Happy 90th to Jack Cristil, Mr. Maroon and White
(Today would have been the great Jack Cristil’s 90th birthday. This was the column I wrote on the 50th anniversary of his broadcasting Mississippi State sporting events. Jack died Sept. 14, 2014.)
THE little boy was 6 years old when his mother and father, Jewish immigrants from Russia and Latvia, bought the family’s first radio. His parents and siblings listened to music, but the little boy loved the ballgames.
More than seven decades later, the little boy talked about his fascination with radio.
“Here I was in Memphis, Tennessee, and I was absolutely enthralled with the idea that a man could be sitting in some stadium in New York or Chicago or Boston, telling me about a ballgame,” Jack Cristil said. “It was like magic. I was enchanted by it. It captured my imagination to the extent that I knew right then and there that’s what I was going to do. I was 6 years old, but I knew what I was going to do for a living, and I never changed my mind.”
Jacob S. “Jack” Cristil made ballgames magical for several generations of Mississippians. It might be a Saturday afternoon in October or a Wednesday night in February. You could be driving the back roads between Sumrall and Bassfield or Corinth and Kossuth. You would fumble with the radio dial, trying to hear through that interminable static. And then you’d hear it — that voice, that deep, resonant unmistakable voice. Jack Cristil.
For more than half a century, Cristil was known as the “Voice of the Bulldogs,” but so many Mississippi sports fans know Cristil transcends school loyalties. Listen to one:
“Some of my fondest childhood memories are of sitting at the kitchen table with my daddy, listening to Jack Cristil describe Mississippi State football games. He made the games come alive for me. I loved his voice and the way he described the games. It was like he put you in the stadium. He was, in many ways, my introduction to college football. And, still, when I hear his voice I think about those afternoons with my daddy. Jack Cristil’s voice, to me, is college football.”
Rockey Felker, you say? Larry Templeton? Scott Stricklin?
No. Archie Manning.
Cristil outlasted eight university presidents, 10 athletic directors, 11 head football coaches and nine basketball coaches.
As a teenager growing up in Starkville, Templeton, the former MSU athletic director, worked as Cristil’s spotter in the broadcast booth. Sports broadcasters keep a chart in front of them with the players and their numbers. The spotter’s job is to point out on the chart who made the tackle or batted down the pass.
Said Templeton of Cristil: “Jack almost always told who made the plays before I could point to it on the chart. He kept his own stats. He really didn’t need any help. The rest of us were along for the ride.”
And Templeton marveled at Cristil’s ability to make the games come alive.
“He’s the best ever,” Templeton said. “He’s a sportscaster’s sportscaster. He brings a level of professionalism you just don’t find in a lot of broadcasters. Even when our teams weren’t having much success, we at State took pride in the manner in which our story was being told. Jack Cristil has introduced so many people to Mississippi State. He is Mississippi State.”
Funny thing: The first Mississippi State game Cristil ever saw was the first one he ever broadcast.
It was early August, 1953,when Cristil first visited the State campus. The legendary Dudy Noble, State’s athletic director, was in the market for a new play-by-play man. Cristil, living in Clarksdale at the time, asked for directions to Starkville, filled his 1948 Plymouth with gas and drove across the state for an interview with Noble.
“I had envisioned a young, energetic, business-type person in a trim suit and a neat hair-do,” Cristil said. “But Dudy Noble was a big man, over 6 feet tall and quite hefty. He was attired in an old cotton, flannel shirt and baggy britches. He had an unruly shock of gray hair that stuck out.
“He said, `Boy, I understand you want to do these football games,’ and I said, `Yessir, I surely do,’ and he said, `Well, we’ve decided we’re going to give you an opportunity. I’ll tell you what I want you to do,’ and I thought to myself here come words of wisdom.
“He said, `You tell that radio audience what the score is and who’s got the ball and how much time is left and you cut out the bull.’ I was aghast, but it turned out to be the best advice I ever got. Because that’s all the people want. They want the score, who’s got the ball and how much time is left. They don’t want the bull.”
With Cristil, you never got the bull. You did get a rich, smoky, authoritative voice. Ask Cristil about his voice, and he says he doesn’t know where it came from – certainly not his mother, who as a young Russian revolutionary had to be secreted out of Russia to escape the czar’s troops. And Cristil can’t say for certain about his father’s voice since his daddy was ailing with tuberculosis and sickly until he died when Jack was but 12.
“What I know about my daddy is that he was strict,” Cristil said. “We were Jewish. Both my parents spoke Hebrew and Yiddish as well as Russian. But my father wouldn’t allow anything be spoken in the house except for English.”
Young Jack Cristil used his English to broadcast imaginary baseball and football games.
“I think probably I manufactured my voice,” Cristil said. “I had a rubber ball and I’d be out in the street bouncing the ball off the house and telling about imaginary games. I can’t begin to tell you how many games I must have broadcast like that, but I will tell you this:
“My high school football coach lived across the street from us, and I’ll never forget how he almost killed me the first day of practice in the ninth grade. He later said he was just paying me back for all those years of having to listen to me out in the street broadcasting those imaginary games.”
Following high school, Cristil immediately enlisted in the Army Air Corps. After World War II, he entered broadcasting school on the G.I. Bill at the University of Minnesota. He spent two years there before taking his first job in radio doing the games for a Jackson, Tenn., baseball team at the lowest level of the minor leagues.
“But I worked my way up to Double-A,” Cristil said, laughing.
Truth is, he could have done Major League games had he so chosen. Cristil has turned down several jobs, including one that would have had him working for KMOX in St. Louis, doing football play-by-play for the old St. Louis Cardinals and working as a fill-in in baseball for Harry Caray and Jack Buck on Cardinals baseball broadcasts.
Was he tempted?
“Maybe a little,” Cristil answered, “but by then Mavis and I had two children and we were living in Tupelo and had decided that Tupelo was just the right place to raise two little girls.”
Ah, Mavis. Jack and Mavis Cristil were married for 33 years before she died in the spring of 1988 after a long battle with lupus.
“She was my greatest fan and my harshest critic,” Cristil said. “She would let me know when I misspoke. I would misuse a word and she would tell me to look it up in the dictionary. I remember one time I said somebody dove into the end zone. She let me have it. Nobody dove into the end zone. They might have dived. But they didn’t dove. She was the perfect wife for someone who does what I do, and she never complained about all that time I was on the road. She just took care of things.”
The late Chris Etheridge of Meridian, who was one of the world’s most accomplished bass guitar pickers, was like so many Mississippi sports fans. His introduction to college football came from listening to Jack Cristil.
“I couldn’t go to the games back then, so I listened to Jack,” Etheridge said. “One time, I wrote him and asked him if he would send me a game program for a souvenir. I taped a 50-cent piece to my letter to pay for the program. Well, Jack sent me a program all right, with the 50-cent piece taped to it.
“I’ve always considered Jack the best sports broadcaster I’ve ever heard. There’s something about his voice and the way he tells you about the games. When I lived in California back in the ’60s and ’70s, I’d get my brother to tape the games and mail the cassettes to me. I’d listen to Jack several days later, even though I already knew the scores. It just brought me back home.
“There’s something about his voice,” says Etheridge, who has toured with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Gram Parsons and many others.
“I compare Jack Cristil’s voice to Willie Nelson’s. Willie doesn’t have the greatest voice in the world, but it’s unique and it’s soothing. Once you’ve heard it, there’s nothing else quite like it. Same goes for Jack Cristil.”
For Jack Cristil, there are so many memories. …
• Of the time he was broadcasting a Tennessee-Mississippi State basketball game in the old gymnasium and looked behind him to see legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp seated next to Mavis. Mavis, as usual, was doing her knitting, totally unaware of the identity of her next-seat neighbor. Tennessee, with a narrow lead, had the ball and called timeout with only seconds remaining. During the commercial break Cristil turned around just as his wife looked over to Rupp and said, “You do know Tennessee just lost the game.”
Said Rupp, “Lady, how can you say Tennessee just lost the game? They’ve got the ball and the lead.”
And Mavis, pointing to then-State basketball coach Babe McCarthy, replied, “You see that man down there in the brown suit. Tennessee never should have given him time to plan. You just watch. Tennessee has lost this game.”
State, of course, stole the ball and scored the winning basket.
“See, I told you so,” Mavis Cristil told college basketball’s most famous coach, as she went back to her knitting.
• Of broadcasting the 1963 Liberty Bowl in Philadelphia on a day when it was, as Cristil put it, “colder than a pawnbroker’s heart.”
Sen. John C. Stennis, another beloved State man, sat in the unheated press box alongside Cristil, bundled in coats and blankets.
“It was so cold, our coffee would freeze before we drank it,” Cristil says. But MSU beat North Carolina State 16-12, and Cristil never missed a beat.
• Of a State-Alabama football game when Bob Hope was on tour and doing a show that night in Tuscaloosa, unbeknownst to Cristil. Bear Bryant’s boys, as usual, were beating up on State when somebody came by the visitors’ radio booth and whispered to Cristil, “Hope is available at halftime if you want him.”
Responded Cristil, “Fellow, I need some hope right now.”
But Bob Hope did come by and did do the interview. “One of the best halftime guests I ever had,” Cristil says.”Funny and smart.”
Yes, so many memories, 58 years of them. Of so many road trips, of so many “6-tall” cornerbacks and halfbacks from places like Kosciusko and Aberdeen, of so many coaches, so many games that he has ended with, “And you can wrap this one up in maroon and white.”
“Marvelous,” Cristil says. “It’s just been marvelous.”
The 6-year-old’s dreams were realized many times over. And it really was magical.
You can do your Christmas shopping on-line for your favorite sports fan at our newly expanded museum store. Click here.