Schenkel, Christopher Eugene (“Chris”)
Schenkel, Christopher Eugene (“Chris”)
(b. 21 August 1923 in Bippus, Indiana; d. 11 September 2005 in Fort Wayne, Indiana), professional sportscaster whose pioneering work in football, basketball, boxing, golf, bowling, and the Olympic Games earned him legendary status.
Schenkel was one of six children of German immigrants who managed a feed and grain business and a small farm. In 1941 he enrolled at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, intending to pursue a premed curriculum. Instead he majored in radio and speech, beginning his broadcasting career on the Purdue radio station, WBAA. After the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Schenkel enlisted. He served in the Philippines, and later in Korea, as an infantry platoon leader. Upon his return to the United States, he found a job in radio in Richmond, Indiana, before moving to Providence, Rhode Island, to take a job in television.
In 1947 Schenkel was hired as the television play-by-play football announcer for Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Five years later he was signed by the DuMont Television Network to broadcast New York Giants football games, and he moved to New York City. The Columbia Broadcasting System took over the broadcasts in 1956, and Schenkel continued to call those games, as well as boxing matches, while remaining with DuMont for two more years. Schenkel’s thirteen years of broadcasting for the Giants led him to write How to Watch Football on Television (1964). He also authored some auto-racing annuals and a sports trivia almanac.
Schenkel married Fran Paige, a former June Taylor dancer, in 1955, and the couple had three children. In 1956 Schenkel was the first to cover the Masters Golf Tournament on television, and in 1958 he was the broadcaster for the National Football League (NFL) championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants. This was the first NFL game to be nationally televised, and the brilliance of the game (a 23–17 overtime victory for the Colts) established the NFL as great television material and led to the success of the league on television. Early television broadcasters of football were all former radio announcers, and they described the games in vivid detail. Schenkel, with a rich baritone voice, offered a smooth, velvety style that complemented the flow of the game.
In 1965 Schenkel was hired by American Broadcasting Company (ABC) Sports, and he became their most versatile sportscaster, doing college football, golf, tennis, boxing, auto racing, basketball for the National Basketball Association (NBA), professional bowling, and the Olympic Games. He left his mark on many of these sports. In 1968 he was the anchor for ABC’s coverage of the 1968 Summer Olympics from Mexico City, Mexico. This was the first Olympic Games held in North America since 1932 and the first to offer live television coverage of many of the events. In 1972 Schenkel also anchored the prime-time coverage for the Summer Games in Munich, West Germany, but he was not on the air during the events of the massacre of Israeli athletes by the Black September terrorists, having retired for the night after a full day and evening of broadcasting.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Schenkel became a fixture, handling the broadcasting of the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) Tour, which aired on Saturday afternoons. The final ABC broadcast of PBA bowling (after thirty-six years) was on 21 June 1997, and the fans at the St. Clair Bowl in suburban St. Louis gave Schenkel two standing ovations at the end of the broadcast, causing him to break down several times. Despite the feeling that some people looked down on bowling, Schenkel said he grew up with bowling and enjoyed covering it as much as anything, except the Olympics.
In 1971 Schenkel and his wife bought a home near South Bend, Indiana, on Tippecanoe Lake, although Schenkel was still based in New York City. He commuted until his retirement in 1997. He wanted to stay close to his Indiana roots and have his two sons and daughter grow up there. Also in 1971 a businessman in Statesboro, Georgia, established a golf scholarship in Schenkel’s name at Georgia Southern University and began the Chris Schenkel Intercollegiate Golf Tournament. It was discontinued from 1989 to 1999, but it was revived in 1999 as the EZ-Go Schenkel Invitational and became one of the top intercollegiate golf tournaments in the East.
Schenkel had a long relationship with the Indianapolis 500 and broadcast it for many years. In 1971 he was a passenger in a pace car, along with the astronaut John Glenn and Tony Hulman, the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, when the car skidded into a bleacher full of photographers. Twenty-two people, Schenkel among them, were injured, though not seriously.
Schenkel broadcast alongside some of the most noted names in sport and called some of the most significant contests. The Hall of Fame coach Bud Wilkinson was his partner during some memorable college football telecasts, including the 10–10 tie between top-ranked Notre Dame and second-ranked Michigan State in 1966, as well as the 1971 Thanksgiving Day contest in which top-ranked Nebraska edged second-ranked Oklahoma, 35–31. During the early 1970s the Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Russell was his partner for NBA broadcasts, and Schenkel encouraged Russell to reveal his sly sense of humor and critical insights into the game.
On four different occasions Schenkel was named the National Sportscaster of the Year. He received the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992 and in 1993 was awarded a lifetime achievement Emmy. In 1999 he received the Jim Thorpe Lifetime Achievement Award. Schenkel was inducted into sixteen sports and broadcasting halls of fame, including the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame.
For many years Schenkel was involved in supporting Native-American rights, following his father’s example. In 1974 the local Miami Tribal Council made Schenkel an honorary chieftain, naming him Mo-Nu (speaker, one liked by all people). In his later years Schenkel returned to his love of music (he had played guitar and sung as part of a duo with his brother, Phil, doing live shows and performing on radio as a young man) and played jazz piano. He also personally answered mail from U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq. Schenkel suffered for many years with emphysema before being hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer, which caused his death at Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne. He is buried in the Saint Johns United Church of Christ Cemetery in Bippus. Schenkel was one of the first of the great television announcers and the model for an entire generation of sports broadcasters. He also was one of the first broadcasters that audiences identified with various events, and he influenced the way viewers perceived the telecasting of sports events.
No biography of Schenkel has been written. An obituary is in the New York Times (12 Sept. 2005).
Murry R. Nelson