“The life of a sportswriter involves knowing boldface names, seeing the world up close, traveling too much—and storing up memories.”

From a Wall Street Journal Bookshelf column by David M. Shribman about Tom Callahan’s book Gods at Play: The life of a sportswriter involves knowing boldface names, seeing the world up close, traveling too much—and storing up memories:

An episodic memoir, “Gods at Play” has no long narrative arc. It does provide a few life lessons—but mostly of the kind that sportswriters have, such as it is good to overcome adversity and very good for ballplayers to answer reporters’ questions in the locker room. And yet this volume—written by one of the “knights of the keyboard” (as Ted Williams called sports reporters) and not by one of the sports hawkers on the tube—may be one of the last of its kind, given how endangered our daily newspapers are today.

It has a beguiling charm, reminding us of the portraiture that was a recurrent feature in the work of the great keyboard-knights of the past: Axthelm, Murphy, Smith, Povich. (That would be Pete, Jack, Red and Shirley.) Only Dan Shaughnessy and Christine Brennan and a few others are left.

The deeper one reads into “Gods at Play,” the more one sees how much the world of sportswriters resembles the one that political writers occupy: seeing the world up close, knowing the boldface names, assuming that the rest of the country knows them too. “I knew [John] Mackey before he was lost, when he was a bright, funny, eloquent young man,’’ Mr. Callahan writes of the Colts’ All-Pro tight end, whose post-retirement life was eventually plagued by dementia.

He describes one of his first days at Time, when the NFL came up in a meeting. Mr. Callahan predicted that, if the 49ers went far in the playoffs, Joe Montana would become a matinee idol. The assistant managing editor replied: “Joe Montana. Joe Montana. Who is he?”. . .

Mr. Callahan is on his own mission of memories. Of Earl Monroe, known as the Pearl (“watching him play was like listening to jazz”). Of Lew Alcindor, before he was Kareem, who speaks forthrightly about the importance of having pride in oneself. . . .Of Roberto Clemente, who abandoned the Anglo name Bob forced upon him by the Topps bubble-gum merchants (“his principal feature was a kind of loneliness”). Of Muhammad Ali, no longer Cassius Clay (he “stepped through the ropes and into the ring, gleaming like a copper kettle”). Of Bob Cousy, known at Boston Garden simply as Cooz (“the most affecting person I ever covered, and the most honest”). . . .

Regrets? He has a few, especially when he thinks back on his peripatetic life. “I never knew my next-door neighbors. I never played golf at home. If I came home from the road to play golf, I wouldn’t have had a family. I lived among a national network of traveling friends. It was easier for a sportswriter to be on the road. At home, you had to think about something to write about that day. On the road, you knew you were going to write about what you were there for. . . .

Regrets? I have a big one. Turns out that Mr. Callahan and I were both writers on the old Washington Star newspaper. I was in my world (a 26-year-old feature writer, one of two guys in a style section of dazzling women writers); he was in his (getting to know Kareem, Arnold and the rest). We never met. Now, 260 pages later, I guess we have.

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