The column "This Morning with Shirley Povich" first appeared around the same time, and six days a week for the next 45 years (except when Povich was overseas), it was a left-side fixture on the front page of the Post sports section. Holding his columns to approximately 900 words, Povich wrote "what I felt I would want to read," he says, and he always followed the same pattern. "I asked myself two questions when I woke up: What day is it? And, What the hell should I write about?"
For nearly 20 years Povich handled the arduous task of covering the Senators regularly while also writing his column and serving as sports editor, but he has only wonderful memories of what is now fondly remembered as the Train Era. Baseball reporters traveled from city to city in railroad cars in which they slept and dined alongside the players they covered. They would write en route to St. Louis, Chicago or Boston and then hand off stories to the Western Union operators who manned the stations along the way. The style and wit Povich developed on these trips has held up over seven decades, earning him recognition in the library of the Baseball Hall of Fame and a role in Ken Burns's documentary tribute to the sport. At a Washington dinner hosted by the Anti-Defamation League this summer to honor Povich's lifetime battle against injustice, Burns recited the leads to many of Povich's most memorable baseball stories:
NEW YORK, Oct. 8 —The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. Don Larsen today pitched a no-hit, no-run, no-man-reach-first game in a World Series.
NEW YORK, Oct. 4 —Please don't interrupt, because you haven't heard this one before. Brooklyn Dodgers, champions of the baseball world. Honest.
NEW YORK, Oct. 3 —Hollywood's most imaginative writers on an opium jag could not have scripted a more improbable windup of the season that started in April and had its finish today in the triumph of Bobby Thomson and the Giants.
Into the last blur of white hat came plateward out of he pitching fist of Brooklyn's Ralph Branca was impressed the destiny of he two clubs that had battled for six months to get to today's decision. Before Thomson swung, it was the Dodgers winning the pennant. A split second later, he Dodgers were dead and the Giants had it.
In the days before the Post prospered, Povich was often the paper's lone calling card in the fight for respect. The old joke goes that when Eugene Meyer purchased the bankrupt daily for $825,000 at a public auction on June 1, 1933, Povich was all Meyer got for his money. Current Post owner Katherine Graham says Povich alone is "responsible for one third of our readership," and Povich jokes about the penny-pinching days when he paid his own way to events and needed permission to make a phone call to Philadelphia. Sports has since become big business, and during Povich's years with the Post, its daily circulation has grown to more than 850,000.
"He's a bulldog on a story, but a sweetheart of a man," says sports editor Ed Pope of the Miami Herald, who was a reporter for 50-odd years and still recalls his first meeting with Povich, at the 1950 Sugar Bowl. "I was walking down a corridor of the old St. Charles Hotel," Pope says, "and I saw him through an open door. There was my idol, the first and only sportswriter I've ever seen reading Marcel Proust." Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, who watched the Munich tragedy unfold while he crouched beside Povich, offers similar praise. "Guys like Shirley made sports what they are today," he says. "Ballplayers wouldn't be making $7 million if not for his eloquence."
Povich, who golfed with Mickey Mantle and Sam Snead (he once outdrove Slammin' Sam in a pro-am), earned a seat beside Red Smith at a front table at Toots Shor's in New York. Like Smith he was a student of the classics, and he read poetry from the Saturday Review to his family and strove to make each word of his own copy powerful. "If they don't know what it's about, that gives me three paragraphs to hook them," he said of his decision never to run headlines over his columns. He usually delivered with room to spare.
"I saw young men weep this afternoon, expressionless umpires swallow hard and emotion pump the hearts and glaze the eyes of 60,000 baseball fans in Yankee Stadium," Povich's account of Lou Gehrig Day, July 4, 1939, began. "Yes, and hard-boiled news photographers clicked their shutters with fingers that trembled a bit." Because he described action himself instead of filling stories with quotes or anecdotes from others, Povich was often in front of his typewriter when the stadium lights went out, with only a telegrapher for company.