A Summons to Manhattan
By John Schulian
It’s startling to think of how much movement there was among sports writers in the 70s and 80s, especially when you consider the state of the business today, with everybody frozen in place, just glad to have a job. Dave Kindred took his column from Louisville to the Washington Post, Skip Bayless traded feature writing at the L.A. Times for a column at the Dallas Morning News, Bill Nack gave up his column at Newsday and became one of Sports Illustrated’s most venerated writers. I suppose it was inevitable that I would have my day in the barrel.
Oddly enough, it was the New York Times again, and this time I got a call from someone who really was the sports editor there, Le Anne Schreiber. She was the first woman to hold that job at a major American daily, and one of her first challenges, in 1979, was to find a successor to Red Smith. He was in his 70s but still wrote with the elegance and gentle wit that was his trademark. I remember in particular a column about morning at Saratoga, and how Mike Lupica and I instantly started quoting lines from it the next time we saw each other. Just the same, the Times wanted an heir apparent in house for the day Red crossed the finish line.
I went to New York to meet executive editor Abe Rosenthal and the paper’s other mucky-mucks, and they pumped me full of praise and told me my picture might one day be hanging on a wall filled with photographs of the paper’s Pulitzer prize winners. The job they were offering was a big step down from the one I had at the Sun-Times: one column a week and long features the rest of the time. When Red left the paper, I would be first in line to replace him as a four-times-a-week columnist. The money they were offering wasn’t what I was making in Chicago, either. But this was the New York Times. Better yet, this was a chance to claim a small piece of newspaper history by being the man who succeeded Red Smith.
I was married at the time, and my wife, Paula Ellis, wanted me to take the job. Not only would she have been closer to her family, in Bethesda, Maryland, she would have had more opportunities professionally. She was in the newspaper business, too-–very smart, very driven, with a glorious future ahead of her as an editor, publisher, and journalism foundation executive. I understood where Paula was coming from. I felt more than a little guilty, too, since I was giving far more of myself to my column than I was to being a husband. But I was the one whose career would be at risk if I went to the Times. I didn’t want to be sportswriting’s answer to George Selkirk, the poor soul who replaced Babe Ruth.
I thought about the Times’ sports section, which Tony Kornheiser, bless his heart, once compared with to Raquel Welch’s elbow. It seemed to be improving steadily. But no matter how brainy and talented Le Anne Schreiber was-–and, buddy, she had brains and talent in spades-–there was no guarantee that the section might not backslide into mediocrity. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure the Times would give me the freedom I enjoyed in Chicago. Rosenthal and Co. might have loved the character sketches I did, but some of my commentary got pretty rough. I don’t recall ever seeing a Times sports columnist peel the hide off someone the way I did.
So there was that. And there was the thought that people would think I was sitting around waiting for Red Smith to die. Worse, maybe Red would, too. And the money bothered me, even though it was only a couple grand shy of what the Sun-Times was paying me. And then there was New York itself, which was decidedly short on charm in that era, a point that was driven home every time I visited and saw the decay, poverty, and violence.
But I also heard the siren song of friends and colleagues who said the Times would give me the biggest soapbox in the business. There would be chances to write books that would never come my way in Chicago. Dave Anderson, a wonderful guy as well as a pro’s pro, called to say how much he was looking forward to working with me. Lupica told me he was looking forward to reading me regularly, although I suspect he really wanted to see if I was as slow a writer as he’d heard.
Long story short: everything was up in the air when I arrived for my final visit with Abe Rosenthal. He ushered me into a small sitting room off his office. It was the essence of plush–perfect furniture, exquisite Oriental rugs, pricey art on the walls. All together, it was probably worth more than my entire house in Chicago. I’m sure I gawked like the hoople I was.
Rosenthal offered me tea and I said no thanks. After some obligatory chitchat, I told him, nicely, that I wasn’t sure I would be comfortable perched on Red’s shoulder, waiting for him to finish his last stand. If I said no, would the Times come back to me when Red was gone? And Abe Rosenthal said, “John, the brass ring is coming around now. You better grab it.”
In that instant, I knew I wasn’t going to take the job. No way I was going to be told to take it or leave it. Some friends who heard the story later told me I was nuts to be offended, that Rosenthal had every right to put things in those terms. But grabbing his brass ring wasn’t my style.
I read later in the Village Voice that Frank Deford and Pete Axthelm had turned down the Times, too. That was good company to be in. And the guy who ultimately took the job was good company as well. Ira Berkow was a perfect fit at the Times–a thoroughly engaging writer who came at his column subjects from a unique angle and had a big heart for the underdog. What Ira wasn’t, of course, was Red Smith. He was Red’s biographer, and a damned good one, but that was as close as he was going to come.
I wouldn’t have been Red Smith, either. I would have tried mightily and I would have failed and I have no idea how I would have reacted, only that it wouldn’t have been pretty. One Red Smith is all you get. It was one of those basic truths that took a long time to sink in, but once it did, it made me gladder than ever that I said no to the Times. And when I tell you that I never second-guessed my decision, feel free to factor Red into the equation.