The Job, Chicago Style
By John Schulian
The best advice I ever got about business came from my old baseball coach, Pete Radulovich: “Nobody plays for free.” My lawyer passed Pete’s wisdom along to the brass at the Sun-Times when the New York Times was courting me, and the next thing I knew, I got a raise and a deal with Universal Press Syndicate, which had made a fortune with “Doonesbury” and a host of other wildly successful comic strips. Funny how a little leverage works, isn’t it?
Close to 100 papers bought my column at one point, some because they actually used it, like the Atlanta Journal and Miami News. The talent-rich Boston Globe, on the other hand, bought it just to keep it out of the Boston Herald’s hands. Whatever their motivation, those big city papers all paid a decent buck. It was the small papers, however, the ones in Iowa and Louisiana, that relied on me most heavily for a national voice, even though they paid only a couple of dollars a week. But I stopped worrying about the price when John Ed Bradley, that most poetic of sports writers, told me his father used to cut my column out of his hometown paper and mail it to him at LSU.
With syndication, I was traveling the same road that Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, and Jim Murray had before me. That was an honor in itself, but Universal Press made things even better by publishing my first book, “Writers’ Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists.” It’s a collection of my boxing writing that came out in 1983 and has achieved what is best described as cult status. God knows it was never a big seller, but there are still people who speak of it fondly, not just old goats of my vintage but young writers and fight fans who stumble upon it. I’m not sure it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with any book by Hugh McIlvanney, the superb British boxing writer, but I’m still grateful that people haven’t used it for kindling.
For all this talk about the fruits of being a columnist, it’s high time I said a something about the job itself. At the Sun-Times I wrote four a week–Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. They ran 1,000 words apiece, which was standard for my generation but looks like literary abuse compared to the three that today’s columnists get by with. Of course the old-timers thought guys like me were pansies because they had written as many as seven a week. Red Smith, when he worked for the Philadelphia Record, even covered a beat in addition to writing his column. And then there was Arthur Daley of the New York Times, who was writing seven when his editor cut his load to six. Instead of celebrating, Daley thought his boss didn’t like him anymore.
Whether you’re doing seven columns a week or three, it’s still tough to do them right. Anybody can fill space, whether it’s an overmatched kid or an old hack running on Jack Daniels fumes. But if you really care about the craft right down to the last syllable, you inevitably wind up feeling like you’re married to a nymphomaniac: as soon as you’re finished, you’ve got to start again. For all the joy that attends a column you get right, whether it’s funny or sad or angry, you’re still staring into a black hole when you wonder what you’re going to do for an encore. There were times I started worrying before I finished the column I was working on. Other than that, it was the best job on the paper.
I’ve always felt lucky that I worked in Chicago, which, in addition to being a great city, overflowed with sports to write about, professional and college. The National League was on the North Side, the American on the South. I could write about the Bears any time of year. I could have done the same with Michael Jordan, but I was gone by the time he arrived. The best I could do in basketball was DePaul, which had a great run in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Talk about an embarrassment of riches. Better yet, most of the time I was there, the teams were terrible-–and terrible teams are a hell of a lot more fun to write about than good teams. When a team is good or, worse, great, most everybody connected with it turns secretive. They don’t want to run their mouths for fear the fates smite them. But when a team is bad, the fear is gone. Players start to reveal their true selves, whether they’re hilarious or soulful or complete assholes. There’s always something going on, always somebody running his mouth, always somebody begging to have his ears pinned back.
There isn’t a more reliable bunch of losers in all of sports than the Cubs. And yet, in my Chicago years, they had a world-class right-hander in Rick Reuschel and a great reliever in Bruce Sutter and a batting champion in Bill Buckner, whose bad legs should have qualified him for handicapped parking and who was the bravest player I ever covered. Each was a good guy in his own way. Not the life of the party, by any stretch of the imagination, but honest and insightful and professional in surroundings that would have turned lesser men into drooling loonies. There was one year when, miraculously, the Cubs were still in the pennant race on September 1 and Buckner came to Wrigley all fired up for a game he thought would sell the old joint out. Instead, it was almost empty. “It’s like they turn the lights out every August 31st,” he said. He deserved better. They all did.
No, let me amend that. There were exceptions. There were those Cubs who were such chowderheads that they were like batting-practice fastballs for a columnist. The biggest one of all was Dave Kingman. Of course you couldn’t say much bad about him the year he hit 48 homers, but he showed what a wasted blob of protoplasm he was when he spent most of the next season lolling on the disabled list. He’d come in early in the morning for treatment on whatever his injury was, but he wouldn’t hang around to watch the game, ever. One day, one of the team’s good guys pulled me aside and told me Kingman was hustling jet skis at a big summer blowout called ChicagoFest when he should have been at the ballpark. I did my due diligence as a reporter and then ripped him as a feckless, narcissistic slug. I thought he’d try to strangle me the next time our paths crossed, but he didn’t say a thing. He just looked scary, the way he always did: 6-foot-6, with a permanent Charles Whitman stare.
Herman Franks did two tours as the Cubs’ manager while I worked in Chicago. It’s hard to believe a bigger lout ever darkened baseball. Some days his greatest joy in life seemed to be throwing his dirty laundry at the clubhouse man and telling him, “Get the brown out, Jap.” The clubhouse man was, as you probably guessed, Japanese.
To say Herman was an uninspired manager would be understatement. He consistently made a bad team worse, and when I kept calling him on it in print, he whined to friends back home in Salt Lake City. That’s right. We came from the same town. We even went to the same high school, albeit 30 years apart. “Get this goddamned Schulian off my back,” Herman begged a friend with whom he had played CYO ball. Not a chance. Herman was just too much fun to write about. There was, for instance, the day he said the difference between Jose Cardenal, who’d been traded from the Cubs, and Greg Luzinski was the difference between ice cream and horseshit. I seized the moment and wrote that the difference between Cardenal and Herman was the difference between ice cream and, taking my readers’ sensitivities into consideration, horse manure. The next time I was beside the batting cage at Wrigley, Herman challenged me to a fight. When he saw that I couldn’t stop laughing, he stomped away.
I wasn’t wild about George Halas, either. Forget the Monsters of the Midway and the Decatur Staleys and the running board of the car that he and the NFL’s other original owner posed beside. All of that was real, but it became part of a mythology that served Halas as a protective shield. He was about 1,000 years old when I worked in Chicago, and he could give you an E.T. smile that was supposed to pass for charm, but underneath it all, he was still a tightwad and a mean SOB. For years he employed a team physician who did nothing but screw up players’ knees. Big name players like Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus. I always wondered about Halas’s feelings about race, too. He was, if I recall correctly, the next-to-last NFL owner to integrate his team. And even at the end of his reign, he publicly tortured Neil Armstrong, an eminently decent man who happened to be a less than wonderful head coach. I’m not sure Halas a word of what I said about him, but it still felt good to tee off on the old bastard.
All things considered, I’d rather be remembered for the work I did that wasn’t the product of outrage–the magazine pieces about Josh Gibson and Chuck Bednarik and the old Pacific Coast League, the newspaper columns about Muhammad Ali and Pete Maravich and a high school basketball star named Ben Wilson whose dreams were canceled by a stranger with a gun. But raising hell was part of the job, too, and I did my share of it. Maybe I even liked it too much. I remember Mike Royko telling me there’s no sense in peeling a grape with an ax. Sometimes I forgot to heed his advice. But other times the grape deserved the ax.
Unquestionably the toughest column I ever wrote was about Quentin Dailey, a basketball player the Bulls shouldn’t have drafted. He’d terrorized a student nurse at the University of San Francisco. Didn’t rape her, mind you. But left her with bad dreams that still may not have gone away. The Bulls drafted him No. 1 in 1982, and I went to the press conference where they introduced him. I was the only one there who asked if he had had any regrets, was getting any counseling, was doing anything positive to make amends for the harm he had done. And he turned out to be utterly unrepentant. I went back to the paper and wrote the harshest column I could. It might be the harshest column I’ve ever seen by anyone. Then I waited to see what would happen.
There were calls and letters that accused me of being a racist, lots of them. But there was also an invitation to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s show as a defender of women. I accepted, of course. NOW thanked me and started making plans to picket the Bulls’ games. Reggie Jackson called and said he’d paid for Dailey’s lawyer because his niece had been going out with Dailey. Bill Veeck called and said he wanted me to know he was in my corner. Best of all, my wife said she was proud of me.
Still, it felt like I was breathing thin air, maybe having an out-of-body experience. I felt terribly self-conscious. It wasn’t like seeing my face in an ad on the side of a bus, and it wasn’t like my wife nudging me in a restaurant and saying, “Those people over there recognize you.” It was disconcerting. When I walked to a courthouse a few blocks from the Sun-Times to take care of a ticket-–I’d raced a stoplight and lost-–I couldn’t help wondering if some cop was going to get in my face and call me a racist motherfucker. And if I would have the stones to hold my ground and say that race had nothing to do with what I wrote. It never happened, though. Life went on, the way it usually does.