Six or seven years ago Sports Illustrated named its all-time baseball team. Some of the most revered names in baseball history were on it: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays. I decided to write a column about the accuracy of the selections. And who better to talk to than Shirley Povich, who had seen all of them play?
I named the position players, and then told Povich that Christy Mathewson was chosen as the right-handed pitcher.
Povich was outraged.
"Walter Johnson crushed Christy Mathewson," he said.
I told him I wondered about the left-handed pitcher. "They picked Warren Spahn," I said, "but I was thinking maybe it would be Sandy Koufax."
Povich shook his head disapprovingly. His clear choice was Lefty Grove, and he started to explain.
"I was talking to Walter Johnson once. . . " he began.
Time out! He was talking to Walter Johnson. Walter Johnson was born in 1887. His first year in the majors was 1907. They called him "Big Train," presumably because planes weren't invented yet.
"You talked to Walter Johnson?" I stammered. And I started grinning.
Povich continued: ". . . And Walter said to me, 'Shirley, that Feller kid is fast. But not as fast as Lefty Grove.' "
That Feller kid?
Feller will be 80 this year.
Almost everyone was a kid to Povich. He was 92.
I have been blessed in my career to have worked alongside the two finest sports columnists of all time, Red Smith and Povich.
People often ask sportswriters about the athletes they have met, and the games they have seen. People want you to share the secrets and explain the magic of sports. And they always ask: What was your greatest thrill?
Mine came three years ago, the night Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played. Oh, the game was great. And it was a perfect touch that Cal hit a homer, and took that unforgettable victory lap. The spontaneous warmth of the moment, the smiles on the faces of everyone in the park, the sense of the bond between Cal and the fans--the sense that this reciprocal joy was what sports used to be, and should be again--all that gives me chills still.
But the great thrill for me that night was sitting next to Povich in the press box. There were two people in Camden Yards that night who had been in Yankee Stadium for Lou Gehrig's farewell in 1939--Joe DiMaggio, who was Gehrig's teammate at the time, and Povich, who was there to write. Now, close to 50 years later they were back in a ballpark to see Ripken surpass The Iron Horse.
Late in the game, someone hit a foul ball back to the press box. I saw it heading right at Povich, and reached for it. Fortunately, it missed Povich, and landed softly in Wilbon's stomach. Wilbon held it aloft, to the cheers of the writers, and was stuffing it in his bag when our sports editor, George Solomon, suggested to him that Povich might want one of these special baseballs as a souvenir--considering Povich was at Gehrig's last game.
Wilbon happily agreed, and handed Povich the ball.
Povich put it in his coat pocket, and watched the rest of the game and much of the postgame ceremony. Around midnight he and George left Camden Yards to go back to Washington. I was finished writing then, and I walked with them out to the parking lot. There, Povich took the ball out of his pocket, and with a motion practiced over almost 90 years, he began flipping the ball gently up and down with his left hand. And in that clear late summer night, with that souvenir baseball in his hand, and a spring in his step, Shirley Povich was forever young.