This post is part of the effort to select The Best All-Time Boston Sports Columnists
Browsing the Sports Illustrated Vault, I noted a couple of publisher’s notes from the magazine which give us a glimpse into the writer that Leigh Montville is.
From the April 20, 1987 issue:
Eighteen years of writing for the Boston globe and living in Newton, Mass., has given columnist Leigh Montville a special perspective on the Boston Marathon. Not only has he written about Heartbreak Hill, he has frequently driven over and around it. So when the idea came up to have him describe the residents and merchants along the storied marathon course (page 94), he had an assignment close to both heart and home.
“Most of the people I talked to have the feeling they’re involved in something special,” says Montville, 43. “Each of the places I went, people didn’t have to think very deeply for stories.”
In addition to writing for us—his two previous contributions were stories on the Boston Garden (May 19, 1986) and the inventor of the Zamboni machine (March 30, 1987)—and for other magazines, he turns out four sports columns a week and the random essay for the Globe’s Sunday magazine. Seeking inspiration, he often turns to a mystical—to him—rubber-coated baseball the late Globe columnist Ray Fitzgerald also favored. “Ray developed the notion that if he held on to the ball, War and Peace would come into his head,” Montville says. “Michael Madden, his successor, uses it, too. It’s surprising how many times you need it.”
Montville’s stories generally reflect a fresh point of view. “Everyone else looks at things from the ground floor,” says SI senior writer Peter Gammons, a former Globe colleague. “Leigh writes like he’s got his own hot-air balloon.” Globe sports editor Vince Doria says, “Leigh’s not a hard-opinion guy. He sees a lot of gray in everything.” And it’s usually funny. To which Montville says, “I think that’s one part of writing columns they don’t mention in journalism school—entertainment. There’s as much Woody Allen in it as Woodward and Bernstein.”
Montville is easy to spot in a press box. He’s the rumpled guy with a toothpick in his mouth and a Coke in his hand. When he isn’t working, he reads Anne Tyler and John Gregory Dunne, vacations in Maine, goes full court at the Newton Y and slugs down junk food.
And then the September 25, 1989 issue:
The first time Leigh Montville entered the time-life Building in New York City, in 1965, he was a callow youth newly graduated from the University of Connecticut. His objective then was to be what he is today—an SI writer. But perhaps he was a tad naive.
“I put on my little suit and gathered my little college newspaper clips and showed up unannounced at the personnel office, where there were two other guys—who were waiting to interview for a maintenance job—and me,” says Montville. “We all saw the same woman and we all heard the same speech, ‘Get some experience and then come see us again.’ ”
Montville has been collecting experience bulk rate ever since. He took a job at his hometown paper, the New Haven Journal-Courier, and three years later moved on to The Boston Globe, where he became a columnist in 1970. Several thousand deadline stories later, he longed for the luxury of time to reflect on his stories. “Doing a daily column is usually more typing than it is writing,” he says. “It’s like being a contestant on Beat the Clock.” That was why when SI asked him to do a piece on the Boston Garden, in ’86, his first question was, “When’s the deadline?” Told it was in four weeks, he accepted the assignment with relish.
Be sure to check out this 1986 SI column by Montville on the old Boston Garden: And They All Say, ‘this Is It?’