Genius move to include the great Jack Whitaker in the CBS Super Bowl preview in Pasadena recently. Getting Whitaker to talk about Super Bowl I is like having Longstreet talk about Manassas, or Moses read from the Book of Exodus.
Jim Nantz, the network’s current alpha voice, gushed over Whitaker during introductions. And why not?
Whitaker, 91 and living in Palm Desert, is one of sports broadcasting’s founding fathers — erudite and handsome, with the profile of a falcon and a flair for a good story. In the era CBS was inventing instant replay, Whitaker was doing play by play and later crafting instant essays on Super Bowls, the Kentucky Derby and the Masters.
In Pasadena to speak to TV critics and reporters, his butterscotch tie and pocket square almost belabor the point: Whitaker, the last surviving announcer from Super Bowl I, is a gold standard in broadcasting. For an hour after, he talked with his typical craggy gravitas about that inaugural game and the evolution of the business in general.
• The missing telecast. In a cost-cutting move, the networks long ago taped over the original Super Bowl telecasts. “Money crunchers would come in and get rid of a lot of tape,” said Whitaker, who did the play by play of the second half of Super Bowl I.
His overall memory of the game itself: “Nervousness. I was apprehensive.” Both CBS and NBC were carrying the game, and stakes were high. “Whoever won was able to charge more for their commercials the following year,” he said.
• Two second-half kickoffs. The officials in Super Bowl I ordered the second-half kickoff re-kicked when NBC missed it, leaving the Packers’ Don Chandler to take a mulligan.
• How Vince Lombardi once locked him in a closet. In the 1967 NFL title game, the famously cantankerous coach banished Whitaker and his cameraman to a closet after producers sent them to the locker room too early. “Lombardi would not let anyone in the locker room till 10 minutes after the game,” Whitaker said. Yet, he still has good memories of Lombardi. “He was a good guy, if you were an honest guy. He’d give you what you wanted.”
Like many announcers of his era, Whitaker had a sense of history and an apprenticeship in radio. The son of a Philadelphia salesman, he grew up reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and developing a love for history, which he would experience first hand during World War II.
“We went from Omaha Beach to Berlin,” he recalled. “D-day plus three. I got with the 2nd Armored Division. The plan was twofold: Our tanks would never leave us, they always backed us up. And we rode a lot. But we walked a lot too.”
Back from the war, he joined a tiny 250-watt radio station in Pottsville, Pa., then made the jump to television in 1950. By 1956, he was announcing Philadelphia Eagles games for CBS. By 1960, he was doing baseball’s game of the week with Frankie Frisch, “the Fordham Flash.”
As pro football exploded in the 1960s, so did the dream team of CBS announcers: Ray Scott, Jack Buck, Lindsey Nelson, Pat Summerall, Frank Gifford and Whitaker. Later, Vin Scully and John Madden.
Whitaker set himself apart from the other voices with his essays loaded with a wry sophistication. Whitaker counts sportswriter Red Smith as an influence, as well as renowned political commentator Eric Sevareid.
“I just made notes as the game went along,” he said. “I tried to take islands of thought, islands of ideas and link them together, and hoped to come up with a good ending.
“It was kind of spooky, but it was fun.”
So, sure, a genius move bringing in Whitaker. But also a reminder of how the auditory art of capturing a game has waned and wobbled, and how the industry has largely failed to find suitable successors.
“I’m playing through everybody,” Whitaker said of all the colleagues he’s outlasted.
He is indeed.
Follow Chris Erskine on Twitter @erskinetimes