A spectacular way to present an event

Sep 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The “CBS Sports Spectacular” was TV’s first sports anthology program. It was the brainchild of Bill MacPhail, the head of CBS Sports and a man who was ahead of his time.
In 1960, CBS had televised the Olympic Games. The Winter Games that year were in Squaw Valley, Calif., where a group of American college kids beat the vaunted Russian ice hockey team for the gold medal. The Summer Games were held in Rome and produced the graceful Wilma Rudolph in track and field and the graceful Cassius Clay in boxing. Interest in Olympic events was high at the time and so the “CBS Sports Spectacular” came into being.
The series was scheduled for the first 13 weeks of the year, a fill-in on Sunday afternoons until baseball season opened. The show would lean heavily on Olympic-style sports, but it would also serve up some bizarre events that were difficult to categorize. Bud Palmer was the host in the beginning and when he left I took over. It was like diving into a pool of icy water.
In 1962, television was beginning to create a large appetite for sports beyond the regular diet of baseball and football. Every sports promoter in the country was trying to sell an event, no matter how outlandish, to one of the three networks.
Consequently, producers, directors and announcers were forced to take cram courses in a large array of sports or near-sports. The first event I was involved with was typical of the offbeat subjects we sometimes covered.
Someone had sold CBS a film of a fishing tournament that had been held in Alimera on Spain’s Costa del Sol. These were the days before videotape. Everything was on film. This fishing tournament was all underwater and was conducted with spear guns. Whoever killed the most pounds of fish would win the competition. It was just as grisly as it sounds and to leaven the gruesomeness-to say nothing of the cruelty of the event-CBS arranged an interview with Jacques Cousteau. So off we went to Paris to interview the famed oceanographer. He was a pleasure to talk with and he spoke out against this fishing tournament and made a passionate plea for caring more about our oceans and the creatures in them.
After the interview we went into a cavernous studio and saw the film of the spearfishing for the first time.
“Where is the script?” I asked.
“You have to write it,” said my producer, Chet Forte, who later became the director for “Monday Night Football” on ABC. So while Chet and the man who had sold the event to CBS played gin rummy, I had to run this dreary film of overweight men shooting fish underwater, then rushing up on the beach to throw their prey onto a large scale. Monsieur Cousteau notwithstanding, I have never had a gloomier time in Paris.
Another of the more not-quite-a-sport events was an auto thrill show held on a country track 10 miles west of Palm Beach, Fla., which in those days was, as we used to say, out in the boonies. There was a competition among drivers of stock cars to see how far they could go tilted over on two wheels. Another contest was to see how far they could go in the air driving off a ramp. It was sort of a long jump for automobiles. When we went to interview one of the winners, he demurred, saying he was wanted by the police somewhere out West.
My favorite was the man who blew himself up. He would lie on the ground with his head between two blocks-on the outside of each block were dynamite charges.
He would count slowly up to 10 and then set off the dynamite. A cloud of smoke would obscure the fellow and then as it slowly blew away, he would leap to his feet with a triumphant “Ta-da.” In the interview I asked him if he didn’t have a Herculean headache.
“Oh, no,” he said. “I take two aspirins before the show.”
Most of the programs, however, involved authentic sporting events. The World and National Figure Skating Championships were a staple. In 1963, the World Championships were held in the open-air Olympics stadium in Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy. There 13-year-old Peggy Fleming made her debut on the world stage. The following year the Championships were in Dortmund, Germany. It was a rousing affair because the West German pair of Marika Kilius and Hans-Jurgen Baumler skated the program of their lives to defeat the magnificent Russian couple, Ludmilla Belousova and Oleg Protopopov.
In the early days of the series, a Chicago promoter named Bill Martin sold CBS a show in which Major League Baseball players had their own golf tournament. It was held at the Indian Wells Golf Club in California and it had quite a number of the game’s biggest stars. The quality of the golf was what you might expect and our producer wanted to inject some entertainment into the show. What better way, he thought, than to have a party with the ball players and the show business people who were in attendance.
It happened to be Mickey Mantle’s birthday, and a cake was brought out. After “Happy Birthday” had been sung, someone picked up the cake and threw it in somebody else’s face, setting off a huge food fight, ending only when most of the participants had dived into the swimming pool. The party was a disaster and so was the show.
There were more highs than lows on the series. We did a profile of the brand-new Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. The formation of cadets marching into evening Mass, their strong voices bouncing off the Rocky Mountains, was a memory to keep. That week they assigned a plebe to be my guide and gofer. He was a very pleasant young man, courteous, smart and attentive. Several years ago I received a letter from him. He was nearing retirement-as a three-star general.
The “CBS Sports Spectacular” gave us a chance to broaden our view of sports, to realize that there were other challenging and often beautiful events that didn’t get the coverage in America that they did overseas. When ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” finally came along, it went around the world bringing us the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, but it was Bill MacPhail’s “Sports Spectacular” that began the sports anthology format.
Sometimes these days when I’m channel surfing, I’ll pause, for just a minute, to watch a motorcycle race up a mountain or one of those big tire trucks lumber over a mound of dirt. And I think, “Did that 40 years ago.”
Jack Whitaker was the host of “CBS Sports Spectacular” from 1961 to 1982.