What Mark Twain (himself a sometime-sportswriter) called “games,” and we now call “sports,” has captivated people from every intellectual, social and economic category in the last century and helps maintain sanity (as long as you don’t think about mind-boggling modern details like $30 million-a-year contracts) in our current times. Today, the speed of so-called “advancement” makes many people long for simpler experiences such as double-headers and $2 bleacher seats. Thankfully, those small joys are still available, and so is great sportswriting.
For as long as there has been sportswriting, sportswriters have been ostracized and forced to soldier on — perhaps, to write On the Road. However, in many cases, American sportswriters have been Renaissance men, and some of the best American writers, period. Rules of the Game, an interesting and entertaining new collection of the best sportswriting published by Harper’s Magazine in the last 100 years or so, reveals that before and after Kerouac’s time, sportswriters, and even some of the athletes they covered, have often been more than just fans with a platform.
Like the best Beat writers, Harper’s sportswriters (from Twain to George Plimpton to Lewis H. Lapham) have generally labored in “heroic prose,” creating expansive tomes sparked by a particularly inspiring subject, expanded exponentially from intensive research, as the act of writing (and thinking) takes over. However, avid 21st century sports fans like myself are generally offered four kinds of journalism on sports: the no-frills, non-subjective game story; the opinion column, which often features depth thwarted by unkind word maximums; the larger “player profile” in publications like Sports Illustrated; and anything-goes blogging.
The distinguished and widely cherished connection between sports and what can honestly be called “writing” — in the sense that Moby Dick or On the Road is called “writing” — is becoming a fringe phenomenon frequently considered just a “guilty pleasure.” What’s more, according to The Denver Post (and formerly the Rocky Mountain News) veteran Dave Krieger, sports writing as a viable career option is dying along with print journalism itself.
“We are hanging on by our fingertips as the boat sails away,” Krieger told me. “Those of us fortunate enough to have jobs in the business stay in it because we’re fortunate enough to have jobs. Also because, faced with the prospect of joblessness, a disturbing number of us realize quite late in life we are qualified to do little else. And last but not least, because going to ballgames remains a very pleasant way to make a living.”
Getting paid more than a few cents a word to write anything at all these days can be incredibly difficult, but making a living as a plain ol’ sportswriter not syndicated on ESPN radio or featured daily on a loud TV show like ESPN’s Around the Horn is particularly challenging. As far back as 1968, Gary Cartwright was venting about the life of a “washed up sportswriter,” telling Harper’s readers that no sportswriter “improves after eight or 10 years [because] there is nothing else to say ... but the assignments get juicier and the way out less attractive.” Over 30 years later, Krieger agrees.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re writing the same columns over and over because a lot of the events are the same, year after year, and a lot of the competitive situations ... but the people keep changing and they’re the interesting part,” he says.
However, Krieger acknowledges that it’s rough out there for those that cover “games.”
“The changes in the newspaper business over the past few years have rendered part of Gary’s assessment obsolete,” he says. “The assignments no longer get juicier as you get older. Now we cover less of the big national and international stuff we used to cover routinely. The Web means readers in Denver don’t need me to go to the World Series. They’ve got lots of people writing about it as close as their iPhone. And my paper can no longer afford to send me.”
The inimitable Woody Paige, who also writes about sports for The Denver Post and appears regularly on ESPN as an irreverent and outgoing talking head, couldn’t disagree more.
“Our business has changed greatly, and we’ve changed with it,” he writes in a lengthy e-mail.
“Honestly, I found that people care more about sports than they do world history, politics, city council meetings, [etc.],” Paige explains. “So my audience has been bigger and more diversified and more interested in what I have to say. There is no boredom. Despite what Cartwright believed, there is something new to say every day.”
What about paying the bills and even being able to retire, Woody?
“The owner of The Denver Post said I had a lifetime contract,” Paige commented, “but I assume that someday a priest will show up in my office and say the last rites over my live body and declare me dead, and my newspaper career will be over. Will I win the Pulitzer and go away? No. I will continue to win, as I once did, the Pillsbury Oven-Baked Sandwiches Most Popular Columnist Award, although that award went away with the sandwiches, and maybe I should have too.”
Like many music writers, the majority of sportswriters would be blogging about their passion, or even just talking about it every night at a bar, whether they were paid to do so or not.
“Furman Bisher, who owned half of downtown Atlanta because he invested wisely 50 years ago, kept writing a column for the Atlanta newspaper until he was well into his 90s,” Paige adds. “He recently retired. What’s he doing? Writing a blog. Sportswriters never retire. They just turn the page.”
One of my favorite passages in Rules of the Game involves former Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale telling George Plimpton in 1977 that he knew it was time to retire when a hard-hit Roberto Clemente line drive “took the skin off the top of his ear on its way to center field.” Krieger and many other sportswriters could’ve quit after their first brush with an abrasive athlete or their first (or thousandth) angry letter beginning with “Hey Moron,” but the writers I talked to aren’t giving up anytime soon.
“When the subject line says ‘Hey Moron, it saves time,” Krieger muses. “When it says Hey Morron, or even, Hey Moreon, it’s actually kind of a high point.”