Jim McKay dies at 86

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

Jim McKay, who in 1947 spoke the first words ever heard on Baltimore television and later became the model for the modern sports anchorman with his marathon effort amid a terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics, died yesterday of natural causes at his horse farm in Monkton. He was 86.

Raised in Baltimore, the former Evening Sun reporter covered virtually every major sports event on network TV during his half-century career.

And in nearly four decades at the helm of ABC's legendary Wide World of Sports, he gave voice to one of the most enduring catchphrases in popular culture with the show's opening words: "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."

But he will be remembered best for his work at the Munich Olympics, broadcast historians say.

After eight armed and masked Palestinian terrorists took Israeli athletes hostage at their Olympic dormitory, Mr. McKay anchored live coverage from Munich for 16 hours as viewers around the world looked on.

By the time 11 Israelis had died, and Mr. McKay had uttered the heartsick epitaph, "They're all gone," the soft-spoken journalist had ensured his place in broadcasting history. Analysts say he set a new standard of excellence for TV sports journalism that is yet to be surpassed.

"It was a great and defining performance not just for sports journalism, but for journalism period on early network television. It earned the medium a new kind of respect worldwide," said Douglas Gomery, scholar in residence at the University of Maryland's Library of American Broadcasting.

"But in the final analysis, that is only one part of a spectacular career," said Mr. Gomery, author of A History of Broadcasting in the United States. "Besides being the first real star network sportscaster, McKay was also the voice and the face of a revolutionary way of presenting sports as popular entertainment and culture designed by his boss, ABC executive Roone Arledge.

"McKay was the guy who made Arledge's vision for sports programming so inviting to millions of Americans for so many years on ABC. His was a huge and pioneering career."

Mr. McKay was the first sports broadcaster to win an Emmy (1968) and to receive a lifetime achievement award (1990). He won 13 Emmys - including news and sports Emmys for his Munich coverage - and a George Foster Peabody Award for lifetime achievement. After covering 12 Olympics, he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1995.

"For a generation of Americans, Jim was more than the much-honored host of Wide World of Sports and ABC's Olympic coverage. He was a talented and eloquent newsman and storyteller whose special gift was his ability to make the viewers at home genuinely care about more than just who won or lost," President Bush said in a statement.

"He had a remarkable career and a remarkable life," said Sean McManus, Mr. McKay's son, who is president of CBS News and Sports. "Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn't come up to me and say how much they admired my father."

Accolades poured in yesterday, but one of the most powerful came years earlier in a Sun interview with Peter Jennings, who reported at Munich with Mr. McKay in 1972.

"I've often said to folks that on that day in Munich, I don't think anybody better could have been in the chair," said Mr. Jennings, the ABC anchorman who died in 2005. "I've never been able to imagine anybody else doing it with as much grace and intelligence and precision.

"I sometimes wonder whether Jim ever got enough credit for his career. He's such a sweet and modest guy. Not only was he a pioneer in American television, in American television sports, he was just so damn good."

Mr. McKay was born James Kenneth McManus on Sept. 24, 1921, in Philadelphia.

He was 15 when his father, Joe, a real estate appraiser, was transferred and moved the family to Baltimore.

Mr. McKay graduated from Loyola High School and Loyola College, where he played intramural sports, was sports editor of the college paper and was the public address announcer at basketball games.

He was president of his senior class, and president and star of the drama club, which abruptly altered the course of his life.

After graduating from college, Mr. McKay served 3 1/2 years in the Navy during World War II, mostly on escort duty in the South Atlantic aboard minesweepers. Then he returned to Baltimore to look for his first real job.

"All I knew was that I wanted to be a newspaper reporter or a radio sports announcer," he wrote in The Real McKay, his autobiography, which was published in 1988. "Television? There was no such thing in Baltimore, not in the summer of 1946."

He landed a job at the Evening Sun as a police reporter. He moved up quickly to general-assignment reporter and then, in lieu of a raise, to aviation editor.

While at the paper, Mr. McKay met his future wife, star reporter Margaret Dempsey, who became his guiding force.

In the fall of 1947, Mr. McKay was 26 and earning $65 a week before taxes.

Two editors summoned him and two others to a meeting. The company that owned the The Sun and The Evening Sun was secretly planning to launch Baltimore's first TV station. It had accumulated equipment and technical gear but had no producer, director or announcer. Mr. McKay wrote in his book that he couldn't understand why he was being recruited.

"Well," he was told, "didn't you say you were president of the dramatic society at Loyola College? That's good enough for now."

On Oct. 27, 1947, Mr. McKay, still known as McManus, sat on an orange crate in a control room atop what is now the Bank of America building and spoke the first words heard on television in Baltimore: "This is WMAR-TV in Baltimore, operating for test purposes."

He was host of the first Baltimore telecast, two horse races at Pimlico. Joe Kelly, racing writer for The Sun, and Dave Woods, the track's publicity man, joined him as analysts.

"We had no script, no instructions or anything else," Mr. Kelly said. "I remember him telling me, 'When you're on television, just remember that you're talking to other people. If you can visualize two people in a living room, that's the way you should talk on television.' And I think Jim followed that all his life. He always seemed like he was talking to you."

The main local program was The National Sports Parade, sponsored by National Bohemian Beer. It was Baltimore's first hit TV show, on five afternoons a week from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

As host and director, Mr. McKay reported race results and interviewed just about anyone who would stand still long enough, from Milton Berle to hired singers and dancers.

"By the third day, the performers were wearing out," Mr. McKay wrote in his book. "I found myself with twenty minutes of airtime left and no musical numbers ready to go. So I got up and sang a song, fulfilling a lifelong secret ambition. From then on, I sang a song every day, a fact that in time would lead to a major upgrade in my career."

While in Baltimore, Mr. McKay did a little bit of everything. A typical assignment was covering the municipal swimming championships, which ran from morning to sundown. Mr. McKay "prattled on" for about a hundred races.

"We had the luxury in TV's infant days of being 'bad' in almost anything we wanted to try," he wrote. "I was a newsman and sports commentator. I sang and told funny stories. I dressed up as a gas station attendant for a commercial. I was host of what must have been television's first courtroom program, Traffic Court, starring a real-life traffic court judge. The question was not quality of programming, but quantity."

After three years on Baltimore television, Mr. McKay accepted a job in New York with CBS as host of a show similar to The National Sports Parade.

He started in 1950, and on his first day, Dick Swift, general manager of CBS-TV, and program director Dick Doan proposed changing his name from James K. McManus to Jim McKay so that they could call the show The Real McKay.

Mr. McKay recalled that "this was to be my first break into the big time, so I figured I'd better bend on the name."

The show debuted Aug. 14, 1950. A few days earlier, Mr. McKay had met Arthur Godfrey, then the biggest star in radio and television. Mr. Godfrey offered this advice, which Mr. McKay said he never forgot: "First, always be yourself on television. That camera has an X-ray quality to it, son; it spots a phony every time. And another thing, never talk to more than one person when you look into the camera lens. To the viewer at home, it appears that you are talking to them one-on-one, not to a great crowd."

Mr. McKay's new show, the first local program on WCBS-TV in New York, opened with a theme song that went "Brighten your day with The Real McKay / Here's a show just meant for you / We're gonna chase all your blues away / Gonna make you feel like The Real McKay / We've got old songs and O new songs - a little conversation, too / Now is the time to introduce to you The Real McKay."

He would then stride onstage and sing one of his and his wife's favorite songs, "It Had To Be You."

The Real McKay was canceled after a year and a half, but by then Mr. McKay had also started work at CBS as a sports broadcaster. He eventually spent 11 years with the network, at one point working sports shows from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., sleeping five hours, then returning for the The Morning Show, on which, he, in his words, played second banana to Walter Cronkite, the show's host.

That became too much, so Mr. McKay gave up the sports show. The Morning Show went off the air two months later. Mr. McKay struggled through uncertain times by hosting a college football show, then a courtroom show, The Verdict Is Yours and then a radio show, This Is New York.

In 1960, a decade after moving to New York, Mr. McKay suffered what he described as "a good old-fashioned nervous breakdown." He and his wife, who had developed and syndicated the first newspaper column about television personalities, considered moving back to Baltimore.

But in April 1961, while Mr. McKay was covering the Masters golf tournament for CBS, he received a call from Roone Arledge at ABC Sports. Mr. Arledge asked whether Mr. McKay would be interested in a summer replacement show covering sports not usually seen on TV. Committed to 20 episodes, the show would be called World of Sports. That was changed at the last minute to Wide World of Sports.

"I was looking only as far as the summer run and the much-needed paycheck," Mr. McKay wrote in his book. "It would have taken a true clairvoyant to imagine that my association with Arledge would last more than a quarter of a century."

The show debuted April 29, 1961, televising major track and field meets in Philadelphia and Des Moines, Iowa, cutting back and forth between them. Such a thing had never been done before.

"Still, nobody paid much attention to our first Wide World of Sports," Mr. McKay wrote. "The ratings were miserable. Television watchers were much more engaged with two pivotal events of the sixties - the Soviets putting the first man in space and the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. But we kept going."

The show was nearly canceled that summer. But it survived to show bowling, cricket, professional tennis, sports car racing, fast-pitch softball, water-skiing, swimming and diving, stock car racing, sled-dog racing, gymnastics, rodeo, hydroplane racing and golf.

The show's personal touch became the standard for network sports coverage.

There was no better example of that personal touch than Mr. McKay's Munich Olympics coverage.

He recalled the Munich tragedy in 1972 as the "halfway point of my career and the end of the age of innocence in sports."

He was called early in the morning of Sept. 5 and informed that terrorists had broken into the Olympic Village. He was on the air within an hour, a producer said.

Mr. McKay, who had been by the hotel pool at the time, was still wearing a wet bathing suit under his clothes when he first appeared on camera.

In the darkness, with little to go on but unconfirmed reports and taped images from earlier in the day, Mr. McKay and his colleagues reported live all night. They remained on the air until 5 a.m. Munich time, reporting details of the shootout and explosion at the airport in an ill-fated rescue attempt.

Cronkite sent him a message the next day: "Today you honored yourself, your network and your industry."

Mr. McKay said he didn't at first appreciate the impact of his performance. But his reporting during the event defined him, making him a star and elevating television and sports broadcasting.

Mr. McKay was the first American network sports commentator to visit mainland China. In 1991, he visited Cuba to interview Fidel Castro.

He might have been most in his element covering horse racing, which he fell in love with at age 14 when he attended a race at Laurel Park. Dave Johnson, who broadcast 25 Kentucky Derbys with Mr. McKay beginning in 1978, said he was most impressed with Mr. McKay's ability to write.

"He always had that yellow legal pad, and he'd sequester himself in any little space and come out with incredible lines. ... Those were all Jim's words. No one wrote for Jim McKay," Mr. Johnson said yesterday from the Belmont Stakes in New York.

In 1986, at age 65, Mr. McKay reduced by about half his appearances on Wide World of Sports. He figured that he had covered about 100 sports in 40 countries.

Four years earlier, he and his wife had moved back to Maryland. They bought Bellefield Farm in Monkton and moved into a house built in 1828. They built a barn for six horses, bred thoroughbreds and housed riding horses.

He came up with the idea of the Maryland Million, a series of races at Pimlico or Laurel Park for horses sired by Maryland stallions. Since its inauguration in 1986, the Maryland Million concept has been copied by 18 other states.

He remained on television for several years. Mr. McKay signed off at the close of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, marking the end of ABC's run of telecasting Olympics that ran virtually uninterrupted from 1964.

"Jim McKay, to me, is the Olympics," Dorothy Hamill, an Olympic figure skater and Baltimore resident, said yesterday. She heard the news of his death as she was folding laundry. "It took my breath away," she said.

In 2000, Mr. McKay called his last Preakness - at Pimlico, where his broadcasting career began - as it shifted from ABC to NBC.

Two years later, at age 80, he linked up with the rival network to assist in the coverage of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The agreement was trumpeted as "the return of Mr. Olympics."

That year, his high school, Loyola Blakefield, created the James K. McManus Award for excellence in journalism or the literary arts. Mr. McKay helped fund the award.

Mr. McKay and his wife purchased a minority stake in the Baltimore Orioles in 1993, and five years later he joined Cal Ripken and lent his star power to Washington and Baltimore's bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games.

Mr. McKay remained down to earth. Asked in a 2003 interview at his farm about being famous, he said, "I just have never noticed if people are looking at me."

"Jim's just totally oblivious," Margaret McKay said.

She said that nine of 10 people who approached Mr. McKay said, "Jim, I grew up with you." Mr. McKay would smile and say, "Thank you."

"Hardly anyone ever said Mr. McKay," his wife said. "They said Jim. And the men, they said that every Saturday afternoon their father would call them: 'Come in. It's time for Jim McKay.' And they sat down together and watched Wide World of Sports."

In addition to his wife and son, McKay is survived by a daughter, Mary Guba of Sparks; and three grandchildren.

Sun reporters Candus Thomson and Sandra McKee and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

An earlier version of this story in print and online incorrectly stated that a theater at Loyola College was named for Jim McKay. The Sun regrets the error.