The Commerce Journal

December 7, 2012

Rice’s autobiography fascinating, even for modern readers

By Caleb Slinkard
The Commerce Journal

COMMERCE — I started a new book earlier this week. I’m a pretty voracious reader– it’s one of the main reasons I became a journalist. I often juggle two to three books at a time for variety. This process helps me complete longer books, since I refuse to leave a book unfinished after I begin reading it. In the past five years or so, the only books I can remember starting and not finishing are Aldous Huxley’s “A Brave New World” and Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked.” I intend to finish Huxley. “Wicked,” on the other hand, has no redeemable qualities in my opinion.

The new book I’m reading is “The Tumult and the Shouting,” the autobiography of sportswriter Grantland Rice. Rice is considered one of the greatest sports journalists of all time. A fantastic modern day sportswriter, Bill Simmons, runs a website named “Grantland” in his honor, and it is one of the most interesting collections of sports and pop culture journalism on the web today.

“The Tumult and Shouting” is not your average autobiography. Rice describes his interactions with some of the greatest sports starts of the first half of the 20th century. Stars like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Jim Thorpe, and hundreds of other individuals in sports and journalism.

As a huge sports fan and a journalist, Rice’s stories for me are legendary. Hearing about how he came up through journalism and the jobs he had to work in order to become a famous columnist in New York are inspiring.

One of his earlier roles with the Nashville Tennessean had him creating two pages of sports a day, and four on Sunday, a daily editorial column, and covering Nashville theater productions each night. Rice recounts that the job had him working an average of 12 hours a day, and as much as 16-18, entering the office at 8 a.m. and getting home at 2 a.m. I can only imagine the extraordinary amount of copy Rice could produce with today’s technology.

Sportswriting was a different beast in the 20s, 30s and 40s. Newspapers were the primary method of communicating information with the public, and journalists often acted as informal scouts for teams and confidants of athletes.

Rice’s interactions with Ty Cobb, widely considered one of the meanest players to grace the baseball diamond, are spellbinding. He tells of Cobb psyching out Shoeless Joe Jackson on the field in order to win the 1911 batting title, and then some 40 years later visiting the disgraced ball player to relive some of the glory of Jackson’s years with the White Sox.

When Cobb was a young ball player with semi-pro teams, Rice got telegram after telegram lauding the Georgia Peach as a great young talent. Decades later, Cobb revealed to Rice that he had been the one sending the telegrams.

“I was trying to put you on your first big scoop!” Cobb recalled later when questioned by Rice.

In another chapter, Rice talks about how the “old school” players bemoaned how the game had changed since Babe Ruth and other sluggers changed the game’s emphasis from speed to home runs, something baseball fans are still in love with today. “It’s almost like people would rather watch Ruth hit a home run than me steal second,” Cobb grumbled to Rice. Such a statement seems preposterous today, but it is also indicative of both how baseball can change swiftly (in less than a decade, Ruth had revolutionized the sport) and yet remain the same (to this day, the home run is the most electrifying individual accomplishment in American sports).

Today, journalists spend a lot of electronic ink comparing sports greats from different eras. Who is better, Ruth or Barry Bonds? Johnny Unitas or Tom Brady? Michael Jordan or Lebron James? Rice had some pithy thoughts on this as well, even though he wrote about it 60 years ago: “Believe me, however, I have no special tie with the past that makes me see everything that’s old as necessarily better than what’s come since.... I often find old favorites annoying when they carp and haggle over minute details of events that weren’t even clear when they occurred 30 or more years ago.”

Even though I’m only partly through the book, Rice’s wisdom and engrossing writing style have already had an impact on me personally and professionally. I hope when I am his age I have half as many interesting stories to tell.

One of his most famous quotes (and he certainly wasn’t the greatest poet) comes from an excerpt of his verse “Alumnus Football:”

“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.”