McKay never outgrew state roots

October 31, 2008|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

Jim McKay saw so much of the world during his lengthy and legendary broadcasting career. His syrupy voice, endearing charm and calming presence always made viewers of ABC's Wide World of Sports feel at home, whether he was profiling cliff divers in Acapulco or ice boat racers in Wisconsin.

Home, however, always had a specific meaning to McKay. Though he was born in Philadelphia, worked in New York City for much of his career, and raised his children in Connecticut, he was always, in his heart, a true Maryland man.

The state, and especially the city of Baltimore, meant a great deal to him, even at the height of his fame. He told his children often that he could not wait to return to the place where he had spent his teenage and college years, where he had discovered his true calling. In 1947, McKay uttered the first words ever broadcast on Maryland television, and in his own humble way, he never let people forget it.

"He's very proud of that," said McKay's daughter, Mary McManus Guba. "As far as he was concerned, this was his home. He liked that Baltimore is a really small town that's pretending to be a city. He liked that the state offers everything, from the mountains to the seaside to horse country. He just loved the people here and felt that Marylanders were truly different."

Though McKay passed away in June at age 86, Marylanders - including prominent local athletes - will attempt to return some of that affection tomorrow as The Babe Ruth Museum hosts "A Champions' Tribute to Jim McKay."

Sugar Ray Leonard, Dorothy Hamill, Michael Phelps, Katie Hoff, Kimmie Meissner, B.J. Surhoff and Dominique Dawes are among those hoping to honor McKay's unique legacy with memories of their own.

"Jim's love of Maryland truly stands out," said Leonard, a seven-time boxing world champion from Palmer Park. "He was proud to be a Marylander. It's our home, it's the place that supported us and it's always great to come back home. ... I have total admiration for the man."

McKay - who went by his family name, Jim McManus, when he wasn't working - moved to Baltimore when he was 15 and graduated from Loyola high school and Loyola College before taking a job as a police reporter with The Evening Sun. When his television career took off, he moved his family to Westport, Conn., and commuted to New York. Privately, he vowed to return to Maryland.

"I just think when he moved to New York City, he always felt he was a Baltimore guy, and he always planned to move back there when he could," said McKay's son, Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports. "He loved the O's and loved the Colts, and he was devastated when the Colts moved away. He loved horse racing and spent a lot of time devoted to horse racing. It was really a love affair with city of Baltimore."

About the only thing McKay loved more than Maryland - which became his permanent home again in 1982 - was his family. His wife, Margaret, and two children traveled with him to several Olympic Games and were there for the moment that so many would forever associate with McKay: the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. When Palestinian terrorists took 11 Israeli athletes hostage, McKay anchored live coverage for 16 hours as viewers around the world looked on.

"We could see the helicopters [that were used to transport hostages]," McManus Guba said. "To have that experience, to be there, was extraordinary."

There were plenty of good memories, too.

"I think I saw just about every figure skating championship from about 1968 on," McManus Guba said. "How he treated me as his daughter was kind of a window into how he viewed women in sports. He understood that they had a contribution to make and that they were equals and should be applauded for what they could do. It didn't matter if it was the Lake Placid hockey team, the soap box derby winner or log rolling. He understood that that really meant something to those people, and he wanted you all to care about it, too."

For Sean McManus, those trips around the world with his father weren't just father-son bonding.

"I knew I wanted to work in sports from the time I was 12 years old," said McManus, who traveled to the U.S. Open golf tournament and Indianapolis 500 each year with his father. "I think my mom probably would have preferred I become a doctor. There might have been added pressure [going into journalism] because of who my father was, but there was also tremendous opportunity. ... It was never manufactured with my dad. When he got emotional, people could tell that was the real Jim McKay."

McKay's children also don't mind pointing out that there was a side of him that didn't always come through on television.

"He was a shy man," McManus Guba said. "He was not an extrovert. That did not come naturally to him. Perhaps that would surprise some people because he was so at ease. Yet in reality he was a very shy and modest man."

MCKAY TRIBUTE

When: Tomorrow, gala at 7 p.m.

Where: New Hilton on West Pratt Street.

Tickets: $150 for members of the Babe Ruth Museum and $175 for nonmembers.

Information: baberuthmuseum.com or call 410-727-1539, ext. 3013.

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