Excerpted from Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter.
* * *
"At sporting events there are three kinds of ovations. The first is the most common, the spontaneous happy roar for the home team. Number two is the studied courtesy cheer reserved for beloved opponents, coaches who field grounders, uninvited dogs, and umpires who either fall down or retrieve errant paper napkins. The third is a special generous cheer, filled with rare, warm appreciation. This type can be detected by the fact that it swells with no pattern. Instead it grows in choppy bursts. Hollering is out of place and people pause from clapping to exchange happy talk with their neighbors. 'Isn't that great?" or 'Good for him.' Stuff like that. Then they clap a little more and pause and smile. It is a tender cheer."
—Everybody's All-American, 1981
Had my introduction to sportswriting been limited solely to the hack Baltimore sports editors, I might've been prepared to consider that writing about sports could be a more distinguished genre somewhere out there in the wider world. Unfortunately, however, the Morning Sun also carried the weekly column of Grantland Rice, who, my father advised me, was the crème de la crème of the profession—and, sadly, Mr. Rice's sappy prose was barely a step up from the offerings of the local sports scribes.*
*The only journalists ever any longer referred to as "scribes" are sportwriters, but I promise not to do it again, even facetiously.
Unfortunately, as but a wiseass child, I had no idea what a force Rice had been, how he had affected sportswriting—and, really, ultimately, the way so many Americans looked at sports. But at the time I was reading him, in the early 1950s, he was an old man—or, from another awful point of view, just about my advanced age now. The poor senior citizen had been humping heavy typewriter cases up stadium stairs to press boxes for a half a century, and was thus (I like to think) more worn down in his dotage than I am in mine. Also, in those primitive times, Rice was literally mailing it in. Although he had become quite a wealthy man, he saved on postage by mailing batches of his columns out at the same time to his syndicate. As a consequence, the pieces were necessarily vague and invariably out-of-date by the time they eventually appeared in the Sun or the myriad other papers that still ran his stuff. Often, too, his columns were chopped up and mangled by insensitive copy editors, who jammed his work in between box scores and the race results.
So, I was certainly not seeing vintage Rice. On the other hand, even in his prime, Rice had not been a superior writer. He was good enough and facile and God knows he was never at a loss for words, but he simply wasn't in the same league as the best columnists who followed him—genuinely fine writers like Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Jim Murray, Dave Kindred, or Mitch Albom. In fact, Rice's poetry was much better than his prose, for as had been the custom when he started out, around the turn of the century, he peppered almost every column with homespun verse. He was, in fact, an accomplished acolyte of James Whitcomb Riley, of "The Old Swimmin'-Hole" fame, and if Rice had written nothing else, he would always be remembered for his inspirational athletic couplet:
For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name—
He writes—not that you won or lost—but how you played the Game.
In my attic a while ago, I came across a photograph of me, in tank top, shorts, and sneakers, at summer camp, when I was about 12, grouped with a bunch of other boys around a large billboard bearing nothing but that quotation, that moral battle cry of Uncle Sam's playing field. Imagine how long ago that was! Vince Lombardi's "Winning isn't the most important thing. It's the only thing" was still out there beyond the crass horizon. And trash-talking—my gracious, not even the One Great Scorer had heard of that yet. Grantland Rice's axiom was then the star we athletes of America were to try and steer by.
But Rice wrote everything about sports—an estimated 67 million words—or 3,500 words for every day of his fifty-three years as a sportswriter. One of his biographers, Charles Fountain, described Rice as "the Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John of American sport." That is certainly fair enough—but only so far as it goes. Rice was not only the one-man gospel of sport for the first half of the 20th century, but sort of the benevolent godfather of athletics—the beloved, lionized (and so aptly named) Granny.
It is impossible now to understand how this colossus bestrode our games. Certainly, there has never been any one person who occupied such an eminent position in his sector of journalism as did Rice in sports—and for decades. Rush Limbaugh now in politics, Walter Winchell when he was dot-and-dashing gossip for Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea, Walter Lippmann upon Olympus, Louella Parsons in Hollywood, Walter Cronkite at the end of the workday—whoever in whatever phase of journalism: none approached what Grantland Rice was in sports.
It wasn't just that he was so prodigious at his newspaper day job.* He also was the author of something like a thousand magazine articles, edited a magazine (American Golfer), put together book collections of his works, had his own radio show, narrated movie shorts, provided endorsements, and picked the only certified official annual all-American college football team. You simply can't compare any individual, ever, in American journalism to what Grantland Rice was. The closest analogy in our journalistic history would be to say that ESPN today most approximates him. But ESPN is a whole conglomeration of networks. And there is no poetry in its soul.
*His personal best—PB, as they say in track and field—fifty thousand words for the New York Evening Mail in the nine days of the 1912 World Series.
As an "evangelist of fun," as he would be eulogized at his funeral, Rice was a whirling dervish. Remember, in those days, to be a sports "expert," a writer had to physically go to the games. Now, you (i.e., me) can watch almost everything on television, alight at only a few preferred events, and still voice opinions with authority. But Rice beamed himself up everywhere —accumulating as many as 16,000 miles a year by train alone. It's amazing all the games he saw, never mind that he managed to actually have the time to write about them, as well—and never, it seems, never, without taking off his gray fedora. If he hadn't been so damn well adjusted, you'd say he must have been obsessive.
Rice was, however, well compensated for his extraordinary labors. At the height of his powers, he was making something like $100,000 a year—at a time when a top all-star baseball player might be pulling down $20,000—but on a slow day Rice would slap that fedora on his balding noggin and have his chauffeur drive him out so he might cover some metropolitan women's golf tournament, shoot the breeze with the other reporters, take the air, then bang out some of that 3,500-word daily quota.
He was quite a good athlete himself. This, of course, is unusual among sportswriters. The image (perhaps especially among the athletes we cover) is that we are all uncoordinated wimps who developed a passionate love for all sports as wee tykes, but we all got put out in right field in Little League and certainly couldn't make a varsity team, so we started writing about sports just to get into the locker room. OK, there's probably some truth there. (I also have formed the impression, completely unscientifically, that sportswriters as a group had happier childhoods than other journalists and many athletes. So there.) Whatever, athletes certainly want to think about us as physical flotsam, and they forever love to profess that if you haven't played the game you couldn't possibly be wise enough to write about it.
"If that were true," Red Smith opined, "then only dead men could write obituaries."
But Grantland Rice was the real deal afield. He was pigeon-toed, like a lot of great athletes, and in college, he was a good-hitting shortstop, captain of his baseball team at Vanderbilt—promising enough to ponder playing minor-league baseball until his parents told him to get serious and find a real job. He had also played end on the football varsity, even though at that time he carried only 130 pounds on his 6-foot frame. In fact, he only played games in college. There is no evidence that he wrote a single word, outside his assigned schoolwork, until, after graduation, when he found work as a sportswriter on a fledgling Nashville newspaper. Even then, he coached college baseball and refereed football games on the side, while developing into a scratch golfer. Granny simply couldn't get enough of sports. All his life, he and his best chums—invariably other sportswriters—would take a break after being stuck together at another Kentucky Derby or another U.S. Open or another all-star game and go off for more bonding on hunting and fishing trips. He played cards at night, bet the ponies by day, and drank lots of whiskey.
And this above all: everybody loved Granny.
I mean: everybody.
I mean: loved him.
It's downright amazing to read the personal testaments to his goodness, goodwill, good fellowship, and good spirits. Guaranteed: the One Great Scorer gave Granny an A+. Although he lived most of his life, happily married, in a Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park, he was the epitome of the Dixie squire. Grantland Rice, as much as any other southerner, became sort of the 20th century extension of the luminous Robert E. Lee. "A virile saint," his buddy George M. Cohan called Granny. Despite his wealth and fame, he remained unassuming and modest. He would never even so much as call his rhyming "poetry"; instead, he passed it off merely as "verse." Everybody wanted to be his friend, and the wish was easily enough consummated because Granny was ever friendly to everybody who crossed his peripatetic shadow.
And, most significant from a vocational point of view, the gracious gentleman wrote as he lived, always looking to find not just the bright side, but the heroic, the noble. Remember, he was born in Tennessee only 15 years after Appomattox, and one has to wonder how much he, as a boy, heard tales of his gallant forebears, sallying forth in their butternut uniforms, battling against the odds to fight on for a cause. Hell, I was born 73 years after Appomattox, and that's what I still heard from my southern kin.
When President Wilson finally decided that we had to take care of business and show the Hun who was boss, Rice immediately volunteered for the Great War, even though he was 37 and didn't have to serve. When he was commissioned, the army tried to keep him safe behind the lines in France, editing an army newspaper, but First Lieutenant Rice demanded to see action and hiked alone for three days to get to the front, there to join his 115th Field Artillery unit in the Argonne. He would probably have been killed but for the fact that the earth was so soft that German shells that landed near him merely buried themselves in the mushy turf, instead of exploding on impact with the ground. Winter rules.
Sport for Rice was a better war, because it was a safe and fun version of the real thing. Yes, he chose the rose-colored glasses for the arena, but quite purposefully. Another of his biographers, William A. Harper, wrote: "When sport is taken less seriously, more playfully, and, at the same time infused with the standards and duties of chivalrous conduct, it escapes triviality and becomes a significant and dignified culture-bearer."
That counterintuitive attitude was already fading fast in 1954 when Rice collapsed (at his typewriter, of course, batting out the last of his 17,000 columns). Thereafter, more sportswriters came to think precisely the opposite, that you must take sport more seriously, less playfully, to make it significant—so that, in tandem, your own work appears more significant, as well. Certainly, once Granny was gone, there were no more poems issued from the press box.
Related: Why Grantland Rice Sucked
Excerpted from Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter, ©2012 by Frank Deford; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic Inc.
Frank will be stopping by next Monday to chat with Deadspin readers. Get excited.