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Jeannie Morris, pioneering Chicago sportscaster, dead at 85

‘There’s so many women now doing what Jeannie did, and she was the first,’ sportscaster Peggy Kusinski said of the longtime WMAQ-TV and WBBM-TV reporter.

Sportscaster and author Jeannie Morris.
Sportscaster and author Jeannie Morris.
Sun-Times file

Pioneering Chicago sports journalist Jeannie Morris died Monday at 85.

She had returned to Chicago, where she received treatment for cancer, after living for more than 20 years in Seattle and at her home in Sundance, Utah.

Ms. Morris’ wide-ranging knowledge, graceful writing and unflappable perseverance made her a star of print and TV, covering sports during a long career at WMAQ-TV and WBBM-TV in Chicago.

In 1975, she was the first woman to report live from Super Bowl IX.

“Well, they had me talk to the wives,” she said later.

Still, she said, “It was nice to break the ice and have other women have the opportunities that they certainly earned.”

She won multiple Emmy Awards and in 2014 became the first woman to receive the Ring Lardner award for excellence in sports journalism.

She showed her mettle early on when confronted by Texas Rangers manager Ted Williams, the Baseball Hall of Fame former Boston Red Sox outfielder. When she arrived at the dugout at Comiskey Park that day, Williams made his displeasure clear. Decades later, she recalled his comments this way in an interview with the Chicago Bears Network:

“ ‘This is my dugout, get outta here, no women in my dugout.’ I said, ‘This isn’t your dugout. This dugout belongs to the Chicago White Sox, and they said I can be here, OK?’ ”

The Splendid Splinter backed down. “He just goes, ‘OK,’ ” she said.

“She wasn’t afraid of any of them,” said Joy Piccolo O’Connell, widow of Bears running back Brian Piccolo. “They all respected her.”

“There’s so many women now doing what Jeannie did, and she was the first,” said Peggy Kusinski, a longtime WMAQ-TV sportscaster. “All it takes is one for one little girl to know it’s possible.”

Jeannie Morris.
Jeannie Morris.
Sun-Times file

Ms. Morris persisted even when press passes declared: “No Women or Children Allowed in the Press Box.” She couldn’t enter one while covering a Bears-Viking game. Instead of packing up, she sat on top of the press box for the icy game.

“That wasn’t much fun, but it makes for a good story,” she told the Chicago Bears Network.

When women were barred from locker rooms, “I’d say, ‘I won’t go in your locker room if you bring that guy right out here,’ ” she said in a 2014 interview on WTTW-TV’s “Chicago Tonight.”

“Athletes generally are closer to their mothers,” she once told the Sun-Times. “They’ll tell me things they’d never dream of telling a man.”

Jeannie Morris at WBBM-TV.
Jeannie Morris at WBBM-TV.
Sun-Times file

Ms. Morris got glowing reviews for her 1971 book “Brian Piccolo: A Short Season” about O’Connell’s late husband. Her book contributed to the legacy of the Bears running back who died of cancer in 1970 at 26 and whose life and friendship with teammate Gale Sayers were celebrated in the TV movie “Brian’s Song.” Piccolo’s widow said it also played a role in the success of the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund.

“She wanted the proceeds to go” to the cancer fund, O’Connell said of Ms. Morris’s book.

“She didn’t keep a penny,” said Bob Vasilopulos, her producer at WBBM. “It all went to the [Piccolo] girls” and cancer research.

Ms. Morris recounted the book’s origins to WTTW: “I just called (Piccolo) one day when he was in the hospital in New York, and I said to him, ‘Gale Sayers is writing a book...Why don’t you write one?’ Because I thought it might be fun for him to have something to do, you know, when he was in the hospital. I said, ‘I’ll help ya,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ . . . I thought, at the minimum, his little girls would know him, so, even if it wasn’t ever published, they could have it.’

Ms. Morris’ interest in sports came from her mom, she told WTTW. “My mother was a huge sports fan,” she said. “My father could care less.”

Young Jeannie grew up in Southern California. She met future husband Johnny Morris while attending the University of California-Santa Barbara, Vasilopulos said. Morris played for the Bears from 1958 to 1967 and went on to a sportscasting career at Channels 5 and 2.

Jeannie Morris and Johnny Morris.
Jeannie Morris and Johnny Morris.
Sun-Times file

As his pro career ended, “Someone from the Chicago American asked him if he could write a newspaper column on football,” Ms. Morris told the Chicago Tribune. “He said, ‘I can’t, but my wife can.’ ’’

Her column, “Football Is a Woman’s Game,” ran on the “women’s pages.”

In 1969, she started writing about football for the Chicago Daily News. The next year, she wrote of the obstacle her gender posed at the Indy 500 trials.

I had every credential you could think of at the Indianapolis Speedway last week — except the one I needed. I wasn’t a man,” she reported. “ ‘Sorry, lady, bad luck, no women in the pits …. Sorry, lady, not in here.’ ”

At one point, a Daily News reader wrote to express “my displeasure at seeing articles by a woman on the sports page. I want to read about sports from a man’s point of view.”

Columnist John Justin Smith responded by suggesting the disgruntled sports fan cover up Ms. Morris’ photo while reading her work: “You’ll learn something about the Bears and pro football.”

She and Morris took a year’s sabbatical during their 1970-1975 stint at WMAQ to explore Europe and the former Soviet Union by van with their family. She wrote a book, “Adventures in the Blue Beast,” about the trip.

“Escape is healthy,” she wrote. “The idea is to keep moving; that way the dust and clutter of modern civilization have no time to settle on you. Your major concerns become those of your ancestors: to find food and warmth and share with your loved ones.”

In 1975, the Morrises moved to WBBM. When they separated in 1983, it was front-page news. They divorced in 1985 but still worked together on segments at Channel 2, including “The Mike Ditka Show.”

Ditka said she helped him grasp the finer points of TV — like looking into the right camera. “She helped me so much,” Ditka said. “Just a beautiful lady, just a great heart.”

Ms. Morris interviewed sports greats including Chris Evert, Joe Namath, Fran Tarkenton and Don Meredith. Wilt Chamberlain, she said, was the only star who awed her.

When young fans wrote her at her station, she always wrote back, according to Vasilopulos. Yet she wouldn’t hesitate to tell an athlete, ‘Hey, you didn’t answer my question.’ ”

“She was a down-to-earth interviewer, which I always try to emulate,” said Kusinski, who spoke with Ms. Morris about Sayers on her Oct. 8 podcast “The Sportscaster and Her Son.”

“There isn’t a woman who followed her who does not owe Jeannie Morris both great gratitude and immense respect for blazing the trail for them,” said Carol Marin, a former WMAQ-TV political editor and WTTW-TV “Chicago Tonight” correspondent who’s co-director of the DePaul Center for Journalism Integrity and Excellence. “She had brains, grace and tenacity.”

After leaving WBBM around 1990, Ms. Morris worked on specials and documentaries. She helped produce the PBS series “Adventure Divas” with her daughter Holly Morris, worked on “Expedition Inspiration” about breast cancer survivor-mountaineers and a climb of Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua and wrote “Behind the Smile” about Illinois Democrat Carol Moseley Braun’s successful 1992 campaign for the U.S. Senate.

She also produced “Science Held Hostage: RU 486 and the Politics of Abortion,” which included the emotional story of her own back-alley abortion in Mexico.

“I felt like I had to,” she told the Sun-Times when the documentary debuted in 1992. “I have many, many friends who had pre-Roe abortions and some who had post-. Everybody has someone close to them who’s been through it.”

Ms. Morris also produced “The Science of Sports” for Kurtis Productions.

“She loved to write, loved the research,” said Bill Kurtis, the veteran CBS and A&E broadcaster. “And she had a wisdom. She was kind. An understanding writer. Insightful.

“She was sort of everybody’s mother,” Kurtis said. “Mike Ditka would absolutely melt in her presence.”

“She was so strong, so capable, multi-talented. She could write and certainly produce and certainly be on camera and could hold her own with 6-foot-6 Michael Jordan,” said Donna La Pietra, a former WBBM producer and now CEO and vice president of Kurtis Productions who is married to Kurtis. For younger women in journalism, “She was someone who had good advice, not just the kind that is sprinkling fairy dust.”

While raising her four kids, “She created this special little hamlet on a farm in Palatine,” said Holly Morris, her daughter with Morris. “She kept us as her priority.”

Ms. Morris’s other survivors include her son Tim, also from her marriage to Morris, her son and daughter Dan and Debbie from her first marriage to Dan Boorman and seven grandchildren, Vasilopulos said.

One of Ms. Morris’ biggest disappointments, she told the Sun-Times in 2001, was getting shut down on a project she suggested in the 1970s.

“I wanted to do a TV sweeps series on why there were no Blacks at quarterback or in coaching and management positions, but CBS and the NFL suggested it wouldn’t be a good idea,” she said. “Not being able to do that story was frustrating.”

Despite her illness, Holly Morris said her mother roused herself on Dec. 10 to say she hoped any donations in her memory “go to the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund.

Jeannie Morris.
Jeannie Morris.
Sun-Times file