Sportscaster Jack Whitaker is a fine example of why they call them the “good old days,” when a few gifted fellows with bulky microphones and graying hair spoke of the majesty of sport and the grandeur of grand old games and when being “slick” could never be considered a compliment.
Whitaker’s television style, as it was exhibited on CBS and ABC from 1961 to 1995, certainly wasn’t slick. It was sophisticated and smart. He had style, which is why today, his admirers say he stands apart as one of the most accomplished of television’s early generation of wordsmiths, not so much an announcer as an essayist who dared to be poetic when just clever would do.
“He was a thoughtful guy in a medium that was built for speed rather than contemplation,” says Rich Shefchik, former TV critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and now a sports novelist. “When he combined the right words with the right tone in the right setting, as he so often did, his mini-essays could make you stop and admire them as they went sailing majestically out of the park.”
To say Whitaker is revered by other sports broadcasters and executives is an understatement. “I admired Jack so much. So did everybody else,” says Frank Gifford, who was teamed with Whitaker in Gifford’s early days at CBS. “He had a wonderful voice. He was intelligent. He’s just an extraordinary guy.”
Whitaker, 88, still lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia where he grew up and had his first fame as an on-air sportscaster for WCAU, then a CBS-owned station (NBC owns it now). It was quite a crew. One of his news buddies at the station was Ed McMahon. The anchorman was the soon-to-be legendary John Facenda, who was to become the “Voice of God” for the first years of NFL Films.
Whitaker and McMahon weren’t very excited about their long-term prospects at the station, Whitaker recalls; they would take the train to New York City, pound the pavement on Madison Avenue, then hustle to get back to the station by 11:00.
Eventually, McMahon became Johnny Carson’s sidekick. And Whitaker ended up announcing NFL games for CBS. Sports viewers probably remember him most for his work at major golf tournaments, at the world’s premier horseracing events, at several Olympics, and as part of the broadcast team at the first Super Bowl.
He has a lifetime of great moments. He has vivid memories of talking to stars like NFL Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin and NBA great Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul Jabbar), two sports legends he thought were particularly interesting because they had “varied interests, not just sports.” Indeed, Whitaker makes plain, that while he loves sports, he’s interested in a lot more than that and sometimes ponders the experiences he missed outside the sports world.
Still he has covered so many amazing events it’s hard to say he has missed much. Ask him for his most vivid memory, and he can’t answer that question but is sure that high on the list was covering the Belmont Stakes in 1973 and witnessing Secretariat’s amazing 31-length victory. It’s a performance he succinctly calls “perfect.”
As the race ended, he exclaimed to his audience that Secretariat was so amazingly dominating that day, “I believe Dick Butkus could have ridden this horse today and won.”
Golf was also one of his specialties. He covered several Masters Tournaments — and was banished after one year when he innocently called a group of spectators following Jack Nicholas to the 18th hole a “mob.” The Masters didn’t have mobs, it was explained.
But a passage he’s often remembered for was uttered at the British Open at St. Andrews —and it seems emblematic of the essay you’re not likely to hear on a sports broadcast today. He peered out at the stunning, ancient, and impossibly challenging Scottish field of green and said, “Nobody designed this course. Nobody with a pencil and $2 million and five bulldozers. This was made by nature. It comes out of the ground. It was done with wind and rain and sun and the help of a few sheep. And so, while, for most Americans and other people, it’s not love at first sight at St. Andrews … St. Andrews’ Old Course is like a dry martini … an acquired taste, and, as such, it remains with you forever.”
(He says he tried to be a better golfer himself. He asked the pros for help: “I had the best teachers I the world. I was the worst student.”)
Signature moments like that at St. Andrews gave Whitaker his well-deserved reputation. “Jack was an original,” says Ed Goren, former vice chairman of Fox Sports Media Group and fellow inductee into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame this year. “He was an essayist. He was the Eric Severeid of CBS Sports. Jack had an appreciation of the English language, and, in broadcasting at times, we abuse the English language.”
Some people say some of the same things about Jim McKay, the sportscaster most remembered for his work at ABC’s Olympics telecasts and his unique spin at ABC’sWild World of Sports. His son, Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, recalls the day Whitaker left CBS and joined ABC, where he and McKay would work together.
“My dad said, ‘Of all the people up there writing in sports television, I think Jack Whitaker is the best.’ Really, when ABC hired him, it was almost like Montana and Marino as your two quarterbacks. They were both so strong and so good.”
He won the first-ever Emmy as Outstanding Sports Performer in 1979, and he’s in at least two sports halls of fame. The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences gave him its Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award earlier this year. “That blew me away,” he says.
Whitaker, though, is not an excitable type. He’s more thoughtful than that, and he has the ability to recognize that, after all, it’s just a game, however important some may seem. It’s the athletes more than the competition itself that filled him with wonder.
In a candid and superb interview with MSG’s Fran Healy several years ago, Whitaker was asked what sport he most liked to cover. He answered, surprisingly, track and field, “because,” he explained, “it’s the basis of all sports. And I found those track and field athletes, when I was doing it back in the ’60s and ’70s, to be more introspective than any athletes I’ve ever interviewed.”
Whitaker seems to have perfectly understood how major sports events were just available metaphors for triumph and loss in life’s bigger games. He seemed acutely aware of that, and, as TV critic Shefchik points out he was “one of the few TV announcers who was given both the time and the mandate to be eloquent” about sports, and about life, too.