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The collapse of the column: With Vecsey’s retirement, the commentary void continues a frightening trend

I always wanted to ask George Vecsey, “What do you hear from Ivan Denisovich?”

The New York Times columnist has Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s long face with the jawline beard going gray. He has the lean and hungry look of a man given to books rather than to eats. He also shares the Russian’s distaste for tyrants, as he reminded us each time he spoke of Steinbrenner’s Yankee Stadium as “the House of Evil.”

One of a kind, Vecsey was. I bring him up today because he is also one of a kind that is disappearing from sports journalism.

The Times once had five columnists doing its “Sports of the Times” column. Within the newspaper’s confines of taste and style, those five wrote whatever came to mind however they wanted to write it. Their columns appeared at an address so prestigious that three previous residents had won Pulitzer Prizes. But Vecsey’s retirement last month means the Times is down to one columnist writing SOT once a week. This is gruel so thin as to be a rumor of water, and I, if no one else, offer up a lament: Where have you gone, Red Smith?

It’s not just the Times. Columnists are vanishing all over the map. They’ve long been miniaturized at USA Today. They were nuked en masse at Newsday and fired by phone in the Camden Yards press box. Feeling the garrote at their necks, some scribes escaped to Internet sites, leaving behind jobs that are yet to be filled.

Editors and publishers justify those vacancies by invoking economics. Yes, yes, all right, OK, yes, these are hard times. But newspapers have compounded the problem. In their apparent rush to commit every mistake possible, they have decided that the star columnist is not only paid too much, that person isn’t necessary, anyway.

Not necessary?

Piffwaddle.

I am a columnist. Always have been. A reminder came at 4:41 this morning. I went looking for the first thing I ever wrote for publication. It was 4:41 because that’s when I thought of it; a columnist never sleeps, he only stops typing for a couple hours. The story was about my high school’s basketball team. Our local weekly dressed it up as news. Ha. In the first paragraph, I expressed five opinions.

I was 17 years old and wanted to be Red Smith. I knew nothing about him except that his columns appeared in my daily paper. They were about heavyweight fights, a Kentucky Derby, the World Series. I didn’t care who won. Red Smith took me to happy places. He wrote with a wink and a smile. He made words dance.

Fun to read that stuff, and wouldn’t it be fun to do it?

It’s easy, Red said. Just open a vein and bleed.

Been bleeding ever since.

Jim Murray made the column necessary to the Los Angeles Times. In their towns, they were necessary reads: Jimmy Cannon, Dave Anderson, and Robert Lipsyte in New York, Shirley Povich in Washington, Ray Fitzgerald in Boston, Jack Murphy in San Diego, Furman Bisher in Atlanta, Edwin Pope in Miami, Blackie Sherrod in Dallas. What John Schulian did, Tom Callahan, David Israel, Leigh Montville, and Ira Berkow did. Call the names: Leonard Shecter, Wells Twombly, Dick Young, Stan Isaacs, David Condon, Bob Verdi. These columnists did the brightest writing in their newspapers.

Fitzgerald talked to The Green Monster before the Sawx played the Reds in the ‘75 World Series.

 “Who’s Cincy pitching tomorrow?” The Monster asked.

“Billingham,” Ray Fitz said.

“Yummie,” The Monster said.

There’s a long history of this stuff. The Spectator ran columns by Addison and Steele before anyone knew what a column was. Thomas Paine’s columns breathed fire into American revolutionaries. Montaigne’s egocentricity gave rise to centuries of thumb-sucking columns. In 1917, the Kansas City Star sent out a teenage kid to do a feature. He wrote it. It was a column. Ernest Hemingway, from then on, used the Star’s stylebook as his guide: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.”

Red Smith knew how to make a column work. He told Jerome Holtzman for his “No Cheering in the Press Box” oral history of sportswriting: “The guy I admire most in the world is a good reporter. I respect a good reporter, and I’d like to be called that. . . . I like to report on the scene around me, on the little piece of the world as I see it, as it is in my time. And I like to do it in a way that gives the reader a little pleasure, a little entertainment. I’ve always had the notion that people go to spectator sports to have fun and then they grab the paper to read about it and have fun again.”

Red seduced us with “the purest, most crystalline, most delightful fresh running prose in sports,” to quote Lipsyte. But it was Lipsyte himself who showed us that the column can be a grown-up’s conversation. Lipsyte wrote about race, class, religion, homosexuality: sports as metaphor for life. Bryan Curtis, in an essay on Lipsyte’s memoir, “The Accidental Sportswriter,” called him a “swaggering sociologist” whose heroes were not athletes but the counter-culture figures Jack Scott, Harry Edwards, and other “troublemakers . . . trying to pull sports out of antiquity.”

Newspapers need more Smiths, Lipsytes, and Vecseys, not fewer. They need men and women who know a world outside the lines. One reader of Vecsey’s farewell column said she had never cared about sports. Then she wrote, “So how is it that I . . . must have read any number of your columns? I don’t know! Can it be because you write about sport as the human condition? Can it be because you take the banality out of endless competition and focus on the humanity of sport, sportsmen and sportswomen? . . .”

Columnists lose value when they’re little more than sidebar writers at Super Bowls, World Cups, Stanley Cups. They should be there, but for good reasons: 1) to give a thoughtful, provocative take, and 2) to break away when the game matters less than what’s happening around it. Concussions? Steroids? Gambling? A strong columnist can write those pieces in ways a beat reporter can’t. Better yet, the columnist can return to the subject, hammering away, keeping a critical eye on it, becoming what Lipsyte thinks of as “a sharp light through the information fog.”

The best columnists do the best reporting. They drop that hard work into writing that makes reading a pleasure. Vecsey did at the Times, Sally Jenkins and Tom Boswell do it at The Washington Post, Bill Plaschke at the Los Angeles Times, Bob Ryan and Dan Shaughnessy at The Boston Globe.

Why then, at The New York Times, our best newspaper, is there silence from the columnist’s gallery?

Vecsey says he was not rushed to the exit. He is 72 years old. After eight years at Newsday when it was an ambitious, wonderful newspaper, Vecsey worked the next 43 years at the Times. Retirement was “totally my choice.” He had two years of salary available in a buyout offer. Happy and healthy, he thought it was good sense to leave now. (In addition to an invitation to write for the Times occasionally, he has created a blog at Georgevecsey.com.) The Times has no heir apparent just as there has been no one moving in to the other columnist’s slots left open previously.

So I asked the Times’ sports editor, Joe Sexton, if the day of the brand-name general columnist is over. By email, his answer:

“I’ve come to no conclusion about the future of the general sports column – in our pages, or in the wider world. But I think reckoning with that question — that future — is one of my great obligations. I’ve invited a discussion about it among my staff, and there are already a variety of viewpoints. Some passionately believe a column, as traditionally understood and experienced, is more vital now than ever. Some think, in the vast and often inane and obnoxious echo chamber of ‘opinion’ we inhabit these days, the column is done, or has been at least badly drowned out. Once a week? Online only? Longer? Shorter? Interesting stuff, and important choices to be made going forward.”

All I know is that when I read a newspaper, in print or online, and it has no column, I feel cheated.

I can get news in a hundred places. I want more. The morning of Jan. 5, the Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman showed readers that Mitt Romney is dishonest in claiming he creates jobs and Barack Obama destroys them. No histrionics from Krugman, just good, reliable, fair, thoughtful reporting, analysis, and opinion on a subject of national interest. There’s every reason that such work should appear in the sports section as well.

Make me think. Make me laugh, make me cry. Make me eager to hear what the danged fool says next.

Dave Kindred’s latest book, “Morning Miracle,” is an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached by email at inkstained1@aol.com. He can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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