Every few weeks, the same thoughts would roll through my head:
I just had a conversation with the man who sat on the front porch sipping ice tea with Ty Cobb.
I just exchanged emails with the man who scored the only interview with “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.
The man who watched Cy Young pitch, the man who saw Joe Louis box, the man who covered the very first post-bootlegging NASCAR race — one of the few people who legitimately deserved to have the word “legend” attached to his name — just dialed my cell phone to say, “Hello, young man. I like what you wrote . . .”
I’m sad today, not just because I lost a friend and former colleague in Furman Bisher but because this is like a door to history slamming shut for all of us.
In a few weeks, I’ll be going to Augusta for the Masters and I won’t be able to turn to my right and exchange thoughts with the man who played golf with Bobby Jones.
Bisher wrote his first column for the Atlanta Constitution in 1950. I was born nine years later. When I came to Atlanta in 1989, Bisher was 71. People told me he was going to retire soon. Soon turned out to be 20 years later.
When he finally left this newspaper in 2009, I asked Furman what he was going to do.
“I’m going to get up in the morning and think of something to write,” he said.
Then he laughed at the irony of that statement.
We talked about about sports. We talked about life. We talked about the changing media and the state of the newspaper industry. Eventually, I got around to asking him again about Ty Cobb and Joe Jackson, because I could never hear him tell stories enough times.
“People look at me like I’m in a museum or something,” he said. “It’s like I’m one of those stone things, talking to you. A talking statue. They can’t quite understand it. They look at me and say, ‘You really knew him?’ It really didn’t strike me as that unusual at the time. I had known Cobb before. I’d seen him blow his stack at dinner. I had never seen Shoeless Joe before. When we spoke, he said, ‘This will be the first time I tell this story and the last.’ We got $250 apiece for that story from Sport Magazine. That was good money. It was 1949.”
Before news traveled with the speed of a Tweet, Furman Bisher painted pictures for us. He wrote with a voice. When he was revved up about a topic, and that was more often than not, the words jumped off the page. It was as if he was sitting next to you, talking into your ear.
If he liked you, you knew it.
If he didn’t like you, you knew it.
Nobody ever had to ask, “I wonder what Furman thinks?”
Stan Kasten, the former longtime Atlanta sports executive, certainly experienced both sides of Bisher. It’s not well-known, but Kasten loves having different business cards made up to describe his ventures. (True story: When he stepped down as president of the Braves, Hawks and Thrashers, Kasten said, “Hey Jeff, here’s my new card,” and he handed me a blank card.)
Bisher inspired one of Kasten’s cards.
“He wrote that I was ‘a not altogether unworthy servant,’” Kasten said with a chuckle. “I thought that was kind of his way of complimenting somebody. I took that with great pride. You can bet I had cards made up that said, ‘Not Altogether Unworthy Servant.’”
Furman sent me an email in November, a couple of days after the LSU-Alabama game, which I had covered.
“Jeff: Les Miles played his hand like a smart gambler. Waited till Saban dealt him the right hand and nailed him. Probably one of the most popular victories in college football since Rutgers beat Princeton. Er, uh, or did Princeton beat Rutgers? You do good work—FB”
We spoke a few times after that. We exchanged a few emails during the last round of baseball Hall of Fame voting. I told him I was checking the box by Dale Murphy’s name again.
“Bravo and good for you. We need all the recruits we can get. I’ve been voting for him for years, but to no avail. Not much chance ever I’m afraid, but I ain’t quitting.–FB”
I told him I was looking forward to seeing him at the Masters. I had heard he was having some back issues and asked him if would be well enough to attend the tournament . I just looked back this morning and realized he never responded to that email.
It was well-known Furman ended columns with the Hebrew word, “Selah.” It’s punctuation that appears at the end of verses in Psalms and has been interpreted different ways: Forever. Pause. Reflect.
I will forever pause and reflect on a man I was fortunate to know and could call a friend. And to Furman, if you’re reading this: If people viewed you as some talking statue in a museum, it’s a term of endearment.
By Jeff Schultz