'The first real star sportscaster'

He was a Baltimore TV pioneer


June 08, 2008|By David Zurawik, Tom Keyser and Justin Fenton | David Zurawik, Tom Keyser and Justin Fenton,Sun Reporters

Jim McKay, who in 1947 spoke the first words ever heard on Baltimore television and later became the model for the modern sports anchorman with his marathon effort amid a terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics, died yesterday of natural causes at his horse farm in Monkton. He was 86.

Raised in Baltimore, the former Evening Sun reporter covered virtually every major sports event on network TV during his half-century career.

And in nearly four decades at the helm of ABC's legendary Wide World of Sports, he gave voice to one of the most enduring catchphrases in popular culture with the show's opening words: "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."

FOR THE RECORD - An obituary published Sunday about sportscaster Jim McKay, whose given name was McManus, contained incorrect information. The McManus Theatre at Loyola College is not named after him, but after another graduate and benefactor.

But he will be remembered best for his work at the Munich Olympics, broadcast historians say.

After eight armed and masked Palestinian terrorists took Israeli athletes hostage at their Olympic dormitory, Mr. McKay anchored live coverage from Munich for 16 hours as viewers around the world looked on.

By the time 11 Israelis had died, and Mr. McKay had uttered the heartsick epitaph, "They're all gone," the soft-spoken journalist had ensured his place in broadcasting history. Analysts say he set a new standard of excellence for TV sports journalism that is yet to be surpassed.

"It was a great and defining performance not just for sports journalism, but for journalism period on early network television. It earned the medium a new kind of respect worldwide," said Douglas Gomery, scholar in residence at the University of Maryland's Library of American Broadcasting.

"But in the final analysis, that is only one part of a spectacular career," said Mr. Gomery, author of A History of Broadcasting in the United States. "Besides being the first real star network sportscaster, McKay was also the voice and the face of a revolutionary way of presenting sports as popular entertainment and culture designed by his boss, ABC executive Roone Arledge.

"McKay was the guy who made Arledge's vision for sports programming so inviting to millions of Americans for so many years on ABC. His was a huge and pioneering career."

Mr. McKay was the first sports broadcaster to win an Emmy (1968) and to receive a lifetime achievement award (1990). He won 13 Emmys - including news and sports Emmys for his Munich coverage - and a George Foster Peabody Award for lifetime achievement. After covering 12 Olympics, he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1995.

"For a generation of Americans, Jim was more than the much-honored host of Wide World of Sports and ABC's Olympic coverage. He was a talented and eloquent newsman and storyteller whose special gift was his ability to make the viewers at home genuinely care about more than just who won or lost," President Bush said in a statement.

"He had a remarkable career and a remarkable life," said Sean McManus, Mr. McKay's son, who is president of CBS News and Sports. "Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn't come up to me and say how much they admired my father."

Accolades poured in yesterday, but one of the most powerful came years earlier in a Sun interview with Peter Jennings, who reported at Munich with Mr. McKay in 1972.

"I've often said to folks that on that day in Munich, I don't think anybody better could have been in the chair," said Mr. Jennings, the ABC anchorman who died in 2005. "I've never been able to imagine anybody else doing it with as much grace and intelligence and precision.

"I sometimes wonder whether Jim ever got enough credit for his career. He's such a sweet and modest guy. Not only was he a pioneer in American television, in American television sports, he was just so damn good."

Mr. McKay was born James Kenneth McManus on Sept. 24, 1921, in Philadelphia.

He was 15 when his father, Joe, a real estate appraiser, was transferred and moved the family to Baltimore.

Mr. McKay graduated from Loyola High School and Loyola College, where he played intramural sports, was sports editor of the college paper and was the public address announcer at basketball games.

He was president of his senior class, and president and star of the drama club, which abruptly altered the course of his life.

After graduating from college, Mr. McKay served 3 1/2 years in the Navy during World War II, mostly on escort duty in the South Atlantic aboard minesweepers. Then he returned to Baltimore to look for his first real job.

"All I knew was that I wanted to be a newspaper reporter or a radio sports announcer," he wrote in The Real McKay, his autobiography, which was published in 1988. "Television? There was no such thing in Baltimore, not in the summer of 1946."

He landed a job at the Evening Sun as a police reporter. He moved up quickly to general-assignment reporter and then, in lieu of a raise, to aviation editor.

While at the paper, Mr. McKay met his future wife, star reporter Margaret Dempsey, who became his guiding force.

In the fall of 1947, Mr. McKay was 26 and earning $65 a week before taxes.

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