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Sunday, 27 February 2011

Typewriters and Sportwriters

Sportswriters were once called “fans with portable typewriters” with the best seat in the house and a desk to boot. In its sports special edition of October 1974, Esquire magazine published an article headed, “The Writing of Sports”, by Randall Poe, which started with a Robert Lipsyte quotation: “Well-meaning people often ask sportswriters ... what they are going to do when they grow up”.

Poe claimed that “probably the most influential sports story ever written” was Grantland Rice’s famous report of the 1924 Notre Dame-Army football match, which he began, “Outlined against a blue-grey October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again”. (It was written, by the way, on a Remington Model 1 portable typewriter.)

The Rice story has been described as a mess of brawling - not mixed, note - metaphors, and of “foaming hype”. Wells Twombly, of The San Francisco Examiner, said Rice wrote “for dolts … he mixes metaphors 24 times in the first paragraph alone”. But who remembers Twombly? Well may he have derided Rice’s writing, especially with the goodness of 50 years’ hindsight, but without having ever himself written a line of sports copy that was quoted and re-quoted down through the last three-quarters of the 20th century, I hardly think he was qualified to pass comment.

In the same issue of Esquire, a well-crafted, highly readable piece by Leonard Gardner about the rise of George Foreman and his world heavyweight bout with Ken Norton in Venezuela in 1973 begins, “Along the ridges of the low, bleak shoulders of the mountains surrounding Caracas …” It’s simply Rice repeated almost half a century later except Gardner had an awful lot more time in which to compose his story than Rice did when he filed his copy against tight newspaper deadlines in 1924.

Rice’s example of letting go the facts and allowing his emotions to rule eventually turned, of course, into Gonzo journalism, as promoted by Hunter S. Thompson, who poured his immediate stream of thoughts and often odd reactions into a red IBM Selectric typewriter for a sports column for ESPN right up until the time of his suicide.

It’s been said, and with sometimes clear reason, that in every half-decent sports writer there’s a real writer trying to break out, and among great writers it could also be said there is very often a sports writer trying to break in. Those who broke out, one way or the other, include Ernest Hemingway, especially in his Toronto Star days, Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon, Paul Gallico, Westbrook Pegler, Irwin Shaw, Gay Talese, George Plimpton and Tom Wolfe not to mention Thompson, of course. Hemingway started out with a tiny Corona 3. Runyon used a hefty Royal 10, even at ringside.

Runyon’s robust Royal was the exception, not the rule. Portable typewriters were the work tools that changed sports writing. Jack London took a Standard Folding on the very distant road when he travelled to Rushcutter’s Bay, Sydney, to cover the Jack Johnson-Tommy Burns world title fight on Boxing Day 1908 for the Australian Star, The Los Angeles Times and William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers. Clearly the idea of taking a typewriter out of the newsroom and down to a yachting or rowing regatta, or an outdoor swimming meet, had entered someone’s head by at least 1913, because a spread on the Blickensderfer in The Guide to Nature included photographs of just such scenes.

Hemingway, writing in France, Spain and elsewhere in Europe, called the Corona 3 “the only psychiatrist to whom I’d submit”, but Corona was more justly proud of a more tangible quality: the durability of its little typewriter. On September 14, 1923, Jack Lawrence of The New York Herald Tribune was using a Corona 3 at ringside to cover the Jack Dempsey-Louis Angel Firpo ("El Toro de las Pampas - The Wild Bull of the Pampas”) world heavyweight  title fight at the Polo Grounds in New York. During a Firpo onslaught at the end of the first round, the Argentinean caught the champion’s chin with a right and Dempsey went out of the ring through the ropes landing on his neck and shoulder on top of Lawrence’s Corona 3 and cutting the back of his head. Lawrence and his colleagues got Dempsey back on to the canvas at the count of nine. Dempsey was able to recover, continue and retained his title in the next round, knocking Firpo down three times before the fight was stopped at the 57-second mark. Lawrence went on using his Corona 3 to describe the action. When the Corona Typewriter Company heard about the incident, it launched an advertising campaign stating, “Dempsey knocked out Firpo, but he couldn’t knock out the Corona 3.”

Dempsey entered the portable typewriter promotion business again on September 22, 1927, when the Royal Typewriter Company desperate to break into a portable market being completely dominated at the time by Corona, Underwood and Remington sponsored the first nationwide radio broadcast of a world title fight. This was Dempsey’s famous bout with Gene Tunney at Soldier’s Field in Chicago.

In Australia, the Olivetti Lettera 22 was to get its first exposure, and to gain a firm market foothold, through a deal between Olivetti and the Organising Committee of the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. This also brought to Australia the Studio 44.
Olivetti’s deal with the Melbourne Games came about because the organisers needed to save on the time, money and effort required to handwrite thousands of individual participation diplomas. Olivetti offered machines with a suitably-sized (3-16ths of an inch, as described by the Official Report) cursive typeface. Olivetti thus won the rights to exclusively supply typewriters to all Press Centres, Press tribunes and other Press venues, and to all hotels were visiting Press representatives were staying. Olivettis literally proliferated everywhere at the Melbourne Games. In photographs of Press facilities contained in the 1956 Games Official Report there are Olivettis by the dozens. They are hugely visible by their distinctive design.

As a marketing exercise, the ’56 Games were a major breakthrough for Olivetti. So much so, the Japanese company Brother attempted to do the same thing in Rome in 1960. This was, however, Olivetti’s home country, and its supply of 1000 typewriters free of charge to the Press Centres and venues at the 1960 Olympics was never in doubt.  In 1964 the Olympics went to Tokyo and naturally Brother thought its turn had come, to “greatly help improve recognition of the Brother brand”. But Olivetti was by this time so well established with the International Olympic Committee that Olivetti’s Japanese operation retained the rights. Brother did give 300 typewriters away to visiting journalists, having taken note of the curious style of goodwill gained by Olivetti from the waylaying of typewriters from the Melbourne and Rome press centres. (Royal had recognised the “good publicity” value in reporters pilfering portables as far back as 1926.)

Brother went on to sign on as the first official supplier of any goods to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (on January 19, 1981), supplying 3000 machines of a model called the 750TR and “thereby gaining international recognition as the No 1 typewriter brand”. The Official Report states, “Material management was the vital link between planning/development and physical production of the Games. Without raw materials and effective management, the Olympic Games could not be held; the stadia and arenas would exist, the crowds would arrive to watch the athletes, but the Olympic staff would not be able to do its job. There would be no javelins for the field events, no typewriters for reporters and no chairs for the staff.”

Brother continued the relationship with the IOC in Seoul in 1988, where there was a sea of orange Brother 210s in the main Press Centre, and Barcelona in 1992, where 2000 machines were supplied. Brother also supplied 500 typewriters to the Albertville Winter Olympics that year. The typewriters were adapted to 20 languages and technical service was also provided. Yet even by the time of the Seoul Olympics, the day of the sports writer’s typewriter was all but over. There are sports writers who, to this day, still use them at international sporting events, but they are curiosities rather than the once customary figures.

Still, the typewriter had made a major impact on the trade, in more ways than one. In 1939’s Jack London and His Times, his daughter Joan wrote of him, " ... The typewriter translated his sprawling longhand into clear type that the 'silent, sullen peoples who run the magazines' could read. 'If typewriters hadn't been invented by the time I began to write," he would chuckle, 'I doubt if the world would ever have heard of Jack London. No-one would have had the patience to read more than a page of my longhand!'"

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