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  •   The Povich Touch

    By Bill Gilbert
    Friday, June 12, 1998; Page A27

    On a March day in 1944, the last full year of World War II, a skinny, freckle-faced, blond boy, not yet a teenager, asked Shirley Povich for his autograph. He got much more — a professional career and a lifetime friendship.

    Povich was captivated by the kid's enthusiasm for baseball, Shirley's own favorite sport. Before the '44 season was over, Povich was picking the boy up in Silver Spring and driving him to and from Griffith Stadium. There he would slip the kid through the press gate with a wink at the attendant and the simple explanation, "He's with me."

    I was that kid.

    Three years later, he hired me as a summer copy boy on The Post's sports staff without my asking him to, a job I have always suspected didn't exist before my arrival. When I was married and he couldn't make it to the wedding, there was a telegram from him waiting for me at the church saying he was in New England covering the Harvard-Yale football game. When Lillian and I returned from our honeymoon, there was a lovely gift from him.

    When my father died, Shirley was at his wake. When the priest prepared to lead the mourners in reciting the Rosary, Shirley chose to stay. He stood next to me throughout the recitation. The next morning, when I arrived at Nativity Church on 13th Street, Shirley was the first person I saw.

    When I went into the Air Force, he threw a farewell party for me and said he felt as if he were saying goodbye to his own son, any father's highest compliment. When I told him I would love to work for our new baseball team, the 1961 Washington Senators, he helped me get the job. And when he decided to write his autobiography, "All These Mornings," in 1969, he honored me by selecting me to work with him on the book.

    This is only one person's story. Shirley touched lives too numerous to count in ways too many to describe here, with his thoughtfulness, his favors solicited and unsolicited, his genuineness and the wisdom of his counsel.

    Martie Zad, The Post's assistant TV editor and formerly its sports editor, remembers an example of the Povich genuineness, when Martie was given the snooty treatment by one of Washington's grand dames of high society at The Post's annual Celebrities Golf Tournament for charity.

    Povich, who detested phony airs, said to Zad, "Tomorrow when you go out there to cover her for the final round, you tell her that Shirley Povich remembers when her family was sleeping three to a bed."

    I heard the Povich counsel firsthand when he told me in my years as a young Post reporter, "Always remember, Bill, the story has never been written that couldn't have been written better." As for his award-winning writing, he told me that he was always trying to improve his columns and news stories as he wrote them. He said, "I write in a state of perpetual discontent."

    And there is at least one more classic piece of Povich prose that should be added to those quoted in the paper and at his funeral. When a former Air Force general, Elwood Quesada, was given the gate following the 1962 season after only two years as president of the expansion Senators, Povich wrote, "It was France's Clemenceau who once observed, 'War is too important to be entrusted to generals.' So, perhaps, is baseball."

    There is a story behind the famous opening paragraph of his article on Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series, when he wrote, "The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar . . .

    That Povich insistence on striving for excellence gripped him as he sat in the Yankee Stadium press box after the last out. He was aware of the magnitude of what he had just witnessed, and he demanded of himself that he do it justice. The result was that paragraph above.

    But it didn't come easy to him, just as he always told us younger staff members. Good writing, he said, was hard work. On the Larsen story, he told me later, "I stared at that white sheet of paper in my typewriter for so long that snow blindness threatened to set in."

    His second paragraph in that story never gets quoted, in which he wrote that Larsen's achievement was one of "solo grandeur." That is a perfect description of the game Shirley had just watched, and of the life he led.

    Bill Gilbert is a writer and a former reporter for The Post.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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