As a sports fan and later an aspiring journalist, I always looked forward to the magazine segments of Jack Whitaker of CBS Sports.
One of the things I loved about Whitaker and his great friend and mentor, the inimitable Heywood Hale Broun, is that they more than got it about Thoroughbred racing; they revered it!
Whitaker, Broun, Chic ‘Tremendous Machine’ Anderson, and horse trainer-turned-analyst Frank Wright represented the golden age of horse-race broadcasting at CBS.
Each in his own way recognized and appreciated racing’s treasure trove of stories, both equine and human, punctuating them with understanding and wit.
They riffed on the charm, majesty and mystery that lay beneath the surface of past-performance lines and played it for all it was worth with the kind of reverence that’s lost on too many of today’s horseplayers.
Erudite print coverage of racing came first, something I tried to emulate by imitating the style of those who preceded me, my dear friend the late, great Bill Nack. It was Nack who introduced me to Dick Sadler, Newsday’s late, great sports editor.
Fortunate enough to win a couple of writing awards during my 17 years there, it was Sandler who taught me the best way to tell a story was to “begin with a narrative.”
It never could have gotten that far if in my earliest days Nack had not taken an interest; critiquing my Sunday column, always with a desire for me to make the next one better. Sometimes I can achieve this, but never without bleeding a little, as the writers say.
The first time I can remember getting Nack’s help coincided with the sudden and mysterious death of Swale, the 1984 Belmont Stakes champion.
Don’t recall what I wrote but I remember struggling with the lede. Do I start with a Belmont Stakes narrative, or get right to it; the shocking and unusual circumstances surrounding Swale’s death? The men above would have known what to do instantly.
I did not know Jack Whitaker very well, Broun and Anderson hardly at all, and Wright quite well from his days as a trainer and racing commentator on a local New York network, WOR-TV.
I learned from them all but literary role models, particularly in sports, have all but disappeared from the scene, especially in horse racing that enjoyed such a rich scholarly history.
When it was announced that Whitaker passed, it was another wakeup call, another reminder of an era gone, when words and the search for truth mattered. Now, at a time when perspective is needed most, the scholars of sport are gone.
Such is life, and death, and birth of the Internet.
What an honor it has been to know, read, hear and learn from these men, commentators who were more poet than pundit, wordsmiths of the highest order, the truly gifted that created mythic legend on the spot.
In considering Whitaker’s influence, it wasn’t until I read the recollections of Bud Lamoreaux, creator and executive producer of the CBS Morning News with Charles Kuralt that I began to recall his great work, especially the 1973 Belmont.
“…What is lost in all of those feel good moments,” Lameroux wrote, “is the performance of the CBS broadcast team headed by Jack Whitaker. He was the silver-tongued orator from Philadelphia who could turn a phrase as quickly as Secretariat could get to the wire.
“Jack Whitaker [and Broun, Wright and Anderson], were old school CBS… They were just better than all the rest. They could look in the CBS eye and viewers knew they were getting the real deal – no hyperbole… just some straight talk. And oh what sweet talk it was.
”At the end, with the hyperbole flying all around Secretariat’s 31-length victory, Jack had the perfect understatement. ‘I believe Dick Butkus could have ridden this horse today and won’.” Then, switching gears, he said of the hard-bitten racetrackers who rarely show emotion, “‘Today, I actually saw people crying’.”
But Whitaker had role models, too; Eric Severeid, Red Smith and Broun among them.
When Broun passed, Whitaker wrote: “He gave the genre a rich and rare dimension, which unhappily departs with him. He had the authentic fan’s enthusiasm for the games and the players, but he also had an unerring talent for spotting the sham and the hype.
“I will miss his colorful anecdotes…his droll humor and marvelous writing. Heywood Hale Broun was a comfortable man of substance and his departure leaves us all diminished.”
As my journey lengthened, I met Jimmy Breslin. Andy Beyer introduced me to Richard Valeriani, a peerless reporter appearing nightly on NBC via remote from Vietnam, or outside the Capitol building during Watergate.
Standing on his feet in a war zone, somehow he made sense of what the U.S. was doing in Southeast Asia, how we were trying to keep dominoes from falling. That never worked, of course, no more than a country could stop a lawbreaker from leaving the White House.
Valeriani, like the others above, were half-brothers to Joe Palmer, George Ryall, a.k.a. Audax Minor, and Joe Hirsch and Charles Hatton and Barney Nagler, when journalism mattered at the Morning Telegraph. All were all mentors in word, if not in deed.
Valeriani visited the Saratoga press box every year because, above all, he loved two things: sojourning to Saratoga and cashing a bet.
Sometimes we gave him good counsel, more times not. But every year he returned in good cheer with a beaming smile: “Hey Pricci, whadda’ ya’ got today?”
When I read of Whitaker’s passing, the first thing I thought of was Secretariat’s Belmont, as Lamoreaux had, using that event to sum up his feelings, respect, and appreciation for a late, beloved colleague:
Then, another unforgettable racing moment, albeit tragic, when it was learned that the champion filly Ruffian had to be euthanized after a match race with Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park, Whitaker looked into the camera and shared his grief.
Lamoreaux recalled Whitaker’s words: “One false step and years of planning and breeding and training and loving come to an end – a horse with speed and stamina and heart – a horse, like the Bible says, whose neck is clothed in thunder.”
Nack introduced me to Frank Deford, and he, too, had that quality. “I never wanted to be an editor,” he once said. “…I just wanted to write, and it didn’t make any difference whether it was fiction or nonfiction, or short stories, or whatever.”
But, lest any of us take ourselves too seriously: “In Hollywood, writers are considered only the first draft of human beings.” And now who is left to teach us?
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