Friday, March 4, 2016

Bud Collins, 1929-2016

Believe it or not, I'm about to post a tribute to a Red Sox fan.

Arthur Worth Collins Jr. -- according to current Boston Globe columnist Kevin Paul Dupont, "Bud" was once a common nickname for boys named Arthur -- was born on June 17, 1929 in Lima, Ohio, roughly in the middle of a triangle that would be formed by Cleveland, Detroit and Indianapolis. The family moved to the Cleveland suburb of Berea, and that's where he graduated from high school (Berea High) and college (Baldwin-Wallace College -- it didn't become a "University" until 2012).

After returning to Berea in 1997, he wrote, "I got into the business of newspapers at the far end of the line -- delivering them. I felt important. TV didn't exist, and I was the one bringing around the news. A mute town crier; a non-babbling anchorman. It was a wonderful form of child labor."

After serving in the Korean War, he drove 700 miles to Boston University to study journalism. He never finished, because it became pointless: The purpose of college is to prepare you for a job, and he got one, as a sportswriter at the Boston Herald. "I finished all of my classes in 1955," he said, "but lacked a thesis paper, because I got caught up with my full-time job."

He also became the tennis coach at nearby Brandeis University. One of his players was a native of nearby Worcester, Abbot Howard Hoffman. Yes, Abbie Hoffman. I'm hoping he didn't turn out he way he did because of Collins. How good was Hoffman at the sport? I have no idea: The research for this post was the 1st time I'd ever heard him associated with any sport.

How good was Collins at the sport for which he would become best known, although not for playing it? He called himself a "hacker." (This was before that term was applied to computer skills.) But in 1961, he and Janet Hopps won the U.S. Indoor Mixed Doubles Championship. As late as 1975 (when he was 49), he and Jack Crawford reached the Finals of the senior doubles at the French Open. To put that in perspective: Crawford, an Australian, lost the 1933 U.S. Open in the Final, and only that denied him the Grand Slam. Janet Hopps Adkisson, still alive at this writing, was not nearly as accomplished, getting no closer to a singles title at a major than the 4th Round at Wimbledon in 1959 and 1960, but reached the Final of the mixed doubles at the U.S. Open in 1959.

*

In 1963, Collins left both the Herald and the Brandeis job to take a sportswriting job with a real newspaper, the Boston Globe. That same year, the local NET (became PBS in 1968) station, WGBH-Channel 2 -- Remember? "Write Zoom! Box 350, Boston, Mass, 02134! Send it to Zoom!" -- hired him to do tennis commentary. He was similarly modest about his writing and broadcasting abilities, calling himself "a scribbler and a babbler." (Did Walt Frazier copy his rhyming broadcasting style?)

In 1967, the year of the Boston Red Sox' "Impossible Dream" Pennant, Collins ran for Mayor. He lost, although it's hardly a shame, since Kevin White served 4 terms and modernized a city that badly needed it. In 1968, CBS Sports hired Collins to cover the U.S. Open. In 1972, he moved to NBC, which, then as now, had the rights to Wimbledon, the British championship and the sport's defining event.

His "Breakfast at Wimbledon" segments -- necessary because of the 5-hour time difference between London and the Eastern U.S. -- made his wit, his smile, his infectious enthusiasm, his bald head, his bow ties, and his loud pants famous.

Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News was a student as Boston College during Bud's early days at the Globe. (Lupica grew up in Nashua, New Hampshire as a Red Sox fan. If you didn't already, now you know why he hates the Yankees so much.) He said of Collins today, "No media figure in history, in my mind, has ever been as important to one sport as Bud Collins was to the sport of tennis. You can't minimize it. He became the de facto ambassador to that sport as it was exploding in this country. He educated. He entertained."

What Lupica is saying is, what Howard Cosell tried to do for boxing, and what Cosell thought he did for everything he covered, Collins actually did for tennis in America. He taught and explained, without making the reader or the viewer feel like they were starting out knowing nothing, unworthy of his teaching.

He remained with NBC until 2007, and when they let him go at age 78, ESPN picked him up.
He's often been called the 1st newspaper sports writer to also announce his sport on television. "He broke the barrier, the notion that you could be a newspaper guy and they would want you on TV," said Dan Shaughnessy. He was one of many Globe writers who followed Collins onto TV, also including Bob Ryan, Jackie MacMullan and Michael Smith, all of whom were on ESPN well before NBC exiled Collins there.

He didn't just cover tennis. Despite running for Mayor in 1967, he did cover that season's Red Sox Pennant. He also covered the October 30, 1974 Heavyweight Championship fight between incumbent George Foreman and former champ Muhammad Ali in Zaire (Congo), a.k.a. the Rumble in the Jungle. Collins had covered Ali since before he was champ or Ali, when he was still an exciting, if cocky, kid named Cassius Clay, saying things like, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! Ahhhh! Rumble, young man, rumble! Ahhhh!"

Collins never stopped believing in Ali, even during the federal government's vendetta against him for refusing to be drafted. He predicted Ali would win the fight: "A butterfly still floats better than a boulder. Even an old one named Muhammad Ali. And stings a lot, too. Enough to bewilder and hammer a young hardrock named George Foreman." Ali, in his frequently poetic style, said, "You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned? Wait 'til you see me kick Foreman's behind!" Ali and Collins both turned out to be right.

He married a woman named Palmer Collins, but it ended in divorce. They had a daughter, Suzanna Mathews. For many years, he lived with Judy Lacy, a tennis writer for the Herald, and after she died in 1980, he raised her son, Rob Lacy. He married an English teacher named Mary Lou Barnum, but, like Mathews, she died of a brain tumor. She brought 4 daughters to the marriage, now named Betsy Bartelt, Kristin Hunt, Sharon McMillan and Gretchen West.

In 1994, he married a photographer named Anita Ruthling Klaussen, and it lasted for the rest of his life. She brought a daughter and a son to the marriage, Danielle Klausen and Karl Klaussen, both of whom lived near the Collins' home in Brookline, outside Boston.

Anita knew nothing about sports when she met him, and didn't play tennis. But they went to an art gallery opening on the Back Bay's posh Newbury Street, and she was amazed that "Everybody in Boston seemed to know Bud."

During the 1986 World Series between the Red Sox and the Mets, Bud was covering a tennis tournament in Japan. When he boarded his plane at Tokyo's Narita International Airport, he had just seen, on TV in the airport lounge, Dave Henderson (who died a few weeks ago) hit a home run that gave the Sox the lead in the 10th inning in Game 6. Although he'd grown up outside Cleveland and rooted for the Indians, like so many other transplants to Boston, Bud had given himself over to the Red Sox completely. Now, they were going to win the World Series for the 1st time since 1918, and he was going to miss it. Forget not being in the stadium: He wasn't even going to see it, because he was going to be on the plane!

When the plane landed at Los Angeles hours later, he expected to find people talking about it. Oh, they were talking about it all right, but, knowing who Bud was and where he was from, they kept coming up to him and telling him how sorry they were. He'd been in the air, without today's laptops and smartphones, and he had no idea of what they were talking about. A quick trip to the airport lounge and a look at a TV showed him the collapse, and its exclamation-point error by Bill Buckner.

When the Sox finally won * the World Series on October 27, 2004, Bud Collins was in Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis and saw it live. Indeed, from his birth in 1929 until 2004, 75 years, he had only seen his favorite team win it once: The 1948 Indians. The Indians still haven't won one since then, now 66 years, almost as long as Boston's drought was in 1986. But he lived long enough to see the Red Sox win it * 3 times.

(Yes, I'm putting those asterisks in there. Bud deserved to have his team win honestly. They didn't.)

He was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1994. He collaborated on the autobiographies of Rod Laver and Evonne Goolagong -- both Australians, which shows just how far his reach was, literally and figuratively.

Bud's health declined in recent years, due to Parkinson's disease. Last September, he went to New York for the U.S. Open, and the media center was dedicated and named in his honor. Billie Jean King, for whom the entire U.S. Tennis Center complex in Flushing Meadow is named, said, "Few people have had the historical significance, the lasting impact, and the unqualified love for tennis as Bud Collins. He was an outstanding journalist, an entertaining broadcaster, and as our historian he never let us forget or take for granted the rich history of our sport. I will miss him, and I will always cherish our memories of our journeys together."

Bud died this morning, his wife announced. He was 86 years old.

In 2009, Boston University finally conferred his long-awaited master's degree on him. In lieu of the thesis he'd abandoned in 1955, Thomas Fielder, dean of BU's College of Communication, accepted as a thesis submission The Bud Collins History of Tennis.

Bud not only wrote what amounted to 3 encyclopedias of tennis, he was described by many as a walking encyclopedia of the sport.

They wouldn't have said that if he hadn't also been a friend to them. Millions of people who never had the pleasure of meeting him felt as though he were a friend. Which is a better legacy than any man can ever do for his favorite sport.

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