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The disappearance of 'Sports of the Times'

Listen up, people. A sports column is missing. I want a hard-target search. If that fails, I want a Nexis search. “Sports of the Times,” the New York Times column that was manned by heavyweights like Robert Lipsyte, Red Smith, Arthur Daley, and Dave Anderson, has vanished from the newspaper.

The Times said “Sports of the Times” is “alive and well.” That’s what kidnappers always say. Consider the following:

• The Times once published seven sports columns per week. It has published nine in the past month. Two out of the three writers are retired and working on emeritus status.

• The Times hasn’t minted a new sports columnist since 2002, when Selena Roberts got the job. Roberts left the paper for Sports Illustrated in 2007.

• One measure of a column’s alive-ness is how it engages with the news. The Times didn’t publish a “Sports of the Times” column about the Manti Te’o scandal, the result of the BCS title game, the result of the Super Bowl, Oscar Pistorius, the Boston Marathon bombing, Lance Armstrong’s confession, Jason Collins’s coming-out, or Anthony Bosch’s clinic in Miami. In fact, the paper’s columns about Armstrong and Collins ran on the op-ed page.

“This is what really baffles me,” said Frank Deford, the Sports Illustrated writer and Real Sports correspondent. “You turn to the editorial page and how many columnists do they have? Even if one of their columnists is away, they get another column. If it’s so important to have political columns, why don’t they have sports columns?”

“Little by little,” said Gay Talese, who wrote for the Times “Sports” section in the ’50s, “it was as if the paper didn’t want to have a sports column, but didn’t want to break the tradition of having one.”

“The fact that it has quietly disappeared from the face of the earth is disturbing to me,” said Sandy Padwe, a former editor in the section.

“It seems almost … insensitive to eliminate ‘Sports of the Times,'” said Ira Berkow, who wrote the column until 2005.

Inside the paper, “Sports of the Times” answers to “S-O-T.” For a sports column, it is unusually literate. It rarely reaches into the golf bag of the local columnist, the one who demands so-and-so get fired and so-and-so get benched and then (on the off chance he’s right) brags, “I called my shot!” “Sports of the Times” can do high irony. It can do high moral dudgeon. It can do a scene of a writer fishing for bullhead with his grandson. It won three Pulitzer Prizes. It is — was? — 86 years old.

There are two reasons to worry about the fate of “Sports of the Times.” The first is to figure out what place a newspaper column has in a universe where sports opinions are everywhere, and where those opinions can be longer and shaggier and angrier and, a lot of the time, more brilliantly rendered than ever before.

The second reason to worry about “Sports of the Times” is, well, personal. A lot of us miss it.

There was a time when the New York Times didn’t have a sports column. A.J. Liebling, who worked as a copyreader in the section in the 1920s, noted that the paper’s owner, Adolph Ochs, seemed intent on making sports “as uninteresting as possible.” But Ochs noticed Grantland Rice and W.O. McGeehan banging fastballs over the fence for the rival New York Herald Tribune. So in 1927, the Times turned to a journeyman named John F. Kieran. Kieran wrote “Sports of the Times” seven times a week for the next 16 years.

“I could choose my own topics,” Kieran later recalled, “go where I wanted, and write as I pleased within reasonable limits.” Kieran was a gonzo birdwatcher and, on the sports page, a rara avis. His prose was encrusted with quotes from Virgil and St. Augustine and the French newspaper L’Echo des Sports. His poems — sportswriters wrote poems back then — bopped to a Seussian beat. On the first Joe Louis–Max Schmeling fight:

Lightly I wrote that the Shuffler would bring 
Maxie much damage and pain;
Lay him flat as the floor of the ring;
I said it and said it again.
Stated it broadly and maybe too long,
Thinking I put it astutely.
Was I completely astoundingly wrong?
Absolutely!

Kieran had one approach: go highbrow, write with the bemusement of a New Yorker correspondent, and burlesque the Babe by sitting him next to Virgil. After Kieran quit in 1943, he admitted he had won “more followers in faculty clubs than in the right-field bleachers.”

His replacement, Arthur Daley, was a man of the bleachers. Daley’s interests were baseball, football, boxing, the Olympics — an Atkins diet so strict that his son (the novelist Robert Daley) said it was nearly impossible to buy him a Christmas gift. Daley was ungodly famous. Writer Gerald Eskenazi, who served as his copy boy, remembers seeing an old man enter the sports department and approach Daley’s desk like a demented fan. “It was Rogers Hornsby, for chrissakes,” Eskenazi said.

Daley had an “in” with athletes, and his column was the place to find Ty Cobb or Byron Nelson reminiscing in neat paragraphs. As they get older, all sportswriters start to make a big deal of the stuff that happened when they were kids. For Daley, this malady kicked in immediately. In his second year on the job, he wrote a column about a 20-year-old title fight between Jack Dempsey and Luis Ángel Firpo.1 The next year, it was a 44-year-old fight — an exercise in out-of-body nostalgia, since the fight occurred four years before Daley was born. He won his Pulitzer in 1956. “Just describe my condition as ‘stunned delight,'” Daley said. His betters — Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon — were just stunned.

“Sports of the Times” really started to gallop when Robert Lipsyte began to write alongside Daley in 1967. Four days a week, the old columnist built a mausoleum to great athletes; the other three, Lipsyte termited away at the foundation. “If you were competing against the two, and I was, Daley didn’t scare you,” said George Solomon, the former sports editor of the Washington Post. “He was very good and authoritative, but Lipsyte was edgy and smart and ahead of the news … Lipsyte was writing about subjects that you would catch up with months later. If not years.” Another way to say this is that “Sports of the Times” finally got slightly hip.

In 1971, Lipsyte went to a press conference marking Satchel Paige’s enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Now, there were many ways to take the column that became “A Little Rusted Up“: as a polemic about the Hall’s neosegregation policy (Paige was exiled to a separate wing); a poke at Bowie Kuhn; a heart-wrenching little portrait of an old man. Watch Lipsyte:

Athletic halls of fame tend to be eerie crypts: The powerful and gifted youth who stretched our possibilities lies dead here with his hat and number and statistics, and this short-breath, weepy, grateful, middle-aged man accepting congratulations seems as much a stranger to glory as you and I. Paige was even further removed: He had been introduced to most of America as a legend, and now was being recognized in an apology.

Lipsyte2 is remembered for his muscle-flexing. But even he couldn’t stay on such a rarefied plane. He might call college football a reprehensible evil on Monday, but, by Saturday, the job — and the readers — required a preview of the Notre Dame game. “I would say the majority of the columns were pretty standard sportswriting columns,” Lipsyte said. “I went to an event and wrote about it. Maybe I took it a little less seriously or took it a different direction or put a faux-literary smear job over it. But, basically, I really did cover sports.”

Lipsyte quit in ’71 and was replaced by Red Smith. It was regarded as the most peaceful transfer of power in the history of sportswriting. But Lipsyte wasn’t floored. “A lot of the stances he took in the ’60s I thought were ill-informed and right-wing,” Lipsyte said. “I thought he was a jerk. I wasn’t like, ‘Wow, that’s great, Red Smith.’ I might have come to that later when he evolved into a powerful and admirable columnist.”

Smith is still regarded as our most “literary” sportswriter — he’s the only one of us who will score a new, 500-page Library of America collection 30 years after his death. Smith’s great gift was his ability to aestheticize: to look at a ball field, skip the green grass and the crowd going wild, and home in on a detail. He was a hoover for gleaming bits of dialogue. “This game was invented for Willie Mays a hundred years ago,” a Mets pitcher said while watching the ’73 World Series. He can be forgiven if the line sounds like it was written by Red Smith.

“It’s funny about Red,” said Deford. “He was like Vermeer — Vermeer’s paintings in the size of a column.” Before he got to the Times, Smith had been content to dazzle with brushstrokes. When he got serious, it was usually a disaster. He compared Muhammad Ali to the “unwashed punks” picketing the Vietnam War. But coming to the Times had a strange effect on Smith: It made him a liberal crusader. “I’m a little weary of the old soft-shoe,” he said. He would write of Ali, “No other athlete in any sport … ever did more for his game than this man did for boxing.”

Smith died in 1982. Abe Rosenthal, the executive editor of the Times, tried to replace him with another big name: Deford. “I was very, very … seduced,” Deford said. “‘You’re going to be the heir to Red Smith.’ Thank god I didn’t take it. Rosenthal completely turned me off. He’d say, ‘We expect you to do four long pieces for the magazine.’ It was always something. All that aside, I felt you do better writing long pieces than you do columns.”

With a nod to Dave Anderson — who knew more about how sports are played than anyone who wrote the column — that was the end of the big dinosaurs at “Sports of the Times.” It’s not that the new prospects — Berkow, George Vecsey, William Rhoden, Harvey Araton, and Roberts — were bad. It’s that the Times made two key decisions. One, it took writers off fixed days of the week, meaning they were sicced on news rather than decided what should be news. Second, the paper split up “Sports of the Times” between four or five writers. It took two lead singers and made them into a chorus.

Vecsey — he of Amish beard and tender heart — brought the same reservoir of compassion to sports that he had during his stint as the paper’s Appalachia correspondent. (Vecsey proved his ambidextrousness by writing the memoirs of both Loretta Lynn and Martina Navratilova.) Berkow’s 1985 column “The LaMotta Nuptials” — an account of the middleweight’s sixth wedding — is my idea of a pristine little comic scene: a phone rings during the ceremony and LaMotta asks, “What round is it?” Berkow told me he attended the ceremony on a lark and didn’t bring a pen or notepad. When he realized the richness of the material, he raced out and wrote the whole column from memory.

It could feel strange to be a sportswriter at the New York Times. Most newspapers use sports to sell copies. The sports columnists are part of the transaction. The Times peddles its political-business-foreign muscle, making the sports columnists into bit players. “The Times was always amused by having a ‘Sports’ section,” said Lipsyte. “They saw it as their comics.”

It became a running gag that Times sportswriters were like lost souls who’d wandered in from the Port Authority. In the late ’60s, David Halberstam advised Lipsyte he ought to leave the beat. Become the Times‘s Africa correspondent and you’ll be a star, Halberstam said, even if you won’t get laid as much. Lipsyte is still puzzling out the second part of that remark.

“Before I got the job,” Berkow said, “I had to be interviewed by Arthur Gelb and Abe Rosenthal” — two of the top editors at the paper. “I’m interviewing with Gelb. I’m about to leave and I said, ‘Mr. Gelb, we have a mutual friend: Theodore Mann.'” Mann was the director of a local theater.

Well, Gelb was such a big theater nut, and such a minor sports nut, that Berkow’s comment threw him. Gelb suddenly blurted out, “Are you an actor?” Berkow had to remind him that, no, he’d been interviewing for a gig as a sportswriter.

Working in the shadow of the “adults” wasn’t all bad; the “Sports of the Times” writer found some of that political-business-foreign cachet dribbled off onto him. Selena Roberts told me that if she wrote that James Dolan was behaving like an idiot, Dolan, of course, would read the column. But more interesting was who else read it: Dolan’s friends, his fellow owners, his dinner companions … his corporate sponsors. A Times column could move an idea through the bloodstream of the power class in a way a Post or Daily News piece never could.

Like the Times itself, “Sports of the Times” seemed to float above the fray. You didn’t read the column for a screed about last night’s Knicks-Pacers game. (You read Mike Lupica for that.) No, you read the Times for columns like Berkow’s “The Coloring of Bird.” “The word ‘athletes,'” the Pistons’ Isiah Thomas observed to Berkow after losing a conference finals, “I think that that’s an unconscious statement concerning race. I don’t like it.”

Thomas continued, “Magic and Michael Jordan and me, for example, we’re playing only on God-given talent, like we’re animals, lions and tigers, who run around wild in a jungle, while Larry’s success is due to intelligence and hard work.” Switch the names around and the same column could run today.

Times columnists could take outré political stands. Berkow stumped for Tonya Harding to compete in the ’94 Olympics, because he felt she hadn’t had time to muster her defense. (He is still proud of it.) Selena Roberts wrote columns about the Duke lacrosse team — a crusade that turned into an exploding cigar for the whole paper. “Certainly the Duke lacrosse thing comes to mind,” Roberts said. “I’ll go ahead and say those words. But nobody would come to me and say, ‘Don’t write that, don’t go in that direction.'”

She was lucky; even the crusading Times could get jittery in the face of real controversy. The paper spiked two of Anderson’s columns, a piece on gay NFLer Dave Kopay and a piece on the Masters. Kindly old Red Smith’s call for the U.S. to boycott the ’80 Summer Olympics was yanked — it was said to contain incorrect information — creating a national brouhaha when the paper accidentally moved the column through its electronic service. “I’ll write about the infield fly rule,” Smith said, malevolently.

How long a “Sports of the Times” columnist would stay in office depended on what he thought of the Times. Given a choice between the paper or the radio show Information Please, Kieran chose showbiz.3 Lipsyte quit when he was 33, in hopes of making it as a novelist, only to be lured back years later. Yet Daley and Smith regarded “Sports of the Times” as the last stop on the wagon train. In 1974, Daley was nearing retirement when he dropped dead of a heart attack on his way to the Times. He’d written more than 10,000 “Sports of the Times.” When his son cleaned out his office, he found a note that read, “Only 89 more columns.”

Jason Stallman, the sports editor of the Times, was on the phone talking about his missing column.

“A couple of things are at work,” Stallman said. “One, when I started at the Times 10 years ago, ‘Sports of the Times’ was being written by George Vecsey, Dave Anderson, Ira Berkow, and Selena Roberts. I might be forgetting one or two others. That was quite a mighty bunch. It was thriving.

“As these people who we considered masters of the craft left us,” he continued, “it was a bit daunting to figure out how to replace them. These are voices that we consider irreplaceable. We wanted to give great care to how we would bring someone in to write under this label.”

First, Stallman surveyed his own stable of feature writers. “John Branch wrote a column when he was in Fresno,” he said. “Jeré Longman has written commentary and could be dynamite. But these are guys we have fallen in love with doing distinctive enterprise stories and other investigative types of work. We’re disinclined to put them in a box of just commentary.”

It shows how the MVP of the section is no longer the columnist but the longform writer. In olden times, Branch’s Pulitzer Prize winner “Snow Fall” would probably have been assigned at 1,200 words. “I don’t believe the hierarchy of the New York Times values sports,” said Roberts. “Or I don’t think they value it on a regular basis. I think they value the big, vigorous investigative approach to sports. But the everyday is an afterthought.” It was as if those elephantine features were a way to get the paper’s top editors to finally pay attention.

“As for people from the outside,” Stallman said of “Sports of the Times,” “we just haven’t seen any obvious options for someone to come in and write under that label. That’s not to say we’re not going to. We’d love to bring a new voice into our report. But no one has jumped out at us.” Stallman noted that his beat writers had picked up some of the slack on subjects like Collins and Bosch.

Did you miss having a column on Manti Te’o? I asked him.

“No is the short answer,” Stallman said. “I feel with a story like Manti Te’o you have everybody and their brother writing columns based on very little information. That’s a good example of the story I don’t know a ‘Sports of the Times’ writer would be a great fit for. If you look back at some of the coverage, a lot of it is somewhat regrettable.

“Maybe through the Lance Armstrong saga, we’d like to have had a columnist laying in properly. But I look at it that we have Juliet Macur completely setting the agenda on the story, so I’d much rather have that than a columnist.”

Fair enough on Armstrong. But I don’t think writing about the Te’o, um, affair was any more daunting than David Brooks writing about Benghazi. This is what columnists do: They make sense of what makes little sense. And if they fall on their faces, they try again next week.

Stallman doesn’t believe “Sports of the Times” is anachronistic. Even with a paltry word limit in a web ocean of “longform”; even with its early print deadline while the rest of us work through the night. When I mentioned those constraints to Lipsyte, he said it reminded him of when “Sports of the Times” columnists used to whine that the writers at afternoon papers had looser deadlines.

“Point is, we’ve been through this before,” he said. “There’s always another subject, another angle, another way of looking at it. The Ancient Mariner shakes your lapel and says, ‘Hey, man, you’re looking at LeBron. You’re looking in the wrong fucking place. This is where you should be looking.’ You would find a way to do something different and get attention and create a narrative while those guys are stuck covering the game.”

“Nothing ever changes,” he said. “The pattern just goes on and on and on.”

With any luck, the pattern will resume at the Times.

Filed Under: Sports

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Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ curtisbeast

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