Amazingly enough, the surgery was successful. They separated John Mooney's fingers from the keyboard this week. After 51 years and enough newspaper ink to reach from the Rose Bowl to the Orange Bowl, by way of Peru, the world's most prolific sports columnist wrote his last 30.

Not that anybody in the computer era still writes "30" anymore. But, then, there are a lot of things that changed in the past 51 years. Just about everything with the exception of Mooney. He began a sports writer and he ended a sports writer, and even now, at 75, he's having a hard time deciding what it is he's retiring from."It never seemed like work to me," he said this past week, minutes after his last-ever column appeared in the Dec. 31, 1990 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune.

They were going to give him a watch but he said he didn't want one. The one thing he won't miss is checking to see how many minutes are left until they start the presses without him.

Other than the elimination of deadlines, getting away from it all doesn't figure to be easy. John Mooney never met a day he didn't think deserved a column. It is highly possible, probably likely, that no man in the history of the english language has ever written so many sports columns.

He wrote columns through three wars, 10 presidents, 13 Olympiads, and numerous heavyweight champions of the world. He wrote his first column before they invented electric typewriters. He wrote his last column on a microchip.

He saw Arnold Palmer go past his prime - twice.

How many columns did John Mooney write? Enough to make Agatha Christie gasp. He started doing them full time in 1940 - when he was two years into his career as a professional sports writer - and didn't stop until last Monday. He called in sick a grand total of five times in over half a century, three of them in the past five years. He never stopped otherwise. When he'd go on vacation he'd still mail in columns, or write them ahead.

From 1940 through 1948, as the sports editor of the now defunct Salt Lake Telegram, he wrote six columns a week. From 1949 through 1951, as the sports editor of the Salt Lake Tribune, he wrote seven columns a week.

From 1952 through 1966, still with the Tribune, he wrote six columns a week.

From 1967 through 1985 he wrote five columns a week; from 1985 through 1988 he wrote four columns a week; and from 1989 through 1990 he wrote two columns a week, all for the Tribune.

The grand total: 13,686 sports columns.

At an average of 750 words per column, that's 10,264,500 words. And at an average of one column per two pages of a novel-sized book, that adds up to 91.5 300-page books.

If you add in the thousand or so football and basketball game stories he wrote, mostly on the University of Utah, and coverage of boxing, wrestling and ski jumps at the old Ecker Hill, you probably have another five million words.

There have been relatively few 15 million word careers in American journalism. Maybe none.

As for sports columnists in the 13,000-plus club, that's a rare fraternity as well.

(Personal aside: Being in the same occupation, I have a working knowledge, not to mention appreciation, of and for the above figures. The typical sports columnist in the U.S. writes four columns a week. I've been writing four a week for 12 years. To reach 13,000 columns I'd have to write straight for 57.2 more years).

And the really incredible part is that in all this prolificness, Mooney never learned how to type properly. He still doesn't know what home row is. But if he's on deadline he can bat out 750 words with two fingers faster than most legal secretaries can write a zip code.

Of all the 13,686 columns, the one Mooney remembers with the most fondness is one he wrote in the autumn of 1985, just after his wife, Betty, passed away.

"It came to me as I was returning home from the Kickoff Classic in New York," he says. "I scribbled my thoughts down in pencil."

His most memorable sports column is one he wrote prior to a Gene Fullmer-Carmen Basilio fight in San Francisco.

"It was a mood piece," he remembers. "People wrote in and said it sounded like something in Sports Illustrated. I didn't know if that was good or bad."

These two columns will no doubt be prominent in a book Mooney is now thinking of writing. The Tribune has given him an office upstairs. In it they have put a computer and a printer - the retirement gifts he asked for in lieu of the watch.

"I've never written a book," says the man who has written the equivalent of 91.5 books. "But I'll have plenty of time to try. It could be fun compiling the old columns, or I guess it could be overwhelming."

Only if they ask you to do it again.