Even today Michaels has an insatiable appetite for information. Each morning he reads the sports sections of seven newspapers. During baseball season, he watches games picked up by his satellite dish at his home in Brentwood, Calif., as soon as he wakes up in the morning, before he goes to sleep and much of the time in between. If this sounds compulsive, it is. He has also kept a log of every mile he has ever flown, including the city of origin, the final destination and any stops along the way. At the moment his total exceeds 2.3 million miles.
For a guy who spends so much time in and on the air, Michaels is pretty down-to-earth. His rolling-thunder voice is clipped and urgent, like that of someone calling his bookie just before post time at the Kentucky Derby. Indeed, he may have acquired this style going to the races with his mother, Lila, when he was a teenager. Sometimes she would even pull him out of school, telling the principal Al had to go to the dentist. "I didn't want to be one of those mothers who felt guilty because they didn't take their sons to the track," she says.
Young Al handicapped horses from newspapers and the
Daily Racing Form
. His parents bet for him and would give him 10% of the earnings when they won. "We really cheated the kid," says Lila. "He was a great handicapper." Al got some of the money back when his folks sent him to Arizona State. But he didn't give up betting. His journalism professor liked a little action, too, so they would get together before class to see if there was anything going at Turf Paradise. "If we liked something," says Michaels, "he'd end class early so we could make the first race."
Michaels spent the first 13 years of his life in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, a mile from Ebbets Field, the home of the Dodgers. His father, Jay, later a TV executive who helped package Battle of the Network Stars and The Challenge of the Sexes, was then a talent agent in Manhattan. An avid sports fan, he took his sons to virtually every competitive event in New York.
Michaels was five when he saw his first Dodger game. He doesn't remember who the Bums' starting pitcher was, but he knows that Del Rice of the Cardinals hit the winning home run. "While my Dad watched the game," he says, "I watched Red Barber in the booth."
When Al was 12, he saw 69 of the Dodgers' 77 home games. He didn't even have to skip school to do it—he was on a half-day schedule. But Michaels didn't follow just the Dodgers; he listened to lots of Giants and Yankees games as well. Almost every night, he went to sleep with his radio tuned to out-of-town broadcasts from places like Boston, Chicago and St. Louis. "I loved the purity of the competition," he says. "You never quite knew what would happen. It wasn't likely someone would hit four homers or throw a no-hitter, but it was always possible." Michaels still approaches each game with that same hope-for-the-no-hitter enthusiasm.
In 1958, the year the Dodgers went west, Jay was transferred to Los Angeles. Al was set on broadcasting, so, in 1962, he applied to Arizona State, which was also a pretty good baseball school. When Michaels was there, Sal Bando played third base and Reggie Jackson and Rick Monday were in the outfield. Al was sports editor of the school paper, and an announcer for KASN, the campus radio station. "It was slightly more powerful than an orange juice can and a string," he says. "You could only pick it up in the boiler room of the girls' dorm."
By the time Michaels got out of college, in 1966, he had worked more than 300 Sun Devils football, basketball and baseball games. Lila, a contestant coordinator for TV game shows, helped get him a job as a gofer with The Dating Game. After a while, Al was promoted to the job of selecting the female contestants for the game. But that's as far as he got. Before he joined the show, he had married his high school sweetheart, Linda Stamaton.
Michaels sent the Los Angeles Kings an audition tape, which landed on the desk of Alan Rothenberg, who was then vice-president of both the Kings and the Lakers. Rothenberg happened to be looking for a color analyst to pair up with Lakers radio and television announcer Chick Hearn, who had been a one-man show ever since the team arrived in Los Angeles in 1960. "I put on Al's tape and flipped," Rothenberg recalls. "He sounded like a mini- Vin Scully."
Rothenberg put Michaels in the booth with the then 50-year-old Hearn, who preferred to work alone and wasn't about to make room for a 22-year-old fresh out of the Arizona desert. For the first six games of the 1967-68 season, Michaels did the halftime scoring summary on radio and nothing on TV. "By then I'd figured out my role," he says. "They were bringing me along slowly."