Lecture: Lynn Povich and George Solomon

Lynn Povich and George Solomon.
Lynn Povich and George Solomon. Photo: (George Solomon) Courtesy of PublicAffairs Press.




In 75 years of covering sports for The Washington Post, Shirley Povich never hesitated to expose the injustices plaguing America’s favorite pastimes. As early as 1939, he was taking baseball owners to task for confining talented black players to the Negro Leagues, insisting that “only one thing is keeping them out of the big leagues: the pigmentation of their skin.”

Povich, who died in 1998 at the age of 92, lived to see baseball desegregated. In 1960, however, the Washington Redskins’ management was still resisting integration. Povich wrote, with characteristic wit, of a Redskins loss in which Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown “integrated the Redskins’ goal line with more than deliberate speed,” a wry quote from the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in the famous desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education.

Povich’s daughter Lynn may have had those very words in mind in 1970 when she was part of a groundbreaking sex-discrimination lawsuit against Newsweek. When the magazine ran a cover story on the women’s movement in March, 1970, it didn't feature a single female byline. “We women decided that was it,” Povich recalled in a 2004 interview. “So we sued.” Because Newsweek and The Washington Post were both owned by the Graham family, the lawsuit put Povich in the unusual position of suing her father’s boss, Katherine Graham. “We talked about it,” Povich told an audience of students and faculty at an October 24 lecture at NYU’s Department of Journalism. “I warned him that this was coming, and he was very supportive, although years later he did ask me one favor—that I shake Katherine Graham’s hand at a party the Post had in his honor, which I was happy to do."

Shirley and Maury Povich with Muhammad Ali
Pulling Punches: The late Shirley Povich horses around with his son Maury and Muhammad Ali, in one of Povich’s rare television appearances—on Maury’s former show “Panorama.” Photo courtesy of PublicAffairs Press.

She went on to become the magazine’s first woman senior editor, a post she held from 1975 to 1991. From ‘91 to ‘96, she served as editor-in-chief of Working Woman magazine. “The rap has been that women don’t want to deal with financial concerns,” she wrote in introducing the magazine’s special issue on financial security. “That’s hogwash.” In ‘96, she moved to MSNBC.com, where she worked as managing editor, then senior executive producer of East Coast programming until 2001. She now sits on the board of directors of the International Women’s Media Foundation and is a member of Human Rights Watch’s Advisory Committee on Women’s Rights.

In April 2005, PublicAffairs Press published All Those Mornings…At the Post, a 400-page collection of her father’s columns. Povich and her brothers Maury and David edited the volume, along with longtime Post sportswriter George Solomon, a close friend of her father’s. Solomon joined Povich at NYU to discuss the book, Shirley Povich’s storied career, and the art of sports writing.

Solomon cited Shirley Povich’s account of Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series as a classic of sports journalism. Povich’s now-famous account of the game—-the only perfect World Series game ever—-began, “The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. Don Larsen today pitched a no-hit, no-run, no-man-reach-first game in a World Series.” Povich often worked on deadlines much tighter than today’s, and filed more stories than most contemporary sportswriters file—sometimes as many as two or three pieces a night. “He was sitting in the press box after that game, needing to file immediately for the extra edition," Solomon told his audience of NYU journalism students and faculty. "He’d do an event story, a column, and a play-by-play, and he agonized over every word he wrote. Now, a lot of sportswriters are on television as well. They spend less time writing, and the television style—the yelling, the funny one-liners—has crept into the writing as well.”

The ascendance of television has changed sports writing, Solomon claimed. “Before TV was so dominant, sportswriters really had to create narratives to tell readers what they’d seen at that afternoon’s game,” he said. “It’s a lot different now. Last week, Albert Pujols won a playoff game for the Cardinals with a walk-off home run, but the lede in the news story was about what Albert had been thinking about the week before.”

For Lynn Povich, the editing process was a way to reconnect with her father through his writing. "When we started, I intended to read everything, but there were more than 20,000 pieces to go through. I made it through 1931, and realized I couldn't do it that way. So Maury, George, and I began with the big events, things we knew everyone would want to read."

As she read, Povich came to a deeper understanding of her father's commitment to speaking out against racial injustice. "Dad wrote columns for years and years about this issue in baseball, football, golf," she said, in an interview with this writer a few days after her lecture at NYU. "He did encounter some who were upset about the positions he took, but in Washington his views were very popular. His columns on the Washington Redskins' management were influential, once the team began seeking federal money to build a new stadium. He made the case that funds should not be given to a team that refused to integrate, and finally they did." Shirley Povich continued writing, and continued taking on the big issues in sports, right up through the end of his career—his last column for the Post, written the day before he died in 1998, warned of the negative impacts of widespread steroid use. As George Solomon told the NYU audience, "Shirley was not afraid to take a stand."

Nora Connor is a master’s candidate in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program in NYU’s Department of Journalism.