Wednesday May 13th, 2009

Bud Shrake started working at The Fort Worth Press in 1951, when newspapers ruled -- especially what is called the sports world. The Press has long since gone, unmourned. Ah, but when Shrake worked there, he and his sports-page pals, like Dan Jenkins, imagined they were the last live remnants of The Front Page, the Hecht-MacArthur play that celebrated manic newspaper life. It was Fort Worth, but they called it "their Chicago days."

Sadly, Bud died Friday at this sad time when even the nation's best newspapers seem to be holding on by a thread. So, I suppose Bud Shrake's as good a representative as anyone of a whole era in sports print journalism.

After all, he worked for the man, Blackie Sherrod, who is generally held to be the best sportspage editor, and then at Sports Illustrated for the man, Andre Laguerre, who's the greatest magazine sports editor ever. With an old golf pro, Bud wrote Harvey Penick's Little Red Book, which is the largest-selling sports book in history. That's some trifecta.

Of course, Shrake had one of those lives that couldn't be restricted to the friendly confines of the sports world. He wrote movies and novels, the last of which was entitled Custer's Brother's Horse, and let me tell you, it's a terrific yarn. Like a cagey, good old Texas quarterback, old Bud could still find his receivers after he lost something off his arm. And, like most of his novels, this last one takes place in Texas.

Bud was tall and laconic and carried something of Texas wherever he went. He was very good indeed with the ladies. He was going out with a stripper at Jack Ruby's club when Ruby gunned down Oswald, and in the last years of their lives, Bud and Governor Ann Richards were soulmates. He was buried next to her in Austin.

As Texas as Shrake was, he and Jenkins longed for the big-time, New York. Laguerre brought Jenkins in first, Shrake later, 1965. They fit right in, largely because Sports Illustrated under Laguerre was something of a last throwback to The Front Page. Trust me, I was there. Laguerre was a Frenchman who was plucked out of the Channel off Dunkirk, near bleeding to death, and then became DeGaulle's press secretary. He was a beguiling continental who liked American sportswriters with jagged edges.

Laguerre conducted a lot of business at the bar, and when his favorite closed he chose Shrake for the magazine's most crucial assignment: find a proper new watering hole. Among other things, the chosen joint couldn't have a juke box, and had to give every drinker the fourth one on the house. It took Shrake a couple weeks and a careful testing of about a hundred bars, but, ace reporter that he was, he found the saloon that pleased the boss.

Laguerre always called the last drink of the evening the ABF. That, you see, followed one for the road. It meant: the Absolute Bloody Final. I learned of Bud's death, reading a newspaper on an airplane. I called the flight attendant over and asked for another drink. "But we'll be landing soon," she said.

"I know," I said, "but I have to have an ABF for Bud Shrake."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.