By: Mark Fitzgerald
Let’s get right to point, since that’s what famed baseball writer Jerome Holtzman does in the very first line of his new book. So who was ? or is ? the best sportswriter ever?
Jimmy Cannon, he writes in Jerome Holtzman On Baseball: A History of Baseball Scribes. The columnist for the old New York City Hearst papers edges out, in Holtzman’s opinion, the more honored Red Smith, who came to fame at the New York Herald Tribune. Both lead a field of great sportswriters that includes Grantland Rice, Shirley Povich, John Tunis, Jim Murray, John Carmichael, and Melvin Durslag.
In a conversation from his Evanston, Ill., home, Holtzman says no one was more influential on sportswriting than Cannon, and that’s why he must be considered the best: “Most working sportswriters agree with me, but the people who are not working sportswriters, but literary sportswriters, they don’t agree. They like Red Smith.”
Many a Chicago reader, of course, might include Holtzman himself on their lists of the best baseball writer. He spent 38 years writing about America’s pastime for the Chicago Sun-Times, then moved to the Chicago Tribune for another 18 years before retiring in 1999. He was inducted into the writer’s wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1990, and nine years later named the first-ever official historian for Major League Baseball.
Holtzman is the author of the classic work of sports journalism No Cheering in the Press Box. He says he had a modest goal in writing this new book, published by SportsPublishing LLC: “I just thought there were some things that I knew about sportswriting and sportswriters that should be recorded for the next generation.”
In the book, Holtzman distinguishes between what he calls the “Gee Whiz” sportswriters and the “Aw, Nuts” ones ? and makes it clear which school he belongs to. “The starry-eyed scribes, innocents, believe the ballplayers are among their best friends,” he writes. Holtzman doesn’t. On the other hand, he writes that he’s proud he never called for a manager to be fired. “I never participated [in] or recommended a lynching,” he writes, “not even when Leo Durocher was managing the Cubs.” Not that he would have minded seeing Durocher suffer, he quickly adds: “Durocher was lying when he got up in the morning, and he was still lying when he went to bed.”
Holtzman’s book recounts a more collegial ? or collusive ? era when baseball writers would occasionally file for a competitor who was too hung over, or drunk, to write. And he tells the little-known story of how it was actually New York Daily News columnist Dick Young who wrote the memorable lead to the story of the only perfect game in World Series history, which would win numerous awards for the man named in the byline, Young’s Daily News colleague Joe Trimble.
Trimble had written and tossed a half-dozen leads trying to capture the essence of the 1956 performance by the mediocre New York Yankee Don Larsen. Observing Trimble’s writer’s block, Young moved to the empty typewriter between them, wrote seven words, and lay the sheet at Trimble’s side without saying anything.
The lead might have described Young’s own personality contrasted to his performance that day: “The imperfect man pitched a perfect game.”