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Sometime during Ronald Reagan's first term as American president, when the Cold War against Russia was white hot, Arkansas played an exhibition basketball game in Little Rock against a Soviet bloc country.

It is remembered here mainly for the game story in the next day's Arkansas Gazette, written by Jim Bailey and for which he could have composed the lead paragraph before leaving for Barton Coliseum.

"If Czechoslovakia joins the Southwest Conference," it began, "don't worry about it."

Though not nearly representing his best work, basketball was one of many sports written with skill, economy and understanding by Bailey, who died last week at age 86 after a battle with Alzheimer's. Much as former Gazette colleague Orville Henry had a cult following among golfers, a skill he sharpened annually from the Masters in Augusta, Ga., Bailey had a reputation as one of the nation's finest boxing writers. This was when boxing was at its peak nationally, along with baseball, another sport Bailey wrote with elegance.

Bailey could break down a piece about boxing's many splinter groups (WBA, WBC, etc.) in 12 different ways and leave the reader with one conclusion: Larry Holmes, or Marvin Hagler, or Mike Tyson, was the baddest guy on the planet, no matter whose crown he wore.

An Emerson native, Bailey was unlucky that Cassius Clay was born in Louisville and not in Little Rock, his Gazette byline giving the writer entree to the athlete that Billy Reed and Dave Kindred received from the boxer's hometown newspaper, The Courier-Journal. A Jim Bailey story from Madison Square Garden in the March 9, 1971, Gazette after the first Ali-Frazier fight would be a keepsake along with Page 1A from the 1974 edition after Nixon, bloodied and beaten by Watergate, threw in the towel as president.

So well did he write that Bailey would have been a star in almost any other sports department. Henry held that distinction at the Gazette for one reason: He covered Razorback football, the one sport people in all 75 Arkansas counties cared about, and which he took to another level after sitting on the right hand of Frank Broyles. Henry's move to the Arkansas Democrat represented a turning point in the Little Rock newspaper war, from which the Gazette, the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi River, surrendered in October 1991.

Though the paper that hired him in 1956, fresh out of what is now Southern Arkansas University and a hitch in the U.S. Army, was crumbling, Bailey wrote with his customary touch of class until the Gazette's end, and after. I remember a 1991 postgame column after a Jack Crowe-coached Razorback football team lost at Ole Miss that Bailey said the Arkansas defense blitzed repeatedly and for no apparent reason, suggesting that whatever heights that team reached likely would not be gained by blitzing.

Though he did not carry a machete to work, Bailey could draw blood with a stilletto's sharpness. He wrote instead with a sense of fairness that earned him lasting friendships with Ray Winder, Bill Valentine and everyone connected with the Arkansas Travelers among others. No group appreciated Bailey more than the coaches of the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference, dutifully covering their football and basketball games with stories worthy of the sport's section front page even if bumped to the inside.

Bailey, not known as a drinker, had some fun nevertheless after a Henderson State-Ouachita Baptist football game. He would have been welcome in the home of either coach but wondered if he get might a beverage with more of a kick from Henderson's Ralph "Sporty" Carpenter than, say, a root beer from Ouachita's Buddy Bob Benson.

When not covering the AIC, Bailey had a front-row seat at most Razorback football games and along with Henry's massive Page 1A game story, which required an entire page of jump space, Bailey's sidebar from the opposing team's locker room was required reading.

Therein, Bailey caught gems such as "Sometimes, you have to suck it up and pick up a number," from Darrell Royal after the Longhorns' 15-14 victory in 1969, and "Sure, they were flu-weakened. How the hell else do you think we ran up the score on them like that?" from Bear Bryant after Texas A&M slipped through, 7-6, at Fayetteville in 1957.

Though we never worked in the same newsroom, Bailey and I worked for the same company after his byline began appearing in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. As was true with Henry, I became friends with Bailey in later years. With their influence, and that of former Associated Press sage and longtime friend Harry King, I became a five-time Arkansas honoree of the former National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. So far, no one has asked for a recount.

Bailey, an 18-time Arkansas honoree, and dear wife Peggy were waiting to greet me in Salisbury, N.C., for the 1998 NSSA awards ceremony, my first pilgrimage. Sitting in a Holiday Inn, waiting to board a chartered bus for dinner at nearby Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jim kept me in stitches about stories from the old Gazette, some involving close friends and at least one with whom I worked in Hot Springs.

Not for the first time in almost 40 years on the job, I wondered how a kid from Glenwood could be so fortunate to sit at the feet of a master. Arkansas sports fans felt the same way every time they picked up a story by Jim Bailey.

Sports on 01/10/2019

Print Headline: Jim Bailey: an Arkansas sports sage

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