The Sun-Times Also Rises
By John Schulian
I forget how far in advance we knew the Daily News was going under. A month, six weeks, it couldn’t have been more than that. The publisher, Marshall Field IV, climbed up on a desk in the city room, gathered the troops around him, and broke the bad news.I was on the road, hearing everything second-hand. By the time I got back, everybody was scrambling. Some Daily News people were just moving down the hall to the Sun-Times. The others were left to their own devices.
The one big-name defection to the Tribune was Bob Greene, who had been a cityside columnist at the Sun-Times pretty much since the day he got out of Northwestern. And a damn good one, too. Inspired by Breslin, of course, and yet very much his own guy, great instincts, irreverent, a lively writer. I remember a column he did about a trial where this kid who’d been shot down in the street was close to death and the jury went to the hospital to listen to him testify. It was a stunning piece of work. And Greene wrote books too, not just collections of his newspaper stuff but one about covering a presidential campaign and another about touring with Alice Cooper. But by the time I got to Chicago, it was as though aliens had seized control of his brain. He’d lost his edge and turned precious and cloying. And he was barely 30. To compound Greene’s problems, Royko hated him as only Royko could. The kindest thing I ever heard Mike call him was a “ dirty little shit.” Obviously, the idea of their working shoulder to shoulder wasn’t going to fly. So Greene jumped to the Trib and took at least one friend from the Sun-Times with him.
There may have been other defections, but the mass exodus wouldn’t come until Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times six years later. In 1978, there was a different mindset entirely. Whether you worked for the Sun-Times or the Daily News, your first thought was “Beat the Tribune.” Those of us who came from the Daily News thought we were better than either the Trib or the Sun-Times. If the Sun-Times had been the p.m. paper and the Daily News the a.m., we firmly believed the Daily News would have been the one that survived.
Even today, if you ask Daily News people who moved to the Sun-Times, they’ll tell you their hearts still belong to the Daily News. And it’s been gone for 33 years. Not surprisingly, there were Sun-Times people who despised the newcomers from the Daily News. That was the way it should have been, too. Hell, the papers had been at war for decades. Why make nice now?
The merger, as it was euphemistically known, worked pretty much swimmingly in sports. The guys from the Sun-Times were great, especially Ron Rapoport, a very smart, lively columnist with a well-developed social conscience, and Randy Harvey, who could do anything and do it well. Combined with Mike Downey, Phil Hersh, Ray Sons (who’d gone back to writing full time), Kevin Lamb, Brian Hewitt and me, that was a formidable staff. Not on a par with the Boston Globe or L.A. Times or the Philadelphia Daily News, but still a damn good read. Problem was, some of our best people quickly started moving on to stardom elsewhere. Downey became a columnist at the Detroit Free Press. Harvey jumped the New York Daily News’ experiment with an afternoon paper and our executive sports editor, Kerry Slagle, headed for Inside Sports. But Kerry’s replacement, Marty Kaiser, turned out to be a masterful editor, and the staff, even depleted, was one to be proud of.
The joker in the deck was a Sun-Times sports columnist named Bill Gleason, a professional South Sider who got it in his head that he hated Royko and me more than anybody else on the planet. I heard that Gleason had even taken the cigar out of his mouth long enough to walk into the city room and announce that he wanted to punch out Royko. Mike thought that was hilarious. I don’t think he would have minded tangling with Gleason. As for me, I didn’t know how Gleason felt until the Daily News was in its final days and I ran into him at O’Hare. I said I was looking forward to putting out a great sports section at the Sun-Times, and he started running his mouth about how I tried to get him fired. Believe me when I say I never tried to get him fired. I never tried to get anyone fired. A newspaper guy’s life is hard enough under the best of circumstances. We’re all in it together. But from that moment forward, I never spoke another word to Gleason.
Our feud, if that’s what it was, created some complications, of course. The worst was during the 1978 World Series when we both wrote about the classic duel between Reggie Jackson and Bob Welch. If I’d been teamed with another columnist, we would have talked things over and gone in different directions. But Gleason and I just put on our blinders and wrote what was the story of the night. I didn’t realize the conflict between us had reared its head in such an obvious way until I talked to the office the next day. For what it’s worth, though, my column got big play and his was buried inside. And that’s the way it was going to stay no matter what the subject for the rest of my days at the Sun-Times.