Chris Schenkel, the mild-mannered sportscaster who seems to carry about him a faint odor of vanilla, said he certainly did not see the humor in the old line "How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen the farm?" All through childhood Schenkel saw the farm, and as an adult he returned to it often for R&R. Now he is back to stay, except for brief expeditions to the Olympics, the Indianapolis 500, NCAA football, NBA basketball and other major sports events on behalf of ABC. "I love the Indiana farm country," Schenkel said in the demulcent baritone that seems to rise effortlessly from his size 14� Adam's apple. "I'd never go back to New York City to live. But don't say anything bad about New York. New York was good to me."
Don't say anything bad about New York
. Also, he requests that you don't say anything bad about the sports Establishment. Or officials. Or coaches. Or those wonderful young men down on the field giving their all in this glorious setting for this magnificent game right here in beautiful Collegetown, U.S.A. "Sometimes Chris Schenkel comes across like a junior high school cheerleader," said one of his early critics. "But there's less to him than that."
There's more, too, but Christopher Eugene Schenkel, in his 50th season of life, seems determined to let his critics go unanswered and his career speak for itself. Years ago he hit on certain rules for broadcasting success: Don't upstage the event you're covering. Don't out-mouth the color man. Don't talk the listeners' heads off. Keep a low profile and work hard, and one day you'll be a millionaire. It worked, so who can argue? Certainly not some of the logorrheic announcers who started out with Schenkel and now sell encyclopedias door to door while Schenkel continues to slip into your parlor once or twice a week, invited or otherwise, as he has for nearly three decades.
After so long a career, awards can be misleading, but if sheer poundage of trophies and plaques is any criterion, Schenkel must be considered far and away the best in the business. One whole room of his new home in Lake Tippecanoe, Ind. is jammed with them, and dozens more are in packing boxes. There is hardly a sportscasting tribute Schenkel has not won, except the most prized of all, the Emmy, and ABC is pushing hard to bring that one home for Schenkel this year after four previous nominations.
Emmy winner or not, the pencil-shaped, hazel-eyed Schenkel remains the archetypal Hoosier—and proud of it. He is a world-class name-dropper, but of a disarming sort. He doesn't give you the sly look and the studied nonchalance followed by, "Oh, yeah, I know the Chief Justice. Burgie and I go 'way back." His name-dropping is rather of the innocently idolatrous variety, much less common in sporting show biz. " Jack Nicklaus!" he'll say. "Now there's a great guy! How lucky can I get, to be personal friends with somebody like Jack Nicklaus. What a lovely person!" He goes on for hours about the color announcers he has worked with and how they enriched his life. "Men like Byron Nelson, Bud Wilkinson, Billy Welu, Bill Russell—why, do you realize they were all the best in their fields? These are great people! And they've stayed friends. Isn't that great? To have friends like that? In a million years I could never repay the industry for giving me a chance like this. How else could a guy like me have met people like Gene Cernan and John Glenn?"
Schenkel is so irrepressibly and enthusiastically upbeat that he sometimes makes constant listeners want to throw up. He seems to be broadcasting perfect events in a flawless world; unseemly developments are simply ignored, and the positive is accentuated with gusto. He refers to the flag as "Old Glory," and when the colors are marched into the stadium before a game he says, "Oh, what a beautiful sight!" His favorite all-purpose remark is "I love it!" which he applies to motherhood, the Protestant ethic, fidelity, beer, the work of Winslow Homer, conservatism in politics and anything customarily regarded as old-fashioned. His best friend, Indiana dairyman Rodger Nelson, says, "Old-fashioned values are the greatest things in Chris' world. Like consideration for others. When he doesn't point out a missed tackle, it's not because he's a Pollyanna or because he's a dummy, it's because he knows that player's family might be watching, and Chris is just not gonna single the kid out for criticism. That's old-fashioned courtesy. Chris is an Indiana farm boy in the best sense of that term."
The student of Chris Schenkel, searching for cracks in the nonpareil's character, might fix on the fact that he drinks an occasional drop of gin or Scotch and Jeroboams of beer, and that he occasionally says "hell" and "damn," even though he sounds as though he were trying to imitate the big kids when he does. "Profanity just doesn't come that naturally to me," he says, "and I hate hearing anybody use bad language in front of women, even though that's in vogue now. It really bothers me." At a Nebraska football game Schenkel reacted with premature horror when he saw two students waving a long streamer. "What a relief!" he said when it turned out to read HUCK THE HUSKERS. He dislikes broadcasting from the Los Angeles Coliseum because "you get this smell of marijuana and every once in a while one of those California freaks drops his pants in front of everybody. They think it's clever, but, gee, I wish they wouldn't do it in front of ladies." He disapproved of the old-world ambience at the Winter Olympics in Grenoble: "All those dirty Communists, and the French people smelled like they didn't bathe enough." So it develops that the quiet man has active dislikes; he just tries to keep them to himself for fear of undercutting the gaiety of nations and hurting somebody's feelings.
Like all such paragons, Schenkel manages to ruffle an occasional feather, but never intentionally. Once he hyped up a speech with a completely fictitious anecdote about Bob Cousy, the former Boston Celtic who suffers from a very slight speech impediment that turns an occasional "r" into a "w." Looking for a laugh, Schenkel told how Cousy came to him for elocutionary assistance. "So I told him to repeat, over and over, 'Russell/Ramsey/Rogers rarely rode a railroad train really,' and several days later Cousy told me, 'It worked! Gee, thanks, Kwis!' "
At a subsequent banquet Schenkel and Cousy (the real Cousy) listened as ABC Sports President Roone Arledge launched into the same story, featuring himself and ending with the line, "Gee, thanks, Woone!" Schenkel turned as red as the Communists of Grenoble and wound up apologizing lavishly. Cousy thinks the incident was funny, but Schenkel remains chagrined, to the joy of certain of his critics. There is something disturbing about moral perfection.
Chris Schenkel was brought up in the Indiana village of Bippus (pop. 275) between the Wabash and Eel Rivers. It is a community so thoroughly rustic that it was once described as "akin to a painting by Millet." Bippus is vintage James Whitcomb Riley, where the fodder's in the shock and fat pheasants loiter in the fields waiting to fly into your game bag. Prize hogs preen and graze in front yards, mistaking themselves for French poodles, and farmers vote the straight Republican ticket and grumble about the leftward drift at the state capital, Indianapolis, 85 miles to the south.