When Peter Finney Jr. and his siblings decided to put together an anthology of their famous father’s sports columns, the issue was not how to come up with enough stories to fill a book but what to possibly leave out.
Except for the past couple of years, when advancing age finally forced him to set down his pen, Peter Finney’s career chronicled the greatest sports happenings in New Orleans and Louisiana for nearly seven decades.
All told, between his days working for the old New Orleans States, then the States-Item and finally for the Times-Picayune, Finney Jr. figured his father wrote 15,000 articles, or roughly 12 million words, from the time he graduated from high school in 1945 to 2013.
From that vast treasury, it was the family’s task to cull 75 of the best, most memorable columns for “The Best of Peter Finney: Legendary New Orleans Sportswriter.”
The book was published in February by LSU Press. To see it finally in print was a labor of love for the Finneys, and in its way a love letter to the legions of readers whose knowledge of the day’s important sports topics wasn’t complete without finding out what Peter Finney had to say about it.
“He was a kind person and fair,” said Finney Jr., executive editor and general manager of the Clarion Herald, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. “But he could be critical without being mean-spirited. I think that’s why people appreciated his candor and even-handedness.”
Though the ever-modest Finney at first protested a book of his writings, his six children pressed on with the project until he finally relented.
They poured through huge binders of his stories and columns that Finney kept going back to the 1940s, and clippings he later stuffed inside envelopes. From the late 1980s on, there were reprints from the Times-Picayune’s database, but for many of the columns in the book that predate that, the Finneys dutifully retyped them.
“Even my kids typed some up,” Finney Jr. said. “My son typed the column on (the chess match between) Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972. Funny column. He said, ‘This is really good.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ ”
The book probably wouldn’t have been complete without Finney’s recount of Billy Cannon’s 1959 Halloween night punt return to lift LSU over Ole Miss 7-3. Finney was the States-Item’s LSU beat writer then. It was New Orleans’ afternoon paper, and since the story didn’t see print until the Monday after the game, it gave Finney some extra time to work on the story of what he called the most iconic play he ever covered.
“He knew he would need something fresh, so he stayed over (in Baton Rouge) Halloween night,” Finney Jr. said. “Bud Johnson (then LSU’s sports information director) drove him to a house Sunday morning that had a big antenna that picked up (WWL) Channel 4’s replay of the game. He watched the run over and over. Then Bud drove him over to Cannon’s apartment to talk to him.”
Though much of the book includes columns on LSU and Saints football, Finney Jr. said the idea was “as much as possible to cover the waterfront.”
“There’s boxing and basketball and baseball,” he said. “LSU Press wanted an emphasis on iconic New Orleans and Louisiana sports moments, but there are stories about people like Joe Louis and Jessie Owens. One of my all-time favorites is a funny column he did in 1961 on Gorgeous George, who’s like the father of pro wrestling.”
Finney lost his beloved Deedy after 61 years of marriage three years ago. Shortly after that he moved from the Finney’s longtime home in the French Quarter to an address near City Park. Five of the Finney’s six children still live in the city — youngest son Michael, a former LSU golfer and club professional, lives in Louisville, Kentucky — and they take turns caring for him.
Now 88, Finney doesn’t attend games anymore, but he still reads his papers daily and still maintains the sunny disposition that was always his trademark.
“He’s hanging in there,” Finney Jr. said. “He’s never in a bad mood, always upbeat. He’ll tell you, ‘All right my man, give me my marching orders.’
“He could always see the humor in situations. Like when the Saints lost to 0-26 Tampa Bay (in 1977) he wrote there have been worse disasters in life.”
Louisiana sports fans will no doubt cherish the opportunity to relive the good and the bad moments through Finney’s eyes and his incomparable writing.
Peter Finney Jr. will hold an upcoming signing events for this book — 7 p.m. March 23 at the Jefferson Parish East Bank Regional Library, 4747 West Napoleon Ave. in Metairie.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.