Sports Writing 101: What Emmett Watson would have taught

Advice from Seattle's greatest newspaper columnist can be heeded by reading a new book.

Crosscut archive image.

Emmett Watson with Tiger (Josef Scaylea/HistoryLink)

Advice from Seattle's greatest newspaper columnist can be heeded by reading a new book.

"Read John Lardner."

Such were the four syllables Emmett Watson recited — without hesitation — to me at lunch one time during the 1970s. Watson, considered by many to be the region's greatest-ever columnist, had an office adjacent mine at the old P-I building. We would have lunch or a drink now and then, daunting occasions for me not just because Watson was so widely admired but because there often were unsettling quiet spells between when I spoke and he answered.

I had asked him if he could think of ways that an inexperienced twenty-ish scribe could improve my writing. Here again, "John Lardner" was his first (and as I recall only) suggestion.

Would that it hadn't taken so long for a publisher to get around to John Lardner (the first-name use is made necessary because most readers no doubt are far more familiar with his father, Ring Lardner). The correction has been made, courtesy of University of Nebraska Press, which recently released a splendid paperback, The John Lardner Reader, featuring about 50 of his niftiest columns and magazine articles.

The volume probably fell into my hands because Crosscut carried my piece greeting another Nebraska Press effort: Scoreboard, Baby, about University of Washington football transgressions of 10 years ago. If so, I hope the publisher keeps sending its efforts to Crosscut World Headquarters because Nebraska is now two for two.

Ring Lardner, possibly because of his great talent for fiction-writing, has a literary reputation eclipsing that of his most well-accomplished son. But this isn’t to diminish the work of the younger. It would be like, say, favoring Edgar Bergen’s artistry over that of daughter Candace because he could speak either while moving or not moving his lips.

Neither of the best-known members of the Lardner dynasty lived into their 50s. The elder was 48 when he died; John Lardner was just 46. That both amassed enviable bodies of work no doubt owes to the fact that each started very early amid the hurly burly of golden-era sports-writing.

The work in the current collection is largely from well-known publications ("The New Yorker") and some that either no longer exist ("True" magazine) or are barely alive now ("Newsweek").

What is perhaps most remarkable about John Lardner’s excellence is the fact that much of it was hammered out fast on machine-era contraptions called typewriters.  Those of us whose careers have spanned the Gutenberg and gigabyte eras know (or sense) that much of what our professional forebears wrote would be even better if they had been (as we are) able to tweak and edit right up to deadlines.

This is to suggest that a friendly editor might have excised some of the meandering passages in Lardner's lengthier creations. Few, though, might have been able to improve on frequent sequences.

In the opening selection, for example, Lardner supposedly is quoting an acquaintance when he recalls: "One of Bill Mizner's best bon mots was the one he uttered when he heard of (prize-fighter Stanley) Ketchel’s death: 'Tell 'em to start counting to 10 and he'll get up.' "

The reader could conclude that Lardner merely was transcribing. My guess is that he actually was "scribing," which is to say, improving upon (or maybe even inventing) one of the funniest quotes I've seen in a while.

Few would dispute that Lardner had a commanding use of the language, hearing the poetry and music as he mixed words.

In a piece about golfing great Walter Hagen, he tosses off: "The pros were, in the main, a dour, cautious, Scotsmanly lot." Many hailed as greatwriters couldn’t (well, wouldn't) put together such a phrase during the best days of their careers.

Only one among the failings of this effort is of much importance. The editors should have given the original publication dates of each piece. We know Lardner was productive from the Depression era until his death in 1958 but pub dates often can add context to works of journalism.

I also might have advised starting with a selection about a well-known character (the Hagen appreciation, say, or the piece featuring Jack Dempsey).

The third (perhaps most minor) objection is the choice of Dan Jenkins to submit a sort of tossed off foreword. Watson, who told me he considered Lardner a "mentor" (though they were, more accurately, contemporaries of comparable talent and experience) would have been better for a foreword had he not died a decade prior to the release of this volume.

Emmett’s four syllables were correct, in any case, at least where studying masterful sports-writing is concerned.

Five years ago I taught a UW spring-quarter elective about sports-writing and commentary. Much of the course incorporated the war stories of some of Seattle’s best professionals: Steve Kelley, Hugh Millen, Shannon Drayer, Dan Raley, and others, all of whom graciously shared their expertise with the often awe-struck students.

In retrospect, all of the above, upon perusing the current collection, might have agreed with me that there could have been an easier way to extend the education. We all could have just stood and said in unison:

"Read John Lardner."


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