Thursday 19 September 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'Broadcast giant who personified old school'

Jack Whitaker spent most of his illustrious career with CBS and ABC. Photo: Bettmann Archive
Jack Whitaker spent most of his illustrious career with CBS and ABC. Photo: Bettmann Archive

Dermot Gilleece

Good broadcasting, according to Jack Whitaker, embodies preparation, a command of the English language, a love of what you're doing and an innate sense of knowing when to speak and when to keep your mouth closed.

Critics took the view that he diligently observed those principles for much of a career spanning almost 70 years.

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This giant of American sports broadcasting died last weekend at the grand old age of 95. His passing immediately brought to mind a lengthy chat we had in far-off New Zealand, when Pádraig Harrington and Paul McGinley were defending the World Cup of Golf at Gulf Harbour GC back in 1998.

It became one of the highlights of my journalistic career, simply because of the depth of knowledge he generously imparted.

"I'm rising to my 74th fence," he replied when asked his age, nicely opening a door to the admission that his proudest memory of covering a sports event concerned a racehorse.

"That was Secretariat winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths," he said. "It was a much more dominant achievement, in my view, than the 1997 Masters win by Tiger Woods [by 12 strokes]."

He went on: "Secretariat did his thing in 1973. The whole decade of the '70s was rich in sporting achievement, but that particular event stood apart as far as I was concerned. He was an incredible horse.

"When he got to Belmont, it was right in the middle of our Watergate scandal and the country desperately needed a hero, from wherever. Secretariat was it.

"He was the people's horse and to prove it, his picture was on the cover of Time. People began to cry and jump up and down with emotion. I suppose it would have been a bit like the reaction to Red Rum in the English Grand National, except more so.

"You may question whether it's possible to feel that way about a horse. Believe me it is. I didn't think so at first, but I soon became a convert. Yes, I can become attached to horses."

On meeting Whitaker, I first noticed the obtrusive hearing-aids which encouraged clarity of speech, when engaging him in conversation. For his part, the famous voice retained the authoritative vigour which, by that stage, had captured CBS and ABC network audiences over a period of 40 years.

He was with his wife, Nancy Chaffee, a three-time former US indoor tennis champion who also reached the semi-finals of the Wimbledon mixed doubles with Tony Trabert. "She got to be number four in the world," he said with obvious pride.

Whitaker went on: "We had known each other and after she had been divorced about 20 years and I had been divorced about 18, we just met one time and decided, 'Let's go'. So that was how we got married nine years ago. It's great." As it happened, they had four more years together before she died in August 2002.

Despite the casual environment of our meeting, he wore a collar and tie, sports jacket and twill slacks. In fact the only concession he made to informality was a baseball cap, otherwise this legendary figure was very much a product of the old school.

This is the man who incurred the wrath of golf's most notorious autocrat, with consequent banishment from the CBS booth at the Masters. His sin was to describe Augusta National fans as a "mob," long before a CBS successor, Gary McCord, had been shown the door for references to body-bags and bikini wax.

When I raised the matter, his gentle response, "Oh, you mean 1966," suggested a quaint surprise. "Yes. I was with CBS at the time and I said there was a mob scene at the 18th when they all broke . . ."

He paused to gather his thoughts. "It was a very long day, a Monday play-off and if you go over 6.0 on American television with a sporting event you're into the local news which is a no-no.

"This was going over 7.0, which was the network news with Walter Cronkite and that was absolutely anathema."

As the three contestants, Jack Nicklaus, Gay Brewer and Tommy Jacobs approached the final green, Whitaker was fearful the crowd's unruly behaviour could cause a further delay.

"I was rushing to get off the air as Nicklaus sank the winning putt and I said, 'Here comes the mob'," he recalled.

Augusta's chairman, Clifford Roberts, was so incensed by the remark that he instructed CBS to remove Whitaker from future Masters telecasts.

"When they told me six or seven months later that I wasn't going to be back at the Masters, the reason they gave was that I called the gallery a mob.

"It really stung, but I was more angry with CBS than I was with the Masters for not notifying me earlier about my so-called fall from grace. I never quite believed the reasons they gave me. When it came down to it, I think it must have been that they just didn't like me."

Adopting a philosophical tone, he continued: "I got a lot of sympathy afterwards and it was clear that CBS felt bad about it because six years later, they invited me back to Augusta as their guest. I said okay.

"So I'm up on the second floor of the clubhouse having breakfast with Claude Harmon and Cary Middlecoff when suddenly, there was a tap on my shoulder and Frank Chirkinian (the long-time CBS golf producer, now retired) says: 'Henry Longhurst has just gone to the hospital and you're going to do 16. So we'd better go down and talk to the old man [Roberts].'"

Whitaker was understandably apprehensive. "Down we went to the ogre who had banned me and who used to critique every telecast. As I walked in, Chirkinian said, 'Mr Roberts, this is Jack Whitaker.'

"And he got up and said: 'Young man, we're very fortunate that you're here. Welcome.' And that was it. I was back. And I remember thinking that maybe he wasn't such a bad guy after all."

But there was still a price to be paid. Longhurst returned to broadcasting action the following day and though Whitaker was retained for the 14th hole that year, he had lost the anchor position to Pat Summerall. And he would never regain that coveted seat of broadcasting authority.

He considered himself very fortunate to have covered Nicklaus in his heyday.

"ABC hired Jack as an analyst and we worked the Major championships together," he said. "I remember the 1982 US Open at Pebble Beach when I did an interview with him on the edge of the bay while (Tom) Watson was walking to his ball on 17.

"After five birdies on the front nine, Jack finished his round tied for the lead.

"And when Watson hit it in the heavy rough at 17, it looked as if Nicklaus was certain of at least a tie. I know that was the way he was thinking.

"From the tower, we watched as Watson holed that famous chip on 17 and Jack just sagged beside me.

Finally he said, 'That's the second time the son-of-a-bitch has done that to me.' Which, of course, was a reference to the 1977 British Open at Turnberry.

"It was quite a moment and I was amazed at the way he carried it off. Shortly afterwards he was congratulating Tom and being his usual charming self. It must have hurt him desperately to see the record fifth US Open being torn from his grasp, but you would never have known.

"I think most golfers do that very well - the good ones certainly. It's part of the game to cover your emotions. I think it's remarkable and I wish we all had their level of self-control."

Finally, he turned to the current sporting scene.

"Though I accept that I belong to another generation, I still think it's got out of hand," he said.

"We have basketball and baseball players and footballers being paid a king's ransom while we can't pay our schoolteachers and sanitation engineers a decent salary.

"People will tell you it's what the market place will bear. But I don't understand the enormous prices they pay for the franchises in the United States, while complaining about the increased money the players are getting. It's like Alice in Wonderland."

If this was old school, I felt privileged to have been afforded such a glimpse of it by a remarkable man.

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