"Death is delivered pink."
First four words of a story written by Seth Wickersham for ESPN The Magazine.
Had me at pink.
Cancel my appointments, Ms. Thistlebottom. Gotta read Wickersham.
He wrote about a race track veterinarian. She carried the instruments of euthanasia. The big syringes were filled with lethal fluids colored pink. That way, with a horse in agony, the syringes could be found quickly and without mistake.
I’m writing about leads because of a note from Tim Sullivan, the San Diego Union-Tribune columnist. For years Tim and I have searched for the source of what I’ve presumed to be a London sportswriter’s lead on an advance to the 1966 World Cup soccer championship match sending England against Germany. I first heard the lead from Barry Lorge, then The Washington Post’s man covering the world’s great sports events. Barry said a Brit wrote:
"Fret not, boys, if on the morrow we should lose to the Germans at our national game, for twice this century we have defeated them at theirs."
Snarky, some might say.
I prefer wickedly clever.
So there came an e-mail from Sullivan saying that he had found an attribution for the quote. It came in a piece published nine years ago in the London Independent. Ken Jones wrote in lament about the snarkiness that attended Anglo-German meetings. In his lead, he attributed the quote to Frank McGhee of London’s Daily Mirror. Seeming to rely on memory instead of archival documentation, Jones offered a version slightly different from that recited by Lorge.
"If, on the morrow, the Germans beat us at our national game, we’d do well to remember that, twice this century, we have beaten them at theirs."
Either way, a guy has no choice. Read on.
Here’s another lead that demands attention:
"Again they came to the Winter Games, and again, at first, it made no sense. Cross-country skiers from Algeria and Ethiopia? Alpine skiers from Morocco and the Cayman Islands?"
S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated made a promise that later in the piece he would tell us exactly why skiers from the Sahara and the tropics made sense. This I had to know.
Wright Thompson, writing in ESPN’s magazine, made me late for a date because I had to keep reading once he hooked me with an image:
"The prison dentist walked slowly down the gravel road past the warden’s house. He is stooped, with a big belly, two white tufts of hair and a bald spot. He’s got a bulbous nose and a creak in his step. But look closer. There are still pieces of the man he used to be."
The man is Billy Cannon, who on a Halloween night in another century ran into Louisiana mythology, who won a Heisman, who went to prison before working in a prison.
The story was maybe 5,000 words, and I read them all.
In his book, "Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work," the Pulitzer winner Don Murray despaired of the leads he too often saw in newspapers. He found them cluttered, unfocused, dull, and predictable. He preferred lively leads no longer than one sentence: "The reader will decide to read on, or not to read on, in a matter of seconds." What we need are the sorts of leads that John Schulian remembers from his rookie days in sportswriting 40 years ago, "those crackling one- and two-sentence leads that grab you by the lapel and drag you into a story."
John Lardner on a great fighter dying young: "Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast."
Murray Kempton on Willie Mays: "There was this moment when Willie Mays caught the last ball hit in the National League in 1962, and turned and laughed and threw it at the right-field foul pole. It was his ball and he could do what he pleased with it. All of a sudden, you remembered all the promises the rich have made to the poor for the last 13 years and the only one that was kept was the promise about Willie Mays. They told us then that he would be the greatest baseball player we would ever see, and he was."
Hugh McIlvanney on the Rumble in the Jungle: "We should have known that Muhammad Ali would not settle for any ordinary old resurrection. His had to have an additional flourish. So, having rolled away the rock, he hit George Foreman over the head with it."
How could you not read those stories?
You must rearrange your life when you come to a story beginning:
"Several years ago a ghostly, glassy-looking man, with a big stomach as taut as a drum, came to a doctor’s office in the city. He said, ‘Doctor, I have come to have you remove a monkey that was put in my belly.’"
That is a lead written by a young newspaper reporter in Colombia, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, later a winner of a Nobel prize in literature who never forgot the value of first sentences. Here’s how he begins his great novel A Hundred Years of Solitude:
"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
Whatever you’re doing, stop it.
Stop it right now and find a copy of Fast Copy.
It’s my favorite newspaper novel. It’s Dan Jenkins creating Betsy Throckmorton, a newspaper editor in Claybelle, Texas, somewhere around Fort Worth, the 1930s. Page 347, in a saloon, she gets into a name-that-lead-writer contest with a crowd of ink-stained wretches. It goes like this:
"Hitch started it off. ‘Out of the grave came the voice of the dead today in the form of musty letters that smoked with the reverend’s love for the little choir singer.’
"Betsy got it first. ‘Runyon. Halls-Mills case.’
"‘My favorite of Runyon’s was the Capone trial,’ Rauch said, and Betsy quickly quoted the lead: ‘Al Capone was quietly dressed this morning, except for a hat of pearly white, emblematic, no doubt, of purity.’ . . .
"‘John McGraw is dead – so what?’ somebody said.
"Pegler!’ a voice said."
Tom Callahan, author, columnist, sportswriting raconteur, once worked with a Cincinnati sports editor who wrote the same leads over and over. "People would go around town quoting what they knew would be in the next morning’s paper," Callahan said. "If the Reds split a doubleheader, his lead every time would be, ‘The Reds were caught in baseball’s revolving door yesterday.’ Every time they went on a losing streak, three games, four, six games – every single losing streak – the game story would begin, ‘Throw some sand on the toboggan run, Rollo.’"
However many hundreds of imagination-challenged hacks tortured readers, they were redeemed by the presence of one Jim Murray.
"Gentlemen, start your coffins," he wrote from Indianapolis.
From a Rose Bowl: "Losing to a Woody Hayes team on a forward pass is like losing a spelling bee to an immigrant."
On the death of Casey Stengel: "Well, God is getting an earful today."
One thing more. As important as a good lead is to any story, the full truth is that the aphoristic lead – however smart, quirky, insightful – is more than only an act of seduction to draw you into a story. It is a promise about the full story. The promise is, this writer is good at this stuff. And he will do his damnedest to make you glad you read clear to the bottom.