McKay died Saturday of natural causes at his farm in Monkton, Md. The broadcaster who considered horse racing his favorite sport died only hours before Big Brown attempted to win a Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes.
He was host of ABC's influential "Wide World of Sports" for more than 40 years, starting in 1961. The weekend series introduced viewers to all manner of strange, compelling and far-flung sports events. The show provided an international reach long before exotic backdrops became a staple of sports television.
McKay - understated, dignified and with a clear eye for detail - also covered 12 Olympics, but none more memorably than the Summer Games in Munich, Germany. He was the anchor when events turned grim with the news that Palestinian terrorists kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes. It was left to McKay to tell Americans when a commando raid to rescue the athletes ended in tragedy.
"They're all gone," McKay said.
The terse, haunting comment was replayed many times through the years when the events of Munich were chronicled.
He won both a news and sports Emmy Award for his coverage of the Munich Olympics in addition to the prestigious George Polk award.
"In the long run, that's the most memorable single moment of my career," said McKay, an Emmy Award winning broadcaster who was also in the studio for the United States' "Miracle on Ice" victory over Russia. "I don't know what else would match that."
Jim McKay, born James Kenneth McManus, was a veteran of the U.S. Navy in World War II. He began his broadcasting career in 1947 as the first on-air television broadcaster in Baltimore, Maryland. He later worked on a CBS variety show in New York before joining ABC Sports.
McKay was the first sportscaster to win an Emmy Award. He won 12, the last in 1988. ABC calculated that McKay traveled some 4½ million miles to work events. He covered more than 100 different sports in 40 countries.
"He had a remarkable career and a remarkable life," said Sean McManus, McKay's son and the president of CBS News and Sports. "Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn't come up to me and say how much they admired my father."
"There are no superlatives that can adequately honor Jim McKay," said George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports. "He meant so much to so many people. He was a founding father of sports television, one of the most respected commentators in the history of broadcasting and journalism."
"Jim was a regular guy who wrote and spoke like a poet," said Bob Iger, CEO of the Walt Disney Company (which owns ABC). "He loved sports. To him, sports defined life - full of drama, adventure, accomplishment and disappointment. The thrill of victory for some, the agony of defeat for others. Jim was as likable off camera as on, a true friend to all those who worked with him or watched him."
CBS Sportscaster Jim Nantz said, "Jim McKay was the broadcasting hero of my youth. I hung onto his every word and wrote him letters when I was a kid. I feel like one of the greatest joys of my life was having the chance to get to know him as a friend and father figure. There will never be anyone who can match his genuine heartfelt delivery of a story. His kindness and warmth came through on every telecast. A true reflection of one of the greatest gentlemen the world will ever know."
McKay's first television broadcast assignment was a horse race at Pimlico in 1947. It was the start of a love affair - horse racing captivated him like nothing else.
"There are few things in sport as exciting or beautiful as two strong thoroughbreds, neck and neck, charging toward the finish," he once said.
Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports and Olympics, worked with McKay for six years at ABC Sports.
"He was truly the most respected and admired sportscaster of his generation and defined how the stories of sports can and should be covered," he said in a statement. "While we all know what an absolute titan he was in his chosen field, I will always remember him as an extraordinary human being guided by a strong moral compass."
U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth said McKay set a standard for sports journalism.
"Jim is synonymous with the Olympic Games." he said. "As host of ABC's Olympic coverage, he brought into our homes the triumphs and struggles of athletes from around the world."
McKay left his mark on countless colleagues. Bob Costas called McKay a "singular broadcaster."
"He brought a reporter's eye, a literate touch, and above all a personal humanity to every assignment," Costas said. "He had a combination of qualities seldom seen in the history of the medium, not just sports."
Al Michaels described McKay as the "personification of class and style."
"His enthusiasm permeated every event he covered and thus always made it far more interesting," he said. "I always thought of him as a favorite teacher."
Mike Tirico, covering the NBA finals in Boston for ABC and ESPN, worked four British Opens with McKay. He said McKay held a special place in his household while growing up in Queens in New York.
"Dinner wasn't served on Saturday night until 'Wide World of Sports' was over," Tirico said.
Besides his son Sean, McKay leaves his wife, Margaret, daughter Mary Edwina and, as CBS News Chief Investigative Correspondent Armen Keteyian noted, "a hole in the heart of journalism that will never be filled."