McKay?s star continues to shine

Local,Opinion,Michael Olesker
The way Jim McKay always told the story, he was a kid newspaper reporter still using his own name, Jim McManus, when they pulled him into a room late one afternoon and told him about this brand new miracle called television.

Since it was only 1947, hardly anybody around here knew much about it. McManus was thrilled to be working on a newspaper, The Evening Sun, and sat there stunned when an assistant city editor named Bob Cochrane told him the paper was starting its own station, to be called WMAR-TV.

The only things they still needed were producers, directors and announcers. The paper wanted McManus — soon to be called McKay — to handle the announcing. At least, until they could get somebody with actual ability to handle the job.

“Why me?” McKay asked.

“Because,” said Cochrane, “you were president of the Drama Club at Loyola College, weren’t you?”

On such whims, history commences. For half a century, Jim McKay globe-trotted like nobody since Marco Polo. Five million miles, McKay once computed it. One week in Mexico City, the next in Melbourne. One week in Munich, the next in Monterey. And that’s just the beginning of the M’s.

But we always connected him to Maryland and took pride in one of our own guys making it so big, and remaining so humble in the face of so many honors and so many remarkable moments.

And that’s why the Sports Legends Museum will honor McKay’s memory Nov. 1, with a Champions Tribute to Jim McKay dinner at the new downtown Hilton Hotel. Tickets are available. It’s a fund-raiser for the Babe Ruth Museum’s educational programming.

Among those expected are Sugar Ray Leonard, Dorothy Hamill, Katie Hoff, B.J. Surhoff, Dominique Dawes, Renaldo “Skeets” Nehemiah, Kimmie Miessner, Michael Phelps’ mother Debbie and others, including McKay’s daughter, Mary Guba.

They’re all too young to recall when the story started, but a generation of Baltimoreans remembers it. The bosses sent McKay out to Pimlico for that first broadcast. He stood there with the racing writer Joe Kelley and the Pimlico PR guy, Dave Woods, and described the action.

How did he do? Typical of McKay, when he wrote his autobiography, “The Real McKay,” he says it went “reasonably well” — and then mentions the thing that really stuck in his memory.

“A workman carrying a ladder walked directly between Joe Kelley and me and the camera,” McKay wrote. “The man’s mistake was understandable — in those days, two men with a microphone meant radio. It never occurred to people that a picture of the scene might be sent through the air.”

From such a humble beginning, the world eventually opened up for McKay — and for television: all those years on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, all those Olympics, all that racing around the planet.

McKay’s strength was his humility. Unlike some sportscasters of his extended era, McKay never went for bombast, never thought he was the heart of the action, always understood he was there mainly to provide context for moving pictures.

Could anyone have summed it up with more heartbreaking terseness, at the 1972 Munich Olympics, when 23 hours of waiting ended and the awful news arrived that Israeli hostages had been killed?

“They’re all gone,” McKay said.

Mostly, though, his days — and viewers’ — were filled with the joy of sport. He was there when Bob Beamon’s long jump in Mexico City seemed as if it might never end. He was there when Arnie and Jack battled across their fairways and greens. When Roger Bannister became the first ever to break the four-minute mile, it was McKay who got the first interview with the great Brit. And Jim was the first American TV sportscaster to enter the People’s Republic of China during its long isolation.

But he was also a guy whose Maryland roots deepened over the years. He and Margaret lived here whenever Jim slowed down long enough to nest. He helped found thoroughbred racing’s Maryland Million. He was part owner of the Baltimore Orioles.

And, always, he seemed like a neighborhood guy who’d make you comfortable shooting the breeze at the end of a day. When they gather Nov. 1 to remember McKay, that’s part of the draw: He wasn’t just some broadcast star the whole world seemed to know.

He was one of us. He was one of the guys rooting home a winner at Pimlico, which is where the whole glorious thing got started.
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