By Barry Horn
July 24, 2004
Somebody asked Edwin Pope about Red Smith Award winner Jimmy Cannon …
“Nobody appointed me judge of such things but the informed consensus is that Jimmy Cannon is one of the three best sports columnists ever,” said columnist Pope, the 1989 Smith award winner. “The others, of course, would be, Jim Murray and Red Smith.”
Smith and Cannon, colleagues and friends, were the heavy hitters in a Murderer’s Row lineup of yesteryear’s New York sports columnists. They were beacons in an era when newspapers often supplied the lone light.
Only, their styles and audiences differed.
Red, of the Herald Tribune and Times, was the wordsmith. Cannon, of the Journal-American and Post, was the hammer with a heart.
“With Red, it was the phrases you remembered,” said columnist Jerry Izenberg, the 2000 Smith award winner. “With Jimmy, you remembered the characters he wrote about.”
Around New York, Cannon was viewed as the successor to Damon Runyon, who followed Ring Lardner.
“Jimmy was a blue-collar writer with a white-collar vocabulary,” Izenberg said. “He was the biggest influence on how I wanted to communicate people’s feelings. He taught young writers how to listen. He captured what sports people said and who they were better than anyone.”
Cannon’s was the quintessential resume for a New York sports columnist. Born and raised in hard-scramble, pre-chic Greenwich Village, he began his newspaper career as a teenage copy boy for the Daily News in 1926. He joined New York’s American as a sportswriter a decade later.
Chronicling sports’ winners and losers was interrupted by real-world duty as a correspondent, accompanying General Patton ‘s Third Army in World War II.
He joined the Post in 1946 and, except for a second tour of war correspondence duty in Korea, he remained with the paper until he was hired away by the Journal-American in 1959.
“I would wager Cannon sold more papers for newspapers he worked at than anyone else ever in the business,” Pope said.
Apparently, publishers appreciated his value. It is believed that he was the first sports writer to earn $100,000 a year.
“Jimmy led the classic reporter’s life,” said Izenberg, who wrote alongside Smith for the Herald Tribune before joining Newark’s Star-Ledger. “He read police blotters and paid attention to his city. He spent time in bars and got to know everybody in the room.”
On trips to New York, the Miami Herald’s Pope would often lunch with Cannon at the show-biz friendly Friars Club, where Cannon was as big a star as anyone in the room.
A lifelong bachelor, Cannon often shared the company of Broadway’s leading ladies. Izenberg remembers Cannon and Joan Blondell. Pope recalls Cannon and Carol Channing.
“Cannon’s life was writing,” Pope said. “He worked at it like Smith and Murray did, like a dog.
He was one of the few sportswriters Joe DiMaggio deigned to talk with regularly. He was also close with Joe Louis.
Perhaps the heavyweight boxing great appreciated the classic Cannon observation that Louis was “a credit to his race — the human race.”
Fairly or not, Cannon’s “Nobody asked me, but…” columns of one-liners are remembered as his signature work. “They worked so well because they struck home with the guy working on the assembly line or the garment district, the cops and the firemen,” Izenberg said. “Cannon and his readers saw things the same way.”
Cannon suffered a stroke that put him in wheelchair in 1971. He died at the relatively young age of 63 on Dec. 5, 1973.
No one can really explain why it has taken Cannon so long to be recognized by APSE.
“Maybe it’s because his heyday was in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and some younger people were not familiar with his work,” Pope said.
Or maybe no one championed his cause before Pope and Izenberg began their campaign to ensure Cannon recognition alongside other Red Smith winners.
“I’m telling you,” Pope said, “Jimmy Cannon was as close to perfect as a sportswriter could be.”