An Immeasurable Resource, Typing Away in the Century's Press Box
Washington Post Columnist
Sunday, June 7, 1998; Page D7
SALT LAKE CITY I was a rookie reporter the first time I met Shirley Povich, so it must have been in July of 1980. And since I didn't yet have a car, he was giving me a ride to Capital Centre for a closed-circuit viewing of a Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran fight. I was assigned to write a story about the reaction of local fans, and was clearly scared to death. And Shirley said, "Kid, it's natural to be nervous, don't worry about it. . . . I remember the first fight I ever covered . . ." During what couldn't have been more than a two-second pause, to give me a little chance to guess, I prepared myself for, say, Joe Louis-Max Schmeling.
Shirley continued. "It was Dempsey-Tunney in 1927, the Long Count Fight."
I was dumbfounded the rest of the night; awe completely replaced my own silly fears. And so, like everybody else who ever dreamed of making a living being a sportswriter, I idolized Shirley Povich, loved him, treasured him, pinched myself that he knew my name and that I got to sit next to him at games, genuflected every single encounter with him which would be hundreds without exception. He wanted young writers to treat him like everybody else, and I'll admit I couldn't, and every year he lived it became less possible.
I didn't grow up in Washington, so I didn't grow up reading Shirley, and it's a hole I'll never be able to fill. But periodically, something would happen and you'd realize his impact over time on the community, on sportswriting, on reading. My favorite night in my professional life came when Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's streak. I sat next to Shirley in the press box at Camden Yards. I should have been made to pay to sit there. Before the game started, a woman came up to the open windows of the press box and pulled out one of those wool pennants, all yellowed and limp, for Shirley to autograph. She explained that her grandfather had been at Gehrig's final game. The Iron Horse's signature was on that pennant. Ripken's signature was on that pennant. There might have been somebody else in the world who was at both of those games, but her grandfather knew of only one for sure: Shirley Povich.
It's ironic that in the most transient town in America, there was one clear voice that influenced Washington from Prohibition to the Great Depression to World War II to Vietnam to Watergate: Shirley's. And if you were black in Washington, you were lucky enough to benefit from two unmistakable voices, Shirley's and Sam Lacy's in the African-American newspapers. Sam Lacy is 94, writing every week like Shirley was, and playing golf whenever possible, as Shirley did. A phone call from either to say you did a "good job" has been the most treasured approval imaginable.
Friday night here at the NBA Finals, writers who work in Washington or grew up there just sort of collected, as if through some force of nature. Bryan Burwell, one of my closest friends who is a reporter for Turner Sports after spending years as a sports columnist, said, "I got to read Shirley for 38 years, beginning when I was 5 years old, and that means I still missed his first 38. I think the first thing I read, after I actually learned how to read, was Shirley's column, 'This Morning.'‚"
Tom Friend, who writes for ESPN magazine and who once covered the Redskins for The Post, remembered calling Shirley on the phone one night because he was doing a high school book report on a book Povich had written. "I just called him out of the blue, and asked about the book," Friend said. "Then, I asked him where I should go to college, what I should major in. . . . And you know until this day it amazes me he was just listed in the phone book and I could just call him up."
It wasn't so much specific advice we remember, it was just the way he lived and carried himself every day. He and Lacy never had to dispense wisdom, they oozed it. They wrote their convictions, even if unpopular. Friend said, "My favorite lead on any column in my life is from, I think it was 1963, when Shirley began his column, 'Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, intergrated their end zone three times yesterday.'‚" They were able to view the world critically, but never turned into cynics, which is undoubtedly why they've been held in such high esteem by the people they covered.
So we sat around telling Shirley stories for an hour. All we needed was a campfire. There was the time he wrote a column about being a kid growing up in Maine, a huge Red Sox fan. And during some World Series I guess it was 1916 he and his best friend went down to the dock to wait for the newspapers the next day to find out who won the game, because this was brace yourself before radio.
There was the time all the baseball writers went nuts because Roger Clemens got kicked out of a playoff game in 1990 for arguing balls and strikes, which the shortsighted seamheads said was unprecedented in playoff history. Except Shirley came back the next day and wrote about how virtually the same thing had happened to Walter Johnson in the 1924 World Series. Shirley went back and got his own clips, which included Johnson telling him . . .
Go ahead, finish that sentence: Walter Johnson told me . . . Babe Ruth told me . . . Jack Dempsey told me . . . Jackie Robinson told me.
We could never make a big deal out of this stuff around Shirley because he wouldn't have it. But one day I slipped up and I asked him, "Shirley, do you have any idea how we freak out when you say, 'Babe Ruth and I were on the train to Chicago once and . . .'‚"
And he said, "It's only time. In 50 years, some young fellow is going to point at you and say, 'See that old coot over there, he knew Michael Jordan.' And you're going to think, 'What's the big deal?'‚"
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company