"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Mann, Oh Mann

Jack Mann appreciation continues with three pieces by his colleagues. Please enjoy these memories of Mann from John Schulian, Tom Callahan and Dave McKenna.

Unvarnished Mann

By John Schulian

In the world according to Jack Mann, if a ballplayer dragged his private parts over the post-game spread while reaching for the mustard, a sports writer damn well better file it away for future use. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to re-create the scene for a family newspaper, but he could certainly offer some well-crafted hints. In fact Jack insisted on it when he was a visionary sports editor at Newsday because he would have done no less were he writing the story himself. He was, after all, a slave to the truth no matter how discomfiting.

Not everybody appreciated it. To this day, there are those who recoil at the sound of his name before recovering to rail profanely about his parentage, fondness for the grape, and well-worn mean streak. Jack was, in his time, the most complicated and divisive figure in sportswriting this side of Mark Kram and Dick Young. You either loved him or hated him, and if you loved him, there were still going to be times when you wondered why the hell he did some of the things he did.

Of course the legend occasionally got in the way of the facts. Jack may have thrown a tray of type out a window at the Washington Daily News, for instance, or it may have been his boss, Dave Burgin, who did the honors. God knows they were both capable of it in the days when they were making the sports section in that abysmal tabloid the liveliest reading in town. Or maybe the incident never happened at all.

What I can guarantee did happen was Jack’s constant and very public humiliation of Shirley Povich, the icon who anchored the Washington Post’s sports page for 70 years. Shirley was every bit as gracious and gentlemanly as Red Smith, and a fine writer, too, but by the early 1970s, his reportorial legs were gone and his column showed it. He covered more and more games by watching them on TV. Even the Redskins, who become more important than the White House during the NFL season, couldn’t get him off his couch. Jack smelled blood and went for the kill, parodying Shirley’s style (“The way it came across on Channel 9”) and sneeringly referring to the Post by its advertising slogan (“Over at ‘Quoted, Honored and Consulted’”).

It was not for nothing then that the Post never hired Jack full-time after the Daily News and his subsequent employer, the Washington Star, went belly up. To tell the truth, I was surprised he got so much as a freelance assignment at the Post, but when Casey Stengel died, there was that byline – Jack Mann – on the front of the next day’s sports page. I doubt the old Professor got a better sendoff. And there would be more pieces by Jack, not a lot of them but enough to keep his name alive. I still wonder how hard George Solomon, who was then settling into his job as the Post’s sports editor, had to fight for Jack. But they had worked together at the Daily News, and George understood just how good Jack was.

To read his prose was to get a sense of the man at the typewriter. It was blunt, no-nonsense, and it could, on certain occasions, feel like a punch in the mouth. And yet, while lyricism wasn’t his game, he wove enough literary allusions into his work to let readers in on the fact that he knew Hester Prynne wasn’t a baseball Annie from Boston.

Somehow, probably out of sheer orneriness, Jack was an even better reporter than he was a writer. He proved it forevermore when he hired on at the New York Herald Tribune and found himself on the horse racing beat. Looking back, you might say he was simply part of the Trib’s grand tradition of turf writers. Joe Palmer preceded him and Pete Axthelm followed him. One problem, though: Jack didn’t know one end of a horse from the other when he got the job. But he showed up early, stayed late, and asked the right questions. By the time I saw him in the barns at Churchill Downs, drinking a 7 a.m. beer with Spectacular Bid’s trainer, he knew as much as anybody and what he didn’t know he would bust a gut trying to find out.

That same dogged intelligence was what drove Jack to become, at Newsday, one of the architects of the sports-page revolution in the 1960s, hiring bright young men and savvy old codgers and telling them to turn the clichés upside down. You don’t do something that bold, however, without stepping on toes, and Jack brought his foot down hard almost willfully, maybe even perversely.

It happened everywhere he went – New York, Detroit, Miami, Washington, Baltimore – and it cost him job after job. He didn’t even last two years at Sports Illustrated, which was where I first read him. But he made me a fan for life with his crackling good profile of Bill Bradley at Oxford, and as a fan I felt an obligation to find about more about him. Impressionable lad that I was, I thought there was a certain romance to his prickliness and the way he bounced from one paper to another.

I was starting to move around a bit myself when I landed at the Washington Post in 1975. I put in my time on the Redskins and the NBA Bullets, made my mark with features, and then George Solomon dispatched me to write a column about the Touchdown Club’s annual Christmas bash. What I said about those smug, sloppy, powerful drunks was hardly in the spirit of the season. But Don Newcombe, the former Dodgers pitcher and a recovering alcoholic, wrote a letter to the editor praising my column, and Jack dropped me a note of congratulations tempered by his own experience. “I have seen the Shriners,” he said, “and they are the fucking worst.”

A few weeks later, after I had written him back to say thanks, I spied a visitor to the sports department, fiftyish, not real tall and a bit disheveled, with a wry smile and eyes that bored into you from beneath jutting brows. “Jack Mann?” I said. “I’m John Schulian.”

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “We write letters to each other.”

For reasons I never quite fathomed, we were friends, or at least friendly, ever after. We talked when our paths crossed, traded thoughts on writers and athletes, shared the occasional pre-game meal. I received only one invitation to go drinking with him and turned it down because I don’t believe in pro-ams that involve alcohol. The next day he showed up in the press box bruised and abraded. He said he’d gotten in a bar fight with some Marines who were less than half his age and most assuredly didn’t realize that they were putting dents in someone who had been a Marine himself in World War II. “You were a Marine, weren’t you?” he asked me. When I told him I wasn’t, I don’t think he ever looked at me the same way again. But he wouldn’t have been Jack Mann if he had.

John Schulian is the co-editor of “At the Fights.” His next collection of sports stories, “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us,” will be published this fall.


Mann in Charge

By Tom Callahan

Someday I’ll pass by the great gates of gold,
And a man will walk in, unquestioned and bold.
“A saint?” I’ll ask, and old Peter will reply:
“No, he carries a pass. He’s a newspaper guy.”

-a favorite jingle of Jack Mann, who was sentimental about absolutely nothing except newspapers

In fedora days, sportswriters wholeheartedly embraced only four games: baseball, college football, boxing and horse racing. Like most of the papers, like all of the writers, the last two are dying out now.

At dinner on the road, neither the beatmen nor the columnists said much about sports. They stuck to one topic of conversation: newspapers. It was the only thing any of them really cared about. Which starts to describe Jack Mann, who, even when he was serving magazines (even when he was serving drinks on Fire Island), was emphatically a newspaper guy.

As a matter of fact, he was a legend in the trade, probably the best writer better known as a talent scout and blue pencil editor since Stanley Woodward or at least George Kiseda.

For Newsday on Long Island, Mann gathered fresh reporters in several senses of the word fresh and showed every one of them how to squeeze a pound and a half of gee-willikers out of their stuff. A renowned headline writer, Jack regularly lent himself to the copy desk for marking special occasions such as when George/Christine Jorgensen “Returned From Abroad A Broad.”

Because Mann kept telling bosses to go fuck themselves, he was obliged to move around a lot. In 1979, Jack found himself in Washington for the afternoon Star covering the hell out of Baltimore trainer Bud Delp, minor-league jockey Ronnie Franklin and Triple Crown candidate Spectacular Bid. Mann literally rode in the van with the horse. He hated the word literally.

After winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in a walk, The Bid got an overwrought ride even for Franklin and finished third at Belmont Park. The alibi was that he had stepped on a safety pin in his stall. “Leave it to Delp,” Mann said, “to find the needle in the haystack.”

Secretariat’s sire was Bold Ruler, Spectacular Bid’s grandsire. So it made a kind of sense for The Bid to stand at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky. But did he have to stand right next to Secretariat? In abutting two-acre paddocks, they raced back and forth at the fence line. Though six years older, Secretariat never once let the gray colt win. Bid turned completely white except for a black mane and tail. He was gorgeous. But he was no world-beater at stud. Disappointment is hard on the heart.

His fee that had started at $150,000 per live foal dropped, and dropped again. He was moved to less and less exalted places on the property, eventually all the way to Unadilla, New York, where he died dispensing favors at $3,500 a throw.

“He wasn’t Affirmed,” Mann said, “let alone Secretariat. And I guess he could never look you in the eye around the breeding shed. But he was a hell of a sweet horse to me, the son of a bitch.”

Tom Callahan is the author of many books including “Johnny U: The Life and Times of Johnny Unites,” and “The Bases Were Loaded (And So Was I): Up Close and Personal With the Greatest Names in Sports.”


A Difficult Mann

By Dave McKenna

I used to write about horse racing as a freelancer at a very low level in the late 1990s, so I got to watch Jack at the Maryland tracks for his last several years of typing. Everywhere you look at the racetrack you see people you won’t see anywhere but the racetrack, but even in that glorious circus Jack stood out. He was mean as a motherfucker to me, but it never bothered me because he was mean as a motherfucker to everybody except young women. He would make a wisecrack every time he walked by me, and it always took several minutes for me to get what the hell he was insulting me for this time. Often it turned out that he’d read something I’d written and his wisecrack was destroying some lousy sentence or misused word that showed up under my byline. I don’t remember many specific walk-by barbs, but they were all along the lines of “What sort of fool would say ‘prior to’ instead of ‘before’?” then I’d remember that a week prior to him mumbling that I’d typed “prior to” in a story.

Jack surely didn’t like that I wasn’t as committed to words as he was. Hell, Webster’s took a backseat to him, maybe that’s why he was so pissed at the world. but, over time, watching how much he cared about his work, and how hard he worked,you had to love the guy. and even if you didn’t know his back story, you knew there wasn’t anybody like him. In small doses, he was totally unbearable. But you can’t ask more of a grown man than consistency, and pretty quick you could tell how straight he was. He took motherfuckerhood to a genius level; kinda like Van Morrison on stage, if you’ve ever had the painful pleasure of seeing him live.

I still think about him all the time, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

Damn, I just had a flashback of that look of disgust he always gave me. What a lucky bastard I was to be around that guy for all those years of Saturdays.

Dave McKenna writes for Washington City Paper and is getting sued by Dan Snyder for a million dollars.

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