The Book of Dreams
By John Schulian
The stars were beginning to align for me even before I headed to Nashville in early 1974. The previous fall, I’d sold my first story to Sports Illustrated, and it ran a month after I scribbled my last notes at the Grand Ole Opry. The story was about a promoter in Baltimore who put on fights at Steelworkers Hall and ran a gym that was above a strip joint on the Block. I don’t think the guy could have existed anywhere else. The smell of the sausages at Polock Johnny’s across the street drifted into the gym when the windows were open. You could feel the music downstairs coming through the floor. The promoter’s best fighter kept getting the clap from the dancers. And I thought I captured it all perfectly. A fat lot I knew.
I wasn’t given to asking other people their opinion of my work, but this time a voice in my head said I’d better stash my pride. If I screwed up the story, I might never get another shot at SI. So I took my deathless prose to an editor in the Evening Sun’s business department and asked him to read it. He wasn’t a close friend and his conversation usually had an edge to it, but I trusted him to be unsparing. And he was. When he walked up with his verdict, there was a wary little half-smile on his face. “If I was you,” he said, “I’d hit me with a sack of snot for what I’m going to say.” In short, the piece was good enough for the Evening Sun and most any other newspaper, but it wasn’t good enough for Sports Illustrated.
I spent the next couple of nights tearing it apart, reworking the structure and figuring out new transitions. I knew I had a winner as soon as I wrote my first sentence: “Baltimore is a gritty old strumpet of a city where unwritten sociological imperatives require a boxing arena to have Polish bakeries on one side, steel mills on another, and redneck bars all around.”
SI called the story “On the Block — Way of All Flesh,” and it wound up in the old “Best Sports Stories” anthology and put my name in bright lights. Tony Kornheiser told me years later that when he read the piece, he knew there was a new gun in town. He wanted to work at SI as badly as I did, and there were hundreds of other writers out there who had the same dream. SI was the holy grail.
Getting in “Best Sports Stories 1975″ was the first time I felt like I’d really accomplished something professionally. I’d been fascinated with the anthology since I discovered it at Northwestern, mainly because it showcased the kind of writing I wanted to do. There were always big names like Red Smith and Jimmmy Cannon in the book, but the ones who captured my attention were writers from places other than New York who were doing great things: Myron Cope in Pittsburgh, Sandy Grady in Philadelphia, Wells Twombly in Houston and Detroit and San Francisco, even a young Philly basketball writer named Joe McGinniss, who went on to write “The Selling of the President” after he infiltrated Nixon’s 1972 campaign.
When the Evening Sun made me a one-man bureau in Harford County, I checked the public library there and found an even better collection of the “Best Sports Stories” anthologies than Northwestern’s. Every now and then, I’d slip down to the library and grab one. And I wasn’t just reading the stories. I was reading the bios of the authors who wrote them. I wanted to see where they came from and if the path I was on bore any resemblance to the one they had traveled. As soon as my story about the fight promoter ran in SI, I knew I was going to submit it to “Best Sports Stories.” I found out I’d made the book when a copy landed on the front porch of my $155-a-month furnished apartment. I was thrilled, naturally, but there was more to what I was feeling than that. I felt like I’d finally done something that would last longer than a day, something with permanence. Hell, my story was in a book.
It wasn’t that much longer before there was a year when “Best Sports Stories” didn’t come out. The editors had gotten old and one of them had died, and nobody had stepped forward to replace them. I wrote an essay for Inside Sports in which I said goodbye and, lo and behold, someone at the Sporting News read it and jumped in to bring the anthology back to life. It’s long gone now, of course, replaced by Glenn Stout’s more sophisticated and vastly superior “Best American Sports Writing” series, but I’m glad I got to do “Best Sports Stories” a good turn. I owed it.
[Illustrations by David Noyes]