October 11, 1999
I felt greatly flattered in the fall of 1941 when, as a willing but perhaps overconfident young reporter for this newspaper, I was asked by the publisher to cover Perry high school football games. Flattered, because my predecessor in that role had been none other than the esteemed managing editor of the Journal, Francis Thetford, while I was an unknown quantity in the sports department. They obviously thought I was as capable as the managing editor, who I knew to be a very competent reporter. I soon found out how wrong I was regarding the assumption of their perception of my skills.
I had just concluded a full summer of covering the Perry Merchants baseball team. Until then, I had never been required to even look at an official baseball score book, one of those spiral-bound pads covered with diagrams, numerical codes and other detailed information. If you know how to read them, they provide a comprehensive game record of every statistic on individual players as well as the teams. Many sports writers use them for post-game stories to verify what they saw happen, on the diamond. Mr. Jess Lee, the barber who also served as secretary of the Perry Merchants Baseball Association, taught me to read and diagram the score book during the 1941 baseball season and that made my job much more enjoyable. I assumed someone would play a similar role as I took up the new challenge in football.
It did not take long to figure out that the job of covering PHS football for the Journal at that time was not exactly considered an honor, except by inexperienced young reporters who effected an air of bravado in the face of any kind of assignment. For one thing, the job meant hours of uncompensated overtime each Friday night for approximately three months. If the game was out of town, you carried a portable typewriter, clipboards and notebooks up the steps of stadiums in strange cities, elbowed for space at the cozy press box bench theoretically reserved for that purpose (but sometimes occupied by a local fan or team dad who claimed priority). Then you focused totally on the action from start to finish. Coverage of Maroon games in those days meant terse paragraphs describing the action on each and every play. These were written hurriedly as they occurred, and woe betide the sports writer who could not stay abreast of the action, or who could not identify individual players by the numbers on their jerseys, which often did not match those listed on the evening's program. There was no one to back you up. After the game ended came a hasty trip back home with a stop by the PDJ office to leave your copy on a hook for the typesetters, who arrived early Saturday morning to convert your copy magically to hot lead for reproduction in that day's paper.
W K. Leatherock, publisher of this newspaper at the time, usually furnished a car and accompanied me to the first few games that season of 1941. Other PDJ staffers also came along for the ride. On the way home, Mr. Leatherock astonished all of us with his broad knowledge of the fine points of football. He spoke of defensive and offensive strategies he had observed, things that I had not noticed. He taught me, and all the others in that car, a lot about the sport. As I was to discover through the years, he had an amazing storehouse of information on every subject imaginable.
The reason I got the job of covering PHS football that fall, instead of Francis Thetford, the managing editor, was not a tribute to the publisher's high expectations of my ability to perform. It was because I, as a new reporter, was low man on the totem pole. The upshot of it all was that I discovered a whole new side to my burgeoning career in the Fourth Estate. I loved covering football and returned to that chore in the 1960s when Rex Edgar was coaching the Maroons. Those were memorable days. We'll talk about them again in a subsequent column.