THE BLOG

The American Sports Columnist

05/05/2015 12:16 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016
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"I've gotten letters asking me why I'm always picking on 'Our Team.' I write back asking how come you're picking on a writer from 'Our Newspaper?' Do you root for General Motors? Well, the ball club is a business enterprise as is General Motors. And if the ball club has lousy teams, it's my responsibility to criticize the ball club. I regard myself as a consumer advocate for the sports fans." -- Jerry Green, retired Detroit sports columnist

I fell in love with sports at about age seven. A couple years later, I fell in love with the sports page. But I quickly grew a little bored with pictures, box scores and game stories. I gravitated to the sports columnists. Even at a young age I enjoyed debating sports topics. I loved reading the sports columnists' opinions and either agreeing or disagreeing with them.

I grew up in Denver in a Denver Post family. The Post was delivered in the evening in those days. I fondly remember racing my dad for the sports page after the paperboy tossed the newspaper on our driveway. The day's sports column was always my first stop.

I still love reading sports columnists, from all over the country. (For you fellow sports columnist junkies out there, check out www.ussportspages.com) I also enjoy reading some old columns written by the legends in the field -- Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Jim Murray, etc. One such foray into the past ended with me doing some research on American sports columnists. It was an interesting little journey.

Perhaps the first sports columnist was the man many believe was the first sportswriter in the United States, Colonel John Stuart Skinner. Skinner lived in Baltimore and founded the American Farmer in 1819. Yes, it was primarily a farming magazine, but Skinner regularly gave attention to sports. His essays helped beat down the loud opposition to sports in those days.

The first sports commentary, in a form similar to what we have today, was probably published in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. Pulitzer hired the first sports editor in America. Occasionally, the sports editor would publish an editorial on a local sports issue. The other major city papers of the day soon followed Pulitzer's lead and created sports departments that eventually would include sports columnists.

The so-called Golden Age of Sports, 1914-1930, saw the arrival of the high-salaried sports columnist. Men like Heywood Broun, Ring Lardner, Damon Runyan and Grantland Rice became celebrities. The writing style of this period was overly dramatic to say the least. Consider this well-known excerpt from Grantland Rice:

Outlined against a blue-gray October Sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.

Sports columnists wrote with more perspective between 1930-1950. In the late 1940's and early 1950s, columnists named their columns. For example, "Gibberish" by C.M. Gibbs; "Lowdown on Sports" by Charles Johnson; "Sportland Gossip" by George Bertz; "Tip of the Morning" by Joe Hennessy, etc. John Kieran wrote the first signed and titled column on a regular basis, "Sports of the Times" for the New York Times. He was considered by many to be the country's best-informed man when he later moved on to discourse on other subjects.

Throughout the 1960s, sports columnists still tended to write the "company line" whether it be pro or big-time college sports. For evidence of the comfy relationship between team and newspaper, consider that it long was a practice of championship baseball teams to give the beat writers a World Series ring just like the ballplayers received.

Sportswriting finally took a turn toward "true" journalism with the publication of Jim Bouton's and Leonard Shecter's book Ball Four in 1970 and Howard Cosell's emergence on Monday Night Football. Those two developments broke the unspoken rule that athletes had to be treated as icons.

Cosell's "tell it like it is" approach to sports commentary opened the door for conscientious print columnists to examine sports more honestly. Don Ohlmeyer, long-time executive producer for NBC Sports, succinctly described Cosell's contribution to the world of sports, "Whether you like it or not, sports journalism on television was begun in this country by Howard Cosell and nobody else."

Today, there are several sports commentators as good as Cosell. Unfortunately, there are also way too many Cosell wannabes that are poor imitations. They fall short of Cosell's standards because they purposely try to stir the pot and constantly spew hyperbole, instead of providing honest, balanced, rational analysis. They rant and rave on virtually every topic. And when it comes to important contemporary sports issues they barely scratch the surface, reporting on the scandal but rarely examining the underlying system leading to the scandal. At the end of the day, they end up with no more credibility than the columnists who served as flacks for the home team during the '50s.

The world of sport is perfect fodder for a commentator. Sport, because it is intertwined with all other aspects of our life and because it affords a rare opportunity to observe the human animal under conditions of immense pressure and intensity, can be an excellent means for identifying and dissecting the strengths and weaknesses of the human character. In addition, the number of social, cultural, legal, economic, political and technological issues in sports has never been greater.

Undoubtedly, the sports beat is much more than wins, losses, home runs and touchdowns -- at least it should be.

In his later years, the most famous sports columnist of all, Red Smith, realized this. He admitted he had changed from a columnist who simply tried to entertain the masses by glorifying sports teams and their stars, to one who seriously examined the socio-cultural ramifications of sport in our culture. In the last interview he gave before his death in 1982, Smith said:

My early feelings were that people went to sports events to have fun and that they picked up the sports section for the same reason. I thought it was my job to entertain. Often I just tried to do my soft-shoe dance and stay within the bounds of truth and propriety. For years I never spoke out against such controversial topics as the reserve system in baseball. I speak out more readily today and approach these topics with much more conviction than I ever did before. Listen, I believe that any sportswriter who thinks the world is no bigger than the outfield fence is not only a bad citizen of the world but also a lousy sportswriter, because he has no sense of proportion. He should be involved in the world in which he lives.

As usual, well said Mr. Smith.