It's a tough day for Baby Boomer sports fans.
Jim McKay, the signature personality for ABC Sports, died at the age of 86. His many fans not only think of him as one of the top broadcasters of his time, but as something of a friend. Which, in some ways, he was.
McKay is well-known for his work on "Wide World of Sports," which debuted in 1960. Executive Roone Arledge has put on an anthology show, mostly consisting of events that paid very little or nothing in rights fees. McKay was there for many of those events. He didn't have a signature play-by-play call that lasted for the ages, but McKay wore well -- no easy task. He introduced people to all sorts of sporting activities throughout the world. Irish hurling, track and field, barrel jumping, World Cup skiing, auto racing -- it really was a wide world.
And McKay handled it all with equal portions of grace, enthusiasm and humanity. He knew that barrel jumping was on no one's list of important events, but he also knew that it meant something to the competitors. So McKay and the rest of the announcing staff (Bill Flemming comes to mind) treated people like Ken and Leo LeBel with respect and dignity. It's a sign of the impression that the broadcast made that I still remember the LeBel brothers and how they jumped at Grossinger's Resort in Liberty, New York.
McKay mixed plenty of other good qualities, of course. He knew the value of good writing in a broadcast; indeed, he worked for a Baltimore newspaper for a while before he made the somewhat unexpected move to this new toy called television. Heck, he could quote poetry. And McKay had that quality that made him approachable; you might think twice about saying hello to Howard Cosell on the street, but you'd assume McKay would be thrilled to hear praise from you no matter how many times he'd heard such words before.
You'll be hearing a lot once again in the next few days about McKay's work at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He was on the air for hours during the terrorist attack on the Israeli team, serving as the only immediate source of information to an anxious public. That day, the start of terrorism on a worldwide stage, became the day that everything changed. It's instructive that Cosell wanted badly to anchor the coverage on that day, but Arledge made the call that McKay's special qualities were appropriate for the occasion. After McKay's work that day, every sports broadcaster in the country realized that he or she wouldn't have to take jokes about working in "the toy department" any more.
McKay said later that he realized the parents of one of the Israeli athletes, David Berger, were watching back in suburban Cleveland, so he made sure to be sensitive to their situation. Typical.
Television sports wasn't as ubiquitous back in the Sixties, so fans tended to gobble up everything that was shown back then. It was a more innocent time, and McKay was a perfect host. He'd be one now as well.