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 and no stomach for grandstanding, but he had a true and abiding love of language, of the intoxicating dance of words carefully selected and arranged. Young writers arrive at a level of proficiency only when they know their audience. I knew exactly whom I was writing for: Shrake and Jenkins—and Blackie.
Watching Blackie agonize over his column five mornings a week made me appreciate how enormously difficult it is to write a string of good sentences. The master’s concentration was amazing. For two hours he’d stare at his typewriter, fingers cocked, springing into action periodically—maybe to hit a few keys, maybe to clean his glasses. If the building had been on fire, he wouldn’t have looked up. Two or three times every morning he would shout some random question, such as “How do you spell ‘Himalayas’?” or “What’s the name of that thing that nobody can remember?” We compiled a list of his queries and turned them into a song, “J.J. Wants to Know,” sung to the tune of “Ain’t We Got Fun.”
Blackie was a newspaperman first, a sportswriter second. Some of his greatest essays were written while covering the 1960 Democratic Convention and the 1969 moon landing. He invented the features page at the Dallas Times-Herald (nearly everyone at the paper thought he should have been editor). When he joined the Morning News staff in 1985, he was basically told he could have any job he chose. He ended up writing two columns a week—one for the sports section, the other for the op-ed page. “Two columns, three columns, it makes no difference,” he tells me now. “You work the same amount of time.” Good writers never stop working. “I didn’t realize until I retired how bone tired I was,” he admits. “I can’t sleep. I can’t turn my mind off.”
The concept of mortality began creeping into his subconscious a few years ago when his old friend Jim Murray died. The peerless Los Angeles Times sports columnist had survived countless hours in the press box with a pig valve in his heart. A few years before his death, Murray covered the World Series alongside Blackie at the Metrodome, in Minneapolis. The pressroom was in the basement, meaning they had to climb two flights of stairs to get to the street. At the second level Murray had to stop and rest. “You know something?” he told Blackie. “One day they’re going to find me dead in the stairwell of some damn stadium. People are going to say, ‘He wouldn’t have had it any other way.’ I want you to tell them for me, ‘That’s bullshit!'” Murray and Blackie were charter members of a gang of longtime sports columnists who call themselves the Geezers. Most are in their seventies or eighties: Edwin Pope, of the Miami Herald, Bill Millsaps, of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Dan Cook, of the San Antonio Express-News, Furman Bisher, of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and several others, including, most recently, Jenkins. Once a year they meet somewhere, drink the town dry, tell the same stories they’ve been telling for a decade, and bitch about how first-person-singular pronouns are ruining the business. One by one, the Geezers are slipping away.
“Years ago you were writing about the death of some jock and used part of an Ogden Nash poem,” I remind Blackie. “I can’t remember the words, but the subject was how nobody notices when an old man dies; old men are supposed to die.”
“‘Old men know when an old man dies,'” Blackie says, quoting the final line of the poem. We’ve been talking for nearly four hours. He finishes the last drop of his tequila and slides down from the bar stool. He squeezes my shoulder, shoots me the glower, and says, “I want my epitaph to read: ‘He was a pro.'”
I tell him I’ll remember. It goes without saying.