Rice, Lardner, Runyon: When true giants roamed press box at World Series

My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana is on the sportswriter equivalent of Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio covering the 1932 World Series.


If I could go back to a moment in sports history, I definitely would place myself in Wrigley Field on Oct. 1, 1932.

After being fully immersed in writing my book, Called Shot: The Myth and Mystery Behind Baseball’s Greatest Home Run, it would be great to determine if Babe Ruth really pointed to centerfield during Game 3 of the Yankees-Cubs World Series. However, I also have another reason.

As a sportswriter, I would have given anything to be in that Wrigley Field press box.

I dedicated a chapter in the book to what the sportswriters wrote, or didn’t write, about Ruth’s “Called Shot.” In the early days of radio, and way before TV, sportswriters were kings of all media. Their viewpoints provided crucial evidence in separating myth from reality on that fateful day.

Yet there was something else that also stood out: It might have been the greatest collection of sportswriters ever in a press box.

The Wrigley Field roll call included:

Grantland Rice (pictured above): Perhaps the most important sportswriter of all-time, his colorful prose made legends out of Ruth, Red Grange, Knute Rockne and more. Rice’s celebrity was as big as the stars he covered.

Ring Lardner: One of the first acclaimed sports columnists and a master short story writer, he listed F. Scott Fitzgerald among his friends, and his work influenced a young writer named Ernest Hemingway.

Damon Runyon: He began his career as a sportswriter, but would eventually go on to become a fixture on Broadway. His short stories were the inspiration for the musical, Guys and Dolls, which helped create a vibe for the theater area and beyond in New York.

Arch Ward: The young sports editor of the Chicago Tribune had a brilliant idea to celebrate the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. How about an exhibition game featuring the best players of the American League facing the best players of the National League? Thus, the first All-Star game was played in 1933 at Comiskey Park. Fittingly, Ruth hit the first All-Star home run.

Paul Gallico: The New York Daily News sports columnist soon would grow tired of sports in the late ‘30s and decide to write novels. He would go on to write The Snow Goose and The Poseidon Adventure, which would be adapted into a huge hit movie starring Gene Hackman.

Red Smith and Shirley Povich: The press box also included a couple of 27-year-old sportswriters who were just beginning to lay the foundations of their legends: Smith, who was working for the St. Louis Journal, and Povich of the Washington Post.

Imagine Smith and Povich as young sportswriters walking into a World Series press box and seeing Rice, Lardner, Runyon and Gallico and other big names pounding away on their typewriters. It must have been an awesome and inspirational sight.

No offense to the current collection of sportswriters assembled in the press box for this year’s World Series, but the scene has changed considerably. The Fall Classic isn’t even a must-cover for the major sports columnists. When I was assigned to the World Series in the mid-‘80s, I was part of a five-man coverage team for the Chicago Tribune, including three columnists. This year, the Trib is sending one reporter, Paul Sullivan, to cover Kansas City-San Francisco.

Back in 1932, baseball was everything. Pro football barely existed, and it would be decades before the NFL ate up everything, including baseball.

If you were a sportswriter, covering the World Series was the pinnacle. You were part of the ultra elite in the profession.

“The sportswriters were absolutely the best writers on the papers in those days, and baseball writing was the best of all jobs on a newspaper,” said Marshall Hunt in Jerome Holtzman’s fabulous book, No Cheering in the Press Box.

The rules also were quite different back then. The writers traveled on the trains with the teams they covered and often became close friends with the players, including Ruth. None of them dared to write about the slugger’s extracurricular activities away from the field.

Sportswriters served a different role, especially during the early days of the Great Depression. Readers wanted an escape from the bleak economic news. They needed to hear stories about larger-than-life athletes performing larger-than-life exploits.

“The nation was looking for a lift,” MLB historian John Thorn said in my book. “In 1932, it was the heart of the Depression. It was a dark, dark year. The public was anxious to grab on to something that frothy and fun.”

The sportswriters in the Wrigley Field might have been the greatest igniters of Ruth’s “Called Shot.” I detailed their stories from the game in my book.

Joe Williams of the New York World Telegram is largely credited as starting the legend in motion. He wrote: “Ruth pointed to the center field and punched a screaming liner to a spot where no ball ever had been hit before.”

There is a misconception that Williams was the only writer who wrote about “The Called Shot” in his next day story. Actually, that isn’t true, as I document examples from other writers who make a reference to Ruth pointing.

Still, there were plenty of writers who made no mention of “The Called Shot” in their initial stories, thus stirring the debate. Rice was the most prominent. He didn’t dive into Ruth’s signature moment until his second-day column.

Rice wrote:

“His beaming countenance wore a broad grin. He then pointed to center field. And around five seconds later his famous line-drive lash—not much higher than [Primo] Camera’s head—sailed across the barrier.”

Ah yes, they don’t write like that anymore, do they?

The times have changed. While there still are many immensely talented sportswriters, they get dwarfed by personalities on ESPN and elsewhere. Stephen A. Smith has a much higher profile than every columnist in print or on the Web.

So as yet another World Series begins, it is worth recalling that once upon a time, sportswriters ruled the media landscape. In 1932, there were true giants in the Wrigley Field press box.

Oh, how I envy a young Smith and Povich for being there.

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