Editor’s Note: The following is a transcript of former Richmond Times-Dispatch sports columnist and editor Bill Millsaps’ acceptance speech in Boston on June 24, 2011, after he was presented with The Associated Press Sports Editors 2011 Red Smith Award — the highest sports journalism award in the country.
Willie Nelson sang that his heroes have always been cowboys. My heroes have always been sports writers, such as Blackie Sherrod, Jim Murray and Red Smith.
My first exposure to Red’s work was a paperback collection of his columns out of the old New York Herald Tribune. In the foreword of the book, Tim Cohane, then sports editor of Look Magazine, wrote, “If you’re reading Red Smith for the first time, I can only ask, ‘Where the hell have you been?’”
In my case, I had been in the southern mountain town of Daisy, Tenn. In such a location, decades before the internet made it possible to read 50 or 100 sports columnists every day, Red Smith’s Herald Trib columns were simply not available to me. When I read him for the first time in that book, I thought, “I want to write like this guy.”
I never managed to write as well as Red, but I am so pleased and humbled to win the award that carries his name.
I finally met Red in 1971 and promptly embarrassed myself by gushing all over him. Red wiped off the slobber and said, “You do me honor.”
In time, we became friends. I was around him often enough to know how he ordered his drink. He would say to the bartender, “I’ll have a vodka tonic. Just the vodka and the tonic and the ice. No fruit, please.” Vivid in my memory is a moment outside the Yankees’ clubhouse after the sixth game of the 1977 World Series, the game in which Reggie Jackson hit three home runs. The hall outside the clubhouse was a sweaty mob scene of pushing, shoving, yelling reporters, photographers and TV crews. I found myself standing right behind Red.
He was 72 years old then and was to live only five more years. He could have and probably should have remained in the relative comfort of the press box and done one of his elegant tangos with the mother tongue. But there he was in the media scrum. I said to him, “I know why I’m here. Why are you here?” He replied in that thin voice of his, “Oh, you can always learn something.”
That’s not a bad motto for any working journalist.
There are several people I want to thank today, among them the former APSE presidents and Red Smith winners who vote on this honor. I particularly want to express my appreciation to old friends Howard Owen, Dave Smith and Herb Stutz, who nominated me for the award.
The British poet W.H. Auden wrote a four-liner I’ve always liked.
“Let us honor if we can
The vertical man
Though we value none
But the horizontal one.”
It was my great good fortune to spend the majority of my career working for not one but two vertical men. The first was the late Alf Goodykoontz, my predecessor as executive editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The second is Stewart Bryan, chairman of the board of Media General, Inc., former publisher of The Times-Dispatch and the man I am so pleased came to Boston to introduce me today. You’ve got to like a publisher who insists that his all-time favorite job was as a reporter covering the Florida legislature for the Tampa Times.
I would be remiss if I did not also thank my former colleagues at The Times-Dispatch, who made me look good in spite of myself and saved me from many wretched errors over 39 years as reporter, columnist and editor.
Three of my newsroom butt-savers are here today. They are Jack Berninger, retired sports editor of the T-D and executive director of APSE, Mike Harris, former sports editor of the T-D now sports editor at the Washington Times and Danny Finnegan.
We hired Danny for the T-D sports desk 24 years ago, and I am happy to say that on June 2, he became editor of the paper.
My daughters Kathy and Camerian are the lights of my life. Bryant Millsaps, my brother who is president and CEO of Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes, is here with me today. He’s five years younger, but I look up to him, and not just because he’s a Baptist preacher.
You may think June 24, 2011 is my luckiest day. It’s not. My luckiest day was June 27, 1951. That’s the day Nancy Dickenson Hurt was born in Russell County, Va. My wife is and always will be my Country Redhead.
In looking back over my sports writing career, I don’t think so much of the stuff I wrote or the events I covered as I think of the men with whom I covered those events. Our little press box cell included Blackie Sherrod, Edwin Pope, Dan Jenkins, Furman Bisher, Dave Kindred, Frank Luksa and three “absent friends” — Jim Murray, Dan Foster and Dan Cook. Mark Whicker of the Orange County Register called us “The Senior Tour.” Those of us who are on this side of the dirt proudly call ourselves “The Geezers.”
Since he was never as widely syndicated as some, you may not have read much of Blackie’s work. You should correct that.
At the age of 91, he’s still with us. Once, in a column about the incredible persistence of TV news producers, Blackie wrote, “You shut the doors, they come in the windows. You shut the windows, they come in the doors. The next time the Marines want Mt. Suribachi, never mind the riflemen. Just send a platoon of TV producers and they’ll have the flag up with four Japanese privates underneath, singing ‘Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,’ while there’s still enough light to film.”
And here’s Blackie on Bobby Layne, connoisseur of the forward pass and single malt Scotch whiskey:
“After a late night of heavy research with scholarly friends, Bobby was driving back to his hotel, innocently enough, when he was sideswiped by several empty cars lurking at curbside.”
I don’t suggest you try shoe-horning either of those wonderful passages into a 140-character tweet.
Blackie and Red and Jim Murray never had to tweet, or blog, or tape video commentary, or update a Facebook page. I didn’t either, and thank God for that. I am not their equal, but I am so flattered to be up on the porch with them, if only for a day.
Like them, I am of a different, earlier and perhaps better era. In any case, I have no doubt that it was easier in my time than it is now. I ran a sports department and wrote my last newspaper sports column nearly 20 years ago, and it’s enough for me that some people remember I was here.
I have a two-part conclusion.
First, I want you to consider something Red Smith said in Jerome Holtzman’s “No Cheering In The Press Box,” a fine oral history of sports writing and sports writers in the first 60 years of the 20th century. Red said, “Sports constitute a valid part of our culture, our civilization, and keeping people informed and, if possible, a little entertained about sports is not an entirely useless thing.” Hmm, “not entirely useless.”
That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the importance of sports journalism, but I figured if it was good enough for Red Smith, it was good enough for me.
Second, given that we’re meeting at a time when the news business is terribly unsettled, I’m reminded of a story from 29 years ago. It’s from a commencement speech by a good friend who died 11 years ago. He was three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Jeff MacNelly of the Richmond News Leader. He was addressing the 1982 graduating class of the Medical College of Virginia Medical School in Richmond.
At the end of his talk, Jeff spoke of a bar conversation he had with an Army top sergeant who was a jump master for the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C. After his third beer, Jeff found the chutzpah necessary to ask the sergeant a question that had been on his mind for several minutes. The question was: “What do you tell your troops to do if the parachute doesn’t open?”
The sergeant thought for a moment and replied, “When the chute don’t open, there are two kinds of people. You have your screamers … and you have your flappers.”
Given the state of the news business today, I hope none of you are screamers, and all of you are flappers.