A Good Sport Anniversary: After 50 years as a sports broadcaster and a fan of the underdog, ABC legend calls it as he's seen it in an upcoming book.

November 06, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Jim McKay loves to tell stories. He's told stories about the wide world of sports for 50 years. Now he's telling his own.

On Halloween, he finished the manuscript of the book-length story of his 50 years in television, just two days after the anniversary of his -- and Baltimore's -- first television broadcast. He's got a lot of stories to tell.

For most of his half-century in television, he's been broadcasting big-time sports, from the Olympic Games to the great golf tournaments to the Triple Crown to the Indianapolis 500. And since the creation of ABC-TV's "Wide World of Sports" program in 1961, he's covered an amazing number of smaller, more obscure sports, from barrel jumping to Irish hurling.

Through it all, he's had an infectious enthusiasm for the little guys of sport, competitors like the hapless Jamaican bobsled team and "Eddy the Eagle," the self-taught English ski jumper who always fell short. He probably did as much as any one sportscaster to boost figure skating and gymnastics toward their now astronomical popularity, and he doesn't even like them all that much. He wrote the "Wide World of Sports" signature line -- "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" -- and spawned a million cliches.

"I've seen it in news stories and headlines," he says. "I remember seeing it out in Oklahoma in the sign for a podiatrist: 'We cure the agony of de feet.' "

But for McKay, the key words in that same line are these: "the human drama of athletic competition." He really believes in that.

In an era when sports reporting seems to deal with malfeasance and miscreants as much as heroes and heroics, Jim McKay remains the ultimate nice guy. The words that come up over and over when people talk about McKay are steadiness, honesty, decency.

He retains a certain old-fashioned decorum, like a favorite much-traveled and widely experienced uncle. He puts on a coat and tie for photos at the fence at his 40-acre horse farm near Monkton.

"Might as well be neat," he says. But he's extraordinarily unprepossessing, as if they forgot to tell him he's an international TV personality.

At 76, he's remarkably active, lively, youthful -- and still looking toward the future. His contract with ABC runs to the year 2000.

"I don't do that many shows now," he says. "But they still want me around. I do mostly horse racing and golf."

For a TV personality, perhaps even more remarkable than his 50 years in television are the 49 years of his marriage to Margaret Dempsey, a solid newspaper reporter in her own right.

"It'll be 50 years next October," he says. "Immaculate Conception Church in Towson. That was her home parish. She grew up in Towson."

They have a very close marriage.

"Absolutely," he says. "We were talking about this yesterday, how really fortunate we are to be here, to begin with. As Casey Stengel said, 'You gotta remember most guys my age are dead.' "

Margaret Dempsey was already a well-respected feature writer on the Evening Sun when Jim McManus joined the staff in 1946. He'd just returned from WWII duty as commander of a minesweeper. She wasn't there on the day he first came into the city room and sat down in a seat imprinted with the name "Dempsey" and painted with a pair of boxing gloves. He thought it must belong to some sportswriter celebrating the heavyweight champ, Jack Dempsey.

"The third morning," he says, "this very nice voice behind me said, 'Excuse me, but I think you're sitting in my chair.' That was the way we met. It took me a year to ask her for a date. I was very shy. I still am, I think."

He took her to a Colts-49ers game. The Colts were in the All-American Football Conference then, and Y.A. Tittle was quarterback. He told her they weren't very good and it wouldn't be a close game. "She said, 'Oh, I think it will be a tie.' "

He asked what she thought the score would be. She said 28-28.

"And it was. I think she's been right most of the time ever since."

He was so impressed, she still takes care of the family finances.

"We've really worked very much as a team," he says. "We always talked together about what I should do."

They have two kids and one grandchild. Son Sean McManus is president of sports at CBS. James K. McManus didn't become Jim McKay until he left Baltimore to do a CBS show called "The Real McKay." Thanks to a suggestion by his editor, that's also become the title of his autobiography. (Margaret suggested "Fifty Years in Television and Still Working.")

When he speaks about that long-ago Colts game, McKay can still recall all the highlights, vividly and succinctly, attributes that have always been hallmarks of his broadcast style.

The starting gate

He left the Evening Sun city room for television on Oct. 29, 1947. His TV world wasn't very wide then. Baltimore only had about 1,600 sets. But it was sports.

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