Since 1957, when he typed his assessment of the Mercer County Parochial Basketball League’s 1957-1958 season on a single sheet of 8 x 11 paper, Bob Ryan has been a sportswriter. “[A] two-part word,” he says early in “Scribe,’’ and “my entire life has been devoted to both aspects.”
“Scribe: My Life in Sports” is not so much a personal memoir as one of a career, and given that Ryan has been writing for half a century, the book serves as a cutaway view of sports from the tabloids of the late 1950s to satellite TV and Twitter. He approached each event with the professionalism of a journalist and the enthusiasm of a fan. All in all, no one in Ryan’s time has covered as much for as long and as well.
If you’ve read any of Ryan’s columns or any of his previous 11 books — and if you haven’t I suggest you begin with “Celtics Pride’’ and “When Boston Won the World Series’’ — you know what to expect: a swift and elegant prose style that gets to the point in a hurry. And “Scribe’’ offers a bonus: a reflective humor that can only come from years of working at a job you love.
Beginning with the high school basketball games he attended with his father in Trenton, N.J., “I did not consider the experience to have had any validity until I read about it the following day in the Morning Trentonian” — his hometown tabloid newspaper.
Through six summer and five winter Olympics, nearly 14 Boston Celtics seasons, hundreds of playoff and World Series games, and “the ultimate résumé booster — a Dog Show,” Ryan has covered more sports than ESPN has channels for. In August of 2011, his boss forced him to cover an Ultimate Fighting Championship, and “I was smart enough to retire before he could coerce me into another one.”
“I grew up in a time,” he writes, “and in a manner that has vanished.” The lots where he and his friends played hardball and tackle football have long been turned into strip malls. “I have no idea where the neighborhood kids would play any game of their choosing today.” (I do — in their bedrooms with their video games.)
His father worked in sports in various capacities from the athletic department at Villanova to the business offices of teams such as the Trenton Giants, where Willie Mays made his minor league debut in 1950, with a four-year-old Bob in the stands. Ryan’s father died when he was 11. His mother, “a staunch cradle-to-grave Catholic,” resisted pressure from parish priests who wanted him to attend Notre Dame High School. Instead, he was lucky enough to get into the Lawrenceville School, where he became sports editor of the prep-school’s paper, The Lawrence.
Later, while attending Boston College, he found work as an office boy at The Boston Globe and got his chance when an opening came up in the sports department. He had the spectacular luck to mature as a writer at almost exactly the same time that pro basketball boomed from “a mom-and-pop organization into an international conglomerate.” He recalls, “When I began covering it, I was not an NBA aficionado. I was a conscripted college man. That didn’t mean I wasn’t eager to learn. It meant I had a lot to learn.’’
One of the things he learned was that he was going to have to control himself when face-to-face with sports legends. After his first game, he found himself interviewing the great Oscar Robertson and “thinking to myself as I was doing it, Oh my God, I’m talking to Oscar Robertson!” Another thing he learned was that deadlines are sacred. He was late on the first story he wrote.
In “Scribe,” Ryan empties his notebooks of a lifetime’s worth of great stories, observations, and anecdotes. His favorite basketball player to watch was Larry Bird, but he says Dave Cowens had “the most inimitable and unforgettable combination of athletic skill and personality.”
His favorite Olympic basketball game was played by women, Team CIS (then an acronym for the Commonwealth of Independent States, a group of former Soviet republics) vs. Team USA in 1992. “[I]f ever a group of basketball players had no reason for an allegiance to anything other than their own individual and collective happiness, it was that collection of young ladies,” he wrote of Team CIS, which won, 79-73.
The worst thing Ryan can say about Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight is that “while he seems to have high standards for other people’s behavior and actions, he does not seem to be able to hold himself accountable.”
Not knowing hockey is “definitely a problem in Boston.” Baseball “is the greatest game ever to spring from the mind of mortal man . . . I know more about baseball than I do about anything else.”
On pro football, though, he has become grown more dubious: “Football is a barbaric game. In a more civilized, more genteel society no one would even think of sanctioning such an activity . . . That said, I wouldn’t dream of missing the Super Bowl or the National Championship football game.”
For millions of Boston area fans over the last few decades, a major sporting event wasn’t validated till Bob Ryan wrote about it. It’s fitting, then, that he should leave us his own epithet: “I strongly suspect my last words will be, ‘Who won?’ ”