The Real Washington Monument
The Washington Post of June 5 carried a Shirley Povich column in which the great man gently chided a colleague who suggested Mark McGwire is a better home run hitter than Babe Ruth.
“Whoa there,” Povich wrote. He then quoted Walter Johnson’s reply when asked to compare the Babe’s shots with those of Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg: “Lemme say this, those balls Ruth hit got smaller quicker than anybody else’s.”
A remarkable column, as usual, because Povich brought to his work an elegance of language and a long view of history. Here’s a graceful writer who sat on Johnson’s porch in the Maryland countryside and asked the Senators’ immortal pitcher about baseball’s latest phenom, Bob Feller.
“The kid throws hard,” Johnson allowed. “But he’s no Lefty Grove.”
A “comeback column,” Povich called it.
At 92, writing in his 75th year at the Post, he had been ill six weeks. “During my recent and enforced sabbatical, called for by the rewarded pursuit of better health ...”
So began 900 words on McGwire, David Wells and Buck Showalter’s decision to walk Barry Bonds with the bases loaded. What Povich did only he could have done. He was there when Ruth called -- or didn’t call, in Povich’s opinion -- a World Series home run in 1932.
From Yankee Stadium in 1956, he wrote of Don Larsen’s perfect game, “The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. Don Larsen today pitched a no-hit, no-run, no-man-reaches-first game in a World Series.”
As for Showalter’s walk of Bonds, Povich remembered a smarter play: Paul Richards ordering a 3-2, two-out pitchout so he could nail a runner whom he knew would overrun second.
Those of us who loved Shirley Povich will remember that remarkable column because it appeared the morning after our friend’s death. Shirley had written it in an afternoon. A heart attack came that night.
Though he’d retired in 1974, Shirley wrote occasional columns, so many, maybe 600, that he was asked when he really intended to retire. “I take it one decade at a time,” he said. Maybe 5 feet 6, Shirley Povich was the truest Washington monument. He was what sportswriters ought to be; he liked most of the games and most of the people but not all the games, not all the people.
In 75 years of conversations with his readers, he spoke elegantly, delightfully and with the great good sense of a reporter who’d written war dispatches from Okinawa and Iwo Jima as well as sports columns from Notre Dame and Churchill Downs.
“The last of the fedoras,” his friend and colleague Tom Callahan calls the dapper little man in the gray hat. “He was maybe 87 when we went to a fight and it must have taken 45 minutes to walk the last 200 yards to the stadium. I didn’t care. He’d sit to rest and he’d tell another story. I’d have walked all night with Shirley.”
Someone once asked Povich to talk about the 1920s Senator star Goose Goslin. “Dumb, but what a hitter. The Senators never could beat Red Faber until one day Goose had two triples. Afterward, Goose asked, ‘Who was that feller pitchin’ today?’ ”
He dropped that story into a round of golf during which he’d stubbed a shot 30 yards and said a sentence that one sportswriter now defines as his ambition in life. Oh, to be so lucky as to someday say, as Shirley did with a smile, “In the last year, since I’ve turned 89, I’ve lost some clubhead speed.”
Even in the glad circumstances of our games, Povich saw the real world’s failings. Crusading for Jackie Robinson’s entry into the big leagues in 1947, he wrote a 15-part series on baseball’s sorry racial history. Povich’s first sentence: “Four hundred and fifty-five years after Columbus eagerly discovered America, major league baseball reluctantly discovered the American Negro.”
Until the Redskins signed Bobby Mitchell in 1962, Povich for more than 20 years decried the racism of Owner George Preston Marshall with sentences such as, “Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.” Povich declared the Redskins colors to be “burgundy, gold and Caucasian.”
Such work made him a giant in sports journalism, there with Grantland Rice and Red Smith. Presidents from Truman to Clinton read his stuff. Callahan once needed a column quote from Byron “Whizzer” White, but the Supreme Court justice came to the phone only to pass along a hello to Povich.
The billionaire tycoon Warren Buffett, on meeting Povich two years ago, said, “You’re responsible for my business career.” Which prompted the newshound Povich to ask, “How so?” Buffett’s first nickels came from rising before dawn to deliver the Post, now rich in all ways but then the dreary third paper in town. “The only reason anyone subscribed to the Post in those days,” Buffett said, “was to read Shirley Povich. With you, I made $5 a week. Thank you.”
On Red Smith’s death in 1982, Pimlico Race Course dedicated its Preakness Stakes press guide to him. Povich sent it to Callahan with a note mentioning Red’s wife ... “Dear Tom, ‘Here ‘tis. Ain’t it uncommonly great that the first eight pages of a Triple Crown book be devoted to Red? Maybe Phyllis would like it. I’ll check on whether the Pimlico people sent her one. ‘Luv, ‘Shirley.’ ”