LITTLE ROCK — Eager about staffing his first college football game, the sportswriter choked … big time.
A Friday night regular staffing high school games, the 20-year-old was assigned a night game at Arkansas Tech vs. Ouachita Baptist University best I can remember. A byline in the Sunday paper and mileage, too. What a deal.
Meticulously, the man took notes, documenting every 1- and 2-yard gain. It was 10-0 at the half and 10-7 at the end. Deadline approaching, time to produce. In those days, writers dictated from the site. On the other end of the phone line, Jim Bailey answered in the sports department of the Arkansas Gazette.
Uh. Well. Uh. Hours went by. At least, it seemed like hours.
Incoherent babbling and an apology, nothing more. Sensing the panic in the pressbox, Bailey coaxed some facts out of the reporter, elicited a note about a big play or two, and had the man recite a couple of stats from the school-produced sheet. Okay, he said.
Embarrassed, the writer mentally crafted his resignation letter on the forever drive back to Little Rock. The next morning, he opened the newspaper and searched for the mess with the Russellville dateline. Instead, there was a smoothly flowing account of the result with the perfect blend of detail and historical significance.
Thanks to Bailey, I still had a job.
Working with him a couple of years, learning was through osmosis with a dollop of gentle prodding. A couple of times, he mentioned he could count on my golf stories to be 18 paragraphs, one per hole. About the third time, the message to tighten the copy sunk in.
Without ado, he helped many.
There was the time when the AAAA, AAA, and AA basketball finals were scheduled consecutively at Barton Coliseum and a younger Gazette staffer had the first game — Searcy vs. Altheimer, the only team that had beaten the Lions. Closing in on the first edition deadline, Bailey told the staffer to grab the winning coach for a quick quote and he would lock up one of the few available phones. When the staffer returned, Bailey had written:
“The Searcy Lions came to the end of the Lonnie Webber era with only one score to settle. They settled it with workmanlike precision instead of emotion.”
Bailey handed it to the reporter who called the Gazette office. Sports editor Orville Henry picked up the phone and began taking dictation. Two sentences in, he said, “That’s the best thing you’ve ever written …”
James Thompson never had the nerve to fess up, something he shared with Bailey.
That will be our secret, Bailey said.
Still in high school, Orville’s son, Clay, staffed a Little Rock Central-Hall basketball game on a Tuesday night. Details and quotes in hand, he returned to the office and stared at the typewriter. This won’t take long, Bailey said, urging the staffer to get up for a moment or two.
The next morning, in a first-hour English class, the instructor wrote a multi-syllable word on the blackboard and asked Clay for a definition.
“I’ve never seen that word before,” Clay said.
“That’s funny. It’s in the first paragraph of your story this morning,” the teacher said.
In his early 80s, Bailey recently decided to quit writing a weekly column, the best-crafted sports copy in Arkansas for decades. He’s not out of commission; he’s already looking ahead to his annual trek to Hot Springs for opening day at Oaklawn Park, asking his driver for the specific date. Once in the pressbox, his day is mostly about kibitzing and corned beef.
Bailey’s memory is legendary. Same with the trust of coaches and players, from the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference, to minor league baseball, to the big leagues.
Once a TV sports anchor and now the executive director of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, Ray Tucker was on the scene at a UCLA football practice prior to the December 1978 Fiesta Bowl against Arkansas. Talking with UCLA coach Terry Donahue, Bailey had neither a notebook nor a tape recorder.
Days later, back in Arkansas, Tucker matched Bailey’s column against his film and marveled that every Donahue quote was spot on.
Bailey’s ability to recall verbatim a conversation from years earlier, maybe with an AIC coach or a minor league manager in town for a series with the Arkansas Travelers, showed up often in his copy. Via word of mouth and personal experience, they knew that he knew what was for public consumption and what was off the record.
Maybe that’s why Vern Rapp, in his first year as manager of the Cardinals, opened his office door, spotted Bailey among the media, and invited him for a 15-minute chat, leaving second-guessers in the crowd to stew.
Raised in Emerson in south Arkansas, Bailey started out at The Gazette in 1955 for $56 per week. I have no proof, but he’s probably always had a penchant for the succinct, a skill noted recently in Nate Allen’s well-written tribute.
On the small charters to and from Southwest Conference games in Texas, Orville Henry delighted in identifying towns from the air. Longview. Texarkana. Mount Pleasant.
Over a black hole with a single light: “Emerson,” Bailey said.
And, there was the year that Bailey and others opposed the AIC commissioner’s decision to hold a game in Little Rock between an all-star team and the league champion. Sleet began before the game and only a few hundred folks were in the stands on that December day.
If I had Bailey’s memory, I could quote the lead precisely. It went something like this: “On a day when War Memorial Stadium never looked more spacious …”
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.