Bill Conlin: Two-minute warning for our beloved sportswriters

Posted: December 09, 2008

"I've always had the notion that people go to spectator sports to have fun and then they grab the paper to read about it and have fun again."

- Red Smith

ON DEC. 7, 2008, a date which will live in infamy, Gannett, a newspaper publisher, bombed my front steps with a fat Sunday edition of South Jersey's Courier Post. I expected the substantial newspaper I paid for.

Instead, I got an upholstered shopper's guide. When I turned to what used to be a complete and informative sports section to read Phillies beat writer Mike Radano's take on baseball's winter meetings, I found a Gannett News Service piece. Radano was gone. Laid off.

Ditto Kevin Roberts, the CP's balanced and topical lead sports columnist. Shockingly, gone in less than the 60 seconds it took to summon him to his personal rendition of the "Executioner's Song."

The Eagles had a huge game to play against the Giants in biting cold on hostile Meadowlands turf, a game dripping with playoff implications and loaded with subplots. But Eagles beat writer Sean McCann was not there with his take. Sean was booted into the street, part of a Gannett purge that could claim as many as 3,000 employees when the last journalist is jettisoned into an increasingly cluttered cyber world. Brother can you spare a gigabyte?

Last Friday, Newsday, once a writer's newspaper that gave us sportswriting giants including Stan Isaacs, Steve Jacobson and a wonderful, quirky sports editor/columnist named Jack Mann, pulled the trigger. And down went three sports columnists, including Johnette Howard.

The columnists who escaped the purge, including Wallace Matthews, are no longer sports columnists, however. That position has been eliminated. Writers who venture bold opinions in distinctive voices now will be called . . . what? "Next Victim" will do for now.

As the print-newspaper industry goes the way of clipper ships, gas lamps and horse-drawn trolleys, I thought about the powerful tug of the giants who dragged me into this endangered business.

I thought about Jimmy Cannon, a lonely, elfin man who wrote with power and street-smart clout. I thought about his most quoted line: "Joe Louis is a credit to his race; the human race."

In the New York City newspaper wars, Cannon played a boring-in Jack Dempsey to Red Smith's dancing Gene Tunney.

Cannon wrote: "A rabid sports fan is one that boos a TV set."

Smith wrote: "In the eighth, Hermanski smashed a drive to the scoreboard. Henrich backed against the board and leaped either four or fourteen feet into the air. He stayed aloft so long he looked like an empty uniform hanging in its locker. When he came down he had the ball."

There are still newspaper readers who venerate the well-turned phrase, the bold analogy, the absurd premise that becomes believable because it is so well put. They are being intellectually punished by men in newspaper board rooms, bottom-liners who lacked the guts required to sack a hedge fund, bankrupt an auto company or approve a $1 million mortgage to a couple with $100,000 in credit-card debt. They lead to one thing: The dumbing down of America.

Cannon wrote: "Fishing, with me, has always been an excuse to drink in the daytime."

Smith wrote: "It's no accident that of all the monuments left of the GrecoRoman culture, the biggest is the ballpark, the Colosseum, the Yankee Stadium of ancient times."

And on the West Coast, the whip-crack of his prose muted by the lack of major league baseball, a mild-mannered, obsessive listener named Jim Murray was regaling Los Angeles Times readers. (That newspaper is owned by a Tribune Company about to plunge into bankruptcy.)

Murray wrote: "Golf is the cruelest of sports. Like life, it's unfair. It's a harlot. A trollop. It leads you on. It never lives up to its promises . . . It's a boulevard of broken dreams. It plays with men. And runs off with the butcher."

In Sunday's 12-page Courier Post sports section there were six staff bylines, two on high-school games.

Cannon wrote: "A sportswriter is entombed in a prolonged boyhood." Many boyhoods have been interrupted, it turns out.

Murray did his best work once the Dodgers and Angels replaced UCLA and USC football as the biggest players in the Southland. None more prescient than this summary: "Baseball is a game where a curve is an optical illusion, a screwball can be a pitch or a person, stealing is legal and you can spit anywhere you like except in the umpire's eye or on the ball."

If the printed page dies, there is no denying that the fatal wounds have been self-inflicted. There was an elitist smugness even in the press boxes of the 1960s, when Howard Cosell was just a radio nobody hustling for interviews in clubhouses filled with sports writers who treated him like a wad of gum stuck to the soles of their Florsheims. One of my early idols, Dick Young, railed at TV crews trolling for sound bites on his clubhouse turf. And this was before the Internet had a name or an existence. Now, with bloggers knocking down the walls, 24/7 sports radio and TV networks all around, sports writers still string quotes from day-old press conferences that have been cycled and recycled on radio and TV. Guys and gals, this isn't the '60s anymore.

The decline of exclusivity is a compelling reason that newspaper commentary and exceptional writing should not be trusted to bean counters and glorified ribbon clerks.

For many years, there were just two certified sports institutions in Dallas: the Cowboys and late sports columnist Blackie Sherrod. Blackie had more fans than the Texas Rangers.

Permit me to close this angry, frustrated piece with a Sherrod gem written after large-living Detroit Lions quarterback Bobby Layne got into a literal scrape:

"After indulging in some heavy, late-night research with some scholarly friends, Bobby was driving back to his hotel, innocently enough, when he was side-swiped by several empty cars lurking at curbside." *

Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/conlin.

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