Hitting it out of the Park
Joe Davis’10, still in his 20s, soared to a coveted post as the play-by-play announcer for the L.A. Dodgers after iconic broadcaster Vin Scully retired. How has he come so far so fast?
During a desultory college basketball matchup February 21 between Arizona and California, both Pacific-12 Conference teams mired in losing streaks, Joe Davis’10 had done his homework. The still relatively new Los Angeles Dodgers announcer knew that his broadcast partner, former UCLA coach Steve Lavin, had once suffered through his own losing streak—and one with a bizarre twist. “True story,” said Davis to Lavin about midway through the first half, when the teams were struggling to hit the rims. “During your nine-game losing streak at UCLA, a student reporter in a press conference asked you who a good replacement would be. As memorable as the question was, your response was even more memorable.” This elicited from Lavin that, no, he didn’t coldcock the student reporter. Rather, he actually discussed at some length the merits of the four or five coaches who had been rumored as his possible successor.
Davis’s vignette was not just the product of diligent preparation, it was deft. It gave the beleaguered fans permission to smile while putting into perspective the misfortune that visits all teams and their fans, sooner or later.
Two days later, Davis was working a preseason Dodgers baseball game in Phoenix with his analyst partner, Orel Hershiser. Taking advantage of the relaxed nature of a spring training game, Davis encouraged Hershiser, a celebrated and cerebral former Dodger pitcher, to explore the differences between spring training then and now, including the scientific advances made in measuring the pitching motion and spin rate of the pitched ball, which Hershiser expanded on with relish. “With all that information, I don’t know how I would’ve been able to sleep,” Hershiser concluded. “You would’ve loved it,” Davis said. “Oh, my gosh,” agreed Hershiser. “I would have eaten it up.”
The exchange was one of many ways Davis gives viewers a gentle insight into the character of his partner while keeping a less than consequential broadcast lively.
The beginning of Davis’s meteoric rise as a television sportscaster has been chronicled in this magazine (summer 2015). After graduating in 2010, in lightning succession, he went from doing play-by-play for the AA minor league Montgomery Biscuits to some combination of college baseball, football, and basketball for Comcast Southeast, ESPN, and Fox Sports, where he also called major league and NFL games.
Davis has come a long way since then. In 2016, in anticipation of the retirement of the legendary Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully, Davis was hired to call 50 games for the Dodgers. He excelled and assumed the mantle of Scully’s successor in 2017 while continuing to do baseball, college football and basketball, and the NFL for Fox.
It is hard to overstate what a big deal—and what a daunting challenge—the Dodger opportunity was. The Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers is a storied sports franchise, and the Los Angeles TV market is huge. But, more than that, the 20-something (now 31), baby-faced kid from Potterville, Mich., (pop. 2,671) became only the second “voice” of the Dodgers in seven decades, succeeding a man who is a virtual icon, not just in Southern California but in all of sports broadcasting.
Pursuing the profession you love, excelling wildly, and being well compensated for it—that’s pretty much anyone’s definition of a dream job. And it is certainly Joe Davis’s, who will be the first to tell you that he didn’t build his career all on his own. It took a college. Beloit “set me up to get ahead of the curve when I graduated,” Davis says. Professor Emeritus of Economics and Entrepreneurship Jerry Gustafson’63 and retired Broadcast Instructor Dave Knutson’94 can tell you how.
“Joe was a wonderful exemplar of somebody who was trying to take advantage of the college’s resources beyond the formal, standardized courses,” recalls Gustafson. “He was able to find a lot of help at Beloit in ways you wouldn’t have thought a college would’ve been able to provide.” Among those was a connection Gustafson had to the owner of the Schaumburg Flyers minor league team in Illinois, which helped lead Davis to a broadcasting summer internship. Gustafson encouraged Davis to pursue his own entrepreneurial instincts, which led to Davis starting a business editing high school athlete recruiting films (which made him a few thousand dollars and helped with expenses, Davis recalls).
When Davis told broadcasting instructor Knutson the first week of classes freshman year that he wanted to be a sports broadcaster, Knutson told him: “It’s not just sitting behind a mic and talking.”
Davis got it, fast. He learned all about production and started broadcasting Beloit basketball games his freshman year. Then he was given the opportunity—and the encouragement—to expand the primitive one camera set up to three. He started his own community access TV sports show—he was even given permission to tackle the tricky logistics of remote broadcasting from a downtown Beloit Irish bar.
An eagle can’t soar in a tunnel, and at a big institution, Davis’s progress would likely have been constrained by both protocol and numbers. He would have been lucky to be operating a camera by the end of his freshman year, Knutson says. “Cream rises to the top and someone would have noticed his talents if he had gone to the University of Wisconsin or Notre Dame. But at Beloit he could jump in with both feet from day one and get one-on-one encouragement.”
Davis also wangled independent study help from the chair of the communications program at the time, Associate Professor of Theatre Amy Sarno, who told him up front that she knew nothing about sports broadcasting. Nonetheless, Sarno taught Davis useful sportscasting skills, such as how to project his voice and how to breathe while speaking. Davis is grateful: “What broadcasting school is going to have a study on projecting their voice? Well, it’s what I wound up having at Beloit.”
The small liberal arts college experience that Beloit provided, according to both Gustafson and Knutson, gave Davis the opportunity to craft his own customized education. It was personalized—if he had an idea, he could take it to his instructor and get smart, timely feedback. It was flexible—let’s do a community access TV show in an Irish bar. It was hands-on—instead of just reading about using multiple cameras, let’s try it. And there were no artificial barriers—he was never told that freshmen don’t get to do that. It was, in short, a very good environment for a proactive learner like Davis.
Another point of emphasis at Beloit helped Davis, albeit one that he was preternaturally disposed toward: The importance of preparation and detail. “I’m obsessive in everything I do,” says Davis, who graduated summa cum laude. “I think that obsessive nature is the fuel to the persistence.” Another self-descriptor he uses is “meticulous.” Indeed, both Davis and Hershiser cheerily describe themselves, and each other, as anally retentive, which is one (of a number) of reasons the two have become very close friends despite their age difference.
Hershiser, 60, who has been an analyst for ESPN and worked with a variety of play-by-play announcers over the years, is awed by Davis’s level of preparation. “If I forget something,” Hershiser says, “like when a trade was, he’ll finish my sentence. That’s how prepared he is. And it seems like a conversation because it is a conversation, because he’s so ready for anything.”
That preparation takes several forms. When Davis gets home after games at about 11 p.m., he puts in another 90 minutes or so researching the pitchers for the next day. In the off-season, he rises at 4:30 a.m. most mornings to put in the same kind of research on the players of opposing teams the Dodgers will face the next season. This effort produces ridiculously detailed electronic pages for hundreds of players, filled with data, minutiae, and anecdotes. Oh, and did I mention? They’re color-coded six ways.
This manic labor yields such nuggets as these during a San Francisco Giants series in mid-June: Giants pitching ace Madison Bumgarner grew up in a small North Carolina county that had so many Bumgarners a section is called “Bumtown,” and that Bumgarner is a bear hunter who bought farmland and paid off his mother’s mortgage with his draft bonus money. These kinds of tidbits occur with almost inning-by-inning regularity during a typical Davis/Hershiser broadcast and are laced both with technical analysis and historical anecdotes, such as a fabled early 20th century Giants manager John McGraw being so mean, according to a contemporary, that he “eats gun powder for breakfast each morning and washes it down with warm blood.”
Davis’s journey to Beloit was not entirely typical. A star high school quarterback who was recruited, the kid from Potterville had options, including Brown, Harvard, and Syracuse. He chose Beloit for, among other reasons, the opportunity to play football in his freshman year. At least one other Beloit alumnus is particularly happy he did: Rick Krajewski’09, a fraternity brother and Dodgers full-time statistician who sits in the same cozy broadcasting booth in Dodger Stadium feeding Davis and Hershiser arcane and wonderful baseball statistics. Davis’s wife, Libby, is also happy with that choice. Even though she didn’t attend Beloit, they met at a New Year’s party his sophomore year. They now live in South Pasadena with their two small children.
Looking back on it, Davis says he would have been “crazy” not to have made the decision to attend Beloit. “There were so many people that were willing to create opportunities and help me create those opportunities—that became the biggest benefit of all.”
He also says he benefited from his liberal arts education. “I don’t know who said the line but I’ve heard it before: You spend a week preparing to call a football or basketball game, but you spend your whole life preparing to call a baseball game.”
A theatre arts/communications major and journalism minor, Davis also took classes in political science, psychology, economics, and philosophy. “You name it, pretty much every category of every discipline you can think of,” he says. “A little bit of learning in those is what a liberal arts education is and, as a baseball announcer, a very valuable background to have.”
Crazy not to have chosen Beloit over Harvard? Well, it’s hard to argue with Davis’s life and career choices to date. No doubt his prodigious talent would have won out regardless of his undergraduate decision. But it is also hard to argue with the conclusion that a customized, hands-on, no artificial barriers education gave the rocket a boost.
Before becoming a trial lawyer in Alaska, Peter Gruenstein’69 was an investigative reporter in Washington, D.C., where he also did a bit of sports writing. His series on defense contractors giving gifts to Pentagon officials and congressmen was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His son, Leo Gruenstein, assisted in the preparation of this article.