Track: dark

Joe Hirsch, dean of turf writers and the last icon of a dying breed of sportswriter, died earlier this month.

Hirsch covered The Ponies for more than 50 years before retiring in 2003. It’s unlikely any racing writer will ever again achieve the stature he did. The falling amount of writers covering horse racing has outpaced even the decline of professional sportswriters (and the decline of sportswriting in general).

Hirsch had the respect of the industry, the fans, and other sportswriters, at least those from my generation and older. Sadly, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a sports fan younger than 30 who knew who knew who he was. In the world of writing and reading about sports, the DNR order is in for newspapers (and the big-city columnists who write for them) — the blogs have inherited their earth.

He was a link who could remember the days of Toots Shor’s — when sportswriters and athletes converged in a nostalgic heyday devoid of the flaccid, pedestrian sameness of today’s hangouts but by the mid-1960s had become somewhat fossilized in a rapidly changing city — through the evolving culture of free agency, superstars, and drugs of the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, and on to the ongoing drama of the last 20 years of sports as the land of the modern sheltered, pampered, and inaccessible athlete. He might not have been the most critical writer, but his life and career bridged those eras to the dying days of print.

Hirsch quit writing before the sports blogs got big — in fact, two of the biggest, The Big Lead and Deadspin, failed to note his passing. As may well be appropriate — at least in the world of reading about sports (i.e., apart from watching sycophantic television coverage on ESPN and the networks), the blogs have largely supplanted the columnists for fans under 30 (and probably under 40).

Hirsch’s life story was also notable for having palled around and roomed in New York with Joe Namath. Mark Kriegel, in his biography of Namath, recalls the pair’s first meeting, when the young quarterback was still at Alabama:

Hirsch knew horses, not college football players. The bartender had to point out Joe. They had a drink, then Hirsch lent him a sports jacket and took him to a first-class dinner. “I suppose you’re majoring in basket-weaving,” he said.

“Nah, that class was all filled up,” the kid replied. “But I found an even easier one — journalism.”

(One final digression, regarding today’s cloistered athletes: Perhaps because of its status as something ignored by most of the sporting public except for three races every year, horse racing seems somewhat devoid of insular participants — the horses and the prickly Barclay Tagg notwithstanding — ironically making the sport and its coverage insular. Not sure where I’m going with that one. Move along.)

RIP Joe Hirsch.


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