Cal Ripken, the all-time iron man of baseball for the Baltimore Orioles, said, when he learned of the passing of a Washington Post sportswriter, that he could never imagine someone being at the same job for 75 years.
Much has been written of 92 year old Shirley Povich by his legion of colleagues, fans and players after he was fatally stricken by a heart attack on June 4th. He knew Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, Jack Dempsey, Sammy Baugh and many other sports giants and he knew how to keep meticulous notes of his interviews. He wrote beautifully and consistently — from reporting on the old Washington Senators baseball games to a 6 times a week column that former Post editor Ben Bradlee said was a major reason why people bought the newspaper in those days.
But Shirley Povich’s life contained more enduring lessons for people well beyond the sports world. Here are a few:
1. Consistency of resolve. Povich held strong views about civil rights, for example, and his pen while sharp was not vicious or churlish. For instance, he prodded the Washington Redskins about not having black players — an owner holdout, until the late Sixties. After the Cleveland Browns came to town and defeated the Redskins, Povich’s pen wrote: “Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.”
2. Kept history as a daily diet. He provided a constant historical memory, not just because he could draw on so much of sports lore, but also because he wanted to give his younger associates the perspective, the frames of reference and the judgment that the past gives to the present. This train was all the more important as the MTV generation of young sports reporters arrived in a frenzied state of hyper-reactiveness.
3. Switch career roles within your profession when urgent. He became a war correspondent in World War II covering some of the biggest battles in the Pacific theatre. He was doing his part in his early middle age.
4. Steady temperament. This enabled Povich to be so willing to advise and help others. The letters-to-the-editor column following his passing displayed just how widespread and diversified were his ready responses to calls and letters and chance meetings with total strangers.
5. Keep producing — retirement is a formality. Povich wrote 600 columns after formally retiring in 1974. He apparently believed that a mind is a terrible thing to atrophy.
Two years after he “retired,” he was elected to the writers wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Not many co-journalists installed there could say they covered 60 World Series and 20 Super Bowls.
In a hyperkinetic world, where players and coaches change with ho hum rapidity, Povich exuded continuity, a calm and wise hand on the sports beat that reverberated into the world of daily life.
Cal Ripken may have the most unbreakable record in sports — with about 2500 consecutive games never missed. But who can possibly break Povich’s record of 75 years of writing about sports by a man of all seasons?