THE IMPORTANCE OF JACK WHITAKER TO PHILLY SPORTS


This post appeared originally on www.fastphillysports.com

 

By Theodore N. Beitchman

It’s hard for anyone watching the Eagles and the NFL today to imagine, but there once was a time when pro football wasn’t the colossus it is now.

Before 1960, for instance, and really up until the first Super Bowl in 1967.

When the only way you could see the Eagles on television was when they played on the road.

Pro football was still so shaky as a business that the NFL couldn’t risk putting home games on the tube for fear that would hurt the gate.

So, what would become Eagles Nation tuned into WCAU/1210 radio to hear games as called by Bill Campbell with post-game color by Jack Whitaker.

They were the gods of this town — Campbell with his commanding voice and style and Whitaker with his signature wit and erudition.

Merrill Reese and Mike Quick are great, especially considering everyone listening can watch the same game on TV, but Campbell and Whitaker had to paint pictures for those of us who couldn’t get to Franklin Field for the games.

Campbell went on to do the Phillies as they broke our hearts in 1964, and Whitaker would go on to national fame at CBS and ABC.

And as we mourn his passing Sunday at the age of 95, it’s good to remember that he was a Philly and St. Joe’s kid who made good on a national stage in Manhattan.

And never forgot his hometown.

I made his acquaintance in the early 1980s when I worked at Inside Sports and Sports Illustrated in Manhattan.

Jack was known to like a cocktail and so did I. So, we often found ourselves in P. J. Clarke’s or Gino’s or 21, having a drink and reminiscing about Philly in the dark days for sports.

After graduating from St. Joe’s when it was a college and not a university, he was hired in 1947 by a 250-watt radio station in Pottsville and then by a radio station in Allentown. He caught a glimpse of the 1950 United States Open at Merion on a TV set, and soon joined WCAU-TV in Philly and did the sports for the late-evening news.

His colleagues including Ed McMahon, the future sidekick of Johnny Carson, and John Facenda, who would become the voice of NFL Films and who once advised Whitaker to “put a little more of yourself into your reports.”

That would turn out to be Whitaker’s genius.

Aside from being able to turn a phrase from Hemingway or the Good Book.

From the 1960s through the ’90s, he specialized in personalized reports and essays that brought elegance to CBS’s and ABC’s coverage of golf, horse racing and the Olympics. Among the few other similarly evocative commentators were two of his colleagues, Jim McKay and Heywood Hale Broun.

When Ruffian broke down in a match race at Belmont Park against Foolish Pleasure in 1975, Whitaker said: “A false step here and the years of planning and breeding and training and loving came to an end. A horse with speed and stamina and heart. A horse, like the Bible says, ‘whose neck is clothed in thunder.’ ”

He had a great way with words at work or at play, which many a head waiter or bartender in Manhattan and Bridgehampton could attest to.

He would go on to cover some of sports biggest events — the Masters (from which he was once banned for referring to the crowds as “mobs), the first Super Bowl, Secretariat’s unbelievable Belmont in 1973 and a host of NFL games too many to list.

But no matter how big his career became, he never went “uptown.”

He and I shared our Philly heritage — he loved that I graduated from Northeast High since he graduated from (since closed) Northeast Catholic — and a love for sports.

And no matter when ours paths crossed, he would always introduce me to Pat Summerall or John Madden or Pete Rozelle as another Philly guy.

He was 95 when he died the other day in Devon, so he had a hell of a run.

Just like Tommy McDonald or Secretariat.


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