He Wrote From the Soul, He Spoke From the Heart
By Thomas Boswell
Last October, Shirley Povich, George Solomon and I were waiting for the elevator to the press box at Oriole Park at Camden Yards before Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.
Shirley said to George, The Post's Sports Editor, that playing such an important game in late afternoon just to accommodate TV was a travesty. Shadows from the grandstands would make the baseball almost impossible to hit for several innings. Mike Mussina of the Orioles and Charles Nagy of the Indians would have an unfair edge.
Since Shirley was 92 years old at the time, had covered every World Series since 1924 and held Baseball Writer's card No. 1 in his wallet, it was hard to doubt his point. But then you never wanted to contest Shirley's ideas as much as you wanted to enjoy them. He had plenty of opinions, but far more insights. And you wanted to digest them, because they were as fresh as today, though they came from an old man.
No sooner had Shirley talked about those shadows than a different sort of shadow passed over his own face. He looked sick. We got him to sit down. Then, suddenly, he was having a seizure.
Luckily, the Orioles' first aid station was only a few yards down the corridor from where Povich lay. Almost before George could loosen his tie, I'd brought back the first of a half-dozen nurses and paramedics. Povich had stopped breathing, but, within a couple of minutes, they'd revived him and saved his life.
"Chalk one up for the good guys," said the head nurse. Oh, yes, she said one other thing. When she ripped open his shirt to help resuscitate him, she said, "My Lord, he's got the chest of a young man."
Within a couple of hours, the stories about Shirley were circulating in the press box. He was not only conscious, but perfectly lucid. Although he might have been technically dead for a few seconds, the questions he was asking were about the Orioles game. In fact, it was going just as he'd predicted lots of strikeouts, no runs scored by either team. The Game of the Year tainted by a goofball starting time. He'd gotten the column of the day right, even though he didn't write that afternoon.
A couple of weeks later, Shirley walked into the new press box at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium to see the Redskins, whom he'd chronicled since their arrival in Washington in 1937.
"Good to see you here," I said.
"Good to be here," said Povich, delivering the line with perfect timing. And, as always, getting just the laugh he'd expected.
Shirley's not here any more. His column outlived him by a day. You can read him this morning at the breakfast table, even though he died last night. He filed that story late Wednesday. It's about baseball. His first love. In it, he needles me. Mark McGwire comparable to Babe Ruth? Such apostasy cannot be allowed to stand!
Perfect. Shirley Povich died setting the record straight.
This is a day for which last Oct. 15th gave everybody in our business a sorrowful dry run. We got a first taste of what we're feeling now. In the seven months since, everybody's said their goodbyes to Shirley. His mind and writing stayed sharp. But we'd been warned.
When he saw you, he gave you a tighter squeeze on the arm or a bigger hug. He got right in your ear to say, "Loved that piece on . . . " Or "How are Wendy and Russell." He always went right at you and got right into you.
A few months ago, Shirley, George, Post baseball writer Mark Maske and I were on a TV show together. Mark and I, though a generation apart, had both grown up reading Shirley. Actually, Maske grew up reading Povich after he'd retired; Shirley couldn't stop writing, you see, and, of course, nobody wanted him to stop. So these wonderful stories kept appearing whenever the mood struck the maestro. In a way, Mark and I, and plenty of others, had probably become sportswriters because Shirley had been one and showed what you could do with the job.
For half an hour, everybody tried to sound smarter and wittier than everybody else as is the noxious habit of sports talk on TV. Everybody except Shirley, of course. He just sounded like himself, telling elegant tales and actually pausing to think before speaking a rare sight on TV.
As the show wound to an end, Shirley held court on how fundamentally baseball and football differed. Baseball was open to the fan, inviting him or her to share in the nuances of the game. How could football ever really supplant such a game. "In football," he said, "they have a huddle. Every play starts with a secret."
As the camera faded to black, the rest of us on the set who owe so much to Shirley and who will always think of him with such respect and love shook our heads and laughed in disbelief. Still the best.
If you must feel sad this morning, don't feel blue for Shirley. As he often said, nobody ever had a better or luckier life. However, if you want to grasp our loss, look at the column he wrote the day before he died. That's what's sad. It's the last.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company