By MARTY MULE’
Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
Editor’s Note: Tiger Rag columnist and legendary Louisiana sports writer Marty Mule’ passed away on Saturday, March 12. His final column for Tiger Rag featured, fittingly, another legend of Louisiana sports writing.
It happened in 1963. I remember one of them laughing about it years later, the other still perplexed about what was so funny.
The two New Orleans sportswriters who then covered LSU football, Peter Finney of the States-Item and Buddy Diliberto of The Times-Picayune, were traveling up the highway to Charlie McClendon’s Tuesday press conference for the upcoming Ole Miss game. This was the week when the Cuban Missile Crisis first hit the headlines and airways.
Finney made mention that there was a genuine fear this could lead to war with Russia. “I’m not worried about any war,” Buddy D., a purple heart recipient in Korea, shot back. “They’re talking about canceling the LSU-Ole Miss game. That’s serious! If that happened, I’d never forgive that guy Khrushchev.”
What a killer line.
That one and many others, along with insights and observations, over decades of covering sports – including more than a few of landmark LSU moments – are included in a treasure trove of the writings of Finney, the dean and role model of Louisiana sportswriters. Gleaned from the estimated 15,000 turned out in his fabled 68 years at the keyboard, 75 memorable columns are revived in The Best of Peter Finney: Legendary New Orleans Sportswriter. Culled by his son, Peter Finney Jr., and published by LSU Press, these columns are a delightful trip down memory lane for those who love sports, well-reasoned opinions, and, most of all, exquisite writing, done at the scene and in real time.
We’re transported to the birth of the Saints, their Super Bowl triumph 44 years later, the exploits of the New Orleans Jazz, interviews with Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Namath, Jack Nicklaus, Woody Hayes, and wrestling’s Gorgeous George. We’re at Super Bowl III when Joe Namath altered the trajectory of pro football; at Roberto Duran’s “No Mas” surrender to Sugar Ray Leonard; at Secretariat’s record-setting Triple Crown victory at the Preakness.
There’s more. Much more.
Not lost in the absorbing volume is the introduction, really a mini-biography, penned by Finney Jr., which is equally mesmerizing as the main text. There it is pointed out that Finney Sr. proved the contention that a good sportswriter can cover anything.
In 1975, Finney Sr. was flying to New York to cover a fight at Madison Square Garden. He took one airline because the flight on another was scheduled to land a little later. That second plane crashed, killing 112 of the 124 people on board. Finney grabbed whatever information he could from eyewitnesses and filed a powerful story back to his paper under the headline, “Fire in the Sky Leaves Field of Bodies.”
But on a much lighter note for those purple-and-gold boosters, there’s a bonanza of stories and interviews, touching on an army of household Tiger names and events.
There’s: Billy Cannon, Paul Dietzel, Pistol Pete, Shaquille O’Neal, Skip Bertman, Ben McDonald, Daddy Dale. We’re at the scene of the national championship games against Oklahoma and Ohio State, the improbable Blue Grass Miracle against Kentucky. We’re also at some sickening Tiger moments: the 1973 Tulane upset of the Orange Bowl-bound Tigers, and the worst defeat in LSU annals, the 21-0 rematch with Alabama for all the marbles.
Who could have known in 1954, nine years after he was hired at the States at age 17, when his sports editor assigned Finney to cover LSU that for the next seven decades he would be the chronicler of the most noteworthy exploits of the Bayou Bengals.
The column of Nov. 2, 1959 is as impressive as any. That was the State’s first edition (afternoon papers didn’t print on Sunday) after Billy Cannon’s epic punt return against Ole Miss. Finney spent his extra time by staying with LSU assistant sports information director Bud Johnson, who the next day first brought him to a house in Baton Rouge that had a towering antenna capable of picking up the signal from New Orleans’ Channel 4. There was no instant replay then, but the station kept rewinding the film and playing the run over and over. Finney knew more about what happened than Cannon, whose house they went to afterward. That’s where he got Cannon’s heart-stopping quotes: “Until the last second, I wasn’t going to play that punt. I was going to let it roll . . . (Jake) Gibbs didn’t kick this one as long as the others and it was sort of dribbling toward me. Ole Miss was covering well, and I didn’t feel like taking chances . . . I had fumbled already and given them three points.
“But then, right at the end, the ball took a high bounce and fell right in my arms . . . I took two steps forward and started running.”
The rest is LSU history.
So was what Skip Bertman told him in a 2001 meeting, that he remembered after taking the LSU baseball job saying the bleachers would have to be turned a bit so that the fans would have a good view. “I could already see packed stands at Alex Box Stadium,” Bertman said of the facility that at the time usually held two to three hundred fans.
“For many, Skip Bertman sounded like the guy in The Music Man, ” wrote Finney, “a hustler right here in River City. (But) with five NCAA skins on the wall, who can argue?”
When Pete Maravich died in 1988, Finney, who wrote a book on the Pistol while he was setting scoring records in college, listed the hard-to-believe images those who saw him play would remember all their days.
“For Adolph Rupp, the coaching legend at the University of Kentucky, the image came on the evening Wildcat fans packed memorial Coliseum to honor Pistol at his final game in Lexington. Pete responded with a shot from the corner, one launched as he was trapped by a Wildcat defender and most of his torso was beyond the end line.
When the shot swished, it may have been the only time a field goal by an opposing player triggered a standing ovation in Big Blue Country.
“But that was Pistol Pete. Instinctive. Inventive. Incredible.”
Nobody ever put it better.