Most of the time, when a broadcaster becomes the voice of a particular sport is when they find the tide shifting against them. Or maybe it’s just that Joe Buck has become the voice of two. Al Michaels and football. Mike Breen and basketball. Doc Emrick and hockey. While all are unquestionably at the hilt of their profession, and deservedly so, whether you like it or not, it’s a lesson in how becoming iconic makes you a target.
What we forget sometimes is that most broadcasters have to do a few things for years and years, and those that have worked their way to the top are no different. Famously, Al Michaels ended up behind the mic for the Miracle On Ice simply because he had called one hockey game in his past. He’s also done lots of baseball in his past, including being the voice that told you there was an earthquake before Game 3 of the 1989 World Series. Your local baseball announcer might do college basketball or hockey or football in the offseason or on the weekends. And that’s still pretty high up the totem pole if you’ve got national assignments. ESPN shifts announcers all around below the top tier.
Most have worked in the minors, doing anything and everything they were offered. Most broadcasters have done their time on something that you’d find on “The Ocho.” Some never escape. Some just grind away. And in that grinding away, they have to treat every assignment as the biggest event in the world, sounding knowledgeable without faking it, while also explaining the obscure and nuance of whatever’s in front of them to the general audience and threading the needle of not insulting the core audience. It’s nearly impossible.
No one displayed the enormity of this task better than Buck Laughlin at The Mayflower Dog Show.
Mr. Laughlin was clearly a savvy broadcasting veteran who never got the call from a major network. Buck wasn’t a dog show expert. It would be the first thing he told you. But that didn’t mean he ever gave the impression that this was beneath him or a waste of his time. Buck approached it as though he had stumbled across the show flipping channels, just like most everyone else would have, and was curious. Expressing the importance while also trying to explain it. Is that not Job 1 of any play-by-play man? To make you think you’re watching something important while breaking it down.
Buck did his best to make the dog show relatable to any casual viewer. He was secure in the knowledge that the dedicated and knowledgeable fans were locked in their viewership because of the event’s place in the industry’s hierarchy. Catering to them would have only made him sound fake and empty. Oh sure, some of his comparisons may have made the dog show faithful cringe. Didn’t they need shaking up in their penthouse, though? He tried to create new fans by comparing the competitors to other sports and athletes they might know and connect with, such as wide receivers or tight ends or pinch hitters. How many others have worked that hard for dog shows? How many have even tried? Buck didn’t simply write off dog shows as the pastime of a very few. He only saw the possibilities. Is that not a lesson we could all use right now?
And Buck was locked in. He wasn’t just there to make himself a host and the story. Not only did he immediately notice the last-minute change from Cooke Fleck to Gerry, but that Gerry had two left feet as well. He passed on vital information to the viewer and why this was such a shock and awkward move. How can you be more of a pro? This was a huge swerve, and Buck was right there. How many times do you curse your TV when your play-by-play man doesn’t see a linesman’s flag or a line change? That would never happen to Buck Laughlin, where everything was Game 7 in front of him.
Oh sure, there were missteps. But they were human. If anything, Buck was too much of an everyman at a dog show, telling stories or making comparisons we could all understand, even if we wouldn’t admit it. He was what we would be if dropped into this world we never thought about and knew nothing of, simply because it was our job. He was off-the-cuff, natural, a personality in a world that was bereft of any of that.
Buck didn’t hold his assignment in contempt as Brockmire has. He didn’t get too emotionally involved like Harry Doyle. He didn’t cross into the sordid underworld of dungeon sex and drug use like Cotton McKnight, even though that clearly was no stranger to Buck. We should all aim to be not just as professional as Buck Laughlin, but as human.
Sky point and flaming arrow to Buck Laughlin, who showed us what sports broadcasting really is.