The New York Observer has a depressing story on the death of sports columnists. It’s short but its message is clear: sports columnists, long the bastion of all large newspapers’ sports departments, are gradually being relegated to the backrooms of nostalgia. They are the ghosts of sports’ past. We will awake one day to find only reporters and bloggers, and we – as sports fans – will be much worse off for it.
According to the story, the New York Times will now have only two sports columnists – one is 70 and planning to retire soon. Two years ago there were five. Other papers might be holding on to their top columnists, but even in these cities the “sports columnist” title doesn’t hold nearly the same water as it did in the past, if we are to listen to the stories of our fathers and grandfathers. The legends – Jim Murray, Red Smith, Shirley Povich and Jimmy Cannon – are gone.
To be sure, ESPN has the ultra-popular Bill Simmons and the legendary, but slipping miserably, Rick Reilly. Big names like Mitch Albom, Mike Lupica, Bob Ryan, Bill Plaschke and others are still around, but even their best columns are often dismissed as just another link on a blog full of links. RealClearSports does its part to keep column writing alive, providing a daily dish of the best sports stories and columns. But the memorable columns are few and far between.
This is not to say there aren’t great columns out there. Some of the aforementioned names are still pumping out good stuff and I have a few columnists I visit regularly. Joe Posnanski, of both Sports Illustrated and the Kansas City Star, is one of the best in the business, especially for statistic lovers. Michael Rosenberg’s writing at the Detroit Free Press is almost always solid, and he punctuates his prose with biting humor. The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell still has flashes of being the best baseball columnist out there. The list goes on.
But to get a better understanding of my longing for the greats, I urge you to peruse the archives made available on the Internet. Check out pre-ESPN Rick Reilly, before he became cliché. Give some reads to Shirley Povich. Get on Google and search for Jimmy Cannon, W.C. Heinz, Blackie Sherrod, Gary Cartwright, Dan Jenkins and Frank DeFord. And, please, sift through the masterful prose of Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times legend who is one of the most highly regarded sportswriters in history.
In a bygone day, these were the men sports fans looked to for insight, argument or a good laugh. But to be sure, sports fans looked to them, and so did fellow writers. I still do.
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