'His words were golden'

Md. Olympians, hundreds pay tribute to late sportscaster

Honoring Jim Mckay

November 02, 2008|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

Jim McKay probably would have been a little embarrassed that an entire ballroom of people made such a fuss in his honor last night at the Hilton Baltimore.

Throughout his broadcasting career, he always strived to make the story about his subjects, not him.

But nearly 1,000 people turned out to honor McKay - who passed away in June at age 86 - and celebrate his unique and graceful career for the Babe Ruth Museum's "Champions' Tribute to Jim McKay."

Among them were some of Maryland's most famous Olympians: Michael Phelps, Dorothy Hamill, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ronaldo Nehemiah and Katie Hoff.

The evening's program featured video tributes to McKay's lengthy career as the host of ABC's Wide World of Sports, as well as his constant presence at the Masters, the Indianapolis 500 and the Triple Crown races.

But it was McKay's coverage of the Olympics that was most fondly remembered last night.

McKay, in many respects, shaped the way the media would cover the Olympics, bringing us the personalities beyond the ice and beyond the field of play.

"There is something so special about his voice and the words he chose," said Hamill, who won a gold medal in figure skating at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck. "He was so calm, no matter what the situation was. I think he made people interested in sports that weren't necessarily interested in sports. ... He was such a gentleman. He brought such class to sports. He was an absolute poet."

McKay, whose broadcasting career began in 1947 when he left his job at The Evening Sun to join WMAR-TV, was such a fixture in television, his influence spanned generations.

"My whole life is essentially about the Olympics now, and he was really the person who introduced me to the Olympics," said Bob Bowman, who, as a coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, guided Phelps as he became the most decorated Olympian of all time. "Also I'm a big fan of horse racing, so with the Maryland Million and everything he's done for that industry is just amazing."

Doug Wilson, a producer and director who worked with McKay at ABC Sports covering figure skating for two decades, said McKay always strived to teach viewers something new, whether it was about sports, history, art or politics.

"He wanted people to know when they got up off the couch they were better for having spent that time there," said Wilson, a 13-time Emmy winner. "He did it consistently, week after week, year after year, in the most remarkable way. ... His words were golden."

The evening also featured a live auction that raised $38,800 for the Babe Ruth Museum, as well as a silent auction. Phelps, who flew in from Chicago just hours before the event began, did his part to help the fundraising, placing a $5,000 winning bid on a diamond necklace for his mother, Debbie.

McKay's friends agreed we will not likely see another broadcaster like him in this lifetime.

"Someone said once that Jim probably wouldn't make it in television today. He had too much class," said Joe Kelly, a friend of McKay's for more than 60 years. "That says a lot, I think."

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