Phil Pash's Simply Sports: Wordsmiths made for good sports writing

In case you feel the need to be exposed to good sports writing once in a while, consider this lead by Peoria Journal Star sports columnist Kirk Wessler:

“Destiny died Monday. The University of Illinois basketball team, which had united a state and painted it orange from the shores of Lake Michigan to the southern tip of Little Egypt with its magical mystery tour of a season, ran out of miracles.”

Sounds a little like the Shirley Povich lead on a 1956 Washington Post story: “The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. Don Larsen today pitched a no-hit, no-run, no-man-reach-first game in a World Series.”

Of course, today’s editors probably would have said the Povich lead was too wordy. But they probably never read Blackie Sherrod (who finally retired in January), Red Smith, Edwin Pope, Jimmy Cannon, Jim Murray or Grantland Rice.

After Notre Dame beat Army in 1924 in New York’s Polo Grounds, it was Rice who wrote this bit of Americana:

“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Struhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden.”

How about this one, from Blackie Sherrod?

“The Pittsburgh coach may be the only citizen in jockdom who changes expression less than Tom Landry, the well-known marble bust who supervises the Dallas Cowboys from Olympus.”

Or how about this, from Dan Jenkins about Blackie Sherrod?

“A myth exists in Texas newspaper circles that working for, or alongside, Blackie Sherrod at some early station in your life was the equivalent to a journalism degree. I wish to correct this myth. It was better than a doctorate.”

Did you know that before he hied off to Chicago to become sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, Arch Ward was sports editor of the Rockford Morning Star (now known as the local daily)?

He was Trib sports editor from 1930 until his death in 1955, and he only accomplished a few things: Founder of baseball’s All-Star Game (1933), the now-defunct Chicago College All-Star Football Game (1934) and the All-America Football Conference (1946-49), now absorbed into the NFL.

The old All-American Conference inaugurated pro football in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore and Miami. The Cleveland Browns can trace their origins back in part to Arch Ward.

In his spare time, Ward also helped to develop and promote the Golden Gloves and a little program called Silver Skates. Of course, he had to leave Rockford to do all that.

He was born in Irwin in Kankakee County, Ill. He attended Loras College, then St. Joseph’s College in Dubuque, Iowa, and finished his college career at Notre Dame. He gained his first experience in sports journalism as the first publicity writer for a Notre Dame football coach and icon, Knute Rockne.

Ward gained a spot among a new breed of sports writers that included Paul Gallico, Damon Runyan, Westbrook Pegler, Ring Lardner and Heywood Broun.

Those sports writers have little in common with today’s sports writers. They were not critics. They were not investigative reporters. They were neither poets nor cynics. They considered themselves wordsmiths. They wanted to tell a good story.

Wordsmith. What a noble word. It wouldn’t fly today, though. Today’s word is briefly—let’s be like radio and TV, and their time constraints. We certainly don’t want to impose upon people’s time because we have nothing to tell them. That’s the ticket.

From the April 13-19, 2005, issue

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