Jack Whitaker, Scholarly Sportscaster for CBS and ABC, Dies at 95

Jack Whitaker - Getty - H 2017
Getty Images

An eloquent essayist, he specialized in horse racing and golf during his long career. One misplaced word got him banished from the Masters.

Jack Whitaker, the erudite CBS and ABC sportscaster whose half-century on the air was unfairly smudged by a seemingly innocuous remark that got him banned from the Masters, has died. He was 95.

Whitaker died Sunday of natural causes in Devon, Pennsylvania, after a stay in hospice care, CBS announced.

Whitaker was part of the CBS team that worked the first Super Bowl in 1967, and he was there for Secretariat’s mind-boggling Triple Crown-sealing victory at the 1973 Belmont Stakes. As a play-by-play man, analyst, host, reporter and essayist, he did dozens of major golf tournaments; several Olympics, both winter and summer; major league baseball; the America’s Cup yacht competition; and track-and-field events.

"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."

Known for his elegance and smarts, the Philadelphia native once described the Old Course at St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf, while working the British Open for ABC in Scotland:

"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."

However, his choice of words at another golf tournament — the 1966 Masters — got him in trouble with Augusta National chairman Clifford Roberts.

Working alongside analyst Cary Middlecoff during coverage of a Monday playoff that Jack Nicklaus would win, Whitaker angered the club’s all-powerful chairman with his description of the chaotic scene at the final hole.

"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."

Though still employed by CBS, Whitaker did not return to Augusta until 1972, when he came to the tournament as a fan. Suddenly, he was called into action to replace Henry Longhurst, the network's announcer at the 16th hole who had become ill. "I saw Cliff Roberts,” Whitaker recalled years later, "and he said, 'Young man, I’m delighted to see you here.' I’m not sure he remembered our previous encounter."

(Another CBS golf announcer, Gary McCord, was similarly banned when he used the terms "bikini wax" and "body bags" to describe the hallowed Masters course in 1994. He hasn’t been back to broadcast at Augusta since.)

Whitaker worked several more Masters before leaving CBS for ABC in 1982.

Whitaker was born on May 18, 1924, in the East Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, and he graduated from Northeast Catholic High School for Boys. He had two stints at St. Joseph’s College — in between, he was a U.S. Army soldier who landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, three days after D-Day in June 1944 — and then landed a job in radio at a 250-watt station in Pottsville, Pennsylvania.

He returned to Philadelphia when a sports job opened up at WCAU-TV and worked the 11 p.m. weeknight newscast with newscaster John Facenda, who would become the baritone voice of NFL Films, and future Johnny Carson sidekick Ed McMahon, who did a five-minute essay at the end of each newscast.

Whitaker also hosted the local show Meet Me at the Zoo and was at WCAU for 12 years. But when CBS bought the station, cut the newscast to 15 minutes and made him a weatherman, he and McMahon took the train to New York every morning to make the rounds at the agencies in bids to find new jobs. Then they would hustle back to WCAU.

In 1958, McMahon hooked up with Carson for the game show Who Do You Trust? Whitaker found weekend work at CBS, shifted to the network full time in 1961 and hosted the CBS Sports Spectacular (an anthology series that predated ABC’s Wide World of Sports) and the short-lived game show The Face Is Familiar.

Much later, Whitaker reported for the ABC news programs World News Tonight, Nightline and 20/20 and did sports for TNT and ESPN. He wrote a book, Preferred Lies and Other Tales: Skimming the Cream of a Life in Sports, that was published in 1998.

The silver-haired Whitaker was a member of the famed Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island and in his heyday could be found at P.J. Clarke’s, the historic New York saloon on Third Avenue that attracted entertainers, athletes and journalists alike.

He received the inaugural Outstanding Sports Performer Emmy in 1979 and was inducted into the American Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame in 1997. In 2012, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences honored him with its Sports Lifetime Achievement Award.

Sports Illustrated in 2010 ranked him No. 17 on its all-time list of sportscasters.

Whitaker was married to tennis star Nancy Chaffee — after she divorced Hall of Fame baseball star Ralph Kiner — from 1991 until her death in 2002.