This all really started for me back in the late 1960s when I was a junior at Bishop Guertin High School, writing about my high school teams for the Nashua (New Hampshire) Telegraph, getting paid five dollars for the stories once Mike Shalhoup, the editor of the paper, convinced me it was a much better idea to start double-spacing them.
Of course, this was before I had the only kind of job I ever wanted, writing a sports column in New York, which is the job that had me sitting in Fenway Park when Bucky Dent hit his home run against the Red Sox on October 2, 1978. And sitting in Lake Placid the night Herb Brooks’s hockey team beat the Russians. And watching Kirk Gibson’s ball fly out of Dodger Stadium one World Series night in 1988. It is the job that has given me a front row seat to everything else I have seen, all the way to the Red Sox coming back from three games down to beat the Yankees last fall.
When the ball that Gibson hit went out of the ballpark that night, the great Jack Buck made this unforgettable call: “I don’t believe what I just saw.” Nobody believed what they saw in the 2004 American League Championship Series after the Yankees were ahead three games to none. I have always said that, for me, nothing could ever top Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig and what they did in that rink in Lake Placid the night Al Michaels asked if we all believed in miracles. And I still don’t think anything ever will. But watching the Red Sox come back that way against the Yankees, no matter which way you were rooting, was pretty good for the silver medal.
I got paid to write about that Olympic team and got paid to write about the Yankees versus the Red Sox. I once told Jimmy Breslin that I liked doing what I was doing so much I would do it for free. Breslin snapped, “This isn’t the Lawn Tennis Association. We don’t just play for the love of the game.” Believe me, the point was well taken. But really, from the time I was a teenager, the only life I ever imagined for myself, at least professionally, was writing about sports.
My dreams about that did not begin with the Nashua Telegraph. More than anything, they really began in the 1960s, when I tore through my copy of Sports Illustrated as soon as it arrived in our mail on a Friday, wanting to see what Dan Jenkins was writing about college football or golf or even skiing and to read any of the other star writers they had at the time. More than anything else the magazine and its writers were doing in those days, they were expanding the possibilities. And making kids like me want to somehow figure out a way to do what they were doing. For me it started with Jenkins, who I believe did more to invent modern sports writing than anybody alive.
It doesn’t mean there weren’t tremendous sports columnists in the newspaper business when I was growing up. There were, there are. My friend Bob Ryan, from the Boston Globe, is a classic American sports columnist and would have been a star, I believe, in any era. Later in my career I would discover the pure, clear genius of W. C. Heinz, one of the best sports columnists of all time for the old New York Sun, and also a storied war correspondent for that paper who traveled across Europe during World War II with his old Remington typewriter and the First Army. In the 1950s, Heinz would come home and write what is still, for my money, the best sports novel ever written, The Professional.
Red Smith was another of my heroes, not just because of the way he could write, but because of the elegant way he went the distance in this business, writing like a total star almost until the day he died. He was a giant of talent and grace and made you proud every single day to be in the same business. Over the years more than a few people have asked me why I stayed in sports, knowing there had been opportunities to write a different kind of column in the front of my paper, the New York Daily News. I’ve always had the same answer — that if writing a sports column was good enough for Red Smith to spend his whole life doing it, it’s more than good enough for me.
But I didn’t start reading Red until I got to Boston College. First came SI, just absolutely blowing the doors off everything. Later in my life there’d be a movie I liked a lot, The Turning Point, with Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine. It happened to be about ballet. About which I knew nothing. But watching the dancing in that movie, I sure knew this: what Mikhail Baryshnikov was doing was different from everybody else.
The writing in the old Sports Illustrated, under the legendary managing editor Andre Laguerre, was like that. It was different. And after it, nothing was the same in sports writing.
It wasn’t justt a different sports world in those days. There was no Internet, of course, no ESPN.com acting as some sort of huge grazing pasture for eeeeeverybody in the business, a place for people to go at the start of the day to make up their minds about what they wanted to write and what they wanted to say. There was no sense that guys in the business were sometimes writing for each other instead of the reader. There was no talk radio, the giant weather vane of modern sports opinion, the monster that tries to shape what everybody thinks and has turned so many modern sports sections into printed versions of what the editors are listening to on the radio.
Now, in the modern American sports culture, the town hall is SportsCenter on ESPN. It is the one place where fans and players and coaches and managers and general managers and writers and broadcasters can collect every night, the sports version of what the nightly network news used to be on television. There was none of that in the old days.
In the old days, if you wanted to find out what people in other places were writing about things, you had to do what I did in college— go to the Out-of-Town Newsstand in Harvard Square, which is where I first read one of the great sports sections of all time in the old New York Post — the pre- Murdoch version of that paper — with Paul Sann as the editor, a future boss of mine, Ike Gellis, as the sports editor, and writers like Larry Merchant and Vic Ziegel and Paul Zimmerman just laying you out every single day.
One night the Mets pulled out an improbable victory in the bottom of the ninth inning. Even now, almost thirty years later, I can tell you Ziegel’s lead: “The game is never over until the final out, the Post has learned.” He made me laugh that day and is still making me laugh as a colleague at the Daily News.
In the front of that paper was Pete Hamill, one of the great big-city newspaper columnists of them all.
But in those days, the town hall for everybody who even thought about writing sports for a living was the old Sports Illustrated. That was the home office for all the dreamers of the world. In all the years I have known Hamill, he has always had a wonderful expression to describe any talented group of people in any profession, an expression that comes from his deep love and deep knowledge of music. The first time I ever heard him use it was when he was talking about the old Knicks one day, the Knicks of Willis Reed and Walt “Clyde” Frazier and Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere.
“It was like the Basie band,” Hamill said.
He was a New York kid out of the 1930s and 1940s. So the frame of reference came from there. In my world, my generation, those SI writers of the 1960s and 1970s were the Stones. The greatest rockand- roll band of all time.
And Jenkins was Mick Jagger.
Here is Dan Jenkins writing about a college football game as famous...