Remembering John Archibald

January 5th, 2011  |  Published in Inside Line

Veteran bowling writer and PBA Hall of Famer John Archibald died Monday at the age of 83 in suburban St. Louis.

Archibald, who suffered a stroke approximately two years ago, began a four-decade career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after graduating from the University of Missouri in 1949. He was a general assignment sportswriter, feature writer and a TV critic, but was probably best known as the paper’s bowling columnist

Upon Archibald’s retirement from the Post-Dispatch in 1989, Mort Luby Jr. devoted his “Dear Readers” column in Bowlers Journal to the veteran scribe.

WISDOM AND WHIMSY ARE HIS SPECIALTIES

By Mort Luby Jr.

We usually finished up at the All-Star tournament around 3 a.m. The Coliseum was eerily silent, other than the click-clack of Western Union machines. The odor of cigar smoke hung in the air. Except for some dim lights over press row, the arena was dark.

I’d type my 100th and final piece of the day — an “overnight” for the Associated Press — and wearily tidy my workplace. I’d cram carbon copies of all the stories into a briefcase in case some irate sports editor called my room at 6 a.m. claiming that his “special” had gone astray

As I struggled into my overcoat, I’d glance down the long, deserted line of typewriters. There, in splendid solitude, sat this scholarly-looking gent brooding over his machine. He’d frown for a while, then punch out a sentence. He’d sit back and consider it, squinting and scowling. It seemed like a lot of sweat for a bowling piece that would run on page five of the sports section.

But regardless of how the slot man played it, you knew that there’d be a beautifully crafted story — full of wisdom and whimsy — under John J. Archibald’s byline that day.

John has been bowling and covering bowling for four decades. He’ll retire from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch next year. Hopefully, he won’t retire from either bowling or bowling writing.

Because John J. Archibald is absolutely the best bowling writer who has ever chronicled the sport.

I say this without fear of rebuttal. Writers know, instinctively, when they are up against a superior talent. When I read John’s stuff, I feel the same way as when I read a novel by William Styron: no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to put words together the way this guy does.

John’s superiority has been amply documented. He’s won more than 40 awards in Bowling magazine’s writing contest. He was on such an embarrassing roll at one point that they had to invent a way to disqualify him. So they appointed John’s boss a contest judge. Later, they did the same to John.

He’ll get another accolade this month when he is inducted into the PBA Hall of Fame. If there is any justice in this world, he’ll soon be installed in the ABC Hall, too.

What makes John a better bowling writer than the rest of us?

First, he’s a fanatical bowler. At age 64, he’s still bowling in two leagues, carrying a 195 average.

“I got into bowling when I was 15,” he recalls. “I tried other sports, but I was terrible. Bowling was the only thing I could do reasonably well.”

John’s intensity is something of a joke around St. Louis’ press-radio-TV league. “He kicks racks like Marshall Holman,” says a journalist buddy.

“I take most things seriously,” admits Archibald.

Especially his writing.

The son of a St. Louis mailman, John got his first story in the prestigious P-D when he was 16.

“I sent in a goofy piece about the cheapskates who owned our local baseball teams,” he recalls. “Amazingly, the sports editor liked it. He even paid me $20.”

After a stint of World War II service, John got his journalism degree from the University of Missouri. He worked briefly in Oklahoma before landing his career-long job at the P-D.

Then, as now, he bore down ferociously on every single word.

“Even when they’d throw me a little no-brainer, I’d try to find a fresh way to say it,” he recalls. “Readers are busy people. You’ve got to ‘hook’ them. Even if a reader has no interest in the subject, he’ll read the story if it’s done well.”

John’s well-done stories have graced several P-D departments. He started in sports, covering everything from bowling to the St. Louis Hawks. In 1971, he became TV writer for the paper’s Everyday magazine.

“I interviewed everybody from Alan Alda to Ed Asner,” John recalls, “but my most interesting assignment was Liberace. Really, a very nice guy.”

Now a feature writer for Everyday, John still writes a bi-weekly bowling column on a freelance basis.

Over the years, John has freelanced bowling stories for dozens of periodicals ranging from the Christian Science Monitor to Bowlers Journal. Hopefully, this activity will increase as retirement frees up more time.

Before wrapping up this paean, I really should point out that John wasn’t supreme in every category of bowling journalism.

Because of his myriad other duties, John’s contacts in the sport weren’t as strong as some full-time bowling writers. Consequently, he rarely “broke” an important story. Nor was he a passionate advocate who prodded people into action with stirring editorials.

But when it came to putting words down on paper, nobody did it better. Ever.

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