Longtime New York Times columnist Dave Anderson knew how to turn up the heat if needed. He did it firmly, but with no personal edge. (Barton Silverman/New York Times)
Columnist

Dave Anderson was playing golf in Greenville, S.C., on the Monday after the Masters with a bunch of other golf writers in 1981 when news got to the Chanticleer Golf Club that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

However, Dave didn’t get the news first. How could journalists pass up such a chance for a practical joke — and a better story?

Dan Foster, a sports columnist in Greenville, had set up the outing at his home course and got the call about the Pulitzer from the New York Times, including instructions that Anderson was simply to call the office, not be told of the prize. Dave trudged to the phone, assuming again this meant more work, less golf.

“That was the only time Dave ever chose to put his clubs in the car and go to an airport,” said Dave Kindred, one of Dave’s best golf and sportswriting buddies.

For the rest of his life, Foster told the story of how his New York columnist buddy had gotten the surprise word while playing golf in a somewhat-smaller town. Everybody loved to hear the story because everybody loved Dave.

“Now I know what the lead of my obit will be” was the only Pulitzer comment we could ever get out of Anderson, who died Thursday at 89.

However, there was no “story” about Dave’s reaction in the instant that he learned he had won. That’s because the notion of Anderson celebrating himself — jumping or yelling with joy because he had been acclaimed — is inconceivable. He probably would have been a lot more excited if he had gotten back-to-back birdies. Not prouder but more visibly excited. By disposition and choice, Anderson lived an anecdote-lite life. Married, four children, modest, just shot another 86.

In the retelling, the Pulitzer story was always about how happy everybody else was for Dave. In a way, he represented every normal person who ever became a sportswriter but didn’t think he or she was the next colorful rich-and-famous off-to-Broadway Ring Lardner or Damon Runyan.

Instead, he worked up every rung of the journalism ladder, never expecting anything like a Pulitzer, always doing a scrupulously accurate and fair job, never exaggerating bad news or attacking character, unless the character was late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner III, who was big enough to take care of himself.

There’s a temptation to say they don’t make ’em like Anderson anymore: straight shooter, more passionate about the details of his subjects’ lives than seeing his own face on TV. But that’s not true. They still do. Journalism has always attracted all kinds, those understated like Dave and those at home with celebrity.

Perhaps it’s closer to the truth to say Anderson was the best of a breed. In a 60-some-year career, he may never have made a factual flub that was big enough to be remembered or do anyone harm. While covering his time’s biggest events, no deadline or subject threw him off balance enough to step out of bounds.

Anderson grew up in Brooklyn, dreaming of being a writer, specifically a sportswriter like his New York-market heroes, rather than an athlete. The story goes that he was the last sports reporter to leave Ebbets Field in 1957 when the Dodgers skipped to Los Angeles. He never lost his mild surprise that he got to do such a job all his life. In his 80s, he said he still got a kick out of seeing his pieces published.

Watching Dave work was a pleasure. The dignity, the genial seriousness, the mutual respect with which he conducted an interview never prevented him from turning up the heat if needed. He did it firmly but with no personal edge.

Dave was a generation older than me and eventually a direct competitor for many years because we both loved and covered a lot of baseball, pro football, golf and boxing. As an out-of-towner, I had an advantage over New York writers who covered the Yankees during all the Bronx Zoo years, when Reggie Jackson, five-times-fired Yankees manager Billy Martin and Steinbrenner always brawled. Players tended to think the reporters on the beat were the problem, not just the chroniclers. So I got “inside” Yankees stories because they thought I could at least be neutral.

Only one New York columnist, as I remember, was so fair, so amused by the battles and so good at expressing the subtleties of Yankees guerrilla warfare that all sides trusted him and many confided in him. When Dave showed up, my lucky built-in edge disappeared. The experience was annoyingly similar with Jack Nicklaus, Sugar Ray Leonard and others.

In appreciations of Anderson this week, you can read tons of verbal hugs. That’s because Dave may hold one sportswriting record that may never be broken: most liked by the most people for the best reasons.

We all will have different reasons to see him backlit with a generous glow. My first memory after hearing of his death was of a round of golf at a little-known course, Kingsbarns, just a few miles down the road from St. Andrews. You drive past Pitmilly, where a former estate was owned for seven centuries by a family named Moneypenny. You think Ian Fleming dreamed up all those names?

Dave knew the pro at a course where nobody had ever played. Who didn’t he know? Our group was the first ever to play the course. (Of course, we paid.) The day was like playing on a moonscape. Dave sensed the look was the next wave in course design. Kingsbarns is now rated the world’s 64th-best course.

In contrast to such nice memories, Dave deserves to have friends who will admit we also hated the sight of him. We overlapped as columnists at the Times and The Washington Post for more than 20 years. It made my day, personally, to see Dave, with his quiet good cheer, in the press box. We shared bad meals and good laughs.

But it also ruined my day to wonder what he was up to, who was his latest source, what angle he had cooked up or what strongly reported and principled position he had decided to take in the Times on a hot topic.

Rule one: He was always going to try to “out-hour” and out-report you.

Dave’s gracious personality — his warmth and concern for others, his help for young journalists, the way he improved the mood of any room — is going to get a lot of attention. But don’t forget that he was extremely talented, tough when he needed to be and on top of every subject he covered.

Nobody in sportswriting deserves to be appreciated more than Dave. That he never asked for high regard but simply earned it is just another reason.