Grantland Rice the ‘original multi-media sportswriter,’ peers, admirers endorse Rice’s impact on sports journalism
In their early presentations, the editors of "Grantland" have announced by their selection of stories and writers that the site dares to reach for literary journalism. However short the writers' reach has been so far – enough with the self-indulgent digressions and detours to vapid side notes – I yet rise in applause for anyone so ambitious. Surely, I am not the only reader who prefers a smart sentence to sophomoric snark. Am I?
Bill Simmons may not care. He may not know. But what "Grantland" seems to have in mind is what Grantland Rice had in mind a hundred years ago. He was a brilliant man who believed sportswriting could be better than it was. The definitive Rice biographer, Charles Fountain, called Rice "courtly in both personal style and professional product – this at a time when both the dugout and the press box were peopled by hooligans. He brought respectability to the previously seedy craft of sportswriting. His soft gentlemanly bearing and unfailing courtesy in dealing with coaches and athletes brought a dignity to the craft that it didn't always deserve." Though Robert Lipsyte is critical of Rice's stuff, the former New York Times sports columnist wrote, "Even jealous or disdainful colleagues had to be grateful for the positive image of the sportswriter he was projecting to the public."
The first sportswriter I ever saw was Grantland Rice, though I had no idea he was a sportswriter, or even what a sportswriter was. Saturday afternoons were reserved for Roy Rogers at the town's movie theater. Before Roy rode down the bad guys, you had to sit through a newsreel. Part of the newsreel that caught a kid baseball player's attention was "The Sportlight." Its narrator was a kindly old man in a bow tie and gray fedora. Grantland Rice.
Generations ahead of today's TV/radio yappers, Rice was the original multi-media sportswriter. He was the first broadcaster to do play-by-play of a World Series game. That was in 1922. He was everywhere, in radio, newsreels, the column published in a hundred newspapers, even in movies (he played himself in "Follow the Sun," the Ben Hogan story). He wrote 17,000 columns. He also did magazine stories and books, 67 million words in all, 3,500 a day across 53 years. Small wonder that the perpetual typist, once a passenger in a plane buffeted by a thunderstorm, saw one consolation if the plane went down: "Won't have to write any column tomorrow."
Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon were sportswriters in Rice's time. Yet Charles Fountain decided Rice was "the first important American sportswriter." He wrote, "For, while Lardner and Runyon used sportswriting to shape their own talents and careers, leaving their legacies in other areas, Rice used his talent and career to shape American sportswriting. He was its pre-eminent voice in the decades when sport was coming to the fore of American society, a time when – to the newspaper reader – the sportswriter was as central to the game as the athletes themselves. Rice found nobility and gentility in sport and chronicled it in noble and gentle language, and in doing so fashioned our perceptions of what sportswriting should be – and our perceptions of what sport should be as well."
Some readers took issue with those perceptions. Stanley Walker read Rice at the time of his greatest fame and influence. In a 1934 memoir, the city editor of New York's best newspaper, the Herald-Tribune, wrote that Rice "set an example for many a young man, who, seeking to be a word-painter, loaded his popgun with red paint and fired at the rainbow. . . . A football team in a desperate stand near the goal-line reminded Rice of the French at the Marne, the Spartans at Thermopylae or Davy Crockett and his boys at the Alamo. A fighter like Jack Dempsey, a former hobo, might carry the hammer of Thor or the thunderbolts of Zeus in his right fist . . . A half-back, entering the game belatedly to turn defeat into victory, would remind Rice of Phil Sheridan at Winchester. . . . There were ghosts there too, strange but lovable visitors from that Valhalla where all good sportsmen go, hovering about in the dun light, advising the gladiators . . . Sometimes the reader had to wade through half a column of this fetching literature and mythology before getting any very clear idea of who won, and how they won. It was magnificent and, may God bless us all, pretty terrible."
Here's Rice at the Polo Grounds, Oct. 19, 1924: "Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the south Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below."
Umm. Magnificent? Pretty terrible? The least question is, from where exactly did Rice watch the game to see running backs outlined against the sky? In Lipsyte's 1975 book, "Sportsworld: An American Dreamland," he came down on the side of pretty terrible. He wrote of Rice's hyperbole and metaphor mania: "Painting the lily is not only presumptuous, but ultimately destructive. The flower dies. By layering sports with pseudo-myth and fakelore, by assigning brutish or supernatural identities to athletes, the Rice-ites dehumanized the contest and made objects of the athletes."
True, all that.
True, and yet, to quote Fountain again, from his 1993 book: "Ask a student of sports journalism today: Who is the most gifted and important sportswriter of all time? And you will likely get an unhesitating ‘Red Smith' in response. But had you put the same question to the late Red Smith, the erudite and Pulitzer Prize-winning stylist of the New York Herald-Tribune and the New York Times, Smith would have told you – as he told countless people who asked during his lifetime – that the greatest of them all was Grantland Rice." After Rice's death on July 13, 1954, Smith wrote, "Grantland Rice was the greatest man I have known, the greatest talent, the greatest gentleman. The most treasured privilege I have had in this world was knowing him and going about with him as his friend. I shall be grateful all my life. I do not mourn for him, who welcomed peace. I mourn for us.”
Of today's sportswriters, only those old enough to be dead would have moved in Rice's orbit. At 92, Furman Bisher qualifies. He says, "I met him checking in at a Kentucky Derby, and I met him with Red in a press box somewhere, and I saw him walking down the fairways at Augusta. But I never knew him, and he certainly didn't know me. I was a pimple on sportswriting's complexion. And he was it."
Like Bisher, Dan Jenkins, 81, never met Rice. "But I've often wondered if he was at the Masters in my first three years there, '51, '52, '53. I know he died in '54. I don't remember asking if he was around, but I was in college then, and a wise-guy asshole about any writer who wasn't John Lardner, so I wouldn't have given a shit. 'A streak of fire,' 'a breath of flame,' my ass. Learned to respect what he stood for later. I do believe Granny, more than anything else, gave our profession more respect, both with his lifestyle and the kindly way he treated people, or so I've read. Wasn't it Red who said he was the nicest man he ever knew?"
(Digression alert: It's time for the Associated Press Sports Editors organization to correct an oversight so egregious as to be all but incredible. The organization's Red Smith Award honors sports journalists living and dead for their lifetime's work enriching the craft. It has gone to dozens of deserving men and women – but never to Grantland Rice. This is like listing tall mountains and forgetting Everest.)
In a photo section following page 152 of Fountain's biography, we see Rice as a 16-year-old high school football player. He's second from left in the back row. He's the handsome one, weight on his left foot, hands on his hips, all swagger, cocky as hell. "He was a 130-pound end, who insisted on playing four years at Vanderbilt, despite suffering cracked ribs and a separated shoulder," Fountain wrote. Eight pages later, we see Rice at his typewriter in a portrait for his memoir. He's 73 years old. "Rice chose an over-the-shoulder shot for the book," Fountain wrote, "where the weariness in his face was not so evident. ‘I tire easily these days,' he wrote in the caption. ‘Sometimes I think, perhaps, I've lugged too many typewriters to the top of too many stadiums."
He wrote his last column the morning of July 13, 1954. He had seen Ruth, Cobb, and Wagner, DiMaggio, Musial, Williams, Jackie Robinson, and Mickey Mantle. Rising early that morning in his Fifth Avenue apartment, Rice finished a piece about the young Willie Mays, "the most exciting ballplayer of them all." Then he began a second column. It was about sports that put athletes at risk. He was 400 words into it before stopping mid-sentence. Always a good typist, he had made the column a hash of strikeovers, x-outs, and odd spacing. Sometime after 11 that morning, he left the column in the typewriter and went to his office on West 48th Street.
He was having a stroke. He was taken to a hospital. Shortly after 6 o'clock, he died. On Halloween night, the eve of Rice's 74th birthday, more than 250 people came to Toots Shor's saloon to celebrate his life. The Four Horsemen came. Dempsey and Tunney. Earl Sande, Eddie Arcaro. Tommy Henrich, Yogi Berra, Hank Greenberg. The sportswriters, past and present: Herbert Bayard Swope, Tom Meany, and John Kieran, Bob Considine, Dan Daniel, Fred Russell, Frank Graham and Red Smith.
Smith wrote, "Nothing can be said of him now that he didn't say better of somebody else," and ended his column with a piece of Rice's verse. It was an address to Charon, the boatman of the Styx, after many of his friends had died:
"The Flame of the Inn is dim tonight –
"Too many vacant chairs –
"The sun has lost too much of its light –
"Too many songs have taken flight –
"Too many ghosts on the stairs –
"Charon – here's to you – as man to man –
"I wish I could pick ‘em the way you can."