•Bruce Farris, a Bee sports writer for 52 years, died Wednesday
Mike Watney can’t count all the times he talked with Bruce Farris.
“A lot,” says the former Fresno State men’s golf coach.
Watney no doubt isn’t alone. Words, whether spoken or published, were the essence of Mr. Farris’ 52-year career as a Fresno Bee sports writer.
It took death to silence him. Mr. Farris died Wednesday evening at the southeast Fresno home of daughter Nancy Holly.
Mr. Farris’ wife, Barbara, died in 2007. In addition to Holly, he is survived by son Greg Farris, daughter Sandra Cliff and nine grandchildren.
And now many of those who were the object of Mr. Farris’ questions and the subject of his stories are keen on turning the tables. They search for words to explain what he meant to a half century of sports in Fresno and the central San Joaquin Valley.
“He was a key guy in our town,” says Tom Sommers, a Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame board member and former Fresno State quarterback. “He was always positive and upbeat. He’d take something negative and by the end he had turned it into something that gave you hope and encouragement.”
Former Fresno State Associate Athletic Director Diane Milutinovich says it didn’t matter whether Mr. Farris was writing about football, basketball, softball or whatever.
“He had a grasp of every sport,” Milutinovich says.
Former Major League Baseball pitcher Dick Ellsworth, who starred on the great Fresno High School teams of the late 1950s, says Mr. Farris’ strength was keeping the reporter out of the story.
“Bruce never embellished — he wrote it the way it was,” Ellsworth says. “I don’t know if it was training or it was God-given, but he sure had a knack and an eye for reporting.”
Tim Norris, a Fresno State All-American golfer and winner on the PGA Tour, says Mr. Farris never feared to write the truth.
After all, Norris says, “there are no mysteries in golf. Your numbers are what you shoot.”
Yet, through good times and bad, Norris says, Mr. Farris was always fair.
“He just wanted to report, and sometimes that’s hard to find these days,” Norris says. “He was very diplomatic — but he was always to the point.”
Mr. Farris had power in that pen, as well. Watney recalls that his hopes for a pro golfing career were turning south in the late 1970s about the same time Fresno State administrators were struggling to bring stability to the Bulldogs’ golf program.
“Bruce made the comment that (then-Athletic Director) Gene Bourdet should call Mike Watney,” says Watney, the Bulldogs’ coach for more than 30 years. “Gene did call me. I never thought it would be a lifelong career. Turned out it was.”
Mr. Farris wanted power, all right, but ideally it would have been in the form of a home run-hitting first baseman for a team like the Detroit Tigers.
“I loved baseball so much, it was all I thought about,” Mr. Farris told The Bee’s Bill McEwen in 1997 on the eve of Farris’ induction into the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame.
But, as Mr. Farris always acknowledged with a smile, he couldn’t hit worth a lick.
So, as it often is with youngsters overwhelmed by the curveball, Mr. Farris jumped into sports journalism. It was a natural step.
He and his family moved from Michigan to Fresno in 1931. His father was a printer for 50 years, including a stint with The Bee.
Mr. Farris was sports editor for Fresno High’s school paper. He landed the same job at Fresno State. He wrote for the Fresno Guide and Fresno State’s sports information department. He did public relations for the Class C Fresno Cardinals.
Things settled down when Bee Sports Editor Ed Orman hired him in 1948.
“I had to pinch myself,” Mr. Farris later wrote about his good fortune. “Imagine! Being paid to cover a baseball game, a sport I loved with a passion.”
Mr. Farris didn’t give up the full-time gig until December 2000, when he was 73.
His influence on the local sports scene was felt even in his retirement. Paul Ladwig, Fresno State senior associate athletic director/external relations, says he was a newcomer to Fresno when he met Mr. Farris about 10 years ago.
“He welcomed me with a smile,” Ladwig says. “Many times I would say to him, ‘Hey, I heard about this game. What can you tell me?’ He was an encyclopedia.”
Ladwig says he and Fresno State Athletic Director Jim Bartko want to honor Mr. Farris’ legacy, perhaps putting a plaque somewhere in Bulldog Stadium’s press box.
That way, Ladwig says, the working press “will understand what Bruce meant to the community and the university.”
There’s something fitting about a memorial for 50-plus years of reporting lodged in a spot where the public will never see it. As anyone knows who worked with him, Mr. Farris understood and accepted that his millions of written words would fade as quickly as the exploits they recounted.
But what words they were.
“Bruce was a true gentleman,” Sommers says.
Yeah, tell that to Al (Big Boy) Davis.
Davis was the hitting star on Aug. 27, 1956 when the Fresno Cardinals beat the visiting Reno Silver Sox 7-6 to come within one game of clinching the championship.
“Al (Big Boy) Davis continues to wield the hottest bat in the California League,” Mr. Farris wrote in The Bee.
Just in case the reader got the wrong idea about Big Boy’s season, Mr. Farris added, “Davis now has 14 hits in his last seven games and shows no signs of letting up. His phenomenal streak has lifted his once anemic batting mark over .250.”
Sommers was a 19-year-old backup quarterback when the Bulldogs traveled to the Los Angeles Coliseum on Nov. 23, 1961 to play Bowling Green. It was the Mercy Bowl, a fundraiser in memory of those from the Cal Poly football program killed the previous year in a plane crash.
“We were huge underdogs,” Sommers says. “Bowling Green on film looked like the Cleveland Browns.”
Such a scenario was tailor-made for a sports writer of talent.
“The Fresno State College’s unbeaten Bulldogs ‘bombed’ the Bowling Green Falcons right out of this huge stadium today with a thundering 36-6 victory capping the greatest football season in FSC history in the Mercy Bowl played before 33,000 sun drenched fans,” Mr. Farris wrote on that Thanksgiving day.
“Coach Cecil Coleman’s team opened up with a dazzling passing show from the opening whistle and was still throwing them in the final minutes, much to the dismay of the big Ohio team.”
Ellsworth and Sommers note that the first 20 years or so of Mr. Farris’ career at The Bee came at a time when Fresno and Valley athletes were becoming a force on the national scene.
“Bruce was the guy who publicized all that throughout the country,” Sommers said.
The West Coast Relays was one such platform. Mr. Farris was there on May 13, 1967.
“Terrific Tommie Smith gave a capacity crowd of 14,000 what they had come to see in the 41st West Coast Relays last night as he anchored the San Jose State 880-yard sprint relay team to a world record clocking of 1:22.1 in Ratcliffe Stadium,” Mr. Farris wrote.
Lee Evans’ baton pass to Smith was “right on the mark. As Tommie’s long strides ate up the ground in seemingly effortless fashion the crowd rose as one with a mighty roar.”
Norris says Mr. Farris knew the right questions to ask and how to ask them. That’s the reporter’s secret for getting quotes that best tell a story.
Mr. Farris in June 1993 telephoned Fresno’s Shelley Hamlin, then a veteran on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour. Hamlin two days earlier had bounced back to win a tournament in New Jersey. A breast cancer survivor, she had returned to the tour 18 months earlier after undergoing a modified radical mastectomy.
“After all I’ve gone through,” Hamlin told Mr. Farris, “this (golf) is not life and death, but it is important for people who make their living at it.”
And every reporter who stays in the trenches long enough writes an obituary. Mr. Farris wrote his share.
In the May 4, 2000 Bee he wrote about Conroy Oakley, known far and wide for his skill at fishing and the pouring of marvelous plastic worms called the “C.O. worm.” Oakley, a Lindsay resident, had died several days earlier.
Mr. Farris and Oakley had been fishing buddies. Mr. Farris started the reader with news of Oakley’s death, then told a quick story about a bass angler at Lake Isabella who caught a nine-pound bass not far from Oakley’s boat.
The happy angler, ignorant of his audience’s identity, told Oakley he was using a C.O. worm.
“Well,” Oakley said, “I’m C.O.”
Mr. Farris knew what he was doing. He wrote another dozen paragraphs, then came to that point that separates the 50-year reporters from the rookies.
“Oakley will be buried in his bass shirt with a C.O. cap and a rod in his hand.”
Bruce Farris was 88.
Memories of Bruce
Following news of Bruce Farris’ death Wednesday night, many reached out to share their memories. Here are some excerpts:
“I knew Mr. Farris as a player at Fresno State in the late ’50’s and then as a coach at Mt. Whitney for 35 years. It was always an honor when he came to cover our games. He was such a gentleman and respected by all of us who knew him.”
“Bruce was truly a gentleman and outstanding sports writer as he had a knack for making his interviewees comfortable and at ease so that they would provide insights into their coaching, living, etc. Bruce will truly be missed. His ilk are few and far between in today's world of sports reporting.”
“Bruce Farris is someone I met over 47 years ago. He was one classy guy who had a way with words and wrote many sports stories that came to life each and every week before we had 100-plus TV networks and instant media. He along with Ron Orozco penned the many sport articles that I read each week in The Bee that inspired me to compete. He also wrote many outdoor articles having to do with the Sierras that painted a picture of what was so close to all of us. Fresno has lost a sports writer legend that will be hard to replace but never forgotten.”
Share your memories of Bruce Farris in the comments.