A Gentleman's Gentleman, a Pro's Prose
Washington Post Columnist
Saturday, June 6, 1998; Page D01
Six or seven years ago Sports Illustrated named its all-time baseball team. Some of the most revered names in baseball history were on it: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays. I decided to write a column about the accuracy of the selections. And who better to talk to than Shirley Povich, who had seen all of them play?
I named the position players, and then told Shirley that Christy Mathewson was chosen as the right-handed pitcher.
Shirley was outraged.
"Walter Johnson crushed Christy Mathewson," he said.
I told him I wondered about the left-handed pitcher. "They picked Warren Spahn," I said, "but I was thinking maybe it would be Sandy Koufax."
Shirley shook his head disapprovingly. His clear choice was Lefty Grove, and he started to explain.
"I was talking to Walter Johnson once. . . . " he began.
Time out! He was talking to Walter Johnson. Walter Johnson was born in 1887. His first year in the majors was 1907. They called him "Big Train," presumably because planes weren't invented yet.
"You talked to Walter Johnson?" I stammered. And I started grinning.
Shirley continued: ". . . . And Walter said to me, 'Shirley, that Feller kid is fast. But not as fast as Lefty Grove.'"
That Feller kid?
Feller will be 80 this year.
Almost everyone was a kid to Shirley. He was 92. The famous Dempsey-Tunney "Long Count" fight that took place in 1927? Shirley covered it. He covered Connie Mack. He covered Sammy Baugh. He covered Babe Ruth. (During one rare World Series the Yankees weren't in Shirley sat in the next seat over from Ruth in the press box. Ruth was there "covering" the Series for a New York paper. I try to imagine The Babe leaning over and saying, "Shirley, should I go with an adjective here, or an adverb?")
To Shirley's everlasting credit, he also covered Cal Ripken, Evander Holyfield and Norv Turner. Shirley may have had one eye on the past, but he always kept both feet in the present. A few months ago at a luncheon honoring his 75th year of writing at The Washington Post, Shirley acknowledged what he had learned from young Tiger Woods: "I realized I've been standing much too close to my tee shot after I've hit it."
I have been blessed in my career to have worked alongside the two finest sports columnists of all time, Red Smith and Shirley Povich. I worked with Red at The New York Times, and with Shirley at The Post. They were elegant writers and urbane men, impeccably dressed and unfailingly polite. Gentlemen and scholars. Their skills with words and logic were so sharp that when they took you apart in print, you never felt the blade, you only saw the blood.
I adored them both, and tried to copy their styles. People often said, correctly, that I couldn't even carry their typewriters. But in fact I have. There were days when I carried Red's typewriter up the steps to the press box in Yankee Stadium and Shea. I have carried Shirley's typewriter out to the car from the press box at the Preakness and RFK. I felt honored to do it.
People often ask sportswriters about the athletes they have met, and the games they have seen. People want you to share the secrets and explain the magic of sports. And they always ask: What was your greatest thrill?
Mine came three years ago, the night Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played. Oh, the game was great. And it was a perfect touch that Cal hit a homer, and took that unforgettable victory lap. The spontaneous warmth of the moment, the smiles on the faces of everyone in the park, the sense of the bond between Cal and the fans the sense that this reciprocal joy was what sports used to be, and should be again all that gives me chills still.
But the great thrill for me that night was sitting next to Shirley Povich in the press box. There were two people in Camden Yards that night who had been in Yankee Stadium for Lou Gehrig's farewell in 1939 Joe DiMaggio, who was Gehrig's teammate at the time, and Shirley, who was there to write. Now, close to 50 years later they were back in a ballpark to see Ripken surpass The Iron Horse.
I was on Shirley's right. Michael Wilbon was on his left. We are incessant yakkers, Wilbon and I. Usually, if we're in Baltimore, you can hear us on K Street. But on this night we were spellbound in silence listening to Shirley talk about Gehrig and Ruth and DiMaggio. It was an oral history of the golden age of baseball.
Everything about that night was collectible, you may recall: Special souvenir tickets they didn't rip, special souvenir programs, even special game balls with special orange stitching and a special "Streak Week" logo imprint.
Late in the game, someone hit a foul ball back to the press box. I saw it heading right at Shirley, and reached for it. Fortunately, it missed Shirley, and landed softly in Wilbon's ample stomach. Wilbon held it aloft, to the cheers of the writers, and was stuffing it in his bag when our sports editor, George Solomon, suggested to him that Shirley might want one of these special baseballs as a souvenir considering Shirley was at Gehrig's last game.
Wilbon happily agreed, and handed Shirley the ball.
Shirley put it in his suitcoat pocket, and watched the rest of the game and much of the postgame ceremony. Around midnight he and George left Camden Yards to go back to Washington. I was finished writing then, and I walked with them out to the parking lot. There, Shirley took the ball out of his pocket, and with a motion practiced over almost 90 years, he began flipping the ball gently up and down with his left hand. And in that clear late summer night, with that souvenir baseball in his hand, and a spring in his step, Shirley Povich was forever young.
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