In a career that spanned 75 years of writing for The Washington Post, the late columnist Shirley Povich covered some of the most memorable sporting events of the century. The Dempsey-Tunney fight in '27, Washington's only World Series title in '24, Walter Johnson's retirement, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth bidding farewell, Bobby Thomson's pennant-winning home run in '51, Don Larsen's perfect game in '56.
For the past three years, his daughter, Lynn Povich, and I have compiled an anthology of Povich's best pieces that will be published next spring. What came out of more than seven decades in press boxes was a love of journalism, the newspaper and the events and people he spent a lifetime covering.
Sports writer Shirley Povich.
(The Washington Post)
If being witness to the greatest sporting events of the century provided him with a lifetime of professional joy, among the lowest of his moments occurred the night of Sept. 30, 1971, when the Senators played their final game at RFK Stadium, losing by a 9-0 forfeit to the New York Yankees when fans overran the field in the ninth inning.
Povich, who died in 1998 at age 92, wrote:
"A swarm of young kids, squirts who wouldn't know what it had meant to have a big-league team all these years, or what it means to lose one, flooded onto the field from all points in the stands. . . ."
He concluded: "The mad scene on the field, with the athletes of both teams taking refuge in their dugouts, brought official announcement of Yankees 9, Senators 0, baseball's traditional forfeit count almost since Abner Doubleday notched the first baseball score on the handiest twig at Cooperstown. But by then, the crowd-mood was philosophical. So what? Or more accurately, so whatha hell? The Senators were finished, even if the ball game wasn't."
If the Senators and their famous manager, Ted Williams, left for "greener" pastures in Arlington, Tex., Shirley Povich remained at Washington for the final 27 years of his life, 25 of them in semi-retirement but still writing columns for The Post. He loved his work, the sports scene and the people. But he was angry when it came to baseball. Angry because there was no major league baseball team in his town -- until yesterday when it was announced that the Montreal Expos would be relocated to Washington's RFK Stadium for the 2005 season.
"When a city doesn't have a big league team, well, it just isn't big league," he said and wrote over and over. "The world thinks we're Chattanooga. What a sad state of affairs."
He could never understand how his lifelong friend, baseball commissioner and native Washingtonian Bowie Kuhn, permitted the Senators to leave for Texas. He could never understand how Major League Baseball would not want the president to throw out the first ball of the season in Washington; he could never understand the disdain many of the owners felt toward his town, and how each effort to regain a ballclub ended in failure.
Most of all, he could not comprehend why Washington area fans would adopt the Baltimore Orioles. Even after the Orioles took Baltimore off their uniform, Povich wasn't moved. "They kid us not," he wrote. "They can't absorb the capital of the United States like an occupying power. Washington has no baseball team."
He appreciated the accomplishments of Cal Ripken and the gesture Orioles owner Peter Angelos showed by giving Povich a "day" at Camden Yards in 1996. But he always knew the score -- and occasionally questioned if his own newspaper (i.e. me) was overemphasizing the Orioles.
"Only the hopelessly naive would believe that the Orioles' ownership has not obstructed the return of the majors," he wrote in 1994. "Their contention that the Orioles are a regional team is subliminally a metaphor for 'we own you.' "
When Washington was host to an occasional late spring exhibition game or a midsummer old timers affair, he was livid, in his New England way, and boycotted. "How dare they?" he asked with a clipped edge in his voice. When Washington was ignored in several expansion selections over the years in favor of Toronto, Seattle, Denver, Miami, Tampa Bay and Arizona, he steamed.
While he rarely used a hammer in his writing, when it came to baseball, Povich used a hammer often. In 1990, he wrote, "For 19 wretched years Washington has been excluded, left to press its nose against the window while 14 other cities, rated as bush league towns when Washington was in the majors, have been endowed with franchises."
Povich generally kept a professional attitude in using his lifetime contacts to keep interest alive in the city. But occasionally a conversation with an owner would result in his writing a name and number on a small slip of paper and handing it to me, with the instructions, "call this guy." More often than not, the call produced a story that Team X was interested in Washington, sometimes resulting in Team X getting a new stadium in its city and Povich writing, "never has a city been so invitingly ripe for a team."
Someone -- Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig, or relocation committee chairman Jerry Reinsdorf -- figured this out. Finally, someone thinking outside the box, namely Mayor Anthony A. Williams and his sharp negotiating team, found a way to move the mountain. Washington lawyers Paul M. Wolff and Stephen W. Porter, prodded for years, as did Virginia's Bill Collins. Hopefully, the mayor's financial plan to build the stadium will not impact city services and school needs, as he promises.
Talk of ownership groups, a team name and personnel can wait, as we read a Povich lament on the eve of Opening Day in 1990: "The president does not throw out the first Stillson wrench at the plumbers' convention or hand out the Oscars at the Academy Awards, or toss out the first ball at the Super Bowl or NCAA basketball final. Only to baseball, and only in Washington, is the White House seal of approval granted."
Finally, as he began reading the box scores of another season without Washington in the standings, he wrote, "One could weep." The weeping stopped yesterday.