When the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth's birth arrived last
Feb. 6, the event was marked in most newspapers by interviews
with Ruth's descendants or by a dry listing of the ballplayer's
awesome statistics. The Washington Post chose instead to let
columnist Shirley Povich recall the facts and fiction
surrounding the Babe's career. And rather than speculate on
whether Ruth "called his shot" in the 1932 World Series, Povich
simply recounted the event as he had seen it--from the Wrigley
Field press box, where he was covering the third game of the
Series for the Post.
"I reread my account of it," Povich wrote, lest anyone doubt his
memory. "There was no mention of a called shot."
Consider the case closed. Povich, who turned 90 on July 15, is
nearly as monumental a figure in his profession as Ruth was in
his. He is perhaps the last working link to the Golden Age of
American sports. A former traveling companion of the legendary
Red Smith, Povich has been with the Post for 72 years, from
Dempsey-Tunney to Tyson-Spinks, from Ruth and Gehrig to Bonds
and Griffey Jr. Povich once drove Walter Johnson down from the
Hall of Famer's Maryland farm to see Bob Feller pitch at
Washington's old Griffith Stadium. And as a spry 67-year-old at
the Munich Olympics in '72, Povich sprinted past German
policemen to secure a rooftop vantage point for his front-page
story reporting that terrorists had taken 11 members of the
Israeli team hostage.
Since joining the Post as a Georgetown freshman in 1922, Povich
has covered 60 World Series, 20 Super Bowls and hundreds of golf
tournaments and championship fights, and since his so-called
retirement, in 1974, he has added some 500 columns to his
oeuvre, which now comprises about 15,000. Fans of Povich's
writing have included Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and
Richard Nixon (who said Povich was "the one person I read in the
Post"), and Povich notes with pride his inclusion in the
inaugural edition of Who's Who of American Women--where his
biography stated that he was the husband of Ethyl and the father
of Maury, David and Lynn.
"It's been a joyride," Povich says of the job that has taken him
through the Depression and four wars--the first of which he
covered from the front as a correspondent in the South Pacific
during 1944 and '45. "I've written about genuine American
heroes--Babe Ruth, Bill Tilden, Bobby Jones, all of them. And
I've met wonderful people around the world. I've been blessed; I
don't know what I would have done if I hadn't met Mr. McLean."
Mr. McLean was Edward B. McLean, the owner of the Post when it
was struggling with a circulation of less than 50,000, which
placed it fourth in a five-paper city. An avid golfer, McLean
spent his summers in Bar Harbor, Maine, where Povich lived with
his parents and eight siblings atop the family furniture store.
When Shirley was a teenager McLean hired him as a caddie for two
summers and then suggested he "come to Washington and work on my
paper." The 17-year-old had never ridden on a train, left his
home state or worn long pants, but he soon did all three on what
he calls "the trip south to my future."
After a stopover in New York to see his first major league
baseball game--a 1922 World Series contest between the New York
Giants and Yankees that he viewed from Coogan's Bluff, which
overlooked the Polo Grounds--Povich arrived in D.C. in early
October. His first order of business was a trip to McLean's
estate and golf course, where he got his initial brush with
athletic celebrity, caddying for the new boss and his buddy
President Warren Harding. Then it was on to the real job.
"At first I was a copyboy, then I moved over to the police
beat," says Povich, who was drawing a $12 weekly paycheck while
working late into the night and studying law at Georgetown.
"There weren't many murders then; mostly bootlegger-busting. I
was always hanging around the sports desk, and in 1924 I
switched again." Povich's first byline came that summer--for a
piece on the unexpectedly surging Washington Senators. "I was
so excited, I ran downstairs to the makeup room just to run my
hands over my name in cold type," he recalls.
When Povich helped with the Post's coverage of the World Series
between the Senators and the Giants that fall, he was assigned a
seat in the Griffith Stadium press box beside a "journalist"
named George Herman Ruth. Because the Babe was suffering from
appendicitis, his ghostwriter, Christy Walsh, was there instead,
dictating to a telegraph operator words that would be wired
throughout the country as the Babe's own: "As I lie here in
Washington's Emergency Hospital, as a native New Yorker my
heart is with the Giants, but as an American Leaguer it is my
duty to root for the Senators."
In 1926, upon being named the youngest sports editor in the
country of a metropolitan daily (just after his 21st birthday),
Povich found that he had too much integrity and too little money
to stoop to hiring ghostwriters. Instead he devised a credo that
became his paper's battle cry at the height of the ghostwriting
craze: Reach for the Post, Not a Ghost.
The column "This Morning with Shirley Povich" first appeared
around the same time, and six days a week for the next 45 years
(except when Povich was overseas), it was a left-side fixture on
the front page of the Post sports section. Holding his columns
to approximately 900 words, Povich wrote "what I felt I would
want to read," he says, and he always followed the same pattern.
"I asked myself two questions when I woke up: What day is it?
And, What the hell should I write about?"
For nearly 20 years Povich handled the arduous task of covering
the Senators regularly while also writing his column and serving
as sports editor, but he has only wonderful memories of what is
now fondly remembered as the Train Era. Baseball reporters
traveled from city to city in railroad cars in which they slept
and dined alongside the players they covered. They would write
en route to St. Louis, Chicago or Boston and then hand off
stories to the Western Union operators who manned the stations
along the way. The style and wit Povich developed on these trips
has held up over seven decades, earning him recognition in the
library of the Baseball Hall of Fame and a role in Ken Burns's
documentary tribute to the sport. At a Washington dinner
hosted by the Anti-Defamation League this summer to honor
Povich's lifetime battle against injustice, Burns recited the
leads to many of Povich's most memorable baseball stories:
NEW YORK, Oct. 8 --The million-to-one shot came in. Hell
froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. Don Larsen
today pitched a no-hit, no-run, no-man-reach-first game in a
NEW YORK, Oct. 4 --Please don't interrupt, because you
haven't heard this one before. Brooklyn Dodgers, champions of
the baseball world. Honest.
NEW YORK, Oct. 3 --Hollywood's most imaginative writers on
an opium jag could not have scripted a more improbable windup of
the season that started in April and had its finish today in the
triumph of Bobby Thomson and the Giants.
Into the last blur of white that came plateward out of the
pitching fist of Brooklyn's Ralph Branca was compressed the
destiny of the two clubs that had battled for six months to get
to today's decision. Before Thomson swung, it was the Dodgers
winning the pennant. A split second later, the Dodgers were dead
and the Giants had it.
In the days before the Post prospered, Povich was often the
paper's lone calling card in the fight for respect. The old
joke goes that when Eugene Meyer purchased the bankrupt daily
for $825,000 at a public auction on June 1, 1933, Povich was all
Meyer got for his money. Current Post owner Katherine Graham
says Povich alone is "responsible for one third of our
readership," and Povich jokes about the penny-pinching days when
he paid his own way to events and needed permission to make a
phone call to Philadelphia. Sports has since become big
business, and during Povich's years with the Post, its daily
circulation has grown to more than 850,000.
"He's a bulldog on a story, but a sweetheart of a man," says
sports editor Ed Pope of the Miami Herald, who was a reporter
for 50-odd years and still recalls his first meeting with
Povich, at the 1950 Sugar Bowl. "I was walking down a corridor
of the old St. Charles Hotel," Pope says, "and I saw him through
an open door. There was my idol, the first and only sportswriter
I've ever seen reading Marcel Proust." Pulitzer Prize winner Jim
Murray of the Los Angeles Times, who watched the Munich tragedy
unfold while he crouched beside Povich, offers similar praise.
"Guys like Shirley made sports what they are today," he says.
"Ball players wouldn't be making $7 million if not for his
Povich, who golfed with Mickey Mantle and Sam Snead (he once
outdrove Slammin' Sam in a pro-am), earned a seat beside Red
Smith at a front table at Toots Shor's in New York. Like Smith
he was a student of the classics, and he read poetry from the
Saturday Review to his family and strove to make each word of
his own copy powerful. "If they don't know what it's about, that
gives me three paragraphs to hook them," he said of his decision
never to run headlines over his columns. He usually delivered
with room to spare.
"I saw young men weep this afternoon, expressionless umpires
swallow hard and emotion pump the hearts and glaze the eyes of
60,000 baseball fans in Yankee Stadium," Povich's account of
Lou Gehrig Day, July 4, 1939, began. "Yes, and hard-boiled news
photographers clicked their shutters with fingers that trembled
a bit." Because he described action himself instead of filling
stories with quotes or anecdotes from others, Povich was often
in front of his typewriter when the stadium lights went out,
with only a telegrapher for company.
"He rarely went to a locker room or a press conference; his
column was simply what he thought and what he believed," says
Martie Zad, a writer and editor at the Post since 1950. "He
might agonize for four hours over a column or knock it out in 20
minutes. Either way, it would be perfect."
Povich was covering a Washington Redskin game at Griffith
Stadium on Dec. 7, 1941, when word came over the wire: "Keep it
short! The Japs have just kicked off! War now!" In 1944 he
persuaded Post editors to let him go to the South Pacific as a
correspondent, and he was soon reporting from Iwo Jima and
Okinawa alongside pal and fellow D.C. journalist Ernie Pyle.
Returning home with a bad back and without Pyle, Povich
continued his longtime advocacy of integration in baseball, and
just after Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Dodgers
in 1947, Povich published a 15-part series on racism in baseball
entitled "No More Shutouts." A decade later, when the Redskins
were plodding along as the last NFL team with an all-white
roster, Povich waged war against owner George Preston Marshall
with such lines as "the Redskins took the field in their
traditional colors--burgundy, gold and Caucasian." In 1962, due
largely to Povich's pressure, Marshall signed future Hall of
Fame halfback and receiver Bobby Mitchell, now the Redskin
Povich got his share of hate mail (some of it anti-Semitic), he
sparred in print with Howard Cosell, and once he was swung at by
Washington Senator first baseman (and future manager) Joe Kuhel,
who was under the mistaken impression that Povich had credited
him with an error in the previous game. Kuhel was fined $100 by
team owner Clark Griffith. Three days later Kuhel found a fan
letter in his locker with a $50 bill and the following words:
"I'd send you the other half if you hadn't missed."
Povich's delight in recalling such stories and his refusal to
hold a grudge suggest that he has always had his priorities
straight. His children remember the nights he spent in the
basement hammering out freelance stories to pay their way
through private high schools and Ivy League universities. For
years the entire family spent two months during spring training
together in Florida, where the kids would enroll in school
temporarily. Friday-night Sabbath dinners were mandatory
whenever Dad was in town, and Augusts were reserved for family
vacations in Maine.
Married for more than 63 years, Shirley is the first to admit
that Ethyl has been the stabilizing force in their close and
accomplished family. Oldest son David, age 60, is an attorney
in a prestigious Washington firm, and both Lynn, 52, and Maury,
56, followed Shirley into journalism. Lynn was the first female
senior editor at Newsweek and is now editor-in-chief of Working
Woman, and Maury hosts a popular talk show. All are still
subjected to the Povich wit; Maury, who is married to newscaster
Connie Chung, has received such messages on his answering
machine as: "Hello, Connie. We loved your newscast tonight.
Maury, get a haircut and buy a button-down shirt. Nobody is
going to take you seriously without a button-down and a tie."
Twice a week Shirley makes the 15-minute drive from his house in
northwest D.C. to the Post's downtown office. There his desk is
beside that of staff writer David Nakamura, who was born one day
after his neighbor's 65th birthday. The old fedora that Povich
places atop his computer gives a clue to his age, but the
succinct, dead-on columns he writes on baseball, boxing and a
variety of other subjects rival those of writers a third his
age. Post sports editor George Solomon seeks Povich's advice
regularly, and columnist Tony Kornheiser says, "You tend to
forget his age. The man is 90, but he's still contemporary."
Asked the secret to his longevity, Povich offers a sly smile
before answering, "I just take things one decade at a time."
After two years at the Washington Post, Saul Wisnia is living
and writing in his native Boston.