Daniel W. Scism · 1995
In those newspaper heydays when the nation still got most of its sports news from the ink-stained wretches who pounded deadline prose on their typewriters, Dan Scism wrote these words for his Evansville Courier readers from his post at the 1960 Olympics in Rome:
“The sun slipped below the high hills west of the Stadium while the shotputters held the spotlight. The air from the Alps regained its coolness. The luxurious turf below, ringed with the reddish running track divided into lanes by distinctive white lines, was a refreshing picture of majestic beauty with the harsh glare of the sun gone.
“The muscular giants were coiling up and heaving the 16-pound missile with all their might…
“It was soon obvious that the feuding Hatfields and Coys of the U.S. shotputters, Bill Nieder and Parry O’Brien,…stood out along with Dallas Long, 20-year-old U.S.C. sophomore….
“In a few minutes the three American giants mounted the victory stand and Avery Brundage handed out the medals while the crown applauded vigorously…
“And then as the three Americans stood mountain high at attention on the victory stand, the band played our National Anthem and all eyes turned to the bare three poles in front of the Olympic Flame.
“And there against the gray twilight over ancient Rome, the Stars and Stripes were pulled to the top and unfurled on all three poles. You had a lump in your throat and you were proud to be an American.”
It was a manner of writing and observation not unlike the styles of Grantland Rice, Damon Runyan and Red Smith — three great tellers of sports stories, stories not so much of the scores as of the players. But instead of writing for a national audience as did Rice, Runyan and Smith, Scism wrote those words, as he had written hundreds of thousands of words in the 35 years before and as he would for seven years after, to send home to his readers’ doorsteps.
His readers were used to that, because for 42 years, Scism covered events such as the World Series, the Kentucky Derby, the world boxing title fights and the Masters Golf Tournament. These all became topics for his daily column, “Sew it Seams,” which he wrote from 1927 until 1967, when he retired.
His readers knew they would find interesting and personal stories in Scism’s column, stories about the greatest athletes from an era some call the Golden Age of Sports: boxers Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, golfers Walter Hagen and Bob Jones, and New York Yankees sluggers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, among others.
For those efforts, Scism won several honors and awards. His column on the 1953 Kentucky Derby was selected for “Best Sports Stories 1954,” and a decade later his story on the 1963 Derby was published in “Best Sports Stories 1964.” The Evansville Gridiron Club made him its “Newsman of the Year” in 1958. In 1971, he won the Joe Bolan award, an honor given to people who make exemplary contributions to Indiana athletics; in the 1976 he won the Silver Medal award from the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
Scism, a native of Bloomfield, Mo., went to Evansville to attend Evansville College. While a student, he started at The Courier in 1924, shortly became police reporter and was named sports editor in 1925.
Scism died on Jan. 6, 1982, a little more than a month short of his 81st birthday.
To say Scism was renown in the Courier newsroom seems an understatement. Sounds like he was a character who also was admired, even loved, by those who worked with him.
When news of Scism’s death reached Courier columnist Joe Aaron in 1982, Aaron (himself now deceased) wrote:
“…He will always be in my mind as a newspaperman who looked and acted the part, sitting there at his typewriter with his hat on, banging away at the keyboard and pausing occasionally to light the pipe that was as much a part of him, almost, as his nose.
“Then, taking absolutely no care with the match he had just used, he would fling it casually over his shoulder into the huge wastebasket — and was personally responsible for practically all of the exciting fires we ever had in The Courier newsroom.
“Then, in his excitement, he would leap to his feet and do a distinctive little dance around the flames, removing his hat to ‘comb’ his bald head with his handkerchief….
“And Dan was the only man I ever knew who used his jacket pocket as a tobacco pouch, just pouring the tobacco in loose and dipping into it with his pipe occasionally for a refill.
“But Dan, of course, was a great deal more than just a pipe, a careless match and an unusual tobacco pouch. These are simply the personal quirks that come to me as I write of his death.
“The fact is, he was among the finest newspapermen ever to ply his trade in the city of Evansville, Ind., and among the finest — and the most respected — across the entire Midwest.”
Bill Fluty, who joined The Courier in 1955 and laid out the Courier’s sports pages after Scism left for the evening, remembers the earful he’d catch from Scism the next day if something didn’t come out the way the sports editor wanted.
“He was very vocal,” Fluty said in a Courier story earlier this year. “So I kind of ducked my head when he came around the corner. I’d wait for the daily blast, he’d give it to me and get it over with. I kind of enjoyed it because he used such colorful language. I was getting another lesson in what (sports writer) Jim Fasier call the Scism University.
“He (Scism) was an old fire horse. Most newspapers would be better if they had a guy now who cared enough to tell you about your mistakes, to make you into something.”
“And Scism also had a dramatic way — unmistakable in its message — of teaching the value of brevity to his sports writers. Courier reporter Don Bernhardt (himself also now deceased) told it this way after Scism’s death:
“The master of the written word (Scism) would stand up and remove his omnipresent hat, wipe his bald head with a handkerchief, and groan while whipping out a pair of large scissors. Then he would hold the copy pasted together above his head. Halfway down between his extended hand and the floor, he would laboriously sever the story and toss the bottom half into the wastebasket without reading a word.”
But Scism the sportsman was more than Scism the sports editor.
In 1930, he started the Evansville city golf tournament, which he won twice. Since 1965, the tourney has given a college scholarship in Scism’s name.
He also started and directed Evansville’s Golden Gloves program and formed a Depression-era baseball league based at Evansville’s Bosse Field.
And he loved the horses. In the 1950s and ’60s, he turned his attention to breeding, raising and racing thoroughbreds, often naming horses after his grandchildren.
His affection for racing led him into the final stage of his life as a sportsman — as publicity director at both Churchill Downs and Ellis Park.
What kind of man and journalist was Dan Scism?
Fluty — having learned Scism’s lesson of brevity — summed it up in a few works that speak many:
“He enjoyed his work. He loved his family. He loved a party, swapping stories, telling tales. He loved to play golf, to play the horses. He enjoyed making modest wagers on sporting events. For him, the suspense lasted a lifetime. He would never tolerate a dull moment.
“In my book, Dan was the best newspaperman I ever ran across….He taught me more about the do’s and don’ts of the business than I ever thought existed.”
Scism is survived by a son, Reed, and a daughter, Dana Jo.
Dan Scism’s brother, Don, was editor of the Courier from 1924 to 1954 and was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in 1976.