. . .
After serving as commander of a Navy minesweeper during World War II, McKay became a reporter on the Baltimore Sun, then moved to the newspaper’s brand new station, WMAR-TV (2), the first television outlet in Maryland.
WMAR became the second affiliate of CBS’ fledgling TV operation, and McKay jumped to the network in 1950, becoming a sports commentator and game show host and working briefly at NBC before joining ABC.
McKay would serve as the main host of “Wide World of Sports” for four decades, until the regular weekly broadcasts ended in 1998.
Along the way, he became one of the nation’s most recognized TV sports journalists; his finest moment was undoubtedly his precise and calm coverage of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.
Cecil Smith of the Los Angeles Times called McKay’s grace under pressure “literally superb,” while his colleague Don Page called McKay “not only … a first-rate sports announcer, but a first-class television journalist.”
. . .
Perhaps the most significant innovation of “Wide World of Sports” was its decision to feature sports besides football, baseball, basketball and hockey.
Through ABC’s lenses, many American viewers saw their first televised coverage of jai alai, soccer, skiing, gymnastics and curling. Indeed, the very first broadcast included videotape of two track and field events at the University of Pennsylvania and Drake University in Iowa.
Featuring international sports wasn’t a universally popular decision. Nor was ABC’s decision to feature multiple sports during each weekly show.
In a July 1963 review of “Wide World,” Jack Gould of the New York Times complained about the way the program covered the men’s tennis championships at Wimbledon, sandwiching highlights of the final match between clips of a horse race in Ireland and a gran prix in France.
. . .
Gould, one of the nation’s most influential and acid TV critics during the ’50s and ’60s, wasn’t impressed with McKay, either, on that occasion.
“The Saturday afternoon pleasure was substantially diminished by the accompanying oratorical volley of Jim McKay,” he sniffed. “He chattered interminably throughout the exchanges across the net and invoked enough useless statistics to qualify as the Mel Allen of Wimbledon.”
The Wimbledon coverage, like most events featured in the early days of “Wide World,” was delayed; videotapes were flown from England to the United States and hastily edited for broadcast.
Maybe that seems dumb to modern viewers, but we’re just spoiled by the ease with which live TV broadcasts can now originate from anywhere. In the 1960s and ’70s, international television hookups via coaxial cable or satellite were rare and expensive; the first communications satellite capable of relaying TV pictures, Telstar, wasn’t launched until 1962.
. . .
“Wide World of Sports” provided ABC with some much-needed prestige in an era when it was a distant third to CBS and NBC.
The bigger networks rushed their own imitations onto the air (NBC launched a 90-minute sports block called “Sports Specials” in January 1963, while CBS called theirs “Sunday Sports Spectacular”), but they never caught up with “Wide World of Sports,” probably because of its consistently high quality and McKay’s steady presence.
In the end, “Wide World” became a victim of its own success. It proved that the American appetite for TV sports was almost insatiable, leading to the creation of ESPN in 1979, along with near continuous weekend coverage of golf, auto racing and other competitions on the three (now four) major U.S. broadcast TV networks.
Oh, well. Such is the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat!
. . .
And now, the moments you’ve been waiting for. Courtesy of YouTube, here are two versions of that famous “Wide World of Sports” intro.
It’s hard to imagine a day before ESPN, Fox Sports and all-sports radio … but sometimes we like fantasizing about it anyway.
In those primitive days before Bristol, Conn., became the center of the universe, spectators who wanted to watch sports from the comfort of their Lane recliners were limited to the football, baseball or hockey “game of the week.”
Then, at 4:30 p.m. on April 29, 1961, ABC-TV debuted the weekly magazine show “Wide World of Sports,” hosted by Jim McKay, who died Saturday at age 86.
Every Saturday afternoon for 90 minutes, ABC’s cameras went “spanning the globe” (to paraphrase the famous opening) to bring viewers “the constant variety of sport.”
Contrary to popular belief, future TV news and sports wunderkind Roone Arledge didn’t invent “Wide World of Sports.” Arledge was a producer for a company called Sports Programs Inc., which created “Wide World” and was later absorbed into ABC.
Tapped as host was 39-year-old McKay (real name: James Kenneth McManus), a native of Philadelphia, U.S. Navy veteran and a graduate of Maryland’s Loyola College.