Les Woodcock, Sports Illustrated, and the Art of Sportswriting

Lester Woodcock, spring 2016 —Sam Moore
Which included attending sports events with William Faulkner and Robert Frost

I have in my hands the first issue of Sports Illustrated, launched 62 years ago on August 16, 1954. The cover photo is titled “Night Baseball in Milwaukee,” a tour de force of color photography. At the bottom of the cover, a two-inch figure of the hometown superstar, No. 41, Eddie Mathews, swings at the plate. Through the darkness above him rise thousands of fans’ faces, all the way to the upper bleachers, under glaring stadium lights. I imagine those fans as the cheering audience for the world’s first weekly magazine devoted to sports. Sports Illustrated introduced a new kind of sportswriting, photos, and weekly reports that accelerated the enormous popularity of spectator sports throughout the country.

Among the magazine’s original contributors listed on the masthead of the first issue is Lester Woodcock, my 89-year-old Oak Bluffs neighbor, who went on to a 14-year career as a Sports Illustrated reporter, writer, and editor. Les, as he quickly became known in the second issue, watched the magazine’s sportswriting evolve over the years to attract its current 24 million readers every week. What’s amazing is that Sports Illustrated almost didn’t get published.

In the early 1950s, no one seemed to consider sports worthy of serious journalism or a glossy national magazine, except the publishing magnate Henry Luce and his wife, the playwright Claire Boothe Luce, who pushed for the publication of Sports Illustrated against the objections of everyone else at Time Inc. Several editors at Time-Life mocked the Luces’ proposed magazine with names like Jockstrap and Sweat Socks. After failing to quash the idea, company executives predicted the magazine would die for lack of readers. They were almost right.

“We lost money for 10 years,” Les said. “It took a while to get the concept down. Time and Life people hated us because we were losing money and hurting the profit sharing. Henry Luce stuck with it despite his lieutenants telling him to drop this thing. We stumbled along, and weren’t quite sure who the audience was. I covered a dog show once.”

lester_woodcock_2.JPGTo create marketing interest for the new unnamed magazine, the staff experimented with two “dummy” issues, complete with ads, photos, and articles. Both covers featured spectators at sports events. The cover photo of “Dummy No. 1” looked down on the hats and backs of a well-heeled sporting crowd sitting in stands on a rainy day. “Dummy No. 2” showed the backs of another well-dressed California crowd at Pebble Beach, watching a professional golfer finish his swing on the 16th hole at Cypress Point. Articles ranged from fox hunting with hounds to professional wrestling on TV. Novelist Wallace Stegner, my future writing teacher at Stanford, wrote a piece titled “We Are Destroying Our National Parks.” The editors were clearly fishing among a variety of topics, including, in fact, a column on trout fishing. None of the photos and articles in the dummy issues ever appeared in the real Sports Illustrated.

To attract hardcore sports fans, SI’s first issue featured two of the country’s best-known newspaper columnists. Grantland Rice, the dean of American sportswriters, contributed a column about golf. In the 1920s, he and Heywood Broun formed an earlier generation that attempted to elevate lowbrow sportswriting through ornate phrasing and literary references. In his newspaper account of the 1921 “Fight of the Century” between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier, Broun managed in the first two paragraphs to refer to the Greek tragedian Euripides, the English dramatist George Bernard Shaw, and the American playwright Eugene O’Neill.

The most famous sportswriter of the next generation, Red Smith, wrote a baseball column for SI’s first issue. The Pulitzer-prizewinning Smith was a sportswriter for 50 years, and a Chilmark seasonal visitor for nearly 30. He filed columns from the Vineyard about the Derby, and his grandson’s first fishing trip. When he was 75, Smith wrote a piece for the New York Times about West Tisbury’s first annual oyster- and quahog-shucking contest. Smith noted, “Some of the hardshells were as stubborn as Jerry Falwell.”

Smith helped pare down sportswriting to a direct, Hemingway-influenced style, with scenes and dialogue, although he maintained his signature turns of phrase and baroque similes, such as the description of outfielder Joe DiMaggio catching a “monstrous drive like a well-fed banquet guest picking his teeth.” Smith’s reputation as a literary craftsman put him on the panel of language experts for the “Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage.”

When Les Woodcock was a kid on Long Island, he wanted to be a sports reporter like Dick Young, who wrote for the Daily News, while the older columnist Smith appeared in the Herald Tribune. “I could only afford one newspaper,” Les said, “and the News was a big paper in those days, and Dick Young a top writer.” Young stripped sportswriting of all ornamentation to produce a modern, aggressive style that had, as the Times later wrote, “all the subtlety of a knee in the groin.” He was the guy who first took sportswriting into the locker room.

“He had a punchy style a young guy could appreciate,” Les said. “He wrote in short sentences, and you felt you were getting behind the scenes. From the time I was 14, I wanted to emulate Dick Young.”

In high school Les wrestled, and ran the 880 and cross-country. “I had visions of becoming a baseball player,” he said, “but I was never good enough. I just couldn’t hit that well.” In June before his graduation, he dove the wrong way off a diving board, hit a boat ledge, and broke his neck. For three months he wore a 20-pound plaster cast with his neck tipped back, eyes skyward.

As best all-around senior, he’d won a scholarship to Lincoln Memorial University, a liberal arts college in Tennessee, where a year later, with the cast off, he made the baseball team, but was immediately drafted. Released as the Korean War broke out, he went to work as a copy boy for the New York Sun and then as a clerk in the Time Inc. morgue. He was 26, married, working full-time during the day, and attending Columbia at night for six years, when he heard about plans for a new, unnamed sports magazine. He sent some suggestions for the magazine to the managing editor.

“April 1954 was the greatest month of my life,” Les said. “I got word I was going to graduate from Columbia, I was going to be on the masthead of Sports Illustrated, and I had my first child, who became Sports Illustrated’s first child.”

Les set up the magazine’s archives in its morgue, and as a reporter did research for a feature story in the first issue, “The Golden Age Is Now.” In a later issue he wrote “Billy the Tiger,” a profile of the new Detroit Tigers shortstop Billy Martin. “You will see in many places,” the publisher announced in the first issue, “the key ingredient of good journalism: the quality of being there when it happened.”

Sports Illustrated initiated color photos as a vehicle for journalistic immediacy. Even today the first issue’s four-page color spread of heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano slugging challenger Ezzard Charles is stunning. TV at the time, the magazine’s chief competitor in national sports coverage, remained mostly viewed on fuzzy black-and-white screens.
“The photographer was the king,” Les said. “The photographers were over us, and I had to carry their big batteries. They were the big shots.”

As a reporter, he took his first plane trip to the 1955 Kentucky Derby, and hauled the photographer’s bulky equipment. Les helped set up cameras around the infield edge of the derby track. One of his jobs was to press the button on a camera as the horses ran toward him. “It was a famous race — Swaps beating the favorite Nashua was one of the great upsets — and my view of the race was of the horses coming right at me. It was kind of scary.”

Les’s other job at the derby was to sit in the stands with novelist William Faulkner. “To get publicity, we would hire a famous writer to cover something. Faulkner was delightful, a lovely gentleman. He wrote a piece that a lot of people couldn’t understand.” Les also sat with poet Robert Frost at an All-Star baseball game, and with playwright William Saroyan at a World Series: “Saroyan was the most fun, because we were closer in age, and he was a real baseball fan. Being with those three writers was one of the highlights of my career in sports.”

In the 1960s, Sports Illustrated found its audience and climbed out of the red. “A chap named André Laguerre came along as managing editor,” Les said. “He told us we were a sports magazine, and we would concentrate on the major sports. I organized special issues on baseball, football, hockey, and so on.” SI turned away from earlier articles about expensive safaris and yachting races, and left hunting and fishing articles to Field and Stream. Laguerre also recognized the growing importance of pro football in American sports.

SI’s photographers found themselves competing with color TV in the Sixties as the popularity of spectator sports increased. SI responded with well-written, in-depth, behind-the-scenes articles. Les, who was then a senior editor, said, “Many marvelous writers on the staff gave readers something to hold in their hands beyond the fleeting images of TV.” Sports fans could read about the athletes they’d seen on television, and get background on their lives. Many of these new SI writers later ended up in the annual series of “The Best American Sports Writing.” Sportswriting had become a respected literary genre in its own right.

In 1968, Les wanted his kids, ranging from 5 to 12, to see more of the world than the north shore of Long Island. He resigned from SI and moved with his wife and six children, none of whom spoke Italian, to Rome. “I was kind of idealistic,” he said. After an adventurous year and a half as a freelance foreign correspondent for Time-Life, he returned to the U.S. as the founding managing editor of Jock, New York, a regional monthly that was to expand to Chicago, San Francisco, and other cities. “It was an innovative magazine,” Les said. Two different covers on the front and back of an issue was later imitated by SI. An eye-catching foldout cover showed the World Series-winning Mets invading Manhattan in a rowboat crossing the East River, the manager and players posing like Washington and his troops crossing the Delaware. “We got a lot of critical acclaim,” Les said, “but we didn’t have Luce’s money to sustain the magazine, and it folded.”

Les Woodcock in 1974 —Courtesy Lester Woodcock

Les Woodcock in 1974 —Courtesy Lester Woodcock

Les went on to publish and edit another national sports magazine, the Sporting Guide; two national horseracing monthlies, Turf and Sports Digest and Classic; and a regional monthly, Long Island Life. What did he emphasize as an editor in all these magazines? “Just good writing,” he said; “good articles, and being on top of things.” At another time, he said, “That’s what I learned from my years at Sports Illustrated. It’s better to have a good writer than an expert. A good writer can learn to turn out a good piece on anything. The expert who can’t write is of lesser value.”

The first issue of Sports Illustrated contained a six-page tear-out insert of 27 baseball cards. “I came full circle,” Les said about how he finished his career in sports as the editorial director of Major League Marketing. For 11 years he wrote the backs of the company’s baseball and football cards. “According to some articles,” he said, “I revolutionized baseball cards and gave a little story along with the statistics. I loved it more than anything I ever did. I would devour five newspapers a day, keep 3-by-5 cards on every player, gathering quotes and highlights. It was fun, and I was working at home” — except when he went to a New York baseball game every week during the season. He became by his own account a master of compressed writing. He estimates that he wrote the backs of more than 20,000 cards in his career.

Les still reads Sports Illustrated every week. “It’s changed a lot,” he said. “It’s geared toward a younger audience, but I enjoy it. I look forward to it.”

I spent two days talking with Les at his Oak Bluffs home. As I was finishing this article, I realized neither of us had mentioned a particularly successful feature of Sports Illustrated. I went for a run and stopped by his house. His wife, Mary, was at the Edgartown law firm where she works four days a week as a paralegal. Les had returned from sorting books for the Oak Bluffs Library sale. He was reading John Updike’s “Due Considerations: Essays and Criticisms,” and making his way though Henry James’ “The Ambassadors.”

“Hey, Les,” I said. “Here’s something we didn’t talk about. What about SI’s swimsuit issue? It’s the most popular issue every year.”

“Right,” he said. “What about it?”

“What’s your opinion of it?”

“Well, when it was brought up, I said, ‘That sounds like a terrible idea. We’re a sports magazine,’ but my voice didn’t carry very far. Laguerre, the sainted editor, put it through despite the objections of others, too. And he was right. He was so right. Economically. But good writing is more important.”

Frank Bergon taught at Vassar for many years and is the author of four novels, most recently “Jesse’s Ghost.” He lives in Oak Bluffs.

Leave a reply

Theme developed by TouchSize - Premium WordPress Themes and Websites