01/16/2009 12:00AM

Joe Hirsch's glasses weren't always rose-colored


The death of Joe Hirsch on Jan. 9 at the age of 80 has occasioned numerous wonderful tributes to his life and career, in these pages and elsewhere, many with a common theme: That while he was the sport's most decorated and respected turf writer for half a century, his achievements on the printed page were secondary to his character and to the way he touched the lives of literally hundreds of friends and colleagues.

I said something like that at his funeral a week ago, and further reflection has not prompted a change of heart. Still, especially for younger generations who may not have spent their formative years reading him, his purely journalistic legacy deserves its own consideration.

Although Joe had the title of Executive Columnist here for 30 years, he was not really a columnist in the way that word and title are generally used. A columnist is usually someone who used to be a reporter but now explores broader topics, composes essays, and issues opinions. Most traditional news organizations maintain a high wall between news and opinion, trying to keep opinion out of the news while clearly labeling both for what they are.

It is a distinction worth preserving, though an imperfect one. The writer and publisher H.L. Mencken once said that a competent news story about a public execution should make clear to the discerning reader the guilt or innocence of the condemned, the quality of the trial he received, and the proficiency of the hangman. Joe rarely presented personal opinions or addressed issues ideologically, but instead signaled his sense of what was important through his choice of words and topics. He was always a reporter first, gathering news with daily backstretch strolls, presenting the words of others to make his points.

Many once-young reporters whom Joe took under his generous wing, including this one, had a similar trajectory to their relationship with him - infatuation, rebellion, reunion. It was a little like what Mark Twain once said about his relationship with his father: "When I was 14," he wrote, "I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished by how much he'd learned in seven years."

A newcomer to the press box would first fall under Joe's spell, euphoric and honored to be in his circle and to enjoy the entree that provided. Then you inevitably crossed swords with him because Joe thought that supporting and defending racing was worth overlooking its less savory aspects. Finally, after you'd been around for a while, you realized that there was an underlying integrity to his work and his choices, a genuine belief that the good in the sport outweighed the bad and that accentuating the positive was an honest reflection of that belief.

Joe worked the mechanical era of newspapering and racing coverage, when you pretty much had to be at a race to see it and spend most of your life on the road to follow the best of the sport year-round. You got one shot at watching a replay, and there was no Internet to comb for dozens of bits of racing news each morning - just what Joe heard on the dozens of phone calls he made each day and what he wrote down in his tiny notebook each morning as he roamed the backstretch at whatever track he was quartered.

While Joe's legacy will be as a historian and chronicler of the sport rather than as a muck-raking critic, his few forays into direct editorializing had a unique power, not only because it was so unusual for him but also because of how gracefully he did it. The first two paragraphs of a 1984 "column" were as skillful an indictment as has ever been written about an issue that continues to bedevil the sport:

"Money is both the lifeblood and the bane of racing," began his dispatch from Churchill Downs. "If Devil's Bag had not been syndicated for $36 million last fall, he'd be starting in Saturday's 110th Kentucky Derby . . . .

"This is no criticism of the syndicate's decision to keep Devil's Bag from running for the roses. A considerable sum of money was involved, and there was a chance that Devil's Bag might not have won, thus, possibly, lessening his value. The course of action was one of prudence, but racing is a sport of boldness, or at least it was until the numbers began to escalate. No one knows if Devil's Bag would have won the Derby, but many think he would have run a big race. Apparently, that isn't enough."