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Jim Bailey, Revered Arkansas Sportswriter, Dies at 86

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Jim Bailey, who delighted Razorback fans, baseball addicts and boxing buffs for nearly six decades as one of Arkansas’ most knowledgeable and polished sportswriters, died Wednesday night after a decade of Alzheimer’s disease, his family said.

He was 86 and lived in Little Rock.

After joining the Arkansas Gazette’s sports staff in 1956, Bailey quickly became a valued right-hand man to the paper’s legendary sports editor, Orville Henry, with whom he’d later write a history of the University of Arkansas football team, “The Razorbacks.”

Born in Emerson (Columbia County) on Oct. 13, 1932, Bailey had a near photographic memory and enough talent to have been sports editor of the Houston Chronicle or a writer at Sports Illustrated, former colleagues said. But he loved Arkansas and never considered moving.

“It’s a shame that his talent didn’t get appreciated nationally, but Arkansas was very lucky to have him,” said Robert Yates, a former colleague at the Democrat-Gazette who was among a small number of journalists and newspaper retirees — including Wadie Moore, James Thompson and Clay Henry, Orville’s son — who visited Bailey to the end of his life.

“It’s a great loss to Arkansas journalism,” but also a farewell to a remarkable mind, according to Yates, who writes freelance and works in media relations for Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs. “His mind was like a steel trap, and he had such a memory he’s said to have been able to remember conversations exactly, to quote people accurately without ever taking notes.”

Bailey covered the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference (he was a 1954 graduate of league member Southern Arkansas University), the minor-league Arkansas Travelers and the St. Louis Cardinals. He was also known for his encyclopedic knowledge of boxing, as well as kindly advice to young writers.

He once told Harry King, then a Gazette cub and later a longtime Associated Press writer and editor, that he could predict how long King’s story on a golf tournament would be. “Eighteen paragraphs,” King recalled. “One for each hole.” The lesson was to always condense, and write what’s important, King said.

University of Central Arkansas journalism professor Donna Lampkin Stephens recalled dictating a report on a basketball game to Bailey when she was a 22-year-old novice. “I said something about the ‘charity stripe,’ and he just stopped,” Stephens recalled Thursday. “He said, ‘we’ll just make it ‘the free throw line.’” Stephens laughed, adding that whenever she sees a cliche in print, she thinks of Bailey and how he might have prevented it.

“On his writing, the best way I can put it is like this,” Yates said. “If we were to write on the same topic, my paragraph would be 60 words and Bailey’s would be 30 words, and his would be far better. Just an amazing writer.”

That skill was widely recognized, with the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association naming him Arkansas’ sportswriter of the year 16 times. The press box at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock, home of the Travelers, was named for Bailey and his sportscasting colleague, Jim Elder.

Yet Bailey, inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2003, remained unassuming. “There was never an ego with Jim,” King told the Democrat-Gazette.

And his devotion to newspaper writing never flagged. After the Arkansas Gazette was subsumed by the Arkansas Democrat in 1991, Bailey wrote for several publications including the Arkansas Times but settled in again at the Democrat-Gazette before retiring in 2013, when he was over 80.

Many Arkansas readers fondly recall Bailey’s books, and how they reflected a small but proud state’s devotion to its sports icons.

“The Razorbacks” opens with an account of a devout Hog fan’s throat being cut by a drunken fellow spectator, then being stitched up at a War Memorial Stadium aid station before his return to watch the rest of the football game. Bailey collaborated with UA’s Hall of Fame football coach on “Hog Wild: The Autobiography of Frank Broyles,” and his 1980 book on the Travelers got new life in 2007 as “The Arkansas Travelers: 100 Years in Baseball.”

Working with Bailey and gleaning tips had another fringe benefit: listening to his storytelling, Yates said. “It was great to hear tales about the Cardinals’ glory days, or about the old characters of the AIC like Ouachita’s Buddy Benson or Henderson State’s Sporty Carpenter. There were so many tales, so much laughter. Boxing stories, too.”

Arkansas Times’ Max Brantley, a longtime colleague of Bailey’s at the Gazette, offered a link-filled post online Thursday morning.

Bailey is survived by his wife, Peggy, and a son, Bob, who recalled his father’s voracious reading in a Facebook post. “People look at him from a sports perspective, but he was well-read in every subject,” Bob Bailey said.

Stephens took note of that voracious reading, and recalled the trips she and fellow colleagues made regularly to Bailey’s home during his long illness. “Some days he probably didn’t know we were there, but at other times when the Orville Henry stories were flying, or stories about the old days in boxing or baseball, he would laugh and give one-word answers and jokes.”

For all Bailey achieved in journalism and all his lessons over the decades, Stephens most cherishes those moments of fellowship with Bailey and other journalists. “It just spoke volumes all these people loved him enough to make visiting a regular part of their lives, right up to the end.”

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