When hearing the news this week that he had been awarded the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing, Dave Anderson said, “I’d put that right on the same level as the Pulitzer Prize.”
Anderson, a columnist for The New York Times and a Golf Digest contributor, did win a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1981. Indeed, Anderson, whose Times column began in 1971, is one of three sports columnists to earn that distinction (Red Smith, Jim Murray).
It’s an honor that has historically overlooked the world of sports. The last true sports-related Pulitzer winner went George Dohrmann, then of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press, in 2000 for his coverage of academic fraud in the University of Minnesota men’s basketball program.
To address what might be called the Toy Department Syndrome, PEN/ESPN awards were begun in 2011, and recipients are also awarded a $5,000 cash prize.
PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing goes to ESPN.com investigative reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada for their book “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth.” (Dohrmann, now of Sports Illustrated, was this category’s initial winner.)
Anderson joins Roger Angell (honored last week at the Baseball Hall of Fame), Dan Jenkins and Frank Deford as Lifetime Achievement recipients. In explaining its choice, the PEN/ESPN jury of Kostya Kennedy, David Rosenthal and John Schulian praised Anderson for “quiet dignity and a true craftsman’s regard for the language” in a more than half-century career:
“You didn’t read him for bombast or half-cocked opinion. You read him because, quite simply, he knew whereof he wrote. . . . His integrity never wavered, his grace never disappeared on deadline, and his readers never got cheated. That’s the way pros operate, and Dave Anderson was the ultimate pro.”
In an interview with the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism, Anderson bemoaned some of the changes in the business:
“The big difference today is the writing. Too many sports columnists today are actors. They have to be on radio and television, so something has to suffer. Back then, the writing was what counted. Sports columnists were special and that doesn’t exist anymore. The nicest thing anyone ever said to me was, ‘you taught me to read.’ Sports is a different world now.”
Anderson formally retired from the Times in 2007 but continues to write an occasional “Sports of the Times” column. He is the author of 21 books, some of them collections of his newspaper and magazine work.
Here’s “The Food on a Table at the Execution,” published Nov. 22, 1980, part of the collection of Anderson columns submitted for Pulitzer consideration. It’s about George Steinbrenner and how Dick Howser came to be an ex-Yankees manager. The Boss had his version of the story; Anderson uncovers the shading:
“Dick has decided. That would be the premise of George Steinbrenner’s explanation. Dick has decided. Ostensibly he suddenly decided to go into real estate development in Tallahassee, Fla., and be the supervisor of Yankee scouts in the Southeast after having been the manager for the Yankee team that won 103 games last season, after having been in baseball virtually all his life as a major league infielder, major league coach, college coach and major league manager of baseball’s most famous franchise.
“But baseball’s most famous franchise also has baseball’s most demanding owner. When the Yankees were swept in three games by the Kansas City Royals in the American League championship series, George Steinbrenner steamed. And now Dick Howser is in real estate and is a Yankee scouting supervisor.”
“League of Denial” was a source of controversy just as the book by Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada — who are brothers — was being published last fall. It formed the basis of a PBS Frontline program of the same name (you can watch it here), and the authors were extensively interviewed for the program. But right before the October air date, ESPN, their employer, controversially withdrew its name and logo from the project, most likely under pressure from the NFL, which has been heavily criticized for its handling of concussions and brain trauma.
Richard Sandomir noted in The New York Times that “while ESPN could strike its name from ‘League of Denial,’ it could not make the brothers disappear.”
* * * * * * * *
The contributors to the 2014 edition of Best American Sports Writing were announced Friday on editor Glenn Stout’s website, with publication set for Oct. 7. The choices were made by guest editor Christopher MacDougall, author of the acclaimed “Born to Run,” about the barefoot distance runners of the Tarahumara native tribe of Mexico.
The authors include some of the lions of literary sports journalism: Charles Pierce, Jonathan Mahler, Chris Jones, Ben McGrath and Don Van Natta Jr., as well as younger contributors Eli Saslow, Amanda Hess and Jay Caspian Kang.
Among MacDougall’s other selections is an article I noted in my post last year on the PEN/ESPN Awards by Jeremy Markovich. “Elegy of a Race Car Driver,” published at SB Nation Longform, details the demise of NASCAR legend Dick Trickle and it is a worthy inclusion.
Stout, who has been the BASW series editor since the book began publication in the early 1990s, also is the editor of the excellent SB Nation Longform, which published another 2014 selection, “20 Minutes at Rucker Park,” by Flinder Boyd. It’s about a street basketball player’s quest to compete at New York City’s famed hoops playground.
In his post today, Stout noted that he “blindly” sends 75 submitted stories to the guest editor each year, from files that are “not identified by either author or source.” The guest editor, he says, can choose other stories for the volume. Stout’s disclaimer in full is here, near the bottom of the link.