When I was growing up, sports pages were my classroom-away-from-the-classroom, and sportswriters were the teachers.
It started with Stanley Woodward’s Football Yearbook when I was about 9. Woodward’s college rankings taught me geography (Urbana, Ill.; Lincoln, Neb.; Oxford, Miss.; Palo Alto, Calif.), a bit about commerce (Cornhuskers, Longhorns), and some history (Seminoles, Minutemen, Sooners), with a smattering of wildlife (Horned Frogs, Razorbacks) thrown in. The annual publication expanded my vocabulary with words like debut (describing, say, the first game of a talented quarterback—and which I of course pronounced dee-but) and formidable (referring to a strong defense, offense, or a particularly large lineman). I also came to understand that teams were often “elevens,” and passes were sometimes “aerials.”
And then I discovered the pages of The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Evening Bulletin. I owe that to my childhood friend Dave Walker. He and I kept what might be called dueling scrapbooks. We would cut out pictures of our favorite players and teams from Woodward’s yearbook and the glossy, colorful pages of Sport magazine, then paste them in our scrapbooks. We often compared them, and one day I noticed that Dave had been filling his book with more current, black-and-white photos, obviously cut from newspapers. It certainly wasn’t our local paper—The Express (Lock Haven, Pa.)—which covered none of the major college or pro teams. Dave confessed that he was getting his material from two Philadelphia newspapers, and after that, I would beg my mother on a daily basis for the nickel or dime (I can’t remember the exact price) to buy at least one, and sometimes both, of those papers.
The pages of the Inky and Evening Bulletin were a portal to great journalism, rendered in compelling prose. The Inquirer’s Frank Dolson was probably the first byline I noticed, and many more have followed. I continue to subscribe today, and I have been privileged to read guys like Sandy Grady, Stan Hochman, then Ray Didinger, and a little later, Jayson Stark. Nationally there were the stylings of the legendary Red Smith, the humor of Jim Murray and Dan Jenkins, the elegance of Frank Deford, and the poignancy of Billy Lyon. All of the latter five, unfortunately, no longer with us.
More recently there was Gary Smith, a Delawarean who made a brief stop in Philly before gaining national prominence at Sports Illustrated and who is in the latest class of inductees to the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame. At the Inky, Frank Fitzpatrick, Marcus Hayes and Eagles beat writer Jeff McLane carry on the tradition of entertaining, often cerebral prose.
I came to recognize that the sports pages often boasted the best writing in the paper, which is not surprising. Sports, after all, make
up the toy department of life, offering endlessly colorful stories full of unique characters. You want humor? The writers gave us a parade of fun and funny people, as disparate as Yogi Berra and Charles Barkley. Tragedy? There was Roberto Clemente and Philadelphia’s own Doc Halladay. Villains with unrivaled talent? How about O. J. Simpson, Barry Bonds and Pete Rose.
And then there were the towering figures that transcended sports: Muhammad Ali, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Jim Brown, Wilt Chamberlain.
I became so fascinated by this world that I started on the road of sports journalism myself. In fact, a year or two after college, I wangled an invitation to the New York City offices of Sports Illustrated from Herm Weiskopf, a former Express sports editor who went on to serve many years on the SI staff. Weiskopf welcomed his naïve visitor and, showing me a baseball that was cut in half, politely explained that he was doing a piece describing how a pitcher threw a curveball.
But I soon realized I simply didn’t absolutely love sports beyond the big three—baseball, football, and basketball. So I went city-side, as they used to say, and eventually wound up, a bit to my chagrin, in corporate advertising and public relations.
Today, through “The War on Words” (pg. 9), I sometimes tweak some writers, and send the occasional note of praise to others—Hayes, Fitzpatrick, McLane—while trying to convince the Inky’s Marc Narducci to use more contractions.
Reading the sports pages continues to be both fun and informative —like watching Jeopardy every day for a lifetime. My thanks to all those writers—or scribes, as they were known when I first picked up the Inky—for supplying a key part of my education.
— Bob Yearick