The 10 most influential broadcasters in L.A. sports history

At the dedication of the Chick Hearn Press Room and Bob Miller Press Box at Staples Center, Vin Scully joined in the fun.

There are many ways to be influenced by dictionary definitions available for the word “influence.”

The one we’re most drawn to involves “a power affecting a person, thing or course of events, especially one that operates without any direct or apparent effort.” There’s an additional way of defining the word that concerns “factors believed to be caused by the changing positions of the stars and planets in relation to their positions at the time of one’s birth.”

Over the last half-century plus in the sports media world of Southern California, we’ve been blessed with a unique list of star-driven play-by-play men, somehow aligned in a galaxy to exert a gravitational pull that has affected the course of events in a young broadcasters’ career.

“I always tell people that growing up in Southern California, I feel like I went to a de facto ‘Sportscaster School’,” said John Ireland, in his second year of calling Lakers games on the radio. “Chick Hearn did the Lakers, Vin Scully had the Dodgers, Bob Miller with the Kings and Dick Enberg was with the Angels.

“Anyone who grew up in Los Angeles had a huge head start just by listening to those guys every night.  It was invaluable. I didn’t know what a bad announcer was until I left the market to start my career.”

An informal poll among a handful of the home-town play-by-play men working in the business today trying to mine the richness of Southern California influences that washed over them as they grew up produced a remarkable Top 10 list.

We could easily include people like Al Michaels and Keith Jackson – part of the region’s heritage who made their mark mostly on the national stage. But if we focused solely on those who called sports in the L.A. and Orange County markets and took it back as far as the memory could go, our Sportscasting 101 honorees would have to include, in no particular order:

CHICK HEARN:

He landed in L.A. via Illinois to call USC football and basketball in 1956, got sidetracked by a Lakers owner who needed to boost attendance, and ended up in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor to the utmost of his abilities in a 42-year career with the franchise.

His gift was engaging the listener with honesty, showmanship and a strong work ethic (i.e.: his incredibly long broadcasting streak), plus having a sense of humor about yourself. And never forget the score.

Those like Ireland, Paul Sunderland and Bill Macdonald, who grew up in L.A. absorbing the works of Hearn, have become a direct linage to his legacy, trying to help fill a void over the last 10 years.

Ireland, who grew up in Newport Beach and went to UCLA, went out of state for a time for work before circling back at KCAL-Channel 9 in 1995, and recalls his first meeting with Hearn, who heard Ireland calling Clippers games on the radio.

“He said, ‘Marge (his wife) and I were listening in the car and I think you’re great – you have a real natural enthusiasm – don’t lose that’,” said Ireland. “The other thing he reminded me: ‘Tell the truth – the audience isn’t stupid’.”

You could fill a book with Hearn stories – as Steve Springer did in 2004, finishing up Hearn’s unpublished memoirs a year after his  passing.

In the book, Isaac Lowenkron, working these days for the Clippers, recalled when he was a 19-year-old USC student who spent a half hour with Hearn before a public appearance to soak in advice on what it took to become a basketball broadcaster.

“When he talked to me, there was an incredible amount of sincerity in his eyes, as if you were a member of his family,” wrote Lowenkron. “It was like getting advice on writing from Shakespeare. It was like talking music with Mozart.”

In the book’s afterward, Bill Walton said it clearly:

“Chick Hearn taught me how to play basketball. He also taught me how to think about the game, ultimately showing me how to love a world that would become my life.. . . The creativity, the excitement, the intensity, the exuberance, the vibrancy, the honesty, the personal touch were all delivered in a way that convinced me that he was speaking directly to me.”

VIN SCULLY:

New York Times

We discovered so much could still be learned from the Dodgers’ Hall of Famer who recently turned 85 that we did a series a couple of years ago called “The Tao of Vin,” where nearly two dozen broadcasters in L.A. talked about how he influenced their careers.

Included in that was this assessment from Lou Riggs, a Santa Monica College broadcasting professor and personal trainer for professionals in the business who also does play-by-play work himself:

“I use Scully as examples of how to do if right all the time, even if so many of my broadcast students are so young — in their teens and 20s.

“What Scully brings is class, grace, word economy, knowledge, preparation and a smooth, calming delivery. He never talks down to an audience. He brings us along for the ride — ‘pull up a chair’ – is always under control, understands the art of ‘layout’ when the crowd is going bonkers, brings a great sense of humor to the booth. And if he makes a rare mistake, he can kid himself about it and move on.”

David Michaels, who grew up on the Westside as the brother of famed broadcaster Al Michaels and has become a network sports producer, echoes what many consider to be Scully’s greatest achievement: “It’s the old story of the transistor radio under my pillow for those late home games when I was transported from my bed to the Coliseum or Dodger Stadium.

“Scully and Hearn were the soundtrack to our childhood and adolescence. They were great sportscasters, but more importantly, they taught us to love sports from the bottom of our hearts. Their passion and knowledge was combined with their amazing ability to make things simple.”

DICK LANE:

The phone number Richmond 9-5171 was drilled into your head if you grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s watching Lane call roller derby, boxing or wrestling on KTLA-Channel 5. That was the number to the Olympic Auditorium ticket office, where all those events took place.

The former vaudevillian and actor in more than 150 movies — he played the role of Montreal manager Clay Hopper in 1950 bio-pick “The Jackie Robinson Story” — was also the voice of the demolition derby at the old Ascot Park in Gardena.

It was Lane – not Keith Jackson – who started the phrase “Whoa, Nellie” when Ralphie Valladeres of the Los Angeles Thunderbirds would spring into action, or Gorgeous George would flip an opponent out of the ring.

“He was an unforgettable personality and sure fun to watch,” said Riggs. “A lot of ‘characters’ have made a living mimicking him, but I wouldn’t do it myself.”

In Lane’s 1982 obituary, the Los Angeles Times headline referred to him as a “pioneer TV announcer.” Indeed.

JAMIE JARRIN:

Forty years after he was brought on board to do Dodgers games in Spanish for the Los Angeles listening audience, Jarrin was awarded the Ford C. Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The native of Ecuador has made Spanish language broadcasts a no-brainer when teams set up shop in L.A., opening the door for a whole new wave of broadcasting jobs.

In Curt Smith’s 2005 book “Voices of Summer,” Jarrin was named as baseball’s all-time best Spanish-language broadcaster and rated 28th overall among them all (with Scully ranked No. 1).

DON DRYSDALE:

A surprise pick for this list?

Consider how far he went as ex-athlete making it a broadcaster doing play-by-play, with both the Angels (’73-’79) and Dodgers (’88-’93), plus somehow going over with Dick Enberg to do Rams games (’73-’76).

He retired from the Dodgers in 1969, but he stepped right into broadcasting the next season with Montreal and Texas before coming to Anaheim.

The ease with his transition is a credit to his ability to have a comfort zone established growing up in L.A. and being exposed to the TV media. It had to have reinforced other former athletes that they didn’t just have to aspire to be an analyst, but could move into the main chair if they had the chops for it.

It may not be ironic that when Drysdale died in 1993, the torch was passed to Rick Monday. Also note it was Drysdale’s wife, Ann Meyers, who also broke barriers in doing play-by-play on women’s – and men’s – basketball.

BOB MILLER:

The Midwestern who Hearn officially hired to transform into  Hockey Hall of Famer is responsible for essentially teaching the sport to a region split between those who barely knew what ice was made of, with the others not much caring that people actually played a game upon it.

Miller’s legacy will include his longtime partnerships with Nick Nickson (who has since carved out his own niche on Kings’ radio) and Jim Fox. But it should also be highlighted by his years of working at local sportscaster camps to help mentor future pros in the business.

“There’s no better example of someone who’s more approachable and generous with their time than Bob,” said Ireland. “He has left a blueprint for all of us on how to act if we want to have long careers in L.A. He answers any questions, treats everybody great and his reputation is impeccable. All of us younger guys want to be him.”

TOM KELLY:

From 1961 to 2003, the booming soundtrack of USC sports from John McKay to John Robinson came from Kelly’s golden throat.

Pete Arbogast, who now calls USC football on radio, remembers as a kid he and his friend Mark Hoppe growing up in the Los Feliz area of L.A. would record Kelly’s calls with a “very old and very small reel-to-reel machines and listen back to the best parts over and over. We would do our best to mimic the delivery, the timing, the emphasis and phrasing. We would memorize certain sections or plays that I can still recite to this day. Sadly, so can Mark.”

Another L.A. sportscasting legend, Jim Healy, decided to make Kelly a foil on his daily radio show, referring to him as “Hysterical Harry” and play loop of Kelly exclaiming “Oh, mercy nurse!”

Was Kelly guilty of being too much of a homer? He had the pipes, and nerve, to pull it off.

In his book, “Tales from the USC Trojans Sidelines” (which I co-authored), Kelly said in his defense: “I’ve never had a player from another team tell me that I ignored his efforts or wasn’t appreciative of his or his team’s talents. No matter what color the uniform, I recognized talent and achievement. If anyone out there feels I denigrated him in any way, I guess I owe him an apology. But hopefully I won’t have to apologize much.”

FRED HANEY:

Fred Haney, left, and Gene Autry celebrate the final Angels’ game at Chavez Ravine before they were moving the team to Anaheim.

His calls of the Hollywood Stars and Los Angeles Angels of the 1940s in the Pacific Coast League made an impact on Riggs during his early teen years in L.A.

“I liked his comfortable, informative style – he wasn’t a homer and he sure knew what he was talking about,” said Riggs.

Haney’s famous signoff – “This is Fred Haney, rounding third and heading for home” – may sound a bit too corny by today’s standards, but it fit the time.

His broadcasting career was brief but memorable. He started as a player with the PCL Angels in 1920, played under manager Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers two years later, was back with the PCL Hollywood Stars in ’33. He found broadcasting in 1942, but left it to manage the Stars in the 1950s, which led to managing the Milwaukee Braves to the ’57 World Series. He circled back to call MLB games for KCOP and NBC before becoming the first general manager for Gene Autry’s Angels when they entered the American League in 1961.

BOB KELLEY:

The original voice of the L.A. Rams – he came with the team from Cleveland in 1946 after starting as a 19-year-old – was “one of the best technical football announcers in the business,” L.A. Times sports media critic Don Page once wrote in the late ‘50s.

Kelley also made a name for himself doing Pacific Coast League baseball games, then coming on with the Angels in their first year of 1961.

He was only 49 when he died in 1966.

DICK ENBERG:

John McCoy/Daily News

His scholarly approach may have come from his days teaching at San Fernando Valley State (before it became Cal State Northridge), but his genuine enthusiasm for what he was witnessing was infectious, be it UCLA basketball, Rams football or Angels baseball from the mid ‘60s to the late ‘70s.

You trusted Enberg when he used an “Oh, my!” to describe a play that was nearly indescribable, but also captured his wonderment. Enberg taught those who listened to him never to lose that quality.

Arbogast recalled in his college days sending a tape to Enberg for a critique.

“Enberg wrote me back on eight long legal yellow pad sheets notes he took while listening to the entire game,” said Arbogast. “Gave me a lot of positive feedback and perhaps even more things that weren’t so positive, but did so in a way as to suggest ways to correct the things I should.  Then another list of things he liked or didn’t like that I could change or not depending on how I saw them, as they related to personality over the air.”

Years later, Arbogast thanked Enberg for doing that and found out that was just Enberg’s way, paying it forward.

“I told him that because of what he did for me, one of my career goals was to help mentor and guide young aspiring announcers to become better,” said Arbogast. “He admitted that this, too, was his goal, because someone had helped him similarly a long time ago.”

Oh, my.

Facebook Twitter Plusone Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email
  • dr ed

    Don Drysdale. You have GOT to be kidding. He was absolutely BRUTAL. period. Awful. “how far he came” . . . ????? I’m not going to comments on “how far from what” . . . great picture…. HORRID broadcaster.

  • Pc

    Tom Kelley was awesome ….one of the most exciting football
    Announcers around ….should have done pro football…

  • Adjeff8

    I grew up listening to Vinny calling the Dodger games, Chick calling the Laker games and Enberg calling the Ram games. Is there any other kid in any other city as fortunate as me?

  • Forum_16005

    This is the first site I’ve come to on the search to find images (like the one with Scully, Hearn and Miller above).

    Reason being is I was seated directly behind all three at the dedication which WAS NOT at Staples Center, but at the Forum in between periods of a Kings game. It was to announce the Hearn Press Room and Miller Press Box at the brand new Staples Center which had yet to be completed at that time.