SOUTH FLORIDA LOSES A SPORTS ICON,
BUT IT ISN’T AN ATHLETE
Edwin Pope passed away at his home in Okeechobee Thursday evening.
If you are a recent newcomer to South Florida, the name may not be familiar. But sports fans who grew up here or ever picked up a copy of the Miami Herald and turned to the sports page while on a visit here, as I did for many years, you know who he was.
For nearly a half-century after his arrival in 1956, Edwin Pope was a fixture in the sports section with four or five columns a week, even continuing to write on occasion after his “retirement” in 2003 until health issues finally stopped him.
You can read all the details of his life in sportswriter Barry Jackson’s well-written piece on the Herald’s website (www.miamiherald.com) so I won’t go deeper into them here.
I’ll just add that I had the pleasure of meeting him when I was working at newspapers in Jackson, Mississippi, and Little Rock, Arkansas. It brightened my day when someone I had followed since reading him on my visits to Miami back in the early 1970s would call me by name when I saw him at a big event.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to interview him at his home, then in Key Biscayne, for a piece to run in Miami Monthly magazine. Here is the story that came out of the interview:
After more than 60 years, the games and contests tend to blur a bit in memory. Even Super Bowls fail to stand out.
But for Edwin Pope, the first Orange Bowl he ever “covered” will have a special place.
The story is not what you think it might be, however.
The game was played on Jan. 1, 1940, and Edwin Pope was 11 years old, growing up in Athens, Georgia. His father had just bought him a used typewriter – even at that age Pope knew how to type – and Georgia Tech was playing Missouri in the Orange Bowl.
Pope turned on the radio, sat down, and began feeding sheets of paper into the typewriter. As legendary sports broadcaster Ted Husing described the action on the field, Pope began transcribing every word, “even the commercials,” he says with a chuckle today. His copy ran six single-spaced pages.
“The next morning I got on my bicycle and rode it into downtown Athens for the first time, the first time I’d ever ridden all the way downtown,” Pope continues his story. “I went in and demanded to see the editor. What did I know? Finally, they actually showed me in to the editor.
“He said, ‘What can I do for you?’ I said, ‘Do you need a running story for the Orange Bowl game yesterday?’ ”
Running stories – that is, complete play-by-play accounts of major games –
were common back then before sports events became major television fare.
Not surprisingly, the editor really didn’t need that full an account of Georgia Tech’s 21-7 victory, but Pope thrust his papers into the editor’s hands any way.
“He saw right away it really wasn’t a running story but what I had thought one was – typing out the play-by-play as Husing called it,” Pope says. “He said, ‘I want to talk to you,’ and so they wrote a story about me taking this thing in. And that’s how I got my first job.”
Pope still has that clipping today, framed and under a plain sheet of paper with the words “My Sports Writing” printed in pencil.
“Edwin is a born reporter with a leaning to sports,” the editor wrote, and no truer words were ever uttered.
From his start in Athens covering sports activities at the local YMCA, Pope has gone on to become a South Florida icon as a columnist and sports editor for the Miami Herald, where he arrived in 1956 after stints with United Press and the Atlanta Constitution. He is recognized as well as one of the most respected sports journalists in the country.
Noted author James A. Michener in the foreword of a collection of Pope’s columns published in 1988 wrote that after moving to the area he became addicted to Pope’s column, which he said helped clarify his thinking of the position sports should occupy in American society.
“Consistently, Pope struck a consistent note,” Michener wrote. “He loved sports but recognized their weakness; he defended athletes but appreciated the temptations they faced; and he well understood the importance of professional teams in the life of a great city. … He was, I concluded in those days when I had only read him and not yet met him, in the great tradition of Grantland Rice, John Kieran, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon and Shirley Povich.”
Pope officially retired from the Herald six years ago, but he continues to write 50 to 60 columns a year, mostly in the fall and winter seasons, though last spring he headed off to Augusta, Georgia, where he was among 14 journalists recognized for their service in covering at least 40 Masters golf tournaments. Pope now has covered 51. He also is one of only four writers who have covered all XLI Super Bowls – that’s 41 in real numbers.
He confesses to covering “about 40” of baseball’s World Series, 20 or so Wimbledon-British Open doubles (that is, picking up both of England’s premier events on one trip), and 25 Kentucky Derbies starting with Secretariat’s victory in 1973. He also had a visit to the Indianapolis 500 (“I went, said what I had to say, and that was all I was interested in.”) and the Daytona 500 – once. (“I found that nobody had known I was even there.”)
“The Derby was fun,” Pope says. “And I covered a lot of championship fights, too, back when there was interest in them.”
Somewhere in his home in Key Biscayne, where he lives with his wife Eileen, is a picture of Pope with the great heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis taken of them at the airport.
“We used to have a lot of title fights here on the Beach so it was a very active time with a lot of people interested,” says Pope, who started at the Herald as an assistant sports editor, a job that encompassed writing a column and doing whatever it took to get the paper out that night. “Now nobody cares at all. Now there’s probably 50 times as many people watching poker on television than boxing. Did you ever think that poker would be on television? Does that strain your credulity?”
The fading interest in boxing and horse racing and the arrival of professional sports – pro football’s Dolphins, basketball’s Heat, baseball’s Marlins, and hockey’s Panthers – are the most significant changes in South Florida sports under Pope’s watch.
“When I came here, there were two huge things: college football and horse racing, and, to a degree, golf,” Pope says. “Then other stuff started rolling in here until horse racing was pushed right out of the picture. College football has become marginalized. It’s just changed completely.”
But if the scene has changed, Pope hasn’t. Oh, sure. He isn’t writing as often now. He once wrote five columns a week, writing and rewriting until he had the exact phrase he wanted. He was still writing three or four columns a week when he “retired” in 2001. Now he enjoys the luxury of picking his spots.
“The luckiest thing that ever happened to me was my daddy getting me that typewriter and sitting down and typing out that Orange Bowl game,” he says, looking back over the years. “The next luckiest by far was coming to the Miami Herald. Just sheer, absolute luck.”