Remembering Furman Bisher

[On the Friday before he died] I called Furman Bisher from Ft. Myers, Fla., to tell him about the showcase Red Sox training facilities, which were officially christened in February. He was an eager listener.

No sportswriter enjoyed spring training more than did Furman whose friends gathered to say goodbye to the esteemed and accomplished columnist on a recent Saturday. We talked about a lot of things in that final conversation, which centered primarily on his missing the forthcoming Masters for the first time since 1949 and his objective to have his ailing back fixed.

As our conversation was ending, I lobbied for him to postpone back surgery so he could join all his friends in Augusta in a fortnight. “No,” he said. “I’m going to go ahead. I believe I have a few good years left, and I don’t want to be bumbling around with a cane or in a wheelchair.”

With that, I said, “Selah,” not once thinking I had punctuated our last conversation as he had often done with his columns. Nobody seems to know what Selah means, but my HarperCollins Bible Dictionary suggests that it might be related to something “musical.” That’s good enough for me. Although Furman was a columnist who could be insightful, sentimental, entertaining, caustic, informative, provoking and salty, he was at his best when he made words sing. He was old school, a two-fingered typist, who was at his best when games — like football and baseball — were played in the afternoons. Perhaps that is why he loved golf so much. “Thankfully,” he once said at dinner following a British Open round, “television can’t make them play golf at midnight.”

He was irascible, cynical, and cantankerous, which was part of his charm. He was opinionated, but he was also passionate and that was when he was at his best. Some of the best of Bisher came at Augusta, which he dearly loved and will miss for the first time in 62 years, not because of back surgery but because of the summons by the Grim Reaper whose eye he spat in for years. Jim Minter, former editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution and I thought he would live past a hundred. “I don’t know why Furman has chosen me to be the executor of his estate,” Jim said in January when we were quail hunting in Sylvania. “He knows damn well he is going to outlive me.”

After our conversation last week, I fully expected to soon be visiting Furman in his hospital room following that back surgery he had planned.

For years, Furman, Denis LaLanne, the most highly regarded sports columnist in France, and I covered the Masters, U.S. Open, and the British Open (and on occasion the PGA — our own Grand Slam). We would play golf in early morning, arrive at the golf course for an early lunch, write our columns in the late afternoons, and find a cozy Scottish (or English) pub for a filling evening meal, accented by a pint or two. Or more.

Earlier in the week, LaLanne, who has been retired for a half dozen or more years, sent a touching email: “The next Masters will be so sad for you, the last of the Three Musketeers on the press centre. Colette and I are thinking of you tenderly.”

There were times when we three had stimulating arguments — we were close, but we didn’t always agree — but there was a bond that grew stronger with the passing of years. One April, when LaLanne arrived in Atlanta from Paris for the Masters, Furman invited us for an overnight stay at his home in Fayetteville. After dinner, Furman began to speak of the fun we had together and suddenly began to sob. “You mean so much to me,” he whispered sentimentally and emotionally. He had a soft side, but you really had to know him to find it.

Many of those European trips included a spur from the main road to visit an historical site or place of interest. I remember once in France, he was driving and I was navigating, but we couldn’t determine where we were from the map in my possession. Exasperated, he grabbed the map and soon discovered that I was not such a poor map reader — the map and the intersection before our very eyes did not jibe. A mini-rage ensued. He yelled aloud to the French countryside, “You would think the (expletive) French with all the (expletive) artists and (expletive) engineers would (expletive) be (expletive) able to print a (expletive) roadmap we (expletive) foreigners could (expletive) understand.”

Furman’s passion could cause him to explode in conversation or in print, although he mellowed with the passing of time. His somber and sentimental column reflections are those that endeared him to so many. For example, he couldn’t write about Bobby Jones without sentiment drenching off the keys of his typewriter. He liked all that Jones stood for and measured all great athletes by the Jones standard of conduct and sportsmanship. As a result, nobody could take a wrong-headed and egotistical athlete to task more ruthlessly than Bisher.

As irreverent as he was in print, however, he was never sacrilegious. He was unfailingly faithful to his church and was especially fond of the old time hymns which he sang growing up in Denton, N.C.

In his prime, TIME named Bisher one of the top five sports columnists in the country. A prolific writer, he was never content just to contribute his sprightly, often off-beat column, which reflected a variety of attitudes ranging from the informative to the cynical. (He was a frequent magazine contributor and wrote many fine books.)

A reader might have taken exception to Furman’s viewpoint, but if you paid attention you knew he had high regard for the language and for research, and you knew right off that he had spent time with the dictionary. When it came to effort, he never shortchanged the reader.

Pride had something to do with that, but, he also had a natural curiosity to know his subject and to convey what he had discovered to subscribers. I cannot imagine a columnist who was more eager to write the next column than Furman.

To paraphrase something I wrote for the AJC upon his retirement, I reflected on his enduring variety of sporting interests and indefatigability. He was everywhere in his career: Wimbledon, the Olympics, the World Series, the Super Dome, St. Andrews, spring training, Churchill Downs, the “Hedges,” and the bushes. At age 90, he would drive across four counties to cover a minor league baseball game. He was good at what he did, because he loved what he was doing—from the first column to the last. Sadly, it has come to an end.

At the Masters this year, the remaining Musketeer will enjoy all that the great event encompasses, but with a very heavy heart.

[For 36 years the sideline radio reporter for the Georgia Bulldogs, Loran Smith now covers a bigger sideline of sports personalities and everyday life in his weekly newspaper columns.]