Three Yoi’s for Myron Cope, Literary Genius


What I was reading a week before Myron Cope’s death was, in fact, Broken Cigars, a gorgeous hardcover filled with 18 magazine articles Cope wrote during a part of his life that remains unknown to most Steelers diehards, even those old enough to have spent hours listening to his radio show. Broken Cigars was published in 1968 and the articles in it cover the years 1961-67. Most of its characters are now dead, at least in the mortal sense, because they continue to live and breathe here.

I discovered Cope’s magazine work while wearing out a new pair of shoes as a reporter for the Norwin Star, one of about 20 weeklies in a company now owned by the Tribune Review. It was my first newspaper job. Edith Hughes, the executive editor for the entire outfit at the time, barely stood 5 feet, but she was as mean as salt in the eye when necessary. She usually had at least one of her young staff writers running for cover daily. I’m guessing she is about the same age as Cope, and by this time she was all hairspray and dark glasses. At the tail-end of one of her tirades (she had pulled me in her office for some now-lost reason), she said, “Take Myron Cope for example. Nobody knows this, but he was fantastic.” Edith was a serious Pirates fan, and told me Cope’s profile of Roberto Clemente was spot on.

Thank you, Edith.

“Aches and Pains and Three Batting Titles,” originally published in Sports Illustrated in March of 1966, is one of the few Cope pieces that can be found fairly easily because SI included it in its collection of great baseball writing. Cope, as if his fans didn’t know, had an affinity for crazy people, for the fringe characters, those who could in fact wear the word “character” on a gold chain around their necks. The book’s title refers to these men, characters who metaphorically were always breaking their cigars while sliding into second base. Cope had sense enough to write about people who were likely to say something interesting, to do something unorthodox. Why write about silent sluggers when he could talk his way into Roberto Clemente’s living room to write a story basically showing the world that Clemente’s a bit of a sissy? The only people who want to read that is every baseball fan.

Take the lead to the Clemente story:

Home in Puerto Rico for the winter, the batting champion of the major leagues lowered himself to the pea-green carpet of his 48-foot living room and sprawled out on his right side, flinging his left leg over his right. He wore gold Oriental pajama tops, tan slacks, battered bedroom slippers, and — for purposes of the demonstration he was conducting — a tortured grimace. “Like dis!” he cried, and then dug his fingers into his flesh, just above his upraised left hip. Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ marvelous right fielder and steadiest customer of the medical profession, was showing how he must greet each new day in his life.

Cope then panned from Clemente to a room where his wife, his nephew and his nephew’s friend sat waiting for the pop of a disk that wanders out of its rightful spot when the great athlete slumbers (The nephew’s friend is there to try to borrow a Cadillac). As usual, they hear nothing.

 “No, you cannot hear the disk now,” shouted Roberto. “It’s in place now. But every morning you can hear it from here to there, in the whole room. Boop!”

Is Clemente seriously in agony? Should Pirates fans be concerned about their swatting hero? Should cops be stationed on the Smithfield Street Bridge to watch for jumpers? Cope answers that question two paragraphs later:

All this herding of disks, mind you, is but a nub on the staggering list of medical attentions that Clemente has undergone during his eleven years as a Pirate. Relatively small at 5-feet-10 and 185 pounds when able to take nourishment, the chronic invalid has smooth black skin, glistening muscles, and perfect facial contours that suggest the sturdy mahogany sculpture peddled in the souvenir shops of his native Puerto Rico. His countrymen regard him as the most superb all-around big-leaguer to emerge from their island, while many Pittsburghers have concluded that the only thing that can prevent him from making them forget Paul Waner is a sudden attack of good health.

This is funny, endearing stuff. This arrogant hero can’t take pain, and we like him more for it. We not only get a vivid picture of what it was like to watch Clemente go through this, but we get to see a corner of Clemente’s life that we wouldn’t ever be able to get close to. Clemente doesn’t come off in a particularly good way, but it’s not terrible, either. He’s just a whiner. He’s no superman, he’s a human being, and more importantly, I feel like I actually know Clemente a little bit after reading Cope’s portrayal. Arriba! Arriba! Arriba!


Cope got to the bone. He wrote in a voice that was solely his own but was familiar in tone and texture compared to many of the greats. He was expansive, yet concise. His writing wasn’t delicate, but it was beautiful. He knew exactly what to include and what to leave out. He knew where to put things and he wasn’t afraid of taking chances or of alienating anyone.

The line “the chronic invalid,” followed by the full description of a 31-year old man in immaculate physical condition, cracks me up. Cope is a master of juxtaposition, and he used it in every article he put together. He placed the absurd next to the absolute truth over and over, and it always works. He often lets his subjects and the people around them pace the action.  A great example is in “Cassius Marcellus,” the first profile he wrote about Ali, then known as Clay. The story starts at a tailor’s shop in Clay’s hometown of Louisville, Ky.

“Say man,” cried Cassius. “I’m bringing fame and glory to the city of Louisville. You ought to clothe my back free for nothing.”

From behind a cash register, a woman clerk observed, “God won’t have you, Cassius, and the devil won’t want any parts of you.”

Cassius hee-hawed disdainfully, for he is a here-and-now materialist, unconcerned with the hereafter. “Listen,” he said, “I once heard a preacher say, ‘We’re going to feed your souls. We’re going to clothe your souls.’ I said, ‘What you going to do about the body? It gets cold out there, man.’”

It didn’t come easy for Cope. This was work. Cope was a perfectionist who would spend hours on a line if it didn’t feel right, and he spent the first part of his literary career as a backup. For almost a decade (his 20s), he covered Pittsburgh Little League games, worked night shifts, took down bowling scores from beer leagues, and did the general grunt work assigned to the youngsters of a sports department. Late in life he wrote in his autobiography that he finally took the plunge into the world of freelance after he had a nightmare that took place in the newsroom. In the dream, the phone rang. It was the captain of an all-Polish bowling team and they had a bunch of scores they wanted published. All the names had at least a dozen letters, and the guy mumbled. Cope jumped off the beat soon after.

To write the types of profiles Cope excelled at, you have to be supremely confident in your ability to observe and to be brave enough to write what you see, no matter what. Cope was 5’4”, but was fearless. He exposed characteristics that, though not necessarily negative, go counter to what the big-leaguers and their bosses would want to the public to know. I’m talking about personality traits like the love of long-legged women [Bo Belinsky], the naivety of youth and sudden wealth [Rick Reichardt], of arrogance [Bob Prince], of egotism [Howard Cosell], of imbibing [the entire 1963 Pittsburgh Steelers] and of grandeur [Ali]. Cope painted all these figures as how he saw them and he picked characteristics that he delighted in and that he knew would delight his readers, whether they found his stuff in Sport, True, SI or the pages of the Saturday Evening Post. The bosses, and to a point, his subjects, could go choke on a pierogi if they didn’t like it. 

Cope did all this work as a freelancer and, as the story goes, switched to radio because he out of need. Cope said he took the radio job, which ended his greatest period of writing, because he needed health insurance to care for his autistic son. And even though he wouldn’t write another personality profile like the ones found in Broken Cigars, I’m so incredibly glad Cope made this move. I probably wouldn’t have gotten all weepy the day Cope died if I only knew his writing. Because of simply being a Pittsburgher and a sports fan, I feel like I’m related to Cope, and as far as I’m concerned, I am, and it’s mostly because of what he said and how he said it.

I could spend all night talking about how much I love the articles in Broken Cigars, throwing out example after example of paragraphs written as well as any American in the 20th Century (I read them aloud sometimes, like snippets of poetry). After his death, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette NFL beat writer Ed Bouchette spent a good portion of Cope’s obituary talking about Cope as a writer. The man obviously was respected among his print peers, and Bouchette was sure to mention several great distinctions, as well as how hard Cope worked at his writing.

In 1963, Cope won the E.P. Dutton Prize for Best Magazine Sportswriting in the Nation for his piece on Muhammad Ali, a piece where Cope suggests that Ali could barely read, and is the first to tie Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, with Islamism. He returned to the champ for a follow-up after his name-change. Then, in 1987, Cope wound up on a list of noted literary achievers compiled by the Hearst Corporation for its 100th anniversary. Also on the list: Mark Twain, Jack London, Walter Winchell and Sidney Sheldon.

Twain and Cope, they belong together, and what a night that would be.


Bob Pajich has worked as a community newspaper reporter in towns around Pittsburgh since 1999. Myron Cope has been part of his life through Steelers and news broadcasts, commercials, and his sports talk show for as long as he could remember. Like Cope, Pajich has been known to share a toddy or three. He has a chapbook of poems called Everyone, Exquisite published and is currently the managing editor and lead news writer for the world's lagest magazine dedicated to the game of poker: Card Player.