Driving Mr. Bisher: A car ride to Clemson that changed one life

Furman Bisher with Shoeless Joe Jackson in 1949. I wasn't around then. (AJC photo)

Furman with Shoeless Joe Jackson in 1949. I wasn't around. (AJC photo)

November 24, 1984: I did something I hadn’t done before and would never do again. I drove Furman Bisher to a college football game.

Clemson was playing South Carolina — the Gamecocks were very good that year — and we had only one parking pass. So we met somewhere off West Paces Ferry and he seated himself in my Corolla and off we went.

It was two hours to Clemson, plus another 30 because we got stuck in game traffic. (Being relatively new at the ol’ AJC, I hadn’t yet mastered the David Davidson Back Way — get off at Fair Play and take back roads through Seneca.) And we hadn’t passed Roswell Road before Furman said something that made me start doing a bit of math.

For reasons unknown, I’d mentioned Sandy Koufax. Said Furman: “I met Sandy when he was a rookie in Dodgers camp.” I thought to myself: OK, Koufax was a rookie in 1955; I’d been born in 1955.

I was new at the AJC in 1984 — I’d started in March — but I’d worked at the Lexington Herald-Leader for six years. I was 28, and I’d been around a little. But with that one throwaway line about the great Koufax the great Furman Bisher reminded me (without meaning to remind me of anything, I should stress) that he’d been covering sports longer than I’d been on this Earth. So I did something that, to this day, strikes me as maybe the only smart thing I’ve ever done:

I shut up and listened.

He told me stories, named names, retraced the steps of a life that was already in its 67th year. I said just enough to fill in the spaces, and I  learned more in those 2 1/2 hours than I did in every journalism class I’d ever taken. He was complimentary of my early efforts at paper, and he noted that he liked the one column a week I’d settled into doing for the Tuesday Journal — yes, we had two papers back in those olden days — as his backup. And then he said something that I would have written down had my hands not been on the wheel.

“I’m going to take a couple of weeks off soon. You should get a bunch of column ideas together and be ready.”

I did, and I was. I wrote a column every day for the Journal for two weeks, and I guess I managed not to mess up too much. Because after two weeks Van McKenzie, the man who’d hired me, started finding reasons to have me write more than the one Tuesday column. It sounds overly dramatic to say those two weeks changed my vocational life, but they kind of did.

We got to Clemson. We covered the game. South Carolina drove 86 yards to win by a point and finish its regular season 10-1. On the way back we mostly talked about what we’d seen and the Georgia-Georgia Tech game upcoming the next week. (Furman thought Tech had a great chance to win, and by Jove it did.) We got back, and I let him out. I doubt Furman ever thought about the ride again in his life. I remember it still.

He and I would talk many more times over many more years at many different venues, but that day in the car I felt as if I’d tapped into something deeper than the usual sportswriter workspeak. I’d been given a crash course in a Hall of Famer’s personal history. I drove home feeling both edified and awed. Furman could have just treated me like some clod giving him a ride, but he didn’t.

I don’t think I ever thanked him properly — in my lame defense, we were technically colleagues, and it’s bad form for one colleague to gush over another — but I should have. He made me feel as if I were a peer, when we both knew good and well I was nothing of the sort.

By Mark Bradley

177 comments Add your comment

todd grantham

March 19th, 2012
10:17 am

a terrible loss for all of us.

Leroy1970

March 19th, 2012
10:18 am

todd grantham

March 19th, 2012
10:19 am

not to pander Mark, but Mr. Bisher knew talent when he read it.

todd grantham

March 19th, 2012
10:21 am

you might have captioned the photo “Furman with a formerly Shoeless Joe Jackson”.

todd grantham

March 19th, 2012
10:22 am

by the way, Shoeless Joe looks eerily like Richard B. Russell in the photograph.

crose714

March 19th, 2012
10:25 am

Once again Mr. Bradley… Well done. As a native Atlantan (maybe one of the few left) its a tough day. When you are young, I couldn’t have imagined a day without Lewis Grizzard, Skip Carey and Furman Bisher. Stay healthy Mark! We need ya!

D man

March 19th, 2012
10:26 am

I always enjoyed reading Furmans columns. He will be missed…

Mark Bradley

March 19th, 2012
10:26 am

Thanks, todd. And kudos, even though you did not ask.

todd grantham

March 19th, 2012
10:27 am

All the stuff i’ve ever read by AJC sportswriters indicates Mr. Bisher was a tyrant but was such a talented writer he inspired almost total loyalty and awe.

Can’t remember who wrote about it, but the funniest line I can remember being attributed to Mr. Bisher was when he called a writer into his office and said “I have a new assignment for you. Get another job.”

Big Crimson 75

March 19th, 2012
10:27 am

RIP — Furman Bisher

Mark Bradley

March 19th, 2012
10:29 am

I should note that Mr. Bisher was not running the sports department when I was hired. (Otherwise I might not have been.) The late Van McKenzie was.

todd grantham

March 19th, 2012
10:29 am

Jim Minter might have related that story in the book about Lewis Grizzard ‘Don’t Fence Me In”.

Mike D.

March 19th, 2012
10:30 am

Well said, Mark. Furman was a great sports writer and this is a nice tribute.

todd grantham

March 19th, 2012
10:30 am

Mark, did you actually start with the Constitution or were the papers already combined then?

crose714

March 19th, 2012
10:31 am

Ugh… I forgot Ernie Johnson too.

jw

March 19th, 2012
10:31 am

I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to read Bisher’s columns and absorb, respond or just file away the tidbits over the years.

I’m thankful my library at Clayton Elementary School had Strange But True Baseball Stories on the shelf – bet I checked it out a hundred times.

Selah!

todd grantham

March 19th, 2012
10:33 am

Certainly don’t forget Larry Munson.

The curse of aging is the past looks better and better.

Gary

March 19th, 2012
10:33 am

I didnt grow up in Atlanta or reading the AJC, but living in Florida, the only way to get news on my Dawgs was to read the AJC online. You only had to read one Bishop column to know his writing was “special.” Thank you for being modest enough to admit you aren’t in his league but in your defense, he was in a league of his own.

Montgomery

March 19th, 2012
10:33 am

Keep up the good work Mark, we need ya.

Mark Bradley

March 19th, 2012
10:33 am

We were combined then. But we still had separate columns in the Consti and the Journal. Dave Kindred and Jesse Outlar were in the morning paper, and Furman was in the P.M. He wrote every day except one.

DawginLex

March 19th, 2012
10:37 am

You were smart to listen. You did something that a lot of folks don’t take advantage of and that is to realize this was a defining moment in your life. You were not in that car by accident that day Mark.

Good column.

todd grantham

March 19th, 2012
10:38 am

There has been an absolutely astounding pool of talent that has made its way through the AJC Sports Department over the past 50 years.

Maybe covering losing teams forced writers to create prose that they wouldn’t have if Atlanta had had some consistent winners. (Braves have been for 20 years, but think about from 1966 to 1990).

DawginLex

March 19th, 2012
10:40 am

Mark,

After Friday night, everyone will realize that the first UK/IU game this year was a defining moment for your beloved Wildcats after they deeestroy Indiana by 20 in the rematch.

nola dawg fan

March 19th, 2012
10:40 am

well said mark… hate to pander as well, but you have now become the voice of the AJC sports staff and in many ways capture the thoughts of us jaded, cynical, often depressed ATL sport fans. thanks for all you do

crose714

March 19th, 2012
10:41 am

Thanks Todd. You are right. Too many gone too soon! I thought the pollen count was going to be my biggest problem today, now I’m feeling way too old!

kreedham

March 19th, 2012
10:42 am

Years ago Mr. Bisher wrote a book called Miracle in Atlanta about the building of Atlanta Stadium and the Braves coming to town. Some 30 or more years later I knew I’d have a chance to see him so I took my book to get an autograph. He was happy to do so and commented that he was glad to see someone still had a copy! I grew up at just the right time when kids read the paper and enjoyed many a column from Mr. Bisher and Jesse Outler too!

Dawgdad (The Original)

March 19th, 2012
10:43 am

I grew up reading Jesse Outlar and thought he hung the moon, but after he retired I soon realized what I had been missing by not having the opportunity to read Furman Bisher. Poor families had to choose either the Constitution or the Journal. I miss them both, although you are not bad Bradley.

Mark Bradley

March 19th, 2012
10:44 am

Wow, nola. Thanks very much.

Dr. Phil

March 19th, 2012
10:46 am

Furman Bisher was an excellent writer. I recall watching the football program with my father on Sundays with Mr. Bisher, Jim Minter, and the former Georgia football coach. That was a classic as were many of Bisher’s columns.

nola dawg fan

March 19th, 2012
10:49 am

Ok… but to bring you back down to earth… PLEASE don’t predict any big things for our teams in 2012… the Bradley curse has taken too many victoms in recent years!

ClemsonBrad

March 19th, 2012
10:50 am

Great Read mark. Love stories like this.

ClemsonBrad

March 19th, 2012
10:51 am

Couldn’t you have changed the part about Clemson losing though?

mark

March 19th, 2012
10:51 am

I think my alltime favorite Bisher line was after either the 1981 or 1982 Georgia-Florida game…”The train wore number 34 but all the Gators saw was his caboose.”

Mark Bradley

March 19th, 2012
10:52 am

Clemson almost tied, Brad. South Carolina missed the go-ahead PAT but got to try again after a penalty.

Nelson Muntz

March 19th, 2012
10:53 am

I remember Bisher for “Strange But True Baseball Stories,” one of the treasured books of my childhood – honestly, one of the treasured books of my adulthood, too. It may be a book for children, but I don’t feel that baseball season has started until I’ve reread Bisher’s account of Bill Veeck and Eddie Gaedel.

doc

March 19th, 2012
10:53 am

great stuff mark.

by 84 i had been a mesmerized reader at least 25 years or as soon as i could read. i loved the papers and couldnt wait to get the morning one and the evening one. what a luxury it seemed like at the time. actually played little league with jesse’s son so i became even more enthralled and infatuated with the ajc sports writers, since i actually knew one.

yes, so many have gone through here and i am still spoiled by you and jeff along with a few beat writers to carry the flag. stay strong mark and continue to bring it.

another has passed, SELAH!

Cobb Dawg

March 19th, 2012
10:53 am

Great work, MB. As usual.

honest_abe

March 19th, 2012
10:54 am

a true atlanta icon. r.i.p mr. bisher.

sogadog

March 19th, 2012
10:54 am

Many of us are fortunate to have mentors in our professional lives and we should remember that some day, someone new to our chosen profession will see us a mentors and hopefully we will have the foresight to share our experiences and help guide their careers.

John Dobbs

March 19th, 2012
10:55 am

I sent Mr. Bisher an email years ago and he answered me. I had seen him at East Lake golf course and I told him I was amazed that with all these big name golfers around everyone wanted to see Furman Bisher. He thanked me and I will never forget that.

ClemsonBrad

March 19th, 2012
10:55 am

haha Wish we could rewrite history! As always, love reading everything you write Mark. Thanks for everything you do.

My favorite column you have ever done is still, “Rasheed Wallace: Most Consistent Hawk of All Time”

which is still sadly true….

vafalconfan

March 19th, 2012
10:56 am

Mark- thank you for sharing. I emailed him one time to thank him for a column that he had written because a bunch of yahoos on here were bashing him over something and he emailed me back to thank me “for the kind words”..I was amazed that a HOF sportswriter would take the time to do that. He was pure class.

Ron Bailey

March 19th, 2012
10:57 am

You nailed it Mark, well written. I remember reading Furman Bisher in the Sporting News as I purchased them at Ryans Drugstore. Good Job

Mark Bradley

March 19th, 2012
10:57 am

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that Dave Kindred was a huge influence on my so-called career. (So blame him, heh heh.)

reebok

March 19th, 2012
10:57 am

Furman Bisher and Jesse Outler were my ‘gateway drugs’ to great sportwriting. We will not see their like again. RIP, Furman Bisher.

George Stein

March 19th, 2012
10:57 am

This was a good piece, Mark. I hope you return the favor to Mr. Bisher by mentoring other young writers at the AJC.

Mark Bradley

March 19th, 2012
10:58 am

Thanks, Ron. I used to buy the Sporting News downtown Maysville. Usually at Kilgus Drugs.

frank

March 19th, 2012
10:58 am

RIP Furman you will be missed.

I used to love when he would end the column with “and whatever happened to obscure-sports-figure”

Like Biff Pocoroba

BT

March 19th, 2012
10:58 am

Well written and from the heart I can tell. One of the greatest columns to look forward to every year was Mr. Bisher’s Thanksgiving’s message. He had the most unique way to bring life into sports.

Mark Bradley

March 19th, 2012
10:58 am

George, you’ll be happy to know that I give periodic tutorials on How To Make Lousy Predictions.