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MORRISSEY: Warren Brown was sports columnist for different age

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Updated: September 19, 2013 9:42AM



I’m visiting a lost world.

I’m sitting in Pete Brown’s kitchen in the western suburbs, and spread out between us are mementos of his late grandfather, Chicago sports columnist Warren Brown.

There are letters to Brown from Gene Tunney and Ford Frick. Photos of Brown with Damon Runyon and Ed Sullivan. A letter from former Notre Dame star Jack Elder, who, along with Brown, had dined with Knute Rockne the day before the Irish coach died in a plane crash.

This is the columnist who gave Red Grange the nickname ‘‘the Galloping Ghost.’’ Some credit him with being the first to call Babe Ruth ‘‘the Sultan of Swat.’’

I’m looking at all of this both wide-eyed and through the lens of today’s sportswriting standards, which is like looking at hoop skirts through an iPhone camera. I shouldn’t, but I can’t help myself.

‘‘He used to ride the train with those guys,’’ said Pete Brown, a retired broker at the Chicago Board Options Exchange. ‘‘He played cards with Babe Ruth. He was one of the only sportswriters that Ted Williams would even have anything to do with. Grandpa didn’t drink, and these guys trusted him. If it was off-the-record, it was off-the-record. He was a man of integrity.’’

Warren Brown was a sports editor and columnist in Chicago for more than 50 years, most with the Herald Examiner and the Herald-American. He also was the first sports editor at the Chicago Sun, the precursor to the Sun-Times. But he was so much more than that. He wrote jokes for Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. He was a regular toastmaster on the banquet circuit.

In short, he was everything most sports columnists today couldn’t and wouldn’t be. Are we better off now? If you asked me that question after I watched ESPN’s wall-to-wall Alex Rodriguez coverage, I’m not sure how I’d answer.

I’ll let you be the judge on which era is better, but one thing is clear: We all would be lesser for it if Brown hadn’t been friends with Tunney. The ‘‘Long Count Fight’’ never might have taken place.

On Sept. 22, 1927, Tunney was to fight Jack Dempsey at Soldier Field in a rematch of their heavyweight-title fight from the year before. Tunney had won the first fight, and there were deep suspicions the second one was fixed. Most of those suspicions stemmed from rumors that Al Capone had bet $50,000 on Dempsey in the first fight.

Tunney was concerned that the referee or the judges had been bought off and, on the day of the bout, relayed to Brown that he wasn’t going to fight. This was news because A) 105,000 people were about to descend on Soldier Field and B) Tunney was going to earn $1 million for the fight, an ungodly sum in those days.

Brown went to the Illinois State Athletic Commission to try to get an idea of what was real and what was rumor. Commission members assured him nobody knew whom the referee and the judges were because they didn’t want Capone’s gang to find out. Brown went back to Tunney and told him he thought the fight would be fair.

The rest is history. Dempsey knocked down Tunney in the seventh round but failed to go to a neutral corner, the rule both camps had agreed to before the fight. Referee Dave Barry didn’t start his count until five seconds after the knockdown, when Dempsey finally moved to a neutral corner. When Barry got to nine, Tunney stood up. He would go on to win a unanimous decision.

Pete Brown has two 1931 letters Tunney wrote to his grandfather. Tunney wanted permission to relate the pre-bout drama for a series of articles he was writing for Collier’s magazine.

‘‘I know that you went to the Commission on the afternoon of the fight and read the ‘Riot Act’ because of the rumor that a hoodlum was to referee the fight,’’ he wrote.

It’s clear from Tunney’s
second letter that Brown, in a return letter, had been concerned he might be implicated in something Capone’s crew might not appreciate.

‘‘Of course I will take your name out and substitute ‘a certain Chicago newspaperman’ for the Collier articles,’’ Tunney wrote.

Here’s what Tunney wrote in Collier’s:

‘‘A reporter for the Chicago Herald-Examiner paid a visit to the offices of the Commission at five o’clock in the afternoon and brought with him a message from the publisher to the effect that the Herald-Examiner would not tolerate the appointment of any referee of bad reputation and that if such a one were appointed referee, whether his officiating were honest or not, that paper would utilize its power for the removal of [the chairman of the commission].’’

It would be difficult today to find a writer who would inject himself into a story or be so close to the athletes he covers. These days, coaches and players consider us more enemy than friend. Any writer who found out the heavyweight champion wasn’t going to fight would have it on Twitter in a matter of seconds.

Again, a different world.

A better world? I don’t know, but the old one was a lot more interesting.



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