America’s most versatile sportscaster and
The American Sportsman, Dies at 86
Curt Gowdy, who over a span of seven decades brought a warmth and smooth delivery to his radio, TV and cable sportscasts and was known to millions of fishermen and hunters as The American Sportsman, died at 3:10 a.m. Monday, February 20 at the age of 86.
Gowdy passed away at his winter home in Palm Beach, Fla., surrounded by his immediate family. Since 1951 he lived in the Boston Mass., area, first in the suburb of Wellesley Hills, then the city of Boston and also retained a summer residence in Sugar Hill, N.H.
The cause of death was acute leukemia.
A pioneer of radio sportscasting in the 1940s and TV in the early 1950s, Gowdy was the most prolific and versatile national sportscaster of the 1960s and 1970s. Working for four major networks, he enjoyed a wide fan base, critical acclaim and the respect of his peers for his in-depth preparation.
Born and raised in Wyoming, the "cowboy at the mike," reported the action in a distinctively warm, articulate and relaxing manner. On the air, he diligently strived for a blend of accuracy, pacing and balance.
Of his first sports love, he said, "Baseball unfolds like a story, providing drama, character revelation, and surprise; and there is always time for the reporter to enrich the moment with color, narrative and anecdote." As host and producer of the long-running The American Sportsman television series, ubiquitous with a Stetson hat and casting a dry fly, he garnered a public following that endured for the rest of life; many referring to him as the "true American sportsman." Because of his versatility with a wide range of sports he was also described as the "voice of all seasons."
Man of many talents…and many honors including 20 Halls of Fame
Although in sports the words "Legend" and "Hall of Fame" usually refer to those who have earned their reputations on the field, they are used quite accurately to describe the man behind the microphone and fly rod. His demanding schedule called upon to cover more major sports events than anyone in broadcasting history. It included coverage of an astounding 16 World Series, 12 Rose Bowls, nine Super Bowls, 16 MLB All-Star Games, eight Olympic Games and 24 NCAA Final Fours of collegiate basketball.
Gowdy is probably the only man who has been inducted into a total of 20 Halls of Fame comprising sports, broadcasting, conservation and fishing including the most recent, the 2006 Rose Bowl in early January. Gowdy’s other Hall of Fame inductions include The National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 1981, the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984, The American Sportscasters Hall of Fame in 1985, The American Football League Hall of Fame in 1995 and The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) Fishing Hall of Fame in 2003 to name a few.
He is also the man for whom the Basketball Hall of Fame’s two prestigious broadcasting and print awards were named for in 1990, presented annually to the top basketball journalists and sportscasters. He also served as its president for seven years.
Gowdy is the first individual sports figure to ever win the coveted Peabody Award for Outstanding Journalistic Achievement. He has also received 13 Emmys, six of them for ABC TV’s The American Sportsman, which he hosted from its inception for over 20 years. He was presented with the Gold Medal Hall of Fame Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in New England for career contributions to the industry. In March, 1990, Gowdy received the first Museum of Broadcasting’s (now Museum of Television and Radio) Hall of Fame Award for outstanding achievements and contributions to the field of broadcasting and in April, 1992, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences presented him with a special Emmy, the Lifetime Achievement Award.
At the height of his career he broadcast many of sports most memorable moments including the Boston Red Sox’s Ted Williams’ last at bat in 1960 which ended with a home run for the "Splendid Splinter’s" career; Super Bowl III in 1969 as the AFL’s Joe Namath guaranteed a N.Y. Jets win over the NFL’s Baltimore Colts; "The Amazing" New York Mets shocking the Baltimore Orioles in five games in the 1969 World Series; and the call of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run in 1974 that thrust him past Babe Ruth.
Growing up in Wyoming
Curtis Edward Gowdy was born July 31, 1919 in Green River, Wyoming, the older of two children in a close knit family. His father, Edward Curtis Gowdy, a dispatcher and supervisor for the Union Pacific railroad, and his mother Ruth Smith Gowdy moved the family to Cheyenne, Wyo., when Curt was six. His sister Margaret was born nine years after Curt.
It’s where his father introduced him to hunting, and to fly-fishing, teaching him valued lessons in conservation and respect for nature. But it was his mother, "a tough disciplinarian and western gal" who saw that he got a proper education and strived to do his best in school. She equipped him with a library card at the age of six and required him to read a book a week --- and 80 years later he still has a voracious appetite scouring the newspapers, magazines and books on subjects of all kinds.
"She said ‘you must build up your vocabulary and the only way to do it is to read’" he said.
"At the age of 10 she made me take elocution lessons which I also thought was silly. She wouldn’t stand for unintelligible speech." He chuckled, "I said, 'Aw geez, mom, c'mon! We're living in Cheyenne, Wyoming! Elocution lessons? How is this gonna do me any good?'
"Then in my senior year of high school she made me take touch typing and I was the only boy in a classroom of 35 girls but years later in my professional career I was up to 100 words per minute."
An outstanding basketball player and varsity tennis player at the University of Wyoming, where he graduated with a degree in business, his athletic career was cut short by World War II and a serious spinal injury that he suffered with much of the rest of his life. After his discharge from the Army Air Corp, Gowdy began his broadcasting career backed with a journalism stint in his hometown of Cheyenne, in the fall of 1943.
"It was a fluke," Gowdy said of his entry into broadcasting. "Otherwise I would have probably gone into something like statistics," he revealed in a recent Nov. 2005 interview.
"Bill Grove the manager of KFBC, a small, local radio station asked if I would do a live broadcast of a six-man football game. Since my back surgery, my mother encouraged me to do it. She said ‘It will take your mind off your back problems.’ Other than a single public speaking class I took at Wyoming or acting like a sportscaster when listening to a radio broadcast as a kid, I had no real experience.
"It was a cold day and only about 15 people in the stands. There were two boxes, one for me and to sit on and the other one for the microphone. There was no roster, no numbers on the players jerseys, no yard-lines and I had to guess where the goal line was," he smiled. "I took some liberty making up names of the players, many of them guys I had met in the Air Force or played against in basketball. Grove said the sponsor liked the broadcast and offered me a job announcing high school basketball as well."
"Whenever I did an important game like a Super Bowl or a World Series, I always remembered my first game and of my younger sister Margaret bringing me hot soup my mom had prepared to warm me up at halftime in that subfreezing weather."
He rapidly gained experience doing everything at the station including news, reading commercials and coverage of a variety of local football and basketball games, something he attributes to his versatility in the business.
"We re-created major league baseball games within several minutes of the live action. Tickertape was fed to our station as a Western Union telegrapher at the game typed in balls, strikes, hits and plays to various positions. Beforehand, I would research the teams with player statistics and get a photo of the specific ball park they were playing in, distances to the fences and other technical stats so I could lend more accurate description and color to the game. We also added recorded sound effects of crowd noises and reactions and the ‘crack of the bat’ with a stick and block of wood for realism."
In the same time period Gowdy also had a dual role as a sports writer and later sports editor of the Wyoming (Cheyenne) Eagle, striving for accuracy by "getting it right" on the air and in print.
His major career breaks and rewarding lifelong friendships
He received his first big break in 1946 when a radio executive from CBS radio affiliate KOMA heard him and asked Gowdy to move to Oklahoma City to broadcast the football games of Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma University (OU) teams and Hank Iba’s champion Oklahoma State basketball squads. He also began broadcasting minor league baseball games in the Texas leagues. "Since then broadcasting sports is all I’ve really done."
It was while in Oklahoma that he met his future bride Geraldine "Jerre" Ophelia Dawkins, a communications graduate student at OU.
"She was the most beautiful girl in Oklahoma, and still is," he said with a warm smile conveying a hint of the legendary love and respect the couple has had for each other over 56 years of marriage.
His next major career break came just three years later when in 1949 at the age of 29 he won a national audition and became Mel Allen’s partner on the New York Yankee’s baseball broadcasts.
"I was scared to death," he said of his professional debut.
That year he also married Jerre in New York City. Years later Ted Williams said thoughtfully of his friend, "Marrying Jerre was the smartest thing Curt ever did."
It was also during those spring training years in St. Petersburg with the Yankees that Gowdy discovered the abundance of saltwater fly-fishing along the Florida coast and his love for the sport flourished.
In 1951, Gowdy accepted an offer from team owner Tom Yawkey and was hired by the Boston Red Sox, for whom he was the radio and TV play-by-play announcer for 15 years. It not only gave him more time on the waters of southwest Florida during pre-season training in Sarasota, but spring boarded Gowdy’s friendship with Williams, Boston’s legendary slugger, who was also an avid fly fisherman. The two became lifelong angling partners, fishing the Florida Keys, Mexico and Canada. Gowdy credits the friendship with Williams for making him a better fisherman --- and a better broadcaster.
"At the ball park Ted was always the first to arrive and the last to leave," said Gowdy. "While his teammates were in the Red Sox clubhouse I’d watch Ted in the dugout, studying the opponents during batting practice. He’d study the little things they did. I thought if a guy like Ted would work that hard analyzing the opposing pitchers and players, then I could do the same with my broadcasts. I began taking the newspapers of all of the Red Sox opponents, learning all I could about every player on every team. I’d study their statistics, the box scores and their interviews. I did the same thing in covering football. Ted was also the greatest fisherman I ever met no matter what species of fish we were after, he studied them too!"
Gowdy also credits the friendships and tutoring of coaches and players like Wilkinson, Iba, Williams, Red Auerbach, Casey Stengel, Dom DiMaggio and many others to shape his knowledge of the elements of their sports. He valued his life-long friendships with Yawkey, Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, Dr. Robert Wise, Bobby Knight, Howard Cosell, Joe Brooks, Roone Arledge, Jim McKay, Al Michaels, John Havlicek and partnerships behind the microphone with Tony Kubek, Al DeRogatis, Paul Christman, Don Meredith and others.
Starting a family and building his TV network career
Through their early years in Boston Red Sox, Curt and Jerre lived in the suburb of Wellesley Hills, Mass., and had three children, all of whom have gone on to successful careers. Their daughter Cheryl Ann is president of Gowdy International and is known from Boston to Palm Beach and both coasts for her creative contributions to the fields of event planning, promotions, publicity and fund-raising. Brothers Curt Jr. and Trevor have both followed in their father’s footsteps and flourished in television. Curt Jr. has embarked on a new career with SportsNet New York as Vice President of Production and Executive Producer after 27-years as an executive coordinating producer with ABC Sports where he won 16 Emmys. Trevor is president of Gowdy Productions where he’s won four Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Awards for outdoor entertainment productions for ESPN and a new series "Quest for the One" for the Outdoor Life Network.
During Gowdy’s long stint with the Red Sox and his professionalism in broadcasting becoming more evident to the TV execs in New York, he took on more and more freelance assignments with the networks covering all the major collegiate and professional sports, plus the Olympics for ABC-TV, NBC-TV and later CBS-TV.
In 1960 he became the lead TV broadcaster (with Christman) on ABC-TV for the newly developed American Football League and was still the number one team (with DeRogatis) ten years later in 1969 when the AFL merged with the National Football League. Along with his network broadcasts on the AFL, the NFL and NCAA football and basketball, Gowdy became the Saturday afternoon voice for millions on NBC-TV’s Game of the Week for major league baseball (with Kubek) from 1966 through 1975 adding key Monday night games in the mix as well. He is possibly the first sportscaster to work for two major networks at the same time; both ABC and NBC.
Decades later, the man who helped pioneer TV sportscasting was also called upon to host and anchor the PBS series The Way it Was and numerous ESPN and HBO sports programs such as Sports Century and Inside the NFL as cablecasts expanded on both sides of the new century.
Curt and Jerre’s love for broadcasting led the Gowdys to owning and creating seven AM & FM radio stations in Massachusetts (WCCM-AM the first station purchased in Boston in 1963 and WCGY-FM launched 1974), New Hampshire (WBBX-AM Portsmouth), Wyoming (KOWB-AM and KCGY-FM Laramie) and Florida (WEAT- AM & FM, West Palm Beach,). To his station’s executives and staff he was "the best boss anyone could work for" emphasizing strong humanitarian and community involvement within and beyond each station’s listener range, evident from the hundreds of citations and awards presented to them from a wide number of charities and civic leaders.
The beginning of 20-plus years of The American Sportsman
But among tens of millions of fishermen and hunters across North America, Gowdy is regarded as the consummate outdoorsman for his role as the host and producer of The American Sportsman, which aired on Sunday afternoons from January to March across three decades. It was originally introduced by ABC Sports Director Roone Arledge as a competitive fishing segment filmed in 1962 on the border of Chile and Argentina for ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The American Sportsman later brought the top entertainers and athletes like Williams, Terry Bradshaw, Brooks Robinson, Phil Harris, Bing Crosby, Bill Conrad, Robert Stack, Andy Griffith, Peter O’Toole, Jonathon Winters and Ernest Borgnine who liked to fish and hunt, into millions of homes during the winter months. Presidents of the day, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn, also appeared in fishing segments.
"They were all wonderful sportsmen and for many of them it was a chance for them to get away from Hollywood, the movies, entertainment, politics or sports. For me, The American Sportsman series was some of the best times in my life," said Curt.
Wyoming honors its favorite son with a state park
According to Gowdy, one of his greatest thrills came in 1972 when an 11,000 acre park equal distance between Cheyenne and Laramie was dedicated in his name. The area has low-lying meadows, gently rolling hills and massive steep granite formations. Wildlife abounds and both reservoirs are stocked with trout by the Wyoming Game & Fish Department. In early 2006 the state bought additional land for expansion of Curt Gowdy State Park.
"It has two beautiful lakes, hiking trails, camping, boating, fishing and beauty," said Gowdy. "It has everything I love. What greater honor can a man receive?"
Within its massive terrain sits Camp Jack, a beautiful and popular Boy Scout camp.
The "Cowboy State" was also the backdrop for many of the fishing and hunting segments that Gowdy produced and hosted on The American Sportsman. For many years he was the emcee for the annual Cheyenne Frontier Days.
A great speaker, friend, conservationist and humanitarian
Considered not only America’s most versatile sportscaster, Gowdy is one of America’s best extemporaneous speakers, storytellers and emcees. In presenting hundreds of after-dinner speeches with a combination of wit and humility, he’s regaled audiences of sports and fishing enthusiasts that included Presidents, princes, governors and generals, with exciting moments from the athletic fields, diamonds or courts along with special experiences he had on The American Sportsman.
Outside of broadcasting, Gowdy’s creative and theatrical achievements also flourished. One of Curt’s favorite professional moments was appearing with the Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams, in a series of 1988 springtime concerts reading one of baseball’s favorite poems "Casey at the Bat." His performances, which included the emphatic growl of the umpire calling strikes, were so popular that in 1990 he recreated the recitations with the Boston Pops under the direction of Keith Lockhart in concerts in Boston, Tanglewood and Nantucket, Mass., plus traveled on tour with the Pops to several mid-western cities.
Gowdy also appeared in six movies, many in cameo appearances including the comedy Naked Gun and Summer Catch. He also authored two books, Cowboy at the Mike in 1966 and Seasons to Remember in 1993 and a contributing author to many, many more.
Curt and Jerre made their winter home in Palm Beach, Florida, and a long-time summer home in Boston. Jerre joked about Curt’s arduous broadcasting career and extensive travel schedule saying she and the family saw him for only half of the years of their marriage and rarely on holidays.
Curt was heavily involved in conservation and environmental causes serving on the board of trustees for such groups as the Buffalo Bill Memorial Association, the IGFA and as a founding member of Bonefish & Tarpon Unlimited..
He has also worked for over a half century with humanitarian efforts including the Boy Scouts of America and with numerous non-profit children’s health charities. Among them as the celebrity host emcee for nearly two decades of the Mercury Redbone Celebrity fishing series in the Florida Keys for cystic fibrosis; honorary chairman for the Epilepsy Association as well as over 50 years for the Jimmy Fund for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Curt was also a 32nd degree Mason and a member of the Boston Shriners and their work with burn victims at the Boston Shriners Hospital.
Gowdy’s objectivity, enthusiasm, compassion, clarity and insight --- into sports in general and the outdoors in particular --- are difficult to surpass. For all the honors and accolades he’s received, he remained a pretty soft-hearted, approachable guy; literally a friend to hundreds of thousands of people who crossed his path or heard his voice over the airwaves.
Over the past several years during appearances at Boston Red Sox games, though retired, he was asked to sit in the ESPN booth and do an inning or two. He did five. In August, 2005 at Boston’s Curt Gowdy Day at Fenway Park he was again up in the radio and TV broadcast booths for more innings and never was he better.
The pioneer of TV sportscasting, Curt Gowdy will long remain its most versatile broadcaster and indeed the "Voice of all Seasons".
Gowdy is survived by his wife Jerre, daughter Cheryl Ann of Palm Beach and Boston, and sons Curt Jr. of New Canaan, Ct. and Trevor, Beverly Farms, Mass. Curt is survived by five grandchildren; Taylor, Katie, Grace, Alexa and Trevor Curtis.
The Gowdy family will receive friends Wednesday, February 22th, 2006 from 3 p.m. until 5 p.m. at Bethesda By The Sea in Palm Beach, Florida.
On Friday February 24th, the family will receive friends from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Trinity Church in Copley Square Boston, Mass.
Funeral Services will take place Saturday February 25th at 1 p.m. at the Trinity Church in Copley Square Boston, Mass. A private burial will follow.
Contributions can be made to the Curt Gowdy State Park in Cheyenne,Wyoming, 1351 Hynds Lodge Road, Cheyenne, Wyoming, 82009, phone 307-632-7946.
Contributions in loving honor of Curt can also be made to the Jimmy Fund in Boston at www.jimmyfund.org. The Jimmy Fund supports the fight against cancer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a world-renowned pioneer in discovering and developing innovative, effective cancer therapies for both children and adults. Phone number for the Jimmy Fund is 1-800-52 JIMMY. Or gifts can be sent to the Jimmy Fund, c/o Contribution Services, 10 Brookline Place West, Brookline, Mass. 02445.
Pat Smith was the long-time Emmy award winning writer of The American Sportman series. Smith’s profile of Curt Gowdy was updated, researched and expanded 2/2006 by Pete Johnson, a friend and fishing partner of Gowdy, and compiled for Gowdy International. For further information e-mail Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 480-951-3654 or Cheryl Ann Gowdy at Cheryl@gowdyinternational.com or 561-653-9999.
*photos courtesy of Gowdy International