Look to the past to learn about the future

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Veteran sports journalist Buddy Martin is correct. Sports journalists do not know enough about their own history.

We fault professional baseball players for not knowing about Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, and pro football players for knowing little about Johnny Unitas and Gale Sayers, yet we do not always know enough about our own profession. “We’re just as guilty,” said Martin, an editor who has accomplished quite a bit himself. He has served as sports editor at several newspapers, including the New York Daily News, St. Peterburg Times and Denver Post. Plus, he has earned an Emmy Award and is co-director of The Sports Journalism Summit at the Poynter Institute.

How many sports journalists know anything about pioneers like Grantland Rice, Graham McNamee, Red Barber, and Paul Gallico? How many have read writers who helped elevate the profession like Red Smith and Shirley Povich. Fewer still know about the contributions of early black sports journalists like Wendell Smith, who played a significant role in bringing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Plus, there are numerous more contemporary writers and broadcasters, such as Will Grimsley, Howard Cosell, Edwin Pope, Dick Schaap and Jerome Holtzman. Red Smith, Dave Anderson and Jim Murray brought sports journalism to a more literary level, winning the only three Pulitzers awarded for sports commentary. Only one other sports journalist has received a Pulitzer.

Sports editors typically get even less attention, especially outside the profession. That’s the case with Van McKenzie, an innovative editor who was posthumously honored as the Red Smith Award winner by the Associated Press Sports Editors last Friday in St. Louis. McKenzie ran sports sections at the New York Daily News, St. Pete Times, and the Orlando Sentinel, where he served as executive sports editor until his death earlier this year. Frank Deford hired McKenzie as managing editor of The National, an ambitious daily sports section that collected tremendous talent but which, unfortunately, folded after 15 months. He also served as editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where he turned the sports section into one of the best in the country and where he also led the newspaper’s coverage of the 1998 Democratic National Convention.

“Van McKenzie was our Babe Ruth,” Martin said. “He hit it out of the park a few times – and he struck out. He had a zest for living.”

Here are two important lessons we all need to consider, especially in these changing times for journalism. In his widely circulated manifesto (or Vanifesto), McKenzie said two things that are worth remembering:
■ “Words to live by: Never assume anything.”
■ “Words to die by: That’s not the way we do things around here.”

Change is essential in all fields. Sports reporting is no different. But, first, we all need to know something about the past before we can attempt to change the future. So read more about pioneers in sports journalism (about all history, for that matter), whose lives can teach us much about the profession we love.

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