From a year ago, Mississippi traditions: writers and sports

Rick Cleveland
Rick Cleveland

Our state’s literary excellence was on impressive display this past weekend during the remarkably successful Mississippi Book Festival. The Magnolia State’s tradition of renowned authors rivals our tradition of world-class athletic achievement.

And, yes, those two traditions have intersected time and again, as we shall explore today.

Indeed, many of our finest writers wrote first of sports. My beloved late friend Willie Morris, confided often, “Rickey, you know, I am an old sports writer at heart.” Willie, author of North Toward Home and The Courting of Marcus Dupree among other classics, first wrote professionally as a 13-year-old sports reporter for the Yazoo Herald. He loved to tell of his first game story, in which he managed to quote from Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, while, much to his editor’s chagrin, failing to report the final score.

Willie wrote ineffably about sports. His short story, The Fumble, should be required reading in Mississippi high school literature.

Author Curtis Wilkie covered wars, the White House and eight presidential elections for The Boston Globe, but, at age 12, he first covered the Summit Bulldogs for The Summit Sun. Interestingly, Curtis reported on games in which he was involved. Says he, “I probably was not a great sports writer back then, but I was most assuredly a better writer than athlete.”

Jackson’s own Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford, a proud Murrah grad, wrote for the now defunct magazine, Inside Sports, before penning some of the most acclaimed novels of the 20th and early 21st centuries. His breakthrough novel? Why, The Sports Writer, of course.

David Halberstam, though not a Mississippi native, did some of his first writing at the West Point Daily Times Leader, where he wrote sports as well as news. Halberstam, another Pulitzer winner, wrote famously not only of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement but also of Michael Jordan, Bill Walton, Ted Williams and Bill Belichick among other sports luminaries.

John Grisham has sold more books than Mississippi has produced professional athletes, which is saying something. John often intersperses sports books with his best-selling legal thrillers. (If you haven’t read Calico Joe, treat yourself.) Boo Ferriss famously cut Grisham from his Delta State baseball team when John could not hit a curve ball and told him, “John, I think you better get with the books.”

Just goes to show, Boo always knows best. Speaking of Ferriss, when he walked off the mound after his last game at Mississippi State and before his meteoric Boston Red Sox career, the sports writer who interviewed him was none other William Winter, future governor and an author in his own right. Said the man widely hailed as the most progressive governor in Mississippi history, “All I ever really wanted to be growing up was a sports writer.”

We could go on and on, which begs the question: Why have so many of our greatest writers honed their craft writing about the games people play and the people who play them? Wilkie has an opinion, and he’s on to something.

In sports what you’re covering is essentially conflict and conflict is the essential ingredient in any good book whether it’s fiction or non-fiction,” Curtis says. “Sports is existential in that it’s happening at the moment. The outcome is not known. You don’t know what the hell is going to happen. As a writer, that’s especially appealing and, I think, good training.”

The late, great Red Smith, for my money the best sports columnist ever, famously said, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”

For some, sports writing is even more difficult — and even dangerous. Little known fact: Bat Masterson, the legendary gunfighter, became a sports columnist late in life. He wrote for the New York Morning Telegraph. The survivor of more gunfights than he could count, Masterson died at his typewriter at age 67, having completed his final column against a deadline.

On this much all writers can agree: Deadlines are evil.

 

 

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