcast team, but it’s his impassioned, emotive commentary, perfectly fitting the visceral feel of international rugby clashes, which really sets him apart. The entertainment value of a tirade from ‘the Pitbull’ is a silver lining I’ll be looking forward to after failing to get tickets for this year’s World Cup. In contrast to the relatively objective and impartial approach of many of his peers, Moore is an absolute joy to listen to when England are playing – especially when they’re playing badly, or on the receiving end of poor refereeing!
–Alex Channon lectures in physical education and sport at the University of Greenwich.
Gary Linekar is a very accomplished broadcaster, who happens to specialise in sport. A former footballer – for Leicester City, Everton, Barcelona, Tottenham Hotspur, and Nagoya Grampus Eight – Linekar was known to learn the local language and culture on being transferred. He also holds the England record for ten goals in FIFA World Cup finals.
Lineker’s media career began with BBC Radio 5 Live, where he replaced iconic anchor Des Lynham on the flagship programme Match of the Day in the late 1990s, just as the Premiership was becoming an increasingly valuable media spectacle. He has also worked for Al Jazeera and NBC, and he will join BT Sport for the 2015/16 season. As well as moving beyond football to other sports, notably golf, Linekar has passed into popular culture with appearances in a play An Evening With Gary Linekar, voiceovers on children’s television, and appearances in a series of advertisements for Walkers Crisps, a Leicester-based potato chip manufacturer.
For many years, Linekar’s father kept a fruit and vegetable stall on Leicester market, and in 2002, Lineker backed a £5 million bid to rescue his former club, Leicester City, which had gone into administration. He said that he would invest a six-figure sum, along with other members of his consortium, and he met the local fans’ group to persuade them to raise money to rescue his former club. The club was saved and has been in the Premiership since 2014. Lineker is now honorary vice-president.
What is it about my home town of Leicester that producers great sports broadcasters? Most British people will not know that Michael Robinson, who played for Manchester City, is now the amongst the leading football broadcasters in Spain. Manish Bhasin, who presents the Football League Show for the BBC, is also from Leicester. Perhaps talking about sport is in our blood.
–Jean Williams is senior research fellow at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University.
For me, the best commentator ever has to be Richie Benaud, who died in April of this year. He was an Australian cricketer in the late 1950s and early 60s, who then went on to be one of the most recognisable voices in cricket commentary across the world. For me, his voice notes the background of my childhood. The simple phrase “morning everyone,” delivered in his unmistakable Aussie twang, delivered a delicious and gentle anticipation to a day of watching cricket. His understated tone was a refreshing contrast to the hyped-up sensationalism of so much modern commentary. Australians are often known for their aggressive, in-your-face approach to cricket. Benaud had nothing of this. He was passionate about the game, understood its intricacies and fascinations, but always knew it was a game, and never was there a touch of partiality towards his own beloved Australia. A fellow commentator once called the fall of wicket a “tragedy.” Benaud left it for a while and then whispered: “Mark, the sinking of the Titanic was a tragedy.” He was grace and dignity personified – characteristics from another age which are pretty rare in contemporary sport. Cricket commentary is not quite the same without him.
–Graham Tomlin is dean of St Mellitus College.
Many will recall Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous “They think it’s all over… It is now!” call at the 1966 World Cup, which was sampled in a New Order song and the first part of which became the name of a BBC sports quiz show. Some may remember fondly the linguistic eccentricity of the rugby league commentator Eddie Waring. However, cricket commentators, especially in 5-day tests, have a big advantage because they have so much time to say inspired and silly things. There are many contenders, including John Arlott and Richie Benaud, who made big contributions to the BBC’s Test Match Special. But I must single out Brian Johnston as my favourite. An Eton-educated, overgrown schoolboy, when Johnston was at the microphone there was always a chance that the broadcast would fall apart in a fit of collective giggling. There was self-parody aplenty among Johnston’s Hooray Henry-isms. Yet despite my conditioned class antagonism towards his ilk, I couldn’t help but succumb to the clownish fun of it all – and the analysis of the cricket wasn’t too bad either!
–David Rowe is professor of cultural research in the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney.
Foster Hewitt’s 40-year career as the voice of Hockey Night in Canada earned him a hallowed place in Canadian hockey culture, but one call in particular stands out above the others: his description of Paul Henderson’s series-winning goal in the 1972 Summit Series. Speaking to the largest ever audience to that point in Canadian history, Hewitt’s nasally voice – somehow excited, distant, urgent, and reassuring all at once – reached half-way around the world from Moscow to salvage a sense of national pride, shore up Canada’s hockey myth (for better and for worse), and convey what remains one of the nation’s most cherished and significant collective experiences.
Honourable mention: Dutch commentator Jack van Gelder losing his mind upon Dennis Bergkamp’s incredible goal against Argentina in the 1998 FIFA World Cup.
–Michael Buma is author of Refereeing Identity: The Cultural Work of Canadian Hockey Novels.
Back in 1981 England’s soccer team had failed to qualify for a World Cup for over a decade. But when they took the field against Norway in a World Cup qualifying match they were not just firm favourites for the win; to the Norwegians England was the home of football and its team was still firmly considered part of the global soccer elite. So when the Norwegians won 2-1, the considered response from local commentator Bjørge Lillelien was a superb meltdown.
The full version is heavily interspersed with Norwegian, but the short version (for full effect, shout hysterically at the top of your voice, straining as though you are dying of a heart attack) goes something like this:
“Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Atlee, Henry Cooper, Lady Diana, Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me? Maggie Thatcher: Your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took a hell of a beating!”
This glory of the rant is its uncompromisingly partisan nature, and the way it embraces everything that pops into Lillelien’s head, from military heroes to a bizarre selection of prime ministers, a heavyweight boxer, and Princess Diana herself. A measure of its significance is that it was listed by UNESCO as one of Norway’s most important cultural treasures.
I’ve come across plenty of other examples (especially Ali Brownlee’s frenzied commentary as Middlesbrough fought back from 3-0 down to beat Steau Bucharest and reach the 2006 UEFA Cup final – a very personal choice from me), but Bjørge Lillelien will always be the original and the best.
“Thor Heyerdahl, Morten Harket, Henrik Ibsen, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Edvard Munch, Erik the Red, can you hear me? Bjørge Lillelien made one hell of a commentary!”
–Nicholas Walton is former European editor for the BBC World Service, a journalist and author, and consultant for various NGOs in Singapore.
I think I’m somewhat unusual as a sports fan, having never paid much attention to commentary, always preferring to go to the games and draw my own conclusions. Nevertheless, I nominate Australian Bruce McAvaney, who is a regular caller of AFL games (including ten Grand Finals) as well as the Melbourne Cup, numerous Olympics, tennis and swimming, among others. McAvaney’s commentary is meticulously researched, and his use of statistics and insights gleaned from a lifetime of commentating mean that he adds a lot of depth to what viewers can see unfolding on the screen.
McAvaney is also not too invested in the hypermasculine (or “blokey”) culture of sport. While calling a game in 2009, McAvaney called a young player “delicious.” Although he was mocked extensively on The Footy Show, he brushed off the “innuendo,” taking it in his stride and standing by his choice of word even months after the call. McAvaney was also highly supportive of the AFL’s first (and only) female caller, Kelli Underwood (2009-2011), calling her a “genuine trailblazer” and role model: “She has a great combination of unbridled enthusiasm and preparation, which is impressive.”
–Deb Waterhouse-Watson is postdoctoral research fellow at Macquarie University.
Maybe it’s his chuckle after he makes a profound point, a point usually made by denoting one of his own glorious ring moments (he brags like only a championship boxer can brag). Or maybe it’s his slow, southern, country drawl that draws me in. Even when there’s intense drama inside the ring, as somebody is about to get knocked out, Roy Jones, Jr. stays calm.
He has a voice that doesn’t match his boxing talent. In the ring he was fast, with blazing hand speed. He once hit a man with 16 shots in six seconds, or at least it seemed that way. There is a sound of confidence in his voice that says he has overcome vicious knockouts – knockouts so devastating you thought he might die. But he goes on as if nothing happened. He gives insights that scream, “I’ve been there, I’ve done that,” “I once was the greatest,” “Y’all Must’ve Forgot.” “Y’all Must’ve Forgot,” his hit single in which he rapped about his ring conquests, was a terrible song, but he made it a classic. You never forget his greatness while listening to Jones call a fight on HBO, and that’s what I love about him.
I’ve followed his career since I was ten. I’ve watched him win championships, including doing the unthinkable and winning the heavyweight title as a light heavyweight. And I’ve seen him flat on his back, looking like he would never get up. Like most fighters, he refuses to tell the truth to himself. He still fights, even though he shouldn’t. I refuse to watch. I’m too afraid that this battle might be his last breath. Instead, I listen, and remind myself that he’s still here. He’s still great. He’s not the best in the business, but he brings back memories. And that’s why Roy Jones, Jr. is my favorite commentator.
–Louis Moore is associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University.
The best commentator past or present is a bit daunting, so I’ll weigh in on the most exciting new commentator in the sport I know best. Paul Malignaggi has emerged as a smart and enthusiastic expert in the world of boxing. While a solid fighter in his own right – he’s 33-6 with 7KOs – he absolutely shines as a commentator on Showtime. He can both explain the basics of a bout to novice audiences and detail sophisticated ring strategies to veteran viewers. He often sees trends before his Showtime colleagues, and he always offers a new way of seeing the fight. Malignaggi is passionate, talks a mile a minute, and has an infectious energy – just listening to him makes you psyched. Both intelligent and joyful, Paul Malignaggi is a rare combination: one that was desperately needed in the sport of boxing. Plus, he wears a fabulous pinky ring. Who can top that?
–Lucia Trimbur teaches sociology at John Jay College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
I realize that picking Howard Cosell is tantamount to selecting Michael Jordan as the best basketball player or Muhammad Ali as the finest boxer. Obvious, I know. But there is no sportscaster, in my estimation, who was more polarizing and is more enduring than the polysyllabic and toupee-sporting commentator.
The best and worst of contemporary sportscasting can be traced back to Cosell’s simultaneous commitment to telling it “like it is” and incessant self-promotion. Bob Costas’ and Bryant Gumbel’s sometimes-trenchant critiques grow out of Cosell’s insistence on incorporating a heightened degree of journalistic integrity into sports TV. Bill Simmons’s meteoric transformation into an unlikely sports media superstar who sometimes used his platform to critique the establishment that gave him a voice and then was deemed an expendable commodity by the very organization that fueled his overexposure offers a modern analogue to Cosell’s rocky tenure at ABC. Stephen A. Smith’s claims to be a journalist and his concurrent appearances in commercials reflect Cosell’s advertising work for Fruit of the Loom. But perhaps most important, Cosell was a celebrity whose presence augmented—and often outshined—the events he was ostensibly hired to explain. This pleased some and grated on others, but both the apologists and the haters tuned in.
My favorite illustration of Cosell’s unparalleled celebrity during his time occurs in Woody Allen’s 1973 film Sleeper, which centers on Miles Monroe (played by Allen), who wakes up in a futuristic police state after being cryogenically frozen for 200 years. In an effort to learn about Monroe’s time, researchers ask him to explain footage of Cosell from Wide World of Sports that somehow survived. “At first we didn’t know exactly what this was,” says a researcher of the footage, “but we’ve developed a theory. We feel that citizens in your society, guilty of a crime against the state, were forced to watch this.” After a short pause, Monroe deadpans: “Yes, that’s exactly what that was.” We don’t know how Cosell will be remembered, but he is sure to be among the few sportscasters whose name will still be circulating 200 years from now.
And I didn’t even mention Cosell’s symbiotic relationship with Muhammad Ali. Or the fact that he was so worried about his image and legacy that he penned FOUR self-congratulatory memoirs.
–Travis Vogan teaches in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa.
I can’t say that he’s my favorite announcer, since I never heard him live, but he called two of the most amazing goals – one famous, the other infamous – in men’s World Cup history.
Víctor Hugo Morales is an Uruguayan journalist who worked in Argentina. On June 22, 1986, he had the good fortune to be calling the Argentina v. England match, in the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Mexico. As a backdrop, the two nations were facing off in a major tournament for the first time since the Malvinas War (also known as the Falklands War), in which England had routed Argentinian forces. Argentina was primed for the game.
Maradona’s first goal, of course, is the infamous “hand of God.” Morales calls the goal exactly as he sees it: “I have to tell you want I think…. a goal with hand, what do you want me to say.” Even when the studio interjects that Maradona scored “with his head, Victor, with his head, it is clear,” Morales refuses to admit it completely. “With his head? Okay fine…. They tell me from the studio that the goal was with his head.”
And then there is Maradona’s second – the goal of the century. Here, Morales seems transported into his own world, forgetting perhaps that he is on the radio, announcing the game to the people of Argentina. It starts off normal enough: “Now Maradona has it, marked by two, he steps on the ball [turning as he goes, in a move that is now often called “the Maradona”], he starts down the right, the genius of world football.” But then after noting that Maradona could have passed the ball, Morales immerses himself in the moment. “Genius, genius, genius, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, GOOOOOOL! GOOOOOOOOL! I want to cry! Holy God, long live football! GOLAZO! Diego! Maradona! I want to cry. Forgive me!” Briefly, Morales remembers that he is on air, and begins to relate the play again, only to re-enter his own world, “In an unforgettable run, in the play of all times, cosmic kite, what planet did you come from? To leave behind you so many Englishmen, to make the whole country a clenched fist, screaming Argentina!… Argentina 2, England 0. Diego, Diego, Diego Armando Maradona. Thank you, God, for football, for Maradona, for these tears, for this: Argentina 2, England 0.”
With the “zero,” Morales is left breathless, as though he has returned to earth on the cosmic kite, exhausted from the effort. In fact, Morales takes off the next thirty seconds or so. When he returns to the air, he asks listeners to forgive him for having lost “every form of professional tone.” For me, this is simply the best call in sports. Ever.
–Joshua Nadel is assistant professor of history at North Carolina Central University.
In spite of the strong legacy left in Argentine sports-casting history by the likes of Lalo Pelicciari, Fioravanti (Joaquín Carballo Serantes), and José María Muñoz, the award to the “Best (Radio) Announcer” must be conferred upon Víctor Hugo Morales. Born in Uruguay in 1947, Victor Hugo crossed the River Plate into Buenos Aires when he was nineteen years old and went on to become one of the most recognizable voices of fútbol on Argentine radio.
My two favorite goals by Morales involve Diego Armando Maradona. The first occurred in 1981, during the superclásico between Boca Juniors and River Plate. Boca were already up by two goals when Maradona received the ball in the area, embarrassed the goalie (Ubaldo “el Pato” Filliol), and flawlessly scored past him. Morales characteristically built up suspense in just a few seconds of ball-passing among Boca’s players, concluding in an enormous ecstatic release marked by his signature “ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, gol, gol, gol, gol, gol, gooooool.” Boca Juniors, incidentally, would go on to win the championship that year.
The second instance is colorfully remembered across the globe as the “goal of the century,” when Maradona scored the most beautiful goal in World Cup history and handed Argentina’s eternal rival, England, its defeat in the 1986 World Cup. Morales’ words accompanied Maradona’s moves much like a soundtrack to a great movie. The star’s otherworldly abilities brought the announcer to tears as he pronounced Maradona a barrilete cósmico (cosmic kite): “Thank you, God, for football, for Maradona, for these tears, for this: Argentina 2, England 0.” For both player and announcer, “the goal of the century” would become their masterpiece.
–Alejandro Meter is associate professor of Latin American literature at the University of San Diego.
An entirely new world was opened to me when the Milwaukee Bucks joined the National Basketball Association as an expansion franchise in the 1968-69 season. When I was a boy, they played several games a year in Madison, my hometown. In all, I probably saw them around a dozen times or so over the course of several years. In the troughs between the peaks of a seeing a live game in person, I discovered the consolations of radio.
Starting around the time I was seven, there was a lot of tension in my home when I was growing up. My siblings were teenagers, so they argued amongst themselves, and they argued with my parents. Above all, my parents fought with each other, especially at night after I’d gone to bed. I assume they thought I wouldn’t hear. But my bedroom was right above the kitchen, and even if I couldn’t make out – or understand – most of the words, the tones were unmistakable: my mother’s low, mumbled stubbornness, my father’s more punctuated, staccato bark. Sometimes I still hear, softly from somewhere inside my ears, those unintelligible but unmistakable sounds as I fall asleep at night.
At that time, I had a little AM radio, shaped like a cube. In fact, it was a dice – red with white dots. The volume and tuning dials were the “two” side of the dice. I’d put that radio as close as I could to my head on the pillow. Then the mesmerizing cadence and tone of Eddie Doucette’s radio call would pull me away from the fading voices of adult unhappiness, disappointment, and resentment, right through the radio to the Spectrum in Philadelphia, Chicago Stadium, the Milwaukee Arena – Mecca, as it was known – or Madison Square Garden. Today most of those arenas, if the structures even exist at all, are branded with names like ATT Center, Target Garden, or what have you. I wonder if those names are as magical to hear over a radio when your parents are fighting and you can’t fall asleep.
Eddie would both comfort and excite me with his description of Kareem’s sky-hooks, the Big O’s fall-away jumper, and Bobby “the Greyhound” Dandridge’s streaking fast-break lay-ups. I’d listen carefully when his color man, Ron “the Professor” Blomberg, would break down the plays and the strategy involved. Then, momentarily a child again, I’d laugh when Eddie would interview Bango, the Bucks mascot. Bango, incidentally, was named after the exclamation Eddie coined for a Bucks’ basket, as in “Kareem, on the baseline, fed by Robertson, fakes the pass to Curtis Perry in the lane, turns to his left for the sky hook – Bango!”
Working for a small-market franchise, Eddie Doucette would never be as widely famous as big-market radio announcers like the Lakers’ Chick Hearn or Johnny Most, the voice of the Celtics, but he was more than enough for me. And his call would serve as the template for my own solitary adventures on the imaginary hardwood of our poured concrete driveway. I lived to hear the word “Bango.”
–Yago Colás teaches comparative literature and sports culture at the University of Michigan.