Jim McKay loves to tell stories. He's told stories about the wide world ofsports for 50 years. Now he's telling his own.
On Halloween, he finished the manuscript of the book-length story of his50 years in television, just two days after the anniversary of his -- andBaltimore's -- first television broadcast. He's got a lot of stories to tell.
For most of his half-century in television, he's been broadcastingbig-time sports, from the Olympic Games to the great golf tournaments to theTriple Crown to the Indianapolis 500. And since the creation of ABC-TV's "WideWorld 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 ofsport, competitors like the hapless Jamaican bobsled team and "Eddy theEagle," the self-taught English ski jumper who always fell short. He probablydid as much as any one sportscaster to boost figure skating and gymnasticstoward their now astronomical popularity, and he doesn't even like them allthat much. He wrote the "Wide World of Sports" signature line -- "the thrillof victory and the agony of defeat" -- and spawned a million cliches.
"I've seen it in news stories and headlines," he says. "I remember seeingit out in Oklahoma in the sign for a podiatrist: 'We cure the agony of defeet.' "
But for McKay, the key words in that same line are these: "the human dramaof athletic competition." He really believes in that.
In an era when sports reporting seems to deal with malfeasance andmiscreants as much as heroes and heroics, Jim McKay remains the ultimate niceguy. The words that come up over and over when people talk about McKay aresteadiness, honesty, decency.
He retains a certain old-fashioned decorum, like a favorite much-traveledand widely experienced uncle. He puts on a coat and tie for photos at thefence at his 40-acre horse farm near Monkton.
"Might as well be neat," he says. But he's extraordinarilyunprepossessing, as if they forgot to tell him he's an international TVpersonality.
At 76, he's remarkably active, lively, youthful -- and still lookingtoward 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 intelevision are the 49 years of his marriage to Margaret Dempsey, a solidnewspaper reporter in her own right.
"It'll be 50 years next October," he says. "Immaculate Conception Churchin 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 reallyfortunate we are to be here, to begin with. As Casey Stengel said, 'You gottaremember most guys my age are dead.' "
Margaret Dempsey was already a well-respected feature writer on theEvening Sun when Jim McManus joined the staff in 1946. He'd just returned fromWWII duty as commander of a minesweeper. She wasn't there on the day he firstcame 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 belongto 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-AmericanFootball Conference then, and Y.A. Tittle was quarterback. He told her theyweren't very good and it wouldn't be a close game. "She said, 'Oh, I think itwill 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 talkedtogether about what I should do."
They have two kids and one grandchild. Son Sean McManus is president ofsports at CBS. James K. McManus didn't become Jim McKay until he leftBaltimore to do a CBS show called "The Real McKay." Thanks to a suggestion byhis editor, that's also become the title of his autobiography. (Margaretsuggested "Fifty Years in Television and Still Working.")
When he speaks about that long-ago Colts game, McKay can still recall allthe highlights, vividly and succinctly, attributes that have always beenhallmarks of his broadcast style.
The starting gate
He left the Evening Sun city room for television on Oct. 29, 1947. His TVworld wasn't very wide then. Baltimore only had about 1,600 sets. But it wassports.
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 PimlicoRace Track to broadcast the fifth and sixth races. WMAR then recessed fourhours and returned with the Baltimore Bullets playing the IndianapolisKautskys. Baltimore won 68-61.
The first broadcast only made the local pages, even though The Sun thenowned WMAR. They'd rushed on the air to beat WBAL to the first localbroadcast. McKay -- still Jim McManus then -- didn't even make the paper.
From that inauspicious start, McKay developed a reputation as a rock-solidreporter, one who could also report with emotion no one doubts is genuine. Heeventually covered 11 Olympic Games, and won 13 Emmys, a Peabody, a Polk andnumerous other broadcast journalism awards. ABC wisely turned to him whenterrorists took Israeli athletes hostage at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He wason the air for 16 hours.
"They're all gone," he said, simply, sadly, when he had to report thedeath of the 11 hostages.
"Jim McKay became the face of the Olympic Games at Munich in 1972," in thejudgment of William Taaffe of Sport Illustrated. ABC's news chairman, RooneArledge, then sports president, told Taaffe that he picked McKay at Munich"because Jim has a depth and sense of the moment. ... He has a descriptiveability and can stay on the air for a long time. He would have made awonderful 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 asportscaster. 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 muchdifference. 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 astold to somebody? And you don't have to do anything.' It would feel fake tome. And I can't imagine I could communicate my actual thoughts throughsomebody 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 storythat is writing itself before my eyes and it's my job to pick up on what thatstory is as it develops ... to alert the viewer as to how that story isprogressing.
"You're a storyteller, but you don't make it up. The event shows itself tous. My job is to kind of explain the possibilities of the stories, the variousendings that might occur."
Arledge first learned about McKay's grace under pressure at the 1968Mexico City Olympics. The power had failed everywhere but in the stadium whereMcKay was waiting to broadcast the closing ceremonies. The only picturegetting back to New York was from the stadium.
Arledge called his producer and said: "Tell McKay in two minutes to starttalking."
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 tosay.' "
"You know Jim better than that," the producer replied. "He's hardly saidhello."
Tip of the hat
He has a fund of stories that seems bottomless and a memory that seemsinfinite.
He recalls the days when he was a kid in Philadelphia and nuts aboutsports. His father took him to Penn-Navy games at Franklin Field and toAthletics games in Shibe Park when Connie Mack managed wearing a three-piecesuit. "Can you imagine today a manager in a straw hat and a detachable highcollar? The only time he took off his hat was in the World Series against theCubs -- 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 got10 runs. And Connie, the only time on record, came out of the dugout and threwhis 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 McKaythe 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 strawhat.' "