Gwen Knapp Paid Attention To The Things That Matter
10:02 AM EST on January 22, 2023
Obituaries for people you knew tend to veer toward the self-indulgent, with the writer becoming the privileged observer of someone else's life, and nobody understands that odd construct quite like writers who became editors. They knew the gentle grift, weighed the gentility against the heft of the grift, and made alterations accordingly.
In other words, Gwen Knapp would look at this from her desk in whatever passes for the next realm and shake her head in polite disapproval. Or, if you caught her on a hectic day, polite disgust.
Knapp died Friday morning after a protracted and vicious battle with a cancer that eventually settled in her brain, which is almost surely the most horrific way to go. She had been a sports columnist of serious and richly deserved acclaim in Philadelphia and San Francisco, and then became a senior editor at The New York Times, a delicate and often dysrhythmic dance between caring about your words and thoughts and trying to apply the same to someone else's.
But that's just inside-baseball stuff lost on most folks; what made Knapp's journey from field to desk is the fact that very often the journey to anywhere was what made her so exceptional. Rarely has someone whose relationship with the linear nature of time was so questionable been such a keen and diligent observer of the outside world. She could occasionally be a Tina Fey sketch when it came to making first pitch, opening tip, kickoff, or puck drop, but she managed never to miss the important details that made her work a little victory in the reader's day. And that skill led happily and wholly into her editing, which was thorough enough to be professional but light enough to keep her writers from lamenting her intrusions. She was relentlessly delightful and delightfully relentless.
But you could take her talent for granted because she could mesmerize you with her mastery of the shambolic. She began every day well-ordered and ready to face the joys of the day, but by sunset or game's end she transformed herself into a whirlwind of whirlwinds. Her hair, which was her primary instrument of stress relief, looked by writing time as though a family of badgers had rented it out as a boxing gym. She never failed to deliver the right column for the right reason, but she could make the drive there a hilarious adventure, and that's saying something given that she largely eschewed the automobile as a means of conveyance.
Indeed, of her awards and citations for writing and her generous spirit away from the job, nothing exceeded the day she rented a car to take the 35-mile trip from her San Francisco apartment to the 49ers' practice facility and in an inattentive moment dropped her keys in the press trailer toilet. Not fully satisfied with that particular forfeit, she then doubled down on the distraction of gravity by absentmindedly flushing the commode and sending the keys to a septic grave. When the other writers in the tent learned of the inadvertent tribute to Lucille Ball, nobody expressed surprise or even asked who could have performed such a comedically daft turn.
The only reactions were "Oh," "That must have been Gwen," and a regrettably charitable offer from a colleague at the San Francisco Chronicle (not me, because my minimal talents do not extend to either emergency plumbing or patience in rush-hour traffic) to drive her 25 miles to the airport, where she had rented the car, to get replacement keys and return her to Ninerville. She knew the price of being her, and if it meant needing seven hours and 120 miles to get to a place 35 miles away, well, that's how it had to be done. Details of efficiency are for candies, and Gwen Knapp was not to be deterred, not even in the face of the illness that beat her in ways that the details of normal life never could.
She came slightly too late to be part of the original vanguard of women sports journalists, but she was a grand example of the transition to industry-wide acceptance and admiration for women who could bring the goods. That is not a universal condition, to be sure, as America is currently in the grip of an aggressive re-embrace of its traditional societal hatreds and biases, but her gifts of thoroughness, observation, passion, nuance, instinct, and reverence through application of the written word are never in sufficient supply. She had all the game a journalist can have without the behaviors that turned some journalists into "brands," and in that way, she can still serve as an inspiration for those who came after her, now and for years to come. If nothing else, she can be a cautionary tale about keeping your keys in a safe, dry place.