Books: How they played the Game

Monday, November 19, 2012 at 12:36am
By John Egerton

Fred Russell and Grantland Rice (Courtesy Andrew Derr, Russell family)


Two of the most celebrated sportswriters in American history were born a generation apart and within thirty miles of each other, in the Tennessee hamlets of Murfreesboro and Wartrace, and attended the same university: Grantland Rice graduated from Vanderbilt in 1901, and Fred Russell followed in 1927. College football and Vanderbilt University are about the same age, both originating in the 1870s. Days of pigskin glory have been few and far between for the Commodores, but school spirit is not always driven by bowl victories and championships: throughout their illustrious writing careers, both Rice and Russell, borderline athletes themselves, carried the flag for their alma mater across the landscape of American sports.

Vanderbilt gained notice in the 1920s and ’30s as the base of a literary clique of pretenders — Fugitive poets who were not outlaws, and their successors, the Agrarians, who were by no stretch of the imagination farmers. Maybe this was the perfect school to turn out poetic sportswriters like Grantland Rice and, a generation later, Fred Russell, a guy who studied law, passed the Tennessee bar, won a national award for his front-page unraveling of a kidnapping mystery — and then, at the tender age of 23, began a career in local and national sportswriting that was to last for almost 70 years.

Grantland Rice (1890-1954) left Tennessee for bigger markets soon after his Vanderbilt days, ending up in New York as a columnist and broadcaster who spun lyrical paeans to his sports heroes — Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, Red Grange, Jack Dempsey, and others. With unabashed adulation, he eschewed reporting to wax eloquent on the stars and their sports in the flowery language that marked his time. It was Rice who wrote: “For when the One Great Scorer comes / To mark against your name / He writes, not that you won or lost / But how you played the Game.” The Fugitive-Agrarians must have looked on with a clash of disdain and envy as this doggerel-spinner gained national acclaim while their more arcane and erudite phrases seldom packed a punch beyond the walled castles of the literati.

In truth, Rice’s fame as a sportswriter in the first half of the 20th century was not an outgrowth of his writing skill, prosaic or poetic. He got famous by praising the Gods of The Game — and doing it in the country’s foremost media market. In the Roaring ’20s, everybody loved to read about the heroic exploits of Ruth and the Yankees, or Dempsey the champ; then when hard times hit in the ’30s, the need for mythic heroes was greater than ever. For most of those years, when newspapers were a monopoly medium, Grantland Rice was all over the sports pages — and when radio came along, he was there to grab the mike and croon his treacly couplets over the air. He was a legend-builder who became one himself.

And what about that other Tennessean, Fred Russell (1906-2003), who came out of Vanderbilt in the mid-1920s and also attained national stature as a sportswriter? Trailing Rice in age, Russell idolized his predecessor and emulated him in some ways, but their differences were significant, and most of them bend in Russell’s favor. A new biography of the man — Andrew Derr’s Life of Dreams: The Good Times of Sportswriter Fred Russell, recently published by Mercer University Press — brings some needed
balance to a comparison of the illustrious careers of these two Vanderbilt icons.

Derr has close ties to the subject: he was the 1992 recipient of Vanderbilt’s prestigious Fred Russell-Grantland Rice Sportswriting Scholarship, an award that has been given annually since shortly after Rice’s death. (Russell was the instigator of the four-year scholarship award, coaxing a supporting endowment from the Thoroughbred Racing Association; 30 years later, the scholarship was renamed the Russell-Rice.) A recurring echo of adulation weakens Derr’s narrative a bit, but he manages nonetheless to capture the essence of Fred Russell, to contrast his personal style with that of Rice, and to give readers a sense of how sportswriting itself was transformed during the seven decades that Russell reigned as the unchallenged boss of the Nashville Banner’s widely read sports pages.

Grantland Rice spent practically all his professional life writing and broadcasting sports stories from a base in New York. Fred Russell went to work for the Banner right out of college in the late 1920s and was still there, grinding out a regular column, when the paper folded in 1998; the only thing that kept him from writing on to the end of his life (in 2003, at the age of 96) was the inconvenient fact that his paper died first. Given the high visibility of both men in the history of American sportswriting, the marked difference between their careers raises a question: How was Fred Russell, firmly anchored at a newspaper far from the main stage of media exposure, able to build a national reputation in the wide world of sports? To answer that question is the principal aim of Derr’s book.

He succeeds admirably, for the most part, by chronicling Russell’s manifest accomplishments — his uncanny knack for gaining access to the inner circles of sport, the sheer volume and sustained quality of his writing, the many awards and recognitions bestowed upon him by his peers. Derr also lays out in detail what might be called Russell’s professional outreach: his carefully charted mission to iconic destinations, following in the footsteps of (and often in company with) his revered role model. In 1934, Russell embarked on the first of what would add up to more than 50 straight reporting trips to the Kentucky Derby, the crown jewel of horseracing. In 1938, he was present in Augusta when Bobby Jones and Cliff Roberts inaugurated the Masters. In 1939, he started a freelance writing connection with the Saturday Evening Post in New York that would last for almost 25 years. And throughout the 1930s, he ingratiated himself into the clubhouse of the New York Yankees (and several other major-league baseball teams), putting him on a first-name basis with the likes of Joe DiMaggio and other stars — and, later on, Casey Stengel and George Steinbrenner.

At home in Nashville, Russell’s column, “Sidelines,” appeared almost every day in the Banner. He built a strong staff in the sports department, and they competed toe to toe with their larger arch-rival, the Nashville Tennessean. As an alumnus and lifelong booster of Vanderbilt, Russell was reputed to have had more influence over athletic matters at the university during the tenure of Chancellor Harvie Branscomb (1946-63) than any coach, or even the director of athletics.

Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, Russell secured his national stature by writing the annual college-football preview for The Saturday Evening Post. That in turn landed him on the board of the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame, and he served as its chair for 27 years. In 1963, when two of Russell’s coaching friends, Wally Butts of Georgia and Bear Bryant of Alabama, sued the Post for libel after the magazine ran a story claiming they had conspired to fix a game, Russell went to Atlanta to cover the trial, writing daily columns that described the magazine’s handling of the story as “incredibly loose, slip-shod, careless [and] irresponsible.” The jury sided in favor of the coaches, and Russell was never again asked to write for the Post.

By that time, he didn’t need the freelance gig. He had entered the world of athletics at the clubhouse level through Rice’s imprimatur. Once inside, though, the charmer known as “Freddie” navigated like a ship’s captain, not pushing his way into the center of things but simply being there, as if it was where he naturally belonged. Everyone on board wanted to hear his stories, revel in his practical jokes, have a drink or a dinner with him, join him for a round of golf or a hand of poker. And, to his eternal advantage as a working journalist, he developed these high-level friendships into confidential sources, granting them protection and anonymity in return for the secrets he turned into scoops.

In the outraged minds of rival sportswriters at The Tennessean, this was patently unfair, if not unethical — but they could only suffer in silence, knowing that with such sterling connections themselves, they would surely do the same thing. It would have been interesting to see Andrew Derr apply some analytical hindsight to this conundrum: Is there a practical downside to having a top editor so personally involved with the movers and shakers in his field? Are his reporters impelled by this relationship, consciously or not, to shine a benevolent light on favored teams or individuals? But Derr doesn’t venture into that unlit room; he just totes up Russell’s scores and The Tennessean’s goose eggs and moves on to the next episode, the next sport, the next season.

If there is a single facet of Russell’s personality and his professional life that stands out to me, it’s his excellence as a practical joker. This was not just a passing whim or a mischievous streak; it was a life-long fascination, almost an obsession. His most classic feats were elaborate — deeply researched, painstakingly planned, flawlessly executed, even ongoing to the point of unreality. His closest friends never ceased to delight in their retelling; they would even call for them by a shorthand name — the “drunk referee,” the “wake-up call,” the “IRS agent,” the “hat-band” joke. They’re all too involved to explicate here, but just to whet your appetite, imagine that last one as a successful plan to convince a friend that something other-worldly was causing his new hat to alternate between fitting too tight and falling over his ears.

It helps to think of these elaborate jokes as stage performances, like the acts of a magician or a comedian: a deliberate and serious effort to excel — and in the process, to make a statement. Everyone who knew Fred Russell would have his or her own interpretation of what that statement was, and what it meant. All of them could be correct. Beneath his flawless exterior as a hail-fellow-well-met gentleman, Russell was a complex man.

I say his statement went something like this: Sport is serious. You play to win. But it’s just a game — it’s the human comedy, with rules and referees to keep you honest. It’s our Life of Dreams, which we all lose in the end, so enjoy the Good Times while you can.

That’s the old Grantland Rice platitude, rewritten and invigorated by Fred Russell.    

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