AJR  Books
From AJR,   April 1994

The Most-Quoted Sportswriter of All Time   

Sportswriter: The Life and
Times of Grantland Rice

By Charles Fountain
Oxford University Press

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


Sportswriter: The Life and
Times of Grantland Rice
By Charles Fountain
Oxford University Press
328 pages; $25

Grantland Rice wasn't the first bad sportswriter, but he was the greatest. To countless descendants (myself included) who graduated into journalism through sports, Rice was an icon, and his extravagant style the model for our own, inevitably worse, rhapsodic prose.

As Charles Fountain points out, much of Rice's work was "saccharin rhyme and hero worship."

Yet Fountain, a writer and college professor, also calls Rice "the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John of American sport," the man who "fashioned our perceptions of what sportswriting should be — and our perceptions of what sports should be as well."

Indeed, Rice stands as an authentic legend, a scribbler who transcended the banalities of the genre to become a luminary of luminaries. His pals included Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon and Toots Shor. A football bowl was named for him. "This Is Your Life" featured him. And Red Smith once called him "the greatest man I have known."

The top-quoted sportswriter of all time, Rice wrote what may be the two most famous sports passages ever: his lead on the 1924 Notre Dame-Army game ("Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the four Horsemen rode again...") and his couplet forever enshrining the sports code ("..when the one Great Scorer comes to write against your name/He marks — not that you won or lost — but how you played the Game").

What explains his legend?

Perhaps, as Fountain writes, it had something to do with Rice's work habits and omnipresence on the sports scene for more than half a century. By Fountain's figures, Rice published more than 67 million words — an average of 10 to 15 typed pages a day for 53 years — in newspapers, a daily syndicated column, national magazines, and books of verse and prose. He did the first-ever World Series radio broadcast in 1922, hosted a weekly radio show, and owned a sports film company that won an Oscar.

In careful but dry detail, Fountain traces Rice's life and career beginning with his birth in 1880 to prosperous parents in Tennessee. Rice played his way through Vanderbilt (where as a 130-pound football end he managed to break an arm, a collar bone, a shoulder blade and four ribs), then joined the Nashville News for $5 a week. He worked in Atlanta and Cleveland before settling in New York as the country's best-paid, best-known sportswriter, earning as much per year as Babe Ruth.

Recognized for his kindness, he collected comrades, knew the stars of the day, from Ty Cobb to Babe Didrikson, and produced a steady flow of upbeat columns and poetry.

Unfortunately, Fountain quotes less of it than he might. But the cornball style comes through, as in this about Ruth: "I've seen a few I thought I could hit. /Who fed the crowd on four-base rations/But you, Babe, are the Only It — /The rest are merely imitations."

Fountain admires Rice, but is unsparing when necessary, noting in particular how Rice's work could reflect the racial insensitivity of the times.

The book also raises but doesn't successfully answer the question: Was Rice too upbeat? Fountain doesn't take a position or offer much evidence on the point. He does contrast Rice's "compassionate optimism" with the more cynical approaches of Lardner, Runyon and others. But we're left wondering whether Rice was simply a good-hearted enthusiast or a negligent reporter looking away from the untidy.

Fountain criticizes Rice's style more than his approach, concluding that the sentimentalized work would today "doom him to deserved obscurity at some weekly newspaper buried deep in the bowels of the Heartland."

But I wonder if it should.

Rice's writing might not have been clinically executed, but it had heart and soul. What set him apart seems to have been his true love of the game, his devotion to fair play, his sense of wonder, and his thrill at the chance to write about it all.

Two anecdotes, neither about sports, illustrate Rice's romantic idealism. Assigned to Stars and Stripes during World War I, he insisted instead on being posted to the front and served as an artillery lieutenant. Each Armistice Day for the rest of his career, he devoted his column to fallen colleagues.

After the war, he returned home to learn that a lawyer to whom he had entrusted his life savings had lost them in bad investments and committed suicide.

Rice, with the money left in his pocket, bought flowers for the lawyer's funeral.