Picture clear — nobody more plugged-in than Craig
Millions of words were spoken and spilled in the hours after LeBron James’s preposterous one-hour television special on ESPN last Thursday. Too bad we didn’t get a chance to read the opinion of Jack Craig, the man who invented television and radio criticism in the sports media.
Jack died Friday at the age of 81. He worked here at the Globe from 1966 to 1996 and was the founding father of sports television critiques. Howard Cosell, Curt Gowdy, Roone Arledge, and Dick Ebersol hung on Jack’s every word.
Bob Lobel, too.
“Jack really was the one we had to answer to,’’ says Lobel, sports anchor at WBZ-TV (Channel 4) for three decades. “It wasn’t our bosses, we had to answer to Jack Craig. He was always on our minds. If you did something, you’d say to yourself, ‘I hope Jack liked that.’ He’d always call you up before he wrote his story. He’d let you defend yourself. He’d tell you if you were going to the guillotine.’’
Joe Amorosino, sports anchor at WHDH-TV, remembers being a nervous kid out of college assigned to answer phones in the Channel 7 sports department. “They told me to be careful not to answer any questions if the person calling said he was Jack Craig,’’ he said.
This is not to suggest that Jack was harsh. Our Jack was no cheap-shot artist. If you were good he praised you. If you pulled a stunt like Jim Gray last week, well . . . you got what you deserved.
A Boston University grad (he went to BU on the GI Bill after serving in combat during the Korean War), Jack was working on the sports copy desk at the Globe when visionary sports editor Ernie Roberts suggested it might be a good idea to have someone write about television’s coverage of sports. Jack gave Globe readers his take on CBS’ telecast of the famous “Ice Bowl’’ game Dec. 31, 1967, between the Packers and Cowboys. A genre was born. It took some newspapers 15 or 20 years to catch on, but eventually every paper had a reporter covering TV and radio sports.
“It’s impossible to exaggerate the national importance that Jack had,’’ says the Globe’s Bob Ryan, no stranger to sportswriting and television. “Jack soon was writing a sports television column for the Sporting News, which gave him national reach and entry into the highest circles of network television. Everybody in the business knew Jack and he became the standard of sports television and radio criticism.’’
Dave Smith, who succeeded Roberts as Globe sports editor in the early 1970s, made time and space for Craig’s column.
“That was the beginning of the glory days of newspapers covering sports,’’ says Smith. “Sections were exploding and we were looking at everything as to how we could become better and more pertinent to the readers. You could see that televised sports was going to become a big deal.’’
Jack became a big deal. He was so big around here that in 1976 Boston magazine ran a six-page profile entitled, “Am I All Right, Jack?’’
Vince Doria, now a senior vice president and director of news at ESPN, was Jack’s boss at the Globe from 1978-89 and says, “Jack established contacts in the business. He was a real beat reporter on it. He was the definitive television sports critic, and for a long time was the only really well-known one in the business.’’
Lesley Visser, a reporter with Craig at the Globe before joining CBS Sports, remembers, “My friend, [Olympic swimmer] Donna de Varona told me that Jack was the most knowledgeable critic she spoke with when she first moved from the pool to the booth. He was warm and fair and strong, another gold standard who made us all so proud to work at the Globe.’’
“He was well-respected by the people at NBC,’’ recalls Bud Collins, another Globie who went on to great fame in television. “When he started, I thought it was kind of a laugh — who cares what’s goin’ on in television? — but he proved my opinion to be wrong. He was really on the ball. A very good reporter.’’
Jack was a man of dignity and intellect, but he was passionate about his opinions and his beat. My most unforgettable Jack Craig moment came in the spring of 1982 when Doria had Ryan, Jack, and myself working on a five-part series about the impending death of the NBA.
NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien got wind of our project and dispatched aide de camp David Stern to Boston. Stern at the time was the league’s executive vice president for business and legal affairs. He met with our Globe NBA swat team over breakfast in the third-floor executive dining room.
At the meeting, young Stern deflected much of our negativity regarding the future of the then-foundering league. Ryan and I took turns expressing our concerns about team solvency, drug problems, poor officiating, and dim prospects. When it was Jack’s turn he cited horrible TV ratings and the embarrassment of the NBA Finals being broadcast on tape delay. When Stern responded with some data demonstrating that the league was getting better ratings than indoor soccer, Jack playfully dived on the floor and pounded his fists into the carpet, ridiculing Stern’s weak defense about the NBA beating indoor soccer.
Almost 30 years later, thinking fondly of Jack, I wondered if I’d exaggerated that moment in my mind. So I called Stern.
“Oh, it happened,’’ said the Commish. “He threw himself on the floor. I remember him holding his heart. Jack was the maestro of over, and understatement. You guys were writing that the NBA was out of business and broken and I laid out my rosy history and Jack not only mocked me in words, he mocked me in deeds. He was a lovable curmudgeon, but he was the dean of broadcast sports media. The one and only.’’
Rest in peace, Jack. You were the one and only.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.