Furman Bisher: Atlanta sportswriter, legend

Award winning AJC sports writer Furman Bisher sat for this photo in his basement full of memorabilia on Oct. 9, 2009, in Fayetteville, Ga.

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Award winning AJC sports writer Furman Bisher sat for this photo in his basement full of memorabilia on Oct. 9, 2009, in Fayetteville, Ga.

Prolific author of newspaper columns that provided a mural of post-World War II sports in Atlanta, the South and nationwide, Furman Bisher had the final word on innumerable topics. Now the enduring journalist, who spent the bulk of his career with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has typed his final words.

An outgoing nature enabled Bisher to connect with athletic icons, some of them suspicious of most media, and he scored interviews by dint of personality and persistence. Among his conquests were temperamental baseball luminaries such as Ted Williams, who turned the tables on Bisher by interviewing him, and Ty Cobb, whose investment advice jump-started Bisher’s stock portfolio. An overlapping love of golf brought friendships with Bobby Jones, singer Bing Crosby and every stripe of player in between.

Moreover, as Atlanta emerged from a small Southern city to a major league metropolis, Bisher provided a daily narration of the seismic change from his perch in the sports pages.

Bisher, 93, died Sunday evening after suffering a heart attack at his Fayetteville home. A funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at Northwest Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. Private graveside services are planned. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be sent to Paul Anderson Youth Home, 1603 McIntosh St., Vidalia, Ga., 30474, or Eagle Ranch, 5500 Union Church Rd., Flowery Branch, Ga., 30542.

Bisher left behind a dazzling body of work that spanned two-thirds of a century. The ink-stained note-taker from Denton, N.C., chronicled, lauded and skewered the men and women of sport in more than 15,000 columns. An energetic workhorse, he squeezed in some 1,500 freelance articles, mostly for magazines, and nine books while finding time to rear three sons as a single parent. Bisher whizzed past normal retirement age without taking a breath and did not substantially reduce his output until deep into his 80s.

“Furman has a lot to do with the way Atlanta’s [sports scene] looks today,” former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Jim Minter said. “He was the only national sports figure here.”

He caught the University of Georgia's football team succumbing to Georgia Tech 7-0 in 1950, then took in every rematch for decades, capped by UGA’s 31-17 triumph in 2007.

He observed, as a rookie writer at Augusta National, the household name Jimmy Demaret don his third green jacket at the Masters in 1950, then witnessed an anonymous Charl Swartzel slip on his first in 2011, never missing the hallowed tournament for 62 years.

He peered down from the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium press box in 1966 at the Braves’ introductory game here, having been largely responsible for hatching plans for the ballpark that lured the team from Milwaukee. He was the hands-on historian of Hank Aaron’s home-run record chase and of the modern Braves’ World Series pursuits, most of them futile.

He scrutinized every Super Bowl through the turn of the century, save the first. (His own editors, like many others, deemed the now-grandest game a blip on the sports calendar.) He witnessed Count Turf win the world’s most renowned horse race, the Kentucky Derby, in 1951 and later chronicled Smarty Jones' victory in 2005. In between, he covered every cavalry charge down the stretch at Churchill Downs.

He coughed up dust at the first NASCAR race on a dirt track in Charlotte in 1949, then watched as the regional sport born of moonshiners become the national darling of corporate America, doing the annual spring-fall races at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Jack Dempsey swinging at his last opponent. Bill Tilden playing tennis. Gen. Bob Neyland coaching football. Cy Young pitching at age 67 on a barnstorming tour. Bisher saw all those early 20th-century sports legends at their task and one other notable in repose. Babe Ruth, the most famed in that era sprinkled with larger-than-life celebs, was laid out in a casket when Bisher first set eyes on him.

Bisher himself turned pro in 1938, before color photos could be transmitted for newspaper use, when liquor and cigarette ads dominated its pages and the newsstand price was two or three cents. He strung together sentences with remarkable creativity and verve, peppering them with pet phrases such as “ye gods” and “egad,” engendering envy from writers of wider fame.

“His style, you couldn’t coach that,” wrote the late Atlanta newspaper humor columnist Lewis Grizzard in the forward of a Bisher book. “He was one of a kind.”

He brought an athlete’s competitive zeal to newspapering, where wins and losses are notched on a daily basis. As the sports voice and editor (active at first, then titular) first at the Constitution (1950-57) and later at the afternoon Journal when the papers were separate rivals, he relished staff scoops and superior coverage.

“I’d look at [the Constitution] each day and see how we could beat their ass,” he recalled in 2006. The staffs' merger in 1982 “was a blow to my gizzard,” there being no other comparable print adversary to stir his combative spirits.

Before laptop computers allowed columnists to bang out their stories from remote locations, Bisher would hole up in his office with his typewriter. He dabbed his moist forehead with newspaper. A favorite coolant was a pint of ice cream.

James Furman Bisher broke into the business before sportswriters had to negotiate a thicket of publicists and agents for access to major athletes. It was a role for which he prepared from a tender age.

One childhood job was delivering the Sunday Constitution, whose circulation was widespread then, to a few homes in rural North Carolina, paying him three cents apiece. He would save a copy, largely to peruse sports editor Ralph McGill’s column, “Break O’ Day.”

At 15, armed with a high school diploma and big dreams, he departed Denton in pursuit of higher education, first at Furman University “because of the name,” then the University of North Carolina.

His early journalism career, which included a stopover as religion editor, was interrupted after six years by military service during World War II. As a lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Navy, he served in no combat but put his skills to work as an editor for a four-page military newspaper and as a manager of the Armed Forces Radio Service from the south Pacific.

Four years free of the military, the Constitution came calling and named him sports editor in 1950. He pounded out six columns weekly while managing the sports department.

Cub reporters accepted pay cuts -- Bisher famously determined salaries as if they were coming out of his own wallet -- to come learn at the master’s knee.

Though he relinquished his supervisory chores as part of a union effort in 1966 that exposed his sometimes sandpaper management style, Bisher’s underlings celebrate his tutelage with occasional reunions.

As blunt and impolitic at the typewriter as he was in conversation, Bisher occasionally resorted to wordplay that some deemed insensitive. When the Ladies Professional Golf Association was once in town for a tournament, Bisher addressed the group’s efforts to feminize its image, writing that objections had been voiced by “the LPGA bass section.” Some players were irate, but Bisher was at the course the next morning, saying anyone chafed by his terminology was welcome to complain. “I’ll be here all day,” he told them.

Bisher held no sport in higher esteem that golf, as suggested by his customary working garb of coat and tie at tournaments. As most of his colleagues chilled in the media tent, awaiting the parade of players for post-round interviews, Bisher could be spotted huffing up the fairways and rubber-necking alongside the greens.

“He’s an honorable man with an engaging wit and down-to-earth way that just makes you feel glad to know him,” Jack Nicklaus said. “There will never be another Furman Bisher.”

If golf was Bisher’s most fervent love, his first was baseball. At age 10, he came across The Sporting News, the weekly publication considered no less than the sport’s bible and began committing names and statistics to memory.

Sports’ most elusive interview subjects in those days were baseball figures. Nobody was off-limits to Bisher and he compiled an impressive batting average in hooking the hard-to-get.

Shoeless Joe Jackson, living in post-career anonymity after being linked to the 1919 Black Sox betting scandal, consented 30 years later to a Sport Magazine story billed as “the only interview Jackson ever gave concerning the infamous World Series ..." So did the prickly Cobb and the reclusive Joe DiMaggio.

Bisher’s relationship was neither volatile nor bosom-buddy with Aaron. They teamed for a book, later expanded into a second version.

“The thing about Furman Bisher, when you say sportswriters, they threw the mold away after him. He was old-school, one of a kind,” said Aaron, who, as a lightning rod for racial equality and accelerated integration, couldn’t have had a more different background than the conservative white scribe.

“We had our problems, but that’s life,” said Aaron, who nevertheless considered him a friend.

In that era, lofty sports journalists made news as well as reported it. Without Bisher’s bold efforts to help bring the Braves to town, Aaron would have put the hammer to Ruth’s home run record in another city wearing another uniform. He served on the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium Authority in the five years leading up to the Braves' arrival.

Among other events he midwifed was the Peach Bowl, the college football game since transformed to the Chick-fil-a Bowl.

With big league baseball finally in town and the biggest golfing event of all up I-20 in Augusta, Bisher still reveled in the yearly road trip to his next most-loved sport, horse racing. A week at the Kentucky Derby was energizing, Bisher stepping gingerly through the barns to interview trainers, stable owners and jockeys.

The allure of the sport eventually drew Bisher into becoming a thoroughbred owner, in partnership with pro football retiree Sam Huff.

He covered sports he disliked, too, none more so than boxing, whose brutality, bombastic characters and unruly crowds -- the antithesis of his beloved golf -- brought little appeal.

But he also found pugilists fascinating, once sharing a day on the Auburn University campus with Muhammad Ali before introducing him at a speech.

While many of Bisher’s first contemporaries largely avoided points of view in their sports columns, he helped pioneer the opinion piece. His words carried weight and readers knew where Bisher stood on issues.

He serenaded the complete-game pitcher, the legitimate student-athlete, the touchdown scorer who handed the ball to the official without auditioning for “Dancing With The Stars.” He poked fun at the baseball closer, the trash-talker, the bearded ballplayer, the television industry’s heavy hand in scheduling games, corporate sponsors of football bowls and stratospheric salaries that he felt distanced athletes from their fandom.

He took a dim view of mixing politics and social movements with sports. Martha Burk, the female activist who banged the drum for gender diversity in Augusta National's membership, was a frequent target.

He sided with Bobby Jones against black golfer Charlie Sifford, who described the Masters as “the worst redneck tournament in the country” and accused the tournament of altering entrance requirements to keep him out.

One of Bisher’s early crusades left him in boiling water.

Appalled by the increasingly violent nature of college football, he freelanced a piece for the popular magazine Saturday Evening Post in 1963, pointing an accusing finger at several coaches, the walk-on-water Bear Bryant of Alabama among them.

A subsequent Post article about an alleged fixed football game entangled Bisher, who had a minimal role, and led to a libel lawsuit that the magazine lost.

In his twilight years at the newspaper, Bisher was reduced, somewhat reluctantly, to two columns most weeks. He scaled back on travel and, when on the road, was often accompanied by wife, Lynda.

His continual work, made possible in part to a devotion to fitness, was not motivated by money. He was prosperous, having invested early and widely in the stock market.

He once took Cobb’s advice and gobbled up Coca-Cola stock in its infancy. In 1948, he acquired 37 shares of the company now know as Lincoln Financial. Some 60 years later, it had grown to 33,000 shares.

Though charmingly notorious for penny-pinching, -- The Miami Herald columnist Edwin Pope used to say, "Swimming was invented when Furman came to his first toll bridge" -- Bisher shared his wealth with institutions dear to him. He sponsored four scholarships at Furman for athletes with laudable grades. Another scholarship at Georgia Tech honors his son Roger, who died from illness at 44, a loss he labeled the “toughest thing in my life.”

Though he could paper a wall with journalistic awards won, the thrice-married Bisher considered his duties as a father -- for many years a single parent, aided by a fulltime housekeeper -- his crowning achievement.

“The highlight of my career had nothing to do with these all-stars,” he said.

It was Roger who inspired Bisher’s famous annual Thanksgiving Day column. Overwhelmed with gratitude after his son’s birth, he said, “I just got carried away,” and wrote a chain of one-liners of things for which he was thankful. It begat a tradition that, to AJC readers, became a Thanksgiving Day appetizer.

Another trademark was ending an occasional column with “Selah,” the mysterious one-word farewell that he borrowed from the Book of Psalms.

Its meaning?

“I have no idea,” he said. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Read more: A sampler of Furman Bisher's best and most beloved columns

Former staff writer Tom Bennett contributed to this report.