In late 1969 the then-afternoon Arkansas Democrat languished in a death spiral affecting afternoon dailies everywhere.
It was in the habit of hiring student newspaper sportswriters from area high schools for part-time slots--internships, sort of--in its sports department.
So, at 16, for a wallet-stuffing $1.60 an hour, I drove the former family sedan downtown each weekday morning before classes at McClellan High School to work on the sports desk.
I'd write headlines--"Abdul-Jabbar: Kareem of the NBA crop"--and photo captions that we called "cutlines." We got rewarded with bylines on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday afternoons with stories on local football and basketball games, often involving our own schools, that we'd covered the night before.
My first morning on the desk, around 6 o'clock, I was handed--as my maiden assignment as a professional journalist--a stack of high school basketball game articles clipped from the morning Arkansas Gazette. I was told to rewrite them for our afternoon issue.
To launch my career, I stole from the competition.
All I heard in those days was how much better the Gazette was and that the superior morning product boasted a paragon of sportswriting and envy of us all--name of Jim Bailey.
He was a wordsmith, master of the craft, possessed of a photographic memory, an encyclopedic knowledge of boxing and baseball, a storyteller's genius and such a knack for weaving a theme in his writing that an English composition professor somewhere was supposedly citing his articles in class.
At age 19, in the spring of 1973, I hung around town to cut classes at UALR and toil in that ragtag afternoon Democrat sports department. As a staff veteran, such as one was, I found myself sitting beside Bailey in the press box at Ray Winder Field covering the Arkansas Travelers.
I was a cowed, wide-eyed kid, a wannabe singer who somehow wound up improbably seated next to Sinatra.
For that matter, I was the official scorer, since it was the Democrat's turn that season. One time I dispatched a complicated play with appropriate signals to radio legend Jim Elder about which part of the play was a hit and which part was an error.
But then one night there was a wild play with a couple of missed cutoff men and runners going around the bases faster than I could account. Moments passed. Elder was scolding on live radio that he wished the official scorer would please signal how it was all being scored.
"Want me to do it?" Bailey asked.
Oh, God, yes. And he did.
On nights when games went late, I'd watch Bailey pick up the phone after the last out and call the Gazette sports desk to dictate the box score, and then, off the top of his head, speak extemporaneously a perfect morning story to someone at the office who was typing what he said. I, on the other hand, had until the next morning to write a "second-day lead" for the next afternoon.
Decades later, Bailey and I were friends and colleagues. Legendary Gazette sports editor Orville Henry, living by that time in Malvern, was diagnosed with cancer. I told Bailey I wanted to go see Orville and asked if he would like to ride along. He said yes.
As we neared the Malvern exit, Bailey said that, on his lone previous such trip, Orville's longtime administrative right hand, James Thompson, had turned off the Malvern exit and somehow wound up on a road that dead-ended at a fence around a cow pasture.
We laughed at James' expense. Then we laughed at mine when we found ourselves 15 minutes later at the same place.
In semi-retirement writing one column a week for the Democrat-Gazette after the end of the newspaper war, and then in full retirement, Bailey would ask me from time to time to speak to the luncheon meeting of his AARP chapter.
Once he introduced me by saying the conservatives didn't like me and the liberals didn't either and that I must be getting it just right. And then another time--the last time--he lost his train of thought in the introduction and I hopped up to say thanks and commence talking.
Alzheimer's beset him for a decade until his passing Wednesday night.
As longtime colleague Harry King said in the article about the death in this paper Thursday morning, Bailey, in the day, could have been sports editor of any number of major newspapers in the region. But he wanted to stay where he was.
Bailey also could have been the state's best political writer. The chats on politics that he and I engaged in over the years were our best, tied for first with all the others we had.
In his eulogy years ago for his friend Orville, Bailey said we'd never see Orville's likes again.
And now we'll never see Jim's.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at email@example.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.
Editorial on 01/06/2019
Print Headline: JOHN BRUMMETT: Never see his like again