By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – The voice is still strong.
The body is not.
Both are evident as Jack Cristil sits in his kitchen on Thursday and speaks with a reporter. His distinct baritone timbre fills the modest room and belies its source – that of a tired man.
Cristil is 85 years old, and feels every bit of it. The one kidney he has is failing him, and he begins grueling dialysis treatment on Tuesday, going three days a week for four hours at a time. Just walking across a parking lot is a challenge for him.
His failing health is why Cristil was finally forced to turn off his microphone for good after Mississippi State’s game at Tennessee on Saturday. His retirement, announced Wednesday night, marks the end of a 63-year radio career – 58 of those years spent calling the action for MSU football, and nearly 54 years doing men’s basketball.
This wasn’t the timing Cristil was hoping for. He’d wanted to make it to the end of the basketball season – two regular-season games remain, plus the SEC Tournament and whatever postseason might await the Bulldogs. But after a visit to his physician, Dr. Martin Lee, on Monday, it was decided that the treatment must begin sooner rather than later.
In his kitchen, Cristil – wearing a black, unzipped MSU windbreaker over a white MSU polo – lights a Pall Mall Grande and talks openly about his health issues.
“Under this procedure, the average (kidney function) is about 70 percent,” says Cristil, who said his kidney is currently operating at about 10 percent efficiency. “So if I’m anywhere near average, then I should feel a lot better and have more strength. As far as longevity, who knows.”
Longevity has been one of Cristil’s many trademarks. It seemed he would always be the voice of the Bulldogs. Others have a hard time imagining anything else.
“For probably 20 years now he’s said, ‘You know, I don’t know how much longer I’ll do this,’” said Jim Ellis, Cristil’s longtime partner in the booth. “After a while you say, ‘Well, Jack, I think you’re going to continue to do it, because you love to do it.’
“This is what he is; that’s who he is: Mississippi State broadcaster. And that’s who he’s been for all these years. That’s his identity.”
After studying broadcast journalism at the University of Minnesota for two years, Cristil began forging his broadcaster identity in 1948, with his first radio job. He did play-by-play for a Class D minor league baseball team in Jackson, Tenn. He also called games for the Class AA Memphis Chicks and then wound up in Clarksdale.
In 1953, he sent audition tapes to MSU athletics director C.R. “Dudy” Noble and got the job as play-by-play man. Cristil doesn’t recall the first State football game he broadcast, although he remembers it was against Memphis.
It’s the second game that still stands out in his memory. The Bulldogs went to Knoxville and pounded Tennessee, 26-0.
“Growing up in Memphis as a boy, I knew about Tennessee football,” Cristil says. “It was very popular then just as it is now. And to have that opportunity to go into Shields-Watkins Field and broadcast a game involving Tennessee, and for your team to whip Tennessee, that one you remember.”
Cristil worked solo back then, as did a lot of play-by-play announcers. He developed his style at a time when radio was the dominant medium for following a ballgame. Growing up, Cristil would work the AM knob on his radio to hear broadcast pioneers like Graham McNamee, Ted Husing and Bill Stern.
“They just enchanted me,” Cristil says. “I don’t know that I patterned myself after any of them – probably a duke’s mixture. I remember listening to them, and they could set you on edge listening to a football game, and just staring at a radio.”
Those who have listened to Cristil over the years say the same of him.
“Jack Cristil, you listen to him and don’t watch TV, just listen to him, you feel like you’re at the game,” said David Kellum, the Ole Miss play-by-play announcer.
Cristil explained his broadcasting philosophy thusly:
“My thinking is this: The only reason that a person listens to you on a radio broadcast is because they cannot be at the game. They’re not going to sit at home to listen to me or anybody else if they can be there. Assuming that’s true, then you as a listener deserve to see that game as it’s being played as well as the broadcaster can use his vocabulary and his knowledge of the game to present this information to you.
“Then you make your own decisions, just as you would at the ballpark. And if you don’t give them as much of the details as you possibly can, and being as picturesque as you can and so forth, then you’re doing them an injustice. He’s your customer, and you’re trying to please your customer.”
Said Ellis, “He is one of the last of the real true radio broadcasters that’s left.”
Cristil the fan
Ellis, who’s worked with Cristil since 1979, lauds his partner’s professionalism. But Cristil is a colorful sort, too, and when the microphone was off he could act the part of fan for a moment or two.
Cristil remembers a basketball game at Alabama, when official Gerald Boudreaux was, in Cristil’s opinion, being too lenient on his calls. As Boudreaux trotted past, Cristil pulled off his headset and yelled, “Gerald! How can you sleep with all these lights on out here?”
All Boudreaux could do was laugh.
Ellis recalled a game at Kentucky when Cristil got onto another official, Don Rutledge. An MSU player got trapped near midcourt, right in front of Cristil and Ellis, and turned it over. There was a timeout, and Cristil immediately lit into Rutledge.
Ellis: “Rutledge is just standing there with the ball in his arm, and Jack is leaning over the table – I mean, he’s about (a foot) from his ear – and he’s saying, ‘They hit him on both sides! They almost knocked him down! You are-’ I can’t remember exactly, but he basically told him that he was not a very strong man to let the crowd in Rupp Arena make that call for him. …
“As soon as he got through, he put his headset back on, and he went right back to broadcasting, just like nothing had ever happened.”
When he’s on the call, Cristil is as objective as can be. Many announcers tend to favor the home team, but Cristil “was always right down the middle,” Ellis said. “If the other team was doing something good, he’d talk about it. If Mississippi State wasn’t playing very good, he’d talk about it. He’s always sort of told the story like it was.”
Wrapping it up
Every good broadcaster has a catchphrase of some kind when the team he covers wins a game. Cristil’s famous exclamation is, “Wrap this one in maroon and white!”
Thing is, he can’t recall exactly how or when it originated.
“[W]e used to do the game, now the game’s over, and you would wrap up the game, do a recap,” he says. “So that became a little separate, saleable product. And we used that phrase: ‘I’ll be back with a wrap-up in a minute.’ For some reason it came out, ‘We’ll wrap this one in maroon and white.’
“And it seemed to hit a note. I don’t know why it did.”
Cristil’s house is essentially wrapped in maroon and white. Just inside his doorway is a football that reads “501 games.” He’s now called 636 football games.
On his kitchen wall is a giant hand-made poster that reads, “Thanks for 50 years. Jack ‘The Voice of the Bulldogs’ Cristil.”
As Cristil goes radio silent, MSU is left with the impossible task of finding a replacement. That will happen after the basketball season, which Ellis will finish out.
Ellis, 63, has Cristil’s full endorsement.
“They can look the world over,” Cristil says, “they won’t find anybody better than Jim.”
MSU without Cristil is one thing. Cristil without MSU is another.
His health will occupy much of his time, but otherwise Cristil isn’t sure what to do with himself.
“You’re going to be confined during this process. How restrictive is that going to be? Are you going to feel like going out afterwards? Are you going to feel like getting in the car and going somewhere? Are you going to feel like going to the grocery store? Are you going to want to come home and prop your feet up?
“I really don’t know. I think this will be one of the biggest mental adjustments I’ve ever had to go through.”
Perhaps the only bigger adjustment he’s dealt with was the death of his wife, Mavis, in 1988, from lupus. After going through that, retirement and dialysis don’t seem so scary for Cristil.
“I don’t think I’m afraid,” he says. “I guess probably the lonesomest I’ve been is when Mavis first died. We knew it was coming – she’d been in the hospital for 77 days. For a lengthy period of time there, I was really lost.”
Cristil has a large family to lean on at the Temple B’nai Israel, of which he’s been a longtime member. He’s a lay leader who periodically conducts Friday night services. His friend, Bob Schwartz, figures Cristil will keep doing that if he’s able.
“That voice is really one of the great voices anywhere,” Schwartz said. “And I have said to folks, ‘We are so lucky to have somebody standing at the pulpit with a voice like that.’ I think it’s possible there may be few other voices like that anywhere in the congregations across the country.”
As long as the body holds up, that voice will still have an audience.
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571