The King of the Sports Page Ledes the Way

Last week, Bronx Banter’s Alex Belth put together a three-part series (one, two, three) on some of the greatest ledes — the opening sentences or paragraphs of newspaper or magazine articles — in sportswriting history, lines which pack a wallop that’s stood the test of time. A student of the genre, Alex called upon great works by some of the heaviest hitters of bygone eras, including Red Smith, Heywood Broun, John Lardner, W.C. Heinz, Grantland Rice, Roger Kahn, and Shirley Povich. Here’s Smith, on Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”:

Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it, The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly implausible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.

Baseball wasn’t the only sport represented in that Murderer’s Row; football, boxing and horse racing were prominently featured as well. There was even one devoted to auto racing, courtesy of Jim Murray, who devoted this immortal lede to a column on the Indianapolis 500: “Gentlemen, start your coffins.”

Though I actually didn’t get to read a ton of his pieces while growing up, Murray was a favorite of mine based on the handful of Los Angeles Times columns which crossed my path in my travels, and the occasional one which would show up closer to home via syndication. Thanks to the magic of Google, I located the first Murray column that I remember reading. It’s from 1982, written on the occasion of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and yes, it’s got a hell of a lede:

You folks all know my opinion of the Pebble Beach golf course. If it were human, they’d hang it from the highest yardarm in the British fleet. It’s the golfing equivalent of the Spanish Main. Or the Spanish Inquisition.

These 18 holes were not cut in the picturesque countryside of Carmel Bay. They were dragged out of British prisons and shanghaied onto this hell ship. They are a classic band of cutthroats, blackguards without mercy, kindness or compassion.

Every one of them has murder in his heart, a knife in his teeth, hate in his soul, and a bottle of rum in his pocket. He’d kill you for your parrot.

Further down the article, where Murray decries the obscurities in the Open’s field of players, is a classic requiem for a duffer that’s stuck with me for more than a quarter century: “Stan Stopa is here. He’s from Wilshire Boulevard. That’s Wilshire Boulevard in Metaire, La., not the one in Los Angeles. Stan should be back early, folks.”

I own a few Murray anthologies, so in a bit of downtime, I sent Alex a representative selection of his great baseball ledes, which he compiled into yet another entry in his Bronx Banter series. The first four of them hail from The Great Ones, the fifth from The Jim Murray Collection, both of which can be had for less than five bucks a pop via your friendly online used bookseller.

Apropos of the recent World Series, here’s a pair of ‘em, one on Reggie Jackson from October 19, 1977 (“Reggie Renames the House That Ruth Built”) and one on Orel Hershiser from September 28, 1988 (“They Won’t Call Him Dr. Zero for Nothing”):

NEW YORK-Excuse me while I wipe up the bloodstains and carry off the wounded. The Dodgers forgot to circle the wagons.

Listen! You don’t go into the woods with a bear. You don’t go into a fog with Jack the Ripper. You don’t get in a car with Al Capone. You don’t get on a ship with Morgan the Pirate. You don’t go into shark waters with a nosebleed. You don’t wander into Little Bighorn with General Custer.

And you don’t come into Yankee Stadium needing a win to stay alive in a World Series. Not unless you have a note pinned to you telling them where to send the remains. If any.

• • • 

Norman Rockwell would have loved Orel Hershiser. The prevailing opinion is, he wasn’t drafted, he just came walking off a Saturday Evening Post cover one day with a pitcher’s glove, a cap 2 sizes too big and a big balloon of bubble gum coming out of his mouth.

You can read the entirety of the Reggie piece here via Google Books, and the Orel piece here via a cache of the L.A. Times‘s archived version.

Upon Murray’s passing, Sports Illustrated‘s Rick Reilly eulogized him in the magazine’s pages, writing, “He wrote the nation’s best sports column for 37 delicious years at the Los Angeles Times, but, come to think of it, the column was about sports sort of the way Citizen Kane was about sleds.” That piece, along with Reilly’s moving tribute from 12 years earlier, “King of the Sports Page,” are both worth reading. Don’t miss them — this means you, Dad.

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