By Johanna Huybers
Nov. 1, 2019
A prolific writer whose career spanned more than seven decades, Shirley Povich epitomized the old-school newspaper sports columnist. He was critical when warranted, but never strayed from his gentlemanly nature.
Povich was revered for consistency and tell-it-like-it-is writing style. It is no surprise that he was one of the earliest winners of the Red Smith Award, calling the namesake of the Associated Press Sports Editors’ annual award for major contributions to sports journalism a close friend … and competitor.
“If it hadn’t been for his friend Red Smith, Shirley would have been regarded as the best sports columnist in the country,” the late Chicago Tribune sports columnist Jerome Holtzman said in The New York Times’ obituary of Povich in 1998.
Povich won the Red Smith Award in 1983, two years after it was established for the legendary Red Smith. The Los Angeles Times’ Jim Murray earned the honor in 1982.
Povich’s tenure at The Washington Post started when he was a teenager, caddying on then-publisher Edward B. McLean’s golf course while working as a Post copy boy on the side. He also covered the cops beat before transitioning into the sports department. He was promoted to sports editor in 1926, the youngest to rise to that position at a major metro daily newspaper in the country. He officially retired in 1973, but continued writing for the Post until the day he died with a brief interlude as a World War II correspondent. He was adamant that he wanted to cover the war, and according to the Washington Post, “he covered some of the worst fighting in the Pacific.” He wrote in his autobiography, “All These Mornings,” that he fractured two vertebrae during the war.
Povich was inducted into the National Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 1984. He also won the Grantland Rice Award for sports writing in 1964 and the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in 1975. The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism was established at the University of Maryland in 2011. The school serves both journalism students at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism and professional journalists with workshops and panels, as well as supporting academic research and analysis.
Povich’s prose was celebrated throughout his career. He was the type of columnist who you grew up reading, then found comfort in his words as you became an adult and started each chapter of your life. He witnessed some of the greatest sporting moments in American history and put them in the proper perspective.
When New York Yankees pitcher Don Larsen threw the lone perfect game in World Series series history during Game 5 against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956, Povich commemorated the feat in a way only he could: “The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. Don Larsen today pitched a no-hit, no-run, no-man-reaches-first game in a World Series.” His knack for knowing exactly how important the moment was and putting it in relatable context was unmatched.
His influence was felt not just by the people reading his columns, but throughout the organizations that he covered. He never shied away from taking a stand, while always remaining a gentleman outwardly and kept a calm, even-keel way of speaking.
When Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, making him the first African-American to play in MLB in the modern era, Povich wrote, “Four hundred and fifty-five years after Columbus eagerly discovered America, major league baseball reluctantly discovered the American Negro.”
Perhaps the most famous line he ever wrote was about Jim Brown, a running back for the Cleveland Browns from 1957-65. Povich was staunchly for racial integration in sports and often took the Washington Redskins to task for not putting black players on their roster. During one game between the Browns and Redskins, Povich wrote, “Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.” It still stands among the most recognizable lines in sports journalism.
“Shirley is a great sports writer, an even greater human being and truly the most remarkable man I’ve ever met — in any profession,” George Solomon, a longtime Washington Post editor and columnist who also is a Red Smith Award winner, once said of Povich.
This combination was key for the Washington Post as it worked its way up against multiple newspapers. Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Povich’s latter run of columns, said that he “was responsible for one-third of our readership.”
Povich covered all sports, from legendary boxing fights like “The Long Count Fight” between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney in 1927 to the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. His bailiwick was baseball, and he covered athletes such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, whom he wrote about in his final column.
Povich was a role model for many contemporary sports journalists. Tony Kornheiser, Michael Wilbon and Thomas Boswell served as Washington Post columnists and each shared just how meaningful his mentorship and trailblazing in the field helped their careers.
Kornheiser, a longtime Washington Post columnist and ESPN personality, eulogized Povich with this anecdote: “During one rare World Series the Yankees weren’t in Shirley sat in the next seat over from [Babe] Ruth in the press box. Ruth was there ‘covering’ the Series for a New York paper. I try to imagine The Babe leaning over and saying, ‘Shirley, should I go with an adjective here, or an adverb?’ ”
He was born to Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Lithuania on July 15, 1905 in Bar Harbor, Maine. He met the woman who would become his wife, Ethyl Friedman, on a blind date in 1930. They were married for 66 years until his death. His three children are all distinguished in their own right. Son, Maury, is a well-known TV talk show host. Lynn, his only daughter, is a veteran media editor. His other son, David, is a lawyer.