By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Remembering George Kimball

I’m in California on a working vacation this week. But I want to break blog silence to pay tribute to the great George Kimball, a sports columnist for the Boston Phoenix and the Boston Herald who died on Wednesday at the age of 67.

I remember reading Kimball in the Phoenix when I was in high school. Kimball would sit in the bleachers at Fenway Park and write about the Red Sox from a fan’s perspective. His column was called “The Sporting Eye,” after his glass eye, which, as legend would have it, he would pop out in order to entertain and intimidate as the spirit moved him.

Eventually Kimball left for the Herald. I didn’t read him all that much after that because his beat was boxing, which interested me some when Muhammad Ali was fighting and not at all otherwise. But I do have one measly Kimball anecdote that no one else has.

At the beginning of the 1986 Woburn toxic-waste trial in U.S. District Court (the case immortalized in Jonathan Harr’s book “A Civil Action”), Judge Walter Jay Skinner ruled that the media could cover jury selection on the condition that they not report on what had happened until the jury was seated. The Boston Globe and the Herald refused to go along and boycotted the proceedings. I was covering the trial for the Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, and saw no reason not to sit in. I got a pretty good story out of it, too.

Among the prospective jurors brought in for questioning was Kimball. He was polite and obviously very intelligent. He told the judge that the case would pose a significant hardship for him, since he had to travel to cover boxing for the Herald. (Indeed, the trial lasted five months.) I don’t think Kimball ever expected to be seated, but after he left the room, the judge and the lawyers expressed considerable interest. “Your Honor, he’s a great boxing columnist,” Neil Jacobs of Hale and Dorr, part of the legal team for the defendant Beatrice Foods, told Skinner. (Obviously that quote may be off by a word or two.)

There was quite a bit of discussion regarding the pros and cons of choosing Kimball. In the end, Skinner decided that the trial would, in fact, pose an unfair burden to him, and he was dismissed. But it was a close call. A year later I ran into Kimball at a New England Press Association function and told him about what had happened after he left the judge’s chambers. I don’t remember what he said, except that he appeared to be amused by the story, and glad he’d dodged the draft.

If you want to know more about Kimball (and I’ve told you very little), you must read this appreciation by Michael Gee, who followed Kimball as the Phoenix sports columnist and later joined him at the Herald. This Phoenix blog post by Sean Kerrigan hits the highlights of Kimball’s pre-Herald career. And the Phoenix has posted a classic Kimball story from 1976 on a boxing match between Ali and Ken Norton.

Finally, here’s a great story from the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World on Kimball’s early days as “one-eyed radical who once campaigned as a ‘two-fisted’ candidate for Douglas County sheriff.” I had no idea.

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  1. Jack Sullian

    There was a story around the Herald I always thought was urban legend but others swear it’s true. I never asked George about it but wish I did. He was in a bar once and a guy asked him to “keep an eye on my seat.” When he came back, George’s glass eye was on his stool.

  2. Andy Koppel

    What I remember about Kimball’s stint with the Phoenix is his fearless insistence on reporting exactly what he saw and heard, with no filter for local sensibilities. This made him unique, in my opinion, among Boston sports journalists, since he dared to approach local and opposing teams and athletes with the same standards and the same language.

  3. Rick Peterson

    “He would leave the state to write pornographic novels in New York before working at an underground newspaper in Boston”.

    So many snarky comments, so little time. RIP George. You will be missed.

  4. Hylen Smurr

    A superior sportswriter to say the least. Indeed he will be missed.

  5. As a college student and aspiring writer, I met George Kimball a few times in the late 1980s while he was covering professional boxing and my father served as the attorney for middleweight champion Marvin Hagler.

    During the mid-late 1980s, I was not an avid boxing fan nor was I familiar with the sportswriting of George Kimball in the Boston Herald. My father, who essentially received his bachelor’s and his master’s education in professional boxing matters from reading Kimball’s weekly boxing columns, urged me to read George regularly to understand and appreciate vivid, sharp, witty, and authentic journalism.

    After only a few months of reading Kimball’s regular weekly boxing column and his dispatches from live prizefights, I came to appreciate George’s piercing commentary on the rampant corruption of professional boxing and his vivid and thoughtful accounts of championship and non-championship fights.

    Before one Hagler fight, I reintroduced myself to George at ringside as a colllege writer, and asked him for some professional advice. Amid the haze of tobacco smoke emanating from ringside, which included George’s ample toxic contributions, he responded, “Jeff, just try to write something true everyday and stay away from the hard stuff until you graduate.” Sound advice from a tremendous, old-school journalist who championed many local New England fighters, managers, and trainers as they attempted to navigate the Byzantine and often venal world of professional boxing. R.I.P., George.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Jeffrey: One of the things that comes through in all the appreciations I’ve read about Kimball, and in my own brief encounter with him, is that though he had the persona of someone who would chew up naive young journalists and spit them out for fun, he wasn’t like that at all. If you approached him and talked to him, he came across as a nice guy. Because he was.

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