This was in the 1980s, at a New York Giants-Chicago Bears playoff game at old Soldier Field. Dave Anderson was seated to the left of me in the press box, and to the left of him was a relatively new sports editor of the New York Times, for which Anderson would write for decades, a man brought in from news side.
A few minutes before kickoff, the sports editor, a bit unsettled, said to Anderson, “So, Dave, I’d like to tell the office. What are you going to write?”
Without an ounce of irritation, Anderson answered, “I think I’ll wait until they play the game before I decide.”
Anderson, who died Oct. 4 at age 89, at an assisted-living center in New Jersey, was a Pulitzer Prize winner who loved and wrote about golf, boxing, baseball, football, indeed all sports.
More than that, he was a gentleman who took his job seriously but never himself.
He went about his business with a twinkle in eyes framed by large glasses and a belief that, as football coaches too often explain, it’s the little things that make the big picture.
Nothing Anderson saw or heard was too unimportant to be acknowledged.
The final scores, the length of the putts, the number of touchdown passes never were neglected – unlike too many of the newer journalists, Anderson never based his facts on opinions – but his prose offered far more than numbers.
“There is nothing royal about Carnoustie,” he wrote about the site of the British Open, in 2007 – and interestingly, 2018. “Quite simply, just plain Carnoustie is the working-class course named for the working-class town of 13,000 on the North Sea, where the long narrow street not far from the 18th green is known as Links Parade, which is around the corner from Links Avenue, which leads over to Golf Street.
“Most other British Opens are held at upper-crust clubs, with members in upper-crust blazers, but on Links Parade at the Carnoustie Golf Club, instituted in 1842, no blazers were in sight or in demand when an American visitor inspected the club’s trophy cases the other morning with his cap on.”
Anderson was passionate about details. His stories were the stories from others. Among them: the man who at age 9 saw Ben Hogan win the 1953 Open at Carnoustie; the coach, Tony Dungy of the Colts, holding up two fingers 6 inches apart and saying before Super Bowl XLI, “The difference between winning and losing is like that”; the Augusta National chairman, Hootie Johnson, in 2006 saying of the new tee at the Masters’ 11th hole, “You can say it’s a bomber’s course, but if he’s really going to bomb it, swing from the heels, if he doesn’t execute perfectly he’s going to pay the price.”
There was no boasting from Anderson, even if he worked for the Times, which some believe makes them privileged. He was born in Brooklyn, graduated from Holy Cross and worked his way to the top.
In 1974, I was with San Francisco Chronicle, which in those days was careful with the budget. Fortunately, I was sent to the Masters, and en route I covered the games when Hank Aaron hit home runs 714, in Cincinnati, and then 715, in Atlanta.
The following day a group of us shared a car to Augusta, and one writer from a free-spending publication contemptuously asked me, “Your paper still taking freebees?” Dave interrupted. “I used to work for the Brooklyn Eagle,” he said. “There was no money. You can’t blame the writer for what a paper does.”
You can, of course, blame him or her for inaccuracies, sloppiness, vindictiveness, arrogance. Which is why Dave Anderson was admirable, if not unusual. His columns had a point of view, occasionally the figurative sharp point of a needle. What they didn’t have was a personal edge.
He wanted to get the story, not gratuitously get somebody’s goat.
Tom Boswell, the superb sports columnist from the Washington Post, and like Anderson and so many of us a golf junkie, said he, Anderson, Dave Kindred and a few other writers were playing at Greenville, S.C., on the Monday after the 1981 Masters in an outing arranged by legendary journalist Dan Foster.
That was the day when Anderson was awarded the Pulitzer, but the Times told Foster only to have Anderson call the office, without reason. Anderson thought the paper wanted another story. Instead, it wanted to surprise him about the award.
“That was the only time Dave ever chose to put his clubs in the car and go to the airport,” Kindred, another award-winning columnist, told Boswell. Foster would enjoy telling pals that a famed New York writer found out about his Pulitzer in South Carolina.
Foster, Anderson, Jim Murray, Blackie Sherrod and Furman Bisher were part of a golden generation of sports writers, friends rather than rivals. They all are gone now, but the phrases they turned live in archives and computer screens.
Anderson’s words were clean and clear, which wasn’t always the case for another writer. Blush! Dave would look at my copy and say, “Too many dashes.” He was right. But he was just as free with compliments. His advice was invaluable.
He was poolside with Joe Namath before Super Bowl III in Miami and greenside near Tom Watson for the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He bundled in a parka and boots for Winter Olympics. He sat outside the main press box for the 1986 World Series.
And for golf, in 2007 he wrote like this:
“Carnoustie, Scotland – To a bartender a Scotch mist means two ounces of the national libation over crushed ice in a tall glass with a twist of lemon. But to the golfers in this 136th British Open, a Scottish mist is what dripped from the gloomy sky hanging over Thursday’s opening round. And the weather apparently isn’t going to change much.”
What has changed, unfortunately, is the cast of living sports-writing luminaries. Dave Anderson has passed.
Art Spander, a longtime sports columnist and golf writer in the Bay Area, has written for the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com.