What Happened to the Great Sports Writer?

There was a time when the New York Times was a carefully edited and well written newspaper. But here is a sentence I noticed the other day in a Times baseball news story: “Rivera, as he often does, did not allow a base runner.” What? Just pause a minute and try to parse that one. Maybe Yogi Berra wrote that line. Or maybe the person—I will not name him—who wrote that stunner cannot write or even think. Yogi once said, “No one goes to that restaurant anymore. It’s too crowded.” But Yogi never wrote for the Times.

One wonders whether any one read the Rivera line before the paper let it be published. What has happened to the ancient role of the copy editor?  I remember as a college student writing weekly articles for the local Pittsfield paper, The Berkshire Eagle, reporting on Williams football games. I learned a lot about writing from editing sessions I endured with a wonderfully talented and generous editor named Roger O’Gara, long gone to the real big leagues, who taught me to consider carefully the importance of each word. He explained the cost of type setting each word was considerable and especially warned me against the overuse of the word “that.” Ever since, I have faithfully tried to eliminate superfluous words in an essay. To me, his editing was a priceless gift and I am grateful to Roger for taking the time to counsel a young man who wanted to learn to write well.

There was a time when the sports pages of the daily newspapers were the site of some truly glorious writers including two of my favorites, Red Smith and Shirley Povich. Two examples will demonstrate what gems these great men were capable of producing. In 1981, baseball was in the midst of one of the early and prolonged strikes in baseball, as the players union under the eminent Marvin Miller was challenging the commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the owners. Smith, who had a constitutional distaste for owners and arrogant commissioners, wrote a bitter column lamenting the disruption of the season. His dismissal line was: “If Bowie Kuhn were still alive this would not be happening.” That line trailed behind Bowie like an angry bill collector.

As for the marvelous Shirley Povich whom I knew a bit and loved, his daily column in the Washington Post became one of its strongest assets and he had enormous influence in the capital. In the 50’s when racial integration was slowly coming to Washington, Povich aggressively pressured  the Redskins to bring black players to the team. Stubbornly, the owner, George Preston Marshall, refused to hire black players and cottoned out to the old southern attributes of some locals. One fall Sunday, the Cleveland Browns came to town led by Jim Brown, the running back now widely considered to be the finest player in the history of the game. In no surprise, the Browns crushed the Redskins as Brown scored three touchdowns. The next day, Povich led his column with this line—he later agreed it was among his finest—“Yesterday Jimmy Brown integrated the Redskins end zone three times.” Within a few months, Marshall caved and brought running back Bobby Mitchell to the Redskins. Words do have power and Povich was a powerful force for many years in the Post.

To me, an old man, there are few things as lovely as a finely written essay. I follow closely what the luminous Joseph Epstein writes and from time to time I make a habit of rereading the essays of E.B. White. His step son Roger Angell is a worthy heir to that genius in the New Yorker but one has to look diligently in the sports pages for the successors to Smith and Povich. Tom Boswell at the Washington Post and George Vecsey at the Times are among the very few who seem to care about how they write as much as about what they write. When I find a well-crafted sentence or the use of just the perfect word I want to applaud. I just wish there were a few copy editors who cared about our lovely language. Remember the line of Evelyn Waugh as he wrote of his distaste for the work of fellow writer Stephen Spender. “To see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.” So there.

Fay Vincent is a former CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries and from 1989-92 served as the Commissioner of Baseball.