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Bronx Banter Interview: George Vecsey

Posted By Alex Belth On June 23, 2011 @ 1:18 pm In 1: Featured,Bronx Banter,Bronx Banter Interviews,Links: Sportswriting,Magazine Writers,Newspapermen,Publications,Sports Illustrated,Sportswriting | Comments Disabled

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We’ve talked about Jack Mann a lot lately (here [1]and here [2]).

Mann was at Sports Illustrated for a brief time in the 1960s. Here is a sampling of his work:

“Just a Guy at Oxford” [3] (Bill Bradley)

“The Great Wall of Boston” [4] (The Green Monster)

“Sam, You Make the Ball too Small” [5] (Sam McDowell)

“The King of the Jungle” [6](Walter O’Malley)

[7]

George Vecsey, right, with his arm around the wonderful Ray Robinson

I recently exchanged e-mails with George Vecsey, the veteran columnist for the New York Times, who started his career at Newsday under Mann.

Here’s our chat. Enjoy:

 

Bronx Banter: When Jack Mann took over the Newsday sports department was he influenced by any sports editors that came before him? I’m thinking of someone like Stanley Woodward.

George Vecsey: I don’t know. He came up through the news department at Newsday, had some college, was well read, surely knew about sports editors, but was so much an outsider that I doubt he would consider himself an acolyte of anybody.

BB: How would you describe to young readers what the climate of the press box was like in 1960? And how did Mann and “his Chipmunks” differ from the older writers?

GV: Well, the dichotomy was not as clear as I guess we would like to have thought. It may have been a function of age. But Isaacs and Len Shecter of the Post and Larry Merchant of the Philly Daily News were not children, and were capable of thinking for themselves, with Jack only part of it. The Chipmunks were young and energetic and brash. The split was probably on the same generational lines of the Kennedy-Nixon election – new vs. old (politics excluded). Even in 1960, some of us (me at least) were anticipating the forces of the mid-60’s in style and music and attitude. But we all were pretty traditional, except in comparison to the older writers, who were often hooked into the free drinks of the press room and the party line of the clubs they covered, or so we thought. Sounds pretty simplistic, looking back.

BB: Who else writing for the New York papers in the early 60s were like-minded? I’m thinking specifically of Shecter at the Post. Who else was part of the new breed?

GV: Len Shecter, Isaacs, Merchant, of course. And Stan Hochman A lot of the younger guys were Chipmunks just because we chattered a lot, and hung out together. Looking back, it would be hard to put one label on me, Steve, Maury Allen, Vic Ziegel, Phil Pepe, Paul Zimmerman, Joe Donnelly, Joe Gergen. We (or at least I did) admired Dick Young, who was no Chipmunk, but I knew him through my dad when I was a little kid, and Dick was very gracious to me when I came along as a young writer. I was friendly with older guys like Harold Rosenthal (more acerbic than any of us) and Barney Kremenko (a kind man, a friend), and I learned a lot from Leonard Koppett, one of the great people of the business, and I adored Jimmy Cannon. I don’t know that Bob Lipsyte considered himself a Chipmunk, but he and I hung out a lot in those days, and his excellent early work as a sports columnist (in his first tour of duty, I emphasize) re-defined the genre. So it’s hard to define Chipmunk, at this late date. Every generation has its new look. When I came back to Sports in 1980, there was Jane Gross, Allen Abel, Michael Farber, Jane Leavy, Phil Hersh, all good pals of mine. New faces.

BB: And now, the climate is different from then.

GV: The one difference between then and now was that everybody talked in the press box. Talked about the game. Argued about politics. Bickered about where we were going to dinner. Nowadays, the kids are all hunched over their machines, with headsets on, tweeting and facebooking and blogging and goodness knows what else. Nobody talks in the press box. I miss arguments. I miss human contact. I think we had more fun than the Thumb Generation. But the output in the New York Times is really good, probably better than ever, which is what matters.


BB: What was Stan Isaacs like? He was older than you so-called Chipmunks. What kind of sensibility did he have?

GV: Stan is fully a decade older than me. He was very political, saw things through his own prism, his column “Out of Left Field” may have been the most apt title I have ever seen. Stan was/is an original, thought way out of the box, did stunts, and wrote about race and politics when most columnists were writing about “affable old managers” and the like. I learned so much from him, including not being shy about expressing a point of view, of being yourself. I was probably closer to Stan for a longer period – we are still often in touch. He was a great balance of giddiness and dead seriousness. He and his wife Bobbie have been role models for my adult life.

BB: What about Eddie Comerford?

GV: Eddie was a very smart and talented guy who was a mainstay of the earlier Newsday sports section, underachieving probably under the old management. Jack pretty much absconded with Eddie when the national side of Sports was created around 1959 or 1960. He brought out Eddie’s talent and courage. Eddie was an elegant writer and good copy editor. And I was not particularly nice to him. Not proud of it. When Jack got himself fired in 1962, they made Eddie sports editor, and I suggested we go on strike until they re-hired Jack. Needless to say, that did not happen. Eddie became a racing writer after he stopped being sports editor, and I used to see him at the track, and we were fine by then, inasmuch as I had grown up at least a little bit. What kind of editor – and writer – he was, you’d have to ask Jake and Stan. They worked with him longer.

BB: What kind of questions did Mann encourage you to ask the players and managers that weren’t generally asked?

GV: Jack’s point was, ask anything. It was a city side sensibility that did not transfer easily to the clubhouse, but he empowered us (me) by sending us off with orders to ask the right question. Why did such-and-such happen? I realized how much Jack had prepared me when I went from Sports to being an Appalachian correspondent and had to ask a guy what happened when his whole family was washed away by a flash flood in West Virginia. The man talked – because I asked the question directly, and respectfully, and it was important to know. Jack was my mentor on that stuff, in a sports setting. Once, presumably facetiously, Jack sent a guy out to cover the Knicks, a guy who normally did local sports, and knew everybody on Long Island but not New York City. Jack told him not to be afraid to ask the tough question, like when did you know you were horseshit? So our guy went into the locker room and asked Darrell Imhoff, a 6-11 bust of a white center in the age of Russell and Wilt and Embry, and the guy asked Imhoff, “When did you first know you were horseshit?” And the guy answered! As I recall, it was a longer version of, when he set foot in the NBA. But he didn’t kill our guy. We loved it, back in the office.

BB: Did he encourage you to write about race in sports or politics or even the business side of the games?

GV: Absolutely. We thought race and politics (Jackie Robinson, Robert Moses, Walter O’Malley) were major subjects, even after the Dodgers left and Robinson retired. Jack knew it was important to ask why there were not black managers and coaches, what players really thought about each other in the locker room, money and politics. I would say our reporting was probably rudimentary and kneejerk, but we were aware of stuff, and fearless.

BB: What were Mann’s best and worst qualities as an editor?

GV: He was very proud of being honest and independent. He looked at what he considered the crap in a lot of papers one could name and felt he could do better with a few good people. His worst quality was probably an instinct to proclaim his honesty and independence at the wrong times.

BB: Mann wasn’t at Newsday for long. Why was he fired?

GV: Summer of 1962 while I was on the road with the Mets, I heard he got fired. From what I understand, he challenged a managing editor – possibly about production issues rather than one freedom-of-the-press issue of what we could do or write. Couple of hard-heads. The publisher, the beloved Alicia Patterson, who was hands-on and savvy and liked Jack, happened to be away. As I understand it, Miss P felt she could not come back and countermand her managing editor. I suspect she was tempted. Her early death is the single biggest tragedy in the ongoing downfall of Newsday to something akin to a shopping circular under the Dolans.

BB: Even though he wasn’t there for a long time, was his influence felt even after he left?

GV: Hard to say. He certainly left people like me and Jacobson and Bob Sales and Bob Waters in place, and Dick Clemente, and a few others. We had learned a lot and been prodded and pushed. I probably imitated Jack for a long time, more than I should have. He had turned the Newsday sports section into a national force. We expected to go anywhere and do a big-time job, and we were arrogant about being better than the big-city staffs, and we were. That was Jack. He taught me a lot about standards, and asking questions, and being independent.

BB: Was Mann a funny guy?

GV: Yes, he loved telling stories of stuff that happened late at night with players and writers and other night people in dingy clubs and bars in Philly. And Pittsburgh etc. He loved baseball…talked the patois…the good arm, the bad hands, the red ass, etc. He loved telling stories about me. How I couldn’t hit a rubber ball with a stickball bat. How I lost my temper. How I tried to reform the office criminal. He claims to have heard me tell that guy, “You’re still a little prick, but that was a good story.” Or something like that. Jack thought it was hilarious over the years, and so did I. Most of the time he was pretty intense, to put it mildly.

BB: I know he bounced around a lot. Was he a good reporter and columnist?

GV: He did some great work at the Tribune, in Detroit, SI, I forget the sequence, but as I see it from a distance, ultimately he needed to go through a few more jobs before settling in DC. He was a bit unstable, if I am honest about it. He could be difficult. So I imagine he was a handful in the clubby world of SI back then. I wouldn’t know. He was essentially a newspaper guy, From me that is a compliment.

BB: Do you have a story that sums up the kind of guy Mann was?

GV: He didn’t let people get away with stuff. One Friday night, after a long night of high-school basketball, I was the last guy in the office, around 4 AM, just straightening up some records, etc. Jack came back from the Midway Bar and Grill in Garden City (closing time was flexible; Leo the Greek would lay out shots on the bar). Anyway, Jack came back with a colleague from news side, a very good athlete (we all played softball) who claimed to have batted against Whitey Ford in the Eastern League after WW II. Jack meticulously laid out the Spalding record guides for all those years and began thumbing through them. It was getting a little touchy in an office with a lot of spikes, scissors and gluepots lying around. Jack was not letting the guy off the hook. Finally, Jack said pointedly, “Maybe you played under an assumed name?” At that point, I did what I had to do. I told the guy to go home…and I made Jack sit there for another 10 minutes, and then I told him to go home. I was 21. He was my boss. That was Jack. Things were either right or they were wrong. We laughed about it for afterward. The Good Old Days. But they were. He was out of Dickens, more than any American writer. Or maybe he was Thomas Wolfe’s beloved older brother Ben, the sarcastic one in the beautiful final chapter of “Look Homeward Angel.” In the process, Jack saw something in me and promised to make something of me. So he is my boss for life, and he knew it. Whenever I saw him around the track, I hung out with him.

BB: You mentioned that you kept up with Mann in later years when you ran into each other at the race track. Do you know if he continued to follow your work? And did you ever lean on him for writing advice in those early days after he left Newsday?

GV: We kept it. I wouldn’t hear from him for a while…and then I’d get an envelope with that small, neat cursive script that evoked memories of the hand-crafted assignment chart at Newsday. Usually he would catch me in a grammatical or factual error, but more likely he would find me using the first person singular, which he abhorred. As a columnist, I had a hard time using it, but several editors told me that was the coming style – this was when sports columns were in vogue. Jack would circle the I and make a pungent comment in the margin. I thought I was better than the “fly on the wall” archness I associated with Red Smith and others. One time he found six or eight first person singulars in Andrew Beyers’ racing column. Circled them all, to prove his point. But he could detect some political or sporting mistake, and point it out to me. Editor for life.

 

You can buy Vecsey’s new book, “Stan Musial: An American Life,” here [8].


Article printed from Bronx Banter: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com

URL to article: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/2011/06/23/bronx-banter-interview-george-vecsey/

URLs in this post:

[1] here : http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/2011/06/07/the-yellow-pages-you-could-look-it-up/

[2] here: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/2011/06/15/mann-oh-mann-2/

[3] “Just a Guy at Oxford”: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1078183/index.htm

[4] “The Great Wall of Boston”: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1077374/index.htm

[5] “Sam, You Make the Ball too Small”: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1078568/index.htm

[6] “The King of the Jungle” : http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1078441/index.htm

[7] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/13-Ray-Robinson-and-Honoree-George-Vescey.jpg

[8] here: http://www.amazon.com/Stan-Musial-American-George-Vecsey/dp/0345517067

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