Jim McKay, who spoke the first words on a broadcast on Baltimore television and matured with the fledgling medium into one of its most respected and beloved sports commentators, died this morning of natural causes. He was 86.
McKay lived with his cherished wife Margaret on a small horse farm in Monkton. Although his career in television spanned more than 50 years and covered more than five million miles, most as host of the archetypal "Wide World of Sports," it was defined by one riveting performance during the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
After eight armed Arab terrorists wearing ski masks stormed the sleeping quarters of Israeli athletes and held them hostage, McKay reported live for 16 hours as Americans hung on his every word. By the time 11 Israelis had died, and McKay had uttered the words, "They're all gone," the gentlemanly journalist who had started his career as a police reporter at The Evening Sun in Baltimore had become a national treasure.
Born James Kenneth McManus, he continually broke new ground in a medium that grew into a dominant force in American society. In 1968, he became the first sports broadcaster to win an Emmy award. In 1990, he was the first to receive an Emmy for lifetime achievement. He won 13 Emmys in all and not for merely standing in front of a camera and talking sports. He is the only broadcaster to win Emmys for sports and news reporting and for writing.
McKay covered 12 Olympics. He was the original host of "ABC's Wide World of Sports" in 1961. His opening words became embedded in the American consciousness: "Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, the human drama of athletic competition, this is ABC's 'Wide World of Sports.' "
His son, Sean McManus, president of CBS News and CBS Sports, said in a statement that his father had a "flawless reputation and was a legendary figure in the history of sports television."
"However, with all his achievements the most important thing in his life was his family," McManus said.
"Jim is synonymous with the Olympic Games," said United States Olympic Committee Chairman Peter Ueberroth. As host of ABC's Olympic coverage, he brought into our homes the triumphs and struggles of athletes from around the world. Jim told those stories with great skill and care, and did so by taking the time to understand not only the athlete, but the compelling journey that brought them to the Games.
Al Michaels, a longtime ABC broadcaster and host of Monday Night Football, said McKay's "enthusiasm permeated every event he covered and thus always made it far more interesting. I always thought of him as a favorite teacher. He was so into whatever it was he was doing that he drew you into every event he covered."
McKay was born Sept. 24, 1921, in Philadelphia. He was 15 when his father Joe, a real-estate appraiser, was transferred and moved the family to Baltimore. McKay graduated from Loyola High School and Loyola College, where he played intramural sports, was sports editor of the college paper and served as P.A. announcer at basketball games.
After graduating from college McKay served three and a half years in the Navy during World War II, mostly on escort duty in the South Atlantic aboard minesweepers. Then he returned to Baltimore, landing a job at The Evening Sun as a police reporter.
In the fall of 1947, two editors summoned him and two others to a meeting. The Sunpapers was planning to launch Baltimore's first TV station but it had no producer, director or announcer. 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."
In April 1961, while McKay was covering the Masters for CBS, he received a call from Roone Arledge at ABC Sports. Arledge asked whether McKay would be interested in a summer-replacement show covering sports not usually seen on TV. Committed to only 20 episodes, the show would be called "World of Sports." That was changed at the last minute to "Wide World of Sports."
The show debuted April 29, 1961, televising two major track-and-field meets, one in Philadelphia, one in Des Moines, cutting back and forth between them. The show was nearly canceled that summer. It survived to introduce viewers to bowling, cricket, pro 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 by which all networks covered sports.