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The Best Ever?

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Over at SI.com, Kevin Armstrong has a glowing profile of the Boston Globe’s glory days covering sports in the 1970s. It is a snap shot of a lost era and the piece comes at a good time, with the newspaper industry in peril. 

The Globe featured such talents as Bud Collins, Ray Fitzgerald, Leigh Montville, Leslie Visser, Bob Ryan and Peter Gammons. Armstrong details how Ryan and Gammons, both locals, were sports-mad, how they were enthusiastic, competitive reporters, and how, in some cases, they had cozy relationships with the teams they covered–Gammons shagged flies with the Red Sox and even “held a locker in the Sox clubhouse.”

Talk about a time gone by.

Yet the article left me feeling unsettled.  For instance, Armstrong writes, “The pieces all came together in 1975. As politicians tip-toed around Boston’s tinderbox of busing-related racial issues, the Globe prepared for an unprecedented run.”  According to Howard Bryant’s book about racism and Boston sports, Shut Out, the Globe did plenty of tip-toeing around racial issues as well. Armstrong writes about Will McDonough, “a tough-talking Irishman,” with affection, but does not call into question McDonough’s attitudes on race (detailed here in an article by Glenn Stout).  “McDonough wrote for all fan bases,” reports Armstrong. I don’t know if the brothers from Roxbury would agree.

But my biggest gripe with the piece is the lack of historical context. If the Globe was, as Armstrong contends, arguably the best sports department ever–and perhaps it was–who else is in the conversation? For some perspective, I e-mailed John Schulian, a former sports columnist with an encyclopedic knowledge of the great newspaper sports departments.

Here is Schulians’s reply: 

Call me a cranky old man if you must, but I think the piece is missing something very important — the names of all the great sports sections that are legitimate challengers to the Globe’s alleged omnipotence. Where’s Stanley Woodward’s New York Herald Tribune? What about the two glorious eras that the L.A. Times enjoyed? What about the wars in Philadelphia between the Bulletin and the Daily News? Just for the hell of it, I might even throw in Newsday when Jack Mann was preaching anarchy on Long Island and the irreverent New York Post of the Sixties and Seventies. And what, pray tell, about the staff that Blackie Sherrod put together at the Fort Worth Press when Eisenhower was in the White House?

If those sections don’t get at least a tip of the hat, Mr. Armstrong has written in a vacuum. Worse yet, he has failed to provide some much needed perspective. The Globe was splendid, all right, but part of the reason it scaled the heights it did was because it was pushed by the competition, in Boston and nationally.

I loved the Globe that Mr. Armstrong extols at marathon length, and I’m an enthusiastic admirer of any number of its writers for both their intrepid reporting and dextrous prose. But I think it’s fair to say that none of them ever matched the Herald Trib’s Red Smith and Joe Palmer word for word. (If Woodward had succeeded in hiring John Lardner to write a column, too, it would have put this best-section-ever nonsense to rest for eternity.) The rest of the roster wasn’t bad, either: Jess Abramson on boxing and track and field and college football, and Tommy Holmes on baseball, and Al Laney writing features, and the boss, Stanley Woodward, kicking ass whenever he found time to write a column. Roger Kahn, Jerry Izenberg, Jack Mann and Pete Axthelm came along later, as if the Trib’s literary needed more gloss. Think they could play in the same league as the Globe? I do.

There must be a lot of old Philly guys who think they could have held their own in that fight, too. At the Bulletin 30 and 40 and — it doesn’t seem possible — 50 years ago, you had true giants like Sandy Grady and George Kiseda working wonders with the language and investing their stories with social consciousness. Every kid the Bulletin hired learned by their example, from Ray Didinger and Mark Heisler to Alan Richman, Jim Barniak and Joe McGinniss. They had to hustle, though, because Larry Merchant was sports editor at the Daily News and he was bent on giving the paper a reputation for more than stories about pretty girls cut in half on vacant lots. He brought Grady and Kiseda to Philly, saw them defect to the Bulletin and responded by hiring away Bill Conlin. He found Stan Hochman in San Bernadino. And he had a beautiful madman named Jack McKinney writing boxing. By the time Merchant decamped for New York in the mid-Sixites, he had established a tradition that would last for decades more. Think of this, if you will: When I worked at the Daily News, from 1984 to 1986, my fellow columnists were Hochman, Didinger and Mark Whicker — any one of us by himself would have been enough for most papers –  and we had Conlin on baseball, Hoops Weiss on college basketball, Phil Jasner on the 76ers, Jay Greenburg on the Flyers and Paul Domowitch on the Eagles. When the subject of the Globe came up, we always said they had the best Sunday section going. But that was only because we didn’t publish on Sundays. The other six days of the week, we thought we were as good as anybody. Yes, even the Globe.

Forgive me for rattling on this way, but I want to make sure Mr. Armstrong realizes that history is littered with sports sections that could have given the Globe a run for its reputation. They didn’t always have a lot of money for travel, and they didn’t always have staffs that were two deep, but they were smart and inventive and indefatigable. They were also good. Think of how Jack Mann wove Newsday a world-class staff out of old-timers like Bob Waters, the boozy, eloquent boxing writer, and hot young kids like George Vecsey and Steve Jacobson. (Tony Kornheiser came later — and he was something special.) They were so good that Newsweek did a feature on them at a time when most managing editors were almost ashamed to admit their papers had sports sections. At the New York Post, meanwhile, Milton Gross — called “the Eleanor Roosevelt of the sports pages” by the Village Voice’s Joe Flaherty — was always catching a ride home with Floyd Patterson or Don Newcombe after they’d lost ingloriously. Leonard Shecter wrote a vinegary column, and when he moved in, Merchant took his place. Paul Zimmerman covered pro football and Vic Ziegel covered baseball and boxing and wrote slyly funny columns. Even Murray Kempton came down from Olympus to write a classic piece about Sal Maglie after he’d been done in by Don Larsen’s perfect game.

Meanwhile, out in the hinterlands, there were more sports sections catching fire. In Fort Worth, Blackie Sherrod found three kids — Dan Jenkins, Bud Shrake and Gary Cartwright — who were as irreverent as they were gifted and he turned them loose on the world. There was a fourth, Jerre Todd, who is said to have been every bit their equal, but he left the business to make a fortune in advertising. So it goes. But remember this: On a lot of days, the best writer in the joint was still Sherrod.

I can understand, however, why his Press gets forgotten. Hell, there was hardly anybody buying it when it was in business. Not so the L.A. Times, which had two eras in which it could hold its own against any sports section in the business. Indeed, it was the only one that had the space and manpower and budget to compete with the Globe. The Times’ first golden era was in the Seventies when Jim Murray was at the height of his powers as a columnist. But there was lots more to read after you finished his 900-word epistle, great long rambling stories by Jeff Prugh and Dwight Chapin and Ron Rapoport and solid beat reporting by Mal Florence and Ross Newhan and Ted Green. Hard as it is to believe, the Times was even better in its second dalliance with glory. Get a load of the talent they had in the Eighties: Rick Reilly, Richard Hoffer, Mike Littwin, Alan Greenburg, Randy Harvey, Mark Heisler, Scott Ostler, Bill Christine and . . . I know I’m forgetting somebody. Talk about an abundance of talent. When Reilly left for Sports Illustrated, the Times went out and hired Mike Downey, who was as good a columnist as there was. And the section never missed a beat.

You know what? I haven’t mentioned the Washington Post and the reign of George Solomon. I know George wouldn’t appreciate that. I was there in his early days as sports editor, when he was getting it past repeated ass-kickings by the Washington Daily News (Jack Mann again, and Andy Beyer) and the Washington Star (my old friend David Israel was its rowdy young columnist). George could wear you out with his boundless energy, but damn, did he have a great eye for talent. Not just prize imports like Kornheiser, Dave Kindred and Michael Wilbon, but discoveries like Tom Boswell and David Remnick and John Ed Bradley. And, really, how many other sports editors can say that the editor of the New Yorker once covered boxing for them?

Certainly nobody at the Boston Globe.

For another take on the history of sports writing, check out this piece, originally written for GQ, by Alan Richman.

7 comments

1 seamus   ~  Jun 4, 2009 11:57 am

looks like hughes may get to star after all if AJ's suspension stands. Did Padilla get suspended?

2 seamus   ~  Jun 4, 2009 11:57 am

[1] star = start

3 seamus   ~  Jun 4, 2009 12:17 pm

ok, I see now from Pete Abe that Padilla was fined but not suspended. Are we serious? Burnett being suspended is fine by me, but not if Padilla walks away with nothing. That is patently absurd.

4 Shaun P.   ~  Jun 4, 2009 12:20 pm

Alex, this was awesome. Thank you.

Has anyone ever written a comprehensive book on the history of sportswriting, and not just some of the individual sportswriters? Between the various sports departments at papers that Mr. Schulian mentions and the classic magazines like Sport, TSN back in the day, SI, etc., it seems like there's plenty of material.

5 rbj   ~  Jun 4, 2009 1:39 pm

Or how about the days when Shirley Povich wrote alone.

6 Eddie Lee Whitson KO   ~  Jun 4, 2009 4:30 pm

Wow, thank you for the masterclass response from Prof. Schulians. All the inter-relationships in the sports journo world suggests there's a larger story (for screen?) to be told.

Living in Boston in the 80s I started every day with the vaunted Globe sports section. The two knocks - they were all homers and they continued to allow Dan S to draw a salary. Beyond that, stunning coverage, features, sterling prose from one to the next.

What I will say, having lived in nearly a dozen cities in the US, the Globe to me was unique because you could read the sports section and understand the city, what was going on, the mood, whatever tension was in the air. It was as if they merged the sports and city desks (and given the cost cutting going on at the time I wouldnt doubt it).
Great post, many thanks!

Anyway, on to more important matters, Wang was shaky at best today, but it's the Rangers and no team (with the possible exception of the Twins) gives the yanks Mojo (over the past 15 years) like the Rangers.

Even sweeter we could do it and give capn and jorgie the day off, with the lovable sub.600 OPS combo of Cervelli and Pena rounding out the order. That they started the 5 run 5th inning was "found money" indeed.

And of course what comeback rally is complete without a delivery from the Melk-Man. Good to get another series skin, some rest and now a couple of monster series. I'm as giddy as a school girl for tomorrow night's matchup, CC v. Price. Yowza!!!

7 Chyll Will   ~  Jun 4, 2009 7:14 pm

Wowzers, all that from one question? Could you ask him on his perspective about what makes a good slice of pizza and where to get it next? >;)

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
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