Frank's Place: Grady's words dominated the Philadelphia sports landscape

Former Philadelphia Daily News columnist Sandy Grady

My father worked nights, slept days, and rose for dinner in a mood as sour as my mother's iced tea.

He usually was too tired or cranky to read the just-delivered Bulletin's sports section so my mother, as we ate, often read aloud what for him was its one indispensable element - Sandy Grady's column.

Those wonderfully crafted words soothed my father, though they must also have stirred conflicting emotions in a proofreader who had wanted to be a sportswriter.

For my young ears, hearing Grady's insights and flawless phrasing, so perfect in audible form, sparked the beginnings of awareness. Great sportswriting needn't be hagiographic or obsessed with outcomes and statistics. It could be literature.

"[Sandy] approached journalism with the craft of a novelist," Kathy Kiely, Grady's longtime companion, told USA Today's Rem Reider.

There were many gifted sports voices in this city's three newspapers during the 1950s and 1960s - Bill Conlin, Frank Dolson, George Kiseda, Jack Kiser, and Stan Hochman among them. But for me, Grady's was the best and clearest.

His talent, combined with the behemoth Bulletin's daily circulation of 750,000, let him dominate the public discourse on sports in a way no one in 2015's tribal media world can approach.

Grady died last week, just days after Hochman. Their passings closed the curtain on an age when sportswriters were virtually our sole connections to the games and the athletes we loved.

And no one connected you as intimately as Grady, a native North Carolinian who arrived here in 1957 just as Larry Merchant was reimagining the Daily News and sports journalism.

"He could paint a scene with words, make you feel as if you were at the event," said Frank Bilovsky, a former Bulletin colleague. "Because of his columns, I felt like I knew Gene Mauch before I ever met the man. And the Mauch I met was exactly the Mauch that Sandy had portrayed."

Mauch, Joe Kuharich, Wilt Chamberlain, Muhammad Ali - the more challenging and complex the subject, the more revealing Grady's columns. He could make you laugh or cry, sometimes in the same paragraph. He always made you think. And while many contemporaries tended to be either too florid or too flaccid, his was an elegant, conversational tone.

Here's an excerpt from his 1960 column on the retirement of Eagles quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, which his Bulletin colleague Ray Didinger cited in his recent Grady tribute:

"As a sportswriter, 1,000 games become a blur, the arenas and the noise and sweat and faces tumble together like bright colors in a washing machine. But Van Brocklin was the pure hard metal that stays with you. I think there was a reason. He had the gift of drama. He always dominated the stage in the last act.

"What the mind's eye sees is this slightly pouchy, scowling man in the green No. 11 shirt. It is always dusk in a cold ball yard and the scoreboard lights are running against him. He shuffles on stubby legs, throwing with the classic overhead motion, picking his way against the clock and the crowd's roar.

"With Van Brocklin, you were always watching a man playing a 100-yard chess game, terribly alone in his decisions, desperate for the kill."

After Grady's death, another local journalist posted online a page of sportswriters photos from the 1960 Phillies yearbook. It was like discovering an artifact from the Valley of the Kings.

To 21st-century eyes, the all-white, all-male cast looked more like accountants than sportswriters. They wore coats and ties and were draped in an earnestness that has all but disappeared from the profession.

They also appeared older than they were, more world-weary than those who have followed, perhaps because the physical process of producing a newspaper story, involving as it did telegraph operators, typewriters, and an overreliance on memory, was so much more grueling.

Among those pictured was a smiling Jackie Wilson, the Bulletin sports editor who hired me as a college intern in 1970. Longtime Inquirer columnist Frank Dolson seemed impossibly youthful. Fred Byrod, meanwhile, looked just as crusty as he was. Art Morrow, whose byline I've encountered often in research but whose face I'd never seen, was among them. Hochman was younger and more dapper than I remember, but no less intense.

And there was Grady, without the familiar glasses, gazing assuredly toward a world he never stopped exploring or enlightening.

One night during my Bulletin internship, I noticed a man hunched over a typewriter in the sports department's most remote corner.

When he was still there a few hours later, I asked my boss who he was. Being told it was Grady was like being doused in ice water. For the rest of the night, too shy to approach my writing idol, I thought about what I'd say if our paths crossed.

The next time I looked, he was gone, the mysterious departure worthy of the deity I was certain he must be.

After the Bulletin folded, Grady became a political columnist, and I never got so close again.

Like it or not, newspaper voices in 2015 don't have the same distinctive volume Grady possessed. Sportswriters are just another part of the 24/7 noise machine, and few, no matter their gifts, can rise above the cacophony.

But there was a time, as that newspaper's ads so famously noted, when nearly everyone read the Bulletin. And nearly everyone who did read Sandy Grady.

Even if some, like my father, had him read to them.