During the 1930s, when Frank Graham Jr. was a boy, kids by the millions doubtless would have leaped at the chance to swap places with him. Why? Because his father was a sports columnist for the New York Sun, and young Frank hung around Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden the way most kids hung around the neighborhood candy store.
He was a lucky fellow: "I attended the fights regularly, played sandlot ball wearing Lou Gehrig's glove, and displayed in my room a collection of autographed baseballs, footballs and photographs." Yes, you read it correctly: Lou Gehrig's glove. Most kids, should they have been presented with Larrupin Lou's mitt, would have put it under glass, made it the centerpiece of a small altar, and charged admission; but Frank Jr. was so used to being in the company of the gods that he simply took the thing out to the field and gave it more wear and tear.
To his credit, hanging around the likes of Gehrig and Babe Ruth -- and, later in his life, Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider -- does not seem to have gone to Graham's head. "A Farewell to Heroes," which is part autobiography and part tribute to his father, is modest and engaging. It rambles this way and that and has no clear focus, but it's still a nice book.
Its real hero is Frank Graham Sr. He was born in Harlem in 1893, worked for awhile for the telephone company and frequented the boxing clubs and baseball parks; eventually, in 1914, he landed at the Sun, where he stayed for three decades. As a columnist, he was a reporter: "He wanted to reproduce, as accurately as possible, everyday scenes from the sports that interested him." In Red Smith's view:
"Quietly, perhaps without ever knowing it, he brought about a revolution in the approach to, and technique of, writing a sports column in this country. Gradually editorial opinion gave way to reporting, to conversation pieces and interviews and 'mood' pieces that strove to capture for the reader the color and flavor and texture of the event. No other sportswriter in Frank's lifetime exerted such effect on his own business. None was imitated so widely, or so unsuccessfully."
His son's view is agreeably prejudiced, of course, but Graham Sr. seems to have been admired as much for his personal qualities as for his professional skills. On the evidence of the columns that Graham Jr. reprints -- and he gives a generous selection of them -- he had a good ear for conversation and was able to get athletes to talk easily, which in and of itself is something of an art.
As a husband and the father of four children, of whom Frank Jr. is the eldest, he seems to have been equally accomplished. His business kept him away from the house a good deal, but when he was around he was attentive and devoted, and he often took his wife and one or more of the children along with him to ballgames and prizefights. He had a particular affection for boxing, and conveyed it to his son:
"Much of my father's passion for sports was sustained by this world of petty larceny, derring-do, vanished arenas, gallant banditti, high courage, well-nursed vendettas and other trappings of romance retrieved through the golden filters of memory and handed down by the eyewitnesses themselves. The contest swelled in interest as it reflected and amplified a rich past. The anecdotes of old-timers, even the bland dressing-room chatter of the athletes, were freighted with reference to other times, other places. Like the sound of the wind in the rigging of an ancient mariner, the thud of a gloved fist against bone and muscle had the ability to summon up instantly for my father this pageant of heroes and rascals."
This love for sport and its people was communicated to Frank Jr. to such an extent that he followed more or less in his father's footsteps. He began in the public relations department of the Brooklyn Dodgers, hanging around with the "boys of summer." When he tired of that he went free-lance, writing magazine articles and a number of books.
He wrote one article that he'd gladly take back: an "expose'" for the Saturday Evening Post of alleged game-fixing involving Bear Bryant, football coach at Alabama, and Wally Butts, athletic director at Georgia. Both men sued for libel; Butts won a large judgment, and Bryant settled out of court. Graham represents himself as a victim of sloppy editing; whatever the case, the whole business left him with a sour taste that he has not yet expunged.
But for his father, his feelings are uniformly tender and sunny. The most touching moment in the book comes when his father's first book, "Lou Gehrig: A Quiet Hero," is published:
"I suppose that before the book's publication, I had seen my father as a kind of animated recording device, a lovable but anonymous scribe who set down mechanically for the Sun's readers the exploits of people who led exciting and glamorous lives. Now, for the first time, I began to realize that he was a personality himself, a man whose life was every bit as interesting, and probably more satisfying, than the people he wrote about. In my daydreams I had always been the Yankees' first baseman, or a triple-threat halfback at Yale, or the middleweight champion of the world. But now, slowly, the focus of my daydreams began to shift; sometimes another scenario would take over, and for a few minutes I would become the writer of a popular newspaper column or the author of a book as good as 'Lou Gehrig: A Quiet Hero.' "
And now he has.