A remembrance of sports columnist Furman Bisher, who died Sunday at the age of 93. This column was originally published October 11, 2009.
The Beatles’ film, A Hard Day’s Night, brings Furman Bisher to mind. Furman Bisher? The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports columnist? The one on the scene at the first modern Olympics in Athens, Greece? In 1896? How can that be?
Furman Bisher and The Beatles commingle in my dexterous (some would say convoluted) mind due to a 1996 column Bisher wrote for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He wrote of an evening on vacation where the Georgia Tech basketball game was not shown, making him wonder what he and his wife would watch on television instead. A Hard Day’s Night was on one of the cable channels. Despite being a worldly sort, Bisher told his wife he knew little about The Beatles and that he had never heard them perform even one of their songs. His wife knew better, saying, “Yes, you have; you just didn’t know it was The Beatles.”
So he and his wife settled in front of the TV and watched A Hard Day’s Night. As far as Bisher was concerned, it was a good night. He liked the film, found it funny and enjoyed The Beatles’ music. He wrote about the film, noting it featured “just a bunch of young fellows seeming to have a good time, and making a good time for me.” His enthusiasm for a movie made more than 30 years earlier impressed a lot of readers, including the 2000 plus who worked at his newspaper. For days on end, Bisher could count on being approached in the AJC parking lot as fellow employees from various departments told him how much they enjoyed the Beatles column. Always genial, he said thanks, and quite amused, remarked on how more people had commented on that column than any he had written in a long time.
Bisher not only admitted his lack of familiarity with The Beatles’ recordings, he confessed to being in the Atlanta Stadium clubhouse with them in August ’65 as they prepared to give a concert for more than 30,000 fans. However, neither John, Paul, George or Ringo left much of an impression. “It was the first year of the stadium,” he wrote, “the last year of the old Crackers, who were filling in until the Braves got here. I had gone to meet a pitcher named Larry Maxie, who was having a good season, not as good as The Beatles, but a good one. I stood in on the press conference for awhile, mainly out of curiosity, then went on to meet Maxie. Here is a guy who walks out on a press conference with the hottest number in the entertainment world to meet a pitcher who would play three innings in the major leagues.”
An intriguing aspect about Bisher and The Beatles in such close proximity to each other is that Bisher was a strong advocate for the building of the stadium The Beatles played in that evening. He not only wrote in support of Atlanta’s entry into the big leagues, he showed a stadium site to Kansas City Athletics owner Charlie Finley. At the time Finley was looking for a town that would show him and his team appreciation by building a new park for the Athletics to call home. Charlie Finley was always looking for a better deal, and of course, reason to spend less of his own money on his team and its players. Therefore it came as no surprise that he breached a contract with star pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter. Yes, he is that Mr. Finley, the one immortalized in Bob Dylan’s “Catfish.”
Used to work on Mr. Finley’s farm
But the old man wouldn’t pay
However, on April 25, 1963, less than 13 months before he signed Catfish Hunter to his first contract, Charlie Finley was turning on the charm in Atlanta. Along with Bisher and Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr., Finley surveyed the site less than a mile from the heart of downtown Atlanta. Mayor Allen thought it was the perfect spot for a major league stadium. Finley agreed. According to Bisher’s book, Miracle In Atlanta, Finley said to Allen, “Mr. Mayor, I can almost hear the crack of the bat. You build a stadium here and I guarantee you Atlanta will get a major league franchise.”
Atlanta did get its major league franchise, but not Mr. Finley’s Athletics. Maybe what Finley almost heard that day, instead of the crack of the bat, was the sound of electric guitars, for some 28 months later, The Beatles took the stage at that site, the home of Atlanta’s new $18,000,000 stadium.
The Beatles were quite impressed with their Atlanta visit. The food brought in was much better than what they were used to at gigs, but it was the sound quality at the performance that really got their attention. Last year AJC reporter Bo Emerson wrote that Paul McCartney was shocked by the clarity of the sound. “It’s loud, isn’t it?” he blurted out at the time. “Great.” Beatles manager Brian Epstein later sent a note to the stadium’s sound engineers, declaring Atlanta’s system “excellent…..the most effective of all during our U.S. tour, 1965.”
Furman Bisher was not around that evening to judge the quality of the sound in the stadium he so wanted for his city. He did, though, remember something interesting about The Beatles that day. Bisher wrote that “one of them said they related to Buck Owens more than any other American. I didn’t know who Buck Owens was. We all know who Buck Owens is now, but as learned as I have become about The Beatles, I still don’t get the connection.” Perhaps by now someone has finally played The Beatles’ version of “Act Naturally” for Bisher. He should find that helpful, and another side of The Beatles’ music, which he referred to as part “of the good things in life.”
The Bisher Impact … So October 11, 2009 rolled around and the last AJC column by Furman Bisher was published. Many called it the end of an era. Never mind that. It was the end of several eras. Think of 1950 when Furman Bisher began writing for the old Atlanta Constitution. (Note: Bisher began his career at the Lumberton, N.C., Voice, became an editor in 1940 for the Charlotte News, was named sports editor for the Constitution in 1950, and moved to The Atlanta Journal in 1957.)
There were no big league teams in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia Bulldogs were the only big-time teams anywhere in the state. And that was years, even decades, before collegiate sports marched down the aisle with television. It was not a perfect or just world, but it was quieter. However, a lot of us in and around Atlanta would have enjoyed some major league noise. Many Southerners wondered what it was like to live in a big league town. In the first half of the ’60’s Bisher advocated, in his columns and elsewhere, for Atlanta to become big league. That made him heroic to local sports fans. And even as Atlanta remained a minor league town for many years more, he gave it the old school try, delivering major league results with his columns. From Bobby Jones to Chipper Jones, Furman Bisher always wrote of sports with the requisite grittiness and grace intact. Nearly everyday there was something new to learn about sports or life in his columns.
1966 was the year of deliverance for Atlantans longing for major league recognition and most importantly, major league teams. The Milwaukee Braves moved into the newly constructed Atlanta Stadium and a few months later, the Falcons, Atlanta’s NFL expansion team, joined them. Atlanta was a big league town. It had finally joined Cincinnati, San Francisco, Chicago, New York (!) and other cities in the nation — and the nation’s newspapers — with daily major league datelines. This was recognition and respect. Furman Bisher’s advocacy was pivotal, as far as we were concerned.
In that year that still seems golden, I was 12 and delivered The Atlanta Journal in my neighborhood. Every afternoon (except Sundays, when morning duty was required) I would ride my bike to the house where I’d gather the 40-50 papers to be delivered. But first I had to read the sports section. Then it seemed like I was reading it hot off the press. That was perhaps the prime benefit of the job, getting to learn the latest on the Braves, Falcons and others in the world of sports. Of course, there was always the column by Furman Bisher. It was definitely required reading before my customers got their papers. Bisher would report, intone and opine on the news that intrigued me most. From time to time he would include subjects new to me and I would take all that in as well. Eventually I would include other sections of the newspaper in my reading before commencing on the route. A lifetime habit, one most pleasurable, was set. That memory makes one wistful as the newspaper industry now faces its many challenges. Go without reading the newspaper? Do we go without food next?
The 44 years since Atlanta’s first year as a major league town have been full of surprises. Some things have simply been baffling. No sane person would have predicted 14 straight division titles for the Braves or that it would take all of those 44 years before the Falcons completed two straight winning seasons. But during all those years, Furman Bisher observed and reported, in a graceful and eloquent manner, on what was happening on the fields we watched so closely. There were times when Bisher would offer an opinion or make a remark that seemed too conservative or old world. Yet that did not keep me from reading his column any day it ran. On many of those days, even if he wrote on a subject that normally did not grab my attention, I would still read it and perhaps consider it the best piece of writing in the newspaper that day.
Those who saw Furman Bisher at work each day were always impressed with his good nature and sense of contentment. He was friendly to all, young and old, and enthusiastic about what he did everyday. People like that are very fortunate and we’re fortunate when such enthusiasm is shared. By the way, Bisher started a blog, Bisher Unleashed, after his retirement. At 93, he was still writing about things inside and outside the world of sports, occasionally contributing columns to his former employer, and maybe, working like a dog.