IT'S AMAZING WHAT YOU can find in ‘junk’ shops. Just recently, on a visit to such a store at Avalon, on Sydney’s northern beaches, there for sale among a pile of old magazines was the July 1952 issue of Sporting Life. Originally published by Associated Newspapers in Sydney, Sporting Life was one of the country’s best and most innovative sports publications from 1947 to 1957. It was edited in its early years by AG ‘Johnnie’ Moyes, one of the most celebrated figures in Australian cricket from the 1920s to the 1960s. Its star writer was Keith Miller, the great allrounder.
On the cover of this issue is a photograph of Samuela Domoni, a member of the touring Fijian rugby union team. The lead story is a profile of champion sprinter Marjorie Jackson, written on the eve of her departure for the Helsinki Olympics. ‘It is not generally realised that if Marjorie wins an Olympic title, she will be the first Australian to have won an Olympic track event since 1896,’ wrote journalist Geoff Allen. There are tales of Clive Churchill and Vic Patrick, a review of the recent Collingwood v Richmond ‘Australian Rules experiment’ at the Sydney Cricket Ground and a preview of the British Open, a tournament no Australian golfer had ever won (Peter Thomson’s first victory was still two years away). Sporting Life sold for a shilling and three pence in 1952; two dollars at Avalon in 2016. Money well spent.
It wasn’t until later, when the magazine was being thumbed from front to back, that a hidden jewel was discovered. The story on page 42 is headlined:
Australia’s Best Baseballer: Uncanny Merv Deigan is the only baseballer chosen in every All Australian team since 1946.
Merv Deigan was a prodigious sporting talent, a prolific hitter for Petersham-Leichhardt in Sydney grade baseball and an excellent batsman for Petersham in Sydney grade cricket. He would be inducted into Australian baseball’s official Hall of Fame in 2006. The story’s author wrote that ‘Petersham fans are unanimous that Deigan is the best third baseman in Australia — a view shared by several prominent ex-players and officials to whom I spoke’.
That author is Richie Benaud.
At this time, Richie had played one cricket Test match for Australia. He was 21 years old, working in Associated Newspapers’ accounts department and a regular visitor to the busy Sporting Life office. In the years to come Richie would, of course, become a unique figure in the sporting media and the greatest TV commentator cricket has known.
It has been generally accepted that Richie media career began in 1956, at Associated Newspaper’s afternoon daily, The Sun, when he was given a chance on police rounds. He had written a few stories for sports magazines in the three years before, including three for Sporting Life, but always on a freelance, one-off basis.
This article from July 1952 pre-dates all that. A trawl through earlier editions of Sporting Life failed to find another contribution by Richie Benaud. Given his age and lack of experience (as a writer and cricketer), it seems unlikely his work would have appeared elsewhere. The Merv Deigan profile is almost certainly the first story by Richie published in a major newspaper or magazine.
THAT THE STORY IS about baseball should not be a surprise. Richie as a sportsman is remembered today almost totally as a cricketer, but in the early 1950s he was also known for his work on the diamond. He made his debut as a shortstop for Western Suburbs in Sydney’s first-grade baseball competition during the autumn of 1951, a year in which he scored his maiden first-class century (against South Australia at the Adelaide Oval) and was included in a NSW Colts baseball team that also included the future Test cricket opener Billy Watson.
Richie knew Merv Deigan well. Their relationship went back to at least October 1947, when they were both members of a squad of junior cricketers that trained at the SCG nets on Wednesday afternoons. Also in that squad were future Test cricket stars Graeme Hole and Jimmy Burke.
‘Petersham Oval, Sydney, is a busy baseball centre in the winter months,’ Richie’s story begins. ‘Crowds of up to 5000 people go there each weekend to watch their clubs play the game that is steadily gaining popularity in Australia.
‘The idol of these crowds is a solid, wavy haired young man playing third base for Petersham-Leichhardt …’
AS RICHIE TOLD it, he started his working life at age 16 as a clerk in a city accountant’s office. ‘I was never sure I was cut out for accountancy, but at Parramatta High School, in keeping with all other secondary schools, they provided tests for pupils to see for what they would be best suited, he wrote in Anything But … An Autobiography, which was published in 1998. ‘I loved English but the testers said I was outstanding at mental arithmetic, so accountancy it was.’
In 1950, Richie was, in his own words, ‘put off’ from the position that had been paying him £3 a week. He soon found a similar job, on double the money, at Associated Newspapers. The appeal of this opportunity, it seems, apart from the pay rise, was that his new boss, Bert Scotford, was a ‘cricket fan who had heard of me’. Richie, still a teenager, had just made his first-class debut for NSW. Getting time off for practice and interstate tours was not going to be a problem.
At school, Richie achieved what was known as a ‘sportsman’s pass’. He did his schoolwork while devouring his sport. The local Parramatta papers wrote of him as a future champion, and as legends such as Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting would do after him, his focus as a young man was very much on his sport. He made his Test debut at age 21 and his first Ashes tour at 22, by which time he was being spoken of as a future captain.
In the recently published Richie: The Man Behind the Legend, one of Richie’s old teammates at the Cumberland grade club, Bruce Ritchie, who first met the Benaud family before the war, recalled:
When Richie left school, a rising star in cricket by then, just about everyone was surprised when he took a job with a chartered accountancy firm. We all thought he would head into something to do with sport. At the time, I think that deep down he was wondering about how successful he could be at cricket and whether he could make a living out of it, so he took the accountancy option to give him a solid ‘back up’ if his sporting ambitions backfired.
Bruce Ritchie was another member of that junior cricket squad, alongside Richie and Merv Deigan, that trained at the SCG on Wednesday afternoons in 1947. The picture he paints of his mate from that time is of a young man who didn’t quite know what to with his working life. Richie had no formal qualifications, but gradually the realisation would come that he really could be a journalist. What part did his debut article play in that process?
In Benaud On Reflection (1984), Richie remembered that during the three years prior to the 1956 Ashes tour he had been repeatedly requesting a transfer from Accounts to Editorial. ‘My hope was to follow Keith Miller into the media world,’ he wrote. ‘But I wanted to learn about journalism in the different areas of the newspaper, not purely in Sport.’
Before the team departed for England in 1956, Lindsay Clinch, the Executive Editor of The Sun, told Richie that when he returned there might be an opportunity in the sports department. ‘I’d rather be on News if possible,’ was the cricketer’s response. That Richie was now resolutely serious about a career in the media is clear, best shown by his decision at the end of the Ashes tour to take part in a three-week training course with BBC-TV. In part, this might also have been motivated by the continued desire to follow Miller, who had agreed a deal to work in front of the cameras for Frank Packer’s fledgling Nine Network in Australia.
But that training course was an investment in the future. For now, Richie’s ambitions were in print. ‘I wasted no time getting back into The Sun newspaper office the day after arriving home [and] went into see Lindsay Clinch by appointment, anxious to know if there was any chance now of moving out of the Counting House and into Editorial.
‘We want you to write a column for the sports department each week; they’ll get someone to ghost you if necessary,’ Clinch said.
‘I’d like to work on Police Rounds and News,’ Richie responded.
‘He looked at me for what seemed like minutes but was only seconds,’ Richie continued in Benaud On Reflection.
‘Okay, go and see Jack Toohey [the News Editor],’ Clinch said.
An excited, smiling Richie turned for the door. And then Clinch added quietly, importantly: ‘He’s expecting you.’
The rest, as they say, is history. Richie was given the chance to work under the ace crime reporter Noel Bailey. In the 1960s, while still Australian captain, he became a respected cricket writer for The Sun in Australia and News of the World in England, always maintaining that the experience he earned while working with Bailey was a key to his success. His television commentary career began in England in 1963; in 1977, he became the ‘voice’ of World Series Cricket, and soon the TV voice of all Australian cricket. On his death in April 2015 — 12 months ago this week — he was recognised across cricket as an exceptional allrounder, a great captain and the greatest TV commentator.
RICHIE DID OCCASIONALLY RECALL his link to Sporting Life, but never suggested that the magazine played a significant role in the evolution of his working life. After he moved to Associated Newspapers in 1950, he immediately discovered that the building in Elizabeth Street in which he was now employed also produced the best-selling magazine. ‘It was a wonderful privilege to be able to slip up to the Sporting Life offices occasionally and listen to some of the opinions on the game and its various players,’ Richie wrote in Anything But … An Autobiography.
These opinions would have come from some of Australian cricket’s most renowned and influential figures, including Miller, Moyes, the best-selling author Ray Robinson and the former NSW captain Ginty Lush. Another regular contributor was the former Sheffield Shield and Australian Services XI opening batsman RS ‘Dick’ Whitington, The Sun’s cricket correspondent. In his biography of Miller, The Golden Nugget (1981), Whitington recalled:
In 1950, Moyes’ magazine Sporting Life was rising towards a monthly circulation of 250,000 … Moyes applied for additional staff and was told he could seek a junior assistant.
It so happened there was a blue-eyed blond named Richie Benaud working in the Accounts Department of Australian Associated Newspapers Limited at that time. The boss of that department was a cricket fanatic named Bert Scotford and Richie, then 19, was showing considerable promise as a hard-hitting batsman and googly bowler.
With Scotford’s consent, Richie joined Moyes and Miller on the staff of Sporting Life.
Richie’s time on the Sporting Life payroll was short-lived. His transfer back to Accounts probably occurred in 1951, after Moyes departed as editor; the fact Richie never mentioned he was on the staff certainly suggests it was a brief arrangement. But he did continue to visit the magazine’s offices and, as his status as a cricketer grew, he would have felt more and more comfortable doing so. This would have been especially true after July 1952, given that he was now a published contributor. He would have more stories appear in the magazine — ‘So You Want to be a Big Hitter’ (March 1954), ‘Age is Kind to Spinners’ (October 1955) and ‘How to Beat the Batsman’ (December 1955) — but his first commitment through this period remained to his sport. All the stories and profiles of Richie at this time — including one by Miller that appeared in Sporting Life in October 1951 — are of a young man who couldn’t get to the practice nets quick enough.
It is intriguing that Richie never made mention of his debut contribution to Sporting Life in his memoirs. Perhaps he just forgot about it, but the first published story is always a major moment in a journalist’s life. The tens of thousands of people who remain interested in, even inspired by his life’s work, will see this debut story as genuinely historic. But in the most recent issue of the cricket journal Between Wickets, Rodney Cavalier recalls an evening where he witnessed Richie being approached by a potential biographer. Richie politely declined. ‘I have written all anyone needs to know about me,’ he said.
The guess is that in July 1952 — even though he now had a byline — Richie still wasn’t sure where his working life was heading. It was not until at least a year later, perhaps after experiencing his first Ashes tour, that he knew in his heart that he wanted to be a journalist and not until 1956 that his great media adventure truly began. To include the Merv Deigan profile in his life story would have been to give the article more prominence than he felt it deserved, to create a false impression. That was never Richie’s way.