By Carl Schoettler
November 6, 1997
On Halloween, he finished the manuscript of the book-length story of his 50 years in television, just two days after the anniversary of his -- and Baltimore's -- first television broadcast. He's got a lot of stories to tell.
For most of his half-century in television, he's been broadcasting big-time sports, from the Olympic Games to the great golf tournaments to the Triple Crown to the Indianapolis 500. And since the creation of ABC-TV's "Wide World of Sports" program in 1961, he's covered an amazing number of smaller, more obscure sports, from barrel jumping to Irish hurling.
Through it all, he's had an infectious enthusiasm for the little guys of sport, competitors like the hapless Jamaican bobsled team and "Eddy the Eagle," the self-taught English ski jumper who always fell short. He probably did as much as any one sportscaster to boost figure skating and gymnastics toward their now astronomical popularity, and he doesn't even like them all that much. He wrote the "Wide World of Sports" signature line -- "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" -- and spawned a million cliches.
"I've seen it in news stories and headlines," he says. "I remember seeing it out in Oklahoma in the sign for a podiatrist: 'We cure the agony of de feet.' "
But for McKay, the key words in that same line are these: "the human drama of athletic competition." He really believes in that.
In an era when sports reporting seems to deal with malfeasance and miscreants as much as heroes and heroics, Jim McKay remains the ultimate nice guy. The words that come up over and over when people talk about McKay are steadiness, honesty, decency.
He retains a certain old-fashioned decorum, like a favorite much-traveled and widely experienced uncle. He puts on a coat and tie for photos at the fence at his 40-acre horse farm near Monkton.
"Might as well be neat," he says. But he's extraordinarily unprepossessing, as if they forgot to tell him he's an international TV personality.
At 76, he's remarkably active, lively, youthful -- and still looking toward the future. His contract with ABC runs to the year 2000.
"I don't do that many shows now," he says. "But they still want me around. I do mostly horse racing and golf."
For a TV personality, perhaps even more remarkable than his 50 years in television are the 49 years of his marriage to Margaret Dempsey, a solid newspaper reporter in her own right.
"It'll be 50 years next October," he says. "Immaculate Conception Church in Towson. That was her home parish. She grew up in Towson."
They have a very close marriage.
"Absolutely," he says. "We were talking about this yesterday, how really fortunate we are to be here, to begin with. As Casey Stengel said, 'You gotta remember most guys my age are dead.' "
Margaret Dempsey was already a well-respected feature writer on the Evening Sun when Jim McManus joined the staff in 1946. He'd just returned from WWII duty as commander of a minesweeper. She wasn't there on the day he first came into the city room and sat down in a seat imprinted with the name "Dempsey" and painted with a pair of boxing gloves. He thought it must belong to some sportswriter celebrating the heavyweight champ, Jack Dempsey.
"The third morning," he says, "this very nice voice behind me said, 'Excuse me, but I think you're sitting in my chair.' That was the way we met. It took me a year to ask her for a date. I was very shy. I still am, I think."
He took her to a Colts-49ers game. The Colts were in the All-American Football Conference then, and Y.A. Tittle was quarterback. He told her they weren't very good and it wouldn't be a close game. "She said, 'Oh, I think it will be a tie.' "
He asked what she thought the score would be. She said 28-28.
"And it was. I think she's been right most of the time ever since."
He was so impressed, she still takes care of the family finances.
"We've really worked very much as a team," he says. "We always talked together about what I should do."
They have two kids and one grandchild. Son Sean McManus is president of sports at CBS. James K. McManus didn't become Jim McKay until he left Baltimore to do a CBS show called "The Real McKay." Thanks to a suggestion by his editor, that's also become the title of his autobiography. (Margaret suggested "Fifty Years in Television and Still Working.")
When he speaks about that long-ago Colts game, McKay can still recall all the highlights, vividly and succinctly, attributes that have always been hallmarks of his broadcast style.
The starting gate
He left the Evening Sun city room for television on Oct. 29, 1947. His TV world wasn't very wide then. Baltimore only had about 1,600 sets. But it was sports.
That day, he and Joe Kelly, a racing writer who is also still active, climbed into the plywood WMAR booth on the roof of the press box at Pimlico Race Track to broadcast the fifth and sixth races. WMAR then recessed four hours and returned with the Baltimore Bullets playing the Indianapolis Kautskys. Baltimore won 68-61.
The first broadcast only made the local pages, even though The Sun then owned WMAR. They'd rushed on the air to beat WBAL to the first local broadcast. McKay -- still Jim McManus then -- didn't even make the paper.
From that inauspicious start, McKay developed a reputation as a rock-solid reporter, one who could also report with emotion no one doubts is genuine. He eventually covered 11 Olympic Games, and won 13 Emmys, a Peabody, a Polk and numerous other broadcast journalism awards. ABC wisely turned to him when terrorists took Israeli athletes hostage at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He was on the air for 16 hours.
"They're all gone," he said, simply, sadly, when he had to report the death of the 11 hostages.
"Jim McKay became the face of the Olympic Games at Munich in 1972," in the judgment of William Taaffe of Sport Illustrated. ABC's news chairman, Roone Arledge, then sports president, told Taaffe that he picked McKay at Munich "because Jim has a depth and sense of the moment. ... He has a descriptive ability and can stay on the air for a long time. He would have made a wonderful anchorman at a convention or in an election."
McKay wasn't the host of the 1972 games; colleague Chris Schenkel was.
"I said, 'Roone, why'd you put me?' He said, 'I don't think of you as a sportscaster. I think of you as a reporter.' "
That's pretty much the way McKay thinks of himself.
"When the Munich tragedy struck, people said: 'How could you do that? You're a sports reporter.' I said, well, there really isn't that much difference. The skills of reporting are the same no matter what you're doing."
Anything that he says on the air, he's always written himself.
"I'd always feel like it was phony if I'd read what somebody else wrote. And it's the same way with my book.
"A couple of people have said, 'Why don't you just, you know, make it as told to somebody? And you don't have to do anything.' It would feel fake to me. And I can't imagine I could communicate my actual thoughts through somebody else."
As a reporter, he says, he likes the feature approach best -- storytelling, depicting the people involved in the story.
"The best way I can put it is that a sports event is a story, but a story that is writing itself before my eyes and it's my job to pick up on what that story is as it develops ... to alert the viewer as to how that story is progressing.
"You're a storyteller, but you don't make it up. The event shows itself to us. My job is to kind of explain the possibilities of the stories, the various endings that might occur."
Arledge first learned about McKay's grace under pressure at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The power had failed everywhere but in the stadium where McKay was waiting to broadcast the closing ceremonies. The only picture getting back to New York was from the stadium.
Arledge called his producer and said: "Tell McKay in two minutes to start talking."
So, McKay says, "I did. About a half an hour later he called back and [told the producer]: 'Apologize to Jim. He must be running out of things to say.' "
"You know Jim better than that," the producer replied. "He's hardly said hello."
Tip of the hat
He has a fund of stories that seems bottomless and a memory that seems infinite.
He recalls the days when he was a kid in Philadelphia and nuts about sports. His father took him to Penn-Navy games at Franklin Field and to Athletics games in Shibe Park when Connie Mack managed wearing a three-piece suit. "Can you imagine today a manager in a straw hat and a detachable high collar? The only time he took off his hat was in the World Series against the Cubs -- in 1929, I think it was."
It was -- you could look it up.
"The A's were losing eight to nothing in the seventh inning and they got 10 runs. And Connie, the only time on record, came out of the dugout and threw his straw hat in the air. I was there on that day! I was 8 years old."
But even the lingering thrill of that ancient victory doesn't sway McKay the exacting reporter.
"To tell the truth, I don't remember [it]. My father took me and he said: 'You can always tell people you were there the day Connie Mack threw his straw hat.' "
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