Forrest City’s Raoul Carlisle: The original original

My friend Brett “Stats” Norsworthy of Forrest City, who co-hosts a daily sports talk show on WHBQ-AM in Memphis and is somewhat of a Memphis sports legend himself, describes the late Raoul H. Carlisle as the original original.

Carlisle, who was born in December 1897 and died in November 1980, was indeed one of a kind.

In the first half of the 20th century, a man representing the tiny Times-Herald in Forrest City became one of the best-known sportswriters in America — at least among other sportswriters and athletes. Readers outside of St. Francis County might not have known who he was, but those in the sports world knew him well.

Carlisle made sure of that.

He was everywhere — the Triple Crown races, the World Series, championship fights and always the Sugar Bowl. Like me, it seems Carlisle had a special place in his heart for New Orleans.

Carlisle came to mind earlier this week when I was reading an online column by Peter King of Sports Illustrated about his trip to the Super Bowl.

“Interesting being with Randy Moss (the announcer, not the pass-catcher) Sunday for NBC on the pregame show,” King wrote. “Told me a great story. Moss, of course, is a big horse guy.

“‘I’ve been to 31 of the last 32 Kentucky Derbies,’ he told me while we waited to go on TV Sunday afternoon outside the Giants hotel. ‘The first one was amazing. They have a seniority system in the press box, and I knew one of the veteran writers, a guy from Arkansas, who was going to watch it off the TV monitor because he couldn’t see that well. So he told me I could use his seat, which was No. 2 in the press box. A great seat. But he said, ‘I better take you down and introduce you to the two guys next to you so they don’t think you’re stealing the seat.’

“‘He takes me down, and I meet the two guys. He said, ‘This is Dick Young.’ Then, ‘This is Red Smith.’ Wow. I was 21. They were the two guys who’d covered the Derby the longest. I’ve been to every Derby since then but one and never had a seat quite that good.'”

So Red Smith of The New York Times had seat No. 1.

Who was this Arkansan with seat No. 2?

Raoul Carlisle of Forrest City.

Four years earlier, in 1976, the folks at Pimlico in Baltimore had begun something known as the Old Hilltop Award. The award was designed to pay tribute to members of the sports media who have covered thoroughbred racing “with excellence and distinction.”

The first two honorees?

Red Smith and Raoul Carlisle.

After reading King’s column, I began an email exchange with my former Arkansas Democrat colleague Randy Moss, who now lives in Minneapolis and does on-air work for NBC and the NFL Network.

Randy was born in Hot Springs in 1959. I was born down the road in Arkadelphia in 1959.

We first came to know each other when I began covering Oaklawn on a regular basis in 1979 as the sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald in Arkadelphia. Randy already was making a statewide name for himself, having been picked out by Arkansas Gazette sports editor Orville Henry to be the newspaper’s handicapper and racing correspondent.

Moss asked Henry to let him cover the Kentucky Derby in 1980, but the man known as OH declined to pay for the trip. Instead, he called the public relations director at Churchill Downs, Edgar Allen, an old friend of Henry’s from the days when Allen worked at The Nashville Banner. Allen had gone to work for the Banner in 1942 and been named sports editor of the newspaper in 1967 by the legendary Fred Russell.

Allen arranged for Moss to gather quotes and write notes for Churchill Downs with the track footing the bill. While in Louisville, he also would file stories for the Gazette.

It was on Derby day that Carlisle gave up seat No. 2 to his fellow Arkansan, choosing to watch from a television monitor inside the press box.

“It would be the only time I got to use Raoul’s seat,” Moss says.

On Nov. 22, 1980 — less than seven months after giving up his seat to Moss –Carlisle was killed when his vehicle was struck by a train. He died a month short of his 83rd birthday.

Carlisle was famous in his older years for approaching young sportswriters like me in the Oaklawn press box and telling story after story. He would carry a scrapbook with him to verify that he actually had done all the things he talked about.

Searching the Internet, I ran across a short letter to the editor from Carlisle in the May 23, 1960, edition of Sports Illustrated.

He wrote: “I have known Gentleman Gene Lambert for over 30 years and have never known him to be called or referred to as ‘Piggy’ before. A clear faux pas.”

I have no doubt Carlisle did know the major league pitcher, who had been born in 1921 in Crenshaw, Miss.

I also found a story about the Jan. 1, 1958, Sugar Bowl that mentions Carlisle. Ole Miss beat Texas, 39-7, that day.

Here goes: “As the game wound down, ballots were passed out in the press box for the vote on the Most Valuable Player. All 166 media voters placed Ray Brown as their choice for his quadruple-threat performance. Raoul Carlisle, an Arkansas newspaperman who had covered every Sugar Bowl, commented to Pie Dufour as Brown dropped into his end zone to punt.

“‘He’s the greatest performer in Sugar Bowl history.’

“Pie noncommittaly answered, ‘He certainly is one of the best.’

“As they talked, Brown took a high snap and, before he could boot the ball, saw a Texas end boring in unopposed. Brown bolted, circled right end and began steaming for the Longhorn goal 103 yards from where he had been standing.

“‘That proves Brown’s the best,” Carlisle was screaming in Dufour’s ear to make himself heard over the din of the crowd.”

By the way, don’t you love the name Pie Dufour? There’s something special about New Orleans names.

Charles L. “Pie” Dufour, who died in 1996 at age 93, wrote almost 9,700 installments of his column “Pie Dufour’s A La Mode” for the New Orleans States-Item and the Sunday edition of the New Orleans Times-Picayune from 1949-78. He was the author of almost 20 books.

And he was yet another friend of Carlisle, the guy from Forrest City who turned up everywhere.

The famous Arkansas sportswriter Jim Bailey once described Carlisle as a “fellow who isn’t very easy to explain in a few words.”

Carlisle began attending sports events across the country as a young man, getting credentials through his work at the Times-Herald. In the 1920s, it wasn’t as difficult to get credentials to major events as it is these days. Carlisle spent a lot of time on trains going to and coming from sports events.

“By the time media requirements began to tighten, Raoul had been grandfathered in,” Moss says.

On Jan. 1, 1980 — the day Alabama played Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl (the Crimson Tide won its second consecutive national championship that day) — The Tuscaloosa News had a front-page blurb for an inside story. It read: “Raoul Carlisle has seen his share of Sugar Bowls — all 46 in fact — and can keep you entertained talking about them.”

I was in New Orleans covering the Sugar Bowl for the Siftings Herald in the week leading up to that game.

Everyone had tired of Carlisle bragging about his “dear friend” Bear Bryant. We were betting he didn’t even know the Alabama coach.

Just before a joint news conference with Arkansas coach Lou Holtz, Bryant walked into the room. To our amazement, he strolled over to Carlisle and gave him a hug.

“He really does know everybody,” Bailey said that day.

Steve Cady of The New York Times mentioned Carlisle in a 1975 article, noting that he was covering his 57th Kentucky Derby. That means Carlisle would have seen Sir Barton and every other Triple Crown winner.

With Carlisle having died in November 1980, there was no one to sit between Smith and Young on the first Saturday in May 1981.

“With their eccentric but gentlemanly buffer gone, Young was moved into the No. 2 seat at the Derby next to Mr. Smith, his archrival who Young had actually criticized in print,” Moss says.

One more story, this one about Moss and Henry. Moss (who jumped from the Gazette to the Democrat following the 1982 Arkansas Derby) had asked Henry to let him cover Louisiana Downs in the summer and fall. Moss said he would pay for an apartment in Bossier City if the Gazette would keep him on the sports staff and allow him to handicap and write stories from the track.

Henry declined.

“He told me I needed to get out of covering horse racing because every racing writer he ever knew wound up being a drunk and a compulsive gambler,” Moss says. “He said, ‘Football is your future. That’s where you need to be.’ Now, Orville’s gone and, lo and behold, I wind up working for the NFL Network and doing some football for NBC.”

Thus Hot Springs native Randy Moss found his way to Indianapolis last week, covering the Super Bowl for NBC and telling Peter King about the 1980 Kentucky Derby.

And thus Randy and I began telling stories Tuesday about Forrest City’s Raoul Carlisle, the man who once knew everyone in sports and seemingly was everywhere at once.

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