"The Best of Alf Van Hoose"

Oct 26, 2009

Alf Van Hoose is a name surely well known to many Alabama newspaper readers. Van Hoose worked at the "Birmingham News" for 43 years.

Alf Van Hoose is a name surely well known to many Alabama newspaper readers. Van Hoose worked at the "Birmingham News" for 43 years. He was the sports editor there for 21 years and a columnist for more than 10. In his Introduction, Creg Stephenson tells us Van Hoose "helped define a city, a state, and a region largely known for sports. He was the writer of record covering some of the biggest sporting events and personalities in the state of Alabama in the last half of the 20th century."

Those who remember and admire his work will enjoy this volume of a few dozen selections from his thousands of pieces, chosen by Stephenson, since 2005 sports writer for the "Anniston Star," and Ed Mullins, Dean Emeritus of the College of Communication and Information Sciences at UA.

Van Hoose was born in 1920, and it was his boyhood dream to be a big league shortstop. He got a tryout with the St. Louis Browns but, we are told, lacked bat speed. After two years at Livingston and two at UA, Van Hoose was drafted in 1942. Serving under Gen. George S. Patton, he rose to the rank of captain and won the Silver Star in the Battle of the Bulge.

In 1947, Van Hoose joined the "News," and stayed there. Stephenson tells us Alf wrote "at least three columns a week . . . for more than 30 years, and also wrote thousands of game stories."

Although quantity is not a certain indicator of excellence, all who write regularly are impressed. As recently retired "News" sports writer Clyde Bolton is fond of saying, people come up to him at parties and say "I've always wanted to write a sports column. I think I'd be good at it." And Bolton answers them, "I'm sure you could write one or two good ones, but could you write 2,000 of them?"

Stephenson says Van Hoose "peppered" his prose with "literary references from Shakespeare and Thornton Wilder" and especially loved the work of Antoine de Saint Exupery. While there are references to Saint Exupery, I did not notice the influence of Wilder or Shakespeare. Stephenson also tells us that Van Hoose had a habit of "limbering up" by reading Tolstoy's "War and Peace" every two years. Well. Maybe. But there were no signs of it in his prose.

I found the style too dated, staccato, and hyperbolic and not grammatical enough for my taste, with one-sentence paragraphs giving way to one-fragment paragraphs and finally one-word paragraphs.

The English language is richer than that.

Shame not to use it.


Although Van Hoose was well known for his football stories and was, it seems, close personal friends with Coach Bryant, I think his best sports writing was about baseball. He clearly loved the game. He also had strong feelings about Birmingham's Rickwood Field and the greats like Willie Mays who had played there. The closing of Old Rickwood in 1987 brought real emotions. "I love that place" Van Hoose says.

The bulk of the selections in this volume are, appropriately enough, football stories. Van Hoose wrote up the big games, Auburn-Florida, Alabama-Ohio State, but especially the Really Big One, the Iron Bowl.

To his credit, I think, Van Hoose himself, who made a living covering it, by 1989 thought the Alabama-Auburn game too hyped-up. He writes, "My conscience clangs a bell that a ball contest between 18-21 year olds should not be Armageddon" and "I'm receptive to arguments that this rivalry needs a break."

As he grew older, Van Hoose grew wiser. Some of the best writing in this volume is done later in life, on a trip to Vietnam and especially on a return to Europe in 1989, only six months before he would retire. His pieces remembering life under fire, the Battle of the Bulge, the siege at Bastogne, the colorful and profane character George Patton and the visit to the concentration camp at Dachau are the best in the book. Like many Patton fans, Van Hoose thinks little of Ike: "Dwight Eisenhower, overrated general, was a golfing president."

Stephenson laments that Van Hoose never got around to a planned volume of memoirs. Given the strength of the pieces which are not about games played with a ball, that really is too bad.