He is a comforting image on a Sunday afternoon between halves of a pro football game, the white-haired chap with the craggy face. He is alone on camera, working without film, without TelePrompTer and definitely without interference from production-level executives at CBS-TV. He is relaxed and talking easily, in this case about Billy Kilmer, the battered mainstay of the Washington Redskins. "I think that I shall never see/A quarterback as tough as he," the announcer says. He goes on with the story. "A dark, rainy night on the Bayshore Highway, south of San Francisco. Falling asleep at the wheel, going off the road into a marsh, being lifted out of the wreck, his right leg almost was severed above the ankle...Old Whiskey, you're quite a remarkable athlete."
As Jack Whitaker talks about Kilmer, the producer and director of his show are going bananas. Whitaker is what is called a Talking Head. Producers and directors abhor Talking Heads. They prefer blimp shots and sideline shots and, well, give us this day our daily blood. All Whitaker does is talk and make sense.
When the 3-year-old filly Ruffian broke down and was destroyed in her 1975 match race, Whitaker said, "A false step here and the years of planning and breeding and training and loving came to an end...A horse with speed and stamina and heart. A horse, like the Bible says, '...whose neck is clothed in thunder.' "
There are those who insist that television is merely a thing to watch and not hear—what you see is what you get. This is an understandable attitude considering that so many folks on television talk a heap but truly say nothing. The self-assured Whitaker does say some important things about sport. Does anyone listen or remember?
Apparently a great many people do. The top brass at CBS. not as uptight as producers and directors about whether or not Whitaker works with props, feel he can make a point in 1½ to 2 minutes and still set forth a thesis not found in the daily or weekly press. Whitaker gained industry-wide celebrity in 1966 when he referred to the gallery at the Masters as "a mob," drawing the wrath of the late Masters czar, Clifford Roberts, who requested that Whitaker not tread again on those hallowed grounds. And Whitaker has spoken out against Trashsport, those produced-for-TV events, such as the Battle of the Sexes and the Demolition Derby, which bore him.
Whitaker started out from radio station WPAM in Pottsville, Pa. in 1947. The call letters stood for We Promote Anthracite Mining, and Whitaker's voice carried only as far as 250 watts could deliver it. He opened and closed the station every day. He had no broadcasting heroes, although he listened to and studied radio and television diligently. When he tried out for a sportswriting and broadcasting job at WCAU-TV in Philadelphia in 1950 he got it.
"I did the 9:30 a.m. slot," Whitaker says, "and it was a good market. But in those days how many people watched television? I wrote all my own material, and when the six o'clock news went on I went on with it. Nobody knew that the 11 o'clock spot was really the best. I moved into that slot and started to say things. It turned out that the 11 o'clock was the place to be. New York called me late in life and I got that job. I was fired once and I quit once. I got fired because the local station, WCBS, wanted to bring in Frank Gifford. But happily I was working for the CBS network at the time. I had started out at $32.50 a week on radio, and I went to $100 a week on television."
Nowadays, for considerably more money, Whitaker says and does pretty much what he wants to say and do on camera. Directors and producers will occasionally scream orders into Whitaker's earpiece (which is hard to imagine, given Whitaker's calm, unruffled manner), but he goes on saying exactly what he had intended to say. "Yes. I've heard that I'm called the Eric Sevareid of sport," he says, "and it flatters me somewhat. An essay might take shape in 20 minutes, or it might not be there at all after five hours. If you take a long look at sport there is a lot to say. I can say anything I want to say to 7 million people—but they are supposed to be interested in what I'm saying."
After covering as many major sports events as anyone on any network this side of Lindsey Nelson, Whitaker finds "a harsh reality about doing essays. It drains me at times, trying to come up with the right thing to say. CBS has not covered baseball for many years and the old rule-of-thumb was that if your network didn't do a sport you never mentioned it. I talk about baseball whenever I choose." (And basketball, too. After the recent Kareem Abdul-Jabbar slugging incident and its $5,000 fine, an NBA record, Whitaker passed along the information that there were people who thought the punishment should have been more severe.) "Still, I know that I'm regarded as The Talking Head. I'd like to be exactly that and say something that people will remember or get excited about. I'd like to bring sports into the thinking process."
Obviously, Whitaker has done that much, and those who watch and listen—mostly listen—are becoming aware of the fact that he is quietly and forcefully giving new depth to television sports coverage. Next year Whitaker will be on the air more frequently than in the past, and if he can manage to hang in there as forcefully, he can become the medium's most influential voice in sports. Even if the voice is emerging from The Talking Head.