|Wednesday, July 2
Jackson returning to his broadcast roots
By Mark Simon
Special to ESPN.com
An entire generation of sports fans has gone without hearing Keith Jackson broadcast a baseball game, but that will change Wednesday when he joins ESPN2's telecast of the Mariners-A's game as part of this season's Living Legends series.
Since Jackson is so identified with college football, some may forget that he has done more than his share of big baseball games. He has always been an avid follower of the national pastime since growing up on a farm right near the Georgia-Alabama border. He followed players like Dixie and Harry Walker, and Rudy York, local legends who had successful major-league careers.
"I was like every kid in the south,'' said the 73-year-old Jackson, who during the summer lives in Pender Harbor, British Columbia, not far from Vancouver. "Because I was a kid, I was interested in baseball. We didn't have any major-league teams in the south then. All the major-league teams were in the big cities. So we had the Atlanta Crackers, the Knoxville Bears, the Chattanooga Lookouts and the New Orleans Pelicans.''
Jackson enlisted in the Marines in 1946 and served until 1950, a stint that included time overseas. When he got out, it was time to figure out what to do with his life. Playing baseball, something he liked to do, was not an option.
"After four years in the Marine Corps, I couldn't run, hit or throw,'' Jackson said with a laugh. "So it was time for me to move on to something else.''
That meant enrolling at Washington State University, the alma mater of legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow. Jackson worked extensively broadcasting sports on the student radio station. After graduating, he went to work for KOMO in Seattle, where he filled the roles of sports director, production director and general announcer. When the broadcaster for the Seattle Rainiers baseball team of the Pacific Coast League, which did its games on KOMO, said he didn't want to fly, Jackson took over the job.
"We did a lot of innovative things,'' Jackson said. "In the summer of 1962, we did eight games on television. I made a deal with the (PCL) commissioner that he would let me go on the field in certain circumstances. So I would sit down by the dugout, and when the manager, Don Heffner, went out to the mound to change pitchers, I went out there with him. Sometimes I would go to the on-deck circle during the pitching change and talk to the hitter. That will be done someday (on present broadcasts). I think it added a lot of flavor to the games."
That approach led to his job with ABC in 1964, initially as both a newscaster and sportscaster. He handled baseball telecasts in 1965 with the likes of Jackie Robinson and Tommy Henrich. Among the highlights was doing the first telecast from the Houston Astrodome, where you could barely see the ball in the glare of the glass. The sport was televised a lot differently back then.
"Ford Frick threatened to sue us for taking pictures of the dugouts,'' Jackson said, illustrating the difference. "You weren't allowed to do that back then, but we did it anyway. We did a game where Howard (Cosell) had someone show how to throw a spitball. That got Frick mad, too.''
Jackson had a long hiatus from the baseball booth after that season, establishing himself as a national presence in other sports, most notably college football, as well as the NBA. He also circled the globe traveling for ABC's Wide World of Sports and the Olympics.
In 1976, ABC put Jackson back on baseball, paired with Cosell, and ex-big leaguers Bob Uecker, and Don Drysdale. Sometimes he would do an early afternoon football game, get on a plane immediately afterward, and work a baseball playoff telecast that night. It was an enjoyable experience nonetheless.
"We had a lot of fun in the booth,'' Jackson said. "We were once in Baltimore on a muggy midsummer night. Howard was hungry. He talked all night long about us not having any crabcakes. Well, the next night we go to the ballpark and there are 100 boxes of crabcakes in the booth. We had to haul them out so we would have room to work. So they hauled them out to my hotel room. When I got back, you could smell them all the way to Philadelphia. So we went down to the lobby and gave them away.''
Jackson's philosophy of broadcasting baseball didn't differ from his work in other sports. He didn't, however, establish any memorable catchphrases, like the many attached to him in his college football work.
"I try to remember who the most important person is,'' he said. "That's the person who bought the television or the radio. The function of any sports announcer is to amplify and clarify, not to intrude on the game, but to say why a team is winning or losing. The sound of summer is the voice of the baseball announcer. It is just as much a sound of summer as is the voice of a mockingbird.''
Jackson developed a knack for being on the air at some of the best games in recent baseball history. He was at the microphone for Chris Chambliss' pennant-clinching home run in Game 5 of the 1976 ALCS and handled the broadcast of the one-game playoff between the Yankees and Red Sox in 1978. In all, he combined to work on 11 World Series and League Championship Series. His last baseball telecast was the 16-inning thriller between the New York Mets and the Houston Astros that concluded the 1986 NLCS. Jackson has attended only one baseball game since then.
"I enjoyed it,'' Jackson said of his time working baseball. "I turned down half a dozen good offers, because I never wanted to do 180 baseball games a year. I wanted to do other things. That's why I stayed with ABC. I did sports that people never heard about until we did them."
Having the wisdom of age to draw upon, Jackson has seen the differences between baseball then and now and prefers when the game was more pure. He still watches regularly and isn't shy with his opinions of the sport.
"I think baseball, like all sports, is becoming a victim of the dollar to some degree,'' Jackson said. "That's why it's so much fun to see a guy like David Eckstein come along who works so hard. That's old-fashioned, playing for the love of the game. I'm not sure that we've lost the heart and soul of the game. There are still stories of guys who just want to get there, but that's a declining group. The magic of baseball still exists today on the playgrounds. That's where Walter Mitty still lives.''
Mark Simon is a researcher for ESPN's Major League Baseball broadcasts. He can be contacted at Mark.A.Simon@espn.com