- Lifestyle & Sports
- 22 Sep 17
Having written two books with Jimmy Magee, Hot Press senior editor Jason O’Toole has a unique insight into the life of the late broadcasting legend.
Right up until his dying days, Jimmy Magee was a humble man but he took great pride in the fact that he was the longest serving sports commentator in the world, celebrating almost 60 years in broadcasting. It’s a feat that will probably never be repeated.
Jimmy’s death has deservedly received a huge amount of coverage, with the Irish Independent even printing a beautiful eight-page tribute. He was, as everybody is saying, a true gentleman, both in person and on air. I can vouch for this, having spent endless hours in his company, as we worked on two books together.
The 82-year-old called it how he saw it and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. But he would never do it in cruel fashion. An eternal optimist, Jimmy was the type of man who preferred to offer constructive criticism than simply give out yards.
Retiring was a dirty word as far as Jimmy was concerned. In his twilight years, he confided in me that he was royally pissed off with RTÉ. He hated their approach of putting staff out to pasture once they hit 62. He felt there was a strong ageism bias with the powers-that-be in Montrose. He isn’t the only one to feel this way: Michael Murphy once told me that he thought ageism was alive and well at the national broadcaster.
Jimmy said he was very frustrated that, even though he felt as fit as a fiddle, he wasn’t being offered much, if any gigs. But he didn’t want to rock the boat and kept his mouth shut.
He might be described as a national treasure – and rightly so – but Jimmy felt that RTE undervalued him, not only in his twilight years but equally during the peak of his career.
During one of our taped interviews for the books, Jimmy told me that he was really angry about not being picked to do commentary on any of Ireland’s games during Euro ’88.
“I was disappointed that the game roster – either by design or accident – meant I was not selected to commentate on any of the Irish matches,” he reflected. “I felt it was unfair on me after years of loyal service not to be given at least one of our games.
“I knew all the Irish squad on a first name basis. Many of them approached me in Germany and, to a man, they would ask the same question: ‘Why weren’t you covering the game? Were you sick, Jimmy?’ It saddened me, if truth be known, sitting alone in my hotel room watching them play that famous game against England, when Ray Houghton headed in that famous goal.”
During our chats, we also touched on the subject of death many times. I dug out the taped interviews the other day, and it sent a chill down my spine when I came across one of our conversations. He spoke about how he wanted his funeral to go.
“Without wanting to sound morbid,” he said, “I have already thought about how I would like it to be. I would like to have a Dixieland Jazz Band playing at the cemetery, and then I would like a really good country song by George Jones, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’. It has poignant lyrics: ‘He said I’ll love you ‘til I die/She told him you’ll forget in time/As the years went slowly by/She still preyed upon his mind/He kept her picture on his wall… He still loved her through it all’.
“And then to finish the musical party for my funeral, I am going to have tenors singing so nobody could say I didn’t give them variety.”
I first met Jimmy beside the Phil Lynott statute as he was strolling through town. I introduced myself and asked if he’d be up for doing a sit-down. After we did that in-depth interview, I honestly thought that would be the last time we’d talk.
Thankfully, I was wrong. A publisher read the two-page feature and said he’d love me to do a book with Jimmy. I rang Jimmy and he told me that various publishers had been pestering him for years to do a book. Writing sounded like too much work, he confessed.
I told Jimmy that I’d do all the heavy lifting: he’d simply have to talk into a microphone – something he was a pro at anyway – and I’d put it all together. He readily agreed.
As I said on the Hot Press website shortly after his death was announced last Wednesday morning, Jimmy Magee was a true gent. He was a kind and generous spirit.
However, what was perhaps the most striking aspect of such an accomplished career for the beloved national figure, was how he managed to find the strength to keep up his cheerful persona on air, considering the sorrow in his personal life.
Heartache followed Jimmy throughout his entire life. He lost his wife when she was still relatively young back in the 1980s, while his son Paul, who was also a broadcaster, died from MND. Jimmy was haunted by both tragic deaths right up until the end of his life, but somehow he kept up an upbeat persona. I still don’t know how he found the inner courage to bravely march on.
Born in New York, Jimmy had only returned to live in Ireland when tragedy first struck when his infant brother died. When he was 15-years-old, he suddenly found himself “as the man of the household”, when his father tragically died from tuberculosis at the young age of 43.
Jimmy had always dreamt of becoming a sports commentator since he was a young boy. A Louth native, shortly after he moved to Dublin, the 20-year-old Jimmy – whose mother and sisters subsequently decided to move back to America – had the balls to write to RTÉ with a demo tape. He started his career in 1956, the year that Ronnie Delany won the 1,500 metres gold medal at Melbourne. He went on to cover every Olympic Games from 1972, right up to the London Games in 2012, his eleventh. He was also at every soccer World Cup from 1974 until 2008. However, he was pissed off that he wasn’t asked to cover the last World Cup, and went over on his own as a fan.
Jimmy achieved worldwide notice in Munich in 1972, when he managed to breach security in the Olympic village to cover the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes. This incredible scoop was picked up by CBS in the States.
He was dubbed the ‘Memory Man’ for his uncanny gift for remembering even the most obscure sporting event details. I once asked him where it came from.
“I didn’t give myself that name,” he noted. “They call me that – whoever ‘they’ are! Here’s a funny one – I was on a boat recently and this Englishman who didn’t know me from Adam said, ‘They should call you the memory man’ after I named the Wolverhampton team who won the FA Cup in 1949. I didn’t tell him that’s what I’m called. He said, ‘That is amazing’.
“I suppose that came from this childhood thing of walking around and talking to myself. It must be. Or having an interest – that’s how the memory came. I don’t have a memory at all, I have a memory for things I like, such as music, geography, travel and sports. Don’t forget this was all pre-Google and all that. If I didn’t know something, I’d look it up.”
Unfortunately, Jimmy was also famous for some of his on air ‘howlers’. He once famously said that Argentinean footballer Ardiles “strokes the ball like it was a part of his anatomy”, and got boxer Jim Rock’s moniker wrong by calling him the Blue Panther instead of Pink. But perhaps his most infamous gaffe was incorrectly describing the pigeon as the symbol of peace!
“And there it is, the international symbol of peace – the pigeon!” he memorably said during the opening ceremony for the Olympics.
He told me: “I have another good one which I don’t mind telling you about. I was doing the commentary for the opening ceremony in Moscow, and I said, ‘A beautiful piece of music especially commissioned for this opening ceremony.’ And the producer said, ‘That was nice of Beethoven to come back and write that!’
What was his favourite sporting moment?
“I was doing commentary for the Olympics in Los Angeles in ’84 when Carl Lewis exactly replicated the four gold medals of Jessie Owens. That has to be a moment. Another big moment was doing the Tour de France when Stephen Roche won it. And doing the boxing commentary when Barry McGuigan won the world title. I have brilliant memories.”