Montville living an adventure
For a former paper boy from blue collar New Haven, Conn., Leigh Montville has carved out a pretty glamorous life for himself.
His travels as a sports columnist for the Boston Globe and senior writer at Sports Illustrated have taken him across the country, into a fiery war zone and face-to-face with athletic tragedy. This weekend it brought him to Salisbury as one of two Hall of Fame inductees honored by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association.
“I did a whole bunch of weird stuff,” said Montville, who currently writes for neither the Globe nor SI.
“At Sports Illustrated I tried to get an adventure out of them every year. The most adventurous was probably when I went to the first Iraq war.”
It was mid-January of 1991 when Montville was sequestered in Texas working on a Nolan Ryan piece. When his hotel phone rang, he knew it wasn’t The Sporting News calling about his subscription.
“It was my editor saying they wanted to find some relevancy to the war,” he recalled. “They suggested I go over and watch the Super Bowl with the troops. So I wound up on the first commercial flight to land in Riyadh after the scud missiles and all that. It was kind of exciting.”
On another occasion Montville enticed the powers that be at SI to ship him to Zambia for a story about a marathoner and the South African World Cup soccer team.
“The whole team had died in a plane crash,” he explained. “And they were putting together a brand new team.”
Montville, now 58 and as comfortable telling a story as being one, spends most of his time writing sports biographies. He’s authored six books, including “The Mysterious Montague,” which makes its paperback debut Tuesday.
“It’s about John Montague, a golfer from the 1930s who was an armed robber,” Montville said. “Grantland Rice said he was the greatest golfer in the world. There was a trial and stuff. He lived in Hollywood with Oliver Hardy, he was best friends with W.C. Fields and Johnny Weissmuller.”
Montague once had a famous golfing bet with actor Bing Crosby.
“He said he could beat him using baseball bat, a shovel and a rake,” Montville reports. “And he did. But his name was just an alias and he was a criminal. He played a golf match with Babe Ruth that drew 20,000 people, but nobody knows about this guy.”
Montville has also written books about Ruth, slugger Ted Williams, the 2004 Red Sox, racing legend Dale Earnhardt and former NBA stringbean Manute Bol.
“Manute’s story was my first book,” Montville said. “I had a done a story about him for Sports Illustrated and just expanded it. I found him fascinating. I mean, they just found him and brought him to the University of Bridgeport and he couldn’t read or write. Five or six years later he was in the NBA.”
Just as compelling was Montville’s account of Williams, “The Biography of An American Hero.”
Baseball’s last .400 hitter provided a series of candid interviews.
“You meet a lot of people and they disappoint you,” Montville said. “They’re shorter, they’re dumber, they’re something you didn’t expect them to be. But Ted was everything you thought he was. He was a big guy in stature with a big voice and big opinions. He was a complicated guy, but he had a story to tell.”
Same goes for Montville. He decided to pursue a career in sportswriting at age 10 while delivering the New Haven Journal-Courier around his neighborhood.
“Me and a friend would finish our routes in the morning and we’d sit down and read the paper,” he remembers. “Just the sports. We’d throw everything else away.”
As fate would have it, sports editor Frank Birmingham soon became Montville’s earliest influence.
“He had his picture next to his column,” Montville said. “And every now and then he’d be at the Kentucky Derby, the World Series, Yankee Stadium ó and I’d say, ‘This guy’s got the greatest job in the world.’ And at 10 years old, I kind of put it in my mind that this is what I wanted to do. If you shoot low enough you can hit your expectations.”
Nearly five decades later, Montville has landed on sportswriting’s top shelf. His name shall reside alongside all the great ones ó Red Smith, Furman Bisher, Jimmy Cannon, Jim Murray and the pioneering Rice.
“I’m shocked, actually,” Montville said.
He’s done it by being popular and unpopular. Trusting and sly. Daring and conventional. And, of course, he’s never been afraid to get his hands dirty for the sake of a captivating story.
“Anything you do, if it’s your business and you make the Hall of Fame, that’s a wonderful thing,” he concluded. “If there was a Hall of Fame of car salesmen and I was a car salesman and made it in, it would be a great.”
Especially for a former paper boy from New Haven.