Jimmy Cannon: Sportswriter.
Riding the Harper’s Magazine bandwagon today. They’ve earned it. Just published a terrific collection called Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper’s Magazine. Lots of good stuff in there including Pete Axthelm’s memorable essay The City Game (which became an excellent book), Pat Jordan on the shady baseball prospect Toe Nash, another good baseball essay by Rich Cohen, and a spot-on piece on sports writing by the critic Wilfrid Sheed, a guy who is real hit or miss for me.. Also work from Mark Twain, John R. Tunis, Shirley Jackson, Tom Wolfe, and George Plimpton. It’s the goods.
Harper’s has also made Gary Cartwright’s memorable recollection of his days at the Fort-Worth Press (included in the book), Confessions of a Washed-Up Sportswriter, available for us all on the Internet. Whoopee!
Here we have a first-hand account of Shrake and Jenkins, Blackie Sherrod and the Forth-Worth Press in the Fifties:
I did not know it at the time, but The Press sports staff was ten years ahead of the game. In 1955 The Press was perfecting what most, but not yet all, sports staffs believe they have just created: a competitive art form. Significant television competition was years away, but already The Press was rebelling against the stiff, bleak who/what/when/where architecture of its predecessors, exposing myths, demanding to know why, and treating why as the only question. It was funny about 1961 when Newsweek devoted its press section to the wry progressive sports editor of Newsday, Jack Mann. Newsday hired good, creative writers. They worked as a unit, pruning cliches from wire copy, pepping up hard news by tracing angles all over the country, barreling over dogma where they confronted it. Was Yogi Berra a lovable gnome, like it said in Sporting News? Did he sit around reading comic books and eating bananas? Or was he a noncommunicative boor whose funniest line was, “How the hell would I know?” Newsday, the magazine pointed out, demanded an answer.
There was no way for Newsweek to know it, but sports editor Blackie Sherrod had been preaching a better anarchy at The Press in 1950. Sherrod surrounded himself with such men as Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake, now well-known and excellent writers at Sports Illustrated, not to mention the irresponsible Crew Slammer. He let them write from the gut.
Cartwright recalls the early days with great fondness but he doesn’t romanticize the sports writing profession:
…Let me make one thing plain: most sportswriters have no business in journalism. They are misfits looking for a soft life. The worst sportswriters are frustrated athletes, or compulsive sports fans, or both. The best are frustrated writers trapped by circumstances. Westbrook Pegler called sportswriters “historians of trivia,” but Pegler learned his craft by writing sport. Scotty Reston, Heywood Broun, Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, and Paul Gallico wrote about sport. Winston Churchill covered cricket during the Boer War. TheNew York Times‘ John Kieran was a sportswriter, but he was much more. When students at Yale protested that a sportswriter had been invited to address them, Kieran delivered his speech in Latin.
Sportswriting should be a young man’s profession, No one improves after eight or ten years, but the assignments get juicier and the way out less attractive. After eight or ten years there is nothing else to say. Every word in every style has been set in print, every variation from discovery to death explored. The ritual goes on, and the mind bends under it. Ask a baseball writer what’s new and he’ll quote you the record book. Baseball writers are old men, regardless of age.
…There is no spectacle in sport more delightful than witnessing members of the Baseball Writers Association, who invented the box score, trampling each other at the buffet table. The first time I actually saw Dick Young, the New York Daily News‘ very good baseball writer, he was smearing deviled egg on the sleeve of Arthur Daley’s sport coat and discussing Casey Stengel’s grammar. Ben Hogan was rude and gruff but he impressed me when I learned that the caviar at his annual press party cost $45 a jar. Tony Lema had a genius for public relations at least as great as his genius for golf. Champagne Tony! I covered his funeral. It was an assignment that I did not want, but I was there, thinking that it may be years before I taste champagne again. They served some on the flight home. Bear Bryant used to insist that the way to handle a sportswriter was with a fifth of Scotch. Sportswriters deplored this attitude, but no one ever thought to sue Bear Bryant.
This was the title piece of Cartwright’s collection of his best work, Confessions of a Washed-Up Sportswriter (including Various Digressions about Sex, Crime, and Other Hobbies). If you can ever find a copy of that on the cheap, get it, it also features a wonderful piece on Candy Barr, the famous Texas stripper, and a vicious story about dog fighting that would make the dudes at Deadspin moist. Cartwright regarded it as the best piece he ever wrote even though it was rejected by Playboy, Sports Illustrated and Esquire. It was his favorite, anyway. Probably worth signing up for Texas Monthly (it’s free) for the Cartwright archive alone.
Kudos to Harper’s here. They are doing a real mitzvah and other publications like Rolling Stone, Esquire, GQ, and The New Yorker could take notice and make some of the gems from their vaults available to us on occasion. Share the wealth, just a little taste, good Internet karma and all that. A little love goes a long way.
[Life picture of Jimmy Cannon via A Continuous Lean]