Academic journal article Journalism History

The Myth Becomes the Mythmaker: Bat Masterson as a New York Sports Writer

Academic journal article Journalism History

The Myth Becomes the Mythmaker: Bat Masterson as a New York Sports Writer

Article excerpt

Among the many tales recounted about Bat Masterson, who gained fame as a lawman, gunfighter, and gambler in the Wild West of the 1870s and 1880s, is one that is alleged to have taken place in May 1902. Masterson, whose greatest feats as a gunman were behind him, reportedly was drinking at a saloon in Denver and entertaining a large crowd of hangers-on with his loud tales and boasts. In many ways Masterson was a relic of the Old West that quickly was disappearing from the American scene. He was forty-nine years old, and age and hard drinking had taken a toll on the man who was reputed to have thirty to forty gunfights and killings to his record. But Masterson still commanded an audience wherever he went, and he currently was drawing laughter from the crowd by relating an offer he had received to write for a New York City newspaper, the Morning Telegraph.

"Imagine me working indoors," said Masterson. "Why, I'd shoot one man, and the bullet would go through him and hit six others."

The laughter quickly died down when the new sheriff in town entered the room, walked up to Masterson and, with the same icy resolve Masterson had once used to back down outlaws in Dodge City, Kansas, informed Bat that he had two choices: Get out of town or be killed. Masterson paused in the sudden quiet that fell over the room and studied his drink for a moment before giving his reply.

"Do editors spell for you?" he asked.1

Like many of the tales about Bat Masterson, this one is part fact, part fiction, and part hyperbole. Unlike the other tales, it touches on a lesser known side of one of the legendary figures of the American West. While most of his famous contemporaries from the Wild West met their end in violent deaths (Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back of the head while playing poker in Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876, the year Masterson first arrived in Dodge City) or drifted into obscurity (Wyatt Earp, Masterson's close friend and fellow lawman in Dodge City, quietly lived out his final years in Los Angeles), Masterson carved out for himself a second career that kept him in the public eye.2 As the above tale indicates, Masterson did leave Denver, not entirely of his own choosing, and headed east to New York, where he became sports editor of the Morning Telegraph.

There is a touch of irony in Masterson's later career as a sports editor and newspaper columnist. To a great degree, newspapers and the loose style of reporting that was so prevalent in American journalism in the latter part of the nineteenth century were responsible for creating the legend of Bat Masterson and the fame that he would enjoy throughout his life. That Masterson himself would join the ranks of the newspaper writers certainly makes for an interesting twist to history.

While Masterson's exploits in the West were greatly exaggerated, his success as a sports writer was not. His transformation from Western gunman to Eastern newspaper writer is significant because it occurred at a time when the sports page was in its infancy in American journalism. The first specialized sports writers began to emerge at the turn of the century, and Bat Masterson became one of the most visible symbols of this new breed of journalist.3 He was, as Charles Fountain, biographer of famed sports writer Grantland Rice, noted, perhaps the only "brand-name sports writer" in New York before Rice's arrival in 1907.4 That certainly was not the case by the time of Masterson's death in 1921. In addition to Rice, other popular sports writers in New York included Heywood Brown, Westbrook Pegler, and W.O. McGeehan, while across the nation such celebrated American writers as Ring Lardner and Jack London had developed their talents on the sports beat.

Thus, Masterson not only was one of the last heroes of the Old West but also one of the first celebrities of the American sports page. As a newspaper columnist, he had a greater forum for his views and more influence than he ever did as a lawman or gunfighter. …

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