“Perhaps because he decamped to Hollywood in the 1980s, while he was still in his prime, John Schulian has never quite been recognized as one of the last in the great line of newspaper sports columnists that started with Ring Lardner, ran through W.C. Heinz and Red Smith, and probably ended when Joe Posnanski left the Kansas City Star in 2009. This is a shame. On his better days, he rated with anyone you might care to name.”
Tim Marchman on John Schulian’s latest collection, “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us.” (Wall Street Journal)
John Schulian has been entertaining us this year with the story of his career in “From Ali to Xena.” He has a new collection of sports writing out and we recently caught up to talk about it. Here’s our conversation.
BB: Your work has been collected twice before: “Writers’ Fighters,” a boxing compilation, and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” a collection of baseball writing. What was the genesis of your new anthology, which is both broader and more specific than those two?
JS: “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” was born of a mixture of ego and an urge to remind readers of the kind of sports writing they’re no longer getting in newspapers. What writer doesn’t want to have his work, at least that portion of it which isn’t embarrassingly bad, preserved in book form? I got my greatest lessons in writing by reading collections of my favorite sports writers—Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner—so having a collection with my name on it became a goal early on in my career. Because “Sometimes” is my third, I may have exceeded my limit, but I hope people will forgive me when they see that it’s wider in scope than “Writers’ Fighters” and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods.” I’m not just talking about the number of different sports it touches on, either. I’m talking about the personalities involved, and how open they were about themselves and their talents.
I realize, of course, how rare such accessibility is in today’s world, with athletes wary of any kind of media, protected by their agents, and generally paranoid about revealing anything about themselves except whether they hit a fastball or a slider. I think it was you who told me the change came about in the early ‘90s, which did a lot to shape this book. Suddenly, I knew how to make it more than a vanity project. The key was to make it stand as a tribute to the kind of sports writing that enriched newspapers when guys like Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica, David Israel, Leigh Montville, Bill Nack, Tony Kornheiser, Tom Boswell and I were turned loose with our portable typewriters. It was my great good fortune to work in an era so rich in talent, so full of talented people who were both my competition and my friends. Likewise, the athletes were there to talk to when you needed them. I know I didn’t always get the answers I wanted, but I got enough of them to give my columns and my magazine work the heartbeat they needed. It was a wonderful time to be a sports writer, and I hope “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” bears that out.
BB: I was struck by your piece on John Riggins in Super Bowl XVII. Your starting and closing image is the most famous one from that game. You didn’t get any special access that your peers didn’t have and yet within those limitations the piece is just so writerly. The kind you don’t see today. How were you able to condense a guy’s career into a single column?
JS: It was pure reflex. I forget how much time I had for post-game interviews, but it wasn’t much before I had to get back to my computer. I’m guessing I had an hour or so to write the column. There were some guys who routinely finished in less time than that, but for me, that was a sprint. I still wanted the column to be as stylish as possible. Sometimes that was my undoing, because I spent too much time massaging the language and not enough just saying what I wanted to say. With the Riggins column, though, things fell into place. I’d spent a lot of time around the Redskins during the regular season and into the playoffs, so I was pretty well steeped in his story. As for working with the same post-game material everybody else had, there was something liberating about that. No scoops, no exclusive interviews, just a good old-fashioned writing contest. When you get in a situation like that, if you can get your mind right, everything just flows. And that was certainly the case when I wrote about Riggins. I knew instantly where all the pieces of the puzzle were supposed to go—imagery, post-game quotes, back-story. Then my instincts took over, and I even made my deadline. What could be better than that?
BB: The majority of the stories in the collection were written for newspapers. Can you describe the atmosphere of that business in the post-Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein days when columnists were stars?
JS: The newspaper business became truly glamorous after Watergate. Robert Redford played Woodward, Dustin Hoffman played Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post’s executive editor, practically became Jason Robards, who portrayed him on the screen. It just didn’t get any cooler than that, and the people at the Post were certainly aware of it, maybe too much so. I noticed the self-importance and inflated egos when I showed up there in 1975, in the wake of Watergate. The Post was a wonderful paper—beautifully written, smartly and courageously edited—but it was still a newspaper. There were still typos and factual errors and the kind of bad prose that daily deadlines inspire. The ink still came off on your hands, too. And there were still desk men with enlarged prostates and reporters who stank of cigar smoke, and one night some son of a bitch stole my jacket. Maybe worst of all, if you looked beyond the Post, you could see the storm clouds gathering. More and more afternoon papers were dying, and there was a segment of the population that hated the Post for unhorsing Dick Nixon and the New York Times for printing the Pentagon Papers. But newspaper people, who can be so sharp about spotting trouble on the horizon for others, tend to be blind when it comes to their own house. No wonder it felt safe and good and even magical to work on newspapers after Watergate. I loved it as much as anybody. And I probably would have liked the dance band on the Titanic, too.
BB: Before we get to the players, let’s talk about the section you have on the writers—Red Smith, A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Mark Kram and F.X. Toole—because it reminds us that the era you cover wasn’t just about the athletes, it was about the writers too. Can you talk about what a remarkable stylist Mark Kram was in his prime?
JS: I don’t think any sports writer ever wrote prose as dense and muscular and literary as Mark Kram’s. He opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you could do in terms of pure writing even though the subject was fun and games. If you want to read classic Kram, you need only turn to the opening paragraphs of his Sports Illustrated story about the Thrilla in Manila. It has to be one of the most anthologized pieces in any genre of writing. I know that it was a mortal lock to be in “At the Fighters” as soon as George Kimball and I sat down to edit the book. Kram had been on my radar since I was in college. He absolutely killed me with his bittersweet love letter to Baltimore, his hometown, on the eve of the 1966 World Series. He was under the influence of Nelson Algren when he wrote it, but I wouldn’t figure that out until years later. All I knew was that he had taken a mundane idea and turned it into a tone poem about blue collar life. Baseball was only a small part of it, and even though I was under the Orioles’ spell—Frank Robinson! Brooks Robinson! Jim Palmer!—I loved Kram’s audacity. He wasn’t afraid of the dark no matter how bright the lights on what he was writing about.
No wonder he was so great when the subject was boxing. When I was in grad school, he did a piece about the fighting Quarry brothers and how their old man had ridden the rails from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the supposedly golden promise of Southern California. He had LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, and Kram left me with a picture of him standing in a boxcar door as the train carried him toward a future filled with more sorrow than joy. I read the story standing at the newsstand where I bought SI every week, and when I got back to my apartment, I read it again. I would discover A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner, and all the other giants of fight writing later, but Mark Kram was the one who lit the way for me. And it began with that story about the Quarry brothers and the image of their old man in the boxcar door.
BB: How did you come across F.X. Toole, the least-known of the writers you profile?
JS: As soon as I found out about “Rope Burns,” Toole’s collection of short stories, I snapped it up. I knew he’d written about boxing, of course, but I had no idea how intimately attuned he was to his subject. This was real in a way that boxing fiction hadn’t approached since Gardner’s “Fat City” and Heinz’s “The Professional.” Toole had clearly lived the life, but I had no idea of what a fascinating character he was until I wrote about him for Sports Illustrated. Of course he wasn’t around to tell his story. He died in 2002, two and a half years before “Million Dollar Baby” was made into the movie that brought him into the public eye. It was based on two of his stories, and it was, I thought, a thing of beauty. If my memory is correct, it opened at just a few theaters in L.A. and New York. I saw it at a 9 a.m. showing the day after Christmas 2004. I had tears in my eyes when I saw the first scene, with Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman as two old-timers who thought they were out of chances for a champion to walk into their creaky gym. That was the fight game as I remembered it best. Never mind that the story behind it took some liberties with the way boxing works. This was a movie, not a documentary. What mattered to me was the mood that Eastwood achieved as a director. It was, in a word, perfect. I called Rob Fleder at Sports Illustrated and asked if they were doing a story on the movie. When he told me they weren’t, I volunteered. I have to admit that I flinched when the cover of the issue my story appeared implied that I called it the best boxing movie ever. For my money, John Huston’s adaptation of “Fat City” holds that honor. But I’m proud of what I wrote about Toole and forever grateful that it introduced me to his family and to the wonderful people he had worked with in boxing.
BB: In your piece on Heinz you write about how much you love his boxing novel, “The Professional.” And that you’ve revisited it many times over the years. How is the book different from “Fat City,” by Leonard Gardner, another book famous for its spare, lean prose?
JS: To talk about Bill Heinz and “The Professional,” I feel like I’ve got to talk about “Fat City” first. Why stop at the prose in it if you’re going to use the word spare? There’s not an ounce of fat anywhere in the book. I get the feeling Leonard Gardner went over it again and again as he cut away the excess. I’ve heard stories, in fact, of how hard it was to get him to turn loose of it. I wonder which was more painful to him, paring down what he’d written or handing it over to his publisher. Maybe his pain is why he never wrote another novel.
Heinz, on the other hand, approached “The Professional” like a journalist with a deadline. He knew he had only so long to finish before he had to get back to his career as a freelance journalist. But he was used to racing the clock, and it certainly didn’t hurt his novel. “The Professional” is written in a style clearly influenced by Hemingway, and yet it is fully Heinz’s, from the language to characters inspired by his sports writing life to the sense of decency that permeates it. While its sentences are lean, the book itself paints a broader picture of the fight game than “Fat City” does. “Fat City” is down and dirty, a portrait of two star-crossed dreamers trapped on boxing’s bottom rung, while “The Professional” deals with a boxer who is one fight away from a world championship. It is more generous in that it makes room for more characters and their eccentricities as well as a fascinating picture of the relationship of the fighter and his wife. Look closely and you will discover that Heinz wrote as a man who had lived life and Gardner wrote as one who was still discovering it. The literature of boxing is richer for having both of them.
BB: The stories in “Sometimes” are generous. Is there a reason you chose not to include a piece that might be overwhelmingly negative?
JS: I wanted the book to be about heroes, not schmucks, which is why there aren’t any rip jobs in it. The heroes I selected are both the king-size variety like Muhammad Ali and Reggie Jackson and the kind who exist in the margins of sports, like Steve Bilko, the old minor league slugger, and Paddy Flood, a boxing trainer with a foul mouth and a beautiful heart. What I tried to find was an honest look at each subject. So it is that you see Willie Mays grumping through his way through the early stages of retirement and Jackson as a solitary figure, disliked by his Yankee teammates and dead set on doing things his way, the rest of the world be damned. Then there’s the melancholy that hangs over Pete Maravich as he hangs up his sneakers, a basketball icon unfulfilled by his NBA career, and the utter sadness generated by the shooting death of a high school basketball star named Ben Wilson. To me, the emotions generated by those columns are more genuine than whatever anger I could work up over horse’s asses like Bob Knight, John Thompson, and Dave Kingman. And let’s not forget Billy Martin. The funny thing is, when I wrote that Martin was “a mouse studying to be a rat,” it was just a throwaway line in a column about the Yankees. That it took on a life of its own never ceases to amaze me.
There’s one piece in the book, an essay about Nolan Ryan, that deals with the rip jobs I did. I wrote it for The National Sports Daily when I remembered that I had once accused Ryan of having “a heart like a blister.” That may have been the single dumbest thing I’ve ever committed to paper, so it was nice to get a chance to apologize. I knew Ryan was a warrior. I just lost my mind for a minute. But don’t get the idea that I’m sorry for blistering anybody else in print. When you’re a columnist, you need to have the capacity to raise hell. And I had it. I just didn’t want readers to think I was a ripper and nothing more. Nobody loves a one-trick pony.
BB: Oh, man, the Pistol Pete column is a heartbreaker. One of those pieces that made me not want to read anything else about the guy it was so sad. I know you are a fan of Mark Kriegel’s work. I haven’t read his Pistol Pete biography. Is it as good as they say?
JS: Repent, young fella. Repent and read Kriegel’s book “Pistol.” It will take you places I never could have gone in a single newspaper column. I’m flattered that you think so highly of what I wrote about Maravich, but even at my most self-infatuated, I wouldn’t claim that my 1,000 words amounted to anything more than a snapshot. Obviously, I think I had a pretty good handle on Maravich at the end of his career, saddled with the kind of melancholy that was hard to believe when I thought of the joy with which I had seen him play in college and his early days in the NBA. I remember feeling good about the column when I finished writing it, and feeling even better when the cerebral Ron Rapoport, one of my fellow columnists at the Sun-Times, told me he loved it. Nothing beats a kind word from your peers. For all of that, however, I also know the limits of a column, especially in comparison to the enormous amount of work Kriegel did for “Pistol.” He is a brilliant and tireless reporter, and it shows on every page. Every beautifully written page, I should say. He can make the language stand up and skip a light fandango. He proved himself as a biographer with his Joe Namath book, but I’m here to tell you that “Pistol” is his crowning achievement so far. I’m just glad to be mentioned in the same sentence with him.
BB: Let me just go back to the beginning for a minute, here. How did you go about choosing the articles for this collection?
JS: The writing always came first. If a piece was set on a big stage–Super Bowl, World Series, championship fight–so much the better, but that certainly didn’t dictate my choices. Some of them were based on pure pride of authorship, like my columns about Maravich and Riggins and my magazine pieces about Chuck Bednarik, the NFL’s last true two-way player, and Oscar Charleston, the great forgotten Negro leagues slugger. Sports Illustrated sat on my Charleston story for three years after giving me something like three weeks to research it and write it, and it ended up running in only a fraction of the magazine’s editions. I’ve never had a first-rate piece that way, so giving it a second life in “Sometimes” is a wonderful balm.
The hardest thing to do was to find surprises for the book. Savvy readers, whether young or old, will probably get an idea of what’s inside as soon as they see the photo of Willie Mays on the cover, but I still wanted to treat them to the unexpected here and there. Charleston qualifies in that regard, I suppose. So do Steve Bilko, the minor league slugger and Paddy Flood, the fight guy. But I like to think the biggest surprise is my column on Ben Wilson, the high school basketball star who was shot to death on his lunch hour. It’s a sobering piece about a kid who would never grow up to know the same fame as Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, and yet, by the standards of the world he couldn’t escape, he was as big a hero as either of them.
BB: The Wilson piece is devastating. On the other hand, did you include pieces on the sporting legends of the time based on their fame?
JS: I wrote dozens of columns about earth shakers like Ali and Reggie. Ali was such a great subject that he always managed to put some sparkle in my work even if I was having a bad day. There are three pieces about him in the book, and I like to think that even if I’d chosen three others, nobody would know the difference.
BB: Was Ali the best subject on them all?
JS: He was the greatest gift a sports writer ever got. Even when he took a vow of silence before his disastrous first fight with Leon Spinks, he was hilarious, taping his mouth shut and making faces and putting on a show that would have made Marcel Marceau proud. Of course he was trying to take peoples’ minds off how badly out of shape he was, but even when his ploy failed, he was still entertaining. I have only two regrets about Ali: that I didn’t start covering him until the downside of his career, after the Thrilla in Manila, and that I was there the night Larry Holmes destroyed him. But that never stopped me from writing about him, and enjoying it. He could be exasperating, even maddening, but he gave us moments of great introspection, too. There’s that opening scene in the long piece about him that ends the book, the one where he contemplates what he has lost. I can’t think of another athlete who was capable of being that open and honest about the sad end he was facing. Ali was beyond special. He was one of a kind. I couldn’t have picked a better subject to ring down the curtain.
BB: How did a guy like Reggie, who was quotable but played a team sport compare?
JS: Reggie was a different case entirely. I must have written a couple dozen pieces about him in the ‘70s and ‘80s—that’s how big a shadow he cast on baseball. And a lot of them were pretty decent, whether Reggie was being Reggie beside the batting cage in mid-season or he was striking out in his classic showdown with Bob Welch in the 1978 World Series. The column I decided to go with, however, was about the inner turmoil that dogged him throughout his days with the Yankees. He was a bright and complicated guy in an unwinnable situation, and that, to me, was the most interesting thing about him.
BB: The book is dedicated to the editors you’ve worked with over the years. I thought that was an interesting choice considering the combative relationship that writers often have with editors. What did you learn as a writer from working with editors?
JS: I had a reputation as a writer who was hard on editors, but I got along with almost all of them. I didn’t suck up to them and I didn’t play office politics; I just did my work and let it stand for itself, whether I was working on newspapers or magazines. Of course, as I climbed the food chain, I developed a very specific idea of what that work should be. But when I was in Baltimore, I was still feeling my way through my stories and I was hungry for guidance. The editors on the city desk knew I could write almost as soon as I showed up, because my first story was about what the strippers, hustlers, and bartenders on a stretch of sin called The Block were doing to get ready for the 1970 World Series. The editors’ job was to make sure I used that talent every chance I got. Consider this: In my first year in Baltimore, I covered a fire in a shanty town and came back to the office and started writing a bland second-day story: “Cecil County authorities are blaming a leaky propane tank…” I gave the top of the story to an assistant city editor named Bob Keller, and the next thing I knew, he was at my side telling me I should begin the story by setting the scene at the shanty town, the charred shacks, the smell of smoke, and the weeping grandmother calling out for her dead babies. Bob isn’t one of the editors named on the dedication page, but I’m eternally grateful for the advice he gave me that day. It made for a much more human and evocative story and I still managed to work all the official statements into the body of it. First and foremost, though, it was a piece of writing.
More to the point, it was my piece of writing. I never wanted to see anyone else’s fingerprints on my work. I had my way of constructing a sentence and a paragraph and a story, and that was what the people who were paying me were buying. Good editors weren’t threatened by that. If anything, they took it as a sign of how much I cared about my work. Just as they had to learn to trust me, I had to learn to trust them. And I wouldn’t trust them if they screwed around with my copy. They were under no obligation to like what I wrote. They just had to respect it enough to give it back to me with instructions about what they wanted changed. Then I could make the changes my way, in Schulianese. That was how I worked with Rob Fleder and Chris Hunt at Sports Illustrated, and with Eliot Kaplan and Paul Scanlon at GQ, and with John Walsh and Jay Lovinger at Inside Sports. If they said change this, that, and the other thing, I did it.
Once you reach a certain level as a writer, you develop a different kind of a relationship with an editor. There should be a running give and take between writer and editor. An editor should be able to tell you that you’re capable of doing better. And he should be able to point out the weak spots in a story. After all, sooner or later, every writer gets lost in the forest. Good editors help the writer find his way out. Better yet, good editors see that writers are matched with the right ideas for them. In my case, I had a good feel for stories that dipped into the past and dealt with bringing ballplayers who were dead or forgotten or both back to life. If the stories were tinged by melancholy, so much the better. That’s why Fleder called my number when he wanted a bonus piece about Bednarik. He was a perfect subject for me–tough and outspoken, an open book emotionally, fiercely proud, and constitutionally incapable of getting along with the three grandchildren who were living with him and his wife when I knocked on their door. There are a lot of subjects that would be served better by a different writer, but Chuck Bednarik was perfect for me.
BB: Why do you have such a feel, an affinity for doing pieces of players from the past?
JS: I don’t know if I was born with an old soul, but I’ve always been fascinated by the past. And by always, I mean from childhood on. No matter where I was living, I gravitated to talkers and storytellers, older guys usually, the kind who could weave a spell with words whether they realized it or not. I had a neighbor in Salt Lake City who was like that, a railroad machinist named Sheik Caputo who had played semipro baseball until he was in his 40s. He’d start talking about the team he ran at the Naval Depot during World War II, or how his mother used her broomto hit the feds who busted his father for bootlegging wine during Prohibition. I ate it all up. When I started writing for newspapers and magazines, I was still that same kid, forever eager to sit down with old-timers who had stories to tell, filing away everything I heard and imagining what the world I was hearing about must have been like.
BB: What’s the difference from doing a profile like Concrete Charlie, where you root the piece in direct scenes from the present, and the stories you did on Charleston and Gibson?
JS: In a way, Chuck Bednarik was a lot like Sheik Caputo–a walking, talking link to the past. Here he was telling me about living through the Depression and flying on all those bombing runs in World War II before he ever played a single down for Penn or the Eagles. They’d stopped making guys like that by the time I interviewed him in 1993. But I was forced out of the past and into the present by the circumstances of Bednarik’s life. Just as he was settling into his golden years, one of his daughters had her marriage break up, so she and her three kids, none older than 10, moved in with him and his wife. He was a combustible, emotional guy to start with, and they were driving him out of his mind — and this was as tough a guy as ever played in the NFL. It was just what my story needed to give it a feeling of immediacy and a touch of the human comedy
Writing about Oscar Charleston and Josh Gibson, on the other hand, was like trying to catch the mists of time. They were both dead, as were so many of their old friends, lovers, wives and Negro leagues teammates. I got lucky with Josh because his son, Josh Jr., was still alive when I reported the story. The same thing happened with Charleston—I found some of the players he’d managed on the Philadelphia Stars and his ex-wife’s niece, and they all had vivid memories to share. The players painted a picture of this ferocious, barrel-chested brawler while the niece remembered the delicate minister’s daughter who couldn’t have made him a more unlikely wife. And let me not forget the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, which gave me access to the scrapbooks Charleston himself kept. The clippings in them were so fragile that I had to wear rubber gloves when I handled them. But that only added to the atmosphere I wanted the piece to have.
When I think about my Charleston and Gibson pieces now, I see them as the sports writing equivalent of either impressionist painting or improvised music. I took all the disparate pieces of information I had about them and tried to create a spell that would evoke their spirits. They were almost ghostly figures as they drifted through my head and onto my computer screen and, ultimately, the printed page.
BB: Some of these longer pieces—the three bonus pieces for SI and the Ali story for GQ—were written after you left the newspaper business. Did writing screenplays in Hollywood influence your writing style?
JS: I don’t think writing in Hollywood helped me become a better writer. But I think working in Hollywood did. I found myself surrounded by people who were smart and articulate and driven in a way I’d never seen in a newsroom. They weren’t necessarily the products of film schools, either. I worked with burned-out lawyers and ex-cops, an electrical engineer and a golf pro, Vietnam veterans and a guy who walked around the office in his stocking feet talking about how much he hated his mother. And I spent far more time in their company than I ever did with the people I wrote about for newspapers and magazines. This extended exposure could be a curse—just because you’re on the same team with someone doesn’t mean you have to like him, or vice versa. But it turned out to be a blessing, because I learned things from all of them. I learned things even when I was on a TV show I was embarrassed to watch. That’s one thing you quickly come to realize in Hollywood: smart people work on bad shows, too. It’s the luck of the draw.
Whatever, on good shows and bad, there were people who opened my eyes and my mind with their intelligence and their use of the language and their ability to think on their feet. I was never any good at thinking on my feet. In fact I may have been the worst ever at making a point in story meetings. But the rest of my Hollywood experience served me well. Not that I realized it right away. During the writers’ strike in 1988, a five-month doozy, I wrote an essay for GQ about how the American male gets his first lessons in style from athletes. I tapped into pop psychology, John Sayles, and Frank Sinatra to make my points, and my prose felt more measured and mature than when I was writing a newspaper column. I couldn’t figure out why at first —and then it hit me: Hollywood. I was as surprised as you probably are, but I really do believe that I’m a better writer of prose today than I was 25 years ago. The process is still a struggle, of course, but the end result is usually more satisfying.
BB: You were in Chicago during Walter Payton’s heyday. How difficult it was to write about a star like Payton who wasn’t a talker?
JS: Walter was a difficult interview subject, but it wasn’t because he was difficult personally. For a star of his magnitude, he was usually friendly and approachable. And yet I always found it easier to talk to his teammates and coaches about him, just as I tried to file away as many anecdotes as I could. There was no way I couldn’t write about him, so I wanted to have as many arrows in my quiver as I could because with Walter himself, I never knew what I was going to get. If I tried to talk to him after practice, I had to do it while he was walking to his car. Of course that didn’t guarantee great quotes or even complete sentences, because Walter was easily distracted. He was a little better after games, when he was surrounded by the media at his locker. Unfortunately, everything he said there was community property. My response was to try to be inventive and paint a picture of the scene that included dialogue that meant nothing to other writers and reporters but that I thought would give readers a glimmer of his personality. You can see what I’m talking about in the Payton column that’s in the book. Here he’s just run for a single-game rushing record and he’s acting like a kid, teasing the reporters by suggesting the kind of questions they should ask him. That, to me, was Walter: a man-child whose promised land was the NFL.
BB: Did you read the excerpt in SI of Jeff Pearlman’s new biography of Payton? Anything about Payton’s troubles away from the field come as a surprise?
JS: I wish I could tell you I looked the other way when the excerpt ran, but I was just one more gawker staring at the wreckage Pearlman described. I was sorry to read about what had become of Payton’s life but not necessarily surprised. It’s like someone once said: every athlete dies twice. They’re going to cease breathing at some point, of course, but they also die in a less obvious way when the cheering stops. And when the athlete is a star of Payton’s magnitude, the withdrawal can be crippling. It certainly was with Payton, and I’ve long suspected that it’s been the same for a lot of ex-athletes whose sad story didn’t wind up on public display. Post-fame syndrome can be as bad in its way as post-concussion syndrome. Just think of the emptiness in Payton’s life – the cheating, the painkillers, the mountains of junk food, the inability to latch onto something that would give him a reason to get out of bed in the morning. And this was a hero whose name will always be revered in Chicago. But fame couldn’t save him any more than the doctors who treated his cancer could. That should tell people how much fame is worth, but they’ll forget as soon as the next hero comes along.
BB: Can you talk about how covering a guy like Gay Fencik for several years set up the bonus piece you did on him for GQ?
JS: I made it a policy never to get too close to anybody I wrote about. There was always the possibility that I might be critical of them, and the last thing I wanted was someone accusing me of betraying a friendship. And yet there were a handful of people in Chicago I really did like more than I should have. Bill Veeck was one — an irresistible maverick. Steve Stone, a bright guy who pitched for the Cubs and the White Sox, and I connected because we were avid readers. And then there was Fencik, who from day one struck me as the kind of guy you’d want for a friend. He was smart without being overbearing, loved the ladies and a good meal, dug music and books and travel. And he turned out to be a far better football player than a free agent from Yale has a right to be. An All-Pro safety, and who’d a thunk that? I wrote about him as a football player and a globetrotter who ran with the bulls at Pamplona and the owner of an oft-broken nose that symbolized Chicago toughness. I wrote columns about him for the Chicago Sun-Times and Daily News, and I profiled him for Inside Sports, too. The Inside Sports piece wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, though, which pained me for strictly artistic reasons because I thought I’d never get another shot at Fencik at that length. But Art Cooper, the editor of GQ, decided to do a “smart issue” in the fall of 1986, and Fencik was going to be the cover story. This time I got him right, not just as a football player, but as an aspiring businessman, Chicago celebrity, and young man in love. As soon as I wrote my first paragraph, I knew it was going to be the piece I wanted it to be.
BB: I really enjoyed the column on Dr. J. He was a giant when I was growing up but it is as if he’s been overshadowed now by the Magic-Bird-Michael Era. In the ABA and then with the Sixers, Erving was a monster. Nobody really came to close to his star power at the time, did they?
JS: If you put together a proper evolutionary chain for professional basketball, Dr. J comes after Elgin Baylor and before Michael Jordan in the men-who-could-fly category. I suppose David Thomson should be in there somewhere, too, but he never seemed to make as big an impact as the others. I forget how many years Dr. J played in the ABA’s parallel universe, but the fact that so many of us couldn’t see him in person or on TV may have added to his legend. We had to use our imaginations, like old-time radio audiences,, and our imaginations soared as high Doc did. When we finally got a look at him—in a televised summertime all-star game, I think it was—we couldn’t believe our eyes. Long strides, Afro waving in the breeze, and it seemed as if he took off from the top of the key on one dunk shot. And nobody had ever done that before.
But writers who covered the ABA said the NBA never saw the real Dr. J. He’d lost a little elevation by the time he joined the 76ers, but he was still brilliant even when he had to allow room for Moses Malone and George McGinnis to operate. Remember the shot he hit under the basket to seal the 1983 NBA championship, the one where he flummoxed the Lakers by twisting through the air like the spawn of Little Egypt? That was Dr. J as he deserved to have his public remember him.
I remember him, too, for his graciousness the night I tracked him down on Long Island as his days with ABA’s New York Nets wound to a close. I was working for the Washington Post, and I was supposed to do a long piece on him. But he was tied up with another reporter before the game, and afterward he had to talk to the beat writers about the game he’d just played. By the time he came out of the shower, the only people left in the locker room were Doc, me, and Doc’s wife, Turquoise, and Turquoise looked like she was in no mood to wait much longer. I thought I’d struck out. But Doc pulled a folding chair in front of his locker for me, sat down on one of his own, and said, “Take as much time as you need.” He knew he was the best ambassador the ABA had, and he wasn’t about to blow this chance to spread its gospel in the Post. Turquoise could not have been pleased.
BB: I dug the few stories here that contained some of you in them, chiefly the piece on Steve Bilko. The Pacific Coast is similar to the ABA in that it exists in the memories of those who were there. Did you have a particularly good time writing this one?
JS: I love writing about the old Coast League any chance I get. There’s never been anything to equal it in my life. I became a fan when I listened to the Hollywood Stars games on the radio. The first ballplayer who spoke to me was a craggy Stars right-hander named Red Munger — he saw me in the stands one night when I was 4 or 5 and said, “Hiya, Whitey.” But even though the Stars were my team, the first player who truly mesmerized me was Steve Bilko, who mashed 111 homers in two years for the Stars’ cross-town rivals, the L.A. Angels. All these years later, I can still give you the line-up for the great Angels team of 1956, and I’m proud to say I’ve shaken the hand of Paul Pettit, the bonus baby who became a Stars slugger when his arm went bad. I could go on and on, but here’s the most important conclusion I have come to: In my heart of hearts, I’ll always believe L.A. really didn’t need the Dodgers as long as it had the Stars and Angels.
BB: Were there any pieces that surprised you? Ones that turned out better than you remember them being? And did you find any that just didn’t hold up?
JS: The piece I’m surprised to find myself feeling good about is the last one in the book, my essay on Muhammad Ali as GQ‘s athlete of the 20th century. I’d never thought very highly of it, probably because it ran in tandem with a stunning profile of the contemporary Ali by Peter Richmond. I’d look at Peter’s and then I’d look at mine and think bad thoughts about it. In fact I don’t think I’d re-read it until I was putting the book together and sorting through everything I wrote about Ali. Then I realized there was no reason to beat myself up about it–it was an honest assessment of Ali as a beguiling but flawed human being. Of course it also helped that it wouldn’t be next to Peter’s story this time.
If you write a column four days a week, there are always going to be turkeys. When I stumbled upon them in my files, I heard the gobbling all over again. But at least one gave me a good laugh, because laugh is all you can do when you write something as terrible as I did about Reggie Jackson’s three-homer game in the 1977 World Series. I was so busy describing the confetti that fluttered in Yankee Stadium that night that I’m not sure I ever got around to the particulars of his feat. The only good thing about the column was the headline–“Solid, Jackson”–and I didn’t write it. Mike Downey, who went on to become a wonderful columnist in Detroit, L.A. and Chicago, did. It’s like Billy Joe Shaver, the country singer says: some days are diamonds, some days are stones.
BB: Was there anyone you would have included in the book if you’d only found a piece that did him justice?
JS: Bill Buckner is the first name that comes to mind. I saw him win a batting championship when he was basically playing on one leg for the Cubs. Bravest ballplayer I’ve ever seen. And one of the most unfairly maligned. He shouldn’t have been in the game when Mookie Wilson’s ground ball went through his wickets. But I never seemed to get Buckner quite right until I wrote a speech for this wonderfully daffy outfit in L.A. called the Baseball Reliquary. It was as if all my thoughts about him finally coalesced. Better late than never, I suppose. But still not right for the book.
Here’s another one: Morganna the Kissing Bandit. She was one of the great characters of all time, with a chest from here to Katmandu and a wacky sense of humor. I interviewed her when she was stripping at a theater in Chicago, and I tried to interest her in kissing Herman Franks, the Cubs’ resolutely grumpy manager. All she wanted to know was if he chewed tobacco. What a woman.
And there were lots of boxers and fight guys I might have included—Tex Cobb, Earnie Shavers, Angelo Dundee, Henry Armstrong—but I’d used most of them in my book “Writers’ Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists.” I thought about the Mark Aguirre profile I wrote for Inside Sports, too. He was the best scorer in college basketball when he played at DePaul, but also the kind of kid who seemed like he might never grow up. As it turned out, he did. But that happened after long after I wrote the piece.
BB: What about an athlete that you never covered but would have liked to have written about?
JS: I suppose it would have been nice to write about the big names in what I considered rich-kid sports like golf and tennis—Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, John McEnroe, you know who I mean. Once I read Leigh Montville and Charlie Pierce on hockey, I realized more than ever that some great characters were getting away from me. But I never lost any sleep over the fact that they were in the hands of other writers. Who knows, if I had written about them, my lack of interest in their sport of choice might have tainted my prose, and they certainly didn’t deserve that. But I wanted to write about subjects that fed my view of the world, subjects that were as real as a broken nose. I liked the idea of victories being hard won, and of losers who faced up to failure rather than pouting and hiding.
BB: Are there any games that you covered stand out during your time as a newspaperman? Not so much your piece, but the event itself.
JS: I showed up too late for Ali in his prime, but I saw Reggie’s three-homer game and Affirmed win the Triple Crown and Walter Payton in his prime and the crowning of Sugar Ray Leonard and more amazing basketball players than I can count–Magic, Bird, Dr. J, Maravich, Earl the Pearl, and on and on—but the event I always come back to is the Hagler-Hearns fight in 1985. Pure electricity. It was like everybody there got hit in the ass with 4,000 volts that lifted them out of their seats and kept them on their feet for the three rounds it took Hagler to look through a veil of his own blood and dismantle Hearns. The two of them came flying out of their corners at the opening bell, and that wasn’t Hagler’s style at all. He was usually a plodder in the early rounds, trying to feel out his opponent for four or five rounds before he stepped up the pace. But not this time. He wanted Hearns’ head and he wanted it now. And when he got his brow split by an accidental butt and he knew it was only going to get worse, he stepped on the gas that much harder. Nothing short of a nuclear weapon could have stopped him.
BB: I loved the way you described the blood pouring down his face as war paint. Do you wish that you were still writing a column when Hagler fought Leonard a few years later?
JS: No, I wished that Hagler had fought Leonard the way he fought Hearns. Marvin should have gone out there and hammered away at Leonard from the opening bell. No fighting right-handed – what was that about anyway? – and none of that other cutesy stuff, just the return of the savagery he’d used to reduce Hearns to rubble. But Hagler tried to out-think a fighter who was his intellectual superior in the ring, and it didn’t work well enough to get him the decision. Of course I thought he won the fight because he was still more aggressive than Leonard, and Leonard didn’t do enough to take away his championship crown. But did I want to write about the fight? The thought never entered my mind. I was completely immersed in my move to Hollywood at that point. I wouldn’t even have watched the fight if a friend hadn’t talked me into it.
BB: It’s been more than twenty-five years since you left the newspaper business. Do you still follow sports?
JS: I’ve become the most casual of sports fans. The sport that takes up the most territory in my heart continues to be baseball. Vin Scully’s voice provides the background music for my life every summer, and as big a mess as the Dodgers’ ownership situation is, I was mesmerized by the seasons Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw had. Excellence in the midst of chaos—you had to admire them. As for the other sports, I don’t find much in boxing that holds my attention, and I could not care less about the NFL except for the fact that it proves socialism works. I’ve loved the NBA since I was a kid and George (the Bird) Yardley was its leading scorer, and now I’m in the same town with Kobe Bryant and Blake Griffin. But you can have college hoops and all its tyrannical coaches. I realize there are tyrants coaching college football, too, but the game doesn’t let them get in the way as much as basketball coaches do. That USC team with Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart may have been built on lies and deception, but, damn, it was a joy to watch. The University of Utah is where I went to school, though, so if you want to know my greatest moment as a fan since Billy (the Hill) McGill and the Utes upset Jerry Lucas and undefeated Ohio State in basketball, it was the night the Utes crushed Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. I howled at the moon to celebrate that one.
BB: Here’s a tougher one. Are there any sports writers that you still follow and admire?
JS: More than you might think, given how badly today’s newspaper sports sections compare with the sports sections in my era. Then again, the contemporary sports writers I like best don’t write much for newspapers. I hated to see Joe Posnanski leave the Kansas City Star because his column was part of a grand tradition that can be traced back to the glory days of Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon. But I love what he’s done so far at Sports Illustrated, where he’s mixing columns with long pieces and doing it beautifully. Charlie Pierce and Chris Jones don’t write sports as much as they used to, but when they do, they’re consistently masterful–and I admire Jones’ blog about writing for its passion and the wisdom it offers anyone smart enough to make use of it. Wright Thompson is a good one, too, unless he’s laying his good ol’ boy shtick on too thick. Thomas Lake came out of nowhere to take his place among such big hitters as S.L. Price and Gary Smith at SI. And I keep finding pleasant surprises under bylines I don’t recognize at Grantland. It makes me wonder how many good young writers are out there swimming against the tide of the talk-radio mentality that has dumbed down sports pages. I know it can’t be easy for them, and yet it can be done in newspapers and on the Internet, and there are established stars who regularly prove it. Look at Mark Kram Jr. doing magazine-quality work at the Philadelphia Daily News. And Sally Jenkins at the Washington Post. And Mark Kriegel at Fox.com. And John Ed Bradley on his breaks from writing novels. And Joe Drape at the New York Times. So there is hope out there. Now all readers and writers need is publications and websites to nurture it.
BB: I’m itching to know. If you could write about a contemporary athlete, who would it be?
JS: That’s the toughest question you’ve asked me. I suppose I’d find someone if I was still working in that world, but from where I sit, it’s hard to get a handle on a potentially worthy subject when they all speak in the clichés that make the TV smilers and nodders happy. Peyton Manning interests me for the sense of humor I see in his commercials as well as for his obvious excellence as a quarterback, and now that injury has endangered his career, he might be a better subject than ever. (I told you I don’t care about the NFL, didn’t I? Call me a liar if you must.) I think Kobe Bryant will make a fascinating subject as he heads into the twilight of his career. How does anyone who’s been that brilliant deal with declining skills, how does anyone that driven ever really turn it off? I’ll tell you, though, it’s Clayton Kershaw I’d most like to write about. The kid could turn out to be Sandy Koufax or Warren Spahn, and he and his wife spend the off-season helping the poor and starving in Africa. When I see him on TV, he looks like he has a lively intelligence and a sense of humor. You know what I like most about him, though? His walk. He carries himself like he grew up behind a plow. It’s the way old-timers like Early Wynn and Virgil Trucks walked. It makes me think Kershaw has an old soul. I like that. An old soul with a 95-mile-an-hour fastball and a curve that drops like it’s going over Niagara Falls. So, what did you have in mind, a 1,000-word newspaper column or a 5,000-word magazine piece?
“Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and a book store near you.
I'm eating this up! What an awesome treat, Alex - thanks for sharing it with us.
Simmons ought to interview Mr. Schulian on his podcast, though between boxing and writing and writers, they might not stop talking for ten hours. I'd listen!
Oh yeah, the next best thing to reading John is talking to him. To say he's a prince of a guy is an understatement. And you should make a point of getting this collection. It sings, man.
Wow. Beautiful talk with a great writer. As Bum Phillips said about Earl Campbell, "This Q&A may not be in a class by itself, but it don't take long to call the roll."