Reflections on McKay as Father
CBS’s McManus Has Unique Perspective
CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus is drawing a great deal of comfort from the knowledge that his father, legendary sportscaster Jim McKay, spent the last years of his life living exactly as he wanted to. Mr. McKay was 86 when he died June 7.
“I think he loved his entire life, but he spent the last 15 years of his life basically on his farm with my mother, spending all of his time with her,” Mr. McManus said. “He died peacefully, very peacefully at home, lying next to the woman he loved. So there’s a lot to be sad about, but there’s also a lot to be really, really thankful about and really happy about.”
Mr. McManus was reflecting on his father’s life two days after a proverbial Who’s Who of the sports and television worlds converged on Baltimore to pay eloquent tribute to Mr. McKay and his career. It was a CV that included trotting the globe for ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and guiding the country through the heart-stopping massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.
As the son of a leading broadcast presence, Mr. McManus had been to 10 Indianapolis 500s with his father by the time he was 20, as well as seven U.S. Open golf championships.
“I was in trucks from the age of 8 watching people like Roone Arledge and Chuck Howard and Don Ohlmeyer produce. I was in Munich in 1972.” There would be less dramatic Olympics in Innsbruck, Lake Placid and Montreal.
His earliest trips were to the World Barrel Jumping Championship in New York and the World Dog Sled Championships in New Hampshire.
Asked if it was inevitable that he would follow in his father’s far-flung footsteps, Mr. McManus said his mother, Margaret, had nursed the idea of her son being a stay-at-home surgeon. Mr. McManus could have gone to Wall Street, having been offered a job at the end of a college internship with Salomon Brothers. But “there was no other choice for me” than TV, he said.
Mr. McManus remembers missing his father to the point of tears during his constant absences. He said he would look forward to the homecomings on late Sunday nights or Mondays, when his father arrived bearing stories for him and sister Mary. It was a family life grounded on the 60-year marriage of Mr. McKay and Margaret.
The tales were almost always about the athletes Mr. McKay loved: the golfers, the jockeys, the race car drivers.
Mr. McManus recalled Mr. McKay recounting his 1967 coverage of A.J. Foyt, when the driver won at the Indianapolis 500 and then traveled to the 24 Hours at LeMans, which he also won. It was something no other driver had done.
When Mr. McKay came home, Mr. McManus asked, “What was it like to be with A.J. in the American heartland and in the French countryside?”
Mr. McKay replied, “I sat A.J. down for an interview and I asked him that exact same question. A.J. looked at me and said, ‘You know, Jim, last night they served me a fish with the damn head still on it.’”
“I’ll remember that story for the rest of my life,” Mr. McManus said “There were so many stories like that.”
Howard, Howard, Howard
Years later, there would be a classic story about Howard Cosell, the lightning rod of ABC Sports.
“Most people had very much a love-hate relationship with Howard Cosell. My father and Howard always got along well,” Mr. McManus said. “My father was coming back in the early 1980s from the Kentucky Derby to Brown’s Hotel—it was late in the afternoon or early in the evening on Friday—after doing voice-overs.
“Howard was holding court in the lobby. He had journalists and he had fans and he had viewers and he was surrounded by bellboys. He looked at my father and he said, ‘Jim, there’s not a place in this entire city where I can go and get any peace. They will not leave me alone. There’s no place I can go to get away from these people.’ And in front of all these people, my father said, ‘Howard, have you considered your room?’”
It was for his storytelling that Mr. McKay was revered by everyday fans and by peers who became fans. In 1968, he became the first sportscaster to receive an Emmy. Twelve more would follow, including two for the 1972 Olympics, one for covering the terrible news and one for covering the Games.
Mr. McKay was more explorer than adventurer, Mr. McManus said. In a career of breaking new ground, Mr. McKay’s firsts included the first live reports and pictures from the Soviet Union during a USA-USSR track meet in the early 1960s.
“I would call him more curious, almost like an archeologist,” Mr. McManus said. “Remember, when he was going to these countries and covering these sports, people hadn’t seen gymnastics or swimming and diving. They hadn’t seen track and field on a national level. And he was going to places like Monte Carlo, like Prague, Czechoslovakia, like Sofia, Bulgaria, like Moscow, like Sao Paolo, Brazil.
“The early days of ‘Wide World of Sports’ in the 1960s was as much historical travelogue as sporting event,” Mr. McManus said. “He cared much less about the final score than he did the athletes and the locations and these strange sports people hadn’t seen before.”
As NBC sportscaster Bob Costas said earlier in the week, Mr. McKay thought the great stories were to be found on side streets wherever he was.
“He liked the obscure sports,” Ms. McManus said. “For someone who never did any of the major sports on a regular basis, never did NFL football, never did Major League Baseball, never did the NBA, to reap the kind of fame and have the kind of recognition he received is extraordinary. As Don Ohlmeyer said, ‘In many ways, he was the poet laureate of his television generation.’”