THE RAILBIRDS AT THE STONELEIGH bar keep asking the man on the corner stool what retirement is like. “Like a steam bath,” Blackie Sherrod grumbles, copping a line from his final column in the Dallas Morning News, which ran just after the first of the year. “Once you get used to it, it’s not so hot.” Blackie is sporting a faded denim jacket and a week’s growth of whiskers, and his hair, long ago frosted over with silver, is combed back and curling up his neck.
To our immediate right is a framed photograph of the legendary sports columnist. It has hung on the wall of the Dallas watering hole since his eightieth birthday, three years ago; the railbirds come to this anointed place to sit at the feet of the master and drink of his wisdom. Blackie pretends the photo and the worshipers do not exist. We are knocking down shots of tequila—me trying to conduct an interview, him grousing about the unwelcome attention his retirement has elicited. He’s still pissed at the editors of the Morning News for making a page-one story of such an ordinary happening, thus inspiring similar stories and columns of adoration from writers all across Texas. “I told only two editors, and I swore them to secrecy,” he complains. “The last thing I wanted was a big splash.” So a man retires after more than fifty years of writing a column that is the envy of every sportswriter in the country, editing and newspapering and winning every award anyone could dream up, all the while mentoring one of the most talented groups of writers Texas has ever produced. What’s the big deal?
“Did you seriously think you could just vanish?” I ask my old friend and onetime boss. “Did you think nobody would notice?”
“Yes!” he barks, flashing me a glower of disapproval that I learned to live with years ago, when I worked for him at the Dallas Times-Herald. That bark and that glower made me a better writer, though even now he would murder me if I said so in his presence. He prefers to pretend that the successes enjoyed by the master and passed down to that small cluster of acolytes known as Blackie’s Boys were as natural as bread rising.
Blackie’s Boys earned nicknames straight out of Damon Runyon, one of the writers he instructed us to read. I was called Jap (it would take too long to explain why, but the name was coined by Puss Ervin, a retired postman who wrote the bowling column at the Fort Worth Press). Dan Jenkins was Pea Mouth, because his mouth was the width of a No. 2 pencil. The towering Bud Shrake was Thor. The master—born William Forrest Sherrod—has been called Blackie since his days on the gridiron at Howard Payne, a nod to his Native American coloring. But to us he was J.J.—as in J. J. Hunsecker, the powerful and ruthless columnist played by Burt Lancaster in The Sweet Smell of Success. These days, Blackie signs his e-mails to us “ JJ (ret.).”
Blackie seems surprised when I remark that we were all terrified of him. “I just wanted everyone to be the best he could,” he assures me. “If you remember, you guys were each other’s greatest supporters. You were always quoting each other’s lines. There was never any jealousy or backbiting.” Nevertheless, Blackie practiced a discipline jerked up, nails and all, from the Bear Bryant School of Holy Hell. Yelling, cursing, and foot-stomping wasn’t his style. He did it with snits, sneers, and snubs. Believe me when I tell you that a cold stare from the master was worse than any cat-o’-nine. If that day’s issue didn’t go well, he’d grunt his disapproval and refuse to have breakfast with us. “You guys go ahead and eat,” he’d say without looking up from his typewriter. “I’ve got a paper to put out.” If one of us wasn’t at work by six in the morning, a typical punishment would require the slug to call and awaken, say, some irascible grump like Jess Neely, the coach of the Rice Owls, and ask, “How the hell is your team doing, Coach?” We’d write his reply in six or seven paragraphs and present our manuscript for Blackie’s approval. He’d fire off twenty questions we couldn’t answer and send us back to try again. That’s how I became a journalist.
Working for Blackie required wit and will. The master hated idle hands, and so he organized track meets in the sports department of the Times-Herald. Between editions we read aloud to each other: Runyon, John Lardner, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, S. J. Perelman. When a teenage Jenkins first reported to work, Blackie advised him to read Henry McLemore, a wire-service reporter. Jenkins went to the files and opened a big, dusty binder to a day in 1936. McLemore was in Berlin, covering the Olympics, and his lead went like this: “It is now Thursday. The Olympic marathon was run on Tuesday, and I am still waiting for the Americans to finish.” A few days later, Blackie tells me, chuckling as he orders us two more rounds, Jenkins reportedly began a high school football story like this: “It is now Monday. Birdville played Handley on Friday night, and I’m still waiting for Bubba Dean Stanley to complete a pass.”
Blackie’s sarcasm and his above-the-fray attitude shaped us as young writers; he made us appreciate that sportswriting, done correctly, was a noble pursuit. Nothing was sacred; no one was spared. At a time when newspapers were reporting the scandalous affair of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, Blackie saw it as a handy metaphor for a Texas League anomaly. He wrote, “The Fort Worth Cats, like Miss Ingrid Bergman, play very well away from home.” In his own tough, erudite way, he taught us to break the mold, to take chances. News stories had to transcend facts, stretching instead for style and analysis. He had no patience for pretense