Gil LeBreton

Blackie Sherrod’s greatness had roots in Fort Worth

Writing about legendary basketball player Wilt Chamberlain, Blackie Sherrod said that “Wilt playing basketball is like the Grand Canyon playing ditch.”
Writing about legendary basketball player Wilt Chamberlain, Blackie Sherrod said that “Wilt playing basketball is like the Grand Canyon playing ditch.” AP

The pictures look like scenes from Guys and Dolls, and the prose sometimes matched.

Not long after I first walked through the doors of this newspaper more than 35 years ago, I saw the photos and heard the tales of Blackie Sherrod and the gang at the old Fort Worth Press.

Sherrod, Dan Jenkins, Jerre Todd, Gary Cartwright, Bud Shrake. All that greatness for just 10 cents a day.

I didn’t grow up here, but I knew who Blackie Sherrod was. I used to ride my bike to my neighborhood public library in New Orleans and painstakingly read the sports sections of the Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Atlanta newspapers.

William Forrest “Blackie” Sherrod, who died at the age of 96 on Thursday, said he was fond of reading S.J. Perelman, James Thurber and Ring Lardner.

I read Blackie Sherrod.

Sherrod, Jenkins, Todd, Shrake, Cartwright, my former Star-Telegram colleague Galyn Wilkins — they all were masters at their craft, never more evident than in their Sunday morning dispatches from the previous day’s games.

Modern newspapering surrendered to the television devils long ago. But Sherrod, Wilkins, Jenkins and the late Frank Luksa (another Star-Telegram alum), among others, cut their journalistic teeth on writing game stories. When they wrote one, you didn’t have to see the game.

Sherrod always believed that the best way to become a good writer was to be an insatiable reader, and the truth in that old maxim endures. Witticisms from Thurber, Lardner and Damon Runyon were dusted throughout Blackie’s columns.

He once began a Cowboys column — clearly tongue in cheek — with a rambling discourse in the style of what could only be called Hemingway: The Comma-Less Years, replete with references to Cuba and elusive marlin. I have no memory of what the story was really about, but I remember that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The great Jenkins, Fort Worth’s own, who eventually left newspapering and rose to greater literary heights, called Sherrod his mentor and hero. High praise indeed.

Jenkins said on Twitter on Thursday, “Another giant of the trade has fallen. I had a 15-year journalism course under Blackie Sherrod. All he did was give me a career.”

Jenkins’ daughter Sally, a treasured Washington Post sports columnist, recalled one of Sherrod’s lines about the legendary Wilt Chamberlain:

“Wilt playing basketball is like the Grand Canyon playing ditch.”

Writing about a heavyweight contender, Sherrod once said, “He has everything a boxer needs, except speed, stamina, a punch, and the ability to take punishment. In other words, he owns a pair of shorts.”

As with most young reporters, it was intimidating once I finally got to meet and work in the same press box as Sherrod in the 1980s. My colleague Wilkins, whom Blackie clearly was fond of, helped to ease the introduction.

With his khaki cargo shirt with epaulets and multiple pockets, it was hard to tell whether Blackie, already into his 60s, was headed for a ball game or hunting with Papa Hemingway.

I also remain eternally grateful that I didn’t give him a heart attack that night in Detroit. The story follows:

The Cowboys had played one of their frequent games against the Lions at the Pontiac Silverdome. The four of us — me, Blackie, Luksa and Wilkins — piled into my rental car for the drive back to downtown Detroit.

Except there was no easy way, no freeway, to get from the Silverdome to downtown Detroit. We had only a rental car map, which meant we would have been better off with a sextant and a globe.

Blackie had a flight to catch, so the plan was to drop him off at the Detroit airport and then the rest of us would head to our hotel. And it was working, until we suddenly realized that we had been riding for an hour and the sign overhead just read, “Battle Creek. Next three exits.”

We were lost. Blackie’s flight time was approaching. The only sound in the car for the next hour was Blackie’s heavy breathing.

We made it, but not by much. I pulled up to the curb, and the last thing we saw was the 68-year-old patriarch of Texas sportswriting sprinting towards his airport gate.

We sat there watching. It was Luksa who finally broke the silence.

“Well, young ’un,” Frank said slowly, looking at me from the top of his glasses. “I hope you didn’t just kill Blackie Sherrod.

“It might look bad on your next job application.”

A regret lingers that an entire generation of locals knew Sherrod, if at all, for only his Sunday notes column, which always began, “Scattershooting while wondering whatever happened to . . . ”

But even then, his pithy observations — on sports, on life — entertained and made us chuckle.

Blackie Sherrod’s career in sportswriting spanned 62 years.

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