Post’s Boswell inducted into Sports Media HOF

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Post’s Boswell inducted into Sports Media HOF
Jul 2, 2018

Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell was inducted into the National Sports Media Hall of Fame on June 25 at Wake Forest University’s Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C. The 2018 class also included writer Dick Weiss and sportscasters Bryant Gumbel and the late Woody Durham. Presented here are his transcribed remarks upon his induction.

Ever since [National Sports Media Association] Executive Director Dave Goren told me about this honor, I’ve been proud thinking about this night. Nothing means more in any profession than recognition from your peers. It only makes it better that the three others who are being honored tonight are so distinguished.

It’s nice to enter with Dick Weiss because Hoops and I probably go back to some high school gym in the ’70s, writing about Moses Malone or Ralph Sampson.

I asked Dave about my time allotment for my remarks. It works out to 8 seconds for each of the 49 years I’ve been at the Washington Post. Talk about a tight news hole. To show how appreciative I am, I’m going to break from character. For once, I promise I won’t come in “long and late.”

[Former Washington Post sports editor] George Solomon just fainted. He doesn’t believe it.

Tolstoy wrote the famous lead, “Happy families are all alike.” So, he wrote about unhappy ones instead. By that standard, my story shouldn’t take long because I’ve had a very happy career.

I grew up on Capitol Hill. My mom was a baseball fan. We rode the streetcar to Griffith Stadium Way ’cross town. Then, when I was 13, RFK Stadium opened 15 blocks from my house. A miracle.

It was like a sports spaceship had landed. Suddenly, I was a bike ride and a $1.25 grandstand ticket away from watching the Senators all summer. Oh, you could call it a formative experience! It’s possible I still haven’t overcome it. I’m lucky it wasn’t a pool hall.

So there I am, I live in the shadow of a gorgeous new stadium, Skins or Nats year-round. And what arrives at our door every morning but The Washington Post with a sports page that’s led by elegant Shirley Povich. As a child, I assumed good sports writing was just another kind of good writing. And I still do. In retrospect, it all seems like a benevolent conspiracy.

My dad, who worked at the Library of Congress, even smuggled me into the stacks, where kids weren’t allowed. You could see rows of bookshelves for 50 yards — they came to a vanishing point to the distance. “Here is every book ever written about baseball,” said my father. “Don’t go blind.”

I graduated from Amherst College with a degree in English literature — the great refuge of the Undecided. When it came to journalism, I was a walk-on. At 21, I asked for the lowest job in the sports department. That’s what I got — the lowest job — part-time copy boy on the lobster shift until 2 a.m. Fetching burgers, changing typewriter ribbons! And that’s just what I needed. In those years, everything I didn’t know, but had to learn, was on real-world display just an arm’s length away.

Back then the sports department fit in a shoebox. Writers I had grown up reading were now telling me what they wanted in their coffee or to put Jack Nicklaus’ call on hold until they finished talking to Muhammad Ali.

Povich worked 15 feet away. I could hear his phone interviews. He was older than I am now, but I could see how much he still loved his job: silk suit, tie loosened, sense of humor, respected but giving respect, at ease with the people he covered but still digging for the story.

Right in front of me were Dave Brady, Joan Ryan and Bob Addie. They covered the waterfront. All day they were on the phone with everybody who mattered in sports. I remembered fight promoter Don King, with the electrified hair, trying to sell Dave on his next big boxing match. Dave wasn’t buying. “If you held that fight in my backyard,” said Brady, “I’d shut the blinds.”

Those days, rich in mentors, ended fast when Katherine Graham’s son, Don Graham, became the sports editor. He broke me out. When he arrived, I covered the same high school football six years in a row — a meteoric rise! — and I was still covering bicycle races at 5 a.m. Soon, I was covering the ’75 World Series — Carlton Fisk: “Stay fair, stay fair.”

The next 28 years, under George, were a blur. George has that effect. By the ’80’s, I was his Orioles writer, national baseball writer, national boxing writer, national golf writer, national tennis writer, Georgetown Hoyas writer, an occasional columnist and I contributed a 5,000-word piece each month for Inside Sports, a Post startup magazine. I did some Skins stories to stay busy.

During his time, I’m told that I married and had a son, now 31. I can’t confirm it.

However, I’m sure I covered Earl Weaver for nine years: he was my baseball graduate school. Usually, we got along. But once in the World Series, Earl boycotted me, refused to talk if I was around. The next spring, he said, “My wife says I’m going to hell if I don’t talk to you.” I said, “Thanks, Earl. But I don’t have any questions right now.”

Asking questions matters. But what matters more, to me anyway, is watching — and listening — year after year, even decade after decade. You’re gathering string — detail, anecdote, the kind of granular grasp of a subject that only total saturation usually brings — until it begins to weave itself into insight.

Insight into what? You never know until you see it. Then you say, “That — that right there — has to be incorporated in the portrait.”

For example, once, when my son Russ was eight, I took him and his friend Drew to an Orioles game. Getting out of the car, like a klutz, I closed the door on Drew’s thumb. He bawled. I begged. “Drew, what can I do for you? I’ll do anything.” The tears stopped instantly. Drew said, “Can you get me Cal Ripken’s autograph?”

We’re not supposed to do that. But I was stuck. A few days later, I asked Cal to sign a ball for Drew. He said, ‘I’ll leave it in my locker between games of the doubleheader.”

I was surprised. He was blowing me off. All he had to do was sign one of the balls lying right there. But I came back between games anyway.

There was a ball in Ripken’s locker covered in writing. It said, “To Drew. I hope you feel better soon. Like my dad always said, ‘It’ll stop hurting before you’re married twice.’ Cal Ripken.”

Over a lifetime, it’s the energizing shocking surprise of sports — in individuals, like Cal breaking Lou Gehrig’s record by 501 games — and in events you never thought you’d see, that constantly amazes me.

If you’d told me just 15 years ago that my future included covering both the cursed Red Sox and the cursed Cubs winning the World Series, and baseball returning to my home town for an All-Star Game in a modern park — still just a bike ride away from where I grew up — and that the choking Washington Capitals would win the Stanley Cup, but with the last game of the ice hockey season played in the middle of the Nevada desert, I’d have said, “Wow! I get to keep working until I’m a thousand.”

All my stories aren’t such cheerful ones — just tonight. Athletes cross the same range of virtue and vice, of human experience, as the rest of us — the whole range. So, over the years, the way you view athletes, the way you see all of sports, will come across in your column. And it will, unintentionally, reveal exactly how you feel about… everything. The reader knows that intuitively, immediately. If you think you are judging others when you write, you’re wrong. You are uncovering yourself.

When I walked into The Post, I had no idea of being a sportswriter for life. It was almost a lark. But within months, I was hooked. I was home. Most days, it’s been like eating fudge. Of course, not every day has been sweet.

When I was 25, the Executive Editor, Ben Bradlee, didn’t even know I worked at The Post. One day, news hit the wires that we would be sued for $8 million for my scoop in that morning’s paper. It was about a well-known company involved in an Olympic tickets scam and kickbacks.

I walked into Ben’s office. I’d never met him.

“Is the story right?” he introduced himself.

“Yes,” I elaborated.

“You have one week to write a stronger story,” Ben said.

“Thank you,” I said.

Obviously, I did, because I’m still here tonight.

What I said to Ben then, I want to say again tonight to everybody here, to all of you who are part of this admirable, demanding, challenged institution of journalism: “Thank you.” For everything. For the satisfaction of being part of this enterprise for the last 49 years.

Tonight, you have appreciated my work, but I am the one who is grateful.

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