Joe Hirsch, dean of turf writers and the last icon of a dying breed of sportswriter, died earlier this month.
Hirsch covered The Ponies for more than 50 years before retiring in 2003. It’s unlikely any racing writer will ever again achieve the stature he did. The falling amount of writers covering horse racing has outpaced even the decline of professional sportswriters (and the decline of sportswriting in general).
Hirsch had the respect of the industry, the fans, and other sportswriters, at least those from my generation and older. Sadly, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a sports fan younger than 30 who knew who knew who he was. In the world of writing and reading about sports, the DNR order is in for newspapers (and the big-city columnists who write for them) — the blogs have inherited their earth.
He was a link who could remember the days of Toots Shor’s — when sportswriters and athletes converged in a nostalgic heyday devoid of the flaccid, pedestrian sameness of today’s hangouts but by the mid-1960s had become somewhat fossilized in a rapidly changing city — through the evolving culture of free agency, superstars, and drugs of the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, and on to the ongoing drama of the last 20 years of sports as the land of the modern sheltered, pampered, and inaccessible athlete. He might not have been the most critical writer, but his life and career bridged those eras to the dying days of print.
Hirsch quit writing before the sports blogs got big — in fact, two of the biggest, The Big Lead and Deadspin, failed to note his passing. As may well be appropriate — at least in the world of reading about sports (i.e., apart from watching sycophantic television coverage on ESPN and the networks), the blogs have largely supplanted the columnists for fans under 30 (and probably under 40).
Hirsch’s life story was also notable for having palled around and roomed in New York with Joe Namath. Mark Kriegel, in his biography of Namath, recalls the pair’s first meeting, when the young quarterback was still at Alabama:
Hirsch knew horses, not college football players. The bartender had to point out Joe. They had a drink, then Hirsch lent him a sports jacket and took him to a first-class dinner. “I suppose you’re majoring in basket-weaving,” he said.
“Nah, that class was all filled up,” the kid replied. “But I found an even easier one — journalism.”
When I first came around, there was some very good newspapermen in New York. But increasingly, they started leaning on this Columbia School of Journalism thing. That you wanted your mom to be proud. That it was a profession.
Journalism is a craft, like being a master plumber. We wore white collars, but we were blue collar.
Sad week for the newspaper business, and here I am bemoaning the loss of two conservative institutions in the New York media landscape.
Dunleavy, now retired, was far from sainthood. He was a man whose tactics, particularly once he reached television’s platform, helped contribute to the Public’s perception of the Devil Media (ironically, the same Public that too-often too-broadly paints the entire media as overly liberal).
And yet, we mourn his retirement still. The New York Times gave him a nice send-off written by Tim Arango and enthused about one of the last true Tabloid Reporters in the two-fisted blue-collar sense exiting the stage.
Even Jimmy Breslin, his one-time rival who first led and then competed with Dunleavy on the Son of Sam story in 1977, had this to say about Dunleavy in the Times’ article:
“In a time of listless reporting, he climbed stairs. And he wrote simple declarative sentences that people could read, as opposed to these 52-word gems that moan, ‘I went to college! I went to graduate school college! Where do I put the period?’ ”
Pete Hamill, another of the last of the great New York columnists, said:
“He always had this energy. I always thought he was writing his columns like he was double-parked. He was a tabloid guy in every fiber of his body. If it didn’t have conflict, he didn’t want to write it.”
Since Breslin, Hamill and Dunleavy — all three from the Silent Generation — were at their height writing on a daily or semi-daily basis, there have been scant few great cityside columnist-reporters in New York. Other than the departed Mike McAlary, a Baby Boomer who died young 10 years ago at 41, I can’t think of another recent columnist that fits the Tab mold, particularly from the next two generations. That’s a reality and an indictment of the dying newspaper business in the last 20 years, which, of course, dovetails with the rise of the Master’s Degree-trained “journalist” (rather than “reporter”) and the rise of the MBAs and Marketers running the newsroom.
Great soloists, as I believe Hamill once called newspaper columnists, are now largely off the scene.