EDWIN POPE DIES AT 88 — There are some stories that I never wanted to write, and this is one of them.
One of the finest and most iconic of American sports writers, longtime Miami Herald columnist Edwin Pope, was 88 when cancer claimed him the evening of Jan. 19, with his family by his side, in Okeechobee, Fla. Mr. Pope – briefly a colleague of mine, when I was on the Herald’s sports staff in 1970 — had been in ill health for several years. But even after I moved on from Miami to jobs at other newspapers, we would on occasion amicably cross paths, in the press box for a football game or, more likely, at ringside for a major boxing event. A former boxer during his college days at the University of Georgia, Mr. Pope recalled making “hundreds” of trips to Miami Beach’s famous 5th Street Gym, where he developed close relationships with Muhammad Ali and Angelo Dundee, both of whom, sadly, are also now gone.
“I loved boxing because I boxed in college and grew up on boxing listening to Joe Louis on the radio. I was fascinated and enchanted by it. (But) never did I ever want to be anything else (than a sports writer) from the time I was 11 years old, except the brief time in college at Georgia when I wanted to be a fighter,” Mr. Pope – I knew him too little on a personal level, and respected him too much in a professional sense, to have the temerity to address him by his first name – said some years ago.
Although Mr. Pope did not focus on the sweet science often enough to be primarily classified as a “boxing writer,” when he did, his work was so exquisite that he deservedly if somewhat belatedly was the co-recipient, along with former Sports Illustrated senior writer William Nack, of the A.J. Liebling Award for Outstanding Boxing Writing at the 82nd Boxing Writers Association of America Awards Dinner in 2004. I consider it one of the highlights of my tenure as president of the BWAA that I successfully championed his candidacy for the Liebling. But make no mistake, Mr. Pope did not receive that prestigious award because of my endorsement; he got it strictly on merit.
I know what some of you are thinking, if you have managed to make it through the first three paragraphs of another of my tributes to the dearly departed. Who really cares about the authorship of the stories about our favorite sport? Boxing is first and foremost about fights and fighters, and that is undoubtedly true. But it is also about fights and writers, who serve as the conduits that allow the public to look beyond the obvious and get a sense of things that only the most discerning eyes ever get to see, and then convert that insight into well-crafted prose. The best of the best do so with fairness and equanimity, which sometimes is easier said than done.
“I had the ax, I held the gun. I didn’t want to fire it randomly,” Mr. Pope said of the responsibility he felt whenever he sat down to write. “I always wanted to be fair, even to people who didn’t deserve it.”
The true giants of my profession, never that numerous in any case, have become an even more exclusive fraternity with Mr. Pope’s passing. My first sports writing role model, longtime New Orleans columnist Peter Finney (who received the Liebling in 2012), was 88 when he died on Aug. 13, 2016. I first met Pete when I was 16, the summer before my senior year of high school, when I had the good fortune to be hired as a minimum-wage copy boy at The Times-Picayune, also getting my first bylines in a real newspaper for covering American Legion baseball games. When my hero-worshiping younger self told Pete – who became a friend of long-standing – that I wanted to be just like him, he offered advice that I have always tried to follow, and have passed along to younger writers who over time have come to consider me something of an elder statesman. “Find your own voice,” he said, “and your own style.”
Edwin Pope, in Miami, and Peter Finney, in New Orleans, were as identifiable, and probably more so, than the most heralded athletes ever to have starred in those cities, if for no other reason than the fact that their incredible longevity matched their talent. Mr. Pope became sports editor of his hometown Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald at the impossibly young age of 15, mostly but maybe not entirely because, as he noted, “every able-bodied man was in the service” during World War II. Pete Finney began writing for the then-New Orleans States in high school, the beginning of an illustrious 68-year career.
Clearly, these men and others of their ilk were not late bloomers. They were blessed with their gift at an early age, and, upon recognizing it, had no choice but to happily follow their destiny.
“Peter was generous as a mentor to his colleagues,” former Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss said of Finney. “He had an eye for what was interesting and a voice that was distinctive and irresistible. Even if you weren’t a New Orleans sports fan, you read Pete for his take on what mattered in our world.”
It is a familiar tale of sustained excellence played out by other dedicated men in other towns: Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, who was 79 when he died in 1998; Shirley Povich of the Washington Post, who was 92 when he died in 1998; Blackie Sherrod of the Dallas Morning News, who was 96 when he died in 2016; Stan Hochman of my paper, the Philadelphia Daily News, who was 86 when he died in 2015. Other writers might have assumed their duties, but, really, all were irreplaceable, in the same manner that a Sugar Ray Robinson or an Ali is irreplaceable.
So let me take this opportunity to acknowledge my appreciation for some of the remaining members of an emperors’ club who have helped shape my career in ways both great and small: my dear friend Jerry Izenberg, 86, columnist emeritus for the Newark Star-Ledger, whose latest book, Once They Were Giants: The Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing will soon be in bookstores, and New York Times columnist Dave Anderson, also 86, who won the Pulitzer Prize for “distinguished commentary on sporting events” in 1981. Both have been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observer category.
Regardless of the line of work any of us are in, we all compete. We all seek to become the best that we can be. As I approach the figurative championship rounds of my own 47-year career in sports journalism, I know that I have been fortunate to have stood in the shadow of such sports writing legends as Peter Finney, Edwin Pope, Jerry Izenberg and Stan Hochman, as well as to still go head-to-head with the formidable likes of Thomas Hauser, Ron Borges, Springs Toledo and others. One thing all of the aforementioned had or have in common: they always held firm to the belief that their next story would be better than the one that preceded it, and that the status quo is never quite good enough for those who continually strive for perfection and realize it is always just beyond their grasp.
Sadly, Edwin Pope is likely not the last fighter, writer or other boxing notable whose life I will be obliged to commemorate for The Sweet Science. In 2016, I tried to find the right words to say goodbye to Muhammad Ali, Aaron Pryor, Alex Stewart, Jack Obermayer and Richie Giachetti. Similar farewells were extended in 2015 to Howard Davis Jr., Izzy Burgos, Tony Ayala Jr. and Gene Fullmer; in 2014 to Ed Derian, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and Jose Sulaiman; in 2013 to Tommy Morrison, Craig Bodzianowski and Carl “The Truth” Williams; in 2012 to Hector Camacho and Emanuel Steward; in 2009 to Arturo Gatti, Jackie Tonawanda and Ingemar Johansson, and in 2008 to Joey Giardello and Toby Gibson.
All of those stories were worth telling, and my fervent hope is that I have done them justice.
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