Letters from ‘Doc’

from the Foreword to The Best American Sports Writing 1995

One of the side benefits of serving as Series Editor of this annual collection is that I get to talk with, and occasionally meet, many of the writers whose work appears in this book.  Over the five-year life of The Best American Sports Writing, that list includes over one hundred writers of all descriptions, including some of the most notable names in journalism today.

The most memorable, and, I think, perhaps the most important sports writer I’ve ever met, never appeared in this book or any other similar collection.  I doubt if any of the writers whose work has appeared here has ever even heard of the man, and I’d be surprised if more than a handful of readers find his name familiar.  Yet I think Doc Kountze, without hardly anyone knowing so, may well have been one of the more significant and important sports writers this nation has ever produced.  He certainly was to me.  Lessons I first learned from him have probably been more important in the evolution of this series than anything I have gathered from any other single writer I have ever met.  When I choose from among the thousands of stories I read each year for those seventy or eighty I pass along to the guest editor, I am reminded there are reasons to write that have little to do with bylines, headlines or bottom lines, that words have power and do matter, and that while sport may not be a microcosm of anything, it is certainly a significant part of something larger.  Each year, for better or worse, I think this book provides evidence of that.

Doc Kountze never wanted to be the subject of any story.  The whole idea was antithetical to who he was.  He resisted my own efforts to write about him, and on several occasions outright refused my pleas for him to tell me about himself.  From where Doc sat, every other story was larger and more important than he was.  He refused to acknowledge his own central role in some of these larger stories, although they were always immediately apparent to me.  Kountze was not trying to appear humble or self-effacing.  He was humble and self-effacing.

I can write about Doc Kountze now without feeling that I am violating either his friendship or his trust.  He passed away on September 27, 1994, at age 84.  Consider this a eulogy.

I met Doc a decade ago, just a few weeks after I completed, and to my everlasting surprise, published the first sports story I ever wrote, a historical feature for Boston Magazine about the suicide of Red Sox manager Chick Stahl in 1907.  After my initial success, I was shocked when editor Ken Hartnett turned to me and asked, “Well, what do you want to write about next?”

Every writer longs to hear these words, but I didn’t know that yet.  I was so shocked someone actually wanted to publish something I had written that I hadn’t even thought of writing another story.  Yet the question, and the opportunity, was hanging there in the air, and I had to answer it.

In a panic, I responded with a topic I knew nothing about.

“Black baseball in Boston,” I blurted out.

“Okay,” the editor said.

Now I have since learned, like John Keats did, that while it is not a bad idea at all to write about something without knowing where it is going, it is usually helpful to know what you don’t know before telling someone you’ll write about it.  But it was too late for that.

Over the next few weeks my research sent me deep into the microfilmed recesses of Boston’s black press, the Chronicle and the Guardian, virtually the only source of any information about Black baseball in Boston.  While the city never really had a team in the Negro Leagues, the local community still supported a wide variety of semi-pro and barnstorming teams.  As I scanned through the papers, season by season, I noticed that virtually every sports story, and every baseball story, carried the byline “Mabray ‘Doc’ Kountze.”  Almost by accident, I looked for the name in the phone book.  He was still alive.

I made the call and met an amazing man.  For more than forty years, Doc’s self-designated beat in the sports world was whatever and whoever the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, or Boston Post didn’t write about.  Names they designated to agate type and faces they rarely favored with a photograph were Doc’s sole subjects.  He was a curator of the invisible, a collector in awkward silences.

Over the next several years I spoke with Doc every few months and listened to him talk about athletes I’d never heard of.  Doc’s heroes weren’t named Ted Williams, or Eddie Shore, or Bob Cousy or Harry Agganis, but Will Jackman, Sam Langford, and Louise Stokes, athletes of equal merit whose accomplishments were hardly recognized and whose memories were preserved in precious few places apart from where Doc had placed them.  “Cannonball” Jackman was considered the equal of Satchel Paige in New England and the Canadian maritimes, a barnstorming iron man who, after hurting his arm, pitched into his sixties by developing a submarine knuckleball.  The boxer Sam Langford was known as “the Boston Tar Baby,” and was probably the best pound-for-pound fighter ever.  He was certainly the best fighter who was totally blind in one eye and partially blind in the other, who sometimes hit referees by mistake and made a living late in life by approaching white sportswriters and telling them his story of woe.  They’d write a column about poor old Sam and raise a few thousand dollars on his behalf.  The writer would win an award and Langford would live comfortably for a few years.  Then Langford would do the same thing over again in another town with another writer and no one would be the wiser.  Louise Stokes was first African American female to make the United States Olympic team, but you won’t find her name in any record book.  She was withdrawn from competition in the 1932 games in Los Angeles out of deference to Babe Didrickson.  Four years later, in Berlin, she was pulled to appease the Nazis.  Jesse Owens was not expendable, but a black woman, Louise Stokes, was.

For several years my writing career flourished as Doc pointed me toward these stories.  He didn’t mind telling me about them, was pleased that I was interested, and delighted in the finished product.  I learned a valuable lesson – most of the good stories haven’t been told yet.

But Doc did more for me than feed me stories.  He fed my confidence.  He took me seriously and gave me time.  Where my entreaties to editors were often ignored, Doc always answered.  I sent Doc copies of all my early stories.  A week or two later I’d find an envelope in my mail addressed to “Glenn Stout, sportswriter.”

Inside would be a page or two of nearly transparent paper, filled margin-to-margin with incredibly small type from an old manual typewriter, as if paper and words were so precious that neither could be wasted, wonderful letters full of praise, criticism, advice, tips for stories, commentaries on the present, bits of scripture, the accumulated wisdom of someone who spent his entire life writing about sports because he though it was important, had meaning, and could somehow someday make a difference.  Wonderful things for a young writer to hear.

But Doc rarely told me about himself.  In our letters and conversations, only the dimmest outlines of his own biography slowly slipped out.  One of ten children, he was often sick, but loved sports.  Although small, he played whenever he could.  Knowing the chances of his own progress, and that of many others, was stopped by the reality of his race, Doc parlayed his talent as a cartoonist into a career in journalism, coinciding with a personal commitment to a larger cause.  All this he referred to only indirectly, as side trips in stories that always ended with someone else.  He referred to sports as his “survival kit.”  Where once he had been angry, or bitter, he found that sports was the cure.  In his work, he focused not on himself or his own experiences, but on others, toward larger issues.  In all his writings I never found a hint of bitterness, never any cynicism or desperation.  He knew more about what he was doing than any writer I’ve ever met.

I met Doc in person only once.  He was a small man, almost delicate, but not at all infirm.  The rooms where he lived were dominated by words.  I remember a table piled high with books, papers, magazines and newspapers stacked everywhere, a writing desk, which I think was actually an old door, upon which rested the ancient typewriter, articles and photographs taped to the walls.  A writer’s room, most definitely.

The more I spoke with Doc the more I became convinced that he was the real story, for he was the link to so much else.  But he resisted personal questions, and consistently deflected my inquiries elsewhere.  It took several years, more phone calls and letters, before Doc finally gave me story I was looking for.

Baseball was the sport Doc really loved.  The mysterious illness when he was young prevented him from playing much, but he never abandoned the game.  He committed himself to the cause of the black ballplayer.  When Doc was in his early twenties, on his own initiative, he forced meetings with Bob Quinn, owner of the Red Sox, and Judge Fuchs, owner of the Boston Braves, and discussed the integration of major league baseball.  Later, he became the first African-American admitted to the press box in both Braves Field and Fenway Park.

That was Doc’s cause, his single commitment.  But how could he, a nearly invisible young writer for the black press, affect such a great change?

In the early 1930’s, Doc contacted the sports editors of the major black papers around the country – The Pittsburgh Courier, The New York Age, The St. Louis Argus and others – and formed an organization he named “The National Negro Newspaper All-American Association of Sports Editors.”  Their single goal was to make the white press aware of the black athlete.  The NNNAA named their own All-Americans and elected their own All-Star teams.  Doc was convinced that once people knew, once the veneer of silence about the black athlete was broken in the white press, the major league color line would be similarly breached.

Doc was no great stylist, for style was a luxury rarely afforded in the black press, but for much of the next decade, he wrote with this one goal in mind.

The strategy worked.  Years before Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers knew who Jackie Robinson was, Doc and his counterparts pre-selected Robinson as their choice to break the color line.  Robinson was familiar to readers of the black press while he was still a student at UCLA.  Through the efforts of the NNNAA, Robinson, with his unique set of qualifications, was made familiar to white America.  When Branch Rickey went looking for a player to break the color line, his selection of Robinson was no accident.  It was what Doc had in mind all along.

The seminal role of Kountze and the other members of the NNNAA in the eventual breakdown of the color line has never been adequately acknowledged.  A version that anoints Rickey and Robinson as singular heroes is both more palatable and more easily told.  When Doc finally filled me in on the NNNAA, he characteristically wrote, “I participate only to give honors to those before me.”  He didn’t care that the role of the NNNAA was never recognized.  They succeeded, and that was what was important.  “I never sought the limelight,” he wrote in another letter, “beyond focusing my crusades on what I considered a worthy Cause… and made no profit from my writings… With me, a worthy Cause is above Cash.”

Doc believed what he wrote and lived his beliefs, a worthy goal for anyone, til the very end.  Several years ago, I wrote a biography of Ted Williams.  I dedicated the book to Doc, and sent him a copy.

In the book, I re-printed the speech Williams gave when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966.  Rather remarkably, in his speech Williams campaigned for the inclusion of players from the Negro Leagues in the Hall.  This was not a popular position in 1966, yet only five years later Williams’ suggestion became reality.

Several weeks after sending a copy of the book to Doc, I received letter from him.  He was upset and embarrassed.  He had always privately believed that Williams had something to do with keeping the Red Sox so white for so long.  While he never wrote such a story, or even whispered a mention of that belief to me, Doc had himself believed it.  And after reading William’s speech, he realized his mistake.

Doc was mortified and deeply ashamed.  He called me and sheepishly asked for Williams’ address.  He had to apologize.  His embarrassment over his own private misconception required forgiveness.

I was able to provide an address, and get word to Williams that one simple letter meant an awful lot to a certain old sportswriter.  Doc wrote Williams and apologized profusely for an indiscretion neither Ted nor anyone else knew anything about.  Williams wrote back and Doc was delighted.  In his last letter to me, Doc Kountze told me about Ted’s letter and how pleased he was to learn that Williams, after all these years, was really on the same side he was, and that he should have known so all along, because the cause was just and it was inevitable that everyone would eventually join.  He promised to never make that error again, and cautioned me not to make the same mistake.  Then Doc ended the letter with the same admonition he always did.

“Keep Faith,” he wrote.

As I put this book together each year, I often think of Doc Kountze.  In my mind, sports writing, at its very best, is best represented by this man.  As this series continues to grow, I hope the writers represented herein, and the readers for whom this book exists, adhere to their own standards with the same magnanimous spirit and commitment represented by Doc Kountze.  He belongs here, and deserves good company.