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Hometown to hail articulate voice of sports

Philadelphia Hall of Fame to honor Jack Whitaker.

Jack Whitaker, 83, in his Devon home. An inconsequential putt at the 1950 U.S. Open indirectly launched his career in television.
Jack Whitaker, 83, in his Devon home. An inconsequential putt at the 1950 U.S. Open indirectly launched his career in television.Read moreEric Mencher / File Photograph

The long putt Bobby Cruickshank studied on Merion Golf Club's 18th green that June afternoon in 1950 seemed of little historical significance.

Cruickshank, a 54-year-old Scottish-born pro, finished in a tie for 25th at that 50th U.S. Open, which was made memorable by Ben Hogan's historic comeback victory. Cruickshank hadn't won on tour in 13 years and wouldn't win again.

And yet the sight of the diminutive golfer standing over a meaningless putt launched Jack Whitaker's half-century-plus career as one of TV sports' most articulate voices, a career that has earned the Philadelphia native wealth, reputation, and, tonight, induction into his hometown's Sports Hall of Fame.

"I've led a very fortunate life," said Whitaker, 83, retired now and living in Devon.

The 1950 epiphany that helped transform a 26-year-old radio announcer into a TV sports legend occurred when Whitaker was working at 1,000-watt WAEB in Allentown, a big step up from Pottsville's 250-watt WPAM ("We Promote Anthracite Mining"), where his career had begun with a $32-a-week job three years earlier.

Though the U.S. Open wasn't aired nationally until 1954, portions were televised in Pennsylvania. WAEB's studio had a TV set.

Whitaker, a 1947 St. Joseph's College graduate, felt unfulfilled by radio. He'd done little but read the news, interview local pastors and politicians, and clean the ticker-type machine.

But as he listened to the TV announcers describe what Cruickshank was doing, he had a life-altering inspiration.

"That," he thought, "is what I should be doing."

Whitaker quit and moved back to Philadelphia. His career soon took off like a Hogan 1-iron.

By summer's end, he was working at WCAU-TV. By the end of the decade, he was doing NFL games for CBS. In 1961, he became the host of The CBS Sports Spectacular, the anthology show that was the network's answer to ABC's Wide World of Sports.

Whitaker covered Super Bowls, Olympics, Kentucky Derbies, Masters tournaments and World Series for CBS and later ABC. He did play-by-play with a reserved dignity that matched the dapper clothes he preferred and, later, became one of televised sport's first and best essayists.

"Thoughtful of mind and facile of word, he has become preeminent and unique as a classical essayist," was how his alma mater, St. Joseph's University, described him when it presented Whitaker with an honorary degree in 1979.

Tonight, during ceremonies at the Hyatt Regency Penn's Landing, the oft-honored Whitaker will be among the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame's fourth class of inductees.

The others are field hockey star Beth Anders; soccer pioneer Walter Bahr; Bill Barber, the Flyers winger and coach; Mickey Cochrane, the A's Hall of Fame catcher; Theresa Grentz, the women's basketball star and coach; football's Frank "Bucko" Kilroy; the Phillies' Chuck Klein; Temple basketball coach Harry Litwack; retired Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon; basketball legend Earl "The Pearl" Monroe; Eagles coach Earl "Greasy" Neale; Eagles star Reggie White; and the 1980 world champion Phillies.

Whitaker grew up during the Depression, in East Germantown's Immaculate Conception Parish.

"I played a little sandlot baseball, some stickball," he said, "but that was about it for my sports career."

He was, however, a fan.

In an era when Philadelphia high school teams regularly outdrew their college and professional counterparts, he developed a fondness for watching live sports while at North Catholic. And he loved listening to radio sportscasters.

"I was crazy about radio," he said. "I couldn't get enough of guys like Bill Dyer, By Saam, all of them."

A stint as an Army corporal in World War II interrupted his college education. When he graduated in 1947, Whitaker, who had been a St. Joe's debater, was drawn to radio, then booming because of the Federal Communications Commission's postwar regulations that established stations in small and midsize cities.

"After I'd left the Allentown station and come home, Jack Steck at WFIL hired me to do live TV commercials," he recalled.

WCAU was next, and not long after getting the job, the station's sportscaster, Bill Sears, quit. Whitaker was asked if he knew anything about sports.

"I said I did and got the job," he said. "I was doing a five-minute sportscast" as part of an evening-news team that included John Facenda.

That wasn't all he did.

Whitaker and his buddy, Ed McMahon, acted in the station's homegrown Western, Action in the Afternoon. He and Facenda hosted a talk show at Bala Golf Club called Tee Time. (Grace Kelly was an early guest.) He did news, weather, and anything else that was needed.

In 1957, CBS purchased WCAU from the Evening Bulletin. While the move would be Whitaker's springboard, it appeared to have sank him at first.

CBS trimmed WCAU's 30-minute newscast to 15 minutes. Sports was cut. Whitaker became the weatherman.

"I was convinced my career in sports was over," he said.

He and McMahon - soon to be hired as Johnny Carson's announcer on a show called Who Do You Trust? - began taking the train to New York in pursuit of jobs.

Meanwhile, CBS began to notice. It had Whitaker, first as an analyst and later as a play-by-play man, do its Eagles games beginning in 1957.

Then in 1961, the network hired him, installing him as host of Sports Spectacular. He was working in New York and Philadelphia until CBS's lead sportscaster, Chris Schenkel, left for ABC. That substantially increased Whitaker's New York workload, and in 1964 he finally departed WCAU.

What followed was a what's-what of sporting events. Somehow, amid the myriad assignments and endless travel, he found time to host a short-lived game show on CBS called The Face Is Familiar.

Whitaker's ascension was detoured briefly in 1966 when he made the mistake of referring to a huge Masters gallery as a "mob." Clifford Roberts, the dictatorial tournament chairman for whom Augusta crowds were always "galleries," forced his removal from the coverage.

"I didn't feel too good about it," Whitaker said. "The whole thing smacked of a B movie."

It was two years later, at Super Bowl II, that Whitaker discovered his real niche.

The game, won by Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers, ended early, and Whitaker asked director Tony Verna if he could sum up the day's developments. The resulting commentary was so well-received that it soon became a CBS trademark.

"Once again [Secretariat] has answered his critics with a championship performance," Whitaker said in one commentary several years later, "which proves that in sports, like life, things sometimes are not as they appear to be. Or, as our friend Chicken Coleman says here at Belmont, 'All shut-eyes ain't sleepin', and all goodbyes ain't gone.' "

Curiously, it was at Belmont that Whitaker also experienced his high and low broadcasting moments.

The high was Secretariat's incredible 31-length victory in 1973's Belmont Stakes.

"That was probably the most dominating performance by any athlete I'd ever seen," he said. "People who saw it were crying."

The low came July 6, 1975, when the great filly Ruffian broke down in a $350,000 match race with Foolish Pleasure and had to be destroyed.

"That was a dreadful day," said Whitaker, a longtime racing aficionado. "Just dreadful."

In 1982, drawn by the promise of doing news as well as sports, Whitaker went to ABC. While there he frequently filed news stories for Nightline and 20/20.

He retired in the mid-1990s and in 1995 was inducted into the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

"I had a great run," Whitaker said. "When I think about what I tried to do, I often think of something Jack Gould, who was the New York Times television critic, wrote. He said television sports people were glorified caption writers. I was angry at first, but then I realized that if you could come up with a caption that made the picture even bettter, you'd done something good."

Best of the Best

Here is a look at the 2007 Philadelphia Hall of Fame inductees:

Beth Anders (1951-): The Norristown native was a two-time member of the U.S. Olympic field hockey team. . . . She was the high scorer on the 1984 bronze medalists. . . . In addition to guiding the U.S. women's field hockey team, she coached Old Dominion to nine NCAA titles.

Walter Bahr (1927-): The Philadelphia native is a U.S. soccer pioneer and was a longtime captain of the American team. . . . He played on the U.S. squad that stunned England, 1-0, in the 1950 World Cup. . . . He is the father of former NFL kickers Matt and Chris Bahr.

Bill Barber (1952-): A Hockey Hall of Famer, he is the Flyers' career leader in goals with 420 in 12 seasons. . . . He was a member of Philadelphia's only two Stanley Cup winners, in 1974 and 1975. . . . He coached the Flyers to playoff appearances in 2001 and 2002.

Mickey Cochrane (1903-1962): This temperamental Hall of Fame catcher on Connie Mack's great A's teams of the late 1920s and early 1930s was a .320 lifetime hitter. . . . He was the AL MVP in 1928 and 1934. . . . Mickey Mantle was named after him. . . . He was nicknamed "Black Mike" for his moodiness.

Theresa Grentz (1952-): The Glenolden native starred at Cardinal O'Hara High School and Rutgers. . . . She is a member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. . . . She compiled a 671-309 record in 32 years coaching St. Joseph's, Rutgers and Illinois.

Frank "Bucko" Kilroy (1921-2007): A Philadelphia native, he was a football star at North Catholic High and Temple who went on to be a standout lineman on Eagles championship teams in 1948 and 1949. . . . He was the longtime general manager and administrator for the New England Patriots.

Chuck Klein (1904-58): This Hall of Fame outfielder with the Phillies was the triple crown winner in 1933 (.368 average, 28 homers, 120 RBIs). . . . He was the first 20th-century National Leaguer to hit four homers in a game. . . . He was the NL MVP in 1932.

Harry Litwack (1907-99): Born in Poland, he was raised in Philadelphia and is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. . . . He won 373 games as Temple's coach from 1952 to 1973. . . . His Owls made 13 postseason appearances, reaching the NCAA's Final Four twice and winning the NIT in 1969.

Bill Lyon (1938-): He chronicled the city's sports miseries and joys for 34 years as a lyrical columnist for The Inquirer. . . . The six-time Pulitzer Prize nominee won the National Headliner Award and numerous Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year honors.

Earl "The Pearl" Monroe (1944-): This Philadelphia-born basketball legend earned the nicknames "The Pearl" and "Black Jesus" for his magical ballhandling skills. . . . He was a four-time NBA all-star and a member of the New York Knicks' 1973 championship team. . . . He was credited as the inventor of the spin move.

Earle "Greasy" Neale (1891-1973): The Pro Football Hall of Famer coached the Eagles from 1941 to 1950, winning NFL titles in 1948 and 1949. . . . He introduced a new defense to the NFL, the precursor to today's 4-3-4. . . . He coached Washington and Jefferson to the 1922 Rose Bowl.

Reggie White (1961-2004): "The Minister of Defense" was a Pro Football Hall of Famer and one of the greatest players in Eagles history. . . . He was the Eagles' all-time leader in sacks with 124 in eight seasons, and helped the Green Bay Packers win Super Bowl XXXI.

Jack Whitaker (1924-): The Philadelphia native and TV sportscasting pioneer began his career at WCAU-TV. . . . He covered the Olympics, World Series, Super Bowl, Masters, Wimbledon and Kentucky Derby for CBS and ABC. . . . He was one of TV's first and best sports essayists.

1980 Phillies: On Oct. 21, 1980, this team won the only championship in the franchise's 125-year history. . . . Led by a pair of future Hall of Famers, Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, the team had a contentious relationship with fans, the media, and manager Dallas Green. EndText