Breakfast at Shirley’s

Shirley Povich would not have known me if he bumped into me near RFK Stadium or aboard the Washington Metro, and I never got to thank him for the few pleasures of a harrowing near-year spent in Washington between 1990 and 1991.

In that near-year I tried to reassemble a life wracked by marital separation and underemployment, coming to work part-time at a Washington think tank, trying full time to find stronger, more secure remuneration, and picking up from a street mugging, when not fighting bitterness and depression. And the few enough hours not to remind me of a fool’s hell included a regular morning dose of “This Morning,” Shirley Povich’s Washington Post column.

Previous acquaintance amounted to the occasional appearances his essays made in the newspapers of my New York and Long Island youth, my Midwestern military period, and my return to New York state. But in Washington I became an addict shameless enough that only now can I disclose safely how I spent many days’ lingering, when work assignments brought me to the Library of Congress, the better to sneak a few microfiche readings and printouts of vintage Povich stimuli.

Those were days when I owned no car and could not afford a bicycle, even, living in a rooming house that shared a building with a beauty establishment, whose wash and mixing room sat on the other side of my walls and made for no few interesting fragrances and the occasional contact high.

My room was two short blocks up from Capitol Heights Boulevard and a Metro Blue Line stop, but I started making the five-mile walk to and from work a time or two a week, mostly to save money, partly for exercise, graduating to five days soon enough. And that straight route from Capitol Heights Boulevard until the turn toward Massachussetts Avenue brought me right around RFK Stadium, carrying a briefcase full of books and papers, circling the tub at least one full revolution before continuing on.

The Washington Senators were kidnapped from those digs long enough before, but in psychic hell I settled for baseball games in mind alone, lining up any sort of comedy my warp could align. As a New York Mets fan since the day they were born, and a lifelong sympathiser to chronically, comically bad baseball teams, my warp was warped even worse than RFK’s rooftop rim at one section. So I took those turns around the old tub forging the most absurd of games my mind might allow, simple enough business with the Senators for posthumous inspiration.

I liked to think Shirley Povich would understand, unless it was Opening Day without actual Washingtonbaseball, which provoked him to commit indignation interlocked with prayer. “The major league baseball season opens tomorrow afternoon-and so what?” harrumphed Povich, in a 1982 missive among the screeds I mulcted from my Library of Congress lingerings. “For Washington again, it is a joyless event. No team to call its own. No peanuts, no Cracker Jacks, no nothing. Eleven years now, since a city was wiped off the baseball map. Eleven Silent Springs, eleven years of melancholy. Rats!”

And in my mind’s nine-inning warp might I play that fine old hand Joe Judge at first base and, feeding him from second, Herbie (Birth of the) Plews, who once spent a day letting bouncers and liners carom off his chest and extremities (“If there’d been a crowd,” Senators announcer Bob Wolff has said, “it would have roared”), before smashing a two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth, game-winning triple. (“Herbie Plews! Tell me there weren’t giants in the land!”) Perhaps I might squat Muddy behind the plate to receive for Chuck Stobbs and test the Ruel of physics, when that wild pitch sailed past the batter, past the catcher, past the umpire, past the seats behind the plate, and left the question open as to which had more mustard, the pitch or the fan spattered when it crashed into a concession stand.

Let Firpo Marberry contain the damage in the top of the ninth, the better to let Frank Howard bail them out with a bomb in the bottom, assuming they haven’t let Mickey Mantle put it completely out of reach with a shot into the street, and let Shirley Povich laughing or scolding deliver its melodious postmortem in “This Morning,” next morning.

Fifteen years full have almost passed since my furtive fiche fries and circumnavigational cerebrations, and the Povich columns I spirited from my LoC lingerings are long enough lost in the chaos of subsequent relocations. But I settle happily enough for another gift for which I have no opportunity to thank the man, All Those Mornings . . . at the Post (New York: PublicAffairs/Perseus; 404 pages, $27.50), gathered by children Lynn, Maury, and David Povich, and colleague George Solomon, to commemorate his centenary. It is a posthumous but sumptuous banquet and yet an insufficient spread for the starved. Pray the second volume requires less waiting than the resurrection of Washington baseball.

To open its covers is to open the 20th century clubhouse and grandstand almost from end to end, raiding the locker of a man who had seen and wept upon Lou Gehrig saying farewell and Cal Ripken, Jr. seeing and raising for failing not once to miss a day’s work of play. It is to see the lyric debris of stops in between, stations fabled and spurs forgotten, dreams enrapturing and nightmares exorcised.

Few among the latter provoked so delectable a knit between ecclesiastic and primal as when the second Senators confirmed their coming departure. “Seldom,” Povich began, “has a raped community been offered so wide a choice of villains.” That on 23 September 1971, a week after which the upside down verdict of the Nats’ final home game, a likely 7-5 win rent a 9-0 forfeit (to the Damnyankees, but of course), thanks to heartsick fans swarming the field, provoked the perfect -30- to seal perfect
copy: “The Senators were finished, even if the ball game wasn’t.”

And few dreams have ever begun with the grace of the young former vice reporter turned loose upon our games, his first known byline a sober enrapture of a Senators’ homecoming in 1924, en route the only World Series championship ever known and held by the nation’s capital of organised crime. Nor have they been amplified in the very next selection by his lucid review, seventy years later, of the day the old saying became, “Washington-Last in war, first in peace, and first in the major leagues.”

This Jewish son of Lithuania by way of New England caddied his way to newspapering, carrying the clubs for both Washington Post owner Edward B. McLean and New York World owner Joseph Pulitzer, and deciding he would accept McLean’s offer-to put him through Georgetown University and onto the Post. “Being a good caddie,” says Povich through the recollection of his own son, Maury (yes, children, that Maury Povich), “has its rewards.” It also rewarded Washington newspaper readers, and periodically the rest of the nation (whenever newspapers and magazines elsewhere included a Povich epistle), about fifteen U.S. Presidencies’ worth.

From running as a copyboy and making his bones on the vice beat (“I had to give up covering the Vice Squad when the police department found out I was underage”) to covering the world champion in waiting Senators before his twentieth birthday, Povich
became the paper’s sports editor at age 21. By the time he went to his reward at long enough last, he may have broken whatever was the record for unretired retirement.

The Povich Unlimited was a train that stopped at such transcendent stations as the Long Count (he believed it absolutely right and fair: “Gene Tunney faced in Dempsey a ring-weary slugger with a heart of iron and fists of thunder whose stamina was unequal to the effort and who succumbed to the exactment of time’s penalty”), Seabiscuit over War Admiral (not quite a figment of Hollywood’s imagination: “Like something out of The Birth of a Nation and looking for all the world like a Ku Kluxer horse, War Admiral was attired in a white blanket and white hood as he stepped jauntily along behind his lead pony . . . There was no doubt that the hard-used Seabiscuit, a self-made horse as it were, was the sentimental if not the betting favourite”), and Shoeless Joe Jackson back home (as wealthy at civilian dusk as he had been impoverished in baseball judgment: “They cut me off at my prime . . . (b)ut I don’t mind that so much as the black mark I’ll be taking along with me”).

The train picked up such passengers as the Splinter versus the Clipper (“Ted Williams, who hit .406 for the Red Sox, may be asking what a guy has to do to win the American League’s most valuable player award, and the answer is simple enough: Get out of Joe DiMaggio’s league”); Walter Johnson versus no one, as remembered upon his 1946 death. (“When he hit Eddie Collins . . . on the leg in a Griffith Stadium game in 1924, and Collins went down, Johnson raced to the plate, the first to reach him .
. . When Collins indicated he could stay in the game, Johnson patted him on the back fondly, went back to his pitching”); basketball versus decency in play (“(I)f the native pride of peach trees is remembered, it is obvious that the tint of their fruit now is less the glow of ripeness than the blush of shame for their part in helping to bring basketball into the world”) and in governance (“Nothing in the prospectus ever suggested that anybody should pay admission to watch a basketball referee perform, but their actions would seem to imply that they believe this to be the case”); and, the World Boxing Association versus consistency, in 1964, regarding the boxer formerly known as Cassius Clay. (“It may not be nice to have as the reigning heavyweight champion a youth who never learned his multiplication tables, but the
WBA never raised its voice against Sonny Liston with his record of 16 arrests and two jail terms until last week”).

Always the Unlimited made its prime run along baseball’s rails, and rarely did its conductor fail to instruct or delight, even as a scold and the model of civil mischieviousness at that. James J. Kilpatrick would affirm. In his days as a 60 Minutes pundit, Kilpatrick committed such effrontery as suggesting that the Old Ball Game in its “trouble” required a little jazzmatazz, such as awarding two runs for stealing home and two runs on a score off a squeeze bunt. “The following day,” Kilpatrick recalled in his sweet mountain memoir, The Foxes’ Union, “a Washington Post
sports columnist gave me a public hiding I richly deserved.” Said
hiding remains a pocket symphony the ignorance of which has been
baseball government’s disruptive and least rectified blunder, a
virtuoso improvisation upon the theme against trying too hard to fix
what is not necessarily broken:

It isn’t baseball that is in trouble; only the people who think so. Usually, they are the people won over by such comparatively outrageous new games as pro football, hockey, and basketball and are happy to have their repressions spoon-fed with double dollops of simple violence that embody only feeble skills compared to the multiple arts of the baseball player . . . Baseball, alone of the mass-interest sports we talk about, is not governed by that gawddam clock, that miserable timepiece in the sky that reduces the final stages of football, basketball and hockey games
to either 1) a meaningless bore, 2) a farcical countdown or 3) a cruel and heartless frustration for the team that is finally revved up to come from behind. In baseball, no clock, no stall, there is all day or all night in which to stage a big inning, or extra inning, in case they did not quite bring it off. No final gun until every opportunity is exhausted.

We lament that baseball government ignored Shirley Povich as we forgive him his occasional trespass, so robust remains his passion in this posthumous preservation of his prose. Including his pronouncement upon Pete Rose’s banishment provokes regret only that his anthologists-who have performed their father honour otherwise-omitted a 1991 column, to which I objected within earshot of anyone caring to hear, in which he denounced the Hall of Fame’s decision (it had every right to do so, I believed then and now) to bar the banished from standing for election, and with the same conviction from which he denounced Rose his trespass.

We swell in recognition that here was a man who suffered sports segregationists not one iota, even if he erred on occasion in reading the motives of some against the lack of motives of others. He may have been wrong about Senators I owner Clark Griffith’s handling of the Homestead Grays, Griffth possibly having needed the Grays’ revenues to help keep the Senators afloat more than he needed to integrate the Nats, and his rift with the legendary enough Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American may well enough have helped delay baseball’s integration. (Brad Snyder, in Beyond the Shadow of the Senators, examines with diginified regret the sad rift between two gifted men whose hearts were in the same place.)

But in sport’s integration Povich never ceased believing, having won a prize for a series reviewing baseball’s integration, having accepted a self-appointed mission to make life miserable enough for a stubborn football segregationist, from which we draw one of Povich’s deadliest of gentle daggers: “From 25 yards out, (Jim) Brown was served the football by Milt Plum on a pitch-out and he integrated the Redskins’ goal line with more than deliberate speed, perhaps exceeding the famous Supreme Court decree. Brown fled the 25 yards like a man in an uncommon hurry and the Redskins’ goal line, at least, became interracial.”

Povich had his way, too, with the elegaic, whether upon fellow sportswriting giant Grantland Rice (“Until he came along in the early years of the century to give art to the work, our profession was the despised stepchild of journalism”) or upon stricken Mickey Mantle and his sins. (“How did we get trapped in that mentality of the checkout racks?”) But we produce a tear with no shame especially upon rediscovering his sweet au revoir to perhaps his favourite among his few peers. If you are among the fortunate to have read To Absent Friends From Red Smith, a posthumous anthology of Smith’s psalms to the departed whom he knew, covered, and befriended, you wished you might have the honour of Smith as your eulogist and wondered who on earth could possibly rate as his own. Fellow blessed, we have found him: “Red would be so better at writing this about a friend who died,” wrote Povich in “The Death of a Friend, The Loss of an Artist,” and it was only one more forgivable error on Povich’s part.

Each man died within 36 hours or thereabout of filing their final columns. Smith had announced, “Writing Less-and Better?”; Povich, following a spell of illness, pronounced a spanking upon a Washington Post junior (for suggesting Mark McGwire’s slugging adventure transcended Babe Ruth’s), exaltation upon David Wells’s individualism and perfect game, and bewilderation at the advent of handing Barry Bonds the free pass rather than the extension of his licence to nuclear bombardment.

What is open to debate is whether comparing Smith’s unexpected farewell to Povich’s is something along the line of comparing the New York Philharmonic’s or the Philadelphia Orchestra’s take upon Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. What is not open to debate is whether this island earth is emptier for having neither man among us, to provide what books such as All Those Mornings remind us became so beautiful a portion of our patrimony, never mind our breakfast table.

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