Dan Jenkins is a renowned old sportswriter (reminds me of SA’s estimable Dan Cook), and I would not have read this book except Don Imus interviewed him a couple of months ago and highly recommended the book. According to Imus, Jenkins is one of the best sportswriters of all-time, and this is one of the few books that Imus took the time to read.
The book is subtitled, “A Semi-Memoir,” which is a play on Jenkins’s first and most successful novel (and later a Burt Reynolds movie), Semi-Tough.” According to Jenkins, “semi” is a term that Texans of his generation used in a variety of ways – semi-tired, semi-hungry, semi-horny, semi-dumb, etc. So he titled his in-progress book on professional football Semi-Tough. Then when he was describing the book’s status to an author friend in NYC, his friend’s friend, who happened to be an editor at a publisher exclaimed, “Semi-Tough. I’d buy a novel called Semi-Tough if there was nothing in it but blank pages.” So it’s easy to see why Jenkins feels fondly of the term.
Jenkins was born in 1929, only a year after my dad, and they both lived through the Great Depression and just missed WWII. But Jenkins concedes that he missed most of the Great Depression because his Fort Worth family had money and he never lacked for anything. Not surprisingly, Jenkins became an excellent golfer and that provided his entre to the sports world. But he was always more interested in writing than excelling in sports. In fact, after he befriended Ben Hogan, also from Fort Worth, Jenkins turned down Hogan’s offer to train him into becoming a competitive amateur golfer:
- “Ben, that’s really flattering, and I appreciate the offer, but I’m not that serious a golfer. I mean, I love the game, but all I want to be is a good sportswriter.”
Jenkins lived a charmed life, not only growing up well-to-do during The Great Depression, but also having Ben Hogan playing world-class golf out of Fort Worth and TCU and SMU playing national-class college football, working at the Fort Worth Press with some all-time great sportswriters, including Bud Shrake, Blackie Sherrod, and Gary Cartwright, and getting a NYC job at Sports Illustrated in its heyday.
The charmed life continued at SI when his first boss, Andre Laguerre, told him three things:
- You can’t get too much hate mail to suit me – it means you’re doing your job.
- You can’t spend too much money entertaining if you’re getting good material for it.
- If you don’t like the way some of our editors are handling your work, come see me and we’ll fix it.
Twenty-four years later, the charmed life ended when a new boss, Gil Rogin, concluded that Jenkins was not his cup of tea:
- “In July of ’84 I returned home from the British Open at St. Andrews to find a shocking note waiting for me from Rogin. He said my British Open story greatly disappointed him and that he was benching me as the golf writer and assigning someone else to cover the PGA in Shoal Creek in Birmingham, Alabama, and I needed to see him in his office immediately, where we would discuss my future with the magazine.”
Jenkins reacted to this shot across the bow, not by meeting with Rogin, but by immediately confirming that he was eligible for generous early-retirement benefits from Time, Inc. (two-years’ salary, lifetime medical, etc.) and securing alternative employment with Golf Digest and Playboy magazine. Then he left the following written response to Gil posed on the wall at SI:
- “Gil, your letter of July 23 of course makes it impossible for me to continue working at Sports Illustrated. Consequently, I’ll have to decline the invitation to discuss my future with you. Rather, I think I’ll take up the subject with the editors of another publication. This, then, is to inform you of my decision to take early retirement from Time, Inc. in December of this year, that retirement to be preceded by a 3-month sabbatical. I find that I’m eligible for both under company policy. Naturally, it saddens me to make this decision after 24 years. I truly relished all of those deadlines, including the last one. But at least it’s satisfying to know I’m leaving behind a body of work that a good many of SI’s readers have enjoyed, understood, and certainly admired far more than you ever did. Dan Jenkins.”
In Texas, according to Jenkins, “that’s known as ‘Buenas noches, coaches.” Since leaving SI, Jenkins has written columns for 28 years at Golf Digest.
Jenkins fit his times perfectly. He liked to drink and smoke with the athletes and provided superb context and great writing to sports events – funny and insightful, and incidentally informative. Beyond the story of an interesting life, this book is one of the most enjoyable books I have read in a long time.