The decline of sportswriting in Texas can be blamed on many things—the collapsing newspaper business, for one—but the real problem is that nobody’s having fun anymore.
The World of Perspiring Arts—to borrow from the masterful phrasemaker Blackie Sherrod—has lost its voice and maybe its soul. A mere fifty years after the golden age of sportswriting in Texas there is not a newspaperman in sight who can write a decent three-martini sports column. These sorts of entertainments were a staple in the late fifties, when I was starting out. You read them in Fort Worth and Dallas under the bylines of chaps like Sherrod, Dan Jenkins, and Bud Shrake and in Houston from the desk of Mickey Herskowitz. The subject could be football, golf, bocce ball, snake charming, lizard racing—weirder was always better. Sherrod was particularly adept at venturing into the dark corners of the sporting world. Sometimes he wrote about other sportswriters, and once, he even wrote a column of advice to a kid from Mesquite who wanted to know the best way to prepare for this noble profession. Most sportswriters, Sherrod informed the lad, “got an early start by having their mamas drop them on their little heads as infants. In some instances, due to mama’s inept hands, they were dribbled like a basketball. Those, almost without exception, became daily columnists.” The three-martini column, I should explain, is a mix of attitudes, not alcohols; I don’t know anyone who can write on booze, though many have tried, including several of the aforementioned.
In the footprints of these giants we now find ants. The greats of yesteryear have been replaced by dabblers, hacks, and homers, glorified fans with press credentials that permit them to leech onto some sports outfit, usually their hometown team, and bray or bitch about its wonders or shortcomings in the dead language of statistics to audiences who wouldn’t know an original sentence if one crawled up their nose with a firecracker. The prose styles of these modern knights of the locker room are as bloodless and colorless as old cardboard. They lack entirely the fundamental understanding that if you write about events that repeat themselves into infinity, you must first acquaint yourself with literature.
I was reminded of this sorry state of affairs by a column I recently read in my local paper, the Austin American-Statesman. The author was Cedric Golden; the subject was the wealth of talent in the Texas Longhorns’ defensive backfield. Golden went into mind-numbing detail without addressing the central question: Why can’t they stop third-and-long? The problem with guys like Golden is they don’t seem to have fun anymore. They can be absolutely giddy in the presence of bad puns and double entendres, but irony stops them cold. I wonder if they ever tie the editor’s shoelaces together?
Sure, sportswriters still belly up to the bar and the buffet table and accept the comforts of the press box, and they’re still the most likely people on any newspaper’s staff to show up for work with a hangover. But they don’t talk about books they’re going to write or mountains they intend to climb or the useful idiots they are obliged to engage in the course of their daily ordeals. Frankly, I don’t know what they talk about. Mowing lawns would be my guess.
Once upon a time newspapers were the only game in town. If you were a young, ambitious writer looking for a place to practice, you got a newspaper job, preferably in sports, where the atmosphere gave you freedom to do crazy stuff. Sad to say, newspapers are now being swallowed up by a parallel universe that revolves around the Internet. Nobody under fifty reads newspapers anymore. I don’t know if they read anything. Funny books may well exceed their limits of comprehension. Three of the great dailies died off years ago—the Fort Worth Press, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Houston Post. The handful of survivors are desperately attempting to stay afloat, often by chopping off their arms, legs, and ears. Competition between the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram used to be bloody and savage, but now these two dinosaurs are forced to pool their coverage of the Mavericks and Rangers; after all the budget slashing, they can’t afford to pay their own full-time beat reporters.
It is doubtful that any of these rags will ever produce another Sherrod, and I can’t imagine that the blogs will either. Sherrod was the prime minister of the golden age. At the Times Herald he assembled the best sports staff of all time—himself, Jenkins, Shrake, and a winsome fellow named Cartwright. Sherrod broke the mold and gave us license to do the same. He, Shrake, and I used to go around in capes and leotards claiming to be Les Flying Punzars, an Italian acrobatic group of mysterious origins. Our most celebrated act, we liked to say, was the amazing triple somersault, which we were always prepared to perform but for the lack of a trapeze.
But Sherrod wasn’t just a great sportswriter, newspaperman, or ringmaster; he was an artist. Sportswriters all over the state busted their knuckles trying to copy his style, but we might as well have been trying to do knockoffs of Hemingway. You can’t capture Sherrod in a sentence or two, but let me offer some random samples.
Here is Ole Buster (as Sherrod referred to himself) at the Yale-Harvard game in November 1960, describing the “Hahvud” band: “These lads were a bit unbelievable. They were clad in dusty black loafers, wrinkled white ducks, red flannel blazers and red ties that were wonderfully askew. One wore a beret. Another, an eye patch. Most had unfortunate complexions and thick glasses and difficulty determining which was the right foot and which was the left foot for the purpose of marching.” A born storyteller, he had an ear for the vernacular and an antenna for bullshit, good or bad. Writing about Texas Christian University coach Abe Martin, Sherrod captured perfectly Martin’s cracker-barrel philosophy and ability to pop off such terms as “peckerwood,” “shistlepott,” and “yew bet.” Sherrod recalled that after watching a game film in which one of his Frogs made a particularly good play, Martin issued this statement of high praise: “Ah’m gonna have to buy that peckerwood a cream cone!”
Can we even compare Sherrod with the jokers turning out pap nowadays, scribblers like Golden or his Statesman compadre Kirk Bohls? I’d thought Bohls was the most boring columnist I’d ever read until Golden came aboard. Golden is one of those hapless press boxers who think lists of bests and worsts is material that engages the intellect. Bohls’ solution for every problem is to fire the coach. What both of them really like to do—because it’s easy and gives the paper a chance to blow its own horn—is make predictions. Sports predictions are the last refuge of dimwits. At the Times Herald we used to try and predict the margins in college football games in a weekly feature called the Pick-It Line, but it was strictly fun and games. To paraphrase John Kenneth Galbraith, the only purpose for predicting the outcome of sports events is to make astrology look good. I don’t mean to pick on these guys: They’re no worse than most of the others. They’re just trying to make a living in a profession that is dying a slow and pathetic death.
The best of today’s sorry lot are Randy Galloway, at the Star-Telegram, and Tim Cowlishaw and Kevin Sherrington, at the Morning News. Houston hasn’t produced a warm body since Herskowitz retired. San Antonio? Forget about it. Though our big-city dailies are top-heavy with sports columnists, there are hardly any worth spending a cup of coffee on.
Galloway is old-school. He was a young sports reporter in Dallas in the sixties, at roughly the time that Sherrod was presiding over the Times Herald. Maybe that’s why he’s so intoxicated with attitude. Cowlishaw is a good reporter and a good enough writer. Sherrington’s offerings are, as they used to say, an inch deep and a mile wide, but his short, punchy style can be pretty funny. In a column this spring about claims that the Chinese were cutting a few years off the reported ages of their gymnasts, Sherrington noted that fourteen-year-olds supposedly have an advantage over sixteen-year-olds because they’re more flexible. “Sounds sketchy to me,” he wrote, “but then I’ve never tried to bend one of my teenagers, either.” He went on to speculate that historians will discover that China isn’t nearly as old as previously believed and that “the Ming Dynasty was just an unpleasant interlude between courses of deer lip and camel hump.” At his best Sherrington might qualify as Sherrod Lite.
None of them, I’m afraid to say, stack up very well against their predecessors. Consider the lede of Jenkins’s 1970 British Open story for Sports Illustrated, where he’d gone after stints at the Times Herald and the Fort Worth Press: “Amid the gloomy and yet intoxicating old ruins of the town called St. Andrews and on the golf course that held the first cleat, history and tradition were caned and flogged all last week in a musty thing called the British Open by a cast of modern hustlers and legends.” As a pure sportswriter, Jenkins was without equal. He could be laugh-out-loud funny. Here’s the opening line of a story about “a special kind of brute,” Dick Butkus, who was an All-American linebacker at Illinois at the time: “If every college football team had a linebacker like Dick Butkus, all fullbacks would soon be three feet tall and sing soprano.”
Shrake was the most literary of the old bunch. Like Jenkins, he hit his stride at Sports Illustrated, but a series of columns he wrote for the Morning News on the boxing match between Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay in the winter of 1964 are classics of the genre. “Cassius Clay drove into town,” he wrote several weeks before the fight, “in a black Cadillac so long that by the time the rear of it could get through an intersection he had almost run the light.” Most boxing aficionados thought Clay was a joke and continued to think that way right up until the moment just before the start of the seventh round of the championship fight in Miami Beach, when he suddenly leaped from his stool and started jumping around like a crazy man. What nobody knew at the time—and nobody can explain even today—was that Liston had surrendered the championship without bothering to answer the bell. Maybe his shoulder was hurt, as he claimed later. Or maybe the fight was fixed. From ringside, Shrake wrote a wonderfully Runyonesque critique, explaining: “It was one of the worst fights of the century. Some of the incidents are all but impossible to explain other than in terms of there having been business done.”
In the backwash of today’s mediocrity, I’d hate to think that people have forgotten the great ones. But it could happen, as Jenkins reminded me recently. He and Sherrod belong to a group of truly ancient sportswriters who call themselves the Geezers. They gather each year to drink, tell the same old stories, and bitch about what’s happening to journalism. The group numbers eight or ten and includes Furman Bisher, of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Edwin Pope, of the Miami Herald; and, until he died, Jim Murray, who wrote so brilliantly for the Los Angeles Times.
A few years ago, as the Geezers were holding court at a bar in Dallas, the late Jim Brock, who used to be Abe Martin’s publicity director at TCU, was seated with some local wise-guy day drinkers at a nearby table. Brock pointed to the Geezers. “Right over there are a bunch of the best damn sportswriters in America, and I personally know every one of ’em,” he said.
To which one of the wise guys said, “Oh? Which one is Kevin Sherrington?”