It’s time to re-evaluate a sportswriting classic.
By Coke Ellington
Ellington teaches journalism at Alabama State University.
Picture this. You're teaching a journalism course and one of your students turns in a sports story that leads with an allusion to Jewish and Christian eschatology.
The writer uses a simile that first makes one of the teams a cyclone sweeping the other off a precipice. Then the cyclonic team becomes a tank with the speed of a motorcycle. It seems the "four whirlwind backs..carry the mixed blood of the tiger and the antelope." The winning team's line "was just about as tottering as the Rock of Gibraltar."
One of the winning team's backs "traveled those last 12 yards after the manner of food shot from guns."
As you read the student's story, you notice a dozen players and two coaches given only a surname on first reference, although two of them subsequently gain first names.
Objectivity? Forget about it. A backfield is "one of the greatest..that ever churned up the gridiron in any football age." "One of the best of all punters" kicks out of bounds and a "brilliant fake works to perfection."
After reading all that, what would you tell the student?
A. "Quit mangling metaphors, take your opinions out and put in the 12 missing first names." Or, B. "This is great. You write just like Grantland Rice."
Yes, in case you hadn't guessed already, the story described here is Rice's famous 1924 Four Horsemen saga from the New York Herald Tribune, with one of the best-known leads in sports-writing history. For the record, Notre Dame beat Army, 13–7.
For more than the half-century since his death, Rice has been considered one of the greatest sportswriters of all time. I won't argue that point; I'm merely criticizing a single overrated story.
That 1924 lead is far from Rice's only claim to fame. He's credited with dubbing the great Red Grange, a University of Illinois and Chicago Bears halfback, the "Galloping Ghost" and is justifiably acclaimed for this couplet from a poem called "Alumnus Football":
"When the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,
He writes, not that you won or lost, but how you played the Game."
The prolific Rice wrote six books of poetry and eight of prose. "The Best of Grantland Rice" was issued posthumously in 1963. A School Library Journal review of a 1993 biography, "Sportswriter: The Life and Times of Grantland Rice," called him the "best-known sportswriter in the U.S. for 40 years."
"Grantland Rice (1880–1954) was arguably the best and certainly the most famous sportswriter of his time," wrote a Publisher's Weekly reviewer who presumably had studied Rice's writing far more than I have. The reviewer added: "Rice's style was florid, he was a hero-worshipper and he was addicted to writing sentimental doggerel, of which he was inordinately proud, but these stylistic elements were prized by his fans."
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse lead is unquestionably well-known, but is it truly "a sports- writing classic," as it's described in one textbook? I think not.
The first four sentences of the lead:
"Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden."
The rest of the paragraph says: "They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below."
Isn't identifying people properly one of the most basic rules of journalism? "Refer to both men and women by first and
last name" is the simple advice of the Associated Press Stylebook. Most textbooks seem to take it for granted that writers know that.
The story does not improve greatly after the lead. Let's look at some of the other writing issues raised by this story.
Metaphors--Waring and Cuisinart would be impressed by Rice's mixing ability. What was Notre Dame: A cyclone, a tank, a wild jungle creature, a tornado or a howitzer? Incidentally, BaseballLibrary.com's item on "Grantland Rice: Dean of American Sports Writers," says, "In his most famous lead, he gave immortality to a quartet of merely above-average football players."
Geography--The story repeatedly refers to Notre Dame's team as "Western." Even in 1924, it seems that South Bend, Indiana, would have been considered Midwestern. We're not talking about pioneer days here. Arizona had become the 48th state in 1912.
Objectivity--In the penultimate paragraph Rice editorializes: "We doubt that any team in the country could have beaten" the "great football team brilliantly directed." Granted, sportswriting isn't held to as strict a standard as newswriting, but the examples from this story seem to be pushing the envelope pretty far, at least by the standards of the past 40 years.
Rice's famous lead will mark its 80th anniversary this fall. Maybe it's time to retire this story from the history books and find a better example to take its place.