Henry Hardin “Zipp” Newman
By Woody Norman
BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA: Tuesday, May 24, 2016, was Henry Hardin “Zipp” Newman’s 122nd birthday. He died March 3, 1977 and in a memoriam soon after his passing a tribute affirmed that “Zipp Newman was a leading light in establishing the Monday Morning Quarterback Club for the express purpose of fellowship among football fans.”
It was not only the fellowship. There was more about this “leading light.”
Newman was a sports writer for The Birmingham News while still in high school. He earned the nickname “Zipp” due to his ability to outrun his track competitors. Indeed, he may have been the first person to run 100 yards in ten seconds. His 120 pound frame was his advantage. In middle age he weighed no more than 160. Thus his friends dubbed him “Zipp.”
Henry Hardin Newman was born in the town of Smith Mills in Henderson County, Kentucky in 1894. It was a town less than 25 miles from Evansville, Indiana and about 150 miles southwest of Louisville. He attended schools in Kentucky and later in Birmingham after his family relocated in 1906.
He always wanted to be a sports writer. He told a colleague that sports writers had an advantage over other writers. Sports writers, more or less, had a free hand at their craft. For a while Zipp worked as a backup or intern with sports editor Henry C. Vance while still in school. He was paid $2.00 per week to cover high school athletics. Vance recognized Zipp’s writing skill and at times allowed him to assist him with his column.
Newman was also a newspaper carrier boy in the morning for The Birmingham Age-Herald, The Birmingham News in the afternoon, and The Birmingham Ledger in the evening.
During World War I Newman served as an ambulance driver in the Army Medical Corps. This experience was significant for him and was perhaps a turning point in his life. According to his family records, Newman “did much good work among the sick and wounded.”
In 1919 Newman became the youngest sports editor of The Birmingham News. He was the youngest among southern sports writers and a leader who would eventually be recognized as the dean of southern sports writers. He covered all sports, including semi-professional or minor league baseball. But he believed that sports and its popularity could be leveraged for assisting financially in needy causes.
Newman’s colleague at The Birmingham Age-Herald, James Saxon Childers, wrote an article about his friend in April, 1937. He wrote that although Newman has been sports editor for a quarter century, he was not an old man. He was 43. But Childers wrote extensively in that one article about the achievements Zipp Newman had accumulated up to that time.
According to Childers, Newman became overly excited and inarticulate when he talked about the Alabama-Washington Rose Bowl Game of 1926. The game was the University of Alabama’s first bowl appearance and, according to sports aficionados of that era, it was “the game that changed the South.” Alabama won 20-19.
Newman told Childers that the greatest baseball game he had ever witnessed was between the Houston Buffalos and the Birmingham Barons at Rickwood Field in 1931. It was the first game of the Dixie Series championship, headlined by Houston pitcher Dizzy Dean. The 22-year old Dean had “guaranteed” a win facing the 43-year old Baron pitcher, Ray Caldwell. It was a classic pitchers’ duel until a Baron player singled to first base, sacrificed to second, and then was batted in for the only run of the game.
Newman was highly articulate in his column “Dusting ‘Em Off.” He was humorous. In a 1931 column he wrote to Santa claiming to be a “sports scribbler.” He asked Santa not to hold that against him. He continued with listing several self-effacing characteristics but with limited humility he wrote that his boss was a Vanderbilt man, his wife a Howard (now Samford) girl, and that he “got the air at Birmingham-Southern. He said that they considered him a partisan, but he had always favored the underdog.
When closing this particular letter, Zipp asked Santa to bring home a pennant to all 8 cities in the Southern League, to give all 23 teams in the Southern Conference a trip to the Rose Bowl, and to bring his dog Gilda a fine bone. Signed “The Ole Duster. P.S. – All I really want is peace.”
Zipp also worked sports. For several years he was the official scorer for the Southern League, The scorer decides if a hit to the outfield botched by the fielder is a hit or an error.
Newman was the leader who directed the benefits of popular sports into community service. The first Crippled Children’s Football game in 1935 was begun at the initiative of Newman. The Crippled Children’s Clinic for victims of polio was opened in 1929 and the proceeds from those high school football games began funding part of the clinic’s expenses.
Leading a group of like-minded persons, Zipp Newman organized a college football review club. Its purpose would be the financial support of the Crippled Children’s Clinic. In 1939 the Monday Morning Quarterback Club of Birmingham (MMQBC) was formed from that organizing effort.
In 1943 Newman organized the Negro Tuberculosis Football benefit game. In that same year the MMQBC sponsored its first annual high school All-Star football game.
Another Newman idea came to fruition in 1944 with the high school East-West Baseball game for the benefit of the Alabama Sight Conservation Association. One year later the Kiwanis Club of Birmingham awarded Newman its silver service medal of honor for his outstanding contribution to Alabama’s health.
Since baseball and football were covered, Zipp Newman developed the idea of the Better Hearing Center Basketball Game in 1947. The Downtown Lion’s Club of Birmingham dedicated one its service programs in honor of Newman for his public service in 1948. But Newman’s notoriety was not all local or regional.
In Atlantic City, New Jersey the American Hospital Association at its 50th anniversary convention in 1948, honored Henry Hardin Newman for his dedicated service in fund-raising for multiple health organizations in Alabama.
In 1951 the Crippled Children’s Hospital was built due in no small part to the fund-raising efforts of Newman and the MMQBC. The chapel of that new hospital was dedicated as the “Zipp Newman Chapel.”
The year 1954 saw the miracle of the polio vaccine which over the course of just a few years virtually eliminated polio. Thankfully there would be no more need for the Crippled Children’s Hospital so the MMQBC sold the hospital building to the University of Alabama Medical Center and the sale’s proceeds were added to the club’s funding account.
In 1969 Zipp Newman published a book entitled The Impact of Southern Football. Between 1919 and 1969 Zipp had “seen it all.” But it was not all about sports. The book chronicled exciting sporting events that he witnessed but it was chiefly about people.
Newman led readers not only of his newspaper column but of his book as well, through the life struggles, experiences, and contributions of many people. In the third paragraph of his opening chapter Newman writes “The impact of southern football has come through sweat and toil, sacrifices, great leadership and persuasive leadership in eliminating hypocrisy in player recruiting.” Newman knew the effects of good and great leadership.
In another chapter, “Mother Gammon Saves Southern Football,” Newman writes about a mother whose 17-year old son, Von Gammon, died in the Georgia-Virginia football game of 1897. Within days of her son’s death on the football field, the Georgia Legislature – which happened to be in session – passed bills in its House and Senate abolishing football in Georgia. All that was needed was the governor’s signature to make it law.
The young Gammon’s mother wrote the governor “It would be the greatest favor to the family of Von Gammon if your influence could prevent his death being used as an argument detrimental to the athletic cause and its achievement at the University [of Georgia]. … Grant me the right to request that my boy’s death should not be used to defeat the most cherished object of his life.” The Georgia governor vetoed the bill.
Henry Hardin “Zipp” Newman was a sports writer, organizer, humanitarian, and a southern historian. He understood people and could write about “the whole picture” of human activity. He was indeed a leader of long-standing and we should remember his birthday this coming week.
When the MMQBC memoriam opened its document of remembrance with the phrase identifying Zipp as a “leading light,” I cannot help but think of John Henry Cardinal Newman. I have had many conversations this past year with Zipp’s daughter, Frances Newman “Bee” Morris of Mountain Brook. She said that her father many times suggested that they were related to the 19th century English churchman, poet and scholar. Not knowing the extent of her genealogy, “Bee” thinks that maybe there is a relationship. It seems appropriate.
In 1833, John Henry Newman wrote the hymn “Lead Kindly Light.” One cannot help but think that the writer of the MMQBC memoriam to “Zipp” had both Newmans in mind.
WOODY NORMAN is a writer of Alabama and Virginia history and is a biographer. His most recent biography is of Ambassador William Jelks Cabaniss, Jr., Archdeacon Books, 2014. He lives with his wife Patricia in Hoover.
Frances Newman Morris Collection of “Zipp” Newman memorabilia
The Impact of Southern Football, MB Publishing, Montgomery, Alabama, 1969
HH Zipp Newman photo image courtesy of Frances Newman Morris