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The Post's Shirley Povich

Shirley Povich Tribute

  A Gentleman for the Nineties

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Columnist
Saturday, July 15, 1995; Page F01

Usually, or at least too often, Shirley Povich has been asked during his 22 years of retirement to talk about Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey or some other athlete who was more famous, but no more interesting, than himself.

On a 90th birthday, shouldn't a man be encouraged to talk about himself, even if his trademark is modesty and his natural inclination is to study others? So, happy birthday, Shirley. And tell us what it's like to write every bit as well -- for 71 years -- as any of them pitched or punched.

"I write what I like to read," said Povich yesterday, using the present tense since his last byline was just days ago. "You gamble on your own values.

"I always wrote for myself," said Povich, who has written about every World Series for The Washington Post since 1924. "It was just me and the typewriter. There were no other writers, no competition, as far as I was concerned. . . . Here's where pride comes in. You want to write up to the scene, up to the game. . . .

"When {Don} Larsen pitched his perfect game, I sat there transfixed. There were 400 others {in the press boxes}. You can't afford to fail. But I always let it simmer before I began to write. . . . You don't let these things pop. You consider them. You have a responsibility to yourself."

So Povich wrote one of journalism's most famous leads about one of baseball's most famous games: "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."

When the task you set yourself is to "gamble on your values," it helps to have some. If you looked inside Povich's head, you'd probably find an enormous moral compass. Though a craftsman, stylist, gentle wit and storyteller, Povich has always defined himself by his strong, clear-cut stance toward his subjects.

"Affairs among boxing's heavyweight division, if anybody cares, have now devolved from a mess to indescribable, unadulterated garbage," he once wrote.

"If baseball's club owners aren't kvelling now," he once began, "they're insensate."

As we say in the press box, "Come on, Shirley, make up your mind."

These last two Povich samples don't come from '25 or '60. They're from '95. The man doesn't force you to waste much time on clip searches in the morgue.

"My whole determination was to be topical," he said yesterday. Of course, some of us wish he would cut it out. Just last month, Povich began: "The stories haven't been fair to Mickey Mantle." And he was talking about me.

In recent decades, Povich's admirers have tended to be distracted by his personal virtues. Wonderful father, husband, friend, mentor. He even kicks your golf ball out of the woods. With Mo Siegel gone, there's nobody left to recall any of Shirley's screw-ups on the Senators beat. So, he's canonized.

That's well and good. But on your 90th, wouldn't you rather talk about the gift that made you a treasure to countless readers? Especially since you've still got it.

"Writers tend to be in a state of perpetual discontent. You think, With a little more effort.' You bite at yourself: Do it over,' " said Povich, who has written 500 Post pieces while in retirement since 1973. "You have to admit that, in {editor} Ben Bradlee's phrase, This dog won't hunt.' It's no disgrace to rewrite. . . . Finally, you just gamble that, This ain't going to be bad.' But we know we can be such bums if we fail. And we don't want to fail."

In a profession known for egotists, Povich is a reserved gentleman. When lauded, he's often embarrassed and will grab your arm as he changes the subject. Of course, the flattery sportswriters receive can teach humility.

"The man in the street' is fine and good. I like him. But I don't care much for his praise, {though} I love it from my peers," said Povich. "I remember a fan who said, You're great.' Then he mentioned another writer for whom I had little respect. He's great, too. I don't know which of you is best.' "

Never, not even during his long friendship with Red Smith, did Povich ever have a reader who consistently gave him feedback. "I was my own worst critic. Once in a while you're absolutely pleased. But most of the time I didn't want to see my column in the paper the next day." Povich then recalled a pedestrian writer of long ago. "He would sit there and read his own column with great pleasure. I couldn't believe it. And then he would go to the jump!"

Povich came from a generation that still considered the English language a precious inheritence. To watch Povich and Smith endure a Howard Cosell TV broadcast was worse than watching Prometheus await the vulture's daily return.

"Red and I were traveling together once. He was on the phone to his son, Terry, who was a reporter for the {New York} Times. Red was giving him hell about one word in his story. One poorly chosen word. But one word matters."

Perhaps that's the writer's equivalent of Harvey Penick's "Take Dead Aim."

Much may change. But, perhaps, good writing changes least. We need people who know what it is. And what it isn't.

"I knew Tom Wolfe years ago. The New Journalism was all right for a while. They projected themselves' {onto the subject}," says Povich with just the proper skeptical enunciation. "But they got so convoluted. After a while, it seemed like they were trying to avoid the subject. Drat Tom Wolfe and his new journalism. It's all right in its place. . . . But you want to find a subject. Thank God! Today I have something to write about!' "

Recently, Povich broke from character and visited a hospital. His many friends and innumerable readers will be glad to know that he's home with his wife, Ethyl, and chipper again. All's well, Shirley reports at 90, "except I've lost a little clubhead speed."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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