'The Real McKay' -- a gentleman among gossips

May 24, 1998|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun staff

"The Real McKay: My Wide World of Sports," by Jim McKay. Dutton. 293 pages. $24.95. Outside of the president or Elvis, he is probably the most familiar figure on television. Each week, as if on some cruelly repetitive cue, he sweeps down the broad ski jump, makes an ill-advised right turn, and tumbles off the side and turns into a human snowball. Vinko Bogataj was an otherwise unremarkable Yugoslavian forklift operator and amateur ski jumper who had the misfortune in 1970 to not only crash spectacularly, but to do it on a live broadcast beamed into the hotel room of an ABC television producer who was in Yugoslavia to cover the World Gymnastics Championship.

Bogataj suffered a slight concussion, and the indignity of becoming the enduring illustration of "the agony of defeat" that has opened each broadcast of the "Wide World of Sports" ever since.

This behind-the-scenes tidbit, and lots like it, are spinkled throughout sportscasting Hall of Famer Jim McKay's new autobiography, "The Real McKay: My Wide World of Sports." Despite the subtitle, the book will be a disappointment for television junkies hoping for provacative details of McKay or his television brethren. It is notably light on its insights of McKay, who is too modest a fellow to share much of himself, or the broadcasting giants with whom McKay has spent the past 50 years.

He is, after all, "Gentleman Jim," as anchorman Peter Jennings points out in the forward. Rather, this is a compelling, and easily digestible, history of television. Through McKay's eyes, the reader watches the absurdly haphazard early days of the medium. As a young reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun, McKay, a Philadelphia native who had moved to Baltimore with his family while in high school, was tapped to be an on-air personality when the newspaper decided to launch a television station, WMAR. The editors came to him simply because he had been president of the drama society at Baltimore's Loyola College.

Later, he moved to New York to host a variety show. Following a radio tradition, the CBS brass changed his name to one they would own: McKay, instead of his real moniker, McManus, and called the show "The Real McKay." The initial concept called for him to dress as a peanut vendor with a pointy hat. He said no.

The rest is pretty much history. An accidental sportscaster, McKay wanted to become a news anchor but never made it back to news - except during the Munich Olympics of 1972. He skillfully anchored the network's tense coverage of the hostage-taking and eventual bloodbath of Israeli athletes.

McKay, now semi-retired on a 40-acre Maryland estate, is a singularly good guy in a business increasingly populated by trash-talking gossip mongers. Consequently, he stokes little controversy here, but does offer some personal views. He doesn't like loudmouths, boxing, or the idea of pre-pubescent girls forsaking their youth to skate in the Olympics. And he thinks the "Wide World of Sports," scrambling to stay relevant with the rise of cable TV and all-sports channels, has lost its magic.

The writing is polite and unflashy, as is the writer. But the book skirts one nettlesome ethical question: can a sportscaster be both journalist and participant? He anchors ABC's broadcasts of the Triple Crown races. Yet he owns and races horses at the tracks he covers, counts powerful figures in the industry as personal friends and is a member of the Jockey Club, a national association of bluebloods who promote the sport.

In an interview, McKay said he doesn't feel any conflict of interest and was prepared to sit out a Kentucky Derby the year he had a horse that almost ran. He's not afraid to disagree publicly with the sport's rulers, even if they are pals, he said.

We have to take his word for that. But that's not too hard when the word comes from Gentleman Jim, the Real McKay.

Jon Morgan covers the business of sports for The Sun and is th author of "Glory for Sale: Fans, Dollars and the new NFL," the story of the move of the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore and the trend toward publicly funded stadiums in America.

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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