The Goal Line

The photographs alone tell the story. Not just the faces in them, but the way the pictures fill every bit of free space left in the office of a man who insists he's seen bigger closets. It's like walking into someone's memory and getting the full tour. Maybe the pictures hang here for the sake of misguided conceit, Blackie Sherrod says, proof that their owner has known so many celebrated men. But more likely, he adds with shrug, the pictures in his office serve to remind him of where he's been, whom he's known, whom he's lost.

There are the old faded photos of a bespectacled, baby-faced Sherrod at the Fort Worth Press in the 1950s; he and his colleagues, among them columnist and novelist Dan Jenkins, look like children playing newspapermen, their clothes too big on such small frames. There are the pictures of Sherrod with Heisman winners and discarded local heroes -- or, in the case of Herschel Walker, both. There is even one featuring an unshaven Blackie holding a cigarette in one hand and a Bud in the other. In it, he wears a grin the way Frank Sinatra sang "In the Wee Small Hours."

But among the most prominent are several pictures featuring Sherrod and old friend Jim Murray, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times and among Sherrod's dearest friends. Murray, at age 78, died last September, a few months before Sherrod, Murray, and the rest of their group of graying press-boxers -- the so-called Geezers -- were to meet for their annual weeklong trip to Atlanta, where they drink and talk and, well, nap.

Murray had long been considered the "last of the best" of the old-time sportswriters -- a man who condensed absolute truths into one-liners. Murray's name is often mentioned in the same cocktail recipe as Grantland Rice, Jimmy Cannon, Red Smith, John Kiernan, and other press-box legends, men who didn't just flesh out box scores with quotes and comments. They penned some of the finest literature of the 20th century, serializing their prowess in the pages of New York and Los Angeles dailies. When Murray died last year, it was often said among sportswriters that the good old days were over, buried in a coffin in California.

But that is so much nonsense, especially when Blackie Sherrod still goes into work at The Dallas Morning News every day, sits in his office, and stares at a blank computer screen.

"Look, nobody admired Blackie more than Jim Murray," says Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Randy Galloway, who claimed Sherrod as a "hero" when he first read him in, oh, 1958. "What more is there to say? Is there another Blackie Sherrod around here? Shit no. The rest of us are hanging on, and damned proud of it. To me, that goes back to who he is. Not who he was, but who he is. I think we have in our midst one of the greatest who ever lived, and if you could ask the legends who are no longer with us, they would all tell you that."

During his trips to Dallas, Jimmy Cannon used to have Sherrod read his copy before shipping it back east. But in recent years, Sherrod has seemed to fade a bit from the front page of this town's collective consciousness; he's a buried lead, stuck in the middle of the Sunday sports section, where his notes column -- or what he refers to as his "horseshit notes column" -- has long appeared. But perhaps that's by choice: Sherrod has sort of eased into semi-retirement, having long ago stopped writing his every-other-day sports column. This way, he has more time to read Chaucer or Oscar Wilde -- more time to spend avoiding sports.

"I just have other interests and wish I had had these other interests years ago," he says now, his voice a booming rumble. "I wish I had spent earlier years in more fulfilling ways. Either sports has passed me by, or I've passed sports by."

He doesn't go to ball games much anymore, doesn't watch sporting events on television unless it's something important -- say, the NBA Finals or the World Series. He realized he was just about through with sports when he switched off Monday Night Football to watch Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca on Channel 13 instead. The way Sherrod recalls the moment, he was never so proud as when he hit the channel-changer. "Used to be, I'd be there," Sherrod says. "But when I turned on Rebecca, I thought, 'Damn, you get another stripe for that.'"

The Belton, Texas, native once counted the seconds until spring training rolled around; he had sort of grown up in Vero Beach, Florida, where the Brooklyn Dodgers trained alongside their farm clubs, including the Fort Worth Cats. He had grown fond of Dodgers president Branch Rickey, the man who signed Jackie Robinson. In 1965, when Rickey suffered his third heart attack and lay in a coma, Sherrod wrote a piece celebrating "his splendid mind and overwhelming charm." But Sherrod no longer goes to spring training, having long ago lost his taste for the clinical, cynical business of baseball. The last time he went to Florida, during the early part of this decade, he had fun only once -- when he and some old buddies had their annual shrimp boil.

Perhaps what made -- makes -- Sherrod's writing so remarkable is that he was never a fan; he never romanticized the games or the inner children who played them. He never lived or died with a ball club, not even the Fort Worth Cats, with whom he traveled for eight years during his tenure with the Fort Worth Press, before he moved to The Dallas Times Herald in the late '50s. "They were all buddies," he says, "but I never lost any sleep over a game. I never worried about it one way or another. You don't have time to worry about who won or lost the game."

Sherrod is intimidating even in semi-retirement, his estimable back catalog mocking from a distance. Here is a man who, in 1965, wrote of the beleaguered Don Meredith: "As every English-speaking person knows, the Cowboys quarterback sank the Lusitania, set fire to Whistler's mother, and bombed an orphanage last Sunday." In 1973, Sherrod wrote that in a perfect world, a fair world, Bob Hayes "should be forced to carry a small calf on his shoulder when he runs the dashes...Mark Spitz, in all fairness, would swim with a sea anchor...[and] Ella Fitzgerald must sing every note with a mouth full of Tootsie Rolls." Thirty-seven years ago, Sherrod also wrote what surely must have been the first column begging athletes to stay in college and get a diploma: "The average guy may find that sheepskin a handy showpiece after his legs tire out or the curve ball starts doing tricks."

Galloway cites an old Sherrod line about how if Wilt Chamberlain's just another tall center, then the Grand Canyon's just another ditch. But he was more than the sum of his one-liners: He wrote subtly, sincerely, compassionately about old heroes (Branch Rickey), young legends just in the making (Joe Namath), and journeymen whose names would be written in the margins of history (former Cowboys quarterback Eddie LeBaron). And he never lost perspective about how sports was nothing more, nothing less than a game -- a pleasant distraction, if that.

"Sports dangle and amuse on the fringe of lives," he wrote on November 25, 1963, in the shadows of John Kennedy's assassination not far from the front door of where the Times Herald once stood on Griffin Street. "What is important is that there is such hate afoot in the world...such seared minds that shout insults at elected leaders, spit on people, and, yes, even press finger against trigger...It is civilization itself that's been penalized half the distance to the goal line."

It is unfortunate, then, that there does not exist a collection of Sherrod's work outside the slim Scattershooting collection published in 1975, during Sherrod's long tenure with the Times Herald. Sherrod himself has maybe two copies, somewhere in his garage. Among the hundreds of books that fill his office, and the thousands more that spill over into his home, a copy of the author's own book is deemed rather unimportant. And there will not be another forthcoming, since Sherrod does not believe in penning his autobiography. He doesn't believe his life is worth going to all that trouble.

Sherrod belongs to the generation of sportswriters who took the games seriously enough to find the humor in them. He and his peers were children of war, men who either fought in World War II themselves or watched as countless family members paraded off to serve their country. Sherrod is a decorated Navy plane gunner, and there is simply no way in hell a man who killed for his country will ever live or die with a sports team. He knows of life-and-death battles, and a 24-23 Sunday-afternoon showdown at Texas Stadium sure as hell ain't one of them.

"During the war, those were pretty grim times, and the people who lived through that didn't consider sports grim," Sherrod says of himself and his peers. "They couldn't take it seriously, so we never did. It was just fun. Then it became big money, grim, gritted teeth, beady-eyed -- nothing wrong with that, it was just a different atmosphere. I hope the young guys today have as much fun as we did, but I don't think so."

Sherrod does not offer advice to his young peers, does not seek them out and hand out brochures on How to Write a Sports Column. When Tim Cowlishaw took over for Galloway last year, the longtime Morning News beat writer went in and asked Sherrod if he had any advice. Sherrod responded: "If I am asked." According to Sherrod, that was the end of the conversation: Cowlishaw never asked, so Sherrod never offered.

But those who know him best insist Sherrod is being neither standoffish nor arrogant. He is, Galloway insists, a quiet and shy man who was "never comfortable with being famous, which, I believe, is the nicest thing I can say about anybody." Old friend and colleague Frank Luksa, whose own writing should be taught to all English-speakers, says Sherrod prefers the company of old friends and cold beers. Under those circumstances, there is no better storyteller in the whole world.

"Blackie's a man who always finds the right word, and every time he sits down to write a column, he finds 800 or 900 of the right words," Luksa says. "Here was the epitome of style, humor, and frequently a very subtle point...You feel better after reading Blackie."

If there's a young generation out there that barely knows the name Blackie Sherrod, perhaps it's the fault of a newspaper that never knew what to do with him, never celebrated its finest writer, and let him give up his column without a fight. Or maybe Sherrod is to blame, having so little ego that he didn't feel the need to keep his name in spotlights forever. Either way, it's a shame.

But do not tell him that. He doesn't take compliments well. Do not, for instance, tell him that reading one of his columns is like watching a carpenter build a cathedral. That doesn't go over too well.

"I never thought of it that way," he says, hacking up a laugh. "I thought about getting through that sumbitch so I could go get a beer with the guys." Still absolute greatness.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky