By Bob Ryan
2015 Red Smith Award Winner
Here’s what I used to say to people about Leigh Montville.
“I don’t know what he does, but he does it better than anyone.”
I totally meant that as a compliment. I could never figure out how his mind worked, but it sure did, if you know what I mean. A lot of us operate best as a writer, and particularly as a columnist, when we can approach things in a straightforward manner. Leigh Montville was the polar opposite. He looked to sneak in the side door, writing about a topic or a person from a fascinating angle that had somehow eluded the rest of us.
As a columnist, he was a tightrope walker. I liked to get in and out, happy to have my work done for the day. Leigh was a bit more, shall we say, leisurely. If I were writing a column on a non-live, non-pressing deadline situation, I obsessed about having a topic as early in the day as I could. I was always thinking about what I was going to have for dinner. Leigh was different. 5 p.m … 6 p.m … 7 p.m … Leigh would be wandering around the office, smoking a Winston — these were the Good Old Days — saying, “Got any ideas? I’m up for grabs.” That was his favorite phrase, “Up for grabs.” Sooner or later, he would come up with something, and, of course, it would be well worth waiting for, both in content and execution.
Leigh, a former columnist for The Boston Globe and a former senior writer for Sports Illustrated, was named today as the winner of APSE’s 2016 Red Smith Award, given to one person annually for “major contributions to sports journalism.”
Leigh is a writer’s writer, which is why he is an ideal recipient of the Red Smith Award. He has always wanted to do just one thing: write. When it seemed as if every prominent columnist in America had to have his own radio show, Leigh Montville said no. You practically had to call out the National Guard to drag him into a TV studio. He just wanted to write.
We talked about a lot of sports, but the one we discussed the most was basketball. I grew up in New Jersey. Leigh grew up in New Haven, which was a very fertile basketball area. Leigh himself is a proud UConn Husky, while I am a BC guy. For years we had a standing dollar bet on any BC-UConn game. Both of us have our favorites and passions. I can remember him rhapsodizing about a UConn guard named Joey Whelton. If I’m not mistaken, he also was big on Porky Vierra at Quinnipiac.
I can tell you two other Leigh Montville favorites. I think he would have been quite happy to write 182 days a year about Doug Flutie and 182 days a year about Larry Bird, with one day off.
That aside, what so distinguishes Leigh Montville from the rest of us is plain old curiosity. As much as he may have liked writing about mainstream people such as Bird and Flutie, no one ever does the Little Guy, or the Forgotten Guy or the Obscure Guy better than Leigh Montville. And he liked learning new things. I couldn’t believe it when he became enthusiastic about the Indianapolis 500. This led him from the Indy 500 to NASCAR to doing a book on Dale Earnhardt.
Speaking of books, look at the range of Leigh Montville topics. You’ve got Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Dale Earnhardt, Evel Knievel, a fascinating 30s Hollywood character nicknamed Mysterious Montague and my personal favorite, Manute Bol. Leave it to Leigh Montville to delve into the amazing saga of the 7-foot-6 inch Dinka tribesman/NBA shot blocker. Check out “Manute Bol, The Center of Two Worlds.” You won’t regret it.
With that kind of range, he was the perfect columnist and the perfect person to write the back-of-the-magazine column in Sports Illustrated for many years. Red Smith himself couldn’t have done it the way Leigh does. No one can.
The next five finishers in the voting were Henry Freeman, Dick Young, George Vecsey, Terry Taylor and Sandy Rosenbush, and they are automatically nominated for the 2017 Red Smith Award.
Other 2016 nominees were Kirk Bohls, Bryan Burwell, Tom Callahan, Leon Carter, Rick Clarkson, Stan Hochman, Phil Jasner, Sally Jenkins, Roy McHugh, Bill Plaschke, Terry Pluto, and William Rhoden. They will have to be re-nominated by Red Smith voters in 2017.