Working on a biography of Roger Maris, it is inevitable that I address the issue of the way he was treated by the beat reporters and other sportswriters in New York.
The HBO movie directed by Billy Crystal, “61*,” is very good and it depicts the friction between a somewhat surly Roger and an over-eager press corps. That depiction wasn’t quite accurate, though. In 1961, there were fans who didn’t want Maris to break Babe Ruth’s home-run record, especially those (like me) who idolized Mickey Mantle. But it wasn’t until the following year when the press really jumped on Maris with both feet.
A theme in the book is going to be that Roger Maris was the focal point of a change in American sportswriting. We can trace today’s “gotcha journalism” back to Maris and the pounding he took—first build an athlete up, then tear him down. What was being abandoned was the sportswriting of Grantland Rice, who lived for many years in East Hampton.
Rice was the Ruth of sportswriters during the 1920s, and his career lasted a lot longer. It wasn’t long after he hit New York City that the courtly, modest gentleman was viewed as the dean and certainly the most prolific of American sportswriters. Rice influenced the next generation as well as his own and the respect for him was genuine. As Red Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter for the New York Times, once commented, “Wherever Granny Rice sits, that’s the head of the table.”
A big reason why the decade of the ’20s was labeled Golden Age of Sports was because of Rice. He burnished the shine of athletes and their contests for a receptive public that worshipped its sports heroes. It was also a golden age of sports reporting in New York in the 1920s. Among Rice’s contemporaries in the press box were Ring Lardner, Heywood Broun, Damon Runyon, Gene Fowler, Rube Goldberg, and Paul Gallico. There were at the time 14 daily newspapers in the city and the competition for readers’ attention was fierce. Seemingly, though, everyone read Rice.
It is estimated that, during a 53-year career, Rice churned out 67 million words, which comes to an average of 3,463 words a day. His column appeared six days a week in over 100 newspapers—at times he juggled writing three columns at once, including “Tales of a Wayside Tee”—making him a truly national sportswriter. Most of his writing was first published in The New York Tribune, where he spent over 30 years. Rice was no ink-stained wretch: His newspaper salary alone in 1925 was $52,000 a year, an enormous sum then and exactly what the Yankees were paying Ruth.
Rice was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee on November 1, 1880, the grandson of a Confederate officer and the son of a successful business couple. He never lost his Tennessee roots, but New York was the epicenter of major sports coverage.
Rice and his wife, Kate, and infant daughter (nicknamed “Floncy”) arrived in 1911 to toil for The Evening Mail. He quickly established himself as a tireless and enthusiastic reporter, covering baseball, pro football, college football, boxing, and horse racing.
This is his most famous passage, about the Notre Dame versus Army game at the Polo Grounds in New York: “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore, they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.”
Rice did not take up golf until he was in his mid-20s, but he soon arrived at being a scratch player, with his tee shots carrying up to 260 yards. He belonged to four golf clubs—the Maidstone Club here, Augusta National, Lakeside in California, and Englewood in New Jersey. After Rice joined the Maidstone Club, it seemed he fit in easily with the mostly blueblood membership. “He left quite a legacy as a good player and a good person,” said Andrée Dean, a club member and mother of Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean. “My mother-in-law knew him and thought he was very pleasant.”
In 1928, Rice and his best friend, Ring Lardner, and their wives, who had also become close friends, bought a four-acre tract of beachfront property in East Hampton. There they built adjacent summer homes. Rice’s house was a four-bedroom Cape complete with maid’s quarters. Lardner built a 13-room manse.
Rice wrote that the summer of 1929 when they moved in, was “absolutely lovely” and that “perched on our porch on our dune, we could stare straight out and into the bull rings of Lisbon … or perhaps it was the clearness of the gin cocktails. At any rate, nothing but gulls, whales and water separated us from Portugal and Spain.”
It was not all bliss in East Hampton, however. In 1931, two powerful nor’easters struck the East End and the two houses required some hefty repairs after nearly being swept into the sea. Two years later, Lardner died.
Still, Rice enjoyed the next 20 years in East Hampton. He and his wife were part of the summer social scene, when he wasn’t traveling to cover golf and other important sports events. Rice organized his own sporting club in East Hampton and among the members who made the trek here were Bobby Jones, Runyon, the boxer Gene Tunney, and Dan Topping, co-owner of the Yankees.
“He lived right next store to me and he was perfectly delightful and his wife was lovely,” recalled former Congressman Stuyvesant Wainwright II, 86. “His reputation as a Southern gentleman was deserved. He was a very friendly man. I read everything he wrote in the sports pages, and he was a hero to me. I wish I had played golf with him, but I was just a boy.”
Rice died on July 13, 1954 in New York City, having just finished a piece on Jones’s playoff victory in the 1929 Open at Winged Foot and taking a train in from East Hampton to turn in his last magazine article, on Willie Mays, for a publication that would make its debut the following month: Sports Illustrated.