Frank Graham Jr.'s memoir of his own life, his father's extraordinary career and the most expensive libel action in the history of sports journalism is a deceptively complicated book. In A Farewell to Heroes (The Viking Press, $15.95), Graham writes with apparent ease and beguiling literacy. Here is a man who has read the classics, who knows which base is second and who isn't afraid to use a polysyllable. (He destroys the boobs who stretched baseball from its classic 154-game season to the current 162 with a single word: Procrustean.)
Like every closet romantic, Graham loves distant times and vanished places. The portraits here of forgotten emperors and clowns are marvelous. You hear the sainted John McGraw lying to the press. You spend a Depression day with Jim Braddock before he became heavyweight champion, and you get the feel of what it was to be a stevedore, devoid of hope. You read the glorious huckster prose of one Tom Foudy, the P.R. man for the St. Mary's College football team in the 1930s:
"James Lawrence Austin, a right end, works in the movies in the summer and is a friend of Jean Harlow...Jean made a mysterious visit to San Francisco before the Gonzaga game, and Jim was late for practice. Roared [Coach] Slip Madigan: 'You can play with Jean Harlow or you can play with St. Mary's.' " This was a Foudy press release. Today it would be called investigative reporting.
Graham puts forth a good case for his father as the creator of the modern, accurately reported sports column. Frank Graham Sr. was a slightly built man, soft-voiced, always gentle. His nickname at one time was Lead Kindly Light, and the clichè was that you never noticed Frank Sr. Which was how he liked it. As his son documents with columns from The Sun, his long-defunct New York paper, it was Frank Sr. who did the noticing.
Frank Sr. never carried a note pad, much less a tape recorder, but he had a golden ear for speech, a clear eye for scenes. Before him, columnists wrote essays (Heywood Broun) or commented and chattered (Bat Masterson in the old Morning Telegraph). But Frank Sr. was the first sports columnist to put readers precisely where he had been.
Young Frank grew up to become a press agent for the Brooklyn Dodgers, where we met and became friends, and then went into magazine journalism, where our paths intersected with shattering results. The Saturday Evening Post of old paid generous fees for superficial articles, but wouldn't buy your piece unless it was superficial. In 1963, as certain past sins caught up with me, I had to stop writing for a year and go to work. My assignment was to bring the Post's sports coverage into the 20th century, to introduce depth and style.
We got a fine piece from Ed Linn on the death of Big Daddy Lipscomb, a good one from Jimmy Breslin on a basketball fixer. We mixed such stories with more upbeat stuff and turned out a weekly picture of the sports world. Then Post lawyers, working through editorial brass, proclaimed they had found evidence that Wally Butts, once coach and subsequently athletic director at Georgia, and Coach Bear Bryant of Alabama had conspired to rig a football game.
I said fine, if true. Work with the district attorneys. Swap information in exchange for an exclusive story that would run as the DAs issued indictments.
No, no. That was old journalism, said the higher-ups. The Post was going to break this on its own.
After two days of debates, I capitulated and suggested that Frank Jr. look into the story. He wrote it. I edited it. The Post lawyers, who had uncovered the story in the first place, were delighted with the article. Presently, Butts won $460,000 on the grounds of libel, while Bryant settled out of court for $300,000.
In A Farewell to Heroes, Graham doesn't capture the climate of the 1963 Post as well as he captures other things. It strikes me that the Butts-Bryant affair probably is a book unto itself, calling now, as it did then, for hard, extended reporting. I don't mean to carp. This is a moving reminiscence; indeed, a delight. And if Graham and I see the Butts-Bryant matter differently, I fall back on H.G. Wells's words to an Irish author: "The world is wide and there is room in it for both of us to be wrong."