Writing about Sports: Damon Runyon

When writing about a sports event, Runyon did not just view it through a wide-angle lens but varied the view, zooming in and focusing on aspects other writers omitted. 

As Brian O’Connor wrote in an article in The Irish Times with regard to Runyon’s writing about horse racing, “The Racing World of Damon Runyon, published in 1999, contains umpteen picaresque characters crammed with the peccadilloes and prejudices that immediately define the age from which they emerged.” 

Though the book contains short stories, their style shares a Runyonesque-ness with his best sportswriting.

Here is a sample of Runyon’s sportswriting, quoted from his story, “Stengel’s Homer Wins It for Giants, 5–4” in The Great American Sports Page:

This is the way old “Casey” Stengel ran yesterday afternoon, running his home run home.

This is the way old “Casey” Stengel ran running his home run home to a Giant victory by a score of 5 to 4 in the first game of the World Series of 1923.

This is the way old “Casey” Stengel ran, running his home run home, when two were out in the ninth inning and the score was tied and the ball was still bounding inside the Yankee yard.

This is the way—
His mouth wide open.
His warped old legs bending beneath him at every stride.

Photo of Stengel (1916) from Library of Congress

Runyon repeats “This is the way” four times: It is an anaphora. He also repeats “This is the way old “Casey” Stengel ran, running his home run home” three times. By “running his home run home” Runyon is emphasizing the fact that Stengel ran full-speed around the bases because his hit never reaches the stands: It is an inside-the-park homer. Normally, a homer leaves the playing field, and the hitter trots around the bases without any urgency.

An anaphora’s literary overtone adds a dimension to his piece not often associated with “sports writing.” The repeated words draw attention and effect a rhythm whose beat deepens readers’ engagement as Stengel’s “warped old legs” propel him round the bases toward victory for the Giants.

John Schulian, in The Great American Sports Page, wrote this about Damon Runyon:

“He came from Colorado in 1910 to report on baseball for William Randolph Hearst’s New York papers, but the press box could hold him for only so long. He went on to cover murder trials by applying the techniques of baseball writing and to capture the vernacular of the streets in the short stories that came to life onstage as Guys and Dolls. Ever since  then, writers have tried to duplicate the rhythms in the sentences Runyon left behind. They never come better than close.”

One of my favorite Damon Runyon short stories is “Baseball Hattie,” a tale in his book, Take It Easy, that exemplifies Runyon’s unique writing style. “Baseball Hattie” is both a story in Runyon’s book, Take It Easy, and one of its star attractions.

When the story’s anonymous narrator sees Hattie, an every-game fan, for the first time in years at a baseball game on opening day at the Polo Grounds, the Bronx home of the New York Giants before they deserted the Big Apple for San Francisco, he spells out the differences:

“I can see that Baseball Hattie is greatly changed, and to tell the truth, I can see that she is getting to be nothing but an old bag. Her hair that is once as black as a yard up a stove-pipe is grey, and she is wearing gold-rimmed cheaters, although she seems to be pretty well dressed and looks as if she may be in the money a little bit, at that.”

But the biggest change is that Baseball Hattie is not loud-mouthing Umpire William Klem, her preoccupation whenever the narrator had previously seen her in the stands. The seed of that change happened years before at an away game in Philadelphia, which is where Hattie first met a “big, tall, left-handed pitcher by the name of Haystack Duggeler.” 

After the narrator calls Hattie “a baseball bug” and explains why, the story time-travels backwards to fill in the readers’ gaps and to enable the story’s surprising ending to make sense.

And what a trip that is.

Be forewarned that Runyon, in his short stories, avoids the past tense as if its use would trigger a severe allergic reaction. Further, he has eliminated these words from his dictionary: would, should, could might. Plus, he loves to slip slang into his sentences, sometimes even inventing the language addition, an action that can jar a reader’s journey through Runyon’s thoughts though generally that is an easy task. Finally, Runyon is funny, so be prepared to laugh aloud as his writing can have a ticklish effect, so if that can be embarrassing for you, consider sheltering yourself when you are riding his train.

Writing about Sports: Red Smith

Writing with humor while word-painting a portrait of an Olympic Opening Ceremony

In “Kings Get in Free,” a story that reads like a “paper” newsreel, Red Smith paints, animates, and celebrates the Opening Ceremony of the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, a typewriter his brush, words the pigment, and impasto the style.

One word can describe his 1,128-word piece: Entertaining.

Smith’s opening: “England’s biggest track meet in forty years opened this afternoon with a pageant of nationalism, an orgy of oratory and a paroxysm of symbolism but no running, jumping, or bulging of the biceps.”

That is not how you would expect a sports story to begin, but then, Smith was not the typical sportswriter.

Smith wrote “Kings Get in Free” for the New York Herald Tribune, a paper he began working for three years earlier after Stanley Woodward lured him to the Big Apple from the City of Brotherly Love.

Smith wrote “Kings Get in Free” in 1948 for the New York Herald Tribune, a paper he began working for three years earlier after Stanley Woodwardlured him to the Big Apple from the City of Brotherly Love.

In his book, Paper Tiger, Woodward wrote, “. . . I had been scouting a little guy on the Philadelphia Record whose name was Walter Wellesley Smith. This character was a complete newspaper man. He had been through the mill and had come out with a high polish. In Philadelphia he was being hideously overworked. Not only did he write the column for the Record but he covered the ball games and took most other important assignments.”

Woodward was an icon among sport editors. Jerry Izenberg, whom Lawrence Lawrence asserted in 2020 was “one of the country’s premier sports writers over the last 60 years, said “Stanley Woodward was the greatest editor who ever lived.”

For 22 years, Smith wrote his “Views of Sport” column for the Tribune.

Smith completed the opening appetizer in “Kings Get in Free” with “The recorded casualties were a half-dozen Boy Scouts and Sea Scouts who fainted under the malevolent sun which beat upon Wembley Stadium with padded brutality.”

This was the first Summer Olympics since 1936 when Berlin, Germany hosted it, the one scheduled for 1940 (Tokyo) cancelled, the London games four years delayed, Germany’s tyrant a collective memory.

In 97 degree heat, the 1948 Summer Olympics, the XIVth Olympiad, began.

Smith’s paragraphs blew fresh air onto an event that time and tradition jammed with pomp and circumstance.

The event’s first day was more than a showcase of athletes. It was a spectacle that 82,000 paid to attend. “Besides sitting and sweltering, . . . beat sweaty palms red, yowled and chanted and waved flags as the musclemen of their countries marched by” (Smith).

And its host site, Wembley Stadium, was not just a gladiatorial arena built from more than 25,000 tons of concrete, but “a cooked gaboon of concrete, its gray slopes packed, its currycombed infield a vivid green encircled by a track of bright red clay” (Smith).

As competitors from 59 countries marched past King George VI, each led by a flag-bearer, the monarch saluted them. “Never were the hardships of the monarch business more amply demonstrated although, admittedly, the hours and salary are usually very good,” Smith wrote.

Per Britannica, “There was no Olympic Village; the male athletes were housed at an army camp in Uxbridge, while the women stayed in dormitories at Southlands College.”

Some may view “Kings Get in Free” as satire, but satire’s needle injects negativity, a tone I did not detect. Instead, hyperbole is the game Smith is playing, the exaggeration effecting amusement, which increases the drama, every paragraph a morsel in a meal in a five-star restaurant.

Hyperbole is a type of trope. According to Grammatist, “the noun trope traditionally refers to any figure of speech in which a word or phrase conveys a meaning other than its literal sense. For instance, the phrase broken heart and the use of Wall Street to refer to the U.S. finance industry are tropes because their literal meanings are different from what we understand them to mean.” Other forms of trope are irony, metaphor, and synecdoche.

As the athletic procession progressed and after “the King finally got to sit down,” the pigeons gained their freedom and humor stepped from its shadow just before the Olympic flame arose from a “concrete bird bath.” Smith commented on the number of pigeons, their numbers appearing to be much fewer than expected: “Chances are the brass didn’t dare turn loose that many squab in this hungry nation.”

Red Smith did not just write “Kings Get in Free,” he crafted it, staging its scenes, the trope a tool he wielded with a surgeon’s precision. At its end, he closed with “It was hokum. It was pure Hollywood. But it was good. You had to like it.”

It’s easy to like his story too.

⚾️ For decades with royal bearing, Smith carried the sportswriting torch.