In the 1940s, we lived in the country. Every Sunday, after Mass, before we drove home, my father bought the Hartford Courant from a young man selling them from a stack on the wide asphalt expanse in front of church. My brother and I weren't allowed to touch the paper until we had driven the 7 miles to our home in Burrville. Then we got the Sports section, which we took turns reading, always starting with the front page column called "With Malice Toward None" by Bill Lee. I would look at Lee's picture at the top of the column, and the byline and the dateline and say, "Boy, would I like to do what he does.''
Eventually, it happened for me. I got to represent The Courant at events around the country, including World Series, a Super Bowl, many Red Sox-Yankees games and series, All-Star games and more. For three years, after Lee retired, I went to Florida for three weeks reporting on spring training. I was living the dream. I'm still living it.
The Courant's Sports section in 1965 was sometimes derided as the "toy department'' by a few people who worked in other news departments. They were not sports people.
These relatively few carpers, who looked down self-importantly on sports, took themselves and their jobs a little too seriously, not wanting to admit or possibly not even knowing that sports was the most popular section with readers day after day. So busy and occupied were they with their little corners of the news department that they appeared not to realize that Lee was the most recognizable and talented personality in the building and one of the best at his trade in the country. Lee sold The Courant, it was correctly said, for more than 35 years.
Working from a tiny, cramped office in the dingy, smoky sports/news department on the third floor, Lee fought a daily column-writing duel with his contemporary counterpart at the Hartford Times, sports editor Art McGinley. The two were great friends but serious competitors. So too were the members of the two sports departments. Writers guarded their secrets and their sources with great care. Every little edge was magnified. One episode that illustrates this point:
The Yankee Conference, of which UConn was a member, scheduled an eight-day bus trip before the football season, inviting writers from New England papers to ride along and write previews on each team from day to day. It was a well-received idea with many takers. But the Times, wanting to be ahead of The Courant with its previews, sent reporter Harold Ogden one day ahead of the bus so his stories would appear the day before The Courant's stories.
There were no "scoops" involved; it was an informational excursion, but the Times-Courant rivalry was such that this bit of trickery was deemed important.
The Times was an afternoon paper, a fact that eventually hurried its demise. In 1965, the year Lee hired me to join the eight-man staff that he managed, the Courant, an a.m. paper, passed the Times in circulation. Times were changing swiftly; subscribers' newspaper-reading habits changed with the times. Television was by then solidly entrenched in most households and TV news was more popular than reading the paper after supper. However, readers still liked and demanded the news and features of a good morning paper with breakfast, which the Courant provided.
Moreover, The Courant had built and maintained a strong presence in surrounding towns and the state desk was ever active. The Times stayed mostly in Hartford and eventually paid the price for that misjudgment.
I had joined the state's best paper as the golden age of sports was blossoming. The Courant sports department marched along beside and recorded it all. Ever understaffed and usually overworked, the sports department ran as fast as it could to keep up, feeling, as a state paper, that this had to be the mission. By and large, it succeeded.
It was Frank Keyes who broke the story that the Whalers of the newly formed World Hockey Association would become Hartford's first professional hockey team.
In Hartford, the presence of the Whalers from 1973-74 to 1996-97 and that of boxer Marlon Starling's flamboyant run to a national welterweight title increased the responsibility and the workload of the sports department and made it hum with significance.
Television had everything to do with the sports explosion. Arnold Palmer had started tournament golf on its lucrative way to the moon in the 1950s and TV was now embracing the irresistible pull of competition among the "Big Three," Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Golf was a sport for everyone and the Auld Scots Game flourished throughout the country. Our own PGA tournament began at Wethersfield Country Club as the Insurance City Open and was renamed as years passed and sponsors came and went as the Greater Hartford Open, the Sammy Davis Jr.-GHO, the Canon, the Buick and finally the Travelers. Travelers recently announced it would continue its prime sponsorship for at least another 10 years.
The Courant's golf writer, Owen Griffith, was a doughty little Canadian, impossible to dislike, popular with the country's golf writers, state, local and PGA golfers as well. Because Palmer had won the tournament twice, in 1956 and 1960, he was a constant annual entrant. One year in the late '50s he flew his own plane to the tournament and Griffith pulled some strings and arranged to get a ride in the craft, Palmer piloting, before the start of the tournament. It made a good story for The Courant's preview section and a beaming Griffith answered questions about it for days.
Televised boxing, so prominent and popular in the 1950s, had all but petered out because of overexposure, but Muhammad Ali kept blood pumping through the sport in the heavyweight division. Pro football was by now amazingly popular. Lee wrote, "Television has made pro football and killed boxing.''
Lee and Keyes, a terrific old-school writer and colorful character, covered the second Sonny Liston-Ali fight in Lewiston, Maine in 1965. Since neither had ever learned to drive, they had to arrange transportation from John Kershaw, who worked part time in the department.
Much later, after Ali had been reinstated after a long suspension, Lee chose me to help him cover the first of three fights with Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in 1971, one of the great thrills of my sports-writing life.
Locally, Starling kept the sports department busy and generated great excitement with his boxing success. He won fight after fight and had two blockbuster battles with Donald Curry, losing both in close decisions. "Moochie'' eventually won the championship and all the celebrity that went with it. The Courant's writers captured it all and readers devoured their work.
Baseball maintained its prominent spring/summer/fall place and hockey in Hartford would soon be making its initial bow with a young, wavy-haired, spiffily dressed Howard Baldwin squiring in the era in Hartford. Hockey adventures would follow to enliven the local sports landscape, but there was never high success on the ice. The Courant's Tommy Hine proved to be not only a terrific hockey writer, but a man who could be counted on for expert work on deadline. He covered the NHL-WHA merger in Florida in 1979, writing as many as five stories a day.
Hine also covered a dozen Olympic Games around the world for The Courant and the America's Cup, including a three-month work assignment in Australia. On these subjects, he was a recognized expert.
UConn basketball began to grow concomitantly and when Dave Gavitt introduced the Big East, the fuse began to burn for an astonishing explosion in popularity. When Geno Auriemma arrived in 1985 to take over UConn women's basketball, another element of sports responsibility for The Courant's sports department arrived with him.
How lucky was I? Professionally, no man ever had a more fortunate run than I had in the 30 years, 1965-95, that I spent at the paper, and subsequent years as well, since I continued to contribute columns weekly and then monthly on a freelance basis. When Griffith retired, Lee assigned me to the golf beat at my request. That meant covering Connecticut's big tournament, the ICO/GHO, which I did for the next 40 years or so, along with dozens of major tournaments around the country.
My first major tournament was the 1969 U.S. Open at Hazeltine Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., which had a special meaning to Connecticut golf fans because Julius Boros, a Fairfield native, was the defending champion. I was able to interview Boros and write about him, but England's Tony Jacklin won the tournament. After that came 10 Masters, including Nicklaus' phenomenal 1986 win, as many U.S. Opens, a few PGA Championships, and many lesser, but still important, pro and amateur tournaments.
I had a three-hour session with Ali when he was suspended from the ring because he had refused to be inducted into the army. I later interviewed him when he came to Hartford for a personal appearance. It was a sad interview in a local hotel lobby. Parkinson's had taken its toll.
When the Courant moved from State Street to 285 Broad St., Bill Lee fondly recalled the old building, calling it "the old lady of State Street.'' I will remember my old workplace as The Old Lady of Broad Street whenever I recall going forth from there to cover such great sports events as Hank Aaron's Ruth-record-breaking home run in Atlanta and Pete Rose's Cobb-record-breaking base hit.
The best true newsman I've ever known was Al Simonds, who showed me that while all the big national stories are important, the most appealing ones, done right, are about the people we meet in local gyms, and restaurants and yes, bars. And walking down the street.
Newspapers have suffered from the proliferation of the computer age, but the fact remains that there are still thousands of readers who would not know what to do if they were not able to go to their porches seven mornings a week, fetch their old friend, The Courant, and begin their days in the normal, natural way that they always have.
May it always be thus.
Owen Canfield, who worked full-time at The Courant from 1965-95 and has continued in a freelance role, recently celebrated his 80th birthday and is the dean of Connecticut sports journalists. He's also the nicest guy you'll ever meet.Copyright © 2015, CT Now