There have been a lot of strange trades in the history of sports.  Many football and basketball coaches were traded for draft picks or cash.  Baseball players Tom Fortugno, John Odom and John Comstock were traded for playing equipment.  Even baseball icon Cy Young was once traded for a new suit.  But my favorite sports trade story involves a famous Reds radio announcer… and a cartoon character.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was a Walt Disney cartoon character that pre-dates Mickey.  “Poor Papa” starring Oswald was Walt’s first major cartoon success in 1927.  But Universal Studios and Walt could not agree on a compensation plan so he walked out on them (and Oswald) and created all those other characters at his own studio.  And even though the mouse, the duck and all the rest became blockbuster hits, Walt always lamented the loss of Oswald and wanted him back.  In 2006, long after his death, Walt’s successors saw the way to do that.

2006 was a big year in the partnership between television and football.   ABC lost Monday Night Football to ESPN, and the Sunday Night Football schedule went directly to NBC.  NBC immediately signed MNF legend John Madden to be the color commentator but still needed a play-by-play host.  Madden’s ABC partner, Al Michaels, didn’t seem interested as he had just signed a new contract with ABC and ESPN.   But as it became obvious that the Sunday Night Football schedule on NBC was going to be the premiere games of the season, Michaels began to change his mind.

The negotiations began between the two networks.  ABC was willing to give up Michaels, but wanted something in exchange.  NBC offered more extensive video rights to some of their exclusive events like the Ryder Cup golf matches and highlights of upcoming Olympic games.  But ABC wanted more.  So as usual the talks went up the ladder to the corporate level, when someone at ABC’s parent company, Disney, realized that NBC’s parent company, Universal, had something that Disney has wanted since 1927 – Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.  Michaels noted the trade when asked about it by saying “Now I’ll be a trivia answer someday.”   A trivia answer and the focus of this month’s Sunday Evening Post on Reds Radio History.

Al Michaels was born in New York and moved to California the same year as the Dodgers so he didn’t have to change the baseball team he rooted for after the move.  At Arizona State University he majored in broadcasting and journalism and wrote sports stories for the student newspaper.  Graduation didn’t bring many opportunities in sports media so he took a job with Chuck Barris Productions in Los Angeles.  Al’s responsibility was to find people, specifically women, to appear on “The Dating Game” TV show.  “I was calling girls up on the rotary phone and hoping someone would answer.” 

His first big sports break came in 1964, when the NBA LA Lakers hired him to work public relations, and fill in for eight games as the color commentator next to LA legend Chick Hearn.  But Chick didn’t like him, and as he was boarding the plane for a Laker road trip, he was fired and sent packing (they had to hold up the flight to get Al’s luggage off the team plane.)

But Al wasn’t about to sit around, with a newlywed wife (Linda, his high school sweetheart, was also the prize coordinator on another Barris show “The Newlywed Game”).  And in 1968, he broke into baseball calling games for the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League. He also called football games for high schools and the University of Hawaii, and became the toast of the islands.  He was named Hawaii’s “Sportscaster of the Year” in 1969 and that landed him a bit part in an episode of “Hawaii Five O” that year.   But Al wanted more – he wanted into the bigs. And someone in Cincinnati wanted out.

Jim McIntyre may have been in the Reds broadcast booth for 5 years, but his heart stayed about 110 miles to the northwest in Indianapolis. Even a pennant win in 1970 was not enough to keep him in the Queen City.  Jim left Cincinnati after the ’70 season to return to WFBM-TV in Indy as the news director, and the Reds went on a nationwide search for a new lead radio broadcaster. And the winner was… Alan Richard Michaels of Brooklyn, New York, by way of LA and Hawaii.

Al was in demand, so the Reds had to allow him to do other sports. He called hockey for ABC in 1972 (one game during the Sapporo Olympics, something that would pay off later in life) and football for NBC in 1973 (Bengals/Oilers game in Cincinnati, Al got the gig when the scheduled broadcaster died two days before the game). And in 1972, he joined NBC Sports TV coverage of the World Series, since he knew the NL pennant winners very well. He went on the become the national voice of Monday and Sunday Night Football and to be known for the “Miracle on Ice” game. But for three short years, including one World Series, Al Michaels sat next to Joe Nuxhall in the Reds radio booth, only to be replaced in 1974 by the Virginian with all that hair.

Three more quick Al Michaels stories –

1) No one does a better Howard Cosell impersonation than Al Michaels.   (This one is not good quality but a great story.)

2) Before 1980, Al Michaels had announced exactly one hockey game in his life, the 1972 gold medal game at the Sapporo Winter Olympics. That was exactly one more game than anyone else on the payroll at ABC in 1980, so he got the hockey announcing gig at Lake Placid. Miracle?

3) Three times between the murder and the Bronco chase, Al talked to his friend OJ Simpson on the phone. Al was a prime source for much of ABC News coverage of the OJ situation, which is how he was involved in what is known as “The Best Prank Phone Call Ever on TV”, and that is not “Totally Farcical”.

Endnotes – I got the picture of Al with the old left-hander from the Reds website. Here’s another one from the Enquirer. George Bodenheimer, ESPN head honcho has a book out this week called “Every Town is a Sports Town“. His version of the trade for a cartoon character story is in the book and was reprinted in ESPN The Magazine this week (links only available to subscribers).  Al Michaels book, “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up” is a pretty good read. And if after that, you still want more, the Emmy people posted a three hour interview online when they named him an “Emmy Legend”. I needed NoDoze to watch any of it.

One Response

  1. Mark Elliott

    That is a great story, and a great article around it about Phoenix sports history. Thanks, buddy.