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Giving Povich a Pass

Shirley Povich was the class act his son Maury never learned.

By 2.2.06

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All Those Mornings...at the Post, by Shirley Povich
(Public Affairs, 404 pages, $27.50)

I just can't do it.

On Saturday morning I woke up and found myself face to face with Weekends with Maury and Connie, the new series on MSNBC. It stars Maury Povich and Connie Chung, and is like a high school cable access program without the professionalism and wit. It is a disaster.

And yet, I cannot lower the boom on Povich. Most people know Maury as the Jerry Springer copycat who hosted his own tabloid show. But to me Povich will always be one thing: the son of the late great Shirley Povich. Shirley Povich was one of the great sportswriters of the 20th century. He also tried without success to get my grandfather into the baseball Hall of Fame.

Povich, who wrote for the Washington Post for more than 75 years, has been largely forgotten, both around the country and in his adoptive hometown of Washington. Yet a compilation of Povich's writings was published last year, so he could get a well-deserved encore. All Those Mornings... at the Post collects pieces from a career that went from 1922 to 1998, when Povich wrote his last column hours before dying of a heart attack on June 4. He covered everything: the World Series, boxing championships, golf, tennis, the Olympics. His style was Spartan and often hyperactive in the Damon Runyan style popular in the early 20th Century. On December 13, 1937 he reported that "in a wild, feenzied battle for points on the frozen turf of Wrigley Field, the deft arm of Slingin' Sammy Baugh prevailed today.... Once twice, three times he uncoiled the deadliest of all throwing arms."

As is recounted in the All Those Mornings introduction, which is written by Maury. Povich was one of nine kids raised in Bar Harbor, Maine. His father sold patio furniture to the wealthy vacationers to that resort town, and as a kid in the 1910s Shirley made summer money as a caddy. One day in 1920 Povich caddied for Edward B. McLean, the owner of the Washington Post. McLean liked Povich so much that he offered him a job at the Post and a college education in Washington. McLean even offered Povich a ride on his private railroad car. Povich eventually had to take a later train, however, because the departure date fell on Yom Kippur.

Povich drank Prohibition liquor, lost his salary to bookies, gambled at Maryland's great racetracks and made twelve dollars a week as a copy boy. He soon moved to the sports desk and got his first byline covering the championship 1924 Washington Senators baseball team.

My grandfather Joe Judge was on that team, and became a Povich favorite. For his entire life Povich attempted to get gramps into the Hall of Fame, where he was blackballed due to an article he wrote in Sports Illustrated arguing that the Hall was full of bums (this is all in my book Damn Senators.) Povich became sports editor of the Post in 1924.

In the 1920s Povich became a columnist, calling his dispatches "This Morning with Shirley Povich." Povich had real moral courage, and a great sense of humor. He was friends with Bucky Harris, the manager of the Washington Senators, and once helped saved Harris's job by falsifying a radio broadcast. It was the bottom of the ninth and the Senators were behind at an away game when the batter took a strike. Povich told the radio announcer to say the man had swung at the pitch: "Bucky's gone for sure if the owners think his batter isn't swinging at a strike." As All Those Mornings... recounts, Povich thought it was a riot when, in 1959, he was listed in Who's Who of American Women -- as did Walter Cronkite, who sent him a marriage proposal. When the League of American Penwomen sent Povich a questionnaire, he filled it out. Has your sex been a handicap to you in your work? "I can honestly say none whatsoever." How do you get along with the men in your profession? "Oh, I just try to be one of the boys." (Of course, had Povich had a sex change operation he could have been a guest on son Maury's show.)

Povich really proved his brass when the Washington Redskins arrive in 1937 from Boston with owner George Preston Marshall, who would become Povich's bete noire. Marshall was a bigot -- he refused to sign black players until he was forced to by the Kennedy administration in 1961 -- and a miser. "Marshall was easy to dislike," Povich wrote. "He bullied many people. He bragged about being big-league, but he deprived his players of travel comforts to save expenses while reaping huge profits. He refused to let Negroes play or the Redskins and thus watched other teams pass him by while he presented the fans of later years with all-white losers." When in later years the Cleveland Brown decimated the Redskins, Povich made this observation: "Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday." Marshall soon barred Povich from the locker room, a step the writer found "flattering and ineffective." In 1942, Povich was sued by Marshall for libel. Marshall had arranged a charity game for the orphans and widows fund of Army Relief, but Povich uncovered evidence that the Redskins owner was pocketing the money, $13,000. Marshall hit him with a $100,000 libel suit. Povich won a 12-0 jury verdict, which came in 20 minutes. Still, Povich would dog Marshall for years. "I used to wake up," he once remembered, "every morning of my life, with two questions immediately on my mind: What day is it, and what am I going to write about Marshall?"

More than anything else Povich was a baseball fan, and it broke his heart when his beloved Washington Senators moved to Texas in 1971. On September 30 of that year, the Senators played their last professional baseball game in the city. As the game was about to begin to the sounds of a prerecorded national anthem, Povich captured the mood: "To those among the crowd who had come in sorrow, the Star Spangled Banner never before sounded so much like a dirge. Francis Scott Key, if he had taken another peek by the dawn's early light, would have seen that the flag ain't still there, and lyricized accordingly. It was captured and in transit to Arlington, Tex., which, to embittered Washington fans, is some jerk town with the single boast it is equidistant from Dallas and Fort Worth."

If only Maury had his courage and class.

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About the Author

Mark Judge is a Washington writer and author of God and Man at Georgetown Prep, Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington's Only World Series, and other books.