Sports on TV: Mencken was wrong


December 03, 1991|By Steve McKerrow

No less a social commentator than H.L. Mencken was dead wrong about television, and particularly sports on TV.

In a review of the first-ever athletic event broadcast on Baltimore airwaves, a November 1947 race from Pimlico Race Course, Mencken wrote he saw no future for the new picture medium, "or for the young man who did the commentary."

The young man was Jim McKay, an Evening Sun reporter who had recently been tapped to move over to the newspaper's fledgling TV station, WMAR. He would go on, of course, to become arguably the most recognizable sports commentator on the air.

McKay tells that story on himself tonight at the top of "Play by Play: A History of Sports Television," at 10 o'clock on the HBO premium cable service. The story is being told in two parts, or "games," with the second due at 8 p.m. next Tuesday.

In an unusual collaboration, sportscasters from the hotly competitive broadcast networks have teamed for the documentary, as acknowledged in a silly pre-show locker room pep talk. In addition to McKay's opening review of the earliest sports events on TV, other segments are hosted by Bob Costas, Curt Gowdy, Jim Lampley, Brent Musburger and Pat Summerall.

The show is pretty much what could be expected from the title. If you watch sports on TV, you'll be engaged by multiple clips of famous moments, interspersed with reminiscences of those involved, including such pivotal figures as Frank Gifford, Lindsey Nelson, Red Barber and Dennis James.

Whoa! The game show Dennis James? Yes, he was an early announcer of professional wrestling, and he claims in tonight's special to have pioneered the use of the slide whistle sound effect when a grappler was thrown to the canvas.

There is another neat local angle in the show beyond McKay (now a Maryland thoroughbred racing figure, too). For the great 1958 National Football League championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants is given credit for firmly establishing that sport on the tube. Yet the show reveals that Alan Ameche's clinching touchdown was almost missed by NBC's game cameras.

It seems that during a commercial break before the key play, it was discovered that a cable had been broken by spectators crowding the field. No pictures! Only a delay of game caused by a drunken spectator having to be removed from the field gave the network time to get the link working.


DEJA VU, AGAIN -- The ridiculous fraternal lodge is a standard sitcom scenario dating back at least to the Raccoons of "The Honeymooners." But on "Coach" tonight (9:30, WJZ-Channel 13), Hayden (Craig T. Nelson) is invited to speak at the Fraternal Order of the Loon and finds himself named Head Loon for life.

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