A sportswriting giant: ‘The last of his kind’

If you love reading about sportswriters of another era, New York writer Alex Belth is a real treat. On his multifaceted Bronx Banter blog he recently interviewed sports columnist and Hollywood screenwriter John Schulian and has been reprinting manuscripts of articles from another legend, W.C. Heinz.

For Deadspin, Belth has penned this enormously robust remembrance of the enormously talented and unforgettable sportswriter George Kimball, who died last summer:

“Hunter Thompson lobbied Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, to hire George, who had been writing freelance music reviews. In a letter to George, Thompson wrote, ‘I want Wenner to have the experience of dealing with someone more demonstrably crazy than I am—so that he’ll understand that I am, in context, a very reasonable person.’ “

You buy the ticket, you take the ride, indeed.

“He drank, he smoked, he ate sticks of butter with mashed potatoes in a river of ketchup, slept in a coffin over McSorley’s tavern, and fretted that he’d never written a meaningful book.

The latter haunts over this splendid retelling of Kimball’s life, and the speculation continues over whether his bad habits prevented that book from crystallizing. Kimball collaborated with Schulian on an anthology of American boxing writing, At the Fights, that Belth says “cemented his legacy:”

“Here was a chance to show that he belonged in the same collection as Mencken, Liebling, and Mailer. He wasn’t leaving it for fate or history to decide. He would anthologize himself. He would help select America’s finest boxing writing, and he would put himself in there, too, alongside Hamill and Schulberg and W.C. Heinz. If he wasn’t going to be elected to a hall of fame, well, fuck it—he would build one himself, right over his head.”

It would be tempting to read this and further bemoan the current state of sports journalism, with its racehorse emphasis on scoops, speculation and instant analysis. But this has always been the case, and there is plenty of great reporting, writing and commentary out there that is being revived online and recalled on sites like Bronx Banter that’s a subject for another post.

What’s new is the multiplatform punditry, the warp speed of 24/7 news, “confirming” stories others have reported, stupefying chatter about Tim Tebow’s Christianity and slovenly attire that is being countered with a dress code policy.

Although he came along after the age of television, Kimball reveled in the earthy grit of the sports and celebrity world of his time, and the story Belth weaves about his oversized life is well worth the read. In an age of preening, blow-dried blowhards, being reminded of the utter humanity of a complicated, gifted creature is a welcome departure.

Belth, who also writes for SI.com, has written a biography of Curt Flood and worked in the film industry, was interviewed earlier this year by baseball writer and sabermetrician Jonah Keri.

There’s a guacamole recipe in there too.

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