James Shores Simpson was born in Washington, D.C., on December 20, 1927, and raised in Chevy Chase, MD. He began his broadcasting career in local radio before quitting in 1949 to join the then-brand-new TV outlet in D.C. — complete with 50% salary cut. Working with the station’s news anchor, Walter Cronkite, Simpson was a sportscaster, announcer, film editor and floor manager before CBS bought the station. He started doing some work for the network including play-by-play of college football games and later on the Armed Forces Game of the Week. After a stint with baseball’s Washington Senators in the early 1950s, Simpsons left for WRC-TV in 1955, beginning a quarter-century association with NBC.
He spent 15 seasons as an AFL and NFL broadcaster for NBC from 1964-79 but also worked for ABC, CBS and TNT. His radio and TV credits including 14 Olympics, six Super Bowls, six World Series and 16 MLB All-Star Games, 14 Wimbledon championships and all major Bowl games, including 14 Orange Bowls.
Simpson also was the first person to appear live on U.S. TV via satellite from Asia during the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. He would work in 49 states and 22 countries during his half-century career — more than any other commentator, according to ESPN.
Simpson joined ESPN Sept. 14, 1979 — just one week after the cable outfit had launched. He was the fledgling sports net’s leading on-air host, working on sports ranging from college football, basketball and baseball to tennis, boxing, horse racing and golf. He also was an occasional SportsCenter anchor in 1979.
“His arrival provided ESPN with a critical injection of credibility,” said fellow ESPN original Bob Ley. “But what struck this 24-year-old ‘colleague’ of Jim’s was the professionalism and class Jim brought to all his assignments. It left an indelible impression, along with the more important fact that, personally, this network star was a prince of a man.” Watch Lee’s tribute to Simpson above.
He partnered with some of sportscasting’s greatest names including Red Barber, Red Grange, Mel Allen, Vin Scully, Dick Enberg, Charlie Jones, Jim McKay, Merlin Olsen, Chris Schenkel and Paul Maguire. In 1998, Simpson received the industry’s top honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Sports Emmy Awards from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He was inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame in 2000.
“Jim Simpson was a legend at NBC at brought a standard of excellence to ESPN that set the tone for so many to follow,” said ESPN basketball analyst Dick Vitale, who joined the network in 1979 and frequently was partnered with Simpson. “I was honored he was assigned to work with me as I was just starting out. He had a tremendous influence on me and assisted me early in my career. He was special.”
Simpson was the TV voice for the Baltimore Orioles’ flagship station WMAR from 1986-88 and worked Cornell University football games for SportsChannel America in the early ’90s.
Coincidentally, the NFL Network said Tuesday that it will air Super Bowl I on January 15 using Simpson’s radio play-by-play. The 1967 NFL-AFL Championship tilt is known in the industry as “The Lost Game” because — although it was air live by both CBS and NBC — no complete tape of the contest exists. NFL Films was able to find all 145 of the game’s plays from various sources and reassembled them in order.
Simpson is survived by his wife, Ann Crowley Jones, a friend of 50 years whom he married in 2006; his son Bret and daughters Kim Howard, Sherry Petersen, Suzanne Cleary and B.J. Kline; 18 grandchildren and two great-grandsons.