April 17th, 2005
Two parallel lives: Shirley and Red
By Terence Smith
There was something missing last Thursday night when the Washington Nationals played their home opener at RFK stadium, returning regularly-scheduled major league baseball to the nation’s capital for the first time in 34 years.
Shirley Povich wasn’t in the press box.
It is against the law — or should be — to hold a major sporting event in Washington without Shirley. For 75 incredible years, beginning in 1924 (the one year the Senators won the World Series,) through 1998, Shirley was witness to the greatest moments in sport in Washington, in the country and around the world.
Shirley died on June 4, 1998. So he couldn’t make it to the ballpark Thursday night and on Friday, the Post readers couldn’t read what Shirley thought of the game. It is safe to bet that he would have loved the evening, since he hated it on September 30, 1971, when his beloved Senators packed up and moved to greener fields in Texas.
For the bereft readers who have to confront the morning after without Povich, there is relief coming in “All Those Mornings …at the Post,” a new collection of his columns from Public Affairs Books that is timed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth.
His grown children, David, Maury and Lynn Povich, along with former Post sports editor George Solomon, culled through some 17,000 columns to choose the 120 in this book. They are rich, rewarding, often funny, sometimes acerbic comments on the sporting scene. Read these columns and you get a sense not only of Shirley, not only of the sports world over 75 years, but of the ways in which American society changed over those years. They make great reading and no doubt it is true that, as George Solomon writes in his afterword, “We left out some beauties.”
Reading the columns, I was struck by similarities in the lives and work of Shirley Povich and my father, the late sports columnist, Red Smith. Shirley and my father were close friends and frequent traveling companions. Along with their mutual pal, fellow sports columnist, Frank Graham, they were a trifecta that followed the annual sports calendar, from spring training in Florida to the World Series in the fall. If it was the first Saturday in May, you knew that they would be at Churchill Downs. When the Superbowl kicked off, they’d be there. They were competitors, of course, but mostly they were friends. Once the day’s columns were filed, they preferred each other’s company and that of their wives. Their families became fond friends and have remained so to this day.
Shirley and my father were alike in many ways. They were both gentlemen of the old school, courteous to a fault, polite and modest. They were both gregarious souls, who loved to tell stories aloud and in print. Shirley used to laugh so hard at his own stories he could hardly finish them. But the smiles on both of them disappeared when they confronted the self-important, especially the privileged who tended to own sports teams. When provoked, they could skewer the pompous on the point of their pen so skillfully that only the blood would show.
They were born in the same year, both small-town boys: Shirley from Bar Harbor, Maine; my father from Green Bay, Wisconsin. Both went into newspapering at an early age and both became sportswriters by accident. Shirley was simply assigned to the sports department when he showed up at the Post in search of a job. They could have put him in circulation.
My father told a story, which may even be true, of how he ended up in sports by happenstance. He was a copy editor on the St. Louis Star-TimesÂ (it’s gone now; my father always claimed to have killed every paper he worked for but The New York Times,) and apparently there was a scandal when it was discovered that all three reporters in the sports department were on the take. The three were fired and the editor called my father over. The following conversation allegedly ensued:
Editor: “Smith, what do you know about sports?”
Smith: “Just what the average fan knows, sir.”
Editor: “Are you honest, Smith?
Smith: “I hope so, sir.”
Editor: “What would you do if a fight promoter offered you $10 to write about his fighter?”
Smith: (long pause) “Ten dollars is a lot of money, sir.”
Editor: “That’s an honest answer, Smith. Report to the sports department.”
The similarities continued as both Shirley and Red wrote an amazing seven columns a week (In my memory, my father was always writing,) then six, then five, then fewer. They both loved baseball first and foremost, and boxing and racing and college football and golf and tennis. And they both largely ignored basketball and hockey. (‘Back and forth sports,’ my father called them, derisively.) Their shared preference was for games that had a narrative plot line and colorful characters, sports that wrote themselves.
Neither was much of an athlete. My father was a strong swimmer, an accomplished diver, ran track for Notre Dame (no recorded firsts,) and a passionate and skilled fly fisherman. He once wrote of himself in the third person: “He admires sports for others and might have been a great athlete himself except that he is small, puny, slow, inept, uncoordinated, myopic and yellow.”
None of those adjectives applied to Shirley.
They both had long careers, both saw sports not as life-and-death struggles of cosmic import, but as “games little boys play,” and both loved their work. As proof, even in failing health, both wrote their respective final columns just days before they died. For my father, his column was his contract with life. He wanted to hold up his end. He seemed to think that when he stopped writing, he would stop living. He was right.
Shirley and Red: two parallel lives, richly lived, artfully written and lovingly remembered.
Terence Smith is senior producer and media correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He started his journalism career writing sports, but went straight and spent 20 years covering national and international news for The New York Times.