A Columnist’s Columnist: Remembering Furman Bisher

Furman BisherBy David Coulson

Executive Editor

College Sports Journal

 

PHILADELPHIA, PA. — In the living room of my house in the Philly suburbs sits a huge, oak bookshelf that my mom and I stained and finished years ago.

 

There are books about college football, as well as a slew of cookbooks that betray one of my favorite non-sports activities, along with other subjects.

 

In a couple of shelves in the middle bottom of the bookshelf reside some of my favorite sports books, collections of columns by some of the all-time greats of my chosen profession.

 

This part of the library is heavy on Red Smith, with such classics as “To Absent Friends,” “Strawberries In Wintertime,” “Red Smith on Baseball,” and “The Red Smith Reader,” among the titles.

 

You will also find several books by Jim Murray, who was still kicking out columns when I worked at the Los Angeles Times sports department in the early 1990s.

 

There are titles by such journalism icons as Arthur Daley, Jimmy Cannon, Fred Russell, Jerome Holtzman, Art Spander, Edwin Pope, Blackie Sherrod, Bob Verdi, Jerry Izenberg, Mickie Herskowitz, Ira Berkow, Dan Jenkins, Larry Merchant and George Vecsey.

 

There is even one that is personally signed by Ken Burger, a writer’s writer who recently retired from the Charleston Post & Courier and with whom I’ve shared many a press box and numerous good times with over the years.

 

But I found myself looking at an extra special place in those shelves on Sunday night when I learned that one of my sportswriting heroes, Furman Bisher, had passed away of a massive heart attack earlier in the day at the age of 93.

 

I have three Bisher books in my large library: “The Furman Bisher Collection,” published among a group of fantastic sports columnist retrospectives by The Sporting News years ago, “Face To Face,” and the quirky “Strange, But True Baseball Stories.”

 

He also served as the ghost writer of Hank Aaron’s autobiography and another on Arnold Palmer.

 

Bisher had an influence on several generations of aspiring sportswriters, who poured over his well-turned phrases in publications such as The Sporting News, Sport Magazine, the Saturday Evening Post and Sports Illustrated.

 

When I was lucky, I would occasionally read his work in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he worked for 59 years and still contributed at the time of his death — banging out his prose on the same manuel typewriter he had used all of those years.

 

The Furman Bisher Collection contains an introduction by noted Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard, who tells of the grief he gave this great sports editor when they worked together at the Atlanta Journal during the early part of Grizzard’s career.

 

“I was 24 and knew everything,” Grizzard said. “And when he tried to offer me advice … I pouted. Years later, I would say to another graduate of the Bisher School Sports Journalism, ‘Remember all that stuff Bisher used to tell us when we were doing wrong? He was right.”‘

 

One of the disappointments of my career is that I never had the opportunity to meet this giant of a man.

 

Don Heath, one of my favorite Football Championship Subdivision writers at the Savannah Morning News and one of my best friends in the business, was more fortunate.

 

Heath was covering a lopsided, season-opening NFL game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987 and decided to ask Bucs coach Ray Perkins why rookie first-round draft choice Vinny Testaverde hadn’t played in the 48-10 Tampa Bay win?

 

Perkins unleashed a verbal tirade on the young writer, who was still stunned as he made his way back to the press box.

 

Bisher, who had endured many a tongue lashing from players and coaches alike during his long career, opened his School of Journalism to Heath and gave the awe-struck writer a bit of encouragement.

 

“Don’t worry about it, he treats everybody like that,” Bisher said.

 

That was the start of a well-appreciated friendship between the two writers, young and old.

 

Though he was considered by his peers to be one of greatest columnists in the country, those who knew him said Bisher never put on airs and remained humble and friendly to those he met.

 

“He was always a perfect Southern gentlemen,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports editor Ray Cox said on Sunday night.

 

If one quote summed up Bisher’s contributions to the sportswriting business, it was the one uttered by former AJC sports editor and close Bisher friend Jim Minter on Sunday night.

 

“He put more quality words on newsprint than any other writer in the last half of the 20th century. He never wrote a bad column.”

Bisher, according to friends, seemed just as happy sitting in a press box at Georgia Southern’s Paulson Stadium as he was covering one of the major events he became synonymous with, like the Kentucky Derby, the Super Bowl, the Georgia-Georgia Tech football game, or the Masters.

 

When one of Bisher’s favorite coaches, Georgia Southern’s Erk Russell, passed away in 2006, the witty uber-columnist painted this picture:

 

Furman Bisher“Just the other day I sat in a restaurant in Fernandina Beach, Fla., and a portrait of Erk looked down from a wall. Since he had no hair to turn gray and an expression that was always tuned into the same channel, he seemed ageless.”

Bisher earned a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and said of his accomplishment: “One of my sweetest achievements was that I was able to get through college without taking math. It required a nifty bit of hurdling, jumping from one college to another.”

 

Considering that this journalism student managed to do the same thing during my days at Fresno City College and Fresno State, I found Bisher to be a kindred spirit.

 

Beginning his professional career in his native North Carolina for the Lumberton Voice in 1938, Bisher quickly became known for breaking stories.

 

In 1949, he became the first writer in 30 years to secure a no-holds barred interview with “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, writing an article for Sport Magazine that is still referenced today. It was also the only time Jackson sat down officially to talk about his role in the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

 

In January, Bisher filed his final entry on his personal website, Bisher Unleashed (https://furmanbisher.wordpress.com).

 

Titled “The Missing Quarterback,” it was just six paragraphs long, but it detailed the reasons why LSU quarterback Jordan Lee sat out during the Tigers’ BCS-championship-game loss to Alabama.

 

Why other writers were asking why, here was an 93-year-old journalist breaking one last story.

 

I hope I am still making that kind of impact when I’m 93.

 

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