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 The greats of yesteryear have been replaced by dabblers, hacks, and homers, glorified fans with press credentials that permit them to leech onto some sports outfit, usually their hometown team, and bray or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