In a business where the names and faces come and go, sporstcaster Jimmy Crum endures. Could it be the wardrobe?
Editor’s note: In this 1990 cover story, Columbus Monthly profiled local sports legend Jimmy Crum, who died in 2009.
There's no mistaking who has just emerged from the back corner office of the Channel 4 newsroom. The shiny bald head, the red socks, the look-at-me blue pants, the painter's palette of a sport coat—the sight is like neon at midnight; the man's so bright he should pass out sunglasses. “Hi,” says perhaps the most recognizable person in Central Ohio. "I'm Jimmy Crum."
It's 8:30 a.m. on a June Friday. Crum has a full day planned, although he isn't supposed to start work until 2:30 p.m. to prepare for the 6 and 11 evening newscasts. Fifteen-hour days are not unusual for him, even if he is 61 years old and contemplating the idea of retiring. For 37 years, the image of Crum's talking head has been zapped into the homes of Central Ohio television viewers to give the day's ball scores. That-longevity is an unimaginable feat in a business that treats aging on-air talent like yesterday's news. He's outlasted the Hugh DeMosses, the Ted Mullinses, the Joe Holbrooks, the Jerry Razors, the Tom Ryans, the Steve. Minichs…
The remarkable thing is that Crum, who himself admits to being "no Adonis," has flourished in a medium that is infatuated with white teeth, high cheekbones and blow-dried hair. And Crum hasn't survived solely on his skills as a sportscaster. There have been better ones, although he's had his share of big stories and important assignments. He announced Ohio State basketball for 20 years and called the Cincinnati Bengals games for 12 years, and he's reported on the careers of such superstars as Woody Hayes, Jack Nicklaus and Archie Griffin, among many others.
But it's the other side of Jimmy Crum that has caused him to become a permanent fixture at Channel 4, his "charity work"—though the phrase seems to describe something far more perfunctory than what Crum does. His crusades are Recreation Unlimited, Easter Seals, Children's Hospital, Special Olympics. He raises money, true, but he also personally changes the lives of handicapped children. There are hundreds of stories of Crum's visiting kids in the hospitals, at their homes, writing them notes, maintaining friendships over five, 10, 20 or 30 years. Call him St. Jimmy.
The combination of his almost four decades as a sportscaster and his devotion to children is what has made this cornballish, heart-on-his sleeve kind of guy into a Columbus Institution. It saved his job in 1978 when the news doctors told Channel 4 that the old guy in the tacky sport coat should be eased off to pasture. Management tried the goofy idea of having co-sports anchors, Crum and a young hotshot, Marty Reid. Although he says he had no intention of replacing Crum, Reid was slated as his heir apparent. That scheme lasted until the audience surveys were tabulated: "We want Crum" was the verdict.
Since then, Crum has been gathering momentum at a time in his career when his contemporaries are either counting the days to retirement or have long since been booted off the air. He's as popular as ever, and as busy, too, doing 200 speaking engagements a year for the past five years. As a friend says, describing his impressive enthusiasm, "He's like a closed loop system—the more involved he gets in something, the more energized he gets."
And for the first time in his career, Crum is part of the top-rated newscast in the city. Explaining Crum's popularity, Channel 4 news director Ron Bilek says, "If he was just a bald head and a loud sport coat—just a sports guy—his career would have been over a long time ago. But when you watch our sports, you not only get the sports, but you get something more—you get a feeling that you are watching a good person.”
On this early morning in June, Crum has a full slate: An interview scheduled with a rider at Scioto Downs, visits with young people he's known through Recreation Unlimited and the Easter Seals telethon and a nine-hour shift at the station, including two broadcasts. In addition, he's planning three high school commencement speeches over the weekend and a flight to California on Monday to emcee a charity benefit.
To Scioto Downs, Crum drives his black LeBaron convertible, with an OSU pennant decal on the dashboard. He's open and friendly, and likes to salt his reservoir of stories with language that no one hears during a newscast. But he'll only utter a profanity in men's buddy sessions. With women around, he's Mr. Clean. "I'm an old-fashioned guy," he says. It's also evident that Crum is the epitome of what-you-see-is-what-you-get. And what you get a lot of is sincerity.
As he fights the early morning traffic on Rt. 315 south, he talks about the past. His broadcasting career began in 1942, during World War II, in his hometown of Mansfield. He started at age 13 as the soprano of a singing duet heard over WMAN Radio. At 14, he did sports reports, earning $15 a week—a buck extra if he swept the carpet. He had a brief athletic career; the 118-pound high schooler broke his collarbone on the first scrimmage of football practice.
After high school, he joined the Marines, working for the Armed Forces Radio, and then attended Ohio University, during which time he worked part-time for radio station WRFD. He quit 13 credit hours short of graduation in 1954 to take a job in the nascent field of television—at what was then WLWC, Channel 3, in Columbus, which today is WCMH, Channel 4.
Crum got the announcing position after the station manager tossed him a fountain pen and told him to write an on-the-spot 60-second commercial about the pen. The same station manager also introduced Crum to an important component of television: cosmetic correctness. Crum had a physical flaw, a protruding right ear that gave his head an unbalanced look. His boss reproportioned his head by pinning back the offending ear with a piece of moistened chewing gum.
For Crum, those early days of TV—during which all broadcasts were live—were chaotic and exciting. He made a name for himself early on as the voice of Central Ohio professional wrestling, which was hot stuff in the 1950s. "The wrestlers would let me sit in the locker room and listen to what they were going to do during the matches," he says. "It was entertainment, not sports. But you couldn't convince the fans of that. It was the only time I have not had my phone number listed in the book, because they would call and yell at me if their favorites lost."
He laughs fondly and adds, "There were some real characters. One wrestler was Nature Boy Buddy Rogers, a kind of Hulk Hogan of his time. He told me in 1953 he grossed $250,000. He would come to the matches with five or six grand in a money clip and flip it to me to hold."
For more than three years—three years, seven months and 17 days, to be exact—he worked without a day off, except for vacations. On weekends, he did the newscasts by himself: sports, news and weather. "One night, I put the sports on first, and did the news last," he says. "It never happened again."
Crum has known his share of superstar athletes. He watched Jack Nicklaus grow up from a 13-year-old whiz kid to become "Fat Jack," the emerging golf pro, who then turned into the "Golden Bear," the game's greatest master. He covered the 1960 Ohio State basketball team's national championship season, watching Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Bobby Knight, Mel Nowell, Larry Siegfried and Joe Roberts execute with precision skill the instructions of a 33-year-old coach named Fred Taylor. And there was, of course, Woody Hayes, of whom Crum speaks with reverence.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Crum was at his professional peak, doing the play-by-play of Ohio State Buckeyes basketball games and color commentary for the Cincinnati Bengals on WLW Radio. Crum had a distinctive play-by-play style—a mix of genuine enthusiasm and corny descriptions. "How about that!" and, "Barn burner!" were his signature statements. No kid growing up then in Columbus failed to say at least once, "How about that!" after swishing a playground jump shot. “They were the only things I could think of, since I couldn't say, ‘Jesus Christ,' or, "holy shit' on the air,” he says.
Crum stopped calling OSU basketball games in the mid 1970s, and his disappointment is still palpable. Channel 4 had carried the games for 18 years, but Channel 6 outbid it for the broadcasting rights. Two things about that situation continue to bother Crum. One is that Ohio State discounted loyalty—and Crum is a loyal guy—for a better deal. The second is that a "clown" replaced him. “I won't say his name, but I couldn't bring myself to return to St. John Arena for three years," he says. Bud Kaatz was the, well, clownish Channel 6 announcer who Crum obviously thinks disgraced OSU basketball. Crum later announced the Ohio State games for two years on WCOL Radio.
As a reporter, Crum has a reputation as being feisty, knowledgeable and hard-working. "He wasn't like the other TV types, who would just rip and read. He was there at the practices, doing the interviews," says Dick Otte, former Dispatch sports editor and managing editor who's now retired.
Otte also tells a Crum anecdote. In 1988, a big sports story was whether Bobby Knight would leave Indiana to coach at New Mexico. At the time, Otte—who unlike many journalists had good access to Knight—was in Riverside Hospital, recovering from surgery. "I was sedated, and when I came to I saw this bald-headed specter in a yellow and black polka-dot sport coat. I thought I had died and gone to hell and there's Jimmy Crum.”
"Anyway, he asks me if I had heard from Bobby Knight. I had a couple of times. He asked me if I thought Knight was going to go to New Mexico.” Otte says he told him no, that Knight had abetter deal at Indiana. They chatted some more and Crum left.
"Then it hit me," Otte says. "That little son of bitch pumped me; I bet he's going to go on the air tonight and say insiders say that Knight will stay at Indiana. And sure enough he did." Otte laughs. “I admit he was pretty slick."
Crum, however, has a different memory of that meeting. There had been a dispute between the two a year or so earlier after Crum lambasted the Dispatch on the air for accepting a "very demeaning” advertisement about OSU football coach Earle Bruce. "He stopped speaking to me," says Crum of Otte, whom he considered a friend. "But I felt it would be remiss of me not to go over and see him. No, I don't remember talking to him about Bobby Knight ... nor doing any story about it because of visiting him. What I remember is that when I was leaving Otte told me that I was a classy guy."
Ohio State athletics is close to Crum's heart, which has caused others to accuse him of being a booster-type reporter. Objectivity is a reporter's religion, or should be, according to most journalists. Crum has been criticized by other media members for being a cheerleader of sorts, particularly for wearing scarlet and gray pants to Ohio State football games. And a question of conflict of interest arose in the mid 1980s when Crum, covering Ohio State football for Channel 4, also was being paid by Bruce to host his postgame TV show.
On both accounts, Crum says, "You draw a fine line. I am a reporter and a fan. But if I want to wear scarlet and gray pants, it is my prerogative and has nothing to do with how I cover a game. I ask the tough questions. I did when I was doing Earle's show, and I still do now."
Regardless of conflict concerns, no one can accuse Crum of backing down from a battle or speaking his mind. He has had a history of criticizing coaches and the university. On at least two occasions, Crum and Woody Hayes got into angry shouting matches during post-game interviews that ended with an enraged Hayes being held back by, incidentally, Dick Otte. One was a clash over TV cameras being in the locker room, and the other occurred after Crum ripped Hayes for berating a college photographer.
Crum also caused a huge stir in 1986 when he called for the firing of Ohio State basketball coach Eldon Miller, who was replaced by Gary Williams later that year. And he also caused waves in 1987 when he verbally pummeled Ed Jennings, who fired Earle Bruce the week of the Michigan game. He editorialized that he had "lost all respect" for Ohio State's president.
He drew fire over each controversial statement. But Crum feels justified. "After 37 years, I can make comments like that," he says. "It's not like I'm Barry Katz [the Channel 10 sports anchor], and nothing against Barry Katz, but if he were to have said those things, people might say what the hell is he talking about. I think I have been around long enough for my opinion to count for something."
It's a little after 9 a.m. on the cool Friday morning and Crum is parking the LeBaron by the stables at Scioto Downs. He smiles and says how much he enjoys his visits here. There are the blacksmiths pounding out horseshoes, the click-click-clicking of the horse's hoofs on the paved driveway. He's instantly recognized by the harness drivers and stable hands. There are waves and comments.
He gets this kind of attention wherever he goes. People call out, “I would have known that sport coat anywhere," or, "I've been watching you for 25 years." They want to shake his hand, take his picture. Later in the day, one middle-age woman with a huge smile will request a hug. And he will gladly comply. He greets everybody with a grin. “The day people don't recognize me is the day when I'll be bothered," he says.
Crum interviews a driver on a hot streak, who's as nervous about appearing in front of the TV camera as someone else would be about riding in a cart behind a swiftly moving pacer. Crum jokes, trying to relax him. It doesn't help much, but Crum gets his story. He sticks around and chats.
Then Crum's back in the car. He's hungry and drives to a favorite spot, the Bob Evans restaurant on Olentangy River Road across from Channel 4. A waitress, wearing one of those down-on-the-farm granny dresses, approaches. "Hi, Dev," says Crum. "Another chef salad?" she asks. Crum's been on a diet, trying to reduce the size of a stubborn paunch. He won't make any progress today, though. "No, I'm tired of those," he says, and orders a late breakfast: blueberry pancakes, link sausage and toast.
After Dev leaves, the conversation at the table moves to what has become the Crum trademark, those unspeakably gaudy, tacky sport coats—the kind that look like an accident at a paint store. He laughs. “My wife calls them outlandish. I prefer to say colorful.” The tradition began "about 20 or so years ago," says Crum. “We, my family and I, would vacation in Fort Myers [Florida], and there's a store there where I would pick up one or two each year."
He started wearing them on the air, and soon began receiving sport coats as gifts from viewers. The collection now numbers 150, including a couple that cause you to think your TV set needs adjusting. One is a purplish, blue and yellow pattern of wine labels. Another looks as if a bunch of shredded quilts were patched together by a drunken seamstress.
Crum must be a man who's never met a sport coat he didn't like. "No," he says, insisting he uses a degree of discretion in his selection of jackets. "I was given this one that had every color of the rainbow in it. Now, I have one like that, but it has a nice pattern. Not like this one. I let it sit in my closet, and then somebody called for a donation at an auction. It sold for $1,100."
Outlandish, colorful, whatever. Why wear them? Says Crum: "They make me feel good."
Crum is now driving north on High Street, looking for the Ohio State School for the Blind, and mistakenly pulls onto the grounds of the Ohio School for the Deaf. Another car is leaving; Crum rolls down his window to ask for directions. He is instantly recognized, by a woman he happens to know. She's more than happy to help. "I spoke here last year at graduation," he says.
He finds the right school. This is a personal visit, making time in his day to see Rhonda Mayes. She's 22 years old and has suffered from various illnesses since birth. Crum first met her at Children's Hospital when she was 17 months old. He has stayed in touch with her since. “She calls him 'Big Tiger,' and he calls her 'Little Tiger,' " says Rhonda's mom, Margaret Mayes. "I take her over to the station about once a month to see him. He never says no. She just loves him; he's her guy. He has come to the house many times, and one time he sat in the living room with her and cried before she was to have an operation.”
Today is graduation at the school and the first invitation Rhonda sent went to Crum. He couldn't attend the ceremonies, but has juggled his schedule to stop beforehand. Crum stands in the main office, waiting, holding a pink envelope. From behind, a petite brunette approaches, with a big smile. It's Rhonda, who, although legally blind, has limited vision. They wrap their arms around each other and hug. "I'm very proud of you," he says. There's more hugging, more smiling, more quiet comments exchanged. She calls him her "Big Tiger."
After visiting with Rhonda, he drives to the Central Ohio Technical College in Newark to see a young woman named Karen. He met her at Recreation Unlimited a couple of summers ago. Karen, a good athlete, had accepted a scholarship to play basketball at Miami University, when she was tragically paralyzed. But she recovered over time to walk again. Today, she is graduating from the technical college. Crum walks through the gaggle of people—many are whispering, pointing. Some call out to him. He holds a blue envelope in his hand for Karen. Like Rhonda, she's ecstatic to see him. There are hugs and smiles. Photographs are taken.
"This is what really makes my day," Crum says of his visits with Karen and Rhonda, as he drives back to Channel 4.
There's no doubt Crum has a special gift with people. "When you or I visit these children, you feel sorry for them," says Crum's wife, Miriam. "But not Jimmy. He has a way of talking with them." David Hoy, facility director at Recreation Unlimited, is asked how the children react to Crum. He says, "It's like Christmas. They know what he has done for them. They think he can walk on water.”
Crum remembers clearly the incident that spurred him to devote his time to handicapped kids. In 1955, he and Woody Hayes were working on a fund-raiser for victims of polio, the devastating disease that had crippled thousands of children nationwide. While at Children's Hospital, he met Julie Cochran, a teen-age girl from Fredericktown. Her body was enclosed—except for her head—in an iron lung. "She was gutsy," he says. "I fell in love with her.” After Julie went home, still stricken with polio, Crum and Miriam visited her.
"I was talking to her about her handicap," Crum says, "and she interrupted me and said, 'I am not handicapped; I can do everything that you can do, but it just takes a little longer.' That made me sit up and really take notice."
Crum has maintained that close friendship over 35 years; Julie has since married, changing her name to Julie Rogers, and is a senior speech therapist at Ohio State University. It was Crum she asked to push her in her wheelchair to receive her bachelor's and master's degrees from OSU. "Other than my parents, he was the one person who had been my mentor—had encouraged me to make it," she says.
Then Crum met Dick Ruff in the late 1950s. Ruff had a dream. He wanted to start a summer camp for handicapped kids. The physically disabled Ruff, who later died, inspired Crum. And in 1965, Crum went on the air to make his first pitch for Recreation Unlimited. He raised enough money to send 52 kids to Camp Mary Orton.
Since then, those pitches have been a regular feature on Crum's sports casts, along with the touching images, shot by Crum himself, of the smiling mentally disabled and physically handicapped children in the swimming pool or on the nature trails.
Today, Recreation Unlimited, funded by private contributions, owns a $6 million, 160-acre campground in Delaware County. About 900 kids attended in 1989. Crum says Wendy's founder R. David Thomas has given and raised more than $1 million and the late developer and sports magnate John W. Galbreath also donated $1 million. The late Jim Trueman, who started Truesports, gave$875,000; and Crum says Jack Nicklaus, aside from donating a "sizable amount" each year, has discussed designing and building a smallish golf course on the campgrounds.
Then there is Crum's 13 years as host of the Easter Seals Telethon, and his continuing work with Children's Hospital, Ohio Special Olympics and the Celebrity Waiters luncheon fundraiser. According to the Channel 4 publicity department, Crum has raised more than $15 million for various charities. And he donates all of his honorariums from speaking engagements—$170,000 so far—to Recreation Unlimited.
There are awards from chambers of commerce, from governors, from agencies and groups of all sorts for his community service. There are two pictures of Crum with Ronald Reagan, who honored him for his SERTOMA International's 1984 Service to Mankind Award. If there has been an award given for charitable contributions, Crum probably has received it.
And just as important as his work with handicapped kids has been what Julie Rogers calls his "subtle influence on people in getting them involved." People say his enthusiasm is infectious, compelling others to want to help. One is Archie Griffin, the two time Heisman Trophy winner from OSU who has known Crum since Griffin's days at Eastmoor High School.
Griffin, while at Ohio State, became a regular at the Celebrity Waiters lunches and also a frequent visitor with Crum to Children's Hospital. "He sure does leave an impression on you," Griffin says. "He is the kind of person that Woody used to talk about. Someone who pays forward. That's Jimmy."
And as Crum looks forward into his life, he sees retirement looming somewhere ahead. He talks about slowing down, about learning how to say no to charity requests, about spending more time with Miriam at their Florida condo or traveling together. He says he regrets the time spent away from home while his two children grew up—Jimmy, now an attorney in Indiana, and Kelly, a noted local jazz singer—and wants to make amends by seeing more of his three grandchildren.
But while Crum talks about cutting back, his actions seem to suggest full steam ahead. After returning from the charity benefit in California, he has another full plate of projects: an Easter Seals fundraiser with Morganna, four charity golf tournaments and then a speech at the opening ceremonies of the Ohio Special Olympics—all in the next 10 days. When he signed a five-year contract in 1989, he had the option of appearing on only one sports cast a night; however, he's still doing both the 6 and 11 p.m. shows. Asked about her husband's cutting back, Miriam remarks, with skepticism, "I'll believe it when I see it."
No matter what he does, it's hard to imagine Crum's being too distant from the Recreation Unlimited or the Easter Seals, or anything that has to do with handicapped children. As Crum explains, "There's nothing more special than a mentally retarded kid who's run the 100-yard dash in 35 seconds, who gives you a big hug around the neck and says, 'I love you.' "
Crum's face is beaming. "Nothing can match that, no siree."
This story originally appeared in the August 1990 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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