Legendary Sportscaster Dies Today at 88
Left NBC and Gave ESPN Stature at its Launch
Longtime ESPN executives and commentators reflected today upon their warm memories of one of the network’s most important early figures, legendary sportscaster Jim Simpson.
Simpson passed away today, Wednesday, Jan. 13, in Scottsdale, Ariz., at the age of 88 after a short illness. One of sports television’s most enduring, versatile and congenial personalities, Simpson worked for all three broadcast networks, TNT and notably for ESPN at its launch over his 50+ years in the business. His move to a fledgling cable network during its first month on the air in September 1979 defied conventional wisdom, but gave ESPN a much-needed prominent lead personality and made the industry take notice.
In 1998, Simpson received the highest honor in the sportscasting industry, the Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Sports Emmy Awards, presented by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. In 2000, he was inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame.
James Shores Simpson was born in Washington, D.C., on December 20, 1927. Raised in Chevy Chase, Md., he was graduated from Devett Prep in Washington, D.C., and served in the Coast Guard before attending George Washington University and UCLA. He is survived by his wife, Ann Crowley Jones, a friend of 50 years whom he married in 2006. He is also survived by his son and four daughters, Bret, Kim Howard, Sherry Petersen, Suzanne Cleary and B.J. Kline; as well as 18 grandchildren and two great-grandsons.
ESPN Colleagues Remember Jim
“On Jim’s first visit to Bristol I met him at the airport and immediately experienced his warm personality. He brought tremendous credibility to ESPN in our early days, doing whatever was needed to help build the network. Jim was a television legend.” – ESPN Founder and first President, Bill Rasmussen
“Jim Simpson saw the future of sports television was on cable, and his move to ESPN gave our company instant credibility and stature. His unsurpassed professionalism and smooth delivery graced our telecasts for many years. There has never been a finer or more unassuming man to reach such heights in his profession. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and many friends and colleagues.” — John Wildhack, ESPN executive vice president, programming and production who joined ESPN in 1980 and worked frequently with Simpson
“Jim Simpson was a legend at NBC at brought a standard of excellence to ESPN that set the tone for so many to follow. I was honored he was assigned to work with me as I was just starting out. He had a tremendous influence on me and assisted me early in my career. He was special. Jim Simpson was as good as it gets.” – ESPN basketball analyst Dick Vitale who joined ESPN in 1979 and frequently partnered with Simpson
“Nearly 37 years ago, the broadcast industry was stunned with the news this tiny operation called ESPN had hired Jim Simpson of NBC Sports as its lead on-air personality. Jim was already a titan in sports television – a veteran of numerous Olympics and World Series, and major sporting events. His arrival provided ESPN with a critical injection of credibility. If you’re not familiar with Jim’s body of work, Google it. It is remarkable. But what struck this 24 year old ‘colleague’ of Jim’s was the professionalism and class Jim brought to all his assignments. It left an indelible impression, along with the more important fact that, personally, this network star was a prince of a man. Jim Simpson passed away today at the age of 88. Friday night, the NFL Network is presenting Super Bowl One – the lost game. The sound track for that anticipated event is Jim Simpson’s radio call. From all of us here – especially those who worked with Jim, our thoughts and prayers to the extended Simpson family, and our thanks for our time with him.” – Bob Ley who joined ESPN in September 1979
“Jim was my mentor. And friend. A brother. Among the dozens of stories whose memories bring a wide smile to my face, here is one. In Italy covering a WCT tennis event in the early ESPN days our production hardware was challenging so the producer said, ‘Cliff you need to speak up, you are way too low.’ Jim leans over to me and says, ‘Don’t listen to them. You speak at your level. It’s their job to boost your voice.’ Jim always had my back. We covered multiple memorable matches, including the longest ever played at the time. A Davis Cup tie, McEnroe vs. Wilander. Over six-and-a-half hours. In all the years we never had a cross word and I never once wished him to do other than what he did. Not once. It’s easy to casually throw the word love around. I loved Jim Simpson.” – ESPN tennis commentator and Hall of Famer Cliff Drysdale who joined ESPN in September 1979
Career Beginnings: Working in Newspaper and Radio
Simpson’s career started writing an outdoors column for no pay for a suburban Washington, D.C., weekly newspaper. In January, 1943, at the age of 15 he was hired by WINX in Washington, D.C., and even though that was also a volunteer position, Hunting and Fishing with Jimmy Simpson lasted all of six weeks. Determined to make a career in broadcasting, he continued in radio in the area, working next at WBOC in Salisbury, Md., his first paying job, earning $28.50 per week. He was hired by WWDC in 1945, where one of his roles was serving as the White House correspondent. He re-joined WINX in 1946 as a staff announcer, including hosting “The Opera Hour.”
Making the Bold Move to Television
In January 1949, he quit his job at WARK Radio in Hagerstown, Md., for the brand new Channel 9 in Washington, D.C. Friends and family warned him against leaving the established medium of radio for the new-fangled technology of television, which came with a 50% cut in salary. “They said,” he later recalled in a 1981 newspaper article, “Nobody’s going to see you. Nobody’s going to hear you. What do you want to do a crazy thing like that for?” His resulting career path proved them wrong. He served as a sportscaster (working with the station’s news anchor, Walter Cronkite), announcer, film editor and floor manager before CBS purchased the station, now called WTOP-TV, a year later. Supplemental work for CBS soon followed, and Simpson did play-by-play of college football games, including later on the Armed Forces Game of the Week. In 1952, he served as sports reporter and host of the Washington Senators pre- and post-game shows at WTTG-TV. Simpson moved cross-town to WRC-TV in 1955 where he began a 25-year association with NBC by announcing Atlantic Coast Conference football and basketball.
Although best known for his 15 years with NBC Sports from 1964-1979, over the years, Simpson also worked for ABC (starting in 1960 with the predecessor to ABC Sports, Sports Programs, Inc.), CBS and TNT, as well as ESPN. His television and radio credits include 16 Major League Baseball All-Star games (1964-79), 14 Olympic Games — from the 1952 Winter Games in Helsinki for CBS Radio to the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta where he covered equestrian events for NBC (including hosting the Summer Games from Tokyo for NBC in 1964), six Super Bowls and six World Series. In addition, he covered all of the Grand Slam golf and tennis events (including 14 Wimbledon championships) and all major Bowl games, including 14 Orange Bowls. He also spent 15 seasons as an AFL and NFL broadcaster (1964-79).
Another Bold Move: Joining ESPN
Simpson joined ESPN Sept. 14, 1979, after 15 years at NBC Sports and just one week after the cable outfit had launched. The move reunited him with his former boss at both ABC Sports and NBC Sports, Chet Simmons, President of ESPN since July of that year. For ESPN, he was the leading on-air host, working on a wide variety of sports, including college football, basketball, and baseball; tennis, including Davis Cup; USFL; boxing; horse racing; golf; and the U.S. Olympic Festival. On occasion, Simpson anchored SportsCenter in 1979.
His move to ESPN was reminiscent of 30 years earlier when left radio for TV. For a second time he ignored advice and followed his heart while also seeing the future of the industry lay in the evolving technology. His decision was, however, also the result of fortuitous timing. He knew that by mid-1980 a combination of high school and college graduations and marriages for the five Simpson children, would leave Jim and Sara alone in their Bethesda, Md., home.
The upcoming empty nest made saying yes to Stu Evey, the persistent executive at Getty Oil (ESPN’s owner) who had been calling since February (and mailing press clips about the promise of the cable industry), a bit easier. “We figured we could stay home and do the same old thing,” Simpson said in a 1993 newspaper article. “But this was a challenge, and why not go ahead and why not try to do something different ourselves.” He was not concerned about losing the high-profile event to which he was so well associated. “It did not bother me a whit that I would not be doing the World Series or the Orange Bowl again because I had done them.” In another article at the time, he said of ESPN, “It was a neat place to work, and everybody was concerned about only one thing: sports.”
A Memorable Career
As a pioneer in the sportscasting field, Simpson was part of many firsts. He appeared on the first episode of ABC’s Wide World of Sports in 1961, reporting from the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Ia. He participated in the first telecast to utilize instant replay, the 1963 Army-Navy game. He also was the first person to appear live on U.S. television via satellite from Asia during the 1964 Summer Olympics from Tokyo.
The list of Simpson’s sportscasting partners during his career reads like a who’s who: Red Barber, Red Grange, Arnold Palmer, Mel Allen, Leo Duroucher, Dick Enberg, Charlie Jones, Sandy Koufax, Tony Kubek, Jim McKay, Lindsey Nelson, Merlin Olsen, John Brodie, Bud Collins, Chris Schenkel, Vin Scully, Bill Talbert, Al DeRogatis, Bud Wilkinson, Paul Maguire, Cliff Drysdale and Dick Vitale.
From 1986-88, Simpson was the television voice for the Baltimore Orioles on WMAR-TV, the team’s flagship station. In 1991 and ’92, he worked Cornell University football games for SportsChannel America.
During his illustrious career of over 50 years, Simpson worked in 49 states and 22 countries, more than any other commentator. In 1994, Simpson was inducted into the Senior Bowl Hall of for his lasting contributions to the growth and success of the Senior Bowl with both NBC and ESPN. He was the first broadcaster to receive that honor. Also that year, he received the Jake Wade Award, given by the College Sports Information Directors of America to a person in the communications field for outstanding contributions to college athletics.