Jack Whitaker, an Emmy-winning sports broadcaster for more than three decades whose specialty was elegant, graceful commentaries, first for CBS and later for ABC, died on Sunday in Devon, Pa. He was 95.
His death was announced by CBS Sports.
Whitaker was a thoughtful white-haired figure who covered just about every niche in the sports world — from the first Super Bowl to Secretariat’s victory in the Belmont Stakes, as well as baseball, golf and the Olympics. In 1961, he became the host of the anthology series “CBS Sports Spectacular,” and he began covering the P.G.A. Championship and the Masters in the early 1960s.
But he was perhaps best known for his essays about sports, inspired by writers he admired like Alistair Cooke and Heywood Hale Broun. He received an Emmy in 1979 as “outstanding sports personality” and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Sports Emmy Awards in 2012. “I know that I’m regarded as The Talking Head,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1977. “I’d like to be exactly that and say something that people will remember or get excited about. I’d like to bring sports into the thinking process.”
Whitaker reserved his greatest passion for golf.
Covering the 1982 British Open at Troon, Scotland, for ABC’s “World News Tonight,” he wove historical imagery into his account of golf’s origins on the Scottish links.
“Through all the years, the British Open has changed very little,” he said. “The biggest addition has been the tented city, looking like Henry V’s camp at the Battle of Agincourt. Here you can buy among other things lawn mowers, cashmere sweaters and Champagne, which is replacing tea as Britain’s national beverage. But basically the British Open is the same as it was in 1860 when they first played it down the road at Prestwick. Playing in the British Open is like reading American history at Independence Hall or studying opera at La Scala. It’s golf at its most simple, its most pure, its most magnificent.”
Notwithstanding his celebration of the golf world, Whitaker offended the Masters chairman, Clifford Roberts, at the 1966 tournament when he likened the spectators’ descent on the 18th green of a three-way playoff to a “mob.” Roberts was displeased generally with Whitaker’s coverage, and as a result CBS removed him from covering the tournament. He returned to Augusta in 1973, but never again held the prestigious anchor role on the final green.
Jack Whitaker was born on May 18, 1924, in Philadelphia. He was enthralled by college football as a teenager, attending the Penn games at Franklin Field and listening to play-by-play from around the nation.
After graduating from St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia, now St. Joseph’s University, he was hired in 1947 by a 250-watt radio station in Pottsville, Pa. At the first event he covered, a midget auto race on a dirt track, the cars threw up so much dust that he could barely see anything. But better times beckoned.
He was hired by a radio station in Allentown, Pa., then caught a glimpse of golf’s 1950 United States Open on a TV set in the studio and looked to a future in the new medium.
Joining WCAU-TV in Philadelphia soon afterward, he broadcast 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.”
Whitaker began doing color commentary for Philadelphia Eagles games in 1956, then became the team’s play-by-play broadcaster in 1960, when the Eagles won the N.F.L. championship.
Whitaker became the play-by-play broadcaster for Giants football games in 1965, and he was part of the CBS broadcast crew at the first Super Bowl two years later. He teamed with the baseball Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch as the backup duo for baseball’s game of the week, and anchored Kentucky Derby coverage.
He covered Secretariat’s 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes — he called it the most dominant individual sports performance he had ever seen — and witnessed the filly Ruffian’s fatal breakdown in her 1975 match race at Belmont with Foolish Pleasure. It inspired this passage: “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.’”
Whitaker joined ABC in 1982, and on the eve of the Kentucky Derby, he pondered the aura surrounding the race.
“America never looks better than on a spring afternoon at the horse farms around Lexington,” he reflected on “World News Tonight.”
As he put it: “The bluegrass fields and limestone-permeated water has given strength to 81 Derby winners. Just up the road is Churchill Downs in the city of Louisville. In Louisville, America thrives. It was here that Americans discovered how to blend golden corn, barley, malt and rye into bourbon whiskey. It was here that baseball’s National League was founded and where they still make the famous Louisville sluggers. And it was in Louisville that the Kentucky Derby thrived and grew into something beyond a horse race.”
Whitaker provided sports commentary for ABC’s “20/20” and “Nightline” in addition to the evening news. He retired from the network in 1993.
In the 1990s, he joined with his second wife, Nancy Chaffee Whitaker, a tennis champion of the 1950s, in running a tennis tournament on Long Island sponsored by Cartier jewelers to benefit cancer research.
He is survived by his wife Patricia; his daughters, Marybeth Helgevold and Ann Hanan; his sons, Gerry, Jack III and Kevin; 11 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
In his 1998 memoir, “Preferred Lies and Other Tales,” Whitaker reprised his years on the sporting map while making clear that golf held a special place.
“My happy golf travels have taught me that the difference between a Pebble Beach and a Main Line Golf Club is truly incidental,” he wrote. “One has an ocean and breathtaking views, the other was split by U.S. Highway 30 and had hard, bumpy greens. But the thrill of the well-hit shot, or the frustration of a poorly hit one, was exactly the same. Golf accommodates itself anywhere. It travels better than Beaujolais. Golf is the most movable feast of all.”
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