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As Long as We Remember...

April 19, 2013

Shirley Povich’s Clay Feet

Roy Meachum

Sports writer Shirley Povich became an idol while I was stationed at Fort Myer, and read his columns in The Washington Post. As readers know, my first post-Army job was at the newspaper. But the movie “42,” seen Tuesday, convinced me my marble idol had feet of clay.


A column (“Washington Redskins’ Name,” March 12) told how much I admired George Preston Marshall, the team’s founder. Shirley hated him. In the sports writer’s book, Mr. Marshall was guilty of racism and bigotry. Shirley’s tone dismissed him caustically. My point of view was less harsh.


In the days before the National Football League expanded in the South, Mr. Marshall had a network of television and radio stations; this was pre-integration. Being from segregated New Orleans, I understood, but was still uncomfortable with his business decision. I let Shirley rave, without pointing out that the owner’s qualities. (By the way, in all my writings I refer to people by what I called them.)


The movie this week convinced me that not of all Shirley’s views on people were accurate.


The screenplay deals with the 1947 integration of Major League Baseball by Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The film brought millions more at the box-office than any baseball movie; not far behind “The Blind Side,” which I consider a Sandra Bullock vehicle. “42” is a vehicle for no one. Any tendency to give it to Harrison Ford, as “Mr. Rickey,” gets blown out of the water by Chadwick Boseman’s Jackie Robinson’s performance and the script.


Brian Helgeland has created and directed the perfect movie on baseball, which readers may recall I found boring as played by the New Orleans Pelicans and the Washington Senators. Mr. Helgeland’s story takes the African-American player to triumph in the National League, guided all the way by Mr. Ford’s Branch Rickey. I recommend the film highly.


While on Washington Post assignment, I met Mr. Rickey at the National Museum of Art. As any non-sports journalist, I was fascinated by the same story told in the movie. For him, meeting a reporter made red meat because I had no idea of the accomplishment. I knew about Jackie Robinson’s baseball integration but had a vague idea of the Dodgers’ owner’s role. I was excited, thought I had a sure-fire item for the desk.


When the paper was at 1515 L Street N.W., the usual route to the newsroom where sat the editors, was through the sports department. Very excited and youthful bubbly, I passed by Shirley’s desk and let him in on the story.


Instead of cheering me on, despite our differences on Mr. Marshall, I was blown out of the water by my idol’s harsh words and belligerent tone. He blasted Branch Rickey, for doing the opposite of the Redskins’ founder, integrating baseball for his pocketbook. I was confused by the difference, which I didn’t see. Mr. Rickey was in the opposite corner of George P. Marshall, but still condemned by Shirley.


The last time I heard from my former idol, I was covering the Washington Post’s pressman strike, which had been engineered by the management seeking higher profits. Shirley called me in the TV newsroom, asking that I let up on my reporting. Much of his retirement was in Post stocks. I bashed away, as Managing Editor Al Friendly and City Editor Ben Gilbert trained me. Anyway.


See “42.” I think you will be convinced of Mr. Rickey’s motivation as Brian Helgeland wrote it and Harrison Ford read it. I was.


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