Bisher a writer for the ages, for all ages

Sports journalism icon dead at 93

Robert Bohler
Texas Christian University

It may say the most about sports writer Furman Bisher’s impact on generations of readers as well as fellow journalists that two of the greatest tributes paid to him following his death at age 93 on Sunday came from scribes who make their livings covering stock car racing and golf. Both ESPN’s Ed Hinton, who covered NASCAR for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution under Bisher’s guidance, and long-time golf writer Larry Dorman describe a man who respected the disciplines of the sports and their place in sporting culture, and perhaps Bisher’s greatest mark was that he could embrace such separate—and disparate—cultures. He was as equally at home writing about Richard Petty and Bill Elliott as he was Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. And in doing so, everything else fell in-between with equal doses of wit, warmth, respect and, if he felt the case warranted, sharpness of tongue.

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 was 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 articles for The Saturday Evening Post magazine that targeted Crimson Tide football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. One of those stories, in which Bisher played a minor role as a researcher, precipitated the landmark federal court case of 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 his followers’ comments over the years, he remained a treasured 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, Sport magazine and The Sporting News, he never failed to deliver.

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