I regret I did not find a way to get to know Blackie Sherrod during my seven years at the Dallas Times Herald. He died the other day at 96. He was a huge influence on me, going back to my high school newspaper homage to his famous Sunday column opening, “Scattershooting while wondering whatever happened to…” At St. Mark’s, we changed the sports column lead to “Marksmaneuvering while wondering…” Blackie never filed a claim of plagiarism against us. I didn’t get to the DTH until years later, after marching against the Vietnam War in college and working for Dallas’ first alternative weekly. The generation gap had widened, and Blackie was on the other side of it — old school, gruff and indifferent to the new breed of journalists and east coast editors who began to show up at 1101 Pacific. He had the biggest office in the building, just off the newsroom, and it was missing a welcome mat, as I recall. I’m not sure he came out much to mingle and chat, but then the features section, where I labored, was down the hall, beyond the pale.
Blackie was a maverick in many ways, eschewing literary pretension and inventing (I think) the terms “The World Serious” and “Sports Elevated.” He was a master of the short form of the sports column, combining observation, reporting and opinion in pithy, memorable prose that carried a whiff of irreverence. He had been a tail-gunner on a torpedo plane in the South Pacific and like many sportswriters of his WWII generation, he was no fan of the counterculture and slow to accept Cassius Clay’s desire to be known as Muhammad Ali. He used the word Negro as late as 1976, when he wrote a column critical of an article I did on assignment for the Sunday Magazine examining the belated integration of Southwest Conference football squads. Without mentioning me by name, he gently dissed the article that had appeared in his own paper and questioned the evidence of local racial discrimination in athletics as being anything but a reflection of the state’s sociology and not so far behind the rest of the country. In other words, much ado about nothing.
The thing was, Mel Farr, Bubba Smith, Charley Taylor and other top Texas recruits had left to play college ball elsewhere because of the color barrier. The Southwest Conference didn’t see its first two black football players until 1966, when Jerry Levias, a star split end, and John Westbrook, a walk-on running back, took the field for SMU and Baylor. Former SMU coach Hayden Fry told me, “we’ll never know all the bad things that happened to Jerry that first season.” When they traveled, Fry said, the team had to make special arrangements with hotels and restaurants because many were still segregated. Levias was spat on and received death threats. Blackie didn’t mention those details in his “we’re not so bad” follow-up column. “It was only four years earlier that the Washington Redskins integrated,” he reasoned.
It was my first year at the times-they-are-a-changin’ Times Herald, and in my hubris I took his public reproach as a badge of honor. But it did not make it easy to sidle up to him after that, and I wish things had gone differently. I wish I had joined the crowd at Joe Miller’s more often and maybe found easier access to him over a bourbon or two. He was someone worth knowing, a Runyonesque figure spanning decades of newspapering in North Texas, barnacled attitudes and all. Whatever his limitations, he and his estimable Times Herald colleague, the late Frank Luksa, now seem as giants compared to the the class of preening ESPN provocateurs like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith.
Even if I did not win Blackie’s approval, I don’t regret getting that Sunday magazine assignment and a day-pass into the world of sports I might have chosen as a beat in another time and place. Some years after that article, when the Times Herald’s house organ interviewed me, I took the opportunity to say I had grown up thinking of Blackie as a hero. I hoped he might stop me in the hall one day and say, “Hey, nice of you to say that” or whatever. No way.