Eloquent sportscaster told the world of 11 Olympians’ deaths

Times Staff Writer

Jim McKay, whose commanding presence, eloquence and versatility as a broadcaster made him the face and voice of sporting events around the globe for American audiences, died Saturday. He was 86.

McKay died of natural causes at his farm in Monkton, Md., according to his son, Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports.

It was McKay with three unforgettable words -- “They’re all gone” -- who relayed the news that 11 Israeli athletes had been murdered by terrorists at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. And it was McKay who was the host of “Wide World of Sports,” the breakthrough TV show that exposed audiences to athletes both familiar and obscure in events both universally celebrated and largely unknown from locations around the planet before technology made such telecasts commonplace.


“It’s just a shame,” fellow broadcaster Al Michaels said from his home in Brentwood. “He was a gem, a very unique man. He was able to combine his vast intelligence with his heart. I would marvel at how he could put words together.”

McKay was never more effective, Michaels said, than when he received the news that earlier, optimistic reports about the fate of the Israelis were erroneous.

“Those three words pretty much sum Jim up,” Michaels said. “He didn’t overstate it or over-dramatize it. He got right to the point. It was a very human response. That was Jim’s heart talking. He was devastated that he had to be the one to inform mothers, fathers and other relatives that their loved ones were dead. It was a burden no one would want. He told you what happened, then got out of the way because he understood that everybody needed to absorb it on their own terms.”

Sports, McKay later said, lost its innocence that day.

McKay, who covered 12 Olympics, won 13 Emmy Awards, including the first for a sportscaster. But none were more meaningful to him than the Emmys for sports and news along with a George Polk Award for his coverage in Munich.

“That’s the most memorable single moment of my career,” McKay said later. “I don’t know what else would match that.”

Said his son, “He had a remarkable career and a remarkable life. Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn’t come up to me and say how much they admired my father.”

He was born James Kenneth McManus on Sept. 24, 1921, in Philadelphia to Joseph, a real estate appraiser, and Florence McManus. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Loyola College in Baltimore in 1943.

After serving in the Navy in World War II, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant, McKay began his career in the media as a police and general assignment reporter and aviation editor at the Baltimore Evening Sun. Within a year, he moved to TV, where he mixed in roles as a variety show host and weatherman with news and sports before specializing in sports.

In 1950, he changed his professional name to Jim McKay.

After more than a decade at CBS, it was on to ABC, where he made his significant mark in broadcasting.

It may be difficult to understand today, when satellites and the Internet bring sports from around the world into homes on demand, but when it began in 1961, “Wide World of Sports” was a daring undertaking. Not only was Roone Arledge, then head of ABC Sports, gambling it would be financially feasible to send his crews around the world, he was also staking his reputation on the ability to attract audiences by mixing standard sporting events with the offbeat, such as log-rolling, barrel-racing, cliff-diving and the high-flying exploits of motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel. To pull it off, Arledge needed the perfect host.

Enter McKay.

“Through ‘Wide World of Sports,’ ” Michaels said, “Jim took people to places they had never been. You could sit at home on a Saturday afternoon and see what East Germany looked like, what the Soviet Union looked like, what Cuba looked like. Those were places Americans were normally forbidden from visiting. Jim was your tour guide.”

“ ‘Wide World of Sports’ became the big signature of ABC sports,” said longtime Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg. “It had that kind of prominence in people’s minds. It was huge. Too often, the people and the events are not compatible. But in that case, it was one of those times in television where it worked. The sports worked because, in Jim McKay, they had somebody to tie it all together. And it worked for McKay because of the sports.”

Although McKay often covered lesser-known events on “Wide World of Sports,” over the years he was also a fixture at the biggest, including horse racing’s Triple Crown races, the Masters golf tournament and the Indianapolis 500.

On the day McKay died, this master of elocution received lofty words of praise from various admirers.

“He brought a reporter’s eye, a literate touch and, above all, a personal humanity to every assignment,” sportscaster Bob Costas said. “He had a combination of qualities seldom seen in the history of the medium, not just sports.”

“He was one of the fathers of sports television,” said KCBS sportscaster Jim Hill. “I learned the importance of always being prepared from him. There was never anything he covered that he didn’t seem prepared for. I think he has left a little of him in each of us in the business.”

Said Bob Iger, president and chief executive of the Walt Disney Co., “He was a regular guy who wrote and spoke like a poet.”

Michaels also remembered another McKay, a great companion off the air. The two, covering the Kentucky Derby, were staying in a run-down hotel in Louisville. As they walked to their rooms, McKay and Michaels found themselves entering a dim hallway with only a few dingy lightbulbs.

“Jim started singing, ‘Hello darkness, my old friend,’ from the Simon and Garfunkel song, ‘The Sound of Silence,’ causing us both to burst into laughter,” Michaels said.

“That was Jim, always rolling with the punches.”

In addition to McManus, McKay’s survivors include his wife, Margaret, and his daughter, Mary.

Services are pending.