A Sporting Life
By Shirley Povich
Once upon a time, before new journalism and instant replay, Washington won the World Series, Georgetown was a football power -- and a sportswriter was just a working stiff who wrote four stories on deadline, six nights a week, and loved every minute of it.
IT HARDLY SEEMS LIKE 63 YEARS AGO THAT AN IMPULSIVE PUBLISHER OF THE Washington Post anointed me as the paper's sports editor. It was a position for which some would say I was uniquely unqualified. I was not yet of voting age. My resume would have included mention of a distinguished, if brief, career as a copy boy on the paper, a turn as a city room reporter and barely two years as an apprentice sportswriter.
Heretofore, publisher Edward B. McLean had valued me chiefly as his faithful caddy for three summers in Bar Harbor, Maine, my birthplace. Golf sometimes seemed to top his newspaper as his number one interest, due directly to his old-buddy friendship with President Warren G. Harding, a devoted lover of the game. McLean not only took up golf but, for the convenience of President Harding, who otherwise would have had to tool out to the distant Chevy Chase or Columbia Country Club links, also built a private 18-hole golf course on his Friendship estate on Wisconsin Avenue in 1921. The turf for the greens he imported from Switzerland. For his private professional, he hired Leo Diegel, who later won the PGA Championship twice.
In the mid-'20s, McLean's newspaper was a somewhat neglected property and fourth in circulation among the five papers in Washington, despite the publisher's great wealth. I have a memory of the day I, as sports editor, was asked to deliver to a pier in New York four gross of Silver Kings, his favorite golf ball. He was about to sail to Europe and was having a special platform built on the upper deck from which he would practice his tee shots high above the Atlantic's blue waters.
In 1926, when the newspaper was selling for 2 cents, my pay in my new exalted position as sports editor was a handsome $50 a week. It was an amount considered quite munificent in the economy of those times. Congressmen and senators weren't pitching for any pay raise; they were highly content with their $10,000-a-year wage and fending off jealous candidates for their job.
It was a different Washington, D.C., then. The parking problem was nonexistent. Cars could park in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House as long as they didn't encroach on the streetcar tracks.
It was a sadly segregated Washington too. No newspaper bothered to cover games of the black high schools, and Howard University teams got scant notice. It was an inconceivable age when blacks were denied service in restaurants, admission to downtown movie theaters and white hotels, and there was almost a common acceptance of that condition that later would call forth such outrage. The civil rights movement was in its early, feeble stage. Once, after a delegation of black leaders visited the managing editor of The Post, he told me of their complaint: "They wanted The Post, when we used the word Negro in the future, to use it with a capital N."
At The Post in the 1920s, reporters on assignment first stopped by the city desk to be dished their transportation in the form of streetcar tokens. The taxi was considered a vulgar extravagance for working stiffs.
As the newly installed sports editor, I inherited a staff of seven, including myself. Everybody worked six days a week, and nobody tallied the hours. Everybody came in at 2 o'clock and checked out after midnight. There were no night games of any kind, but we had to scramble to fill the sports pages by deadline. The Associated Press and United Press weren't big on sports, so we had to hustle up our own stories. I was supposed to write six columns a week, and did for the next 30 years before cutting back to five.
It was more austere at The Post in the 1920s. I overdraw it not too much when I recall that we all but needed clearance from on high to make a long-distance call -- to Philadelphia.
In 1929, in one of my first hires, I had to stretch the budget a bit. When the entry-level salary for cub reporters was $20 a week, I outbid the State Department for Bob Considine. They were paying him $25 a week as a clerk-typist. I got him for $30 a week, with a special plea to the managing editor.
I had liked Considine's style when, as a stringer, he brought in typed reports of tennis tournaments in which he played. Cissy Patterson, publisher of the Washington Herald, one of our competitors, also liked his style. She hired him away from The Post, doubling his pay to $110 a week in 1933. That sum was difficult for us to ponder.
From the 1920s to the early 1940s, sports departments and sportswriting were not among the esteemed areas of journalism. Most editors and publishers regarded us as barely a cut above functional illiterates with little appreciation for niceties of the language. Grantland Rice, Westbrook Pegler and Heywood Broun were seen as rare exceptions. The accepted prototype of the sportswriter was an off-the-street guy who somehow landed in the sports department and had some command of the slang peculiar to the games. Anyway, the impression was that the sports pages weren't read by the sophisticated, so cheap help was in order.
It was sometimes a practice by other sections of newspapers to shunt their own incompetents, problem drinkers and budding louts into the sports sections as a means of cleaning house, always with the feeling that the standards of sportswriting would not be lowered. Sports departments sometimes resembled a John L. Lewis 101 Catch-All Union, a repository for those toilers unwelcome elsewhere.
Things, of course, got better, and in the 1940s we began to get respect. Publishers were learning that the best sports sections were the shortest cut to more circulation, that their readership was now more sophisticated and discriminating. There began a competition for better sportswriters, and the sports columnists often became an important presence on the newspaper. Sportswriters' salaries soared up, up and up, as they should have, and it is nice to know the bidding still goes on.
There are now more good sportswriters than ever, although I have noted a distressing new development in our craft: a trend toward the so-called new journalism -- drat Tom Wolfe. Okay, sportswriters no longer need to cram the who-what-when-where of a story into the opening paragraph, but neither do they need to affect the new breed's maundering effusions that add up to lengthy prologue before the readers get to the meat of the story. Too often they confuse the reader with their writing style, which often appears to be a calculated effort to avoid the subject.
IN THE SIMPLER TIMES OF THE 1920S, PUBLIC RELATIONS departments were unknown to major league baseball teams. A disciple of the direct approach was the late Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, who would phone the sports editor with the plea, "Gimme a headline tomorrow morning. Walter Johnson's pitching."
It is a remembered pride that The Post was the first newspaper in the nation to revolt against the longtime custom of accepting travel expenses from big league teams for their baseball writers. This rebellion occurred in 1924 and was the proclamation of my predecessor, Norman W. Baxter.
Baxter was an uncommon personality as a sports editor, a man of marked erudition with a background as a noted foreign correspondent with the Philadelphia Public Ledger, and there was always a curiosity as to why he descended to sportswriting. He taught many of us how to write better, how to be more honest. We should erect statues to him.
Washington in the 1920s had the Senators as its major sports interest but not an exclusive one. Georgetown had its famed track and football teams and was a national power. Grantland Rice would call the 1940 Georgetown-Boston College football game "the greatest game ever played." This was an unhappy 19-18 defeat for Georgetown at Fenway Park after Augie Lio's place kick gave Georgetown a 3-0 lead. Late in the game, BC was helped to the winning touchdown by an official's abysmal ruling of interference on a pass play that gave BC the ball deep in Georgetown territory. The official covering the play downfield saw nothing illegal. The call was made by the referee standing at midfield.
Both George Washington and Catholic University were fielding football teams in the middle 1930s, and one of their games made it into "Ripley's Believe It Or Not." CU quarterback Tom Whelan passed into the end zone. Babe Clapper of GW stupidly made a fist and batted it up, not down. Whelan caught the ball on the 20-yard line and scored with the pass he had just thrown.
It was always a festive event every year when the Quantico Marines played CU, bringing their bands, marching and such. One year when the Marines announced that their bulldog mascot, Mr. Jiggs, would be dropped by parachute onto the field between halves, an aroused SPCA complained to the secretary of war, who banned the stunt. But the Marines said they would disobey and dropped Jiggs as promised, with one Marine dashing to midfield to snatch him up before the authorities could get to the scene. Later, the jig was up, with the Marines explaining their parachutist was merely a splendid object of the taxidermist's art.
BOXING IN WASHINGTON WAS ILLEGAL UNTIL THE LATE 1930s, but it was conducted nevertheless on a floating crap-game basis, with arenas popping up here and there. A promoter named Frank Dane got away with holding two fights at the City Club, a G Street building between 12th and 13th streets. Dane maintained that the events were allowed by law since the City Club was a private club. On his third try, the captain of No. 1 Precinct climbed into the ring, said, "There'll be no fights tonight" and led Dane away to the District Jail, where he stayed a year.
This was the year before I was the sports editor, but as a young boxing fan I was attracted to Frank Dane and used to write his publicity for free, and when he was in jail I would bring him cigarettes and write the letters he asked me to write for him. He had difficulty with the language.
Later in the 1930s, when I was in Chicago traveling on the road with the Senators, the Chicago Tribune for some reason made mention that I was in town. I got a call, shortly, from Frank Dane. Let me explain that Frank Dane was not his real name, which was Italian, and that in the intervening years, I was to learn, he had become a big shot in the Chicago mob. And now he was saying on the phone, "Ah, Shirley, my frien', I am reading you are in Chicago and you will have dinner with me tonight, my frien', and I am sending a car for you and I will be glad to see you, my frien'."
His limo took me to a glittering downtown nightclub called the Ivanhoe, which was going full blast in the face of Prohibition. Dane was greeted so unctuously by the maitre d' and everybody else that I could see he was a certified big shot in Chicago.
At dinner's end, he said, "Shirley, you are my frien' and you tell me in Chicago what you want. You want a car? You want a driver? You want a girl? What you want, you tell me, you got it, my frien'."
When I advised him such was not required, he made his last gesture. Reaching into his pocket, he withdrew a gold-plated key, saying, "For you, Shirley, my frien', is something. For you, the master key to every pay toilet in Chicago." The mob had moved in on Chicago, even down to controlling the bathroom stalls. I still have that key.
MY FIRST IMPORTANT SPORTS STORY APPEARED IN THE POST on August 5, 1924. Bylines were not automatic in that era. Your name didn't go on a story unless the boss editor decided so. That night Norman Baxter said, "It's a nice story, Shirley. I'm going to put your name on it." My first byline. Wow, was I excited. I didn't wait for the proofs to show up from the composing room. I went down there to see for myself, to actually feel with my fingers the type that said "By Shirley Povich." Reading it, right to left as metal type must be read by an editor, was no problem. Those Hebrew lessons paid off.
In that pennant year in which the Senators went on to beat the Giants in the World Series, Washington had many sports high points, including the performance of the famed Walter Johnson and the Peck-to-Harris-to-Judge double-play combination that set records. But it also had Goose Goslin, who hit .344 that season and later told me, "I had that exaggerated, left-handed pull stance, and it made me a one-eyed hitter; I couldn't see past my big beak. If I coulda seen that pitch with both eyes, I coulda hit .600, maybe."
In celebration of the Senators' World Series victory, roaring crowds lined Pennsylvania Avenue for the parade to the White House and the reception by President Coolidge. The happy mood of the throng was best translated by the float representing the Cherrydale Fire Department and flaunting a banner that read: "Let Cherrydale Burn!"
IN THE 1920S AND '30S THERE WERE ALSO IN WASHINGTON indoor sports such as dice-throwing, poker games, blackjack and track odds on the races everywhere. One temple of chance, located in Bladensburg, just across the District line, was known as "Jimmy's"; it was impeccably conducted by the legendary Jimmy LaFontaine, who stood for no nonsense by anybody and was proud of a clientele that included many stylish Washington names.
At Jimmy's a huge fellow named Josh Licarione frisked everybody at the door to help keep the peace. Licarione, it seems, had played football for a time at George Washington University. The story goes that after an especially heroic victory at Griffith Stadium, the president of GW was overjoyed enough to visit the team in the locker room and not only praised the gladiators but continued on page 36 POVICH continued from page 25 told them, "Any of you boys who are in the vicinity of my office, come in and pass the time of day with me." That was when Licarione said, "By the way, where is that school of yours?"
GEORGE PRESTON MARSHALL
The games were being played at the Arcadia, a 2,000-seat gym upstairs over a market at 14th Street and Park Road, and on this particular night, glory be, Marshall's team had a one-point lead over the Celtics with only seconds to play. Horse Haggerty, under the Celtics' basket, was looking for a Washington player to in-bound the ball to when, suddenly, his old Celtic teammate, Nat Holman, psyched him. Breaking from mid-court, Holman circled under the basket, screaming, "Horse! Horse!" and Haggerty, conditioned by years of passing to Holman, succumbed. Like Pavlov's dog, he handed off to Holman for two points and game, Celtics.
CAME 1933 AND ANOTHER SENATORS' pennant, their third, under boy manager Joe Cronin. As usual, The Post's competitors, the Evening Star and the Times Herald, loaded up their sports pages with ghostwritten essays on the Series by Ty Cobb, John McGraw, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Tris Speaker and other luminaries, articles for which they paid handsomely. This was not The Post's custom.
By the summer of 1933, Eugene Meyer had bought the paper, and we now had resources. However, this young sports editor was not yet certain how much of Mr. Meyer's wealth was expendable on his newspaper, so we resorted to artifice. I was to compose a promotional plug for The Post's World Series coverage and emblazon it on the front of the sports section.
This was known as an office ad. These days, such a move would require the approval of the managing editor, the executive editor, perhaps the advertising director and the board of directors and conference calls. But in 1933 I could order it up without as much as an if-you-please, so this is what we touted: "The Post takes pleasure in announcing that Mathatma Gandhi, Aimee Semple McPherson, Col. Lindbergh, 'Machine Gun' Kelly and 'Sistie' Dall will not cover the world series for The Post . . .
"No ghost writers will haunt the pages of The Post. The spooks will be missing, but the facts will be there . . .
"Reach for a Post Instead of a Ghost." We were quite pleased.
Ghostwriting was not a wholly dishonorable profession, although sometimes there were extremes. I am reminded of the long train ride from New York to St. Louis during a World Series when writers were arranging the nightly poker game. For example, one busy ghostwriter who was typing byline articles for agent Christy Walsh's stable of baseball notables yelled, "Save me a seat! I've only got Frisch, Bottomley and Gehrig left." My favorite ghostwriter, however, was John Gilhooly of the Boston Hearst papers, who wrote for the morning paper under the name of Eddie Stanky. In the afternoon paper, under his own byline, he second-guessed the Stanky story he had written in the morning.
TODAY, IN WASHINGTON, THERE IS A waiting list of thousands wanting to buy Redskin tickets at $35 tops per game. Not so in 1937 when George Marshall brought the team here from Boston, where it was unloved. Asking the cooperation of Washington sports editors, Marshall said, "You boys have got to help me. I'm paying Sammy Baugh $5,000 to play quarterback, and I've got to put 12,000 fans in Griffith Stadium every game to break even." To help break even he priced the tickets at $1.50 a game. Season tickets covering the six home games could be had for $9, nearly the price of three beers at one of today's Redskins games.
Right away, the Redskins won the 1937 title, beating the Bears, 28-21, on an icy field in Chicago where Baugh threw three touchdown passes. The Post did not deluge the scene with reporters as is now the custom. I wrote the lead story, I wrote the play-by-play, and I also wrote the Povich column. And for the late edition I also ghosted the usual post-game views of Sammy Baugh. Just a night's work on the road. I did not feel abused.
By 1939, Redskin hysteria was such that 10,000 Washington fans rode the trains to New York for the game with the Giants, parading up Broadway behind the Redskins band. The game ended on a sour note, with the referee calling Bo Russell's last-minute field goal attempt no good, costing the Redskins a 9-7 defeat. Redskins fans, not all of them sober, piled onto the field and chased off the frightened referee. My mail following the game was a maelstrom of fury, but it included one confessional letter. It began like all the others. "We were robbed. I was sitting on the 50-yard line and the kick was good. I saw two balls and two sets of goal posts, and I'm damn sure one of them balls went through one set of them posts."
I was a witness to a footnote to history at one Redskins game. This was December 7, 1941, when the Redskins were to play the Eagles. My neighbor in the press box, Associated Press reporter Pat O'Brien, was handed a note by his Morse code operator just before the kickoff. "Keep it short," it read. An indignant O'Brien said, "I've been covering these games for five years, and nobody tells me how much to write." He told his operator to find out who was sending silly notes. Back came the message, "The Japs have kicked off." O'Brien now demanded, "Who's playing games?" Over the wire came the explanation, "The Japs have just bombed Pearl Harbor."
Then began to come the puzzling but ominous announcements over the loud speakers: "Mr. J. Edgar Hoover will report to his office . . ." "Admiral so-and-so and General so-and-so will report to their office." Dozens of important people were being summoned, but George Marshall had his priorities. He wouldn't permit public announcement of the Pearl Harbor bombing, later explaining it would have distracted the crowd from the game. The fans learned we were about to be at war when, on exiting the park, they encountered newsboys yelling "Extra" and flaunting the big headlines.
WHEN BOXING WAS LEGALIZED HERE, Washington became a prominent fight town. The champions came running toward the solid gates that promoters Joe Turner and Goldie Ahearn were generating. Sugar Ray Robinson fought here. So did Rocky Graziano and Henry Armstrong, each three times, and Floyd Patterson. Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis himself defended their world titles here.
After his retirement from boxing, Ahearn operated a restaurant under his name on Connecticut Avenue, which became a popular downtown restaurant. Ahearn, a well-known malapropist, commissioned a huge mural depicting boxing scenes, which covered two walls. To a chap not yet his client, Ahearn said, "You ought to come up and see my muriel."
In May 1941, when the Joe Louis-Buddy Baer fight was announced for Griffith Stadium, I hastily wrote an indignant column that screamed "Mismatch!," adding that "it smelled of the fish wharves." For this I was roundly complimented by Casey Jones, then the managing editor, who said, "That's the kind of stuff I want to see in the paper."
Came fight night, and I and my typewriter were at ringside, practically on the apron of the ring. And then so was Joe Louis. Buddy Baer had knocked him through the ropes in the first round, almost in my lap. I swear that, while sprawled, Louis was looking at me in full recognition that I was the guy who had called it a mismatch. Not only could I have eaten my words, but I also could have munched on Louis himself. He got up to stop Baer with the help of a sympathetic referee, who ruled that Louis hadn't fouled Baer with a punch in the sixth while Baer was still on one knee. It was brutally unfair.
IT WAS GOOD TO BE A SPORTSWRITER. You could witness history. I speak of April 17, 1953, in Griffith Stadium. Babe Ruth never did it, Jimmy Foxx never did it, Hank Greenberg never did it. It was never done until Mickey Mantle waylaid a Chuck Stobbs fastball and blasted it far over the concrete bleachers in left-center field where no ball had ever been knocked before. It was the first tape-measure home run, assayed at 565 feet. When one writer attempted to denigrate the wallop by remarking to Clark Griffith that a bit of a wind was blowing in that direction, the Senators' owner harrumphed, "Consarn it, that same wind has been blowing for a hundred years, and nobody else ever hit one over that wall."
I might even say that the 1950s were, for me, an epochal decade. In 1958, in the first-ever volume of Who's Who in American Women, I was included. They simply excerpted my re'sume' from Who's Who in America, blithely ignoring that I was described therein as the father of three and husband of one. When the publishers apologized, I told them I was not in a dither, that I was hearing this was no longer a man's world and I was proud to be on the winning side. In the next year's edition, those snobs dropped me, like they used to do in the New York Social Register if you married a stripper.
And how many can truthfully say they actually heard a to-be-famous phrase actually enter the language? I did. This was during the 1934 World Series on a cold, blustery day in Detroit. Standing behind me in the upstairs press box was Joe Jacobs, a Damon Runyon character and manager of boxer Max Schmeling. He didn't like baseball much, but the World Series was a place to be seen. Now he was stomping his feet in the chill and drawing his topcoat tighter about him, shivering and unhappy. That's when he muttered to me and my press-box neighbor Paul Gallico, "I shoulda stood in bed."
Those were some of the times that were, and these are some of the memories.
Shirley Povich is sports editor emeritus of The Post.
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