By Kevin Sherrington
The Dallas Morning News
Blackie Sherrod, the greatest Texas sportswriter of his generation or any other, now and forevermore, died Thursday afternoon at age 96.
Sherrod died at his home in Dallas of natural causes, said his wife, Joyce. He had been in hospice care for the past week.
Sherrod was voted Texas Sportswriter of the Year a record 16 times and was honored with the prestigious Red Smith Award, national recognition for lifetime achievement. He won so many awards over more than six decades at Texas newspapers, including The Dallas Morning News starting in 1985, that he stopped keeping plaques or certificates for anything other than first place.
But his greatest trophies may have been the lasting memories he created for legions of readers and his peers, in particular.
Felix McKnight, the late Dallas newspaperman who hired Sherrod at the Dallas Times Herald and had him do everything from a political convention to a moon shot to coordinating coverage of the Kennedy assassination, called him “the best newspaperman I ever knew.”
To best-selling author Dan Jenkins, speaking for generations of sportswriters Sherrod mentored, he was simply “our hero.”
The subjects he covered in a Runyonesque style much imitated, never duplicated, held him in similarly high regard.
“He was different from the other guys,” said Roger Staubach, the former Cowboys quarterback. “You’d sit down and know you’re gonna read Blackie’s column. He definitely had a following.”
Golfer Don January called him “the best writer I ever read.” The late University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal, with whom Sherrod wrote one of the only two books he ever finished, once said he always enjoyed being interviewed by him.
“He’s different and clever,” Royal said. “I was never bored, talking to him or reading him.”
Short-lived football career
Born William Forrest Sherrod on Nov. 9, 1919, in the central Texas town of Belton, he was a product of the times, upbringing, education and inclinations. The only son of a failed farmer-turned-barber who called him Forrest, after his grandfather, he read every book in the Belton library. His tastes eventually ran to Damon Runyon, Dorothy Parker, Max Shulman, S.J. Perelman and James Thurber.
After a year at Baylor on academic scholarship, he transferred to Howard Payne in Brownwood, where he played football until a hip injury ended his athletic career. He played trumpet in the school band to keep his scholarship and later fronted a seven-piece Dixieland band. He also took up the guitar and led a nine-piece swing band. His artistic talents would even lead to painting, a hobby he took up in earnest later in life.
His football career may have been brief, but it left a mark. A football coach, noting his perpetual tan, pinned on him the politically incorrect nickname Blackie, which he didn’t like. He decided to keep it when an editor told him it would make him memorable with readers.
A budding newspaper career with the Temple Telegram was interrupted by World War II. He served as a torpedo plane tailgunner on the U.S.S. Saratoga. When his plane went down in the South Pacific, the buckle on his seat restraint jammed, and he had to cut himself out of the harness. The plane sank 45 seconds after he got out.
The war experience helped form his outlook on his chosen profession.
“My generation of writers — and the people we idolized and studied — came along right after World War II,” he told D Magazine in 1986. “There had been so much seriousness, the country was so grim, everyone just wanted to have fun when the war was over. We were the products of an era that was seeking laughs and entertainment. That’s the way we tried to write it.”
Covering the FW Cats
The only beat he ever covered was the Fort Worth Cats, then a Dodgers farm club, for the now-defunct Fort Worth Press. For eight years, he went to spring training in Florida, where he cultivated New York’s newspaper giants, Red Smith and Stanley Woodward. They liked the flashy young Texan with the dark, wavy hair because he listened so well. That, and he had a car.
Sherrod also surrounded himself with talent back home. At the Press, he hired more talent than any small newspaper had a right to: Dan Jenkins, Bud Shrake, Gary Cartwright and Jerre Todd, among others. Todd, applying for a position covering baseball, introduced himself with a hook slide into the sports editor’s desk. Sherrod looked down, smiled and said, “You’re hired.”
Shrake, who, like Jenkins, became a best-selling author, once recalled the day Jenkins took him to the Press.
“It was hot as hell,” he said. “The ceiling fans were blowing the soot that came from this one air vent. The Teletype machines were clacking, and there was Blackie, sitting back in the corner, a cigarette hanging from his mouth.
“The minute I walked in, I fell totally in love.”
Sherrod encouraged his talented young staff to be different from their bigger, well-heeled competition, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and take chances. But heaven help you if you wrote something so pretentious as to end up on Sherrod’s bulletin board.
‘God forbid if you got something wrong’
“Blackie kept us all scared to death,” said Shrake, who died in 2009. “We liked him, and we hung out with him, but it wasn’t even to be considered that you’d be a minute late.
“And God forbid if you got something wrong.”
Sherrod also taught his young charges not to get too technical, and to remember that they’re writing about people and games.
“Red Smith wasn’t a sportswriter,” Sherrod said in 1999. “Jim Murray wasn’t a sportswriter. Jimmy Cannon wasn’t. There wasn’t a one who could tell you the definition of the infield fly rule.”
McKnight hired Sherrod at the late Times Herald in 1958 and promptly promoted him to assistant managing editor. He raised eyebrows when he had Sherrod write columns from the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 1960. Readers affirmed his decision in hundreds of letters to the editor.
On Nov. 22, 1963, McKnight assembled stories from the paragraphs supplied by Sherrod, who took calls from reporters across the city who were covering the JFK assassination.
His favorite non-sports assignment: His columns from Cape Canaveral in 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, for which he won a prestigious Headliner Award. For science writing.
“Science writing,” he said in 1999. “Me. I made a D in chemistry in high school.”
He wasn’t just about sports
His wide range of interests was evident in his sports copy, not to mention the books that lined his library and conversation with his peers.
“It bothered him a little that so few of the sportswriters he was around were very alert in things outside sports,” Cowboys president and general manager Tex Schramm said in 1999.
The News hired Sherrod away from the Times Herald in 1985. He continued to write sports columns for another 10 years until he cut it down to his popular Scattershooting column on Sundays and a weekly piece for the editorial pages.
Burl Osborne, editor of The News in 1985, hired Sherrod at the height of the Dallas newspaper war. Both sides considered it the final blow. “We could document that circulation went up when Blackie came over,” former executive sports editor Dave Smith said. “People were telling us, ‘I’ll switch papers because I follow Blackie Sherrod.’ His Sunday Scattershooting column was the hottest thing going.”
Asked at 80 why he kept writing, Sherrod said because “they seem to want it.” But it was personal, too. Married twice, he never had any children of his own. His legacy was what he created on a blank page or screen.
“Writing is the joy of the business,” he once said. “There’s a good feeling of getting the right word. It’s always like a rhythm when it’s right.”