I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Those who watch sporting events on television will hear commentators yell “UN-BEEE-LEAV-ABLE!” over a shot, catch, hit, or tackle that we’ve all seen live, so we know it to be completely believable. Such hyperbole gives credence to what somebody once observed about sports reporters: that they have exclamation points where their brains ought to be.
David Coleman's Mangled Commentary
David Coleman was a long-time television sports announcer in the United Kingdom. He was good at his job, though he had a penchant for tangling sentences and uttering non-sequiturs. The satirical magazine Private Eye started to collect these gaffes and those of other sports commentators and published them under the heading “Colemanballs.”
Coleman became so associated with slips of the tongue that many verbal hiccups attributed to him were not of his creation. He hated the notoriety his bloopers gathered.
A list of David Coleman manglings:
- “There is a fine line between serendipity and stalking.”
- “This evening is a very different evening from the morning we had this morning.”
- “He’s seven seconds ahead and that’s a good question.”
- “That’s the fastest time ever run, but it’s not as fast as the world record.”
- “A truly international field, no Britons involved.”
- “He just can’t believe what’s not happening to him.”
- “The front wheel crosses the finish line, closely followed by the back wheel.”
That last one has echoes of another commentator famous for getting it wrong.
Murray Walker's Mistakes
Murray Walker covered Formula One racing for 30 years starting in the 1970s. He became famous for the Murray Walker Curse. It frequently went something like this: “There is nothing so certain as the fact that Fandango Finklehoffer is going to win this race by a wide margin.” Whereupon, Fandango would stuff his racing machine into a barrier and stagger from the wreckage with his steering wheel wrapped around his neck.
But, Murray was quick to defend himself by saying, “I don’t make mistakes. I make prophecies that immediately turn out to be wrong.”
- “Only a few more laps to go and then the action will begin. Unless this is the action, which it is.”
- “This is an interesting circuit, because it has inclines. And not just up, but down as well.”
- “And he’s lost both right front tires.”
- “And there’s no damage to the car. Except to the car itself.”
- “The lead car is absolutely unique, except for the one behind it, which is identical.”
- “I know it’s an old cliché, but you can cut the atmosphere with a cricket stump.”
And, woo hoo, there’s another nifty segue into a different sport.
Brian Johnston's Cricket Commentary
Brian Johnston of England was one of the sport’s premier announcers. He also possessed a delicious sense of humour.
Commenting in 1961 in a match between England and Australia, he said, “There’s Neil Harvey standing at leg slip with his legs wide apart, waiting for a tickle.” (A reference to the ball just catching the edge of the bat and scudding off to a fielder waiting for the catch.) A voice in the background was heard to say indignantly, “I beg your pardon,” and everybody in the commentary box dissolved into helpless laughter.
In 1976, England was playing the West Indies. The batsman at the wicket was Peter Willey and the bowler was Michael Holding. The story retold a thousand times in pubs throughout the land is that Brian Johnston said, “The bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey.”
There is a lengthy debate about whether or not Johnston actually said it during a commentary. Fellow commentator Henry Blofeld claims it was in a bogus letter that Johnston read on the air, and adds that, “He would have loved to have said it.”
Jonathan Agnew (known as Aggers) famously reduced Johnston to fits of giggles in 1991 by describing how a player “didn’t quite get his leg over,” a British slang term for sex (listen to clip below). A few seconds later, Brian Johnston realized what had been said and started to chuckle, which turned into a full blown on-air breakdown into guffaws.
Howard Cosell's Style
Within the sports commentating, trade Howard Cosell fancied himself a bit of a wordsmith.
He once said that “Ballplayers are apt to approach business propositions à bouche ouverte . . . The result is players are apt to fall victims to hornswaggling and pettifoggery on a huge scale . . . They are likely to sign away their legal rights a maximus ad minima . . . An attorney can act as a kind of vooloper, or vanguard, guiding them through the veldt of agents constantly besieging them with questionable propositions.”
English sprinkled with French, Latin, and Afrikaans—not really a good way to communicate.
Cosell once offered an assessment of his character: “Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. I have been called all of these. Of course, I am.”
Cosell Covers an Assassination in the 1971 Movie "Bananas"
No Sport Is Spared
It’s easy to poke fun at the verbal mistakes of commentators, but most of us would end up on the highlight reel of goofs if giving live commentary.
Nevertheless, here are a few more classics:
- “For those of you watching in black and white, Spurs are playing in yellow.” -John Motson
- “Sure there have been injuries and deaths in boxing—but none of them serious.” - Alan Minter
- And, basketball, soccer, and other analysts have been blamed for this one: “He dribbles a lot and the opposition doesn’t like it. In fact, you can see it all over their faces.”
- Another one claims to have several authors: “I owe a lot to my parents, especially my mother and father.”
- “Adversity is the fork in the road from which you improve or go downhill,” was uttered by an anonymous golfing colour commentator. Yogi Berra, the baseball player and manager, cleared up that convoluted sentence by saying “When you come to a fork in the road, you should take it.”
In France, sports commentators are called consultants. The Italians refer to them as commento tecnico, technical commentators. To the ever-practical Scandinavians, they are simply expert commentators.
Here are a few more gems:
- “Referee Nodlinger is outstanding in the sense that he stands out.” - George Hamilton
- “Owen runs like a rabbit chasing after what do rabbits run after? They run after nothing. Well, running after other rabbits.” - Tom Tyrell
- “The Baggio brothers, of course, are not related.” - George Hamilton
- “Howard Cosell’s Baroque Verbosity.” Jon Michaud, New Yorker, November 23, 2011.
- “David Coleman’s Best ‘Colemanballs’ - and those of his Inadvertent Imitators.” The Guardian, December 21, 2013.
- “David Coleman Dies: Top 20 ‘Colemanballs.’ ” Patrick Sawyer, The Telegraph, December 21, 2013.
- “Murray Walker Quotes.” Rinkworks.com, undated.
- “Cricket Media Bloopers.” The Wanderers Cricket Club, undated.
- “The 20 Funniest ever Commentator Gaffes.” Eurosport, January 26, 2011.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Glen Rix from UK on February 25, 2018:
Entertaining. Emailed the url to my two sons and pinned.