Rules of the Game and the (Nearly) Lost Art of Sports Writing
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly
On vacation in Oakland last week, I witnessed the unique (and arguably profound) revelation of ten thousand A’s fans vocally battling ten thousand transplanted New York Yankees fans throughout a close game at the Coliseum, and my thoughts somehow turned to academia and writing. Over my two years as a student at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, founded by Allen Ginsberg in 1974 as part of Naropa University in Boulder, the subject of sports writing never came up. What most “serious” writers and readers don’t know is that Kerouac – now canonized worldwide as one of the crucially talented novelists and poets of the 20th Century – was passionate about sports, enjoying his own version of fantasy baseball all his life, playing football on scholarship at Columbia University and, yes, working as a sports writer in his early adulthood.
What Mark Twain (himself a sometime-sports writer) called “games” and we now call “sports” has captivated people from myriad intellectual, social and economic categories over the last 125 years or so and, for some, is a big help in staying sane (as long as you don’t think about mind-boggling modern details like $30 million-a-year contracts) in our current times. Today, the speed of so-called “advancement” makes many people long for simpler experiences such as double-headers and $2 bleacher seats. Thankfully, those intimately held small joys are still available, and so is great sports writing.
For as long as there has been sports writing, sportswriters have been ostracized and forced to soldier on or, perhaps, write On the Road. Indeed, as Gary Cartwright details in the new book Rules of the Game, “when students at Yale protested that a sportswriter had been invited to address them, The New York Times‘ John Kieran addressed them in Latin.” Rules of the Game, an interesting and entertaining collection of the best sports writing published by Harper’s Magazine in the last 100 years or so, reveals that, before and after Kerouac’s time, sports writers, and even some of the athletes they covered, have often been more than mere elevated fans. In many cases, American sports writers have been renaissance men, and some of the best American writers, period.
Like the best Beat writers, Harper’s writers who’ve covered sports (from Twain to George Plimpton to Lewis H. Lapham) generally specialized in “heroic prose,” creating expansive tomes sparked by a particularly inspiring subject expanded exponentially as the act of writing takes over. However, avid 21st Century sports fans like myself are generally offered four kinds of journalism on sports: the no-frills, non-subjective game story; the opinion column, which often features depth thwarted by cold-hearted word maximums; the larger “player profile” in publications like Sports Illustrated; and anything-goes blogging.
Thus, the distinguished and widely cherished connection between sports and what can be honestly called writing – in the sense that Moby Dick or On the Road or even what one finds in McSweeney’s is called writing – is becoming a fringe phenomenon frequently considered just a “guilty pleasure.” What’s more, according to Denver Post (and formerly Rocky Mountain News) veteran Dave Krieger, sports writing as a viable career option is dying along with print journalism itself.
“We are hanging on by our fingertips as the boat sails away,” Krieger told me. “Those of us fortunate enough to have jobs in the business stay in it because we’re fortunate enough to have jobs. Also because, faced with the prospect of joblessness, a disturbing number of us realize quite late in life we are qualified to do little else. And last but not least, because going to ballgames remains a very pleasant way to make a living.”
Getting paid more than a few cents a word to write anything at all these days can be incredibly difficult, but making a living as a plain old sportswriter not syndicated on ESPN radio or featured daily on a loud TV show like ESPN’s Around the Horn is particularly challenging. As far back as 1968, Gary Cartwright was venting about the life of a “washed up sportswriter,” telling Harper’s readers that no sportswriter “improves after eight or ten years [because] there is nothing else to say…but the assignments get juicier and the way out less attractive.” Over forty years later, Krieger agrees.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re writing the same columns over and over because a lot of the events are the same, year after year, and a lot of the competitive situations…but the people keep changing, and they’re the interesting part.”
However, Krieger acknowledged that it’s rough out there for those that cover “games.”
“The changes in the newspaper business over the past few years have rendered part of Gary’s assessment obsolete,” he says. “The assignments no longer get juicier as you get older. Now we cover less of the big national and international stuff we used to cover routinely. The web means readers in Denver don’t need me to go to the World Series. They’ve got lots of people writing about it as close as their iPhone. And my paper can no longer afford to send me.”
The inimitable Woody Paige, who also writes about sports for The Denver Post and appears regularly on ESPN as an irreverent and outgoing talking head, couldn’t disagree more.
“Our business has changed greatly, and we’ve changed with it,” the Around the Horn regular wrote me in a lengthy email you might call “heroic Paige.”
“Honestly, I found that people care more about sports than they do world history, politics, City Council meetings, [etc]” Paige explained. “So my audience has been bigger and more diversified and more interested in what I have to say. There is no boredom. Despite what Cartwright believed, there is something new to say every day.”
What about paying the bills and even being able to retire, Woody?
“The owner of The Denver Post said I had a lifetime contract,” Paige commented, “but I assume that someday a priest will show up in my office and say the last rites over my live body and declare me dead, and my newspaper career will be over. Will I win the Pulitzer and go away? No. I will continue to win, as I once did, the Pillsbury Oven-Baked Sandwiches Most Popular Columnist Award, although that award went away with the sandwiches, and maybe I should have too.”
Like many music writers, the majority of sports writers would be blogging about their passion, or even just talking about it every night at a bar, whether they were paid to do so or not.
“Furman Bisher, who owned half of downtown Atlanta because he invested wisely 50 years ago, kept writing a column for the Atlanta newspaper until he was well into his 90s,” Paige added. “He recently retired. What’s he doing? Writing a blog. Sportswriters never retire. They just turn the page.”
One of my favorite passages in Rules of the Game involves former Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale telling George Plimpton in 1977 that he knew it was time to retire when a hard-hit Roberto Clemente line-drive “took the skin off the top of his ear on its way to center field.” Krieger and many other sportswriters could’ve quit after their first brush with an abrasive athlete or their first (or thousandth) angry letter beginning with “Hey Moron,” but the writers I talked to aren’t giving up anytime soon.
“When the subject line says ‘Hey Moron, it saves time,” Krieger mused. “When it says ‘Hey Morron’ or even ‘Hey Moreon,’ it’s actually kind of a high point.”
30-year sports writing veteran Dave Molinari, who I’ve been reading in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette since my youth in that area, had a more stoic (and even jarring) perspective on the state of sports writing when I asked him about what athletes call “going out on top.”
“It never once occurred to me that, having been awarded the Ferguson Award [from the Hockey Hall of Fame for 27 years of Pittsburgh Penguins coverage], I should walk away from the business. Wouldn’t have been particularly prudent, unless I could have persuaded my kids to give up eating and sold them on the merits of living in a refrigerator box under a bridge.”
Getting reacquainted with Santa Fe after my short vacation in the Bay Area seeing old friends, a part of me misses not only the thrill of attending live professional sports events and getting excited by the ups and downs of each unique season but also opening up a paper like the San Francisco Chronicle every morning and reading what talented sportswriters like Ray Ratto and Gwen Knapp have to say. With quotes from Rules of the Game as inspiration, I interviewed several of my favorite sportswriters (from Molinari, Paige and Krieger to Bob Smizik, Gene Collier and others) and will be sharing the results of those exchanges at Beautiful Buzz over the next few days. In the meantime, enjoy the baseball season and the hockey playoffs.