SquashTalk>Columns>"Clio's Corner": James Zug>Allison Danzig - NYT Reporter
The Man from the Times: A Profile of Squash's Great Journalist, Allison Danzig

By James Zug. September 15, 2000. © 2000. Funded by SquashTalk.com. Do not reproduce online without permission.
Illustrations: Allison Danzig - top: portrait by Danzig's granddaughter, Alison Whittaker; bottom photo, NYT, both courtesy family of Allison Danzig.

George Plimpton has figured out a hierarchy in sports journalism: the smaller the ball, the better the writing. Not too many works of brilliance about basketball, but take a look at the shelves of classics on baseball or golf. On the Plimptonian scale, then, squash, with our little black pellet, should have a long list of great writers. We do, in England, with Pawle, Bellamy, Rutagnur—all squash-household names in the United Kingdom. But because of a quirk in our culture, our surfeit of other sports or our lack of sophistication, American newspapers today do not, like their London counterparts, have a staff writer devoted to squash. So there have been far fewer regular squash writers of note in the U.S., and there has been only one serious squash journalist who has risen beyond the ink and newsprint and into the airy realm of genius—Allison Danzig.

Luckily for squash, Danzig (1899-1987) was arguably one of the best sportswriters of the twentieth century. He wrote for the New York Times from 1923 to 1967. He covered all the important squash tournaments, the Gold Racquets, the Harry Cowles, the U.S. Open, the nationals—especially when held in his home town of New York—and he wrote the only history of U.S. squash, an important section in his magisterial 1930 opus, The Racquet Game.

Born in Waco, Texas, where his father was a timber merchant, Danzig grew up in Albany, New York and went to Cornell. At the prodigious size of five feet six and a hundred and twenty-seven pounds, Danzig made the Cornell varsity football team then run by the legendary Gilmour (Gloomy Gil) Dobie. Gloomy Gil put the feather-like Danzig at end and then left half-back. "I never missed a day's practice and got the hell beat out of me," Danzig recalled. He played in five games in two seasons before limping to graduation in 1921.

Such self-inflicted punishment provided a good education for Danzig's career choice: journalism. He spent two years at the Brooklyn Eagle, before coming to 43rd Street as a tennis writer for the New York Times. Since at the time sports in America ran according to the seasons, Danzig chopped up his schedule into four distinct realms. In the summer he covered tennis (and when in England golf); in the fall college football; in the winter squash and more obscure racquet sports like squash tennis, racquets and court tennis; in the spring rowing. Dotting this routine were special events. Danzig wrote the lead story for the Times on every Olympic Game from 1932 to 1960 and covered the Army-Navy football game every November for thirty-five years. He wrote or edited six other books besides The Racquet Game, including his monumental History of American Football (1956). He was most known as a tennis writer—he coined the phrase the Grand Slam in 1933—and was the first journalist inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island.

The byline of Allison Danzig might have been feared—"Danzig's opinion on the quality of a match had the imprimatur of a theatre critic" wrote Gene Scott— but the man himself was a true gentleman. He brought his wife Dorothy breakfast in bed every day until he died at age eighty-eight in 1987. He neatly dressed in a suit and tie. In summer he could be seen in a seersucker suit, taking notes on an envelope or banging away at his beige Smith-Corona (which is now displayed in Newport). Because of his penchant for thoroughness and stylish prose, he was known as "the last man our of the press box" His friends called him Al or Danny.

Or sometimes things less printable. In 1935, the story goes, Danzig covered the Ohio State-Notre Dame football game and afterwards went out for a drink with fellow scribes Grantland Rice and Henry McLemore. Rice and McLemore got thoroughly sloshed in their cups and late that night Danzig kindly helped them onto the train back to New York. They woke up the following morning as the train pulled into Grand Central Station and thanked Danzig profusely for taking care of them. But then McLemore grimaced and said, "Jeez, Granny, didn't we drive to Columbus?"

Squash was a welcomed respite in between the rigors of the football and tennis seasons. His first book, The Racquet Game, was a brilliantly researched and written history of court tennis, racquets, squash tennis and squash in the U.S., and still, seventy years later, the only published history of U.S. squash we've got. Bert Rawlins, the former national squash champion, wrote the foreword; it was published by Macmillan. "Mr. Danzig's knowledge of his subjects is only equaled by his modesty in writing what should be a classic in America and Canada," wrote the Times Literary Supplement in London in May 1930.

"Al was a lovely man, a good friend of mine," says Hunter Lott, who started playing squash tournaments in the mid-1930s. "He was a vintage guy. Everyone loved to chat with him in the gallery or at the luncheons. He had a reputation as a famous reporter, and New Yorkers love famous reporters."

To close, here is one example of Danzig's squash writing, a lead article in the Times under his byline, on the quarterfinals of the Harry Cowles tournament, 24 January 1954:

"[Henri] Salaun, recent winner of the first open championship, in which he defeated Hashim Khan, Pakistan's hitherto invincible player, in the final, had the staying power and control to overcome [Ernie] Howard's killing speed. It seemed that the lean young Canadian's blistering attack down the sidewalls would carry all before it, as it did in the amateur championships a year ago. But after leading two games to one, Howard lost his control in the fourth and found the telltale repeatedly as Salaun kept him under relentless pressure with the fury of his own hitting. In the fifth and final game the Canadian regained his accuracy. The two played on even terms to 6—all and then Howard went ahead at 9—6. It looked like Howard's match as he hammered the ball with fine length from both forehand and backhand and mixed in an occasional corner shot. But the Boston youth now showed his marvelous powers of endurance in the prolonged rallies. Howard's control broke under the strain. Salaun evened the count at 9—all, went ahead at 14—10 and, after yielding the next point, scored on a beautiful winner down the backhand wall to end the match."

[ Read The beauty of doubles, also by James Zug]

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