Legendary Sports Writers of the Golden Age Review

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Legendary Sports Writers of the Golden Age Review
Jun 27, 2017

The title of Lee Congdon’s “Legendary Sports Writers of the Golden Age” is four words too long.

Although Congdon’s book is ostensibly about the writing of four giants of sports journalism–Grantland Rice, Red Smith, Shirley Povich and W.C. Heinz—the scope is really far broader. It’s a partial history of sports in what the author calls “The Golden Age,” which, in his estimation, lasted from the 1920s through the early 1960s.

In the preface, Congdon writes

“The Golden Age continued on through the 1930s, 1940s, and especially, 1950s, before  coming to an end in about 1963. In the fall of that year, President Kennedy was assassinated, and almost at the same time, the historical (as opposed to the chronological) decade of the 1960s began. The United States and American sports would never be the same.”

Congdon circles back to this argument at the end of the book, listing a litany of reasons–including expansion, steroids in baseball, the ubiquity of sports on television and others– why sports in the 21st century are inferior to those games played during his Golden Age.

He further posits that the distinguished athletic era he is referencing led to a pinnacle in sports coverage, with Rice, Smith, et al. leading the charge. The books featured writers, as well as others such as Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner, make up what Congdon refers to as an “informal fraternity” that combined to lift “sports reporting to heights that it is unlikely to reach again.”

Whether or not one agrees with Congdon’s framing of “The Golden Age” of sports–and there are elements of a “things were better back in my day” ethos—it is true that sportswriting today is much different than it was in the heyday of Povich, Heinz and the rest.

In 1994, Povich explained one of the key differences between modern sports journalism and it’s mid-20th century counterpart: players and journalists no longer run in the same social circles.

In baseball’s early and less-monied days…[players and writers] stayed together and      ate together in the same little hotels, called each other by first names, and were          uninhibited by lengthy instructions from PR departments. Today ‘access’ is the    buzzword. Yankees players are not approached, they are ‘accessed.’”

As Congdon notes at length, an important shared experience for both the “fraternity” of writers and many of the athletes they covered (as well as the country as a whole) was living through–and, for some, taking part in–two world wars. Rice served in World War I, while Smith and Povich worked as war correspondents 25 years later.

The author details how Heinz especially was changed by his time covering the war, and how it changed his reporting upon his return to the press box.

[New York Giants quarterback Marion] Pugh had just returned from [World War II], during which he had participated in the Battle of Hürtgen Forest. He was stunned to    learn that Heinz had also been there…The experiences the two men shared created a bond between them, the kind Heinz was always to form with athletes who had taken part in what General Eisenhower called the ‘crusade in Europe.’” 

The interruptions for wartime did made Congdon’s Golden Age a unique era in sports journalism. Whether it was the best era, an era in which its writers “elevated sports to a level that has never been equaled and probably never will be,” as Congdon claims, is a matter of far more debate. In his attempt to prove his point, the author submits some sublime wordsmithing from the book’s principal writers for the readers’ consideration. For example, Povich opined in 1975 that baseball is superior to football because football does not have

“A single art form to compare with the ballet of baseball’s double play at second base,    with its routine of catch, tag, pivot, relay, and safe landing against 190 pounds of   incoming spikes.”

The book is filled with nuggets of writing such as that; those that have not only impeccable word choice, but also a rhythm that evokes poetry. By the end of the book, most readers will likely be joining Congdon to lament the end of the era that produced such writing.

Though its final pages are more than a little heavy-handed in their rebuke of the current sporting landscape, the book makes up for it with a look at some of the 20th century’s most important sporting moments through the eyes of the era’s best writers.

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