Peter Finney: Sixty Years in Sports

Peter Finney is a sports columnist with the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. He celebrates 60 years covering sports in "The Big Easy" and reflects on some of his most cherished memories.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

When the New England Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002, Pete Finney was there. When Michael Jordan hit North Carolina's game-winning shot to win the 1982 NCAA championships, Pete Finney was there. Pete Finney was there in 1978 when Mohammad Ali gave Leon Spinks the what-for in Louisiana's Superdome. When there was no Superdome in Louisiana, Pete Finney was there. He was also there when there was no NFL, no NBA, and the best football in town was the LSU-Tulane game. Pete Finney's been covering sports since 1945 for the New Orleans Times-Picayune--in fact, when The Times-Picayune was just The Times. But we could go on in this vein. Pete Finney is celebrating his 60th anniversary in sports. He joins us from New Orleans.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. PETE FINNEY (Sports Columnist, The Times-Picayune): Happy to be here.

SIMON: And--all right, this time...

Mr. FINNEY: Happy to be alive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: OK. Well, this raises a question I want to ask very delicately, OK?

Mr. FINNEY: OK.

SIMON: Assuming you weren't in the first grade when you went to work for the newspaper, how old are we talking about here, Mr. Finney?

Mr. FINNEY: I was 17 when I started.

SIMON: You were 17? All right, let me do the math. So this makes you 77.

Mr. FINNEY: That's correct.

SIMON: Well, congratulations.

Mr. FINNEY: Thank you.

SIMON: I'm told there's no sign whatsoever of you slowing down.

Mr. FINNEY: Well, I've been very lucky, Scott. You know, my health is good and I've just been--I keep knocking on wood.

SIMON: In 1945, what kind of sports town was New Orleans?

Mr. FINNEY: It was a real good boxing town. And I think one of the reasons it was a good boxing town, amateur and professional boxing--you've got a lot of barrooms in New Orleans, as you do, I'm sure, like, in Chicago, a lot of neighborhood bars; that you had a lot of fighters come out of the city. And, like--well, Billy Pastrana came out and Ralph Dupas; the Docusen boys, Bernard and Maxie(ph). And you had minor league baseball, the New Orleans Pelicans and the Southern Association. And those were the two things. And of course, then you had college football. Tulane was good and bad. And LSU up in Baton Rouge was pretty steady. But I think that a sport that's really faded here lately, you know, overall, throughout the country, is boxing. But in the '40s and '50s, boxing was pretty big in New Orleans.

SIMON: Yeah. These days I guess we'd figure the Trinity as being baseball, basketball and football. But in...

Mr. FINNEY: Right.

SIMON: ...the '40s, it was arguably baseball, boxing and some people even say horse racing.

Mr. FINNEY: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Well now, that's another thing. Horse racing was big here. You know, you had the fairgrounds, one of the oldest tracks in America, and Louisiana Derby. And it had, like, a 115-day meeting every winter through the spring. And that was before the NFL came and before, I guess you'd say, college football got bigger, I guess. LSU had a great run in the '50s. And that helped.

But it's a good sports town because it's--you know, they've had some of these fans here that have been incredible. You know, you've got a team like the Saints--they've had one playoff victory in, what, 37, 38 years. If you're going to zero in on one sport, right now New Orleans is more of a football town than anything else.

SIMON: I want to address this carefully, but please bear in mind I am a Cub fan and there's no...

Mr. FINNEY: OK.

SIMON: ...reason for secrets or sensitivities between us on that score, OK?

Mr. FINNEY: Right. OK.

SIMON: What is it like to be a Saints fan?

Mr. FINNEY: It's tough. But you know what? I think what helps the Saints fans is beer, alcohol--I'm serious. I mean...

SIMON: I know you're serious.

Mr. FINNEY: You talk about drowning your sorrows, come here on a Sunday and you'll see people drown their sorrows. And it's incredible.

SIMON: Have you ever been at a sporting event--I don't know. The Ali-Spinks fight, that happened when clearly Muhammad Ali was at the down curve of his career, but just, you know, mustered a little last magic to be able to dispatch of Leon Spinks. Those moments, though, when you've been observing something and said to yourself, pinched yourself, felt the goose flesh rise and say, `This is history.'

Mr. FINNEY: In that fight, he came down and he really sold the fight. He was here about a week and a half before the fight. And the day of the fight at the Superdome, they had a $1 million walk-up. They sold $1 million of tickets to that fight.

SIMON: Ooh.

Mr. FINNEY: Yeah. Mainly because of Ali. A bunch of the press went to his camp. I think it was Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. And he held court there. That was one of the most memorable interviews I can remember. He answered questions for about almost an hour while he was doing rope tricks. You know, he was a magician. He'd poke fun at the writers and at different people and different fighters. And he'd talk politics. And that hour was just--I wish I had had it on tape. He was amazing.

SIMON: Yeah. Well...

Mr. FINNEY: My DiMaggio memory...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. FINNEY: ...was, he came to town after he retired, and he was giving a little clinic. He wasn't--he just showed up at this kiddie baseball game at this high school ballpark. And he had on a dark-blue suit with French cuffs. And one youngster said, `Joe, take off your coat and take a few swings.' So anyhow, DiMaggio obliged and he rolled up his French cuffs...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. FINNEY: ...took off his coat, and took a few swings, hit a couple of ground balls, and then hit about a 350-foot home run. And I was thinking later, that could have been the last home run he ever hit, and it was in I think '65, '66. I...

SIMON: Oh, yes, I'll bet that's the last home run he hit.

Mr. FINNEY: Joe DiMaggio, it was really a great--he rolled his cuffs down and put his coat on and fixed his tie, and he was very nattily dressed, but that's my memory of DiMaggio.

SIMON: That's a great one to have. Well..

Mr. FINNEY: So those are some of the memories.

SIMON: ...Mr. Finney, awfully nice talking to you...

Mr. FINNEY: Good. I enjoyed it.

SIMON: ...and congratulations on 60 years.

Mr. FINNEY: Thank you, Scott. Thank you very much.

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