There are a handful of columnists who have an uncanny knack for overcoming all and writing in a range stretching from good on their bad days to high literature on their best. Taylor Publishing Company of Dallas recently released the writings of four of the most popular sportswriters in the country: Blackie Sherrod of The Dallas Morning News, Bob Verdi of The Chicago Tribune, Edwin Pope of The Miami Herald and Jim Murray of The Los Angeles Times ($14.95 per volume).
The styles vary wildly, but the results are uniformly impressive. The fun of these columns is that they are freewheeling; the reader never knows what to expect, as when Verdi wrote of boxing promoter Don King, "It's just that those malaprops keep propping up." Or when Murray wrote, "...if you can't remember which side your bread is buttered on, don't worry—it's the side that hits the floor."
Humor can play a big part in a first-rate sports column, and Sherrod excels at it, as when he wrote of the time quarterback Bobby Layne was driving back to his hotel late at night "when he was sideswiped by several empty cars lurking at curbside." But the humor in a column is actually its frosting, a fact not recognized by many of these writers' contemporaries. It is perspective and insight that are the soul of a successful column. In this, Sherrod is topped by no one. He was at his best in 1982, when he wrote of the 22-year-old Ivan Lendl: "So we sit in judgment on a youth still in the Pac Man stage, with Ft. Knox in his backyard, with a fantastic winning streak going, apparently operating free of his country's strict bonds, and we ask him to be humble and gratefully tolerant of questions he doesn't have to answer. Would your kid be?"
Another knack of the top columnist is the ability to sum up a big subject in small space. In 1981, Verdi wrote of Muhammad Ali: "He shuffled, danced, jabbed, jived, rope-a-doped, blustered, filibustered, spoke out on Viet Nam, spoke down to Howard Cosell, spoke warmly with the little people, and spoke calmly with the big people." Verdi can also be surgically precise while slicing up a subject: "...John Ziegler was accused by certain cynics of being a knee-jerk president [of the NHL]. This is absurd, of course. Everybody knows that Mr. Ziegler is not a knee."
A good sports columnist must resist the journalist's tendency to be cynical; he must be ready to enjoy a great moment in sport. Pope displayed just that appreciation when he wrote of Giants nosetackle Jim Burt's going into the crowd to celebrate a January 1987 playoff win: "...a professional athlete gave himself back to the fans, and for golden minutes sports was good and glorious and innocent again." And while it's important to be able to glory in achievement, a columnist should be able to get good and mad, too, as Pope did when football coach Lou Saban picked up his suitcase for the umpteenth time and left Miami for West Point. "You want a deserter, Army?" Pope asked. "You've got one. Saban is a quitter."
Murray long ago retired the cup for great one-liners. Of Don Coryell, then coach of the San Diego Chargers, he wrote: "I have seen guys look happier throwing up." Yet the compilation of Murray's work shows him equally adept when laughter might seem to be inappropriate. Murray wrote about sprint star-wide receiver Bob Hayes: "The only thing in the world that could ever keep up with him was trouble. Trouble runs an 8.6 100." Or when Casey Stengel died: "Well, God is getting an earful today."
Readers feel they know these writers personally because the columnists write personally. Murray, for example, shared the problems of his deteriorating eyesight with his readers. Pope was not embarrassed to lament the decline of a sports great: "Thus, the agonistic turning of a hero [Arnold Palmer] into a curio."
Thanks, gentlemen, for the good words and the good times.