By Neil Amdur
Dave Anderson was Everyman in the complex world of sports journalism. If you wanted a model for what sports journalism should be, Dave Anderson provided the perfect path to greatness. And goodness.
True, Dave never served as a sports editor for a major metropolitan newspaper. But over the course of more than six decades, in newspaper articles and columns, magazine features and books, he saw the realities of sports journalism and mentored enough sportswriters and editors to outfit a full pro football franchise, maybe even a league.
Dave Anderson listened. And observed. Not just for his stories, but for the process. Any number of superstar columnists and reporters can relate how Dave baled them out of potential deadline crises because he could. And cared. And did.
“In a world of scorpions,” Robert Lipsyte, a respected columnist and one of Dave’s former colleagues at the New York Times, observed recently, “he was the good guy.”
Good on so many levels. Great enough to earn a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 and also the APSE’s Red Smith Award for major contributions to sports journalism in 1994. Along with countless other local, state and national honors.
Most important, Dave’s deepest roots were in journalism. One of his grandfathers was publisher of his hometown Troy (N.Y.) Times and his father was the advertising director. He wrote for his high school and college papers (at Holy Cross), worked his way to the top from Brooklyn to Times Square and offered love and commitment to a dedicated wife and family of four children. One of his sons, Steve, was a major force for many years at ESPN.
Reading a Dave Anderson game story or column always felt like you were there, without excess. Dave was the quintessential storyteller—in print, over cocktails after an event or on the phone when I would call as sports editor of The Times and ask if he wanted to sub his already written column in the 11th hour because of breaking news. “How soon do you need it?” was a typical response after his wife, Maureen, handed him the phone. And Dave would file without rancor or regret because what might have seemed a measured exterior in a hyperbolic sports climate was a quietly competitive, proud passion for perfection and his profession.
And then there was that sense of humor that could enliven any conversation whether it was mocking Howard Cosell’s over-the-top delivery, Oakland Raider exec Al Davis’ flamboyant “commitment to excellence” spiel or another hilarious anecdotal journey from boxing trainer Angelo Dundee.
His classic November 1980 column, “The Food on the Table at the Execution,” exposed New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner’s ruthless ways using sandwiches and coffee as effective literary tools for hiring and firing.
Ever the reporter, Dave could zero in on the heart of a story with depth and precision, even under pressure-filled deadlines from Las Vegas or overseas. His lead from the March 1971 heavyweight title fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali said it all: “In a classic 15-round battle, Joe Frazier broke the wings of the butterfly and smashed the stinger of the bee last night in winning a unanimous 15-round decision over Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden.”
His columns had a distinct voice, perhaps not as stylistically woven as his Times colleague Red Smith or as comically crafted as Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, but true to himself. Direct, reported thoroughly, laced with wit, wisdom or whatever he felt the occasion warranted.
Dave’s interests also had a diverse range. His Brooklyn boyhood allowed him to grow under the influence of captive baseball heroes. He covered pro football when Joe Namath brought the Jets their stunning Super Bowl upset of the seemingly invincible Baltimore Colts. He was courtside for the Knicks and Michael Jordan in their prime, and Ali at his peak and loved golf as a player well enough to appreciate the explosion of the pro game under Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
And he was always available. When I had to leave the 1968 United States Open tennis tournament before the men’s singles final because of another assignment at the final United States Olympic track and field trials in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Dave was recruited to capture Arthur Ashe’s historic victory.
The emotional national outpouring since Dave Anderson’s passing last week at age 89 speaks volumes for his special place. And one has to wonder if sports journalism will ever see the well-rounded depth of his soul again because the game has changed. Today’s reporters, columnists and editors know they are operating at different speeds and demands: If Dave Anderson was the classic, comfortable long-playing vinyl album filled with sing-a-long Bernstein music or Sondheim lyrics, today’s sports vibrate with the emphasis on volume and the moment.
Dave knew how to keep the music playing. To borrow the closing lyrics from the Alan and Marilyn Bergman classic, “if we can try with every day to make it better as it grows/With any luck, then I suppose/The music never ends.”
With Dave Anderson, the music never ends.
Neil Amdur spent 15 years as a sportswriter at The New York Times and 12 years as sports editor of The Times.