The ball snaps from center, the quarterback takes it, wheels, and flips it to a halfback. The halfback draws back his arm and shoots and oval on an airline to an end far down the field. A frantic dive by the safety man, and a touchdown is averted by a scant four yards. The teams line up there is a line plunge and another, and a touchdown. The stands are rocking with excitement. Every woman is gasping "Who was that?" and every man is fumbling at his program to discover who threw the pass, who caught it, and who made the two line bucks and the touchdown. And he gives up in disgust.
At the stadium gate at the close of the game are the football extras. And there you read the story of the play ten minutes old, in a style something like this:
"Shakespeare took the pass from center, juggled it a moment, and tossed to Roosevelt. A second to balance himself, and Roosevelt shot a pass on a bullet-like trajectory to Smithers, wing-footed Maroon end. As Smithers, four yards from a touchdown, felt the pigskin against his chest, the lithe form of Codfish Cabot, the doughty little Massachusetts quarterback, hit him amidships, and down he went. Roosevelt crashed the line, but Tiny Timm, giant guard, blocked his way. Again Roosevelt drove, and this time over the line."
Well--how do they get that way?
For the mighty sweep of the mind of the sporting writer that lifts him to the heights of rhetoric and the ridiculous we cannot answer. But the mystery to the layman is not in the language, which is after all a first cousin to English, but in how the eye and brain of the reporter could identify the individual and yet follow the play, when Father and Brother, and Uncle Ralph failed miserably, and missed the touchdown because they were looking for Number 56.
They don't follow it any better than the family. The fact is that sports reporting has become as highly specialized a business as bootlegging, and there are as many aides in the press box as in a European hotel.
To the outward view most press-boxes present simply two or three long counters with benches behind them. They are not boxes, really, because they have no covers? They are eminently uncomfortable places. When the wind blows, as it frequently does, the occupants of the press seats get it all; when it rains, they rapidly become what Mr. Mantalini called "demn'd damp, moist, unpleasant bodies."
At the first row of counters sit the day laborers of the press, the men who are sending actual wire stories, play-by-play, for evening papers. Beside each of these men sits a telegraph operator at his wire. As each play is run off the reporter dictates his description to his telegrapher, who relays it on a direct wire to his paper.
Undergraduates Do the Trick
It is for these men of the working press that the mercies are multiplied. In the center of the press box, on the 50-yard line, sits an undergraduate from each of the contesting colleges. These students are provided with field glasses and an ability to recognize at sight all the members of their respective teams. When a play starts, they train their glasses on the scrimmage. The Siwash undergraduate says, "Shakespeare carrying the ball." As soon as the tackle is made, the Massachusetts undergraduate says, "Jones made the tackle."
Behind these men stands an announcer equipped with a megaphone and a powerful voice. He picks up the statements of the two spotters and repeats them to the press box, "Shakespeare ran, tackled by Jones."
This announcer is the heart of the system of the press. The spotters, with their glasses and their eyes alive only to pick out their own man in the play, observe all the more usual details and relay them to the announcer. When a penalty is administered, or a doubt arises as to a certain play, a telephone wire connecting with the home team's bench is brought into use, and a manager gives the information, officially, from the word of the coaches on the bench.
So the reporters are relieved of the necessity of watching detail of personalities, and can keep their attention riveted on their analysis of the type of play, and its sidelights. The "dirty work" of spotting is cared for by the men who are paid to recognize their friends at any distance and in any disguise.
The radio announcer, the man whose voice, carefully guarded by the proper cigarettes, carries the news to a listening world, is located in a little coop of his own at the back of the press box. Because he is within the walls of his pen, he does not hear the dictates of the announcer so readily, and has to rely more on his own judgment or identification.
This accounts for the occasional retractions of the loud speaker: "Brown has the ball. He's off! He's through for forty-yards! No, wait a minute, folks, I think it was Jones carried it. Wait a minute, now, we'll see about this . . . . (Long Pause) . . . . It was Smithers who took the ball, folks, a beautiful run of 15 yards . . . ." Sometimes a keen listener over the radio may hear the voice of the press announcer before the radio man gets in his say.
The rest of the press box personnel, besides reporters, telegraphers, spotters, announcers, and radio men, is composed of the leisure class of the newspaper fraternity. The rear rows of the press seats are filled with men from the morning papers, who have no story to send through the game, but can wait until long afterwards to wire a carefully considered account to their editors. Above the din of telegraph instruments and typewriters, these gentlemen sit at their ease, in attitudes suggesting expert opinion in repose.
Lanterns Flicker as Night Wears On
As the final whistle blows, the crowds rise and break into waves to flow out of the stadium. The morning-paper reporters leave, and only the evening-paper men are left. There is still the "lead" of the play-by-play story to be written. Darkness falls rapidly, and lanterns make their appearance along the counter, by whose light the typewrites click, and the pencils push faster and faster, sending to frantic sporting editors trying to catch the third edition the information that:
"Massachusetts defeated Siwash on a wet field here today, 27-0. The long passes of the Bay Staters were too much for the men from the West who . . . ."