By: Ed Zintel
Maybe it’s because I was a sportswriter for some 25 years but I take sports writing seriously. The sports page is the first I turn to when I pick up the morning paper. Always has been, always will be.
I don’t mean to say that I want all my sports journalism to be serious. I want it to be entertaining as well as informative. Is that so much to ask?
Look, I grew up reading the late Jim Murray. He was the sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times from 1961-98, and I can’t imagine anyone arguing that he wasn’t the best sports columnist ever. Murray was the reason I became a journalist in the first place, and why I took to sports writing in particular. He won 14 sportswriter of the year awards and the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, but that doesn’t tell the greatness of Murray and why we miss his writing. It was his good-natured wit and ability to turn a phrase that we miss and that seems to be so scarce in today’s sports writing.
I won’t ever forget some of Murray’s one-liners, like this one when he wrote of the Indianapolis 500 auto race: “Gentlemen, start your coffins.” Or, when he wrote that baseball player Rickey Henderson “has a strike zone the size of Hitler’s heart.” And this one, when writing about the late UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: “Coach was so square, he was divisible by four.”
There have been Murray imitators (former Sports Illustrated and now ESPN.com columnist Rick Reilly comes to mind), but no one I can think of comes even close to having the sports writing skills of Murray.
Certainly, there have been wonderfully gifted sports writers in the past and some good ones are still at it. Naturally, Red Smith, who, for some four decades from the 1940s through the ‘70s set the standard for great sports writing is at the top of that list. We’re all familiar with this quote: “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.” In 1949, Walter Winchell wrote: “(Red) Smith was asked if writing a daily column was a difficult task. ‘Why, no,’ Smith said. ‘You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.’ ”
Oh, if it was only that easy.
I think Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post and George Vecsey of the New York Times are among the very few who seem to care about how they write as much as about what they write. But the list of really good sports writers after that is a very short one. Sure, there are other fine, even great, sports writers still out there such as Frank Deford, Dan Jenkins, John Feinstein, Mike Lupica and Peter Gammons. But most of them have gone on to write books and are no longer regular newspaper writers or columnists.
I hope that someday again we’ll be blessed with another Jim Murray. Until then, I’ll just reminisce about the good old days and Murray lines like this one, when he wrote of another notoriously mean and grouchy man, Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes: “Woody was consistent. Graceless in victory and graceless in defeat.”
There is a lot of great sports writing today, and a lot of equally bad, formula writing as well. Mike Woods (Appleton Post-Crescent) is one of the best I’ve read. His piece on Dick Bennett’s two gay brothers, or his piece on Dave Mader’s best performance (stopping a friend on campus from committing suicide) are among the best I’ve read anywhere. Anyone who wants to be a sportswriter needs to read Gary Cartwright’s “Confessions of a Washed-Up Sportwriter.” Between the humor there is a great deal of critical wisdom.
Good and bad out there
I am a journalism professor. I teach Sports Journalism. I’ve also written longform sports journalism for sites like SBNation Longform, Yahoo!’s The Post Game and Sports On Earth. There is more quality sports journalism being produced in a single day now there was in entire years during the time-frame you’re talking about. Open your eyes. Open a Web browser. Read Grantland and SBNation Longform and ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated Longform and Best American Sports Writing and about a million other sites and publications. Read Wright Thompson. Read Thomas Lake. Read Bryan Phillips. Read Chris Ballard. Read JR Moehringer. Read Michael Mooney. I could go on and on and on and on. This only thing this editorial shows is that you don’t actually read sports journalism anymore. Or that you’re incredibly bad at choosing the type that you do read. Let you know when the days of great sports writing return? Dude. You’re living in the golden age and you didn’t even know it.
You’re joking, right?
LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOOLOLOLOLOLOLOLLLLLL Lupica! Bahahaha good god man THERE’S A WHOLE OCEAN OF GREAT SPORTSWRITING UNDER YOUR FEET
I grew up on the writings of Prescott Sullivan in the San Francisco Examiner in the d’50’s and mid-60’s. I lived in Los Angeles in the first few years Murray began writing for the Times. The one column I remember well was when Alabama won its first national football title in 1963, I believe, when the first line of his column read – National champions! Of what – the South? It prompted me to write him a letter stating that indeed Alabama was the appropriate national champion despite having a segregated team (which was Murrary’s bone of contention). I offered the suggestion that the country had very little time to be concerned about segregated teams from the South and when the South integrated their football teams, they would be that much better on the field. Murray dismissed my letter as I was only a college freshman but as a player on an integrated team in the Los Angeles area and seeing the trends coming down the pike in America, I knew it wouldn’t be more than a few years until the SEC saw fit to integrate their teams. It came true and under the leadership of Bear Bryant and others, we have what we have today.