Billy Reed: Remembering Al Michaels and other icons of sports announcing, including Marty Brennaman

During a recent Facetime conversation with my granddaughters Caroline and Lucy, they surprised me by asking if I knew Al Michaels. They had recently watched the movie about the U.S. hockey team’s historic upset of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics, the game for which Al always will be remembered.

Hockey was hardly his main sport. In fact, ABC gave him the job only because he was their only announcer who had previously called a hockey game (at the 1972 Olympics in Japan). When it was apparent the U.S. team had achieved the impossible, Michaels said, “Do you believe in miracles?”

To this day, I’m sure he is asked about that call. Was it spur-of-the-moment or had he planned to use it in case the unthinkable happened? That sort of thing. Whatever, it made Michaels an icon of sports announcing.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

When I told the girls that I did, indeed, know Al, they seemed impressed. I assured them we weren’t close pals but got to know each other after Michaels had succeeded Jim McIntyre as the Cincinnati Reds’ play-by-play announcer in 1971. He lasted three years before moving on to ABC, and the Reds hired a young announcer named Marty Brennaman, of whom you may have heard, to replace him.

Even after leaving the Reds, Al always was polite to me whenever we would cross paths at one of the major sporting events done by ABC. One of them was the Kentucky Derby, where I also got to be friends with Jim McKay and Howard Cosell.

I’m not sure where Michaels ranks on the all-time list of Reds’ announcers, because the Reds have employed more talented voices than just about anybody. The Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers might come close, mainly because of Vin Scully’s long and distinguished career. But I’ll take the Reds, who at one time or another have employed the likes of Red Barber, Waite Hoyt, Claude Sullivan (of Winchester, Ky.), Joe Nuxhall, McIntyre, Michaels, and Brennaman father (Marty) and son (Thom).

In fact, no franchise has been on the cutting edge of radio and TV more than the Reds.

It all goes back to Powel Crosley, a visionary genius whose company made radios, cars, airplanes, and other products. At one time, Crosley Manufacturing was the world’s largest make of radios. In the early 1930s, Crosley bought the Reds and expanded their play-by-play broadcasts, all the better to sell radios.

Crosley also was instrumental in the advent of both night baseball and televised games. The first night game was played at Crosley Field, the former Redlegs Park, on May 24, 1935, the Reds defeating the Philadelphia Phillies. On June 5, 1938, the Reds’ Johnny Vander Meer pitched his second consecutive no-hitter in the first night game held at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. A year later, the Dodgers and Reds met again in the first televised big-league game.

Interestingly, the Dodgers’ play-by-play announcer in 1939 was Barber. He left the Reds before that season to rejoin Larry MacPhail, who had been his boss in Cincinnati. MacPhail was a Powel Crosley disciple who supported night baseball and televised games. He also became an advocate of teams traveling by planes instead of trains.

Did I know Al Michaels?

Until I got to be good friends with Marty Brennaman, I was closest to Claude Sullivan, who became Waite Hoyt’s sidekick in 1974 and succeeded the legend a year later. A native of Winchester, Ky., Claude began calling University of Kentucky football and basketball games for Lexington station WVLK and the Standard Oil Network in 1947.

He was doing both the Reds and UK games when he died of throat cancer on Dec. 6, 1967. The Reds replaced him with McIntyre and UK athletics director Bernie Shively finally started a UK network with Cawood Ledford becoming the official “Voice of the Wildcats.”

At the start of the 1965 season, the Houston Astros began playing in the Astrodome, the world’s first domed stadium. It was billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” and I asked Claude if he would write me a letter telling me about it when the Reds played in it for the first time.

He did, and somewhere I still have the letter. I’ll have to find it now that I have so much time on my (thoroughly washed) hands.

It was interesting that my granddaughters saw the movie about the 1980 U.S.-Soviet hockey game at this time when the world is so desperately in need of miracles. I hope it lifted their students and boosted their confidence in America’s indomitable spirit.

And I’m sure I’ve told them much more than they wanted to know about my friendship with Al Michaels.

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