Leigh Montville Tidbits

This post is part of the effort to select The Best All-Time Boston Sports Columnists

Browsing the Sports Illustrated Vault, I noted a couple of publisher’s notes from the magazine which give us a glimpse into the writer that Leigh Montville is.

From the April 20, 1987 issue:

Eighteen years of writing for the Boston globe and living in Newton, Mass., has given columnist Leigh Montville a special perspective on the Boston Marathon. Not only has he written about Heartbreak Hill, he has frequently driven over and around it. So when the idea came up to have him describe the residents and merchants along the storied marathon course (page 94), he had an assignment close to both heart and home.

“Most of the people I talked to have the feeling they’re involved in something special,” says Montville, 43. “Each of the places I went, people didn’t have to think very deeply for stories.”

In addition to writing for us—his two previous contributions were stories on the Boston Garden (May 19, 1986) and the inventor of the Zamboni machine (March 30, 1987)—and for other magazines, he turns out four sports columns a week and the random essay for the Globe’s Sunday magazine. Seeking inspiration, he often turns to a mystical—to him—rubber-coated baseball the late Globe columnist Ray Fitzgerald also favored. “Ray developed the notion that if he held on to the ball, War and Peace would come into his head,” Montville says. “Michael Madden, his successor, uses it, too. It’s surprising how many times you need it.”

Montville’s stories generally reflect a fresh point of view. “Everyone else looks at things from the ground floor,” says SI senior writer Peter Gammons, a former Globe colleague. “Leigh writes like he’s got his own hot-air balloon.” Globe sports editor Vince Doria says, “Leigh’s not a hard-opinion guy. He sees a lot of gray in everything.” And it’s usually funny. To which Montville says, “I think that’s one part of writing columns they don’t mention in journalism school—entertainment. There’s as much Woody Allen in it as Woodward and Bernstein.”

Montville is easy to spot in a press box. He’s the rumpled guy with a toothpick in his mouth and a Coke in his hand. When he isn’t working, he reads Anne Tyler and John Gregory Dunne, vacations in Maine, goes full court at the Newton Y and slugs down junk food.

And then the September 25, 1989 issue:

The first time Leigh Montville entered the time-life Building in New York City, in 1965, he was a callow youth newly graduated from the University of Connecticut. His objective then was to be what he is today—an SI writer. But perhaps he was a tad naive.

“I put on my little suit and gathered my little college newspaper clips and showed up unannounced at the personnel office, where there were two other guys—who were waiting to interview for a maintenance job—and me,” says Montville. “We all saw the same woman and we all heard the same speech, ‘Get some experience and then come see us again.’ ”

Montville has been collecting experience bulk rate ever since. He took a job at his hometown paper, the New Haven Journal-Courier, and three years later moved on to The Boston Globe, where he became a columnist in 1970. Several thousand deadline stories later, he longed for the luxury of time to reflect on his stories. “Doing a daily column is usually more typing than it is writing,” he says. “It’s like being a contestant on Beat the Clock.” That was why when SI asked him to do a piece on the Boston Garden, in ’86, his first question was, “When’s the deadline?” Told it was in four weeks, he accepted the assignment with relish.

Be sure to check out this 1986 SI column by Montville on the old Boston Garden: And They All Say, ‘this Is It?’

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Excerpt on Dave Egan

This post is part of the effort to select The Best All-Time Boston Sports Columnists

This is from Leigh Montville’s book Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero, in a part noting the death of noted Williams critic Dave Egan. It might give you a little glimpse into the man, as we consider his place among Boston columnists:

Egan left a complicated legacy. He was the only writer in Boston who had complained loudly about the Red Sox racist outlook under Yawkey, the only one who saw the shame in a forced, half-baked, no-chance tryout in 1945 for Negro League stars Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams. He was often credited or derided as one of the major forces in the Boston Braves’ decision in 1953 to leave town. He was a different voice at all times, making fun of the powerful and successful, siding with the unpowerful and unsuccessful. . . and, of course, there were his “accounts” at the racetracks and boxing rings.

His columns about Williams were remembered more than any others. He had been a defender of Williams in personal situations — the controversy surrounding the birth of Bobby-Jo, for instance — but a constant critic on all other matters. No one attacked Williams more often.

Later on it was noted that honorary pallbearers at Egan’s funeral included Walter Brown, Bob Cousy, Milt Schmidt, boxers Tommy Collins and Tony DeMarco, race track owner B. A. Dario and Joe Cronin. Egan’s space in the Record the next day was taken by Larry Claflin.

We’ve discussed Egan on this site before: Infamous Moments in Boston Sports Media History

Help Select The Best All-Time Boston Sports Columnists

I need your help. Again.

Especially you old-timers.

I’d like to create a list of the best all-time sports columnists here in Boston. The list of potential names is impressive, but who is the best of the best? Who represents the pantheon of Boston sports columnists?

Some potential names you might consider…and this is by no means a complete list. I really need more suggestions, in fact.

  • Clif Keane – Boston Globe
  • Larry Claflin – Boston Record/American/Herald
  • Harold Kaese – Boston Transcript
  • Austen ‘‘Duke’’ Lake – Boston American
  • Bob Ryan – Boston Globe
  • Will McDonough – Boston Globe
  • Tim Horgan – Boston Herald
  • Dave Egan – Boston Record
  • Dan Shaughnessy – Boston Globe
  • Ray Fitzgerald – Boston Globe
  • Leigh Montville – Boston Globe
  • Joe Haggerty – Woburn Daily Times

The list is sort of subjective, so I didn’t include Peter Gammons, as I think of him more as a baseball writer than a general columnist, while Will McDonough did mainly focus on football, but wrote columns about all sports as well, so he’s on the list. Maybe you have your reasons for putting Gammons on the list. Maybe Tim Horgan doesn’t deserve to be considered, so don’t include him, there are no rules here other than they need to be the best.

What I’d like you do is place a comment below in which you list your top three Boston sports columnists of all-time. I’ll use that feedback to compile another list, from which we’ll vote on the all-time best.

Here’s my list, which are all guys I’ve actually read: Fitzgerald (You need this book.) Montville and Ryan.

Feel free to include any stories or reasons why you feel the way you do about your list.

I’ll also have a prize for a random commenter in this list, but I haven’t picked out what it will be yet. (Businesses: Want to donate a prize and get mentioned? Send me an email.)

BSMW Retro – Clif Keane, The Original “Poison Pen”

Something I stumbled across while doing a little research for an upcoming post/poll for the site was this 1966 Sports Illustrated article by Frank Deford entitled Lots Of Fun With A Poison Pen.

Deford follows and writes about legendary Boston Globe sports columnist Clif Keane in this feature, focusing on Keane as “an irreverent humorist, a Boston sportswriter who gets his best stories from the athletes he needles the most.”

Here are a few snippets from the piece:

At 54, Keane believes that he is mellowing, but few people he writes about would agree, even after they get the hatchet out of their backs. As a reporter, Keane remains a model of brutal objectivity-or objective brutality. When President Eisenhower visited Newport to play golf, the Globe dispatched Keane, a golf nut himself, to cover the action. Keane wired back a story that began by reporting that the President cheated on the fairways and in the rough. That was the last President the Globe has let Keane cover.

Then a little later on is an example of Keane’s needling:

But, uh-oh, here comes Clif Keane now, into the Cleveland clubhouse. “We’ll have some fun,” he says, rubbing his hands together and peering over his bifocals for new targets. There are a lot of lines around Keane’s eyes, but they are not like the crow’s-feet on most people’s, for they only appear when he laughs-or in the mere anticipation of hanging it on someone. This is what happens now, as soon as Clif sees Early Wynn, the pitching coach.

“Hey, you big dumb Indian,” Keane calls warmly, “when’re you going back to the reservation? You’re so fat you couldn’t get in the teepee anyway.”

“You talk,” Wynn says, thumbing at the game ball.

“When’ll McDowell be really ready?”

“I’m only the coach, you’re the expert,” Wynn replies. Around Keane his antagonists seem to play the roles he assigns them.

“You’re just an unpleasant man,” Keane says. “No wonder we stole Manhattan from you guys.”

Wynn remains in the impassively stoic character that Keane has set for him. “I got by Williams,” he grumps, “and I got by Greenberg. I can get by you, Keane.” Poison Pen roars, and the laugh lines bloom.

Light-hearted as that exchange was, you’d never be able to get away with that in today’s world.

I thought this bit was interesting:

Keane never went to college, nor did he ever write a newspaper story until he had been with the Globe for 13 years as a copy boy and real-estate space salesman. But since he began a quarter of a century ago he has covered virtually every sport, including a memorable dog show. A famous dog died, but Keane, unaware of the dog’s esteem in the canine world, did not mention the fact until near the end of his story. The managing editor called him in to find out why. “A dog died,” Keane replied. “I buried it.”

What? A newspaper writer who didn’t go to college? Worked his way all the way from the bottom to become one of the top sports columnists in Boston? Not bad.

If you haven’t already, please cast your vote in the Who is the Best Sports Columnist? poll.

Remembering Tony Conigliaro the Sportscaster

This is  a guest post from Michael Passanisi.

Forty-five years ago this spring, a 19-year old kid from Swampscott made it fun to be a Sox fan again, at least for a few years. Most fans remember that Tony C has passed away, but how many remember his up-and-down broadcast career and the terrible effects of his heart attack and brain damage that made his last eight years a living hell for Tony and his family?

To be sure, Tony is remembered as a man who, in the words of author David Cataneo in his excellent 1997 book Tony C: The Triumph and Tragedy of Tony Conigliaro, had a lot of both in his life. Nearly every Sox fan knows about his 1967 beaning. They also remember his aborted comebacks, his controversial trade to the Angels three years later, and his final retirement in 1975. But the story doesn’t end there.

A year after his retirement from baseball, Conigliaro began work as a sports reporter for KGO-TV in San Francisco. Cataneo’s book describes his early problems in broadcasting: “He was immediately branded just another jock enthusing about the scores. He was terrible. He spoke in clichés. He always seemed harried. His malaprops made him uncomfortable to watch….his Boston accent, charming to fans from Charlestown and Waltham and Worcester in the Fenway stands, made northern Californians cover their ears.”

Things then improved for a while. “Not surprisingly”, continues Cataneo, “he wasn’t smooth, but he came across as honest and genuine. He had a good rapport with athletes. The anchor work remained rough, but his features got better, eventually good enough to learn a local Emmy.” Though being homesick, as he always seemed to be, for his family, he was enough of a celebrity to be recognized and continue to date attractive women. He also befriended a man named Satch Hennessey, who was also touched by tragedy; his wife and young daughter would both die of cancer. Interestingly, he also became more religious. “I was given a lot of athletic ability,” Cataneo quotes him as saying…”if I don’t know where it came from it doesn’t mean much.”

By 1980, however, his life was going downhill again. KGO fired him, apparently because the station wanted a workaholic who would give “110 percent”. Another station, KRON, which had hired Tony as basically a weekend sports anchor and feature broadcaster, brought in a new news director, who let him go. That, unfortunately, was the end of his broadcasting career.

Tony’s last chance came in January, 1982, when he wanted to try out for an opening as Red Sox color commentator.. However, WSBK, which broadcast the Sox at that time, had a GM who Cataneo calls “a non-New Englander who had been nowhere near Kenmore Square in the summer of 1967”., This man apparently thought no one remembered him anymore. He might have changed his mind, but just two days later Tony suffered his massive heart attack.

Though Cataneo did an excellent job of describing Tony’s post-1975 years, many newspapers seem today to gloss over the suffering that Conigliaro went through between his heart attack and his death in 1990. This includes articles two years ago on the 40th anniversary of the Impossible Dream season, in which Tony played a big part before his injury.

An example of some writers’ description of Conigliaro’s post-baseball years is in the 2004 book Reversing the Curse about the Sox’s first World Series win since 1918. The only mention of Tony is that he “suffered a major heart attack and died at the age of 45 in 1990”. Given the interest in him in his playing days, more might have been said, and while his tragedy was a personal one and not connected to baseball in general, that description does not seem enough.

All the details of the sufferings of Tony and his family during his last years need be mentioned here, but his brother Billy, in the forward to Cataneo’s book, sums it up by saying that “nobody expected that the struggle of a professional athlete would, just a few years later, be exceeded by an all-out fight just to exist on the earth as a normal human being.” By 1990, most of Tony’s relatives were praying that he would soon be put out of his misery. Their prayers were answered on February 24 of that year.

Today, Conigliaro is memorialized in the Conigliaro Gym at his alma mater, St Mary’s High in Lynn, by the major league Comeback Player of the Year Award, and a few other commemorations of his life, such as “Conig’s Corner” in Fenway Park. But the Sox have not retired his number 25. Tony made a lasting impression on Boston baseball, and his entire life should be remembered.

Related link:

Jim O’Brien – The Forgotten Coach? – also by Passanisi.

Boston In The World Series

I came across a couple of pretty interesting photos that I thought I would pass along. These show crowds gathered around a high-tech “electric scoreboard” for the 1912 World Series between Boston and New York:

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Since the Washington Post was sponsoring this scoreboard, I’m assuming the photos are from D.C. Getting these type of “real time” updates must’ve been a thrilling experience for baseball fans of that era.

Come to think of think of it, this scoreboard doesn’t really look all that different from the online gamecasts that ESPN, CBS, Yahoo! and all the other online media outlets use today to pass along game information to those sitting in front of computers.

Would the crowds gathered together to watch in the streets back in 1912 be the equivalent of the Sons of Sam Horn message board?

Infamous Moments – McDonough Punches Clayborn

We’re back with another installment of infamous moments in Boston sports media history.

The relationship between the media and professional athletes has always been an adversarial one. Rarely however, has it gotten physical.

On September 9th, 1979, the Patriots had just routed the New York Jets 56-3.

These days morning talk show hosts and ESPN analysts would be eviscerating the Patriots for running up the score and showing poor sportsmanship- the Patriots scored 14 points in the fourth quarter when they were already up 42-3.

The atmosphere in the Patriots locker room following the game should’ve been light hearted, but cornerback Raymond Clayborn was miserable. He had a bad week, twice scuffling with teammates in practice.  

After the game, Clayborn was snapping at writers and bumping into them on purpose. Legendary writer Will McDonough of The Boston Globe took exception, saying “”Hey, Ray, there’s no need to do that.”

Clayborn reacted by jabbing his finger in McDonough’s face, poking him in the eye. McDonough then punched him twice, knocking him into a laundry cart and taking down a number of people with him.

The story immediately went into legend, with some accounts stating that McDonough had knocked Clayborn “out cold” with a single punch, and others describing more of a scuffle between the two.

McDonough was lionized among his colleages in the media for the incident, which was lauded as an example of “southie justice.”

From a Globe story after McDonough’s death:

”After that, he became a folk hero.” says Vince Doria, the former Globe sports editor who is now vice president/ director of news at ESPN.

”You know how when you’re a kid, you go around saying, `My dad can beat up your dad’?” says Sean McDonough. ”Well, after that, I went to school saying, `Never mind beating up your dad. My dad can beat up an NFL player.”’

What do you think would happen if a member of the media and an athlete got into a fight in the locker room these days?