“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction, and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden.”
That’s how Grantland Rice, sports writer for the New York Tribune, began his account of the Notre Dame-Army football game of 1924. Notre Dame, led by its great backfield, won the game against a strong team from the United States Military Academy (Army).
Rice was fond of using literary allusions in his writing, and this one comes from the Book of Revelation in the Bible.
No paragraph in the history of sports journalism has been quoted more than this one. The “Four Horsemen” became part of the legend of Notre Dame football, and publicists at the University placed the four footballers on four horses for a famous photograph. And that photograph was turned into a postage stamp more than 50 years later.
Rice was just one of a number of great sports writers who have graced the pages of American newspaper. Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon, whose fiction is now studied in literature classes, were sports writers of the top rank.
Besides Rice, two others who were especially notable were Red Smith and Shirley Povich.*
Smith, who ended his career with the New York Times, was hired by the New York Herald Tribune in 1945 and covered sports and sports figures with intelligence and sensitivity. His column became the most widely syndicated of the age.
Smith cared about his writing. On purpose, he wrote simply and elegantly. And he knew how hard it is to do that. He once said there is nothing to writing — all you have to do is sit down at a typewriter and “open a vein.”
Povich covered sports for the Washington Post for most of the last century and knew every major sports figure from Babe Ruth to Michael Jordon. He, too, wrote sensitively, elegantly and simply. And he wasn’t afraid to express his opinions about what he saw.
In 1960, disgusted that his hometown Washington Redskins were the last National Football League team to integrate, Povich wrote the following about the Skins game with the Cleveland Browns.:
For 18 minutes the Redskins were enjoying equal rights with the Cleveland Browns yesterday, in the sense that there was no score in the contest. Then it suddenly became unequal in favor of the Browns, who brought along Jim Brown, their rugged colored fullback from Syracuse.
From 25 yards out, Brown was served the ball by Milt Plum on a pitch-out and he integrated the Redskins’ goal line with more than deliberate speed, perhaps exceeding the famous Supreme Court decree. Brown fled the 25 yards like a man in an uncommon hurry and the Redskins’ goal line, at least, became interracial.
Want more of this stuff?
Check out the New York Times article on great sportswriters of the 20th century.
And take a look at the tribute page the Washington Post put together on Shirley Povich when he died in 1998.
* Povich, a man, was once listed in a book of great American women because of his name. Which brings up another point. No women make the anyone’s list of great American sportwriters. That’s because there haven’t been very many, and they only got into the game late in the century. Let’s hope that with more openness and the rise of women’s sports, the 21st century will do better.
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