The death, at 96, of William (Blackie) Sherrod signals the end of an era, when the sports columnist drove public opinion to an extent that all the talking heads of television and golden throats of radio, combined, could not do.
If you lived in Dallas, or maybe even if you didn’t, you may have known that what Blackie said about the Cowboys was far more significant than what Tom Landry, or anybody else, said about them.
Sherrod was well aware of his importance.
One Saturday afternoon, as a sportswriter for The Daily Texan student newspaper, I was one of several nonentities drinking free beer and hobnobbing in the press lounge as we awaited the arrival of Darrell Royal to answer for the latest Longhorn triumph.
In strides Sherrod, in his trademark khaki safari jacket full of big pockets. He picks up a phone, dials a number and says, not very softly, “Nobody’s here yet.”
Then he puts the phone down and sheepishly says to me, “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”
I did not know him very well – and never would — but had chatted with him briefly at several sporting events. He was quite approachable and usually gregarious. I tried to be around him whenever possible.
There was nobody I was more aware of. With his finely chiseled face and thick pompadour he was a dominating presence, even when he wasn’t present.
I never heard him called anything but Blackie, a nickname he acquired as a teenager because of his ever-tanned complexion. He was said to be part Comanche.
Although he had an air of superiority, which was thoroughly justified, Sherrod was also famous for minimizing himself. One time, after another Saturday afternoon game, a sportswriter from the northeast was gathering information about the Longhorns. “Blackie,” he said, “weren’t you the first to call Royal’s offense the Wishbone?”
Sherrod winced. “I was not the first. Mickey Herskowitz was the first. I coulda killed him!” He paused a couple of beats, and then he smiled.
In those days – the Seventies – a columnist like Sherrod or Herskowitz would have a local following far beyond what anyone could muster today. There are so many more opinion-makers, so many more outlets of opinion. Now, with social media, everyone’s a columnist.
Living on the Gulf coast, I thought I was the luckiest eighth-grader in the world, able to start the day with Herskowitz in the Houston Post, then to dash from school at 4 p.m. to a newspaper box with Wells Twombly of the Chronicle. And usually, if I was lucky, I could find a box or a convenience store with the Dallas Times-Herald and Sherrod.
That’s where most of my allowance went, dimes to buy newspapers so I could read the great columnists.
And I met people from Dallas who loved Sherrod the way I pursued Herskowitz and Twombly. I heard this more than once: “Blackie is why I spend my dime.”
Sherrod was the funniest sports columnist east of Jim Murray, who held forth at the LA Times. I was amazed at how Blackie combined folksiness with erudition. He’d write jokes that began: “My neighbor Jones sez. . . ” He’d churn out similes like “Wilt playing basketball is like the Grand Canyon playing ditch.”
When I began working for the Atlanta Journal, one of the editors there asked me, “Is Blackie Sherrod the Furman Bisher of Texas?”
I answered, “I guess you could say that, because he has the same sort of massive following in Texas that Bisher has in Georgia.”
Like Sherrod, Bisher was a master of metaphor. John Drew stood at the line “as loose as a bucket of ashes.”
In those days a revered columnist such as Sherrod or Bisher had almost total creative freedom. Bisher would strut into the office and tell the executive sports editor, “I’m going to San Francisco to cover the Braves’ series.” And with nothing more said, he was out the door.
Rarely did anyone tell Bisher or Sherrod where to go and what to write about. Nobody cared that much if they were politically correct, which all too often they were not.
Blackie sometimes wrote in African-American dialect, albeit knowingly. Bisher was prone to more wicked racism. A column on the meticulous Seve Ballesteros referred to “the spic-and-Spaniard.”
But by the mid-Seventies the sports pages were being directed not by the great writers like Bisher or Sherrod or Herskowitz, but by page designers. How the section read was not nearly as important as how it looked. One of my sports editors in Atlanta said: “Writers are a dime a dozen. It’s the line-drawers that are hard to find.”
Whereas Blackie, Mickey and Furman wrote with insight, grace and humor, the new breed of sports editor cared little for that, least of all humor that might offend someone, as most humor does. Not to sound like Donald Trump, but newspapers in the Nineties did OD on political correctness.
When I worked for the Chronicle, I was told to transform the grammar of black athletes so they sounded white. This policy resulted in stories that made 19-year-olds from Mississippi sound like Harvard grads. But nobody complained about that, so the editors were happy.
I saw the last gasps of columnists being themselves, taking initiative or being truly creative. Inevitably they were told what to cover, whom to interview and often times what viewpoint to take. A columnist in New York told me: “This job is nothing like I envisioned it. All I am is a glorified game-story writer.”
There are many reasons why the newspaper business has faded. But one of them is that newspapers stopped caring if they had a Sherrod or a Bisher or a (thankfully still alive) Herskowitz. They never marketed them worth a damn, never realized how valuable they were. And what’s so sad is there won’t be any more of them.