Back at the dawn of Baltimore television, when the Sunpapers owned the first station here, a 25-year-old Evening Sun reporter named Jim McManus agreed to work in front of the camera for $65 a week. It was 1947. The station, WMAR-TV, had to fill hours upon hours with original programming. So its crews did remote telecasts, running from the races at Pimlico to supermarket openings to professional wrestling matches at the old Baltimore Coliseum.
McManus, a reporter and announcer, didn't care for the pro wrestling assignment.
"I knew it was fake," McManus, better known to the wide world as Jim McKay, told me during a visit to his Monkton farmhouse. "I didn't want to lie on the air. I never said it was fake. But I didn't lie. I knew it wasn't real blood. I knew it was [red liquid] from a squib. So I never called it blood."
The wrestlers sensed that the young, bow-tied commentator from Channel 2 wasn't completely on board. One of them, who went by the ring name Billy Graham, decided to teach him a lesson. During a televised match, the wrestler picked up his elderly opponent, the Super Swedish Angel, and threw him out of the ring - right at Jim McKay.
"There!" Graham roared at the stunned announcer. "Is that fake, kid?"
Though offered as amusing reflection, I mention this story because it spoke to the integrity McKay believed essential, and that he maintained, throughout his career. Refusal to take pro wrestling seriously may not seem a daunting test of journalistic fortitude, but I always considered the diminutive McKay's near-death experience with the 300-pound Super Swedish Angel an example of his grace under pressure.
And he survived, with his credibility intact.
"Being involved in television at that time must have been a lot like being a writer at the invention of the printing press," said McKay, who passed away yesterday at age 86.
Many elements of the new medium of television were created for entertainment value - and they were being made up literally on the run - but that didn't mean McKay would give up the values and fundamentals he'd learned in the Evening Sun newsroom.
He'd cut his journalistic teeth as a police reporter in Baltimore's Western District, and though he'd moved to the world of sports, the job still called for truth, accuracy and objectivity.
Sports broadcasting benefited from that. The nation and world benefited from that.
It was a great point of pride for all of us who worked on The Evening Sun that Jim McKay had once been one of us. (So had his wife, Margaret; so had Louis Rukeyser of Wall Street Week, the author William Manchester, CBS reporter David Culhane, to mention a few.)
Jim McKay had been all over the world as the host of Wide World of Sports. He had covered the winter and summer Olympic Games. He had met famous people and become one himself. But he never forgot his time in Baltimore.
His first day on the cops beat in 1946, a veteran reporter from the Baltimore News-Post (later News American) took him, at 7 a.m., to an East Baltimore bar for a gin-and-bitters. From there, it was cross-town to check for news at the Western Police District. McKay found the desk sergeant with a young woman on his lap, and the sergeant didn't seem very interested in providing the rookie from The Evening Sun with the overnight reports. McKay's reporting took him into Baltimore's slums, and he recalled vividly children bitten by rats.
It was television that took him away from all that - the opportunity to step into the new medium on its ground floor, or, more accurately, the tower of what was then called the O'Sullivan Building in downtown Baltimore. McKay was a legend around here as the first man to appear in a live WMAR telecast. Appropriately, it was from Pimlico.
On that first day in 1947, Pimlico's owner would only allow the telecast of two races and a fashion show in between. "He wouldn't let us show the featured race because he was worried about [the telecast] affecting his gate!" McKay laughed. "There might have been maybe 200 TV sets in the whole city at the time."
I found in the WMAR archives a 1950 interview by McKay of Paul Pettit, an 18-year-old pitcher who'd signed for $100,000 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pettit was in Baltimore to have a doctor look at his arm. "Paul is playing for the New Orleans Pelicans right now," says McKay, who sits side-by-side with Pettit at a desk. The young pitcher, dressed in a suit, looks down at his lap, as if he is going to throw up. He is nervous and has little to say, but, of course, McKay keeps the interview rolling.
Also in 1950, McKay was host of WMAR's live telecast of the dedication of the Baltimore region's new airport, Friendship. The station had sold four hours of advertising for the program. President Harry S. Truman was expected, along with a crowd of 25,000. But only a tenth of that number showed up. Truman flew in, saw the meager crowd, stayed for a few minutes and left. The telecast commenced at 9 a.m. Truman was gone by 10:15. Jim McKay filled the airtime until 1 p.m.
That archival film is a treasure; it shows the future TV legend in training.
When Jim McKay and Margaret McManus came back to Maryland, after 30 years of the New York life and Jim's accomplishments with ABC, they bought a grand horse farm in Baltimore County, and that's where, among his old friends from The Evening Sun, I first heard his stories from newspaper days.
He went off for fame and fortune and came back to his adopted home state.
He was a giant of his industry but never behaved as one.
In the life of anyone whoever amounts to anything, there are mentors - or, at least, older men and women who inspire and encourage us. They remember what it was for them, back at the beginning, when the world was new and scary. They understand the importance of praise and the gracious sharing of wisdom with the young people coming along behind them.
In my life, being once new to Baltimore, the men and women who extended their hands and uttered good words were many, and Jim McKay was foremost among them - always with a kind comment, a generous message or note, or a funny story dashed with a wink and a smile.
Dan Rodricks can be heard on Midday, Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1, WYPR-FM.
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