Bisher was a writer for the ages

March 20, 2012
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Legendary sportswriter Furman Bisher, who regularly spoke with Ty Cobb, snared the only interview offered by Shoeless Joe Jackson, covered the first authentic NASCAR race, and offered illuminating insights on sports, died Sunday, prompting countless eulogies for a man who defined sports in the South for many years. Robert Bohler, longtime journalist and current adviser to Texas Christian University’s student-run newspaper, The Daily Skiff, reflects on this amazing career.

Furman Bisher, one of the greatest sportswriters of the 20th Century died on Sunday, and the wires (and the Web) are full today of coverage and tributes to the former sports editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

And even if you never read his stuff, it’s hard not to miss Bisher or the other major columnists of the day on ESPN Classic footage as they weigh in on the great sports figures and events of the last century.

And what a life he had.

He, like his counterparts at the other major newspapers, served as the eyes and ears for so many at the major sporting events when commentary was limited to the printed page. He scored exclusive interviews with Shoeless Joe Jackson and Ty Cobb, he covered the funeral of Joe Louis, and he covered more than 50 editions of the Masters golf tournament and the Kentucky Derby. He’s revered among Southern sports enthusiasts of the day that don’t include the most rabid of University of Alabama fans, for whom he’s the Antichrist to this day for his real or perceived roles in two separate Saturday Evening Post stories that targeted the practices of Crimson Tide football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. One of those stories, in which Bisher played a minor role as a researcher, precipitated the landmark Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts that’s a staple in press law for its role in defining public figures and standards of actual malice.

I only briefly met him when he was a guest speaker at a Boys Club dinner in my hometown while I was a college student, but over the years and at my initiative we had sporadic email conversations

He was always cordial except for the one time I suggested, when a ‘Bama reader savaged him before an upcoming Bulldogs-Crimson Tide game, that it might be a great opportunity for him to resurrect his version of events to set the record straight. I’m forever grateful to the Internet gods that his response came over the Ethernet instead of straight from the horse’s mouth. But he continued to answer – once again cordially–when I would drop him a note from time to time.

And from time to time, he probably would have benefitted from having an editor—if one were so brave—or at least a sounding board for his copy when he was particularly pointed in his viewpoints. He once called transsexual tennis player Renee Richards a “mixed doubles” player.” In later years he once offered a politically incorrect scenario about why “White Christmas” wasn’t played at malls anymore during the Christmas season, and he got caught up in controversy a couple of years ago when he recounted on his blog an allegation that Tiger Woods’ wife had struck him with a golf club.

Not his most shining moments. But, by far most of his career, he wrote with such grace and wit that it seemed as if sport was only coincidentally the beat for his commentary. Growing up, I could hardly wait each afternoon for the Atlanta Journal to arrive on my grandparents’ doorstep so I could read Bisher and the news columnist Paul Hemphill, whose collective influence planted in me the concept of what a great life newspapering could be.

Judging by readers’ comments over the years, he remained a revered presence in their lives. One of the traditions eagerly awaited his legion of admirers was his annual Thanksgiving column of more than 50 years about the many things for which he was grateful. When his didn’t appear this past year, his followers noted, and several columnists from the smaller papers paid tribute to that tradition with columns of their own.

The writer Dave Kindred once recounted what happened when he, as an already well-established columnist, had the temerity, against the sage advice of his peers at the Constitution, to inquire as to just what Bisher was writing, just to make sure he and the great one were not stepping on each others’ toes. “Judas Priest!” Bisher thundered. “General observations of the day.”

Whether his columns were always well-received or not, his opinions on “the observations of the day” were never ambiguous, and in an era when the Atlanta Journal covered Dixie like the dew and his reporting and opinion were nationally featured in the Post and The Sporting News, he never failed to deliver.

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