Karl Lindholm: Sports Illustrated emphasized the ‘writing’ in ‘sports writing’

ONE OF THE columnist’s first publications was in this 1975 issue of Sports Illustrated, the preeminent sports journal of the time. It was only a letter to the editor, true, but a big deal nonetheless.

The school was abuzz when I arrived. Students crowded around me, their enthusiasm barely contained. I was their English teacher and coach — and on this day in February 1975 their hero and exemplar. 

My colleagues were more restrained while still expressing congratulations. The head of the school started the morning assembly with an acknowledgement of my singular achievement. 

What had I done to deserve this outpouring? 

An aspiring writer as well as teacher, my work, my words, had been published in the preeminent sports journal of the day: Sports Illustrated!

How about that! I had written about Bill Walton, at that time playing professional basketball while still trying to live a counterculture lifestyle, which was seen as discordant, a contradiction.

Actually, my great achievement was merely a letter! My letter to the editor (“the 19th Hole: The Readers Take Over”) was in response to an article two weeks before by sportswriter Rick Telander: “Bill Walton, Won’t You Please Play Ball.” 

I never put this letter on my resumé under “publications,” but I was sorely tempted. 

That’s how big SI was then, as it had been for two decades before 1975 and would remain for five decades thereafter. For most of those years, I was a subscriber and awaited the magazine’s arrival in the mail on Friday — and read it from cover to cover, back to front, the first chance I got.

It’s where I learned that the “writing” part of “sports writing” could be as exciting and important as the “sports” part. Such great writers. 

Alas, it’s all speed now, highlight packages, “just the facts, ma’am.” And SI, now a monthly, is a shadow, an echo, of its former self, like so much in the print world.

As Chad Finn of the Boston Globe wrote recently: “It’s so sad to see the life wrung out of (the magazine) by parasitic owners who value Sports Illustrated’s name as a brand while disregarding why it once meant so much to so many.”

ALEX WOLFF, SHOWN at his Cornwall home, was a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and was the longest tenured staff writer (36 years) on the magazine. His book “Endpapers: A Family Story of Books, War, Escape, and Home” is the fascinating chronicle of his family in World War II in Europe and America.

I was listening to my favorite podcast recently, the “Tony Kornhiser Show.” Its curmudgeonly host, who wrote sports for Newsday, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, was lamenting Sports Illustrated’s decline with his sportswriter friend Pat Forde, a generation younger. 

Tony celebrated the extraordinary talents of his favorites — “Curry Kirkpatrick, Dan Jenkins, and Frank Deford,” and Pat cited “Rick Reilly, Alexander Wolff, and Gary Smith.” 

All brilliant. 

I had the great good fortune of spending an evening once in the company of one of those great Sports Illustrated writers: Robert Creamer. He was closer in age to my dad than to me, a member of the so called “greatest generation.” He served in combat in Germany in World War II. He joined the original SI staff in 1954 and served as a senior editor there until he retired in 1984. 

Creamer wrote my favorite sports biography, “Babe: The Legend Comes to Life” — and truly, he brought the legend of Babe Ruth to life. 

In the mid-1990s, he was the keynote speaker at the NINE Spring Training Conference in Tucson where I was giving a paper. I don’t remember the details, but I recall a wonderful speech by Creamer, full of anecdotes and spellbinding personal stories. He talked about meeting Babe Ruth himself when he was a boy. 

After dinner, many of us repaired to the outdoor deck of the hotel for drinks and conversation. I found a seat right next to Creamer. We conversed, others joined us, till midnight. 

A sultry March night in Tucson, talking baseball with Bob Creamer — it doesn’t get much better than that.

My wife Brett had an SI adventure. In her senior year at college, 1980, Brett was selected for a coveted Sports Illustrated summer internship. In high school in Eugene, Ore., she and her mom fell in love with University Oregon hoops, the Ducks. Her bursary job (work study) at Yale was in the athletic department. 

PAUL WITTEMAN, MIDDLEBURY ’65, who worked for Sports Illustrated/Time Magazine for nearly 30 years as an editor and writer, talks with baseball legend Rod Carew.

At SI, Brett researched and fact-checked the work of, and hob-knobbed with, formidable SI writers including Ron Fimrite, Roy Johnson, Steve Wulf, Doug Looney, Jack McCallum, and others from her cubicle in the “bullpen” on the 18th floor of the Time-Life Building on 59th and 6th Avenue in Manhattan. 

“I always got the sense that something very important was going on,” she reminisced recently. 

During that summer, she also met Alexander Wolff, who himself had just graduated from college and had won the (also coveted) Time Magazine summer internship.

Alas, Brett forsook sports journalism to go to graduate school and become an English professor at Middlebury College — where she met me! Alex Wolff, on the other hand, engaged in no such foolishness: he went on to write for Sports Illustrated for 36 years, the longest tenured writer on their illustrious staff.

Paul Witteman was my friend and basketball teammate at Middlebury College in the 1960s. He was an editor/writer for Sports Illustrated (or their partner publication, Time) for nearly 30 years. He wrote major profiles on a number of stalwart sports figures, including Lou Brock and Rod Carew. 

In the summer of 1974, Brock was in the process of breaking Ty Cobb’s longstanding (46 years) stolen base record. Paul asked Brock to sign a ball for his pal Karl, a baseball guy. That was a kind gesture. This was the inscription: “Ty Cobb’s stolen base record would be a steal if you were catching in this league. (signed) Lou Brock.”

A few years later, 1977, Rod Carew was attempting to be the first hitter to bat .400 since Ted Williams did it in 1941. I got this note that summer: “Karl — If you were pitching in this league I would easily hit .500 off of you. My best to you, Rod Carew.”

THE COLUMNIST RECEIVED this generous note from MLB batting champion Rod Carew in the summer of 1977: “If you were pitching in this league, I would easily hit .500 off of you.”

I got a phone call from Paul 22 years ago, advising me that his colleague at Sports Illustrated for many years, Alex Wolff, was moving to Middlebury. He suggested earnestly that I make it a point to welcome him.

“Already done, Paul,” I said. “Alex moved into the house next door to ours. We’re neighbors!” 

It’s true. Serendipity. I was very familiar with the by-line of “Alexander Wolff,” the nation’s foremost authority on college basketball, who also led the SI team on multiple occasions in covering the Olympic Games, the World Cup, and March Madness. He had range.

His 2002 book “Big Game, Small World, A Basketball Adventure” is just about my favorite sports book ever. For a year, Alex traveled the world, chasing basketball stories. It is really a work of  anthropology in its scope and depth (and fun reading too!).

We have been neighbors with Alex and Vanessa Wolff for the last two decades or so. Their children, Frank and Clara, were born here at Porter Hospital, graduated from MUHS, and are now in college. Alex and I walk for exercise on Saturday mornings (unless the weather is too nasty; then we go somewhere for breakfast instead: no zealots we). 

People marvel that two of America’s best sportswriters live next door to one another on a little stretch of road in Cornwall, Vt.

(Actually, no one has marveled at that yet . . . but it’s possible!)


Karl Lindholm can be reached at [email protected]. To read his glorious 1975 letter to the editor of Sports Illustrated, head online at (scroll down).

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