They are my precious friends, although I've met only a couple of them.
They are always there -- unlike most of my other friends -- whenever I want them ... or need them. I just have to open a book, and there they are.
Some made their living writing about sports. Others at least touched on the subject. What they all have in common is that each one could write far better than I can.
While that is hardly an exclusive club, these guys are not only my friends, they are my professional heroes, each in his own way providing a flair, a grace -- and yes -- a nobility that seems so out of place in today's coarse, Twitter-driven media environment.
In 1966, at age 16, I became a sportswriter -- in name, if not in ability -- and the first sports book I read after I was hired was Grantland Rice's "The Tumult and the Shouting," published in 1954. Within its pages was a world of gentility that thrived amid the violence of sports.
Had I been Rice's editor in 1924, the most famous lead paragraph in newspaper history would never have been printed. Too romantic, I would have insisted, too much hyperbole and hero-worship. But Grantland Rice's "Four Horsemen" column was (thankfully) published, and his paean to Notre Dame's football backfield after a victory over Army will live forever.
"Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below."
In his poem "Alumnus Football," Mr. Rice set the standard for every athlete -- every human being -- who ever lived or ever will.
"For when the One Great Scorer comes
To mark against your name,
He writes -- not that you won or lost --
But how you played the Game."
I never met Grantland Rice, his having died in 1954, but Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith knew him well. In the world of sports writing during the second half of the 20th century, Red Smith, who died in 1982, was Babe Ruth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Albert Einstein. The Associated Press Sports Editors' highest annual honor is "The Red Smith Award."
I was only a teenage sportswriter when I met him at a game I've long since forgotten. What I'll never forget is how gracious he was to me. I was a neophyte who hadn't accomplished anything, and he ... he was Red Smith!
I don't remember what I said to him, except I'm certain I called him "Mr. Smith." I also don't recall the particulars of what he said to me, except that he treated me as a colleague, with both of us having to write a story on deadline. A safe bet would be that his was better.
In 1949, columnist Walter Winchell wrote, "Red Smith was asked if turning out a daily column wasn't quite a chore. …'Why, no,' dead-panned Red. 'You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.'"
Smith, although the consummate gentleman, wasn't some softy. He was tough on countless subjects, including Muhammad Ali, National Football League owners who didn't postpone their games after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, colleges that took advantage of student athletes, and even Soviet emigre Leon Trotsky in a Mexico City interview three years before Joseph Stalin had him killed.
One of Smith's best lines came when bombastic, self-aggrandizing sportscaster Howard Cosell was holding court at a media gathering, and loudly addressed Smith.
"Red Smith! How many great sportscasters do you think there are today?"
Smith smiled, and brought the house down with his simple reply: "One fewer than you think, Howard."
I'm grateful to have met Red Smith, if only for a few minutes. I was blessed to have a longer association with the great Texas sports columnist, Blackie Sherrod, with whom I toiled happily at the Dallas Times Herald and Dallas Morning News.
His "Some Hither, Others Yon" columns were required reading for virtually every Dallas sports fan, as were his well-directed barbs, including this one about an inept pugilist:
"He has everything a boxer needs except speed, stamina, a punch, and ability to take punishment. In other words, he owns a pair of shorts."
And finally, there is my best literary friend, another gentleman I never met.
P.G. Wodehouse was the funniest wordsmith who ever touched a typewriter, as well as being an accomplished playwright and lyricist. But he had one deep regret.
"If only I had taken up golf earlier and devoted my whole time to it instead of fooling about writing stories and things," he wrote, "I might have got my handicap down to under eighteen."
With friends like these, one thing is certain. I'll never be lonely.
Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at email@example.com or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/sampollak.