"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Game Changer

Over at Grantland, there is a long, entertaining oral history piece compiled by Alex French and Howie Kahn on “The National,” Frank Deford’s influential, short-lived sports newspaper:

Peter Richmond (Main Event Writer): I had a Nieman fellowship at Harvard when I heard about The National. You’re obliged, if you get a Nieman, to go back to the newspaper you were working at. I worked at the Miami Herald as the national sports correspondent. I’d go to the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA Finals. I’d go to prize fights. I had a column. Then I got a free ride at Harvard for a year. In the middle of it, I had heard in the New York Daily News that Frank Deford was rounding up this all-star team for The National. I thought, “Oh my god. I’ve got to get there.”

Charles P. Pierce (Main Event Writer): As soon as I heard about it, I basically hurled myself out a window.

Frank Deford: What was my sales pitch like? It wasn’t a reach, and I wasn’t blowing smoke. I’d say, “This paper is going to be the first of its kind. We’ve got this extraordinary staff and we’ve got a lot of money behind it. Go look up anything you want about Emilio Azcárraga. He’s into this, and these sorts of things have worked all over the world, so why can’t they work in the United States? Then I’d pause and say, “I understand it’s risky. We all know this is new territory. But you’re a sports guy. Don’t you want to be part of this?”

Rob Fleder (Main Event Editor): Here was this great adventure and chance to invent something new. It was clear even before it started, and certainly long before it failed, that you were going to get one chance to try this in your life. This was as close to a frontier as we had.

Pierce: Rob Fleder, who was one of the original founding members of Rotisserie baseball, literally in the Rotisserie restaurant, had seen some of my stuff in New England Monthly. He called and said, “Would you like to come down and talk about this thing we have?” So I went down to New York. They didn’t even have real offices yet. They were in some space with pieces of paper hanging on the door.

For all their fine work, somebody at Grantland should have known how to spell Glenn Stout’s name. Otherwise, this is a terrific read.

And while you are at it, dig Charles Pierce’s memories of “The National”:

Oh, money. Yeah, wait. I should tell this story about money, first. In the spring of 1991, the last spring of our newspaper’s life, I got a call from New York. Mike Lupica was leaving the paper to return to the New York Daily News, a development that surprised approximately nobody. He was taking with him his “Shooting From The Lip” column, the three-dot bullet template invented by the great Jimmy Cannon and subsequently appropriated by almost everyone else in the history of newspapers, including, most notably, in USA Today by Larry — “If it’s Wheatena, I’m all in!” — King. The column had been running in The National every Friday, and it had developed an audience. They wanted to keep the idea under a different name, and someone had mentioned that I’d done a similar kind of thing when I was writing a column at the Boston Herald. So they asked me if I’d do it.

Of course, I told them, but I’d need more money to do it.

How much, they asked.

I had no idea, so I quoted them a figure that I thought probably indicated I was on mushrooms at the time.

They didn’t even blink.

You start this week, they said.

Fun stuff.


1 Shaun P.   ~  Jun 10, 2011 1:44 pm

I've been pleasantly impressed by Grantland so far. I hope it continues to be this high quality.

2 Alex Belth   ~  Jun 10, 2011 2:17 pm

They fixed the spelling error too.

3 William J.   ~  Jun 10, 2011 2:52 pm

I loved the National...was like a dream come true when it came out, even at what was a pretty hefty price.

Can't wait to read the piece at Grantland and check it the rest of the site.

4 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 10, 2011 3:19 pm

quote of the story so far:

For the first issue, we had New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Deford wanted a profile of Patrick Ewing for the New York edition, Jordan in Chicago, and Magic in L.A. Ostler did Magic. I did Jordan. Lupica refused to do Ewing. The quote was, "I don't do that." He did his column, but he didn't do anything else.

5 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 10, 2011 3:20 pm

wait no, nevermind...this one is better

Pierce: Legendarily, Lupica went home from the 1990 Final Four because he wasn't sitting at midcourt. They put him in the auxiliary press box and he couldn't stand it, and he went home.

6 William J.   ~  Jun 10, 2011 4:02 pm

Fascinating read, mostly because I can remember so vividly how much I looked forward to the National, and being disappointed when the candy store on my way home from school didn't have a copy. It's funny to think about how much turmoil was going on behind the scenes, while I devoured the content. In so many ways, the finished product was perfect for a sports fan.

Looking back, if they could have solved the distribution and production issues, the undertaking was actually ideal for the newspaper age. At the time, there simply was no way to get comprehensive sports coverage in print, or even on TV for that matter. That’s why I think WFAN was such a big success in New York. Radio was the only outlet giving you around the clock daily sports, unless you happened to be one of the lucky ones with cable TV.

Considering how low internet penetrations was at the time, and would be for another decade, I am not sure the National could have sustained itself in cyberspace. It seems as if ESPN has run with the National business plan for the last 5-10 years or so, especially most recently with the regional offshoots, but ironically, the increasing fragmentation of the web, thanks mostly to blogs, has made the concept of amassing talent and comprehensively covering all sports on a local and national level increasingly difficult.

I hadn’t read Grantland before, but will be sure to keep checking it out. One point, however, is it seems like more and more stories, which would be ideal for an expert feature writer, are instead being presented as “oral histories”. I am not sure which I like better. As fascinating as this account was, I can just imagine how captivating it would if distilled by a master storyteller.

7 OscarCharleston   ~  Jun 10, 2011 4:43 pm

So the final edition of the National hits the streets and is gone faster than a box of Krispy Kremes at a diet farm. It's barely 7 a.m. and I get shut out at every newsstand I can think of, which admittedly isn't very many in L.A. But then inspiration strikes. I swing by a convenience store in my neighborhood that hasn't opened yet and, sure enough, there's a stack of Nationals sitting outside the front door. They're trussed up with twine, but I manage to pull out three copies and stuff a $5 bill under the stack. Just as I'm about to make my getaway, the shopkeeper comes bounding out the door, screaming at me in a language that I believe is spoken only by terrorists.

The gist of what he's saying is that he wants his papers back so he can gouge collectors for $10 a pop. Or $20. Or whatever the final edition of this paper he's never read turns out to be worth. He lunges for my copies, but I jerk them away and begin scampering toward my car.

He follows me. I pick up the pace. He does, too. I go past my car because I don't want him doing something crazy like jumping on the hood while I'm putting the pedal to the metal. It's a good move, but it dawns on me that he may be faster than I am, and won't that be humiliating when he tackles me, yanks the papers from my grasp, and steps on my forehead as he marches away triumphantly? So I spin toward him, my eyes wide with terror and start pointing toward his shop.

"They're robbing you!" I shout.

He whirls, sees nothing, and turns back to me ready call me a liar.

"Dumbbell," I say, "they're already inside. Inside, understand? Like not standing around on the sidewalk?"

The message finally sinks in. "Unh" he says, and races back to battle with the thieves I've imagined.

He comes back out just in time to see me driving away. I want to hit him with a line I heard from Tony Kornheiser when he was talking about a basketball player using a great crossover dribble to blow by a defender. I want to say, "See you in church, sucker." But I'll save it for another day, because right now I'm really not in the mood. The National is dead.

8 Alex Belth   ~  Jun 10, 2011 4:47 pm

6) It's easier to do an oral history but sometimes it is just as effective as a bonus piece. I liked this one but agree, it would have been interesting to see what a writer would have done with the subject, especially since the subject is writers. That said, Pierce's companion memoir piece is good.

9 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 10, 2011 4:52 pm

I think in a case like this you may be best served by an oral history. 20 years out recollections of certain events differ and the oral history is a great way to get all the sides of the same story without layering it with extra prose...the John Feinstein cat story is an example.

10 glennstout   ~  Jun 10, 2011 5:30 pm

Im hapy to report PSEN's Landgrant reparred there spelling eros an apolojizzed.


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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver