A Vanishing Art
By John Schulian
Somewhere along the line, human beings went out of fashion in America’s sports pages. You wouldn’t think it was possible, given that flesh-and-blood people play our games, but the tastemakers have deemed statistics and cockeyed opinion more important. There are exceptions, of course, like Joe Posnanski when he was pounding out a humanity-infused daily column that would have been a treasure in any era. And there are others who would love to craft character sketches and mood pieces, but realize that won’t put any biscuits on their table. And then there are the glory seekers who latch onto people only when they have a sob story to tell, because sob stories win prizes. But all the prizes tell me is that the writers who chase them so shamelessly are manipulative at best, hypocritical at worst. Forgotten are the small dramas that are played out every day in sports, and the people who inhabit them, and the artistic impulses they stir.
Over lunch, a friend who has just finished writing a non-fiction book about a boxer tells me he used a column of mine from 1980 as part of his research. The column opened with someone describing Joe Frazier’s manager, Yank Durham, in full flower as a hard ass. Frazier was about to fight Ron Stander, whom he could have beaten blindfolded, but Durham bitched loud and long about some TV lights he said were part of a plot to blind Smokin’ Joe. The people televising the fight pleaded innocent, but Durham refused to believe them. “That’s it,” he said. “We ain’t fightin’.” The TV people went into shock. So, for that matter, did Frazier. But Durham didn’t let up until the lights were taken down. That was how boxing worked then, and that’s how it works now. The guy with the biggest balls wins.
“Great column,” my friend said, “but you couldn’t write it today.”
I couldn’t write it because I used the tools of fiction – character, dialogue, dramatic tension – to depict a hard man in a hard business. I couldn’t write it because I populated the column with human beings, and I didn’t pass judgment on them. It was up to the reader to choose between Yank Durham and the TV people. I thought it was permissible for a columnist to do that. What did I know?
Let me tell you what else I couldn’t write today. Once in a great while, I would do a column about duende, an Andalusian word that is best defined by example: Willie Mays had duende, Henry Aaron didn’t; the Rolling Stones had it, the Beatles didn’t. I was borrowing shamelessly from the late George Frazier, an eccentric general interest columnist who made his last stand at the Boston Globe with a red carnation in the lapel of his Brooks Brothers suit and a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald for every situation. I was following in the tradition that inspired many another columnist to borrow Jimmy Cannon’s pet gimmick, “Nobody asked me, but . . . ” You didn’t think Mike Lupica came up with “Shooting from the Lip” by himself, did you? He and I were indulging in what Hollywood likes to call “an homage” because it sounds so much better than “theft.”
Whatever, I had a fine time passing myself off as an arbiter of style in my duende columns. In fact, I would encourage today’s columnists to do the same, but my friend Randy Harvey, once an intrepid sports writer and now one of the top editors at the L.A. Times, says duende wouldn’t fly. The wounded look on my face when I hear his verdict seems to touch something deep inside him, though. “Okay,” Randy says, “I’d let you write duende once a week if your other three columns were on the Lakers.” Call me an ingrate, but that still doesn’t sound like such a great deal.
I’m the product of an era when a sports columnist was pretty much left to his own devices. Sometimes the news dictated what I wrote about, and sometimes there were subjects that just couldn’t be ignored whether I was interested in them or not. But the rest of the time, my column reflected who I was, for better or worse. When I wrote a sad one, it was because the subject touched my inner blues man. When I did a rip job, I was putting my mean streak on display. But never was I so infatuated with myself that I thought readers wanted a dose of my opinions every day. They were smart enough to figure out where I was coming from personally and politically without my beating them about the head and shoulders with the first person.
More than anything else, I wanted to write about the human condition, good or bad, happy or sad. The fact that the people I wrote about wore uniforms, had their names in headlines, and cashed big paychecks for their labors was mere coincidence. The important thing was to let my readers know that their heroes were people, too, not the remote gods who dwell in the parallel universe that exists today.
One of the beautiful things about newspaper work is that you never know whom you’re reaching, or what your words mean to them. There are letters to the editor and angry phone calls, of course, but there are also the personal notes that become small treasures. And one night at the Chicago Sun-Times, I heard the highest praise I ever received. It came from the cleaning lady who swept the floor and emptied the wastebaskets in the sports department. She had a bad eye and a balky hip that crabbed her stride, and she was there the day I started at the paper and probably long after I left it. I’d say hello to her, but I never wondered whether she read the paper or, if she did, made it as far as the sports section. But when she reached my corner of the office that night, she looked at me and said, “You got a lot of soul.”
I know I thanked her more than once. Other than that, everything is a blank. I’m only guessing when I say I think she liked a column I had written about Johnny Bratton, a former welterweight champion who was living on the street. But maybe the subject isn’t as important as the fact that this woman had seen something in my work that had nothing to do with winners and losers and everything to do with the forces that drove me.
Still, there were times I wasn’t aware of just how much of myself I was revealing in print. I’m thinking of one column in particular, written in 1983 about regrets and missed opportunities. It opened with my musings on the White Sox, who were very good that year, as I drove home from Wisconsin on a rainy late-summer night, and then it veered into personal territory I rarely visited. By the time I finished writing, I had quoted William Blake and Tom T. Hall and pretty much revealed myself to be a ball of confusion. I could feel the first rumblings of profound changes in my life, and change was a stranger to me.
A few days later, I ran into a documentary maker named Ken Solarz and the first thing he said was, “Man, you were really hurting.” Though he and I would later arrive in Hollywood at about the same time and become great friends, I barely knew Kenny then. But he was very perceptive. I was hurting. And it would only get worse.
Excellent cliff hanger!
I can't think of a single newspaper columnist I read these days, in print or online. But in addition to Joe Pos, there are a lot of guys who write primarily online who do focus on the people (though they do inject quite a bit of stats/objectivity): Jeff Passan, Tim Marchman, and Michael Weinraub come immediately to mind, but they aren't the only ones.
Thus, Mr. Schulian's point stands - you would (almost) never find that kind of writing in actual sports newsprint.
I have only read a few things by Passan but hear great things about his work.