By Ron Morris
Many of the nation’s most talented broadcasters and writers have gathered in Salisbury for more than 50 years to continue a remarkable love affair between the city and the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. The affair morphed over five decades into the perfect marriage of a city willing to serve as the most hospitable of hosts and an organization that long ago found a place to call home.
Not long after one of the first NSSA gatherings, Hall of Fame columnist Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal placed a SALISBURY, N.C. dateline on his story and told of what the city meant to his business:
“The swallows have Capistrano. The movie-makers have Cannes. Mountain-climbers have the Matterhorn. The Irish have St. Patrick’s Day.
“Geese fly south for the winter. The dead ‘go west.’ Salmon swim upstream.
“Stanley had Livingston. George Burns had Gracie Allen. Tinker and Evers had Chance. Tarzan and Jane had ‘Boy.’
“Sportswriting and sportscasting types . . . well, they have Salisbury, county seat of Rowan, industrial queen of the Yadkin Valley, native ground of Skinnay Innes, for that claque old enough to remember ‘Got a Date With an Angel.’ (That’s music, son.)”
Every spring over the past 50 years, Salisbury and its gracious hosts have raised a toast to salute the top sportswriter and sportscaster from each of the 50 states. It has continued this long because Salisbury and sports reporting have become synonymous. It got off the ground because of the dream of a Salisbury restaurant owner and grew legs because of the vision of a Salisbury doctor.
Pete DiMizio promoted boxing matches around the Piedmont area of North Carolina by hobby and ran an Italian restaurant by way of making a living. At one point in the early ’50s, DiMizio imported an Italian chef to dazzle his patrons’ taste buds but soon figured out that his wife, Becky, cooked a better pizza than the chef.
DiMizio also figured it behooved his boxing promotions to buddy up with sportswriters and sportscasters in the area. In exchange for free food, DiMizio got the free publicity his boxing matches so badly needed.
One thing led to another and DiMizio was hosting an annual recognition banquet at his restaurant and the guests of honor were the best writers and casters in North Carolina. Then he founded the idea to expand and go national.
That was in 1958. The first scheduled gathering of national winners never got off the ground and was cancelled in 1959. Then DiMizio died of cancer and left the NSSA dream to his wife, who had neither the time nor financial wherewithal to fulfill her husband’s wishes.
In stepped the Salisbury-Rowan County Chamber of Commerce, various regional civic clubs and one Dr. Ed McKenzie.
To get the organization off the ground, all parties agreed that a sum of $12,000 was needed. The total was more than the entire Chamber of Commerce budget. But McKenzie believed it could be raised, so he went about selling tickets to the first banquet at $100 a plate. That was in 1960. By today’s value, that would be the equivalent of asking for $715 per plate.
McKenzie personally knocked on the door of every business and friend in the Salisbury area. Before long his list of donors reached 113 —- everyone alphabetically from Howard Aiken of Miller Brewing Co. to Bill Younts of Rowan Dairy — and the Chamber of Commerce was willing to kick in the remaining $700.
McKenzie next believed it was important for the organization to get the blessing and endorsement of the state of North Carolina, and he went to work on the governor, Luther Hodges.
“He drove to Raleigh three or four times to see the governor,” Nancy, his wife, once told The Salisbury Post. “The governor didn’t want to endorse a flop, the winners had to be assured the banquet was not a gimmick. Ed pulled a lovely finesse to get them all here.”
McKenzie believed the organization would gain legitimacy only if the first two national winners attended the event. So, he boarded a train for New York and extended a personal invitation to sportscaster Lindsey Nelson and sportswriter Red Smith.
McKenzie talked his way into Nelson’s office at NBC and Nelson agreed to come. Smith was not so easy to get. On assignment, Smith was not expected back in New York for eight weeks. McKenzie sneaked past a receptionist at the New York Herald-Tribune and found an audience with Smith’s editor. Six long-distance calls later and McKenzie was assured that Smith would be in Salisbury to be honored.
The inaugural event was smashing. Governor Hodges presented awards to Nelson and Smith. Miss North Carolina, Judi Klipfel of Asheboro, presented plaques to the 38 state winners who attended. Earl Ruth, the Catawba College athletics director, served as the master of ceremonies.
Nelson said his acceptance speech would be brief.
“I have never tried to make a speech since a woman sent me a telegram saying my speaking ability was the oratorical equal of a blocked punt,” Nelson said.
Smith spoke as he wrote . . . with great prose.
“The very notion of honoring such a disreputable group as ours is utterly audacious,” Smith said. “This is the most gracious and most generous thing that has ever been done for our rather seedy group.”
Three years into the organization’s existence, the board of directors realized it did not have a charter. Upon drawing up the official papers for the organization, the board encountered a delicate problem: Would the organization be called the Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association or the Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association?
To settle the matter, the group decided on a coin flip between Nelson, representing the casters, and Melvin Durslag of the Los Angeles Examiner, representing the writers. Nelson won and the organization has ever since gone by Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association.
That same board also established a Hall of Fame and the lone inductee in 1962 was Grantland Rice, long considered the greatest writer of sports.
Of the Hall of Fame, Durslag wrote: “It is probably easier to walk out of the Louvres with the Mona Lisa than it is to be admitted to this hall of fame.” Durslag was inducted into the NSSA Hall of Fame in 1995.
In 1963, McKenzie asked Nelson as a special favor to be the featured speaker at the Spencer High School athletic awards banquet. Nelson agreed, but getting to Spencer on time for the banquet was going to be difficult.
Nelson completed the play-by-play announcing of the first three innings of a New York Mets spring training game in Florida, slipped out of the press box and drove 75 miles to the airport to fly to Charlotte. McKenzie and the sheriff of Rowan County met Nelson at the Charlotte airport and rode in the sheriff’s car to Spencer.
Nelson arrived after dinner had been served and the tables cleared. He then spoke for 45 minutes, wowing the crowd with impersonations of Mets’ manager Casey Stengel. Then he concluded with a reading of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.”
On the basis of that reading, NSSA several years later dedicated its Hall of Fame to youth. For several years, state winners and Hall of Fame inductees were presented copies of Kipling’s poem, which for many years also appeared in the annual banquet program.
The list of honored guests over the years has included many from the world of sports and beyond. Among those who have visited Salisbury for the NSSA awards weekend include Bob Hope, Andy Griffith, Bowie Kuhn, Wilma Rudolph, Jesse Owens, Tennessee Ernie Ford, John Wooden, Curly Neal, Flip Wilson, Ted Turner, Gene Upshaw, Arnold Palmer, Terry Bradshaw, Larry King, Lewis Grizzard, Cale Yarborough, Mickey Mantle, Bobby Knight, Jerry Clower, Billy Martin and Roman Gabriel.
Few have visited Salisbury and left unimpressed.
Prescott Sullivan, writing for the San Francisco Examiner years ago, might have summed it up best when he wrote of Salisbury:
“This, in its way, is the strangest place on earth.
“It loves sportswriters and sportscasters.
“It’s crazy, man. Had we hadn’t come, we’d never have believed it.
“We happen to know the guys for whom all the fuss is about.
“Everywhere else, they have to sneak in by the back door.
“Here, they have found paradise.”
- Ron Morris graduated from Salisbury High School and is a five-time NSSA South Carolina Sportswriter of the Year Award winner. He is a former President of the NSSA’s National Board and a former member of its Foundation Board.