By Ashley Kooblall
George Vecsey has been living the life most writers could only dream of. He’s covered everything from sports to religion, in all corners of the world. And if you the think the 2001 National Association of Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame inductee is ready to call a quits, better guess again; He’s just getting started.
His latest work, Baseball: A History of America’s Favorite Game, was published in 2006 and is proof that Vecsey is still performing in his prime. It is the first sports book of its kind to fit into a history series whose authors include Karen Armstrong, Hans Kung, Ian Buruma and Alan Brinkley.
Born to two journalists on July 4, 1939, Vecsey pursued an English degree at Hofstra University. As an undergraduate, he worked as a student publicist in the athletic department, and right before he graduated in 1960, he began covering Yankee games for Newsday. He continued at Newsday until 1968, when he then joined The New York Times, covering a variety of sports.
In 1970, Tina Roberts, an editor at The Times, asked Vecsey to become a national correspondent in Louisville, Kentucky, where he covered a range of stories from coal mining to the Kentucky Derby. It was here he wrote what he now considers his favorite article for the Times, a story of an earthen dam giving away in West Virginia, killing 150 people. His reporting exposed a coal company for not being honest with those who lived nearby.
“It was the best reporting I’ve ever done,” Vecsey said.
When he returned to New York, he became a Metro reporter, covering Long Island until May 1977. He spent the next four years serving as a national and religion reporter for the Times.
Religion was a different field from what Vecsey was used to, but he welcomed the challenge. “As reporters, we learn to be quick studies of what we’re covering, and that’s what I did,” Vecsey said. “I learned as I went along.”
He’s had the privilege to interview the Dalai Lama, Pope John Paul II, Tony Blair, Billy Graham and a multitude of other significant figures.
Out of all of these, he was most impressed by the Dalai Lama. “I remember his intelligence, humility, laugh and warmth,” Vecsey said. “He had messages for America laid in between the lines. He had a lot to say about hedonism in a more developed world.”
Vecsey returned to the world of sports in 1980, becoming a feature sports writer. In 1982, when legendary sports writer Red Smith died, Vecsey was chosen to write the Sports of the Times column.
On the international front, Vecsey has covered seven consecutive World Cups.
“He has a breadth of interests rarely seen today,” said Roy Johnson, former Times writer and editor-in-chief of Men’s Fitness. “He’s as passionate about soccer as sports are popular in the U.S. He was my role model in that regard. Now we are in an area of specialization in which few writers have the interest in reaching beyond their comfort zones.”
Vecsey says he loves soccer because “some of the world’s greatest players like Cristiano Ronaldo add so much spontaneity and creativity to the game.”
He’s also covered all of the Summer Olympic Games, from Los Angeles in 1984, to Beijing in 2008.
Sports’ writing has evolved greatly from the time Vecsey began his career. “We didn’t have the Internet back then,” he says. “I had my misgivings about the Internet because it’s untouched by human hands. Nowadays, people who aren’t necessarily working in the field can get the word out in print via the Internet, like bloggers.
“It’s very easy for the general public to read something online by someone sitting in their underwear,” Vecsey said. “It bothers me that people take them seriously.”
Having lived through a number of steroid scandals, Vecsey said that he’s “surprised by how far we’ve come in 10 years.”
“People criticize reporters for not telling the truth about baseball steroid use,” he says, reflecting on the recent Alex Rodriguez buzz, “but what people don’t realize is that baseball players don’t approach reporters to confess.
“[Baseball players] toss a few socks to keep the wolves away; they do things and sort it out later,” he says. “I’m surprised that great players have been disgraced but at the same time, I’m not surprised, given the human condition.”
Vecsey is often praised for his astute observations on the human side of sports. “He’s got a worldliness that you also find less and less on the sports pages now than when I began my career,” said Johnette Howard, author of The Rivals and former sports columnist for Newsday. “He’ll go on these rambles where he drops down someplace and he writes as if he’s part of the story. He gives you these impressionistic takes on things, sets the scene, gives context, makes acute observations about what he found when he got there, all in 800 or so words.”
In addition to articles, Vecsey has wrote over a dozen books, five of which are best-sellers. Among his books are: Joy in Mudville in 1970, a history of the New York Mets; One Sunset a Week, the story of a revolutionary coal-mining family in Appalachia, 1974; and the Coal Miner’s Daughter, with Loretta Lynn, a 1976 best-seller which was made into an Academy Award winning motion picture in 1980, starring Sissy Spacek.
Martina, another best-seller, is an autobiographical story of Martina Navratilova. Martina is a “deeper and far more textured portrait than just about any other sports book I’ve ever read,” said Howard. “Vecsey is among the deans of American sports columnists.”
Vecsey, who resides in Port Washington, Long Island, is married to Marianne Graham, his co-editor of NEXUS, the Hofstra yearbook. They have three children and five grandchildren.
“I consider myself blessed,” Vecsey says. “There’s nothing in this business that I wanted to do that I didn’t have the chance to do.”