Legendary sportscaster Jack Whitaker, who landed on Normandy just after D-Day in World War II before becoming one of the signature voices during the iconic age of network TV sports coverage, died Sunday at the age of 95.
Whitaker worked at CBS, ABC, ESPN and TNT for half a century starting in the 1950s. As sports grew exponentially on network television, Whitaker was one of a dozen or so sportscasters – including Howard Cosell, Curt Gowdy and Jim McKay – whose voices were immediately recognizable.
Whitaker helped to call Super Bowl I for CBS (it was on two networks) and hosted the national telecast for Secretariat’s mythical run at the Belmont in 1973. He was a staple at the Olympics when they aired on CBS and called countless golf tournaments.
But it was one word – “mob” – that got Whitaker booted from the CBS Masters telecast for six years.
Whitaker was working the Masters telecast in 1966 when he said something that upset Augusta National Golf Club chairman Clifford Roberts.
“The threesome was playing particularly slowly, and we knew we had to be off at 7 p.m. for Walter Cronkite,” Whitaker recalled in a 1979 interview. “I was doing the 18th hole, and as the players and the galleries were coming up the fairway, I said, ‘Here comes the mob.’ ”
“It looked to me like a mob of people scurrying toward the green, but Mr. Roberts took offense. He said the gallery at the Masters was not a mob. And that was that.”
“Every time you use a cliché you get in trouble,” Whitaker said years later in an interview with Inside Golf.
“It was very crushing. I didn’t know about it until the following March,” Whitaker said of being told that he was being pulled off the Masters.
“All of a sudden there was a backlash in the papers,” he said. “I got some very nice press so that made me feel a little better. Oh but it hurt.”
Years later when Gary McCord was also banned from covering the Masters, Whitaker wrote him a note. “You’ve just taken me out of a very special place, I hate you. We were the only two who were thrown off,” he told Inside Golf.
Whitaker returned to the CBS telecast of the Masters in 1972.
Whitaker often offered the viewer a cultivated and intelligent perspective, but he sprinkled his reportage or play-by-play with piercing commentary befitting his Philadelphia roots.
An example was this description of the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland during an ABC telecast of the British Open:
“Nobody designed this course,” he said. “Nobody with a pencil and $2 million and five bulldozers. This was made by nature. It comes out of the ground. It was done with wind and rain and sun and the help of a few sheep. And so, while for most Americans and other people, it’s not love at first sight at St. Andrews, St. Andrews’ Old Course is like a dry martini — an acquired taste, and, as such, it remains with you forever.”
Whitaker was born on May 18, 1924 in Philadelphia. After joining the U.S. Army in Nov. 1943, he would land on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France three days after D-Day in June 1944.
After attending St. Joe’s University and working in local radio and TV in and around Philadelphia, Whitaker began working at CBS part-time in 1959 and started full-time in 1961. Whitaker left CBS for ABC in 1982.
“There will never be another Jack Whitaker in sports broadcasting,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said in a statement. “His amazing writing ability, on-air presence and humanity are unmatched. His unique perspective on sports ranging from horse racing to golf to NFL football was extraordinary.”
Like so many of his generation who served, Whitaker was humbled by and grateful for the opportunities given to him after returning from WWII.
“I came along at the right time. I’ve just been a lucky guy. I’m the luckiest man you’ll ever talk to. Got out of the war in one piece and got into television on the ground floor. You can’t go bad with that,” he said.
The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences honored Whitaker with its Sports Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.
A memorial service will be held for Whitaker at Merion Country Club, where he was a longtime member, sometime in the fall.