In praise of the sporting life

Allan Fotheringham July 31 1995

In praise of the sporting life

Allan Fotheringham July 31 1995

In praise of the sporting life



After Mickey Mantle received his liver transplant at Baylor University’s medical centre, the doctors held a news conference. “Is the donor of the liver still alive?” one scribe asked. Dr. Goran Klintmalm looked down from the podium. “You’re a sports reporter, aren’t you,” he said.

Norm Van Brocklin was a magnificent National Football League quarterback and later a coach with a famous bad temper. “If I ever need a brain transplant,” he once said, “I want it to come from a sports reporter, because that would mean it had never been used.”

We are here today in defence of sportswriting, mainly because this proprietor used to be a member of the tribe. Serious types in the rest of the paper called us “the toy department.” Guys writing about grown men playing little boys’ games. That’s OK. Nobody gets more kicks than a sportswriter.

H. L. Mencken said: ‘Working for a newspaper can be more fun than a quiet girl.” If you’re going to work for a newspaper, you should start out in sports.

It’s a simple fact that on any large newspaper, the best writing—the most entertaining writing—is on the sports pages. The most amusing writing is on the sports pages. One of the reasons why newspapers are dying (another dead in New York City last week) is that they have no sense of humor.

The most deadly of all pages in any newspaper is the editorial page—and what is funnier than politics? Any smart publisher could prove his brains by taking his best sports columnist and putting him on the political beat. As The Globe and Mail once did with Dick Beddoes (didn’t work) and once did with Scott Young (did work).

Red Smith, who when alive at the New York Herald Tribune, was the best sportswriter in the world. He was always amused at comrades in the press box who would recount how they had been renowned athletes in high school or college and had to retreat to the typewriter only because of

some terrible knee injury. “I, too,” he once wrote, “could have been a famous athlete. Except that I was small, weak, myopic, uncoordinated—and a coward.”

As dawn broke one morning, Smith looked out the window of the railway dining car where he and Grantland Rice and his other famous scribes had been up all night playing poker, sharing a bottle of the best fiery liquid and telling tales. As the train whistled through the New York suburbs, thousands of commuters were streaming out of their houses, briefcases in hand. “Look at all the poor suckers,” Red Smith said in pity. “Going to work.”

The reason the sports pages are so lively is because every sports reporter is, in effect, a columnist—the highest ambition, as we know, of every newspaperman ever born. There are no restrictions, no formulas; just try to get the score right.

I have a theory as to why all the best newspaper people come out of the sports department. It is that rookie scribes reporting on jocks go into that field because they were jocks—failed, usually—themselves and are therefore fantastically enthusiastic about what they are covering.

In the ordinary newsroom, is the guy covering sewer bylaws terribly intrigued by sewers? The chap on the stock market beat absolutely mesmerized by derivatives? Of course not. Enthusiasm wins out every day.

The second reason is that sportswriters live by their eyes. I couldn’t believe it, on first arrival in the Ottawa Press Gallery, seeing a bored phalanx of scribes resting their heads in their palms, eyes down on their notebooks, recording the palaver below them on the Commons floor.

Meanwhile on that floor MPS dozed, mouths open to any passing fly, read newspapers, gave each other the finger, whispered across the carpet to supposed opponents—a great tableau with the body language all unrecorded.

Those of us who have drifted out of sportswriting—i.e., too much Chinese food and beer at 3 a.m. after The Big Game—have found there’s not much difference in politics. There is just as much dirty play, just as much spearing, tripping, boarding, coming in high with the spikes—the only difference being that the stakes are bigger.

The most amazing people started out covering sports. Robert Fulford, who is now the intellectual guru of Canadian journalism and who can’t even find his shoelaces let alone see them, started out in the field.

Paul Gallico was the pre-eminent American sportswriter of his time, covering what has come to be known as The Golden Age of Sport. He covered Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Bill Tilden, Red Grange—all of the greats. In 1938, moving to Switzerland to become a celebrated short story writer, he wrote Farewell to Sport, in which he explained why he was leaving the field and exposed professionalism in supposedly amateur sports. That was 1938, not 1995.

The best sports columnist in the world today is Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, who has been legally blind for the last decade. But his eyes still remember. He writes better blind than most do with binoculars. And he has a sense of humor. You can’t cover sports without one.

So don’t knock sportswriters. They should just stay away from medical news conferences.