Lovers of sports, writing, and especially sportswriting were saddened to hear the not unexpected news last week that columnist Thomas (Boz) Boswell, was retiring at the age of 73, after 52 years at the Washington Post. As one appreciative writer put it, “If your favorite team won or you have a cherished World Series memory, Boswell was probably there and wrote about it better than anybody.”
As always, this Weekly Reader features links to recent articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. This one is my all-in appreciation for the work of Thomas Boswell. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.
“I always assumed that good sportswriting was just good writing, and I still do,” Boswell said in his induction speech into the National Sports Media Hall of Fame. He was sometimes criticized by those who see sports — and especially baseball — as all numbers. But Boswell had the last laugh in one of his all-time great columns: Nationals’ spirit triumphed over Astros’ numbers in the World Series.
“HOUSTON — Pay attention to the Washington Nationals’ victory parade Saturday. Make sure those who ride in those cars and sit on that stage appear young and hearty.“
“Because if instead Anthony Rendon, Howie Kendrick, Juan Soto, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and 20 others appear to be elderly men, we will know they truly sold their souls to pull off this once-in-a-century triumph.
Yes, they did it again. The unbelievable, late-game-dancing, break-their-foes-hearts Nationals did it again.
Washington has a World Series champion for the first time in 95 years after a 6-2 Game 7 win over the utterly stunned, disbelieving 107-win Houston Astros here Wednesday night, and the only explanations seem to be baseball miracles or deals with the devil.“
Then Boswell goes in for the kill.
This time, as if to show that the deeds of these Nats truly are once-per-century stuff, the game-transforming blow was a two-run home run sliced off the right field foul pole by Kendrick, the same 36-year-old gentleman whose grand slam extinguished the season of the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series two weeks ago.
Two teams whose brilliant thinkers believe players of his age are dinosaurs on the edge of extinction have been pushed into a tar pit by Howie.“
What baseball writer thinks of dinosaurs and tar pits when his home town team just won the World Series? One that is prepared. One who gives uncommon care and thought to his work.
Barry Svrluga is part of the smart group of sports columnists that the Post has attracted through the years. On Sunday, he wrote an appreciation of Boswell, his hero, that included the following story.
“His columns, even those that delved deep into numbers, weren’t mechanical. They were lyrical. Again, that’s ability — but only partly. At the 2013 World Series, I came back up from the field to our seats in the Fenway Park press box before Game 6. Boz wasn’t there, but his tools remained — his laptop, notebooks, game notes and a ragtag paperback. I’m still not sure I should admit this, but I will: I peeked. It was a dog-eared copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals, with various passages underlined — some in red, some in blue, some in both.
When Boz returned to his seat, I asked him, essentially, “What gives?”
“Oh,” he said. “Emerson’s poetry isn’t worth much, but his prose is great.”
He wanted, he said, to be in the right frame of mind to write that night’s column. There is uncommon care and thought in that process.
The Red Sox could win the series that night; indeed, they would. Boz knew that a series-clinching column could be the one to remember — not for him but for the reader. The column that might be framed as a keepsake. The column that might be read and read again to relive the moment. He had to be at his best so his words could be the best they could be.
I had read Thomas Boswell off-and-on for years, but the column that was my keepsake, the one that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go, was a piece he did for the Washington Post Magazine in January of 1987. I still have the original packed away in a memory box. The column was WHY IS BASEBALL SO MUCH BETTER THAN FOOTBALL? It begins with “Here are the first 99 reasons why baseball is better than football. (More after lunch.)”
I’ve quoted and linked to this story so many times, such as when I wrote about 10 reasons Super Bowl 48 will be my last… Let’s look at a few of the reasons baseball is the superior game:
2. Half time with bands.
3. Cheerleaders at half time with bands.…
12. Vince Lombardi was never ashamed that he said, ‘Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.’
13. Football coaches talk about character, gut checks, intensity and reckless abandon. Tommy Lasorda said, ‘Managing is like holding a dove in your hand. Squeeze too hard and you kill it; not hard enough and it flies away.’…
23. Everything George Carlin said in his famous monologue is right on. In football you blitz, bomb, spear, shiver, march and score. In baseball, you wait for a walk, take your stretch, toe the rubber, tap your spikes, play ball and run home.”
I could go on and on.
Boswell wrote about teams other than the Washington Nationals, of course. For many years he was the Baltimore Orioles beat writer for the Post, when the nation’s capital was going through its three-decade drought of major league baseball. There are some delicious columns out there featuring Cal Ripken, Jim Palmer, and — most of all — Earl Weaver. Some of the best of that early writing can be found in his books, including 1982’s How Life Imitates the World Series. The first chapter’s title — This Ain’t a Football Game. We Do This Every Day. — is a quote from Weaver.
He also covered every World Series game from the famous 1975 Carlton Fisk “stay fair” home run until last year, when he missed his first Series due to the coronavirus. None of those columns were any better than the one he wrote after the Red Sox won a “doubleheader” in the League Championship Series against the hated Yankees in 2004 entitled October’s Great Boston Marathon.
“Twice on the same day, with the pennant sitting squarely on their plate, the Yankees handed the ball to their central heroic protagonist of the past nine seasons, reliever Mariano Rivera. Of all Manager Joe Torre’s worthies, none — not Derek Jeter or Bernie Williams — has matched Rivera’s October value. And twice, the mighty and usually perfect Panamanian blew those saves. Both times his flaws were almost minuscule. The second squandered lead was barely his fault. But the Red Sox had just enough.”
Boswell also covered other Washington and national sports for the Post. His column when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018 was another classic: For Capitals and their fans, tears of joy replace years of frustration.
“Please, can we have a deserved resolution to an old ache? Can we, at last, expunge the Caps’ ugly, only partially deserved reputation as gifted, inexplicable chokers? And can we replace it with an image of undiluted joy?
Or, if you prefer, a memory of a gray-haired, gloriously relieved Ovechkin, beaming at thousands of Caps fans who roared throughout this game, who will now always be remembered as a champion.“
And his appreciation for Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson upon his death — John Thompson bent the world to his vision. The world was better for it — is another column that could have been written by no one else but Boz.
“But there were almost as many Big Johns as there were days. Once, my mom said she had enjoyed her late-night talks with that deep-voiced coach who had returned my calls. They had talked about child rearing and any old thing. Which coach? ‘John Thompson,’ she said.
‘Those farm girls are wise,’ Thompson informed me, referring to my mother.“
Boswell has been recognized for years as one of the deans of American sportswriting. His induction speech into the Hall of Fame contains so many classic Boz lines that I encourage you to watch the entire video. Early on, he recognizes where he comes from…
“I graduated from Amherst College with a degree in English Literature, the great refuge of the undecided.”
And then, at the end of the speech, he knows what good writing — on sports or any other subject — actually uncovers:
“Athletes cross the same range of human virtue and vice as the rest of us, the whole range. So over the years, the way you view athletes, the way you see all of sports, will come across in your stories and columns. And it will unintentionally reveal how you feel…about…everything. The reader knows that intuitively and knows it immediately. If you think you are judging others when you write, you’re wrong. You’re uncovering yourself.”
Boz, you’ve more than earned this retirement. Thankfully, those of us who will miss you have your books plus a digital archive full of columns to call upon when we want to read timeless stories about what the uninitiated may see only as fun and games but which are, in reality, about life itself.
More to come…