Top 50 network TV announcers: Nos. 1-10
1. Howard Cosell
“I am a journalist,” Cosell proclaimed, differentiating himself from his courtly peers. And so, this attorney-turned-sports-broadcaster proceeded to harangue, decry and pontificate, all in the interest of “telling it like it is.”
Cosell held court for 14 provocative years on “Monday Night Football,” giving the series the buzz it needed in prime time. And he engaged Muhammad Ali in some of the most interesting theater in American sports; the broadcaster and the brash young fighter, it seemed, however improbably, were locked at the hip. Cosell defended Ali’s refusal to join the military during Vietnam, and the two formed an unlikely friendship.
Cosell either was loved or hated, and sometimes both. Ford threatened to pull its sponsorship of the Monday football broadcasts unless Cosell was yanked. ABC held firm.
Cosell was network sports’ first indomitable personality, the father of sports broadcast journalism. He described himself as “arrogant, pompous, vain, verbose, a showoff.”
Larry Merchant, the longtime columnist and boxing commentator, once said, “Cosell makes the world of fun and games sound like the Nuremberg trials.” Perhaps so, but today’s journalists-turned-TV stars like Tony Kornheiser, Michael Wilbon and Mike Lupica trace the roots of their on-air income to Cosell.
2. John Madden
When Madden broke in on CBS in 1979, the network knew it immediately had something unique. Prior analysts couldn’t match the combination of insight, personality and cogency.
By 1981, Madden was promoted to top analyst. Pat Summerall beat out Vin Scully (at the time a CBS football announcer) in an on-air audition to become the ex-coach’s boothmate. Funny how one decision changed the course of television history – Madden and Summerall went on to became a Sunday institution.
When CBS lost the NFL in 1994, the two moved to Fox, where they continued to preside over the NFC package. After being teamed with Summerall seemingly forever, Madden joined Al Michaels on ABC’s “Monday Night Football” in 2002, crafting what many called the dream team in the booth. They exited together for NBC in 2006.
3. Brent Musburger
Opinionated and famous, demanding and critical, play-by-play announcer and studio anchor, Brent Musburger has survived the treacherous pitfalls of network television for 35 remarkable years.
In 1975, Musburger began trailblazing work for CBS. Unlike today’s hosts, who serve as nimble and restrained traffic cops in a studio of former athletes, Brent provoked and opined, proffering declarative statements that prompted responses.
Shockingly, CBS fired Musburger in 1990 while he was at the top of his game. He rose from the ashes resiliently, working for ABC and ESPN. Still busy and salient today, Musburger infuses his folksy call with offbeat comments. (“This has been an exciting few hours of football. I hope that it at least took your minds off the stock market.”)
4. Al Michaels
“Don’t let perfection get in the way of excellence.”
This cynosure has owned the biggest stage for the longest time. Scholarly, engaged and sometimes emotionally detached, Al Michaels stimulates the casual and challenges the astute. His inimitable and familiar voice is redolent of prime-time sports.
Michaels indeed has covered it all. He has put his play-by-play stamp on six Super Bowls, eight World Series, two NBA Finals and an improbable American Olympic gold medal in ice hockey. (“Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”) He’s comfortable doing just about anything. He has covered earthquakes (in San Francisco at the 1989 World Series), a slow police car chase (O.J. Simpson), the Indy 500, track and field and figure skating.
5. Dick Enberg
“Oh my!” What a career!
Through his star-studded years, he’s done game shows, been in the studio and voiced play-by-play for the NFL, college football, college basketball, the NBA, Major League Baseball, golf, tennis, the Olympics and more.
Enberg distinguishes himself by threading heartwarming human interest stories into play-by-play, bringing players to life.
Marty Glickman, the venerated broadcast pioneer, marveled over Enberg, saying, “It always sounds as though Dick’s smiling when he talks.”
It’s like Enberg is everyone’s Uncle Harry telling a captivated America a feel-good story.
6. Curt Gowdy
Gowdy, NBC’s throaty lead sportscaster in the ’60s and ’70s, was the nation’s first dominant play-by-play man. The “Cowboy at the Mike” chronicled 11 World Series, nine Final Fours and seven Super Bowls.
Gowdy was unencumbered by replays, repetitive promos and intrusive graphics. He spun yarns, made viewers feel comfortable and captioned the stories of unforgettable sporting events: the improbable Super Bowl win by the Jets in 1969, the 1969 Miracle Mets and the annual coronation of John Wooden’s UCLA teams.
7. Keith Jackson
Jackson artfully used the English language to paint his college football broadcasts with a mix of resonance, erudition, down-home spontaneity and drama. “Whoa, Nellie!” He authored so many college gridiron broadcasts during his long and venerated broadcast career, fall Saturdays were his from the 1960s through 2005.
Jackson was a broadcaster’s broadcaster. Assign him to any event, sports or news, and he did it masterfully. One night in 1965, upon arriving home in Los Angeles from a baseball assignment in St. Louis, ABC asked him to cover the race riots in Watts. Keith immediately called his broadcast partner, Jackie Robinson, whom he had left hours earlier.
“Jackie, where are you when I need you?”
8. Bob Costas
This wordsmith described sports as “drama without a script.” Costas never needs a script, whether it’s at a baseball game, the Olympic studio, the NBC studio or Churchill Downs. Costas verbally embroiders the story better than anyone on television. He’s unflappable, composed and never at a loss for words.
Costas has anchored each of NBC’s Olympics since 1992, a revered role in which he’s in the spotlight for almost three straight weeks.
The fastidious orator has done his share of big-event play-by-play, too – three NBA Finals and three World Series.
9. Jim McKay
McKay, a newspaper man turned television host, spent 11 distinguished years at CBS beginning in 1950 and then 37 at ABC Sports.
He was best known for anchoring ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” a weekly Saturday afternoon series that introduced Americans to many of the ancillary sports otherwise unavailable on television. McKay captured the human drama and determination of “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
At the 1972 Munich Olympics, he reported on the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes, grieving through a reverential tone. He had been hurried out of the hotel sauna on his only day off and took his seat in the remote Olympic studio with a pair of slacks over his swimsuit. Maintaining his composure throughout, he anchored 16 straight hours. Upon confirmation of the deaths, he uttered those now famous words, “They’re all gone.”
10. Pat Summerall
Summerall was a pleasant minimalist, a quintessential setup man, which allowed John Madden’s idiosyncratic delivery to flourish. Like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Madden and Summerall were inseparable. From the beginning of the ’80s through the ’90s, the duo was a symbol of fall Sundays.
When CBS lost the NFL in 1994, Madden and Summerall took their act to Fox, where they carried on through 2001. Summerall called play-by-play for a record-setting 11 Super Bowls.
David J. Halberstam is a broadcast sports historian and sales and media consultant. He is the author of “Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History” (1999; Masters Press/McGraw Hill).