At a little Ohio liberal arts school north of Columbus, Dan Dickerson walked into the campus radio station while visiting his brother. After becoming the radio DJ for a short while, Dickerson wanted to tap into his sports junkie side and tried calling Ohio Wesleyan Battling Bishops football. The team was “god awful,” according to Dickerson, but that moment was the start of what turned into a 40 year sports media career, including 24 of them as the Detroit Tigers radio lead play-by-play announcer.
“I got hooked, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.
Dickerson spoke to MIPA’s 2023 sports writing and broadcast classes on Tuesday morning to give his background, advice and take questions. His first job was doing radio in Grand Rapids, where he says it’s a miracle he was even hired in the first place. A month into his first job, his boss called him into his office for what Dickerson thought was a raise.
“He sat me down in his office and said, ‘this isn’t working out. I can’t understand you on the air,’” Dickerson said. “No one had ever really worked with me on how to come through the radio. Enunciate. So, instead of firing me, to his everlasting credit, he worked with me on my delivery, on how I presented myself on the air.”
Dickerson then learned how to write conversationally in broadcast and writing. If a writer can write like they’re having a conversation, he says, people will listen to what you have to say.
“Talk to me like we’re having a beer at the end of the day,” Dickerson said. “You’re getting people to listen to the radio. People are always doing something else, so you have to get their attention. It’s your voice. It’s your delivery. It’s how you pause. It’s your voice inflection.”
Having been far from his wife, Lori, for four years–Dickerson being in Grand Rapids and Lori working for the Detroit Free Press–Lori’s boss helped Dickerson get a job at WWJ in Detroit, so he could be closer to his wife. In a bigger market, he let everyone he could know that he was interested in sports.
“We got the Lions rights and I said, ‘hey, I’d like to apply for the Lions job,’” Dickerson said. “I wasn’t going to get the job, but because I’d shown interest, they gave me the pre and post game, so now I’m becoming known as a sports guy in Detroit.”
After leaving WWJ, Dickerson joined rival station WJR. Even though this was his second radio job in a prominent market, he still didn’t have the play-by-play job he wanted, so he practiced.
“I went to the old Silverdome where the Lions played, and did some practice. Went to Tiger stadium, did some practice. I would go to the early exhibition [football] games at Michigan because there’s no one there,” Dickerson said. “I gave my tapes to my boss, he listened to it and kind of filed it away.”
That fall, Dickerson explained, the station needed someone to fill in for five Tigers games. The station hired someone, who had an issue after two games and had to stop. As his introduction to the Tigers head play-by-play job, Dickerson got to do the remaining three games. This led to him being the main fill-in anytime the main Tigers broadcaster, Ernie Harwell, was out. Eventually, his chance to call his first inning of baseball on the air.
“I got a chance to call my actual first game of baseball on the air, the last game at Tiger stadium, thanks to Ernie,” Dickerson said. “Then, the next year that actually led to me being his middle innings guy.”
Harwell was Dickerson’s inspiration. A Detroit and sports broadcasting icon, Harwell called games on both radio and television for 55 seasons, 42 of which were for the Detroit Tigers. Dickerson grew up listening to Harwell and got to spend three years working alongside Harwell calling the middle innings while Harwell got a break. According to Dickerson, both provided a massive influence on his own broadcasting career.
“I just loved how he called the game. There’s a rhythm, there’s a patience, there’s a feel to calling a game well,” Dickerson said. “I liked how he would drop in his little anecdotes.”
Dickerson managed to meet Harwell while he was practicing play-by-play in the 90s, and even went over to Harwell’s house to get some one on one broadcasting instruction.
“I called him up and said ‘would you be willing to listen to my tape?’ He said ‘sure, come over to my house,” Dickerson said. “So I go over to his house in Farmington Hills, we sat at his kitchen table and listened to my tape. It wasn’t just a perfunctory ‘oh you’ll be fine.’ He said ‘the ball’s not down low, it’s low. It’s not up high, it’s high. One less word but every word matters.”
Harwell influenced Dickerson so much, down to Dickerson keeping score of games with two different colors instead of one. Red for the baserunners and blue for everything else, Dickerson explained, so it’s easier to look down and see if there’s anyone on base and where they are. Harwell would make sure to have a story on every single player, and would keep and make cards for each player to add stories to year after year.
“Watching him for those three years we worked together, to just realize why he sounded so good in his last game in Toronto as he did the first time I heard him,” Dickerson said. “He loved being at the ballpark. He was one of those people that your day was better just having been around him.”
Dickerson eventually took over as the full time play-by-play announcer in 2003 after Harwell’s retirement.
“One thing I’ll always take from him is the energy and joy that he brought to every game and making sure you’re describing things well all the time,” Dickerson said.
One of Dickerson’s most iconic calls comes from the 2006 ALDS, when Magglio Ordonez sent the Tigers to the world series with a three run home run. The key to an iconic call like that, according to Dickerson, is anticipation.
“Anticipating what might happen and being ready for anything. It’s your years of making sure you’re descriptive, it’s your years of making sure you’re paying attention to detail,” Dickerson said. “So you have to react to the moment and you can probably hear in my voice, I mean that was a surprise. Thank god it was a no doubter. I mean he just crushed it.”