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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14 Responses to “Forrest City’s Raoul Carlisle: The original original”

  1. Scott Faldon says:

    Fantastic story, I wish I’d gotten a chance to meet Mr. Carlisle. Guys like him are a dying breed in the business, unfortunately.

  2. Weston Lewey says:

    Hi Rex. It’s Weston Lewey, publisher of the Forrest City Times-Herald. We would love to run your great story on Raoul in our paper. Please let me know via email if that would be OK with you.
    I am exactly one month to the day younger than Brett “Stats” Norsworthy. I remember Raoul from my childhood and he was quite the character, indeed. One day when I must’ve been around four, he came to our house and dressed me up in duck hunting clothing, put a caller in my hand and took a photo, which he then ran in the paper to promote the upcoming hunting season. I was mortified, because I looked too much like a little boy anyway in those days (my mother insisted on a “Pixie” haircut for my thin, stringy locks). Everyone laughed, and told me to suck it up and be a good sport, that I should be proud that Raoul took my picture.
    He still has some kinfolks around here, and I’m sure they’d love to read this recollection, as well as many others here who knew him.

  3. rexnelson says:

    Weston: I would be delighted to have you run this. Thanks so much for asking — Rex.

  4. Walter Cox says:

    Rex,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article. I was born and raised in Forrest City having graduated from high school in 1960. That was the heyday of Mustang football under coach Jim DeVazier. I was an avid reader of Raoul’s sports columns in the Daily Times Herald. I knew he was well known outside of Forrest City, but had no idea of just how well known he was until I read this article. I have been a lawyer in Fayetteville since 1966 and got to know Raoul’s son, Marshall Carlisle, who practiced law here until his death a few years ago. Marshall was very proud of his father and told us many wonderful stories to about him.

  5. Doug Buford says:

    Great article and brought back fond memories. One small item. I recall Raoul being at a DU banquet, was in fact driving home and the train hit him at the crossing by the Forrest City Grocery Company. I could not find an obituary, but Weston probably could. Stats is probably too young to help.

  6. rexnelson says:

    Thanks, Doug. I got that corrected. A train did indeed hit his vehicle while he was driving.

  7. John Alderson says:

    Raoul Carlisle and I sat together at the Ducks Unlimited Banquet the night he passed away. Our families were every close fiends. Raoul’s grandson and I were at the Sugar Bowl game between Arkansas and Bama in 1961. We were going to ride on a chartered bus to the stadium from the same hotel that the Bama team was staying. The three of us were in the lobby waitng on the bus when the Bama team starts down the stairs with Coach Bryant. Roaul asked if we want to meet Coach Bryant. We of course said yes. Raoul yells across the lobby for Coach Bryant and motions for him to come over which he did. Raoul introduced us. After we met, Coach Bryant turns to Raoul and says. ” Raoul, please excuse me. Me and my boys got to go play a football game. Another time, Raoul and I were duck hunting in the L’Angullie River bottoms and had not had any luck. I had an important appointment at 1:00 pm. So, we started in about 11:00 am. As we were paddling in ( he never used a motor ), ducks started coming from every where. He puts me up in a tree as the water is high. He stays in the boat and gets in a brush top. We started getting ducks in and killing some. After ever group that comes in, I am telling Raoul that I have to go. He tells me to be quiet here comes some more ducks. The water is over my head so I am stuck in the tree. I was late to my appointment. I have alot more stories like that. I truely enjoy reading your column in the paper and will start following you here.

  8. Bettye Jo Shryock says:

    Really brings back memories…. great to be reminded of such an awesome time and such an awesome person. He had the original never-ending tale….and we enjoyed every story he told…..

  9. Mr. Nelson, Thank you very much for your kind remembrances of Gran. Not a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner goes by that my sister & brothers and I do not share a story about Gran. He had four great loves in his life, SEC football, watching the ponies run, killing his limit in the L’Anguille bottoms every morning the season was in and my grandmother, Martha Louise Carlisle. Dr. Alderson shared two wonderful stories, my brother in law has a story of the game warden motoring up to his blind as Gran had a group of ducks working, he could call with the very best of them. The warden guided his boat in among the decoys and asked to see their hunting licenses. Gran popped up and in a very colorful vernacular told him if he made him lose these ducks he’d “shoot his ass”. The warden obviously knew him and waited behind the blind until the ducks had cupped, locked and been dispatched. Gran was not only friends with Coach Bryant but Coach Vaught, Coach Dickey, & Coach Mclendon. Outside of the SEC he was friends with Coach Hayes at Ohio State,Coach Dodd at Georgia Tech & Coach Royal at Texas. Sadly, Gran was never an Razorback fan which was odd given that Coach Broyles had played for Coach Dodd. More than anything Gran loved the sport of kings. My brother’s and sister have a number of pictures of themselves & Gran at Oaklawn presenting trophies. I was fortunate enough to visit Chrchill Downs in 2003 and was allowed to visit the press box and see where my grandfather sat. Gran was quiet a character. I have framed in my office a letter of condolence from Coach Bryant & Mary Harmon after his accident. A sterling silver mint julep serving set presented to him as the “Champion Derby Picker” in 1954. And a proclomation and key to the city presented to he and Mamaw, my grandmother, by Mayor Moon Landrieu As a honorary New Orlenians based upon the fact they had attended every Sugar Bowl ever contested, something which Gran enjoyed up until he passed away. I would correct you, openly, on two things. Mamaw, Gran’s wife and my grandmother, outlived Gran and passed away the fall of 1987. Secondly, Gran was never not allowed to drive. He was completely full of life and very much cognizant up until the time he passed away. Again, thank you for such kind words and such a glowing article. No doubt, Gran was one of a kind!!! Cordially, Craig C. Morledge

  10. Sandy Carlisle Aldern says:

    WOW! What FUN that was to read about my Grandfather! And to have my daddy’s name–Marshall Carlisle– mentioned brought tears to my eyes (I was with Daddy when he died Dec 10, 2006). The stories I have heard and the memories I have of those two are hilarious and heart-warming at the same time. Gran used to take us grandkids to deliver Christmas gifts to the very poor. Gran used to greet us late at night when we arrived from Fayetteville without his dentures just to scare us. Gran put champagne in my little sister’s bottle once so she could celebrate, too! Gran and Daddy used to give us the duck’s pinfeathers after a good day of hunting. Gran helped us up to the top of his carport to pick pecans that had fallen from his pecan tree. And, btw, Mamaw made the best pecan pie ever! And did she know how to cook a duck!!!
    Anyway, thanks so very much. Your article warms my heart here in beautiful Colorado, and brings back memories I will never forget. :-)

  11. rexnelson says:

    Craig and Sandy: Thank you so much for the notes. It is nice that you have so many warm memories. I was honored to get to know Mr. Carlisle at Oaklawn in his later years — Rex.

  12. Kim Ratliff says:

    Oh the stories that could be told about Raoul – my grandfather, Gran. He never left the house without a kiss for my grandmother, Mamaw. He called her “sug” as in sugar. I was very honored once when he chose me to go peach picking with him – he even gave me a good luck charm for the occasion. We had a successful expedition; what he didn’t tell me was that peach fuzz makes you itch like mad! Anyone that ever rode in the car with him is lucky to be alive and unscathed. He didn’t necessarily believe that traffic signs were there to be obeyed. And his car! There were newspapers and packages of cigars everywhere. I remember being in Forrest City for he and my dad, Marshall Carlisle, to go duck hunting. They would make leftover turkey sandwiches and put them in the pockets of their hunting jackets. I remember hearing them get up in the wee hours of the morning to go hunting – I was so jealous! One of my sisters has the old typewriter that Gran used to type those wonderful articles and stories. I have a special place in my heart for Oaklawn because of Mamaw and Gran. I remember getting to sit with her while Gran was in the Press Box working. These stories have brought back so many delightful memories – Mamaw and Gran, Forrest City, my cousins the Morledge’s and the Woody’s, and my father. It was with tears in my eyes that I say thank you one and all for reminding me of some very special moments in my life.

  13. Ann Farris Mathis says:

    What memories your article brought back to mind about Mr. Raoul..He was a friend of my grandfather (Raymond Farris). President of Arkansas Game & Fish in the 60′s..
    We spent many holiday’s with the Carlisle family at their home in Forrest City..My PaPa and Mr. Raoul would try to out do themselves telling stories about their hunting trips..I can remember when I was probaly 9 or 10 years old hunting with them ,my dad and several uncles just outside of the Brinkley area (The Chaney Farm). That was before the day’s of hunting gear that keeps you all warm and tosty..I had on waders that were to big for me, a coat that they tied a rope around me to keep it from falling off and a hat that came down over my ears …What a sight I must have been …But I was hunting with the greatest men in the world..and I was in heaven..I will alway cherish those times.
    My Mother (Rita Farris) told me after reading this article this morning about the time when they were at The Sugar Bowl and she and Mr. Raoul went to the Mayor of New Orleans ball.. He knew everyone there and alway’s had a story to tell about each and everyone of them…There was always a crowd of people around him listening to his stories laughing and having the time of their life’s…
    What a treasure Mr. Raoul was, what I would give to experience those moments again..

  14. clint yates says:

    My memories of Raoul were as a kid in Forrest City. My dad ,Aubrey Yates, amd Raoul were good friends for many years. I can remember my dad and I going duck hunting in the L’Angullie River bottoms with Raoul several times. When I got older, I would go by and pick him up and off duck hunting we would go. He was a good friend to our family.

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