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Shirley, it’s an honor

- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2008

Ten years after Shirley Povich's death, he was a towering figure again Sunday on the Washington sports scene.

Nearly 50 members of the Povich family, large and small, were eyewitnesses as the Nationals dedicated their press box to the best sportswriter ever to eschew cliches in the nation's capital.

Now and forevermore, journalists will tap electronic devices and speak into microphones in the Shirley Povich Media Center, but the man himself would have snorted at such a description. During 75 years at The Washington Post as a columnist, baseball writer and sports editor, Shirley's copy flowed and glowed with elegant simplicity.

Perhaps his most famous and most lyrical lead evolved from Don Larsen's perfect game for the New York Yankees in the 1956 World Series. Fittingly, the story, and Shirley's scorecard, are on display near the elevator entrance to the media center - oops, I mean press box.

“NEW YORK, Oct. 8 - The million-to-one shot came in,” he wrote. “Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. ... On the mound at Yankee Stadium, the same man who was knocked out in two innings by the Dodgers on Friday came up today with one for the books, posting it there in solo grandeur as the only Perfect Game in World Series history.”

Thus it was that (to borrow another favorite Povich phrase) the Nats unveiled in solo grandeur their principal tribute a bit farther down the hall. The glassed-in display features a photo of the young Shirley, his trademark fedora, a Royal typewriter over which he labored, a 1924 scorecard hailing the American League champion Senators, a baseball signed by Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson and other members of the '24 World Series champions and a letter from President Dwight Eisenhower thanking Shirley for sending a signed copy of his 1954 team history.

“Dad would have been very humbled by this,” son Maury Povich, the TV star, told the gathering. “This is not what he thought he was all about. Every day he entered a press box, all he wanted to do was write the best he could - and it was a struggle for him.”

Guess what, Maury? The struggle never showed.

During the brief ceremony, family members beamed, laughed and perhaps sniffed back a few tears. The same held true for Ted and Mark Lerner, principal owners of the ballclub and lifetime Povich fans.

Ted Lerner recalled that Povich and wife Ethyl were guests at his wedding “more than 50 years ago.” Mark Lerner noted that the Lerners and the Poviches once had adjoining lockers at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville “so we saw a lot of him.”

So did Shirley's readers because at one point he was covering the Senators as well as writing five or six columns a week. For years, I grew up grabbing the Post first thing every morning and turning to “This Morning With Shirley Povich,” which ran down the left two columns of the paper's first sports page.

We were blessed with many fine writers in those distant days - most notably Francis Stann of the Evening Star - but Shirley was the best. In horse racing parlance, he won going away. And for better or worse, he made me want to be a sportswriter.

Shirley didn't bludgeon people he disliked; he carved them up with a scalpel. A favorite target was Redskins founder and owner George Preston Marshall, who refused to employ black players in the '40s and '50s because the team's radio and TV network then covered most of the South and Marshall had no wish to drive away redneck fans.

“The Redskins' colors are burgundy, gold and Caucasian,” Povich wrote, probably more than once.

And this: “[Cleveland Browns fullback] Jim Brown, born ineligible for the Redskins, integrated their end zone four times yesterday.”

When the adopted son of Washington baseball patriarch Clark Griffith skipped out on us in September 1960, Shirley's cup of anger runneth over something like this: “Cal Griffith, who promised the Senators would never leave town in his lifetime, yesterday moved his ballclub to Minnesota posthumously.”

No one else wrote like that. Probably no one ever will.

Before the little ceremony, a man said, “What a great day! We've got a team and a new ballpark, the sun is shining and the Nats are playing the Texas Rangers [who skipped town in 1972]. Shirley would have loved being here.”

Well, in a sense he was.

And as the Nats showed pictures of Povich on the scoreboard video screen shortly before the first pitch, the tune “My Way” came floating over the P.A. system. I don't know whether this was a coincidence, but it seemed highly appropriate.

Just like Sinatra, Shirley Povich was an original - and the best at what he did.