For all her occasional beauty and unquestioned courage, there has always been something faintly ridiculous about the big-time lady athletes.—Paul Gallico, Farewell to Sport, 1937
Things have changed in the field of sports journalism since 1937. Andy Benoit, who covers the NFL for Sports Illustrated, was hammered this summer for arguing that the World Cup wasn’t worth watching and then extending the claim to all women’s sports. He apologized repeatedly, and has thankfully stuck to football ever since.
The sentiments of Paul Gallico, celebrated syndicated columnist and editor with the New York Daily News during the Great Depression, earned a much different reaction in his day. The book Farewell to Sport was meant as his goodbye to sportswriting after a hugely successful and influential run during which he was the highest-paid sports columnist in the country. It helped cement Gallico’s place alongside his far more flowery contemporary Grantland Rice as an immortal of jock journalism. Benoit’s own Sports Illustrated put it on a list of the 100 top sports books of all time a decade ago, hailing Gallico’s “valedictory.”
Gallico died in 1976 at 78 years old, but his book remains in print, unabridged, so that his thoughts on female athletes can still easily be found alongside a slew of period-piece slurs directed at gays, blacks, Jews, among others. They make for interesting reading to this day.
“Some of this stuff was enlightened in its time, but it’s so out there now that it’s almost funny,” says former New York Times sportswriter Joe Lapointe, who says that reading Gallico’s chapters on Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth in Farewell to Sport in high school helped point him toward a career in sports journalism.
In his own stories as a newspaperman, and also while moonlighting as a journalism professor at NYU and Rutgers, Lapointe has pointed out both Gallico’s good and bad sides. He says he was surprised to learn earlier this year that the book that moved him all those years ago is still published.
Perhaps he shouldn’t have been; Gallico’s influence abounds to this day. Going by the book that made him immortal, though, he’d surely have despised 2015, a year dominated like no other by women athletes.
Plainly, many if not most of the biggest sports stories of the year were generated by women. The U.S. World Cup champs got the first ticker-tape parade ever thrown for a women’s sports squad. The biggest UFC fights had Ronda Rousey at the top of the card, and she’s got a higher Q rating than any active fighter of any gender. Over the summer, the NFL, the biggest boy’s club of all, went out and got its first full-time female referee (Sarah Thomas) and its first female coach (Jen Welter). And, above all, Serena Williams was so dominant that she could lose out on her chance at a Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open and still be the most acclaimed athlete on the planet. Her closest competition for Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year wasn’t even a person. So with Williams’s award providing a fine coda to the year, let’s pay a revisit to Farewell to Sport, if just as a reminder of how much things have changed. Remember, these words came not from some obscure putz, but from the highest-paid sportswriter in the country in his day.
Gallico lays out his platform while revealing a few attributes of women athletes that rendered them “ridiculous” to him:
They never manage entirely to escape a vague hint of burlesque about the entire business. A generation ago they were funny in a mild way because they tried to play competitive games and at the same time maintain their maidenly modesty. Today they manage to be amusing for exactly the opposite reason; they play with complete abandon and exposure, and as if that were not enough, the mores and morals of the times have made possible deliciously frank and biological discussions in the columns of the newspapers as to whether this or that famous woman athlete should be addressed as “Miss,” “Mrs.,” “Mr.,” or “It.”
He further asserts that women are genetically suited for golf. “The game is a natural reagent for the cattiness that is in woman,” he wrote. Female track and field athletes? “Flat chested, most of them with close cropped hair. Not much on looks either.” Women who want to box, wrestle, or play ball? “For the most part they have ugly bodies, hard faces, cheap minds.”
Babe Didrikson, generally acclaimed as the best all-around female athlete of her and Gallico’s day, takes a real beating in Farewell to Sport. “Her lips were thin and bloodless, with down showing on the upper one, and she had a prominent Adam’s apple,” Gallico writes, adding that she was an “ugly duckling ... commonly described as hatchet faced.” He deduced that Didrikson was such a great jock “because she would not or could not compete with women at their own and best game—man snatching.”
Babe Didrikson swings, 1946; photo via Getty
“The ugly ducklings,” he goes on to explain, “having taken to sport as an escape and to compensate for whatever it is they lack, sex appeal, charm, ready-made beauty, usually are too grateful to be up there in the championship flight to resent losing so much. The pretty ones go into high-pressure sports competition because—because—well, I’m damned if I know why they do.”
Gallico’s bottom line on women athletes? “No matter how good they are they can never be good enough, quite, to matter.” That attitude was hardly restricted to the page: In July 1936, the Washington Post, a paper that carried his syndicated columns, reported that his 21-year-old wife of two years asked a Chicago court to grant her a divorce on the grounds of “cruelty,” alleging that the 38-year old Gallico had “slapped and pushed” her on multiple occasions.
While women come in for the most derision from Gallico, they’re hardly his only targets.
The only white male athletes who aren’t glorified in Farewell to Sport are tennis players, whom he bashes throughout its pages. To Gallico, tennis appears to be “a pastime for dudes and sissies.” He describes Bill Tilden, the best player in the world during Gallico’s sportswriting career—and a gay man—as “perhaps ... the greatest offender in the matter of the effeminacies of the courts,” citing his “little gestures of pique or annoyance, dramatic appeals to the high heavens, [and] ringing cries of ‘oh, sugar!’”
Bill Tilden, 1930; photo via Getty
Jai alai players, Gallico says, are the only athletes who exhibit the same “distinct feminism” that he saw from male tennis players. “But these men were Latins and as temperamental and sensitive as women,” he writes.
Gallico flaunts his racism throughout his book. “As it is a matter of choice,” he writes, “I keep to the company of my own kind.” He drops the word “nigger” with impunity, as when he writes that he finds himself predicting which Indianapolis 500 driver will die via a game of “Eeny-meeny-miney-mo, catch a nigger by the toe.” And pretty much every mention of a black athlete in the book shows his racist core, such as when he praises the black boxer, as an archetype, for having a “thick, hard skull” and for being “not nearly so sensible to pain as his white brother.”
Probably the most well-known passage in Farewell to Sport involves Gallico explaining the sociology of basketball: “But the reason, I suspect, that it appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging, and general smart aleckness.” The book was published not long after Gallico had covered the 1936 Winter and Summer Olympics, both hosted in Germany by Adolf Hitler. During that assignment, Gallico praised the “ingenuity and efficiency” of the Nazi Olympic preparations, and reported that the “menace of anti-Semitism seems to be considerably exaggerated, at least so far as sport is concerned.”
After all of this comprehensive awfulness, it probably won’t come as a surprise that the one group—the only group—of athletes comprising people unlike him that Gallico fawns over in his swan song is female swimmers. (Or, rather, “handsome young girls in revealing bathing suits.”) He calls an Olympic swimmer named Eleanor Holm Jarrett “a more than luscious arrangement of flesh,” and praises the heavens that her best event was the backstroke.
As Gallico explains things, women’s swimming, despite not being worth watching as a sport, gets lots of coverage anyway because publishers know that titillating readers with photos of women in bathing suits translates to dollars. “The newspapers,” he writes, “have been using the swimmers as circulation pullers.”
If his other attitudes seem impossibly archaic, this one seems downright modern. Long before Sports Illustrated immortalized Gallico by placing his book on its Best Ever list, the magazine acknowledged his influence. In 1989, the magazine celebrated the 25th anniversary of its annual swimsuit issue, which comes out during the dead sports month of February, with an essay from Frank Deford on its history. Deford—who is among the many leading sportswriters of his generation to always cite Gallico as a personal influence—led his piece off with Gallico answering a question about why he got out of sports journalism. “February,” Gallico responded, as if that explained why it was okay to fill an entire edition with sexism. Deford didn’t apologize for the issue’s existence, which at the time was bringing SI a reported $8 million in additional revenues just from newsstand sales. Instead, he said the swimsuit issue was “part and parcel of our culture.”
Gallico saw it coming.
Someday, everybody will agree that SI’s annual foray into softcore porn is anachronistic to the point of ridiculousness, as much an artifact of days gone by as Gallico’s swan song is now. But in 2015, that one edition remains as crucial to SI’s identity as the centerfold once was to Playboy’s, overpowering even the Sportsperson of the Year issue that just put Serena Williams on the cover. And it pays the wage of writers who think, even if they know better than to say it, that women’s sports just aren’t worth watching. Farewell to Sport may read as a joke now, but its author’s legacy remains very much intact.