When the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth's birth arrived last Feb. 6, the event was marked in most newspapers by interviews with Ruth's descendants or by a dry listing of the ballplayer's awesome statistics. The Washington Post chose instead to let columnist Shirley Povich recall the facts and fiction surrounding the Babe's career. And rather than speculate on whether Ruth "called his shot" in the 1932 World Series, Povich simply recounted the event as he had seen it—from the Wrigley Field press box, where he was covering the third game of the Series for the Post.
"I reread my account of it," Povich wrote, lest anyone doubt his memory. "There was no mention of a called shot."
Consider the case closed. Povich, who turned 90 on July 15, is nearly as monumental a figure in his profession as Ruth was in his. He is perhaps the last working link to the Golden Age of American sports. A former traveling companion of the legendary Red Smith, Povich has been with the Post for 72 years, from Dempsey-Tunney to Tyson-Spinks, from Ruth and Gehrig to Bonds and Griffey Jr. Povich once drove Walter Johnson down from the Hall of Famer's Maryland farm to see Bob Feller pitch at Washington's old Griffith Stadium. And as a spry 67-year-old at the Munich Olympics in '72, Povich sprinted past German policemen to secure a rooftop vantage point for his front-page story reporting that terrorists had taken 11 members of the Israeli team hostage.
Since joining the Post as a Georgetown freshman in 1922, Povich has covered 60 World Series, 20 Super Bowls and hundreds of golf tournaments and championship fights, and since his so-called retirement, in 1974, he has added some 500 columns to his oeuvre, which now comprises about 15,000. Fans of Povich's writing have included Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon (who said Povich was "the one person I read in the Post"), and Povich notes with pride his inclusion in the inaugural edition of Who's Who of American Women—where his biography stated that he was the husband of Ethyl and the father of Maury, David and Lynn.
"It's been a joyride," Povich says of the job that has taken him through the Depression and four wars—the first of which he covered from the front as a correspondent in the South Pacific during 1944 and '45. "I've written about genuine American heroes—Babe Ruth, Bill Tilden, Bobby Jones, all of them. And I've met wonderful people around the world. I've been blessed; I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't met Mr. McLean."
Mr. McLean was Edward B. McLean, the owner of the Post when it was struggling with a circulation of less than 50,000, which placed it fourth in a five-paper city. An avid golfer, McLean spent his summers in Bar Harbor, Maine, where Povich lived with his parents and eight siblings atop the family furniture store. When Shirley was a teenager McLean hired him as a caddie for two summers and then suggested he "come to Washington and work on my paper." The 17-year-old had never ridden on a train, left his home state or worn long pants, but he soon did all three on what he calls "the trip south to my future."
After a stopover in New York to see his first major league baseball game—a 1922 World Series contest between the New York Giants and Yankees that he viewed from Coogan's Bluff, which overlooked the Polo Grounds—Povich arrived in D.C. in early October. His first order of business was a trip to McLean's estate and golf course, where he got his initial brush with athletic celebrity, caddying for the new boss and his buddy President Warren Harding. Then it was on to the real job.
"At first I was a copyboy, then I moved over to the police beat," says Povich, who was drawing a $12 weekly paycheck while working late into the night and studying law at Georgetown. "There weren't many murders then; mostly bootlegger-busting. I was always hanging around the sports desk, and in 1924 I switched again." Povich's first byline came that summer—for a piece on the unexpectedly surging Washington Senators. "I was so excited, I ran downstairs to the makeup room just to run my hands over my name in cold type," he recalls.
When Povich helped with the Post's coverage of the World Series between the Senators and the Giants that fall, he was assigned a seat in the Griffith Stadium press box beside a "journalist" named George Herman Ruth. Because the Babe was suffering from appendicitis, his ghostwriter, Christy Walsh, was there instead, dictating to a telegraph operator words that would be wired throughout the country as the Babe's own: "As I lie here in Washington's Emergency Hospital, as a native New Yorker my heart is with the Giants, but as an American Leaguer it is my duty to root for the Senators."
In 1926, upon being named the youngest sports editor in the country of a metropolitan daily (just after his 21st birthday), Povich found that he had too much integrity and too little money to stoop to hiring ghostwriters. Instead he devised a credo that became his paper's battle cry at the height of the ghostwriting craze: Reach for the Post, Not a Ghost.