Jim Simpson, a versatile television sportscaster who began his career in Washington and covered the Olympics, the World Series and the first Super Bowl before becoming ESPN’s first play-by-play announcer when the sports cable network made its debut in 1979, died Jan. 13 in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 88.
His death was announced by ESPN, which did not cite a specific cause.
For decades, Mr. Simpson was a handsome, smooth-voiced presence on sports broadcasts from around the globe. He covered his first Olympic Games in 1952, appeared on the 1961 premiere of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and remained an occasional presence on ESPN into the 21st century.
For most of his time in the network spotlight, he made Washington his home, often working during the week as the host of sports broadcasts on local TV stations from the 1940s to the 1980s.
After beginning his broadcast career at 15 with a hunting and fishing show on radio, Mr. Simpson entered television in 1949 as the first sportscaster at Washington’s Channel 9. After CBS bought the station and changed its call letters to WTOP, he shared a half-hour news program with another broadcaster just getting his start in TV — Walter Cronkite, the future “CBS Evening News” anchor.
“In the ’40s it was the excitement of being in the business,” Mr. Simpson told The Washington Post in 1986. “To me, it was the glamour of the business. I was walking around in a daze, so happy to be in it, that doing a station break correctly was a World Series.”
Soon enough, Mr. Simpson would be broadcasting the World Series during the 15 years he spent with NBC Sports. He covered virtually every sport under the sun at the highest levels: 16 baseball all-star games, 14 Olympic Games, all the Grand Slam events in tennis and golf, 14 college football Orange Bowls, six Super Bowls and six World Series.
In 1964, Mr. Simpson was the network host of the Winter Olympics from Innsbruck, Austria, and the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
His broadcast partners included renowned announcers such as Red Barber, Jim McKay, Vin Scully and Mel Allen, and sports stars Red Grange, Arnold Palmer, Tony Kubek and Sandy Koufax. When Mr. Simpson joined ESPN, he was teamed on college basketball broadcasts with a little-known former coach whose palpable excitement for the sport came through in every New Jersey-accented syllable: Dick Vitale.
“One night, he and I were doing a game,” Vitale told the Dothan (Ala.) Eagle in 2010. “Somebody came up to me and asked, ‘What game do you guys have coming up?’ I turned to the guy and said, ‘Aw, it’s just another game, man, just another game.’ Jim grabbed me and said, ‘There is no such thing as just another game.’ He was right.”
Mr. Simpson’s professionalism and his ability to move effortlessly from ski jumping to golf to boxing helped secure ESPN’s emergence as a sports broadcasting dynamo.
“His arrival provided ESPN with a critical injection of credibility,” ESPN announcer Bob Ley said in a statement.
During the 1960s, Mr. Simpson was NBC’s play-by-play announcer of American Football League games. He was in the booth for NBC radio in January 1967 when the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs met the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers in what became known as Super Bowl I.
Because the television footage had been taped over, it became known as the “lost game.” After years of archival research and remastering, film of the game has been reconstructed and will be shown for the first time Friday on the NFL Network.
The broadcast will include the original radio play-by-play coverage of Mr. Simpson and color announcer George Ratterman.
James Shores Simpson was born Dec. 20, 1927, in Washington and grew up in Chevy Chase, Md. He graduated from the old Devitt Preparatory School in the District and began broadcasting while still in school.
His first show, “Hunting and Fishing With Jimmy Simpson,” ran for six weeks on WINX radio in 1943. He joined WWDC radio in 1945 and handled a variety of jobs, including covering the White House while still in his teens.
Mr. Simpson served in the Coast Guard in the 1940s, attended George Washington University, then served in the Navy Reserve during the Korean War. In 1949, he left a job as a radio station manager in Hagerstown, Md., to enter the new medium of television.
By the early 1950s, he was Washington’s top-rated sportscaster and was doing pregame shows before Washington Senators games. He covered his first Olympics, in Helsinki, in 1952, then moved to WRC (Channel 4) in 1955, where he worked until the mid-1960s.
While keeping his local sports show in Washington, he worked weekends for ABC-TV (1960-1962) and CBS-TV (1962-1964). He returned to WRC for a few years in the late 1970s.
After leaving ESPN in 1986, Mr. Simpson did a season of play-by-play coverage of the Baltimore Orioles. He covered his final Olympic Games in 1996 in Atlanta.
Mr. Simpson received a lifetime achievement award at the 1998 Sports Emmy Awards and was inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 2000.
His wife of 54 years, Sara Kanaga Simpson, died in 2005. Survivors include his wife of nine years, Ann Crowley Jones of Scottsdale; five children from his first marriage; 18 grandchildren; and two great-grandsons.
Mr. Simpson said aspiring broadcasters often came to him for advice.
“I tell them what they don’t want to hear,” he told The Post in 1986. “If they are in high school, I tell them to learn grammar. No one talks more on the air than sportscaster, not even a game show host.”