Iconic sports venues like Augusta National and Daytona International Speedway came to feel like second homes for Neil McCaffrey during an award-winning career as a CBS camera operator.
|McCaffey working on the U.S. Open’s main court with a chair tripod he used to better follow the pace of play.
Thus, it may come as a surprise the New York Local 1212 retiree learned his trade on a long-running daytime soap opera.
In 1974, when McCaffrey accepted a job at CBS after three years at ABC, his first assignment was manning a camera for “The Edge of Night.” It wasn’t as different from live sports as one might think.
In those days, the show was telecast live – think “Saturday Night Live” every weekday afternoon for 30 minutes, minus the laughs – so McCaffrey saw how veteran CBS camera personnel and technicians made quick decisions in a pressure-filled situation.
“It was the best way to learn,” he said. “There’s no going back. If you make a mistake, everyone knows it.
“They were teachers and a great bunch of guys,” he added. “I didn’t know anything. They took me in and shaped me and taught me what it was like to work for a professional company.”
Nearly 45 years later, McCaffrey was days from retirement and working the main camera for the Army-Navy Game in Philadelphia last December, his last football game for the network. CBS officials surprised him with an on-air tribute that lasted more than a minute.
Unbeknownst to McCaffrey, his wife, Cindy, and the rest of his family provided pictures to network officials from his career and time in the Marines during the Vietnam War. They were flashed across the world while sideline reporter Jamie Erdahl told of his accomplishments.
“He’s a special guy,” play-by-play announcer Brad Nessler said as a camera flashed on McCaffrey. “We love him. We wish him all the best.”
His career with CBS ended with retirement, but McCaffrey’s influence on Local 1212 continues. He mentors younger members – not only on the finer points of sports television, but on the role of the IBEW in providing a better life for themselves and their families and how they must take an active role in that.
He’s doing so at the request of Local 1212 Business Manager Ralph Avigliano, a longtime friend. Avigliano said that even while McCaffrey was in the midst of a stellar career and earned the respect of his superiors at CBS, he still made time for leadership roles in the IBEW. That included serving as a shop steward, a member of the Local 1212 negotiating committee and as chairman of the IBEW’s national negotiating committee with CBS.
“Neil was consistently excellent on the job and always was looking for ways to help his brothers and sisters,” Avigliano said. “Now more than ever, our younger members need to be reminded of our history and the importance of being the best at what they do while also being of service to others. I can’t think of a better person to teach them that.”
McCaffrey won eight Emmys during his career, five of which came as the lead cameraman for CBS’ coverage of the Daytona 500 from 1979 to 2000.
He was responsible for many of the pictures during the legendary 1979 race, when a last-lap crash between Cale Yarbrough and Donnie Allison led to the two trading punches on the Daytona infield while Richard Petty drove to an unexpected victory. It was the first 500-mile auto race televised live in the United States and many NASCAR historians say it was the launching pad for the sport’s explosive growth over the next 30 years.
|New York Local 1212 retiree Neil McCaffrey. The former CBS camera operator continues to work with young members.
“That’s the excitement of the job,” McCaffrey said. “The anticipation, knowing that something is going to happen that is totally unexpected and you have to be prepared for it.”
He’s worked the camera for the Super Bowl, NBA Finals, the NCAA Tournament, tennis’s U.S. Open and The Masters. He’s also pitched in on the CBS News side, covering the inaugurations of six U.S. presidents.
McCaffrey is also an innovator. He’s well-known throughout the broadcast industry for his development of a light-weight camera headset now widely used.
The idea came while he was preparing for President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. It was a cold day and McCaffrey and other camera operators had to work in tight spaces among the crowd, from approximately 2 a.m. to 2 p.m. The lighter headset fit around the layers of clothes that McCaffrey and his colleagues wore and was less clunky to operate, crucial on an exceedingly long day of work.
He also developed a chair tripod that made following the ball easier during tennis matches, an idea that came to him when CBS televised the U.S. Open. For many years, McCaffrey was in charge of operating the only camera on the main court during play. The tripod was small and compact in order to be unobtrusive, but allowed him greater flexibility in following the play.
“I could sit on my tripod and swivel around,” he said.
McCaffrey was a combat machine-gun operator in Vietnam and was commonly called “Sarge” because of his military service – although he’s quick to remind people his highest rank was corporal.
Still, the nickname was an appropriate one. Neil Ambrosio, an international representative in the broadcasting department and former freelance graphic artist for CBS Sports, remembers meeting McCaffrey for the first time at an airport car rental counter as the two arrived for an assignment. Ambrosio was in a collared shirt and jeans and McCaffrey asked him if he had worn that on the plane.
“That’s not how we do things at CBS,” he told Ambrosio. “Dress like you own the plane, not like you are flying the plane.”
To this day, Ambrosio wears a sport coat when traveling for work.
“He has been a great supporter of the union and invaluable in negotiations,” Ambrosio said. “No other person I would rather go into battle with than Neil McCaffrey.”
Despite all his time on the road and the responsibility of raising three children with Cindy, McCaffrey found time to be a leader within Local 1212 and nationally with the IBEW.
“One, I’m Irish, so I’m always looking for a good fight,” he said with a laugh. “And two, my father was a negotiator.”
John W. McCaffrey negotiated distribution contracts for breweries across New Jersey while the family grew up in Allenhurst in Monmouth County, just south of New York City. He later was a co-founder of the New Jersey Conference of Mayors.
“With that kind of background, it’s kind of hard to sit on the sideline,” he said.
In retirement, in addition to his work with Local 1212, McCaffrey plans to spend more time at home with Cindy in northern New Jersey. One thing is clear: He’ll make sure to mention how much he values IBEW membership.
“CBS has always been looked at as the Tiffany Network and the reason is because of the quality of the work that the men and the women of the IBEW do, along with the rest of the company,” he said. “We work together.”