It’s what we were taught in Journalism 101, along with the five “W’s.” Get it up high, make it interesting, grab the reader right away.
The lead—or “lede,” as some newspaper copy desks inexplicably write it—is a part of every journalist’s culture. We learned about the importance of that opening paragraph, and then were fed examples that have become part of our DNA.
Sports have led to perhaps the most famous leads in journalism, because almost all sportswriting is feature writing, in which the author is allowed to play with the subject.
Thus, when an amiable, fun-loving, alcohol-imbibing pitcher named Don Larsen became the first hurler to toss a perfect game in the World Series, the Daily News’ beat writer Joe Trimble knew he had to come up with something different to grab the reader on this momentous occasion. Luckily for Trimble, he was sitting next to his colleague, Dick Young, in the press box. Suggested Young:
“The imperfect man pitched the perfect game yesterday.”
And that was the lead in the Daily News. It was pitch-perfect.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the game was between the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers, guaranteed to gain a wide audience—as did another game involving the Dodgers.
The 1951 National League playoffs between the Dodgers and the New York Giants came down to the ninth inning of the third and final game—and Bobby Thomson hit a three-run home run off Ralph Branca to bring the Giants the pennant. His homer became known as “the shot heard round the world.”
And how do you write a lead for a game like that? The Giants had been losing by 4-2, bottom of the ninth, there were two runners on, and time was running out. Red Smith, at the Herald Tribune, was hard-pressed to have his lead equal the moment, as was every other writer at the Polo Grounds that day.
So Smith wrote about the impossibility of writing it, this way:
“Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”
Well, not quite. Despite that momentous blast, sportswriters still have been able to hit it out of the park themselves.
Just a few years after Smith wrote that lead, John Lardner did a piece for True magazine about a middleweight champion boxer who died in 1910. It began this way:
“Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”
Smith, who knew a good lead when he saw one, said of Lardner’s piece, “the greatest novel ever written in one sentence.”
Ironically, perhaps the most famous sports lead ever doesn’t even make sense. Grantland Rice, who lionized athletes and was one of a number of prominent sportswriters who helped to make the 1920s the Golden Age of Sports with their overblown prose, was suitably impressed by Notre Dame one Saturday, after the Fighting Irish defeated Army, and wrote in the Herald Tribune:
“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. …”
That lead gave the sobriquet “The Four Horsemen” forever to the Notre Dame quartet. But when you think about it, where would you be watching in order to see them “outlined against a blue-gray October sky?” From grass-level?
As for me, I recall a fellow named James Whitaker when I was a copy boy for the New York Mirror one summer in the 1950s. Jim no longer wrote much for the paper since it was punishing him for union activities. But once, he had been an important music critic in Chicago (and married to Ina Claire, a famous actress of the time). In writing about some now-forgotten pianist, Whitaker used a sports metaphor and came up with this:
“So‐and‐so played Beethoven last night. Beethoven lost.”
Speaking personally, at The Times we were told that our lead, in all sports events, had to include the result and the score. That slowed things down considerably (it’s gotten much looser and more fun since). On one of my first assignments covering boxing at Madison Square Garden, the very precise Frank Litsky advised me, “Tell who was fighting, who won, in what round, and who the referee was. In the first sentence.”
But my own favorite from my 8,000 bylines is this, written in 1994:
“Las Vegas–A right hand thrown from about 1973 tonight returned to 45-year-old George Foreman the heavyweight title he had lost 20 years ago.”
Leads don’t have to be long to be memorable. Probably my favorite lead about fishing, from a whale-hunting book written by a fellow named Melville:
“Call me Ishmael.”