WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – This was June of 1976. The National Sportscasters and National Sportswrtiers Association was holding its annual awards presentation in Salisbury, N.C.
The Hattiesburg American sent me to accept the Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year Award. I was 23 years young and looked more like 15. I still got carded every time I ordered a beer. The legal age was 18. I got some strange – who’s the kid? – looks in Salisbury.
Didn’t bother me. I was pretty much in heaven, like a rookie league baseball player hanging out in a Major League clubhouse. First guy I bumped into at the opening reception was New York Times sports columnist Red Smith, still in my estimation the best sports writer there ever was.
Red Smith ordered his Scotch on the rocks, so I did, too. He was a little, elfish looking man, bald on top. He couldn’t have been nicer to the kid from Mississippi.
This was long, long before the Internet. I used to go to the Hattiesburg library to read Smith’s columns. “How does he do that?” I remember thinking. Smith wrote literature about sports, about 700 words a day. That same year, he won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. The Pulitzer committee described Smith’s work for being “unique in the erudition, the literary quality, the vitality and the freshness of viewpoint.”
“Writing is easy,” Smith once said. “I just open a vein and bleed.”
So that’s how he did that.
Back then, they had a golf tournament in conjunction with the awards program. I got paired with Keith Jackson, still in my mind the voice of college football. Jackson probably shot 72 or 73 that day. He could play. The group ahead of us included Dizzy Dean, who was there to be inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame for his baseball broadcasting.
Did I mention I was pretty much in heaven?
I stopped in Atlanta on the way back to Mississippi to cover the U.S. Open. I was just a few feet away from Jerry Pate when he hit the most famous 5-iron shot in Open history to win the tournament. Pate was 22 at the time.
So, 41 years later, I returned to North Carolina this week. The National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association has become the National Sports Media Association. So much more than the name has changed.
These days we write on laptops, not typewriters. We don’t have to go to the library to read another writer’s newspaper columns. Punch the right button on your computer and they magically appear.
In fact, more people read newspaper columns on their computers and cell phones than on newsprint. Nevertheless, traditional newspapers are in trouble. So many have quit printing. So many more print only three times a week.
This was telling: Of the 50 state Sports Writers of the Year, only 12 attended this year’s awards program. Clearly, newspaper travel budgets aren’t what they were in 1976 when nearly every state was represented.
This year, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated won National Sportswriter of the Year for the third straight time. Vin Scully, the recently retired Dodgers announcer and in my mind the Red Smith of broadcasting, won National Sportscaster of the Year.
Linda Cohn of ESPN, Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News, the late Frank Gifford and the late Sam Lacy were inducted into the NSMA’s Hall of Fame. Rick Reilly emceed. He was a hoot.
The event was nice, but I would have loved to have had another Scotch with Red Smith and asked him what he thought of the state of newspapers and sports writing today.
I think he would say that no matter the format – newsprint, tablet or cell phone screen – the words are still what matter. And he would be correct.