Remembering Furman Bisher: Sportswriting legend, friend of racing
Furman Bisher started writing about sports in 1938 when he was hired by the Lumberton Voice in his native North Carolina. His last column, for the Daily Post of Gwinnett, Ga., where he wrote occasionally following his retirement from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution a few years ago, was dated March 8, 2012. Over the years, he got to know baseball legend Ty Cobb, played golf with Bobby Jones, and scored the only interview Shoeless Joe Jackson ever gave. He covered Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali in the boxing ring, saw Native Dancer lose his only race, and witnessed Secretariat, Affirmed and Seattle Slew's Triple Crown glory.
Mr. Bisher's 74-year run – 59 of them at the Atlanta Journal Constitution – chronicling some of the sporting world's biggest events and brightest stars came to an end on Sunday night when he died of a heart attack at the age of 93. He was among the last of the great ones from a bygone era that included such names as Shirley Povich, Red Smith, Blackie Sherrod, and Jim Murray, among others. These were columnists who put horse racing right up there with championship events in other sports. There's a couple left, perhaps, guys like Edwin Pope at the Miami Herald, but most of today's sports columnists spend more time primping for television appearances and few of them have ever been to a racetrack.
“God Almighty, he was a good one,” said Cot Campbell, the master of Dogwood Stable who transitioned from a faithful reader to a good friend of Mr. Bisher. “Seems like forever we've been reading Furman Bisher. He was wonderful.”
Furman Bisher loved horse racing, though as a columnist didn't like everything about the changes the sport has seen in recent years. He covered his first Kentucky Derby in 1950, but said he stopped going to Churchill Downs after the grandstand was rebuilt into, what he called, “a big marble-floored bore. The press box used to command the finest view of the race at the Downs; now it's buried in between a bunch of boxes and an overhang, too fancy for me.” His last Derby was in 2007, when Street Sense won.
He didn't like the new affiliation between horse racing and casinos and wasn't a big fan of simulcasting, either. But he loved racing people and roaming the backstretch looking for a good story.
“I loved the people around the barns, my morning visits with trainers, and occasional owner who had never been to the Derby before, or some old-time barn hand,” Mr. Bisher said in a 2010 interview with the Paulick Report. “Each year I learned something new because I had started off as such a Thoroughbred greenhorn.”
That's how many newspaper columnists began when they first tried to cover a major horse race, but that didn't stop Furman Bisher from learning all he could about the sport or from falling in love with it.
“Oh, yes, I felt totally overwhelmed because the other sports editor in Atlanta was Ed Danforth, a native Kentuckian who not only spoke Thoroughbred but wrote it beautifully,” he said. “I had to try hard, harder and hardest, and I was Thoroughbred years behind him in every way. But he was kind and a good friend, God bless him. Only thing I could do was work harder.”
The Masters golf tournament was his favorite event to cover, followed by the Kentucky Derby at No. 2 and British Open golf tournament third.
Cot Campbell remembered the time Mr. Bisher was covering the 1996 World Series in New York when he abruptly left to head up to Toronto, Canada, where Dogwood Stables had Storm Song running in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Woodbine, a race she won.
Dogwood named a horse “Furman Bisher,” but he didn't turn out to have as much class as his namesake, winning a maiden claiming race last fall for his only victory so far. The pro football Hall of Famer Sam Huff earlier named a horse “Bisher,” but he wasn't much of a runner, either.
“I talked to him a lot,” Campbell of Mr. Bisher. “He could be a little bit abrupt or outspoken, but he had a tenderness about him that was very appealing. I remember (wife) Anne and I were with him in Athens at a guy's house. Anne asked about his son, who had died (at the age of 44), and Furman burst into tears. He had a very soft side to him. He was demanding of himself. He toed the line. He wasn't just going to get something written. It was going to be the best damned thing he could get out. And he wasn't afraid to step on toes.”
I never lived in Atlanta, so the Journal-Constitution was never a regular read for me. But Mr. Bisher was a weekly contributor to The Sporting News, which focused primarily on baseball, and I became a big fan of his writing during my school years. He added texture to events, had a wonderful sense of humor, and brought readers closer to the personalities he covered. He wrote several books, including a biography of Hank Aaron, and contributed to Sport magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, and Sports Illustrated. What a life he led.
Even after he slowed down, Mr. Bisher continued to follow horse racing closely, emailing notes to me now and then about his thoughts of certain horses and races and industry news that he'd read on our website.
He absolutely detested my suggestion a couple of years ago that it wouldn't be long before the Kentucky Derby was run under the lights at Churchill Downs.
“Surely you jest,” he wrote. “Any game that can be played under nature's lighting, I prefer, racing foremost. By the time those horses are on the track, they should be bedded down in their stalls. They know the difference between night and day, even if we homo sapiens don't.”
Horse racing has lost a very dear friend.