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June 11, 2008

Jim McKay

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Yesterday morning the spotlight of the sports world was focused on the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore as people came together to pay their last respects to Maryland’s own Jim McKay.


Mr. McKay passed away Saturday at his horse farm in Monkton, in northern Baltimore County. He was 86 years-old.


For many who grew up watching early television, Mr. McKay was one of the first recognizable television celebrities in our lives.


One of the driving forces of television in its infancy was sports programming and many a youngster learned manners, poise, integrity, and speaking skills from Mr. McKay.


Much has been written about the socializing effect television can have on young impressionable minds. Of course, in recent years, much of the conversation has centered on the concern over the terrible impact that the manners, behavior and violence displayed on television are having on today’s children.


We may not have known at the time that we were learning to be gracious ladies and gentleman – but learning social skills is exactly what was happening. We just thought we were watching sports.


Mr. McKay was always very knowledgeable, well spoken, and gentlemanly as compared with television and sports of today which frequently appears to emphasize empty glitz, pizzazz, and mindless, banal banter over depth, talent, and integrity.


Mr. McKay was born James Kenneth McManus on September 24, 1921, in Philadelphia. His family moved to Baltimore when he was 15 years-old, according to a definitive article in Sunday’s Baltimore Sun by reporters David Zurawik, Tom Keyser, and Justin Fenton.


Running nearly 3,000 words in length, it is must reading for anyone who really wants to gain insight into the life and times of Mr. McKay – and why so many came to admire him as one of the truly great gentlemen of our time.


For the seasoned newspaper reader, one subtle tribute stands out. The AP stylebook now has people simply referred to by their last name after they are introduced in an article. Unfortunately not many newspapers use a modified AP style that allows a writer to refer to a person by “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Dr.” after they are first mentioned.


In the article which appeared in The Sun on Sunday, Jim McKay is referred to as “Mr. McKay.” It is one of the few times in recent memory that I can remember such respect for the subject of a Sun news story.


As it should be, Mr. McKay began his career as a police reporter for Baltimore’s Western District, in 1946, for The Evening Sun.


Before Mr. McKay joined the paper, he graduated from Loyola High School and Loyola College, where he “was sports editor of the college paper and … the public address announcer at basketball games. He was president of his senior class, and president and star of the drama club, which abruptly altered the course of his life,” said The Sun.


“After graduating from college, Mr. McKay served 3 1/2 years in the Navy during World War II, mostly on escort duty in the South Atlantic aboard minesweepers.”


In 1947, the A. S. Abell Company, publisher of the Sunpapers at the time, started the 11th television station in the country, WMAR – TV.


Last Sunday’s article noted that Mr. McKay did not understand why he was being recruited for the brand new medium. He was told, “(D)idn't you say you were president of the dramatic society at Loyola College? That's good enough for now.”


The television station began on Oct. 27, 1947, with a live broadcast of “two horse races at Pimlico.” The article noted “the first words heard on television in Baltimore were spoken by Mr. (McManus) McKay: “This is WMAR-TV in Baltimore, operating for test purposes.”


He changed his name in 1950 to Mr. McKay after he was recruited that year to work for CBS-TV. His first program was “The Real McKay.”


Many will remember Mr. McKay for different reasons. In his long and storied career, he broadcast 25 Kentucky Derbys beginning in 1978.


He was the first host of the “Wide World of Sports” in 1961, and over the next four decades, he introduced many different sports to the American living room other than the traditional fare of baseball, football, or basketball. Many will remember the iconoclastic opening for each episode: “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”


He reported on the Olympics for the first time in 1960 and went on to cover a total of 12 Olympics throughout his career.


For many people who are not sports enthusiasts, his place in history occurred when he anchored the live coverage, for 16 hours straight, of the terribly tragic 1972 Munich Olympics, when 11 Israeli athletes were senselessly murdered by Palestinian terrorists.


History will forever remember Mr. McKay’s concluding remark when the ordeal was over: “When I was a kid, my father used to say our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized. Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They have now said that there were 11 hostages. Two were killed in their rooms this morning – excuse, yesterday morning. Nine were killed at the airport. They're all gone.”


He is the only sportscaster to win an Emmy for news coverage – for his reporting at the 1972 Olympics.


In 1968, he was the first sports broadcaster to win an Emmy for sports coverage – his first of 13 Emmys. He received a lifetime achievement award in 1990. In 1995, he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.


His death marks the end of an era. He leaves behind a legacy of sharing, with several generations, a life known for the thrill of victory.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:


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