For most of us, a thirty-year working career seems like a life well spent. Not so for famed Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich. For more than seventy-five (and this is not a typo!) years, he eloquently chronicled American sports in his daily columns. Generations of Washingtonians, including presidents from Calvin Coolidge to Bill Clinton, enjoyed their breakfast with the Post’s “This Morning with Shirley Povich.” When Povich talked about a boxing bout, he was most likely referring to the infamous 1927 Dempsey-Tunney “long count” fight. He was only one of a few eyewitnesses to both Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech at Yankee Stadium in 1939 and Cal Ripken’s paean to longevity at Camden Yards in 1995.
On the hundredth anniversary of Povich’s birth (Shirley died in June 1998), his children, including the talk show host Maury Povich, joined hands with Shirley’s colleague, George Solomon, to bring together his best columns in book form. Interspersed with anecdotes about Shirley’s life and brief background on a number of columns, the book is a delight. It is at once a testament to clear, succinct writing under deadline pressure and to one man’s singular quest to capture the vicissitudes of sports. When Povich witnessed Don Larsen’s perfect game for the New York Yankees in the 1956 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers, he wrote a lead that, even today, is used in journalism classes:
“The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays
hit the calendar. Don Larsen pitched a no-hit, no-run, no-man-reach-first
game in a World Series.”
Povich’s writing career is not just one of longevity and sustained good writing. He often played Don Quixote and tilted at windmills represented by conservatives. He strongly voiced his support for racial integration in baseball long before Jackie Robinson came to the league in 1948. He exposed the chicanery of then-Washington Redskins’ owner George Preston Marshall when the businessman made financial gain out of a charity event. He was a lonely soul who supported Gene Tunney, while the rest of the world thought Jack Demsey should have won the 1927 boxing bout.
While his written words were cherished by millions and stood the test of time, Povich is best remembered by his colleagues for his personal qualities. Even after seventy-five years of covering man’s various peccadilloes, Povich was never cynical. He befriended young journalists, developed lifelong friendships with a variety of people and never lost the fan’s perspective in his writing. And of course, he had a keen sense of humor – no doubt brought about by his unusual name. For many years, he would receive letters addressed to “Miss Shirley Povich.” In 1959, he was included in the first edition of Who’s Who of American Women that prompted this pithy telegram from Walter Cronkite: “Miss Povich, will you marry me?”
The book is a collection of columns that trace American sporting history in the twentieth century. Shirley Povich had ringside seats to the seminal sporting events – Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, the first Super Bowl, the Olympic protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City in 1968 – and he captured them for posterity by his simple and honest, yet riveting narrative style that has ensured his legacy. Many consider him, along with Red Smith and Grantland Rice, as the grand old man of sporting journalism. From this collection, it is clear why he deserved this singular adulation.