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Tuesday, November 12, 2002
Grimsley covered sports for AP for 40 years
NEW YORK -- Will Grimsley, who covered the spectrum of sports for four decades as a reporter, columnist and special correspondent for The Associated Press, is dead at age 88.
Grimsley's byline was one of the best known in sports as he reported from the world's biggest athletic events for nearly half a century, including 15 Olympics, 35 World Series and 25 Kentucky Derbies.
Grimsley, who retired in 1984, died Oct. 31 of heart failure in East Meadow, N.Y. He was buried Nov. 4.
Born in Monterey, Tenn., Grimsley was the son of a railroad engineer. He joined the sports staff of the Evening Tennessean at age 18 and became sports editor and columnist for the paper in 1935.
Grimsley was hired by the AP at Memphis in 1943 and transferred to New York as a sportswriter in 1947. In 1969, he was named a special correspondent, one of just a handful of AP writers and the only one in sports to carry that title.
Eight years later, in 1977, ''Grimsley's Sports World'' made its debut as a five-day-a-week column that gave afternoon newspapers a versatile look at the world Grimsley occupied. Sometimes it was a mood piece, sometimes it was analytical, sometimes it was a profile of a sports personality.
''Will Grimsley was one of the stars of a golden era in American sportswriting,'' said AP vice president Wick Temple, sports editor from 1973-80. ''Hundreds of newspaper sports pages depended on Will's reporting of every major event. And when he turned to column writing, his analysis and comments earned him more ink certainly than any other sportswriter because of AP's scope.''
Grimsley specialized in golf, tennis, college football and the Olympics, and he regularly covered the Indianapolis 500, the Super Bowl, the Masters and Wimbledon.
He reported on the early career of Jack Nicklaus and Howard Cosell's start on ''Monday Night Football.''
He wrote a series on Cassius Clay's embracing the Muslim faith and taking the name Muhammad Ali, and he was with the champ when he refused to be inducted into the military in 1967.
Grimsley covered Ali's knockout of George Foreman at ''The Rumble in the Jungle'' in Zaire in 1974 and the defeat of Joe Frazier at the ''Thrilla in Manila'' a year later.
He traveled to Australia a dozen times for the Davis Cup, and he covered World Cup golf in Ireland, Australia, Japan, Mexico and Hawaii.
During the 1972 Munich Olympics, when Palestinian terrorists seized a group of Israeli athletes who were later killed, Grimsley was determined to find a way into the police command post.
He ran to his room and put on a blazer with an Olympic badge pinned to his breast pocket, according to Robert H. Johnson, who was AP sports editor from 1969-73.
''Then the 6-foot, 190-pound redhead, looking the very model of a pompous Olympic official, strode through the village gate and into the command post,'' Johnson recalled.
Although he didn't know German and didn't want to give himself away by speaking English aloud in his Tennessee accent, he was able to follow the police activities and phone them in a whisper to AP's Olympics bureau, Johnson said. His cover was blown and he was ejected from the post when a colleague, the late Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, spotted Grimsley and yelled, ''Hey, Will, get me in!''
Grimsley's column quickly won wide acceptance because of his versatility.
''You walk a tightrope with water on both shoulders. After all, it's a big audience and a very critical one,'' he once said of column writing.
He did his share of breaking news, too. Sent to Mississippi to cover a sports event in 1964, he turned to reporting to write about the murder of three civil rights workers during the ''Freedom Summer'' that became the basis for the 1988 movie ''Mississippi Burning.''
In 1978, a year after beginning the column, Grimsley was voted Sports Writer of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, an honor repeated in 1980, 1981 and 1983. Red Smith of The New York Times and Murray were the only other writers to win the award that often.
The year he retired, the Associated Press Sports Editors named an annual award for Grimsley to honor a body of work by an AP sportswriter.
Grimsley served as president of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association in 1985-86 and also was president of the United States Golf Writers Association and United States Tennis Writers Association.
He wrote four books, ''Golf -- Its History, People and Events'' (Prentice-Hall, 1966); ''Tennis -- Its History, People and Events'' (Prentice-Hall, 1971); ''Football -- Greatest Moments of the Southwest Conference 1968''; and ''101 Greatest Athletes of the Century'' (Bonanza Books, 1987). He was supervising editor of two Associated Press books, ''The History of American Sports'' and ''Sports Immortals'' (Rutledge, 1971). In reviewing the tennis book, Fred Tupper of The New York Times called Grimsley, ''perhaps the world's best sports reporter.''
In 1987, Grimsley became the only wire service reporter to receive APSE's Red Smith Award for ''extended meritorious service to sports journalism.'' He was the seventh winner of the award, joining Smith, Murray, Shirley Povich, Fred Russell, Blackie Sherrod and Si Burick.
''This is sort of my last hurrah, the culmination of my whole career,'' Grimsley said in his acceptance speech. ''And I feel really good about it.''
Grimsley said he was distressed at the time about criticism of sportswriting.
''I think some of the finest writing in the industry today is on the sports pages,'' he said. ''I'm proud to be a sportswriter.''
Survivors include a daughter, Nellie B. Grimsley, and a son, William Kelly Grimsley.
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