Up from the Ducks—Crimson’s Gold
The voice of the Crimson Tide started with a weak signal in the “Slap Shot” league. Then the voice of the Long Island Ducks tuned in a NASCAR race on his transistor radio.
Eli Gold has been the “voice” of something for more than 40 years, from hockey teams to NASCAR races to his current long-standing role as the radio play-by-play announcer for Alabama Crimson Tide football games. At the beginning of his career, however, that voice did not travel very far.
Gold’s first job as a sports broadcaster was in 1971, with the Long Island Ducks of the Eastern Hockey League, which was the lowest rung of the hockey ladder. Life in the EHL was the inspiration for “Slap Shot,” the classic 1977 hockey movie that depicted the league as being dominated by assorted riff-raff who played in front of sparse crowds—players whose passion far exceeded their talent.
“If you got cut from the EHL, you went home,” Gold says. “There was nowhere else for you to go. There was no place lower.”
So it would be correct to say that Gold started at the bottom, broadcasting games for a tiny radio station located on the eastern edge of Long Island, far from the bright lights of the big city. He knew his audience for those broadcasts was miniscule, simply because the signal was extremely weak.
“If the wind was just right,” Gold jokes, “you could hear it in the station’s parking lot.”
Gold was broadcasting bad hockey for a small station. And he couldn’t have been happier. At the age of 18, Gold was starting a career that he had dreamed about as a boy growing up in Brooklyn. He had written in his eighth-grade yearbook that his future occupation was going to be “sports broadcaster.”
“It’s something I’ve always known I wanted to do,” Gold says. “I wanted to travel, watch sports and get paid for it. Sportscasting was the answer.”
Gold began to pursue his dream while still in high school, working as an unpaid intern for such famous New York stations as WOR and WNEW. He worked as much as possible, learning the business and making contacts. That led to a job at Madison Square Garden, first as a peanut vendor and then as an office helper.
“I’d hang around the press box and meet the broadcasters and pick their brains about the business,” Gold says. “I was doing that basically at the expense of everything else.”
The connections soon paid off, as Gold learned that the Ducks were looking for a radio color commentator to work alongside their play-by-play announcer. Within two weeks, the announcer left to take another job, and Gold suddenly found himself calling the action.
“It was a great place for me to start, because it was such a low-impact broadcast,” Gold says. “It gave me a chance to begin honing my craft. I had never done this before. I was bad. But as bad as I was at first, I was better come season’s end.”
The owner of the Ducks covered all of Gold’s travel expenses, but he said actual payment would not come until the end of the season. Sure enough, after the final game the owner handed Gold an envelope and said, “Good job.” Inside the envelope was a $50 gift certificate to Sears.
But Gold didn’t care. He says his true payment was the opportunity to call 56 genuine professional hockey games and to begin witnessing the world outside of New York and Long Island. He traveled up and down the East Coast, from Syracuse to St. Petersburg, seeing places he had only read about.
“I loved the travel,” Gold says. “For a kid from Brooklyn who had never gone anywhere, it was an eye-opening experience.”
During the long bus rides between games, Gold often would monitor his transistor radio, scanning the dial for other sports broadcasters he could listen to in an attempt to learn some tricks of his new trade. On one occasion, he stumbled upon a broadcast of a NASCAR race.
“I had no idea there was NASCAR on the radio,” Gold says. “The only exposure I’d had of the sport was those few minutes they’d show on Wide World of Sports. But I enjoyed what I saw. So when I found out that MRN (Motor Racing Network) existed, I started pestering them for a job.”
Gold eventually became one of MRN’s primary race announcers and still does work for them today. He also continued to call hockey games, moving to Birmingham in the late 1970s to work for the Birmingham Bulls of the old World Hockey Association. While he traveled extensively in his various broadcasting roles, Gold settled into Birmingham and considered it to be his new home. He did local television and radio work and called baseball games for the Birmingham Barons.
When the University of Alabama was looking to hire a new basketball play-by-play announcer in the late 1980s, Gold had the backing of former head coach Wimp Sanderson. A year later, legendary Tide football radio announcer John Forney retired for good after 30 years with the program, and Gold succeeded him in that role. These days his calls of Alabama football games can be heard around the world on satellite radio. The signal definitely travels farther than the parking lot.
After more than 40 years in the business, Eli Gold has found his voice. And that voice has found a large audience.
Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.