When it comes to broadcast versatility, few — if any — can match Chris Schenkel. A television stalwart for more than 40 years, he called football, basketball, golf, horseracing, boxing, bowling, and much more. And he did it while earning a reputation as one of the nicest guys in the business.
“Chris was an unbelievable gentlemen,” says legendary TV producer and Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Don Ohlmeyer. “He had one of the most important qualities people can have on television: they are instantly likeable. The audience liked and enjoyed him on-air. He was professional, did his homework, and was a great storyteller. He understood that a game was not just a sequence of unconnected events; you could make it more interesting for the viewer if you weaved it all into a connected story.”
Born in 1923, Schenkel grew up on a farm in Bippus, IN, listening to Notre Dame football games on the radio and soaking in the style of the era’s biggest sportscasters. He would even try his own hand at broadcasting, calling his high school’s basketball tournament over a telephone line to an audience in downtown Bippus.
After attending Purdue University and serving in World War II, Schenkel pursued a career in radio before breaking into television in 1947 as the play-by-play voice for Harvard University. His big break would arrive a few years later, when he was hired by CBS in 1952 to be the voice of the New York Football Giants, Triple Crown horseracing, and The Masters golf tournament. As the voice of the Giants, Schenkel was in the booth for the 1958 National Football League Championship against the Baltimore Colts.
Former ABC Sports and NFL executive Dennis Lewin reflects on the importance of that game, not only for Schenkel’s career but for the sport of professional football in general. “That was a game that arguably made the NFL more popular in this country,” says Lewin, who worked alongside Schenkel at ABC Sports. “It was the first [NFL] Championship game that had ever gone to overtime, and Chris was the broadcaster on it. That game, as much as anything else in the history — of the NFL, in my opinion — moved the NFL forward to where it is today.”
In 1965, Schenkel joined ABC Sports, where his profile grew exponentially with the addition of MLB, NBA, Indianapolis 500, and Olympic Games to his résumé.
Already the first sportscaster to call The Masters live on television, he became the first to anchor an Olympic Games live, taking on studio-host duties in Mexico City in 1968.
After the 1972 Games in Munich, he shifted from studio host to calling several Olympic events, including figure skating and Nadia Comenici’s perfect 10 in gymnastics during the 1976 Montreal Summer Games.
“For a long time, Chris was the biggest name around, and I think some people have forgotten that,” says former ABC Sports President and current NFL executive Howard Katz, a Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer. “He was a legend already in 1971 when I arrived [at ABC Sports], and he only built on that from that point forward.
“He was one of the nicest men that has ever been in front of a microphone,” Katz continues. “He was a consummate gentleman. He treated people the way he would want to be treated. I’ve said many times, you could take Chris out of Indiana but you couldn’t take Indiana out of Chris.”
However, it wasn’t just his on-air persona that boosted the stature of ABC Sports. Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Geoff Mason, a colleague at ABC Sports, attributes the network’s success to Schenkel’s behind-the-scenes work as well.
“He wrote the book on how to cultivate [relationships with] people in the industry,” says Mason. “In those days, we were like one giant family. We were all in this new endeavor called sports TV; we pretty much needed each other because we were carving out new territory each and every week. Chris was one of the very few people who totally understood that and who was always available for a drink, a cigarette. And I guarantee, a lot of things got done in those days contractually primarily because of the state work that Chris had done. He was one of the very first people who ever truly understood the value of those relationships.”
Famous for his distinctive baritone, Schenkel is probably best-known for calling the Professional Bowlers Association Tour, which he did for 36 years until ABC stopped carrying the PBA Tour in 1997.
“Chris Schenkel wasn’t just a great announcer for the PBA on ABC; he became part of the fabric of the game,” says PBA Commissioner Tom Clark. “Our most prestigious award each year is the Chris Schenkel PBA Player of the Year Award. I am not sure if any other sports name their MVP award after a broadcaster, further testament to how critical to the success of pro bowling on TV and how beloved he was by the entire PBA.”
Although millions of Americans knew Schenkel through their television sets, he was far more than a broadcaster. A devoted family man, he and his wife, Fran — a former June Taylor dancer — married in 1955 and had three children: Christina, Ted, and John. The family moved from New York to Indiana in the early 1970s and still lived there at the time of Schenkel’s death in 2005.
“In Indiana, he’s famous as the farm boy that made it,” says Ted Schenkel. “He got a lucky break, and his determination to move from being a little farm boy to having the nerve to go out east and try to make it is a testament to his drive. He always knew that’s what he wanted to do. He was so smart, had so many interests, and was just a great man.”
— Karen Hogan, Associate Editor, SVG