LONDON — Day One did not begin well. En route to the Globe for my first day as a summer intern, I was sideswiped on Storrow Drive by a Bloodmobile.
Since then, no complaints.
Forty-four years later, I’m still here, which is truly remarkable. How many columnists on a major American daily newspaper have spent their entire journalistic lives with one newspaper? The answer is close to zero. But why would I want to go anywhere else?
By the way, that first day quickly got better. When I finally arrived at the paper for my first day of summer employment, the first person I met was a fellow 1968 Globe summer sports intern. It was a North Carolina Tar Heel named Peter Gammons. We’ve been friends ever since.
When I was a student at Boston College and a fervent newspaper reader, my fantasy was to work for the Boston Globe. It became a case of Mission Accomplished, with every reasonable wish fulfilled. Now it is time to step aside, though not completely out of sight. When I hit the “send” button on my gold medal basketball game column, I will cease to be a full-time employee of the only newspaper I have ever worked for after graduating from college. But let’s not call it “retirement.” I choose to call it “Transition to Phase Two.”
Joe Sullivan, who among his other distinctions is the only sports editor I have worked for who loves and knows more about college basketball than I do, has graciously asked me to remain as a Sunday contributor for 30-40 times a year. But make no mistake: I’m stepping aside from full-time duty. Post-Olympics, I will have covered my last event and written my last deadline story for the paper that has been my home for 44 years.
It is a totally different sports journalism world from the one I first inhabited.
When I began in 1968, we used typewriters, and copy, both from local venues and the road, was sent via Western Union. There were at least three middlemen between me and the reader. Now there is one. The technological advances border on science fiction for the 1968 mind. I could have sent this column via my BlackBerry were it necessary. When I started, there was no such thing as “call waiting.” Forget about cellphones. Beepers were in the future.
The people I worked with, and so admired, included thorough professionals, many of whom had been born between 1900 and 1920. Two of them, the great columnist Harold Kaese and the pioneer basketball writer Jack Barry (who covered the first Celtics practice in 1946 and was the first person to formulate the concept of the turnover) never learned to drive a car. Desk men had fistfights over glue pots. Just about everybody smoked, and a startling percentage of working sportswriters in this town were either reformed or functional alcoholics.
For the likes of Gammons and Ryan, the Boston Globe was the place to be. Tom Winship was the editor, and because of him, the Boston Globe was that rarity among American dailies: a writer’s paper, not, as were most papers then (and, sadly, some even now), an editor’s paper.
In those days, the Globe still had separate morning and evening editions. Fran Rosa was the morning sports editor. Ernie Roberts ran the Evening Globe. Jerry Nason, who had been with the paper since the late ’30s-early ’40s, was the Executive Sports Editor and he still wrote six (6) columns a week. What those three had in common was a commitment to writers, especially young ones.
Gammons and Ryan were allowed to go crazy, to be creative. When we needed reining in, there were watchful desk men such as Art Keefe to lend advice. But we were always encouraged to swing for the fences, with our particular points of view, about baseball, basketball, football, anything.
The Old Guard was often quite amused. One of our colleagues was the acerbic Clif Keane, a figure who would have no place in today’s scheme of things, which is modern journalism’s loss. Apprised that the bosses were considering having Peter cover the Red Sox for the Morning Globe and me for the Evening Globe, Keane sneered, “Oh, that’ll be great. Gammons will write about wars and symphonies, and Ryan will complain about the umpires.”
Clif was a larger-than-life figure, as was Roger Birtwell, a veteran baseball writer whom I nicknamed the “Dash King.” I had never seen a man use so many dashes. Roger was famous for padding (in bedroom slippers) into the Fenway press box in the fifth inning or so, saying, “Fill me in, boys.” When he discovered I had been born and raised in Trenton, N.J., he asked me if the Hotel Hildebrecht was still there. I said yes. He informed me that’s where he would stay while covering Harvard-Princeton football games in the ’20s.
Roger had known Ruth, Cobb, Hornsby, etc. He may even have known Cap Anson. Talk about minute degrees of separation.
Oh my God, John Ahern. Famous for three changes of clothes daily at Newport during an America’s Cup, or even at Swampscott. A beautiful blazer. A straw boater. A cigar. A name dropper supreme (don’t get him started about Marciano). He used to say to me, “Bobby boy, don’t ever read your own stuff.” I couldn’t understand that. I related more to Jimmy Breslin, who used to say that one of his great thrills was being on the New York subway and sitting next to someone who was reading his column (no picture).
And Bud Collins . . . what can I say, other than no man could have been more helpful and encouraging to a young colleague than Bud Collins. And let me tell you something else. No one has ever written better columns for this paper than Bud Collins, and I’m talking baseball, basketball, boxing, football, among others, not just tennis.
That’s saying a lot, because what matters most to me as I wind down my association with this great newspaper is that I firmly believe I have been a member of a true All-Star team in sports journalism for the entire 44 years. We tend to judge sports figures by the number of championship rings they have been fortunate enough to accumulate. I want to be judged by the people I’ve worked with. Lists are dangerous, because someone obvious invariably is left off. So I won’t risk that. Just appreciate that I have been in a killer lineup for 44 years.
But one person does deserve special note. There are some great women in our business, but I don’t know of anyone who has matched Jackie MacMullan’s feat of going toe-to-toe with the boys in terms of attaining top-level credibility while not sacrificing a shred of femininity. She is the ultimate role model for any young woman.
I do want it known that I have spent 44 years doing it from the heart. I have never once written to provoke or to attract attention. I have always done what has come naturally, which doesn’t mean it’s always been right. No one is right all the time.
So why now? It’s time; that’s all. I’ve covered the events I wanted to cover. I reached a goal with the Bruins’ Stanley Cup run in 2011 to have covered championships in all four primary pro sports. I’ve covered 29 Final Fours. London has been my 11th Olympics. I even did a dog show. I am fulfilled.
But there is something else. I occasionally come across some things I wrote years ago, and I say to myself, “I did that?” And I know in my heart I really couldn’t match that effort today. That’s all a writer needs to know.
My goal is to gain personal life flexibility and to eliminate obligation. I still have the Globe part-time gig and I still have a bit more TV shelf life, how much I really don’t know. I want to do what I want to do and not do what I don’t want to do. And my wife of 43 years, the former Elaine Murray, is the perfect companion with whom to do or not do whatever it is we’re going to do or not do.
See me in a year or so. I’ll let you know how it’s working out.