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Dan Shaughnessy

Remembering our maestro of the sports department: Ray Fitzgerald

There are no games in these dark, scary days. Here in the toy department, we spend a lot of time looking back. We watch grainy footage of World Series played in 1967 and 1975. We watch Larry and Magic in their short-shorts battling in three NBA Finals in the 1980s. We watch "Malcolm, go!'' and 28-3.

We blow the dust off old books, once again savoring Roger Kahn’s "The Boys of Summer,'' David Halberstam’s “The Breaks of the Game,” and anything by the estimable Roger Angell.

Today I am here to celebrate Ray Fitzgerald, the best sports columnist to grace these Globe pages in my lifetime.

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Ray’s window was relatively brief — 16 years at the Globe, 12 as a columnist — but his impact was Koufaxian. He died almost 40 years ago, but you’d be amazed how often I hear from readers who remember his prose.

A man in his late 60s who played football at Holy Cross e-mailed me this past week, writing, "I remember a day in 1982 when I cried at the breakfast table. I had just learned that Ray Fitzgerald died. I never met the man but I considered him a best friend. As a sportswriter, you enter our lives and we have a one-sided conversation with you daily.''

I wrote back to my college friend, explaining that I might be writing about Ray soon and asking permission to use his words.

"It would be an honor to be in a sentence with Ray,'' he responded.

All of us in this business who were fortunate enough to have read him regularly feel the same way. I grew up reading the Globe and have been lucky to work with a deep roster of Hall of Fame talents, but Ray was the best of those best. Like the man, his columns were funny, thoughtful, sensitive, creative, self-deprecating, and never mean.

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A Westfield native who went to Notre Dame on a baseball scholarship, Ray wrote a tribute to his 23-year-old Richie Ashburn baseball mitt when the glove finally dissolved in Ray’s adult years: "The glove has had to stoop to the indignity of family outings. Class reunions, pickup softball games and backyard games of catch . . . A man gets attached to certain things in his life — a dog, a favorite putter, an old wallet. That’s the way it was with the Richie Ashburn glove. It was a link with the past when a man felt that with a little break here and there, he could be anything he wanted to be . . . The glove is gone and its owner feels a lot older than he did yesterday.''

Ray Fitzgerald worked for the Globe during the historic 1975 World Series.
Ray Fitzgerald worked for the Globe during the historic 1975 World Series.HARRY CABLUCK

Some other Ray nuggets . . .

After Game 6 of the ’75 World Series: “Call it off. Call the seventh game off. Let the World Series stand this way, three games for the Cincinnati Reds and three for the Boston Red Sox . . . The drama piled up like cordwood . . . Snap, crackle, and pop and there were the Reds ahead, 5-3, and King Tut’s tomb couldn’t have been more silent than Fenway Park.” (Ray’s story was read into the Congressional Record by Massachusetts Senator Ed Brooke.)

On Yaz in 1976: "Carl Yastrzemski has outlasted three presidents, six managers, a vicious and degrading war, and a change in American lifestyle as swift and powerful as a Nolan Ryan fastball . . . But he’s really gone through only four seasons in those 16 years — the spring, summer, autumn, and winter of Carl Yastrzemski . . . It was a long time coming, this appreciation for Yaz, a not entirely expected bonus to take with him into the winter of his career.''

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On New York City in 1976 after ripping fan behavior in the ALCS: "Dear Mom: I’m here in New York City to cover the next three games of the World Series and I thought I’d let you know I’ve changed my mind about this place. About a week ago I wrote some bad things about New York . . . but yesterday, I found out how wrong I was. New Yorkers can be as friendly as people in any other city. For example, when I arrived at my hotel late at night, a whole bunch of women outside the entrance couldn’t have been nicer . . . They were probably members of the women’s auxiliary of the Junior Chamber of Commerce.''

On Muhammad Ali's final days in the ring: "Time beat him. The noiseless foot of Time overtakes everybody. You can spar for a long while and win some decisions, you can trick Time with rope-a-dope gimmicks and tiptoe through a lot of years with slick talk and razzle dazzle and a mountain of ability. But sooner or later, there are no more pages in the ledger. Time is the winner . . . with subtle jabs and counter-punches . . . Time is the new champion.''

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On the Sox losing the one-game playoff in 1978: "And so it’s finished, the crazy-quilt 1978 Red Sox season. And the final irony is that the man who had the last swing in that season is the man who most wanted to keep it going — the man still chasing the one prize that has eluded him . . . Like Hemingway’s Old Man, Carl Yastrzemski won’t quit until he catches the biggest fish in baseball’s ocean.''

On Bobby Orr’s premature retirement: "Orr is not an athlete dying young, not in the true sense of the phrase, but we all know how much went out of his life — and ours — when, barely 30 years old, he had to quit because of knees with little but air left in them . . . He was every middle-aged fan’s ticket back to youth, and every kid’s fantasy.''

On the Boston Marathon: "Our city’s contribution to the legend of sport, a day when all America pays homage to the shin splint . . . As someone who reaches the brink of physical exhaustion merely by driving from Boston to Springfield, I find the thought of running 100 miles a week simply inconceivable. You might as well tell me they ride a bicycle to the moon for a bottle of milk.''

On Bobby Knight: "Those who know Bobby Knight say he can be charming, warm, and witty. I don’t know him, don’t want to and don’t have to. His actions speak for him, and his actions are despicable. His teams would go undefeated for the rest of his life and he’d still be a loser.''

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On generating ideas for his column: "People are always asking a sports columnist where he gets his ideas. Personally, I’ve been inundated with the question, getting two letters to that effect in 1973 and one last year. All three began with the greeting, ‘Dear Stupid . . .' '’

Fitzgerald covered the Bruins during the 1970s during their glory days with Derek Sanderson, Bobby Orr, and Phil Esposito.
Fitzgerald covered the Bruins during the 1970s during their glory days with Derek Sanderson, Bobby Orr, and Phil Esposito.Globe Photo

I read Ray when I was in high school and got to know him when I was in college. He was the ultimate professional, ever the gentleman, gracious and encouraging to young writers.

Ray was a god when Kevin Dupont, Lesley Visser, and I covered high school football for the Globe in October of 1975. In the Fenway press box on the night of World Series Game 6, Lesley watched Ray rip a page out of his typewriter after Bernie Carbo’s pinch homer changed momentum in the Series.

The Red Sox were storming back and Ray was in rewrite mode. His lead that the world never saw was, "You could feel it slipping away . . . ''

Lesley still has the page. To us, a discarded Ray Fitz lead from Game 6 was like a rough draft of "The Great Gatsby.''

When I toured the Globe’s noisy, hot-metal typesetting press room in the summer of 1976, I spotted a stack of Ray Fitzgerald head-shot photo cubes. When no one was looking, I lifted one of Ray’s heavy cubes off the tray and dropped it into my pocket.

It has traveled with me to every home and office in which I’ve lived and worked for the last 44 years. I’m staring at it now as I type these words, still trying to do the impossible — trying to be just half as good as Ray Fitzgerald.


Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at daniel.shaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.