Friday, September 23, 2005

How to Sportswrite good

Thanks to poster JaredK, who scanned it in and e-mailed it to me, we have this great piece from Roy Blount Jr., one of my faves. Here ya go...

This piece appeared in the November 1976
Esquire, the first of a year or so's worth of sports columns I did for that magazine. As we used to say in Georgia, Best, Schmest; but I loved writing this piece because in it I broke out of family-magazine sportswriting into the world of available language.
Roy Blount, Jr.

How to Sportswrite Good

Esquire • November 1976

I read with pleasure nearly every form of sportswriting, from Tug McGraw's Scroogie comic strip to Ebony Fisherman, a black angling column in the New Pittsburgh Courier. Scroogie once showed a manager sitting in his dugout reflecting: "I can't believe it! It's too good to be true!! All I do is sit on my hands for nine innings and we plaster Pittsburgh nine-one!!! [Pause] Just think what we could do if I sat on my fists."

I scour the Sporting News for great passages, like this one from a story about an Oriole bat boy who had hooks instead of fingers: "He is going to major in mathematics. I could have told him that it's hard to become good in mathematics when you don't have any fingers to count on, and I'm sure he would have gotten a sincere laugh out of it." Sportswriting is like country music: It is sometimes very good, and sometimes when it is really bad it is even better. And it can be largely silly and genuinely worth something at the same time.

But I don't want to read any tomes about sports. That is what two recent books -- Sports in America, by James Michener, and The Joy of Sport, by Michael Novak—look like to me: tomes. Well, I would read a tome about some particular aspect of sports -- The Dribble in America or The Joy of Batting Orders. I would cherish a nice snappy treatment that knocked sports, in essence, right into the creek, as old SCLC campaigner Hosea Williams did incidentally on a recent BBC-TV special, when he criticized the city of Atlanta for allotting tax money to a golf course: "Damn some grass to knock a ball on when there are people in the streets robbing for food."

But I don't want to read anything in which somebody steps back and takes a long view of Sport as Something It is High Time We Faced Up to the Big Picture and Tiny Epiphanies of, or, Why We Like to Watch People Spring Through the Air and Land in a Heap. Hasn't everybody always down through the ages liked to watch people spring through the air and land in a heap? I'd rather read The Wit and Wisdom of Herman Hickman or Among the Brownies: The Ordeal of Ned Carver.

A while back, there was even a flurry of writing -- in Esquire, More, the Los Angeles Times and probably Playgirl and Presbyterian Life -- about sportswriting. Writing about sportswriting seemed an odd exercise, like going worm fishing to catch worms, but I enjoyed it when it didn't get too abstract. Sportswriters have interesting day-to-day problems. Consider Ted Colton, then of the Mckeesport, Pennsylvania, Daily News, being chased through the Three Rivers Stadium parking lot by a whole irate Steeler fan club, led by a man in a gorilla suit, for picking Cleveland to take the AFC Central. Or Pete Axthelm of Newsweek, stepping glumly into the Pittsburgh locker room after last year's Super Bowl, surveying the jubilance and saying, "I can't stand to look at a team that hasn't beaten the spread and thinks it's won."

I don't guess anyone is going to make a movie about an intrepid pair of sportswriters. In sports novels sportswriters are always wimps or drunks or sneaks or hacks, or all four. In life they are often abject straight men. A writer asked Alex Johnson, then with the Cincinnati Reds, "Alex, you hit only two homers all last year, and this season you already have seven. What's the difference?" And Alex answered, "Five." Once Bill Bradley's sole response to a reporter who asked him why the Knicks had fined him one hundred dollars was, "You have a stupid job."

But when Henry Aaron dumped strawberries on Frank Hyland of the Atlanta Journal for something Hyland wrote, Hyland got letters of support "from every redneck in the country. One even wanted me to run for President," Hyland told me one spring training, when I found myself talking with, at the same time, him and Pat Livingston of the Pittsburgh Press, whom Mean Joe Greene once spat on. For his part, Livingston said that a guy in a Pittsburgh bar who was dying of cancer anyway offered to shoot Greene for him, but Livingston said no.

I am trying to conceive of a big movie action scene in which sportswriters would be central. I mean one where the sportswriters wouldn't have spit, or strawberries all over them. Sportswriters can be good vigorous drinking arguers. "Stop calling me an asshole!" I remember one scribe yelling to another at the height of a group debate during dinner (paid for by the team we were covering) in a fancy San Francisco restaurant. "I'm on your side and you're calling me an asshole!"

In his new book, Michael Novak proposes that "newspaper and magazine writers, regaining their faith in words, should describe the contests on the field as if no one watched television. ... The human spirit needs words, needs the irony, the subtlety, and the bite of words, and above all the capacity of words to go beneath surfaces, their power to pull aside veils and uncover unsuspected dimensions of human striving. Many regions of athletic experience have scarcely been explored."

Right. But I wonder whether Novak has any real sense of the linguistic problems sportswriters are up against. When athletes speak most naturally about what they do, they tend to use graphic, anatomical language. "I'm gonna be right up in his noseholes," said Joe Frazier. "That pitch I threw, the muscle stay back, the bone keep going," Luis Tiant said, explaining how something snapped in his arm. Athletes can even slap a quick metaphor on you. The Redskins' Larry Brown, asked which runners he has modeled himself on, said: "I've watched Kelly. He was an out-of-sight runner. I can't have the moves that Kelly has. I can't create the moves that Sayers made. I have my own style. I want to be my own man. When I was a kid I used to watch Jimmy Brown and all I can say is if you got a loaded gun, you fire it."

Now you might say that such quotes are a boon to the sportswriter. (And don't you think Norman Mailer would have loved saying what Brown said, substituting Hemingway for Jimmy Brown?) The only trouble is this: How are you going to write vividly enough in between the good quotes to keep your column from looking like a couple of pearls set in a hunk of pot metal?

More often, the problem with players' language is that, in Gertrude Stein's phrase, it is inaccrochable. I once worked for a newspaper whose World War II correspondent sent in a dispatch about a sailor who ran out onto the deck of his aircraft carrier, shook his fist at the strafing planes overhead and yelled, "You fucking Japs!" Only the correspondent knew the paper wouldn't print that, so he changed it to "You damn Japs!" Which the copydesk changed to "You darn Japs!" Sportswriters have similar translation problems. For instance, Sports Illustrated prints a great deal of lively athletic language. Its They Said It column is the best running collection of quotes in any publication of any kind that I know of. But it is also a family magazine, which once changed "crap" in a story of mine to "baloney." In a family magazine you can't print what SI's Ron Fimrite says he once heard a ballplayer in batting practice exclaim: "I couldn't hit my mother-fucking grandmother!"

Sometimes players' language is not only unquotable but sort of otherworldly. Players can make a football game, for instance, sound like a struggle between two grand corporate rumps and their crewmen: "When it comes down to it, we flat got our ass in gear and moved the ball on their ass. Chops was yelling at 'em in the line, 'Just keep on throwing all that quick-popping shit at our ass -- we're gonna bury your ass.' Once we got our ass jacked up and started corning, it was their ass. We hit our ass off out there, didn't we?"

But players' language is standard English compared to coaches'. One afternoon in the University of Tennessee football press box I realized that I could hear every word that a UT coach, in the next booth over, was saying to his colleagues on the field via headphones. Here is roughly how the fourth quarter went:

"He can't bite down too hard on the tight end till he finds out what Z is doing. You see what I mean?

"Okay now break on three watch the screen. You got tango? Watch the screen, watch the screen.

"SCREEN! All right. Holler down there and tell Carmichael. ... Aw, we missed three.

"Seven-five holes! Seven-five holes!

"Tango, tango, c'mon, Ed, watch the slip screen. Slip screen . . . power.

"Tell the comers to runnel and flow away, and watch the Y. And you watch Z now.

"Off. All right, they in man again.

"Watch the option, watch the option. Sprint draw! Sprint draw! Watch out now, watch out, God dang it. Oh no! Great play.

"Tell that backside end to crank up. Tell them backers to crank it now! Crank it!

"Watta ya got? Bluff the side coverage, Mo. Bluff the side coverage, Mo.

"Tell that Watts to get in there on that guy! God dog. Ahrrghlk.

"Pow'r one! Pow'r one! Gonna be the Pitt sweep. Gonna be the Pitt sweep, Guarantee you!


"You got to really come out there and collision that tight end coming down there. . . . Number two, tell Jerry four coverage, get them people cranked up.

"Let's go defense. Forty-four tango! All right, what they got? Forty-four tango?

"All right, let's go. Power.

"Watch the pass, now, watch the pass. Holler at 'em, 'Pass!' Pass! Holler, 'Pass!!'

"Either pass or Pitt sweep ... pow'r. ...
"Let's go, offense. Stick it in 'em! Give 'em hell! Aw.

"Let's go, defense. Loosen off. Loosen off. Tell the tango end to loosen off some. Loosen off the tango end! Loosen off, Art! Tell Poole to get the curl!


"Tell Wheeler to walk off a little bit, as the tango end.

"Allright! [Great rumble arises, partition shakes.] Give 'em hell!

"Aw. Well, hell, I don't care—we got the damn ball I don't care if they put it back to the damn four, now. Give 'em hell, Carruthers. Woooooeee."

So there it was. I had the whole inside story. But what was my lead going to say? "Outlined against a gray November sky, the Vols edged the Commodores yesterday as Mo bluffed the side coverage, the tango loosened off and the corners funneled and flowed away?"

Oh, I could go on and on about the word problems of a sportswriter. For instance, when players adopt coaches' language, you get remarks like, "That revenge factor is sweet" (Glenn Doughty, Baltimore Colts) and, "Then that injury factor happened" (Norm Snead, passim). It is little wonder that sportswriters tend to lose perspective themselves and blurt out expressions like "doffed his erstwhile nonentity" to mean "became famous."

But maybe coaches are right, and it is best to look at problems positively, to regard them as opportunities. Sometimes I look at a piece of sportswriting and think. ...

Well, one afternoon I looked at these two paragraphs:

"'I know I've got two games tomorrow and milestones aren't going to be much help,' Willie Stargell of the Pittsburgh Pirates said.

"'When you're playing you just have to grind it out,'" he added.

And I thought, "You can't grind it out with milestones," and for a moment a whole world opened up, of worn-out sports imagery recast: a graduating receiver hauling in the sheepskin, down linemen made of duck feathers, a New York Knick condemned by a witch doctor's curse to a lifetime of moving within the ball ...

Well, I don't know. But the sports pages and the comic sections are the only places in a newspaper where you can still fool around verbally. Maybe someone will take advantage of this freedom and transform sportswriting into a wild macaronic poetry, in which different frames of mind entangle across metaphysical lines of scrimmage. On the other hand, maybe sports headline writers will straighten up just a bit and stop writing headlines like LEUKEMIA THROWS DUSTER AT TWINS' THOMPSON.

People shouldn't sell sportswriters short, anyway. "Regaining their faith in words," indeed! We do have a certain pride, a sense of calling. There is the story about a scribe who showed up in the press box after a game too drunk to write even if he had seen anything that had happened. Firmly within the tradition of old-time sportswriting, he appealed to another scribe to let him copy the story he had just filed.

"Well, I don't know," the sober scribe said.

"Come on," pleaded the drunk scribe.

"But I hate to ..."

"Come on, please."

The sober scribe said oh, okay, and handed over a carbon of his story. The drunk scribe cranked paper into his typewriter and started copying. He got through three paragraphs before he stopped and looked off into the distance.

"To think," he sighed, "that I would be reduced ... to copying shit like this."


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