In the thick of his career as an HBO Boxing voice, Larry Merchant was as tough as they come

Larry Merchant Was as Tough as They Come

Early last week 92-year-old Larry Merchant was rushed to a Los Angeles area hospital in critical condition. The cause was not mentioned. For anyone who grew up reading Merchant’s columns in Philly or New York, or watching his critiques on HBO Boxing, Merchant was one of the sports media’s all time greats.

If you ever met Larry Merchant you’d be shocked that he ever played fullback for Bud Wilkinson’s famed Oklahoma Sooners. At just 5-5 and 155 pounds, Merchant  was a blocking back  when he helped Brooklyn’s Lafayette High win the city championship  in 1946 with a 62-yard TD—his only touchdown all season. He was a 17-year-old sophomore walk-on for Oklahoma in 1948, and impressed Wilkinson so much that the great coach told Merchant, “You’re going to play a lot football for Oklahoma.”  When Merchant walked out of the coach’s office after hearing that, he said he felt like, “It was one of the greatest days of my life.” But he separated his shoulder later that season and never got to play on any of Wilkinson’s national championship teams.

Instead Merchant turned to writing and reporting for the school’s paper, the Oklahoma Daily, and raised a few eyebrows when he wrote critical pieces about the state’s loyalty oath during the Communist Red Scare. And before he graduated he was writing pieces for national magazines. After a short stint coaching for his old high school team in Brooklyn, he took a job with the AP and then with the Philadelphia Daily News. In 1955 the Philly paper had a big shake-up and Merchant was named sports editor.

He then began hiring the best sports writers from around the country, including Stan Hochman, Tom Cushman and Jack McKinney. Together they forged a new style of sports writing with interpretive reporting and analysis, knowing that most readers would already know the final score.

Merchant was a terrific columnist. While he was there he watched the Phillies flounder but marveled at the great skills of their centerfielder Richie Ashburn. Ashburn won several batting titles, led the league in putouts nearly every year and wound up with a liftime .309 batting average. He also had a great eye at the plate and once fouled off 26 straight pitches, hitting the same woman in the stands with two of them. When Ashburn was traded to the Cubs in January of 1960, Merchant led off his column this way:

“Who gives a damn in the dead of winter that the Phillies have made another move for the future. Richie Ashburn is gone and I’d like to pay my respects.”

As a young 13-year-old fan growing up in Philly, Ashburn was my favorite player. When I read Merchant’s lead that day I realized that Merchant had described exactly how I felt, and it was the first time I ever recognized the power of a writer. As I personally look back, it was a turning point in my career.

After a decade in Philly he felt burnt out and switched over to the New York Post where his column ran for another decade or so. In 1977 he moved over to television as the editor for NBC’s ”NFL ’77,” which was NBC’s answer to CBS’s great pregame show, “The NFL Today.”

Shortly after than he went to work for HBO, which had just gone into the boxing business. There is no doubt that over the decades that followed Merchant became known as the best boxing analyst of all time. In a 2011 post fight interview with Floyd Mayweather, Merchant criticized him for taking a dirty shot at his opponent.

“You never give me a fair shake,” Mayweather screamed at Merchant. “You don’t know shit about boxing. You don’t know shit.” At which point Merchant, who was 80 at the time responded, “I wish I were 50 years younger and I’d kick your ass.”

Larry Merchant was damn tough as a 16-year-old fullback and even then as an 80-year-old reporter. Here’s hoping he’s tough enough to recover from whatever has caused this recent hospitalization.

Rich Podolsky

Rich Podolsky, an established writer and reporter since the 70s, has been a staff writer for CBS and has written for ESPN, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Palm Beach Post, the Wilmington News Journal, College & Pro Football Newsweekly and TV Guide. He is also the recipient of the prestigious Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers' Keystone Award for writing excellence. A fan of music from the 60s and 70s, he is the author of "Don Kirshner: The Man with the Golden Ear," which relates how Kirshner discovered Bobby Darin, Carole King and Neil Sedaka among others, and "Neil Sedaka, Rock ‘n’ Roll Survivor,” which tells the inside story of Sedaka’s comeback. His new book, “You Are Looking Live!” is about CBS’ revolutionary pregame show in 1975 which introduced Brent, Phyllis, Irv and The Greek to America.

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