- Legendary Sports Writers of the Golden Age: Grantland Rice, Red Smith, Shirley Povich, and W. C. Heinz by Lee Congdon
The rise of a new generation of star athletes such as baseball’s Babe Ruth, football’s Red Grange, golfer Bobby Jones, and boxer Jack Dempsey ignited a “Golden Age” of American sport in the 1920s. While these athletes have been studied extensively, historians have only briefly looked at how the exploits of “an informal fraternity” of talented sports journalists who came of age at the same time fueled the promotion of these larger-than-life sports heroes, changing both American sporting culture and sports writing more broadly as a result (ix). The legacy of these sportswriters continues to shape how sports are consumed and written about in the mainstream media of the present day. When ESPN created a sports and pop-culture website in 2011, its decision to name it Grantland after the iconic sportswriter Grantland Rice reflected its intent to give the initiative a sense of literary seriousness befitting the legacy of one of the titans of sports journalism.
The influence of Rice, and other major sportswriters of the “Golden Age” of sport, shapes Lee Congdon’s engaging and informative work, Legendary Sports Writers of the Golden Age: Grantland Rice, Red Smith, Shirley Povich, and W. C. Heinz. Congdon excels in celebrating a generation of writers who incorporated wit, humanity, and drama in their coverage of sports, something sorely missing from the media coverage of sports in previous decades. In doing so, Congdon rightly emphasizes how this generation of scribes revolutionized the industry and glorified star athletes in a way that compelled Americans who had previously ignored sports altogether to become invested in their personal tales of tragedy and triumph. Much of the success of Congdon’s book stems from his extensive research and analysis of each journalist’s unique writing style, which provides readers with a lens through which they gain a deeper understanding of what set these journalists apart from their peers.
The strongest sections of Legendary Sports Writers of the Golden Age occur when readers are given a glimpse of some of the most important moments in American sports history through the eyes—and words—of these journalists. These passages capture the excitement and sense of wonder that captivated the nation during the first half of the twentieth century. [End Page 364] This is most apparent when Congdon lets Red Smith, in his own words, showcase his gift for making the ordinary athletic feats seem extraordinary: “Running in the frenzied, hopeless pursuit of [Joe] DiMaggio’s drive, Al [Gionfriddo] twisted to look back so often that he got himself wound up like a yo-yo” (53). These moments fuel the work and demonstrate why these writers are still captivating to read decades after their careers ended. As a result, by letting these journalists take center stage, Congdon’s work demonstrates how “these men elevated writing about sports to a level that has never been equaled and probably never will be” (148).
Yet, for as enjoyable as Congdon’s study is, he fails to effectively defend this and other claims about how the efforts of these distinctive sportswriters collectively changed how the public perceived American sporting culture in the 1920s and beyond. Indeed, despite asserting in the introduction that “the Golden Age continued on through the 1930s, 1940s, and especially, the 1950s, before coming to an end in about 1963” following the assassination of President Kennedy, Congdon does little to defend this bold contention (ix). As a result, the work misses an opportunity to complement scholarship such as Irwin Silber’s biography of the Daily Worker’s Lester Rodney and Jerome Holtzman’s No Cheering in the Press Box that investigated how journalists shaped sports and society more broadly during the twentieth century.
Nevertheless, Congdon’s ability to demonstrate effectively why these sports writers were so captivating makes Legendary Sports Writers of the Golden Age a worthwhile contribution...