A Natural History of Sports Reporting. (Sports/Media)

By Pollack, Joe | St. Louis Journalism Review, April 2003 | Go to article overview

A Natural History of Sports Reporting. (Sports/Media)


Pollack, Joe, St. Louis Journalism Review


Sports writers used to wear their hearts on their sleeves almost as a matter of course. The decade or so between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression was known as the Golden Age of Sports, and it was described in purple prose by Grantland Rice, the all-time leader, and his many followers.

Rice wrote about the Four Horsemen, created in apocalyptic legend but narrowed to describe the Notre Dame backfield of 1927--Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, Pete Miller and Elmer Layden. It was a time of hyperbole and alliteration, of references to Greek heroes, of nicknames like the Iron Horse, the Sultan of Swat, the Manassa Mauler, Big Red. The writing style, enthusiastic as all get-out, was known as "Gee Whiz!"

The Thirties produced a stand-off between the cynic and the hero-worshipper, and a time when many writers added a cynical political or social slant, like Westbrook Pegler's vicious satirical columns that skewered Nazi policemen patrolling the streets of Garmisch-Partenkirchen during the 1936 Winter Olympics, or Red Smith's description of a Harvard-Yale game at which "the fans rose as one raccoon."

It also was a time when sports writers were like drama critics; they saw the game, analyzed it, formed opinions and wrote about it. Cheering in the press box was a sin, and semi-fraternal organizations of writers were formed to keep the cheering to a minimum because it interrupted a train of thought. Later, Chicago's great Jerome Holtzman combined a collection of columns in a book, "No Cheering in the Press Box."

Visiting a locker room was unimportant, except perhaps for an afternoon paper guy looking for an expanded second-day angle. Turning a manager or a coach into a daily spokesman was considered a waste of time, because it was as rare then as it is now that he will say anything truly analytic or meaningful about the game. The constant repetition--even if a correct analysis--becomes boring very rapidly; writers are far better able to create sentences than are athletes or managers. The best example of this is Yogi Berra, who said few of the things that were credited to him.

The view from the press box probably was better than the view from the sideline or the dugout, and both manager and writer could easily juggle a few statistics to make a point. But today's editors, knowing that many fans have watched television, think that their sports writers will find new insights by talking to players in a locker room. It has turned sports writers, usually the most imaginative of writers, into transcribers looking for new ways to phrase a managerial canard.

A change in writing style, and in attitude, came in the days following World War II. Baseball expanded to California, television made its first tentative steps onto the field, airplane travel replaced overnight trains and both athletes and writers began to deal with a new landscape. …

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