“As far as I am concerned, I just want you to know that I like the job I have, but if I had to live my life over again, I would have liked to have ended up as
a sports writer.”
– President Richard M. Nixon
The more people toss around the word ‘iconic’ these days, the less validity the word has.
But when the name of retired sportswriter Peter Finney comes up in conversation, you almost expect that word can’t be far behind. In fact, it all seems to flow together quite naturally as in “… the iconic sports writer, Peter Finney.” Or just “… the iconic Peter Finney.”
For 68 years, the white-haired native of the French Quarter had (and still has) the ‘Right Stuff’ as writer Tom Wolfe defined it in his 1979 book by the same name.
“I was a kid at Loyola when my dad bumped into a friend of his,” the 87-year-old Finney says. “My dad told him, ‘My son’s looking for a job … if you hear of anything let me know.” Well, the man knew of an opening at the old States (newspaper) on North Street. I went there never having even thought about writing anything. It was in July, and I began covering American Legion baseball. I was paid $20 a week. Things just went on from there.”
‘From there’ is a masterful creation of some 15,000 columns as the States morphed into the States-Item then into The Times-Picayune. Along the way Finney was named “Sports Writer of the Year” 17 times by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association.
Forget it! The list runs into eternity as would be expected of an ‘iconic’ career.
“The thing that made it all so incredible was that he wrote five columns a week,” says Peter Finney Jr., the executive editor of The Clarion Herald, the Catholic newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans and one of six of Finney Senior’s offspring. “Five columns a week and that was before there was Saints football and professional basketball. There just was not a lot of sports in New Orleans. It was a pretty difficult thing to do.”
“I was always looking for different angles,” Peter Senior says. “I was always looking at the things people were talking about. And back then we always had (sports related) companies doing promotions in New Orleans. And there were a lot of people doing those promotions. People like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, George Digby who was a scout for the Red Sox. Jessie Owens (1936 Olympic gold medalist) was in town promoting a liquor product and I wanted to interview him. He asked me to drive him to the airport and I interviewed him while on the way.
The memories of personalities past have been stoked, and Peter Finney senior is on a roll recalling all the big names. “Now, Gorgeous George the Wrestler. Man, he was a piece of work. He was his own best promoter. He tells me, ‘I never want to be half safe. When I get into the ring I spray myself with Chanel No. 10.”
As Finney sits in the book-lined living room of his Victorian home on Esplanade Avenue this warm breezy afternoon, names like Charlie McClendon and Paul Dietzel, Pete Maravich and Dave Dixon come to mind, as do the books Finney has written about LSU athletics. He talks of the quirky, nutty early days of the New Orleans Saints and their days at rusted old Tulane Stadium. And he talks of his lifelong friend and sportscaster, the late ‘Buddy’ Diliberto and Diliberto’s penchant for side splitting malapropisms: ‘Mayor Joe Yenner of Kenny of Kenner’ and about the time Diliberto toured Children’s Hospital and came to report, “Man, I tell you it’s something else to see those kids walking down the hall attached to their RV’s.”
And then there are the wonderful memories of 61 years of marriage to Doris, or ‘Deedy’ as she was so fondly remembered.
“I was being interviewed on a talk show,” Peter Senior says. “Doris called to remind me to pick up a gallon of milk on the way home. It went out over the air. I started to ask her to make a list and call me back. She was such wonderful, wonderful person. It’s been a great life!”
From such careers and lives come the true meaning of the word ‘iconic.’
Contact George Gurtner at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book, Cast of Characters is on sale at bookstores throughout New Orleans and may be ordered through MargaretMedia.com