Sportswriters and Rowing Correspondents

In the “Daily News” on Sunday, 9 August, Pete Hamill’s brother Denis Hamill, a former “Daily News” columnist, published a eulogy for his brother.

12 August 2020

By Göran R Buckhorn

There are still sportswriters around, but what happened to the rowing correspondents, Göran R Buckhorn wonders.

Pete Hamill died a week ago, on Wednesday 5 August. He was 85.

For those readers outside the USA – or maybe outside New York City (obviously, this doesn’t relate to you Irish wherever you are) – who don’t know who Pete Hamill was, he was a journalist, columnist, essayist and author of several books. He lived and breathed New York City. Hamill was a celebrated editor of the New York Post and the New York Daily News, two newspapers which today are still tabloids both in format and style. He also penned screenplays, and, in 1975 – this is something my HTBS colleague Greg Denieffe will enjoy – Hamill won a Grammy for writing the liner notes to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.

The Brooklyn-born Hamill dropped out of high school and eventually landed a job at The Post in 1960. He fell in love with the old newspaper atmosphere: ‘an organized chaos of editors shouting from desks, copy boys dashing through doors into the composing room, men and women typing at big manual typewriters, telephones ringing, the wire service tickers clattering, everyone smoking and putting butts out on the floor,’ Hamill wrote in an autobiography.

Hamill worked as a foreign correspondent and covered wars in Asia, Central America, the Middle East and the troubles in Northern Ireland – his parents, Billy and Anne (nee Devlin) Hamill, had immigrated from Belfast.

Pete Hamill lived in Dublin, Barcelona, Mexico City, Saigon, San Juan, Rome and Tokyo. When Hamill moved back to his beloved city, he continued to write about everything: politics, strikes, jazz, crime – and sports.

Although a newspaper man through and through, Pete Hamill never wrote about the famous women he dated, Shirley MacLaine and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. ‘Only a cad would talk about his life that way,’ he said in a 1994 “The New York Times” interview. Photo: David Shankbone/Wikipedia.

The only one who could measure up to him in New York as the most-read columnist was his rival – and friend – Jimmy Breslin. They ‘popularized a spare, blunt style in columns of on-the-scene reporting in the authentic voice of the working classes: blustery, sardonic, often angry,’ it read in one of the many obituaries for Hamill.

As hard as Hamill and Breslin, who died in March 2017, age 88, hit the keys on their battered typewriters, they also hit the bars in the city after work. In his memoir A Drinking Life (1994), Hamill tells the story how he decided to stop drinking on New Year’s Eve 1972 after decades of abusive consumption of alcohol. When someone ask why, his answer was short: ‘I have no talent for it.’

Jimmy Breslin taking a break from his typewriter.

As many good newspapermen, Hamill and Breslin also wrote about sports. From their typewriters came articles and columns about baseball, boxing and much more.

I have to confess that I have only read one of Breslin’s sports stories, “Racing’s Angriest Young Man” (1960), published in Best of the Best Sports Stories (ed. Irving T. Marsh and Edward Ehre; 1964) about the jockey Willie Hartack. In this anthology, there are also writings by other famous and prize-winning American sportswriters like Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon and many more.

There is one particular sportswriter in Best of the Best Sports Stories who must be mentioned here because this is a rowing history website, Allison ‘Al’ Danzig, who wrote about the Mexican-American tennis player Pancho Gonzales in a piece from 1949. Danzig, who was a school chum of writer E. B. ‘Andy’ White, was a sportswriter for The New York Times between 1923 and 1968. Danzig covered many sports at the Olympic Games (he reported from five Games from 1932 to 1960), college (American) football, squash, tennis (including real tennis) – and rowing. Al Danzig is the only ‘rowing correspondent’ in the National Rowing Foundation’s Rowing Hall of Fame.

Al Danzig

Not knowing a lot about Danzig and the Rowing Hall of Fame selection procedure in the early times, I contacted rowing historian Bill Miller, who is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Rowing Foundation (NRF). Bill wrote back that Danzig was a journalist who ‘fully embraced rowing, following and writing about it profusely.’

When he turned 70, in 1968, Danzig retired from The New York Times. He was inducted into the Rowing Hall of Fame that year. The same year, he also became the first journalist to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, which is in Newport, Rhode Island, USA.

The first group of rowers was inducted into the Rowing Hall of Fame in 1956. ‘The original managing organization for Olympic Sports Hall of Fame was the Helms Athletic Foundation (LA, CA) established in 1932. The managers of Helms appointed people from various sports to propose candidates. The Helms managers then accepted the proposal(s),’ Bill Miller wrote. ‘This selection committee were the movers and shakers in the NAAO [the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen, predecessor to today’s USRowing]. Many of them became directors of the NRF when it was formed in 1965, but the selection was independent of the NRF’. The NRF took over the management of the Rowing Hall of Fame in 1975.

However, the days of ‘rowing correspondents’ seem to be over, also in Britain, where, during the 20th century, many newspapers with self-esteem had a special man to write on rowing. For more on the gentlemen of the 20th-century British rowing press (no women wrote about the sport at this time) until the 1960s, see here.

There were specific correspondents on rowing at British newspapers until just some years ago; names like Chris Dodd and Rachel Quarrell come to mind, and perhaps Mike Rosewell, Robert Treharne Jones and Mike Haggerty. And I’m sure, there are still some readers who remember the heavy-hitters Dickie Burnell, Geoffrey Page and Jim Railton.

When I asked journalist, historian and HTBS writer Chris Dodd if they have a Rowing Hall of Fame in the UK (with or without inducted rowing correspondents), he answered, ‘No, we don’t, although I set one up at the River and Rowing Museum when it started, with different rules to the U.S. one. The late Hart Perry was a wise consultant of what to avoid, like the old NRF rule requiring death before admittance, if I remember it correctly’.

Chris Dodd continued: ‘The trouble was that we had no funds for ceremonies, dinners, etc. At one time there was a British International Rowing Fund attached to the ARA, but it was killed by the Lottery in 1996.’

Nevertheless, what they did have in Britain starting in 1986 was BARJ, British Association of Rowing Journalists (later ‘BARJ for rowing journalists everywhere’). BARJ dealt with the problems rowing media – writers, broadcasters and photographers – ran into at regattas where the facilities and services were poor in the 1980s and on.

BARJ Journalist of the Year Award was handed out between 2003 and 2014.

BARJ had a few awards that were handed out annually, among them ‘Journalist of the Year’, which could go to broadcasters and photographers, too. Getting this prize was like being inducted into a Hall of Fame for Rowing Correspondents. The award even went abroad once, in 2008, when Chip Davis of the American Rowing News was the recipient.

However, after almost 30 years in existence, at an extraordinary general meeting in 2014, the organisation’s members voted to suspend all activities. As the general media landscape had changed, BARJ’s goals were met. I’m happy to say that even I was a member of BARJ for two, three years before the organisation died.

But let’s go back to the U.S. Were there any journalists writing about rowing in the press at the time when Danzig retired? There must have been some journalists who were covering the sport in cities with a large rowing community like Boston and Philadelphia, but I don’t know the names of the journalists. Right now, I can only remember one name from the latest decades writing about rowing on this side of the pond (besides those who penned articles for rowing magazines): David Halberstam, author of the brilliant The Amateurs (1985).

The article writer’s copy of “The Amateurs”, the British edition, published by Hodder & Stoughton, purchased in Oxford 1986.

As it happens, I have on my bookshelf a Halberstam anthology published in 2008, the year after his tragic death in an automobile accident in Menlo Park, California. Everything They Had: Sports Writing from David Halberstam (selected and with an introduction by Glenn Stout) has two articles on rowing. “Death of a Sculler, in Three Acts” was first published in the Harvard Alumni Bulletin, April 23, 1955. Unfortunately, this early piece of Halberstam – he was 21 years old at the time – doesn’t belong to his better writing.

David Halberstam

Halberstam’s the second article, “The Fitness-Goers”, which was first published in Vogue, July 1987, is an entertaining piece on how Halberstam and his wife attended a rowing camp in Florida. Halberstam is there to brush up his old sculling skills from college, while his wife, Jean, is a beginner. What she hasn’t told her husband is that she has a phobia of being on the water. A charming story.

I can think of several journalists, writers and historians who are worthy of a spot in a physical or digital ‘Rowing Writers Hall of Fame’. Managed by HTBS? No, no, I didn’t write that. And even if that would be an idea, the pandemic would put a stop to it. A Zoom ceremony and a dinner in front of the screen are not the same as being honoured ‘live’.

2 comments

  1. Coincidentally, I was only reading Pete Hamill’s liner notes for ‘Blood on the Tracks’ yesterday. Several Twitter accounts referred to his 1976 Grammy Award prompting a revisit and the opening sentences of his essay seem even more relevant that they did when first published on Jan 20, 1975:

    “In the end, the plague touched us all. It was not confined to the Oran of Camus. No. It turned up again in America, breeding in-a-compost of greed and uselessness and murder, in those places where statesmen and generals stash the bodies of the forever young. The plague ran in the blood of men in sharkskin suits, who ran for President promising life and delivering death.”

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