John Underwood, Stylish Sportswriter and Author, Dies at 88
John Underwood, a stylish writer at Sports Illustrated for nearly a quarter century whose rollicking account of a fishing trip in Florida with the baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams led to their collaborations on two highly regarded books, died on April 12 at his home in Miami. He was 88.
His wife, Donna Underwood, confirmed the death, but did not cite a specific cause.
Mr. Underwood joined Sports Illustrated in 1961 during the magazine’s decades-long heyday, and would work alongside other star writers like Frank Deford, Mark Kram, Dan Jenkins, Roy Blount Jr., Jack Olsen and William Nack.
He specialized in covering college football, including its shady side, but he also wrote about boxing, golf, baseball and professional football, as well as the impact of gambling on sports, players and fans. In 1982, he was the ghostwriter for an article about the former N.F.L. player Don Reese that revealed that he and many other players had used cocaine and how the drug “now controls and corrupts the game because so many players are on it.”
Mr. Underwood forged a connection with Mr. Williams when they fished for tarpon off the Florida Keys in 1967. Mr. Williams, one of baseball’s greatest players and the last in the major leagues to hit .400, was also an expert fisherman, then in his seventh year of retirement from baseball.
“He brings to fishing the same hard-eyed intensity, the same unbounded capacity for scientific inquiry that he brought to hitting a baseball,” Mr. Underwood wrote.
Describing Mr. Williams in action, he added, “The fish exploded into the air. Sawhack-whack-whack. The tarpon jumped seven times, swooshing spectacularly in the air as Williams played it, worked it, reeled, kept the pressure on. All the time, he was instructing us, telling us what he was doing, advising Charley when to shoot and at what lens opening he might use.”
Their camaraderie on the trip prompted Mr. Underwood, at the suggestion of a Sports Illustrated editor, to ask Mr. Williams if he would agree to let Mr. Underwood help him write his autobiography. The project began as a five-part series in the magazine, which they expanded into the book “My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life” (1969), a New York Times best seller.
It was followed in 1971 by “The Science of Hitting,” an instructional manual that became a Bible to many major leaguers, including the multiple batting champions Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs. In 2002, Sports Illustrated ranked it No. 86 on its list of the top 100 sports books of all time.
In his preface to “The Science of Hitting,” Mr. Underwood described Mr. Williams’s passion for an illustrator to portray the strike zone as he envisioned it — “filled by equal rows of circles depicting what kind of batting average a player could expect swinging at balls in each of those areas. He said he would supply the figures himself.”
The two books with Mr. Williams were the first of Mr. Underwood’s collaborations with sports figures. He worked with Bear Bryant, the storied coach of the University of Alabama football team, whom he had covered extensively, on his autobiography in 1974. He followed up with Alvin Dark, the much-traveled baseball manager, in 1980, and then with the father-and-son N.F.L. quarterbacks Archie and Peyton Manning in 2000.
Reviewing “Bear: The Hard Life and Good Times of Alabama’s Coach Bryant,” Jonathan Yardley of The Miami Herald praised Mr. Underwood for cajoling Mr. Bryant “to talk freely, and in so doing, to reveal himself perhaps more than he intended.”
John Warren Underwood was born on Nov. 25, 1934, in Miami. His father, Edward, was a tourist boat captain. His mother, Sarah Kathryn (Russell) Underwood, was a homemaker. While in high school, John began writing regularly for The Miami News, and while studying English at the University of Miami, he became a staff writer at The Herald. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1956 and stayed at The Herald until he moved to Sports Illustrated five years later.
While at the magazine, he also wrote “The Death of an American Game: The Crisis in Football” (1979), which grew out of a series about injuries and violence in football, and “Spoiled Sport” (1984), about how big money and television had sapped the fun out of professional sports.
“I was about to say I have lost it, this taste for sport, but I haven’t,” he wrote. “It was taken from me — from all of us.”
He left Sports Illustrated in 1985 for full-time freelancing, unhappy that the editing at the magazine had become, as he wrote in his resignation letter, “the worst I have ever encountered.”
“Few were surprised by Underwood’s exit,” Michael MacCambridge wrote in “The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated” (1997). “Many felt he had lost his love for the games long ago.”
In addition to his wife, Donna (Simmons) Underwood, he is survived by their daughter, Caroline Burman, and son, Joshua; his daughters, Lori Gagne, Leslie Cahill and Kathryn Justice, who is known as DeeDee, and his son, John Jr., from his marriage to Beverly Holland, which ended in divorce; 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Mr. Williams’s death in 2002 prompted Mr. Underwood to write “It’s Only Me: The Ted Williams We Hardly Knew” (2005), a reminiscence about their friendship, which grew from their first trip in 1967 into hunting and fishing vacations around the world.
“He thought of Ted as an uncle,” Ms. Underwood said in a phone interview. “And ‘It’s only me’ is what Ted would say when he called. John or I would answer the phone and he’d say, ‘It’s only me.’”