SMITH COLUMN: Old timers

Published 10:30 am Thursday, May 5, 2022

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A note from a friend recently made me aware that with all the money that is out there for young athletes today, that they should be reminded that when the sun begins to set in their lives, they are not going to be able to buy friendships.

You don’t need friendships when you are young. You can buy anything you want if it is not given to you. How can you convince a precocious teenager that a warm and generous friendship is worth more than money? Even though they may manage and protect their money and may be as well off as Croesus, what will life be like without friends and memories.

The aforementioned note had to do with a coach remembering a highly successful coach befriending him years ago. The old coach took time to sit down with the young coach for a cup of coffee and conversation.

Being naive when my life’s professional journey began, I had much to learn. Along the way, I discovered that the ole timers were gentlemen for the most part and would give you the time of day,

I can name a couple of prominent athletes whom I encountered years ago and asked if I could ask a few questions. They began with, “How long will this take?”  It wasn’t that their time was so valuable, it was that I did not represent an organization that they deemed substantial enough to warrant a conversation. If I had represented a major sports organization or Sports Illustrated, they would have had time to talk.

There never has been a superstar who had more time for people than Arnold Palmer. He not only signed autographs patiently, but he also smiled and spoke to those who stood in line. He made them feel good. The thing he didn’t like was the crassness of those who would shove their way past a young kid to get his signature with plans to sell it. 

I have always had an advantage by identifying myself as being with the University of Georgia. It is easy to understand that any player or coach has to be guarded when it comes to the interview process today, especially with the advent of social media.

When life was simpler it wasn’t so bad. Sometimes all that was needed was a referral from a friend to connect with a star player. One call from a close friend enabled me to spend an afternoon with Red Sox slugger Ted Williams.

A phone call to Ty Cobb, who had a listed number at the apartment where he lived in Cornelia, led to a three-hour conversation with him a year before he died. He didn’t ask how long the interview would take. He didn’t ask that a list of questions be sent in advance.

Bobby Thomson, the Giant outfielder who hit one of the most famous homeruns in baseball history, lived out his life on Skidaway Island, near Savannah. He was generous with his time, reminiscing about that homer and his life in the Big Leagues.

Stan Musial, the larger-than-life Cardinal, owing to a mutual friend, invited me to lunch at his restaurant in St. Louis. Afterwards, he allowed me to turn on a tape recorder for 45 minutes to recall the highlights of his magical career.

A call to Joe B. Hall, the longtime Kentucky basketball coach segued into an invitation to join him for breakfast with his breakfast club at Wheeler’s Pharmacy in Lexington, Kentucky. Afterwards, the proprietor found a nondescript storage room where I interviewed him.

There were two legendary sports figures I was able to talk to on the phone, but was unable to see. Charley Trippi arranged for me to connect with Joe DiMaggio at the family restaurant in San Francisco, but he had done enough interviews in his life. I was told he didn’t think he could have a conversation with any media person without the bringing up of Marilyn Monroe’s name. He was nice and pleasant, but I was too much of a stranger for him to sit and talk about his remarkable career.

Bronko Nagurski, the great running back of the Chicago Bears, lived out his life in International Falls, Minnesota, where he ran a service station (try that one on the high draft picks of today). At the time, I was in Minneapolis and wanted to drive up to see him, but he would only give out interviews on the phone. Our phone conversation lasted more than an hour. Here’s to the ole timers. They always have time for you.