RIP Jack Whitaker – US Sportscaster: When it was more than a game

Why bother with chronicling the dead?  Living in the past with our own fast fading memories?  For me it as about keeping the flame of their legacy alive.  Precious things that are vanishing.


Not everything new is shiny, nor everything old decayed.


Those of us who grew up with the advent of colour TV and satellites in the early 70’s remember when the rest of the world suddenly became an immediate vivid presence.  No longer relayed in sepia print or by day-after hushed reports from “our man (rarely woman) in New York, London or Tokyo”. (Beijing was still behind a bicycle powered wall).


Legendary US sportscaster Jack Whitaker who died last week aged 95 was a consistent presence in Australian lounge rooms for the next 20 years, as technology enabled us to embrace the world beyond.  Starting in radio then CBS television but by the early 80’s he and Jim McKay were the joint faces of the US ABC Network’s Wide World of Sports.  


Kerry Packer was just coming into his own in Australia and they were the model he chose for #9’s monolithic sports coverage of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s – both in adopting its style and taking live US ABC content.  Jim McKay’s ashen face turning from Mark Spitz’ 7 swimming gold medals to the kidnapping and murder of eleven Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics.


Sport the common prism through which we came to see the modern world in all its wonder and awful possibilities.  


Jim was mostly the reporter while Jack was the colour man who put these triumphs and tragedies into context.  A veteran of the D Day landings Jack had seen enough of life to know that sport was a grand escape, but to see it as just that was to trivialise the strivings of the competitors.


Jack had the craggy face and silver fox looks of a Kirk Douglas.  On-air he wore a windsor knot (ask your father) and a houndstooth jacket or trench coat with style, but the air of a man who yearned for a pullover and a bourbon/beer/scotch.


But above all he had gravitas.  Wisdom and experience from life and having supped long at the well of Red Smith, Grantland Rice and Damon Runyon. 


Jack’s TV essays were newspaper columns distilled into 2 minute direct-to-camera soliloquies.  “Before I tell you the score I’ll let you know what’s really going on here”.


Australia has no TV equivalent.  Ken Sutcliffe and Bruce McAvaney too much fan boys.  Richie Benaud and Dennis Cometti probably came closest.  But where Jack would tell you to your face, they could only raise an eyebrow or adopt a querulous tone.


Perhaps Australians take sport too seriously to see it as just a game that only illuminates larger truths.  Jack had been to war, knew better, and had the courage and style to let us in on his secrets. 


These links show the genius of a man who could always find the words to ennoble sports and make them and us larger for sharing the experience.  


Jack capturing the genius of St Andrews; the magic of Nadia Comaneci; or the raw power of Secretariat. Watch, read, remember and think of Jack’s legacy when you next sit down to write or talk about sport.



Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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  1. John Butler says

    Timely, PB.

    No one I know thinks much of the Channel 7 footy commentary now. And that’s putting it as politely as possible.

    This piece indicates some of the reasons why.

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