Over at Sports Guy Bill Simmons’s new website, Grantland, there is an oral history of the late, great National. For those too young to remember, the National was a daily sports newspaper that lasted an all too brief year and a half in the early 1990s. It would be difficult to explain to anyone under the age of thirty-five just what a national sports daily meant to us twenty years ago. Today if I want to know how many home runs Don Mattingly hit in 1986 (31), I go online and find it in seconds. It wasn’t always so. In the years before the Web was part of our daily lives, there simply was no way to follow sports as much or well as we would have liked. This was especially true where I grew up in South Florida, where so many of us came from elsewhere. If you were a high school kid from, say, Cincinnati and wanted to follow the Reds you were pretty much out of luck. Things got better a few years later when the USA Today came along. McPaper was a considerable step up from the local rag with its one-paragraph recaps of last night’s games, but even it lacked the in-depth coverage we take for granted today.
Television was not much better. Cable was still in its infancy in the 1980s and many of us, especially if we were latchkey kids from single-parent households, couldn’t afford it anyway. MLB.TV was beyond imagination. About all you could do was watch This Week in Baseball each Saturday afternoon and hope for that three minute interview with Barry Larkin, Chris Sabo, or the star of whatever team you happened to root for.
Enter the National.
Frank Deford’s paper gave you the box scores and so much more besides. It was not just good sports writing, it was good writing period. The National was very much in the spirit of the New Journalism of the 1950s and 1960s, when people like Gay Talese and Dick Schaap were writing “sports” articles as deep and thought-provoking as anything out there. And it came out every day. The only people who didn’t like the National were its accountants. After hemorrhaging money for nearly eighteen months the paper finally went under on June 13, 1991. In today’s digital world, such a newspaper is no longer necessary. Still, it is something to look back at a moment in history when a newspaper mattered to us so much.