When considering the evolution of sports journalism within the last 70 years, one can’t help to also consider the culture that has changed around sports journalism itself. The way people consume news and information on a daily basis has certainly changed. With the advent of social media and 24-hour news networks, the average human is bombarded with more news and information that they barely even know what to with. Yes, technology and the countless amounts of mediums to receive news has affected the modern news consumption patterns of many.
However, what has remained consistent in sportswriting is the understanding of the beauty in words and sentences to tell a story. At the thicket of all the technological innovations that has morphed and adapted the way that mass audiences receive sports journalism, the one thing that remains the same is the ability to tell a story. Within the last 70 or so years, athletic competitions and the stories that make them memorable are two of life’s guarantees accompanying oxygen. Every single year (barring strikes and lockouts), athletes, fans and sportswriters fill arenas around the world to participate in unscripted drama. It’s the job of athletes to compete at a high level in athletic events. It’s the job of the fans to exaggerate the line between life and death as they filter their passion for their team and players during an athletic event. And it’s the job of the sportswriter to author a story involving the event, create a memorable account of a certain place in time and make that account available to mass audiences for a long time to come.
In order to peer closer at how sportswriting may have or haven’t changed within the last 70 or so years, two stories nearly 70 years apart can be analyzed for their similarities and differences. At the core, the writing in Red Smith’s 1951 story on Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” home run and the writing in Zach Berman’s 2018 story on the improbable Super Bowl LII victory by the Philadelphia Eagles both capture the emotion and impact of an athletic event. Despite the gap in time, the effectiveness of storytelling by both authors shows how the beauty of storytelling can transcend both time and the adaptation of technology.
Before taking a look at Smith’s memorable account of the dramatic finish between the Giants and Dodgers in 1951, insight into why Smith’s account is so memorable can be given some context. In a 2014 lecture on sports journalism, sportswriter Frank Deford emphasizes the difference between reporting and storytelling within sports journalism. He basically considers Red Smith to be the pacesetter for storytelling in sportswriting being more significant than simply reporting and covering an athletic event.
When considering Deford’s praise of Smith and his mastery of both capturing a memorable moment in sports history and authoring a memorable story recounting that moment, there’s more of a significant lore around Smith’s piece.
To begin his account of Game 3 of the 1951 National League Pennant playoff series, Smith leads with one of the most memorable ledes in the history of sportswriting.
“Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”
When reading this, it’s hard to tell that it’s even a lede about a playoff baseball game. However, Smith acts as a composer with his written work being a symphony of historic delight over a specific moment in time. Because it’s not a typical lede for a baseball story, Smith catches the eye by drawing people in with blatant curiosity. This lede provides an air of mystery that forces readers to read on.
What follows Smith’s lede is an anecdote about a drunkard storming the field during this cross-river playoff matchup. By continuing to write not too much about RBI, hits and other baseball stats, Smith entertains the reader with detail that one couldn’t possibly have known unless they attended the now-late Polo Grounds in New York City. Despite this game being the first nationally televised baseball game, Smith gives a detail that adds substance to his account. There’s beauty in substance. Smith’s commitment to the beauty of words guides the reader to the impactful moment of Bobby Thomson’s home run.
By the time Smith mentions the moment readers came for, a broader context and a prelude to the moment can be understood by mass audiences. By writing in the largest moment later on, Smith knows that readers want to get there. So he incites readers to continue reading so that by the time they get to the home run, they’ve gotten to follow along a journey of why that moment is so important.
From an anecdote about the pre-mature storming of the field, to a minor tale about players interacting during the game and all the way to the impact of “The Shot Heard Round the World,” Red Smith gives readers an impactful and memorable account of this Giants victory for generations to come.
Similarly to Smith, Zach Berman draws in the wandering eye of modern readers with a hard-hitting lede in his account of Super Bowl LII.
“This night will be remembered for decades in Philadelphia, when old friends reminisce about where they were on Feb. 4, 2018, and parents tell their children about the moment the Eagles won their first Super Bowl. They’ll remember when Doug Pederson called the trick play at the goal line, when Zach Ertz dove into the end zone in the fourth quarter, when Brandon Graham stripped Tom Brady of the ball, and when the greatest dynasty in NFL history fell to an improbable champion from Philadelphia.”
With this lede, Berman creates an impactful allure of impossibility. Berman addresses that the impossible became possible on Feb. 4, 2018 and by grazing the surface of the key moments that made the impossible happen, Berman forces readers to continue reading his account.
As a note on the changes in sportswriting, Berman does give more of the “who, what, where, when, why and how” more early on. Knowing that audiences may not read as long as they used to, Berman put the thicket of the moment earlier on in his article in contrast to Smith saving Thomson’s home run to the end of his article. Berman writes in an era where anybody with a blog or Twitter account can write a story about this game. So, he has to draw readers in a slightly different way than Smith.
However, what would follow in Berman’s article doesn’t differ too much from Smith’s story. Berman authors in the impact that the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory has amongst the city of Philadelphia and the fans of the franchise. He gives readers context into how the improbability of the moment created a spectacle that night in Minnesota.
Even if you aren’t an Eagles fan, you understand the impact of the moment. I’m a Patriots fan. Reading this brought back painful memories from that night. Berman’s writing still instilled memories within me and made me understand the impact from Philly’s side of things. After explaining how the improbable and nearly impossible was accomplished by the Eagles, Berman guides readers through the game and brings up key moments in the game and even from the halftime performance. Berman, exactly like Smith, is married to authoring a memorable story that makes the memorable moment an impactful account that can span generations. Most importantly though, Berman’s storytelling in this article helps him fall into Deford’s class of sportswriters. He makes himself a master storyteller and not just a reporter.
Overall, these two sportswriters tell impactful stories that emphasize the beauty of specific moments through the use of beautiful words. Although Zach Berman’s story was written in a time where a plethora of people have access to writing and reading about the same exact moment in his story, he draws readers in by committing to the ideals of great sportswriting. Red Smith helped create those ideals by committing to the beauty of words to define a specific moment by writing stories within his story. Despite writing nearly 70 years apart, both Smith and Berman effectively write stories that emphasize the beauty of both sports and sportswriting.