Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times Sports Columnist, on Saturday, April 24, 2010 delivered the keynote speech at the unveiling of the Associated Press Sports Editors Red Smith Hall of Fame in the Student Media Center inside the Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis Campus Center in downtown Indianapolis. Following is a transcript of Plaschke’s speech.
I want to thank Indiana University for creating a place for sports journalists that doesn’t involve a rickety chair and a cold press box with a tiny elevator and sporadic wireless and an interview with Bill Belichick.
I want to thank the National Sports Journalism Center for recognizing sports journalists in a way that doesn’t involve threats or curses or finger-pointing or shower prison. I know right now you’re thinking, "Shower prison?" I meant Tommy Lasorda, post-game, taking a shower. You couldn’t leave the bathroom if you wanted a scoop, so you’re standing there getting wet, taking notes, firing questions, handing him the soap . . . I’d like to see Red Smith write that.
But seriously, the Hall of Fame is a wonderful place. What a cool hangout it is. What a really, really cool place it is.
Sportswriters aren’t leaning against the walls; we’re hanging from them. The sports editors aren’t barking or biting; they’re all smiling in their pictures. It’s a wonderful place. We’re not crowded outside the ropes. The ropes are around us. This is Red’s house. This is our house.
No football PR guy is going to walk in there and say, "OK fellas, your 20 minutes of watching practice is up." No baseball players is ever going to stalk in there an hour before the game and say, "All right, good-bye medias. Good-bye medias." Incidentally, the biggest regret of my 30-year career is that I’ve never taught baseball players that media is singular: medias. No, we’re not medias.
This is Red’s house. This is our house. We’re here forever. We’re not an honorary member or an accessory member to the Hall of Fame. We are the Hall of Fame, and I think that’s very, very cool.
By we, I don’t mean specifically me. I mean sportswriters in general and the specific greats that are honored on the walls. There are writers there that could create daily, historic beauty on a postcard that I could never replicate with the best paint on the best canvas. There are great sports editors in there who created the greatest sports literature of our time. They were so busy that I guess that’s why they never answered my applications for jobs. That must have been the reason.
I am seriously humbled to be in their presence, the memories of their presence and the families that carried on those legacies. I want to make special mention of the Red Smith winners or their families that are here in the crowd: Kit O’Meara, the daughter of Red Smith is here with her husband, Tom; Linda McCoy Murray, the wife of the great Jim Murray, is here. There are actually Hall of Fame members present here. Actually, these days Dave Kindred is kind of everywhere. Every sports writer I know anxiously turns to Dave’s weekly web essays on the National Sports Journalism Center Web site. Everybody reads them with one eternal question: Is he going to rip me? Ed Storin is here, the brains behind the great Miami Herald sports section. George Solomon is here, the great Washington Post sports editor and the father of the best producer in television, Aaron Solomon, who happens to be my boss at (ESPN’s) Around the Horn. Vince Doria. He’s the Miller Huggins of sports editors. In Boston, he once assembled the greatest team ever.
Several times tonight, I wondered, "What am I doing here?" This first came up on my plane flight here from Oklahoma City. I bumped into an old friend, Eric Davis, the former star outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds. He looked at me funny.
He said, "How come you’re not with the (Los Angeles) Lakers (for the NBA Playoffs)? What are you doing in Indy?"
I said, "I’m giving a speech at the new Red Smith Hall of Fame."
He said, "Hmm."
I said, "What?"
He said, "You must think by giving that speech, one day they’re going to let you in the thing."
I said, "Yeah, Eric. You’re right, as always."
Eric Davis has a great eye.
I said, "How do you know I’m not in already?"
He looked at me. He knew. But yes, yes. I want in. We all want in. More than any other place of honor in our business now, this is where sportswriters are going to want to be. They’re going to see this and hear about this and this is where we want to end up. Those of us who have committed our lives to stoking America’s passion and touching its soul, this is where we want to be.
The Red Smith Hall of Fame represents us. It’s who we are. This isn’t about television or radio or once a month in a magazine. This is daily ink. This is daily worth. This is about the daily work.
You look at these Hall of Famers. They all have one thing in common. They didn’t act it or video it or text it or blog it or tweet it. They hacked it. They hacked it out in press boxes in Dayton and Nashville and Tampa and Los Angeles. They hacked it out in newsrooms from Dallas to Miami to Boston to Long Island. A tough woman (Mary Garber) from Winston-Salem is in there. A pioneering African-American (Sam Lacy) from Baltimore is in there. They came from all over: different races and creeds and economic backgrounds: human beings writing and shaping stories about other human beings; everyday artists on life’s canvas, grabbing and shaking and hugging and hanging out with America like only sportswriters can.
They filed prep stories from pay phones by train tracks: “Did you get that change in my lead? No, no. I can’t hear you.” They filed front-page stories from press boxes at the Super Bowl: “Hold that notebook. We just saw Janet Jackson’s boob. Hold that notebook.” That happened. They sat in offices six nights a week for 30 years making sure it all made sense: “Hey, Plaschke’s game column just hit. Who told him he could write 40 inches?”
They began their shifts, these Hall of Famers, by taking deep breaths before going into a clubhouse where they knew somebody was waiting to kick their butt. They ended their shifts by working with the shirttail out of their pants and wiping their face with a press-room napkin and dropping deadline sweat all over a deadline-battered keyboard. They witnessed the sort of history that touches more people than any other. Folks might not remember the names of their elected officials in 2004, but they all know that was the year the Red Sox broke the 86-year-old curse. They witness the most important history in many people’s lives and they put it into words. Then, those words were delivered to the world six hours later. Their fingers banged on the keyboard, then, ‘Bang,’ went the paper on the doorstep. Then, ‘Hmm,’ went the guy reading it while he eating his breakfast.
American’s scrapbook delivered daily to America’s doorstep.
They made a miracle and it’s still a miracle and that miracle lives in there (the Hall of Fame).
Everything around us has changed. I know that. But not all of it is bad. I love the gossip of the blogs and the fun of the tweets and the personality of the Facebook pages. Everything is changing and the smart folks are changing with it. But this Hall of Fame is a testament to the one thing about this business that will never change.
The Hall of Fame is about the words. The Hall of Fame is about the words and the sportswriters who as Red Smith once said “opened a vein to find those words.” It’s still about the words and the words live in there. Our business will change, but those words will be there forever. The magic that sportswriters and editors create will forever be unmatched in American journalism. Sports is our national currency, our common dialect. Nobody deciphers that and delivers that better than we do.
Nobody can make you feel like a sportswriter can make you feel better than Red Smith. That’s why that’s his house. Nobody can make you laugh like a sportswriter can make you laugh. That’s why Jim Murray’s in there. Nobody can make you think like a sportswriter can make you think and that’s why Shirley Povich is in there. Nobody can shape the expression and feel the pulse of a city like a tremendous sports section and that’s why all of those sports editors are in there. Also, nobody can miss a deadline like a sportswriter and that’s why I’m here instead of Oklahoma City.
But this is Red’s house. This is Red’s House. And it’s our house, and if you go in there one day and be quiet and just listen, you could hear the walls. You could hear their voices . . .
“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 impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again. . . . Ralph Branca turned and started for the clubhouse. The number of his uniform looked huge. Thirteen.” That was what Red Smith Smith wrote after the Shot Heard Round the World. That’s his house.
“Okay, bang the drum slowly, professor. Muffle the cymbals, Kill the laugh track. I lost an old friend the other day. He was blue-eyed, impish. He cried a lot with me, saw a great many things with me. I don’t know why he left me. Boredom, perhaps.” That was Jim Murray, 1979, on the loss of one of his eyes. He wrote about things he would miss: “I’d like to see Sugar Ray Robinson or Muhammad Ali, giving a recital, a ballet, not a fight. Also, to be sure, I’d like to see a sky full of stars, moonlight on the water, and yes, the tips of a royal flush as I fan out a poker hand, and yes, a straight two-foot putt. Come to think of it, I’m lucky. I saw all of those things. I see them yet.” This is Jim Murray’s house.
Dave Kindred, your turn. “It was in his Butkus period as a rompin’, stompin’ middle linebacker that Glenn Hubbard learned the physics truth that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Every time an ugly clod fullback went up the middle, Hubbard went ker-splat. "Ooooh, man, cleat marks up my chest" Hubbard explained. Dave Kindred, this is your house.
Then, it was Dick Schaap in 1979: “Take the avarice of Monopoly, the complexity of chess, the loneliness of solitaire, the frustrations of a maze, and the absurdity of an eyeball bender, mix well and you’ll have a hint of the new game I have invented. The game is called ‘In Search of Bobby Fischer.’ . . . I will continue to play this game, to pursue the former world chess champion, because I genuinely like Bobby Fischer. He possesses two classic virtues: He is never dull, and he does not have a sane bone in his body. I’ll let you know when I find him. Don’t hold your breath.”
Can you feel the rhythm there? Can you tap out the rhythm there? That’s not a story. That’s a song. These are all songs. Alone in the world of journalism, sports writing is the soundtrack of our lives. This Hall of Fame, the Red Smith Hall of Fame, this is where that music is going to live forever.
I wrote something like those guys once. I remember it well. I was so proud. I really thought I had matched my heroes. The next morning, I was approached in a coffee shop by a man with an L.A. Times sports section under his arm. It had been an emotional story. The man’s eyes were heavy. He approached me. He said, “Bill Plaschke?” As a writer, these are the moments you live for – seeing a guy in a coffee shop, holding your story.
He said, “Bill Plaschke?”
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “I love you on Around the Horn.”
Story of my life. No offense to the show. I love the show. Viewers love the show. Folks in this business thought it wouldn’t last a month. It has lasted more than seven years. Why does it work? It’s not because Woody Paige doesn’t have a sane bone in his body, although he doesn’t. It’s the funniest thing. Our young demographic believes we’re some of the last real sportswriters on television. They like real sportswriters. We give them blogs and tweets and everything else, but they like guys and women who go out and interview people and are in the trenches. They like that. Who would have thought that? Everybody says they read all of this other stuff, but they like the idea of someone looking out for them, being their eyes and ears in a place they can’t be. They like that. These are non-traditional newspaper readers and by watching us, we draw some of them back into the printed word and I like that.
It’s funny. People ask me, “How did you get into sports broadcasting?” I tell them repeatedly, “I’m not a sports broadcaster. I’m in it because I’m writing a column for the L.A. Times. That’s what I am. That’s who I am. I love Around the Horn, but that’s not who I am.” That’s not how I got on there. That’s not why people watch it. People watch it because of the kind of thing I hope people aspire to when they see the Red Smith Hall of Fame. That’s what people are drawn to today, still. On the show, we’re not pretty and we’re not particularly well-spoken. Woody once spent an entire March Madness discussion referring to Northern Iowa as Northern Ireland. But people get that on that show we’re mostly the kind of sports journalists who will trudge through clubhouses and stand on sidelines and interview seven-footers in their tatooed underwear. That’s who we are on the show and that’s who the Red Smith winners were. That’s what we all aspire to be.
I want to end this message with a message to all of those future sports journalists out there. The Red Smith Hall of Fame is not a museum. It’s a classroom. It’s not just about them or us. It’s about you. It’s a living, breathing challenge to those who still want to work in a business that has been battered by the bankers and kicked by the economists and at times that has seemed to be abandoned by everyone except the most important person of all: the reader. Folks, we still have the reader. We will always have the reader. We will always have the reader – million and millions of them, and they’re hungry for the words. They’re longing for the company. They’re waiting for the explanation as to why Peyton Manning threw that ball or how Gordon Hayward missed that shot or what did it look like when Johnny Franklin of Hollywood High hit a home run and dented the coach’s 1995 Toyota. We’ll always have the reader and they’ll always want the words.
The mediums are changing and the job descriptions are evolving, but for those of us who want to follow in the paths of the greats in the Red Smith Hall of Fame, there is still a place for us here. It’s still about the reader. It’s still about the words. TV can’t show it like we can show it. Radio can’t say it like we can say it. Blogs and tweets, they can’t make it stick like good reporting and writing can make it stick. Through all of the sizzle of today’s media, there is still a desire for the story, a need for the story, a love for the words and there are still people out there who want the story that can come only from someone willing to search for the will of the prep star battling cancer or the heart of a coach breaking the rules or the conscience of Kobe Bryant. This country’s sporting soul will always need stories that can only be told by someone willing to reach down into themselves to touch our world. These stories may not always be on newsprint, but they’ll always find America’s homes and touch America’s hearts and be remembered as we remember them now.
Red Smith told those stories. Jim Murray told those stories. Everyone in this Hall of Fame told or edited or shaped those stories. To all aspiring journalists out there, now it’s your turn.
Believe it. Hack it. Weave the miracle.