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From Ali to Xena, Part Two: Ink-Stained Wretch
Posted By Alex Belth On December 28, 2011 @ 8:17 pm In 1: Featured,From Ali to Xena,John Schulian,Magazine Writers,Newspapermen,Sportswriting,Writers | Comments Disabled
Chapter 9: The Evening Sun Also Rises
I’m always surprised and more than a little disappointed in myself when I tote up how many people helped me along the way and how easily I’ve forgotten some of them. The one I’m thinking of at the moment is Bill Tanton, who opened the door for me at the Baltimore Evening Sun. He was the sports editor there when I was using Army time to write letters in my campaign for a job at every paper that caught my fancy–the L.A. Times because of Jim Murray, the pre-Murdoch New York Post because of Larry Merchant and Vic Ziegel, the Washington Daily News because of Jack Mann. Tanton’s response was like most of the others in that he said he didn’t have any openings, but he didn’t let it go at that. He passed my letter and clips on to the Evening Sun’s city editor because he thought I had the makings of a good feature writer. It turned out that Tanton recruited a lot of the first-rate talent that passed through the paper –Tom Callahan, Mike Janofsky, Phil Hersh, Dan Shaugnessy–but I wouldn’t realize I was part of the parade until after I had rejoined the civilian world in August 1970 and chosen between job offers at the Evening Sun and the Miami Herald, which, by the way, didn’t want me as a sports writer, either.
Unfailingly, every editor I met yearned to save me from life in what serious newspaper people considered the toy department. It was, I suppose, the curse of being a relatively bright young man. They talked about transforming me into a cityside reporter who might one day cover the state house or the White House or even become a foreign correspondent. I could tell I was going to have to get to sports by my own devices. The important thing at the time, however, was to work, to get some experience, and to develop as a writer. I’m sure I could have done that in Miami — working there certainly hasn’t hurt Carl Hiassen. But what I remember best about my visit was sitting in an editor’s office and looking out at Biscayne Bay sparkling in the sunshine. I worried that if I said yes to the Herald I’d always feel like I was on vacation.
I didn’t have that problem when I visited Baltimore. The city looked the way I imagine Dresden must have after World War II-–burned-out, desiccated, hopeless. On the ride in from the airport, I saw a sign for Shilinksi’s Lithuanian sausage and, a short distance away, the landmark Bromo-Seltzer Tower. For me, a great first impression. The clincher, though was my interview with the city editor, a live wire named Ernie Imhoff who called everybody “babe.” We had a cup of coffee in the Sunpapers’ cafeteria, a setting about as joyless as Death Row, and then we went back upstairs to the city room, where I was treated to a view of the city jail. All this and the Evening Sun had to play second fiddle to the Morning Sun, which had overseas bureaus and a Washington bureau and, obviously, a far bigger budget than the A.S. Abell Company’s p.m. stepchild. Hell, the Evening Sun had yet to assign a single reporter to cover Washington, which was all of 30 minutes away by car. And it didn’t have enough money to send reporters around the block, much less around the globe. But it had been H.L. Mencken’s paper, and it put a premium on tough reporting and lively writing. Add all that to the view of the city jail and there was no way I could say no to Baltimore.
I knew I’d made the right choice when my first assignment was to go to what is called the Block to find out what the strippers and lowlifes there were doing to get ready for the World Series between the Orioles and the Cincinnati Reds. The Block was a stretch of East Baltimore Street downtown devoted to strip joints, dirty-book stores, the city’s only tattoo parlor, and Polock Johnny’s Polish sausage emporium, all in the shadow of police headquarters. The strippers, especially one who called herself Fanta Blu, turned out to be raunchy and wonderful, particularly when talking about big-name baseball and football players who occasionally stopped by. I could only quote them up to a point–the Evening Sun was a family newspaper, after all-–but the story I wrote still got me the right kind of attention.
Just the same, I spent my first year in Baltimore covering suburban Harford County. I shared an office with the Morning Sun’s reporter, Edna Goldberg, a middle-aged dynamo who doted on her two sons, had a husband named Sol, invited me to dinner with her family, taught me Yiddish curse words, and was as competitive as anybody I ever bumped heads with in the newspaper business. My salvation was that she loved doing stories about budgets and zoning, subjects I would write about only under threat of death. Mostly I wrote features and slipped back into the city to see if there was something there I might do. The one good political story I wrote was about Joseph Tydings, a liberal Democrat from Harford County who was driven out of the U.S. Senate by the pro-gun crowd. Years later, in Hollywood, when I was the head writer on “Hercules,” we hired Tydings’ daughter Alexandra as a guest star. She played Aphrodite as if the goddess of love were a surfer girl, and she was dynamite. Small world.
Once I moved onto the city desk full-time, I was in high clover. Baltimore embraced weirdness and lionized eccentrics, and the Evening Sun basically let me run amok. I wrote features about pool hustlers and singing newsboys; vice cops on the Block and a saloonkeeper who put up a billboard supporting Nixon and Agnew; Edith Massey (the egg lady from “Pink Flamingoes”) and a vastly overweight Depression-era bicycle racer who watched me make the most of his neighborhood bar’s 10-cent beers and get hammered on the job for the first and only time in my career. One day I waltzed off to write about the Block’s last surviving tattoo artist and came back with a story about a hooker named Rosie who was just out of jail and wanted a rose tattoo. Our education reporter, a sweet little lady named Sue Miller, accused me of making the whole thing up. But the beauty of Baltimore was that you didn’t need to write fiction. The truth had it beat every which way.
And yet no matter how woolly the people I wrote about were, I was still who I was, and there was no getting away from it. I remember one of the pool hustlers I was always pestering for stories looking at me one day and saying, “John, you’re the straightest guy we ever met.”
Chapter 10: He’s Breslin and You’re Not
The Evening Sun didn’t have the biggest staff in the world, so a lot of us had to do double duty. For me, that frequently meant coming in at 6 or 7 in the morning to work re-write for the first edition before they turned me loose on the world. It was great experience because when I was under the gun, I had to force myself to write fast. You know, a news story 700 to 1,000 words long in 20 minutes or less, and you had to get the facts right from the reporters in the field who were calling them in.
Just as often, I’d be the one out on the street, hoping I’d be able to get back to the office in time to write the story myself. I’d get a call from an assistant city editor at 4:30 in the morning to get over to a rowhouse fire in West Baltimore that killed a couple of kids, and by the time I got there, I could hear their mother or grandmother screaming “My babies, my babies!” from two blocks away. Or it would be a shantytown fire in a speck on the map called Principio Furnace, with more dead babies. Or a bunch of volunteer firemen who drowned while trying to rescue somebody in a hellacious rainstorm. Or maybe just two motorcycle gangs that shot each other to pieces.
The story that still haunts me was about a town out in Western Maryland called Friendsville. Population 600 and six of its boys had been killed in Vietnam. I went out there to talk to the families of the first five casualties and wait for the body of the sixth to come home. I got a number for what I guess is best described as Friendsville’s general store, talked with the woman who ran it, and she wound up saying she’d have everybody ready to talk to me. And she did. If you want an example of small-town trust and graciousness, there it was. But the story was still a painful one to report because I knew I was opening old wounds for everybody I interviewed. The people I remember best were a couple my parents’ age, which is to say well into their 60s. They lived in a stone house on a dirt road outside town, just the two of them and the photos of the boy they’d lost in the war, their only child. All I could think of was how I could have been that dead boy instead, and my parents the ones stumbling around under the weight of their loss. Somehow I made it through the interview without crying, but as soon as I got in my car, I bawled like a baby-–for them, for my folks and me, for all the dead soldiers in that godforsaken war.
I wish I could tell you I turned Friendsville into a great story, but I didn’t. I didn’t have the chops yet. I wrote it in, I think, 1971, and I was still trying on styles for size, still pretending I was somebody different every time I sat down at the typewriter. When David Israel and Mike Lupica burst onto the scene a few years later, I was struck by how fully-formed they were as writers, and they were kids. To read them was to think they never suffered from self-doubt or indecision. Tony Kornheiser was that way, too, an absolute joy to read seemingly from Day One. I had days when I was good, I suppose, but mostly I was a work in progress.
Throughout my time at the Evening Sun, Jimmy Breslin was my greatest influence, just as he had been since the day before I went in the Army. I’d ordered his classic collection “The World of Jimmy Breslin” as soon as I’d returned from grad school, but it didn’t show up until 36 hours before I became Uncle Sam’s property. I sat down and read the book from cover to cover, swept away by Breslin’s great characters–Marvin the Torch, Fat Thomas, Sam Silverware–and touched in a deeper, more profound way by his column about the man who dug JFK’s grave. When I put the book down, I told myself that if I lived through whatever the Army had in store for me, I wanted to come home and write just the way Breslin did. And I tried mightily when I worked in Baltimore. Of course I wasn’t the only young buck who worshipped Breslin. You could see his influence on hot young newspaper writers everywhere, whether they were on the city desk or in sports: Lupica in New York, Israel in Washington, Bob Greene in Chicago. And the hell of it was, they were all better at imitating Breslin than I was.
Chapter 11: Living and Dying in ¾ Time
Call me self-deluded, but my shortcomings as a writer didn’t stop me from campaigning to become the Evening Sun’s city columnist, the Breslin of Baltimore, if you will. The strategy I concocted was simple: in addition to writing the best feature stories I could, I would write about rock and roll. There were always great acts coming through town or playing in D.C. or out at Meriwether Post Pavilion in Columbia, the planned city. But the Evening Sun acted as if rock and roll didn’t exist, even with Rolling Stone getting bigger and bigger in the cultural zeitgeist. So I asked the city editor if I could write about a Grateful Dead concert, and he said sure, why not. And then I wrote about Alice Cooper, who borrowed my pen and used it to stir his drink. I wrote about Muddy Waters, too, even though he was too drunk to talk before his show and I spent most of my time hanging out with his piano player, Pinetop Perkins, who was a hell of a nice guy.
Anyway, one thing led to another, and before I knew it I had a once-a-week pop music column. I spent a lot of weeknights and weekends going to shows and interviewing musicians in hotels and motels and bars. I still had to take my regular turn on re-write and do my features and anything else that came my way, but it was all worth it. The music was great even if Sly Stone never showed up and Al Green’s girl friend looked like she wanted to dump hot grits in my lap. I wrote about great, great talents like Bruce Springsteen (just before he hit it big), Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Wonder, Emmylou Harris, Sonny Stitt, Steve Goodman, Ernest Tubb, Bo Diddley, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup, the bluesman who wrote “That’s All Right, Mama,” which became one of Elvis Presley’s early hits. I wrote about Kinky Friedman, too. Twice, in fact, because he was so funny, Groucho Marx in a cowboy hat. He played the old Cellar Door in Georgetown and dedicated a song to my future ex-wife. Thank you for being an American, Kinky.
Wonder of wonders, when I said I’d like to go to Nashville to write a week’s worth of stories about country music, the Evening Sun sent me. Yeah, that’s right, the paper that threw nickels around like manhole covers. Nobody ever told me why and I never asked. I just went. And I had the absolute best experience of the nearly 16 years I spent in newspapers.
In a week of reporting, I played pinballs with Waylon Jennings, whose greasy mixture of country and rock stirred my soul; had an audience with Dolly Parton-–a genius songwriter, in case you didn’t know-–and she was as smart as she was funny and self-effacing; sat with Chet Atkins, the king of Nashville in those days, while he puffed on a cigar in his darkened office and mused about the shadow that Hank Williams still cast over the country music business 20 years after his death at the ripe old age of 29; had a beer and a bowl of chili at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, where all the great songwriters–Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson–had taken refuge when they hit town; spent an afternoon with Tom T. Hall, a wonderful songwriter, while he laid down a demo of a song called “You Love Everybody But You”; and got on stage at the Grand Ole Opry when its home was still the Ryman Auditorium and it was strictly a radio show.
For the sake of perspective, I wanted to do a piece on Nashville as a whole–its aristocracy was locked in a culture war with the folks on Music Row–so a friend from the Army told me to call a guy he served with in Vietnam. A reporter from the Nashville Tennessean named Al Gore. He picked me up at my hotel and drove me all over town, giving me the rundown on its politics, social structure, race relations, and everything else I wanted to know about. Gore couldn’t have been smarter or more accommodating or nicer. Years later, when I saw his presidential campaign, he seemed like a completely different person, and not one I’d want to show me around Nashville. More like one whose brain waves had been intercepted by Martians.
And then there was Paul Hemphill , who was as open as Gore became sealed off. Along with Johnny Cash’s “Live at Folsom Prison,”  which I listened to almost every day that I was in the Army, Hemphill’s book “The Nashville Sound”  opened my mind to country music. There’s certainly never been a better piece of work on the subject. I’d read Hemphill in Life and Sport, and one of the guys at the Evening Sun had worked with him at an Atlanta paper and carried his favorite Hemphill column in his walle. He said Hemphill was good people, so I got his home address and wrote him about the trip I planned to take to Nashville. He wrote back right away with the names of people I should look up. From that moment forward, we were friends until he died last year. Mostly we stayed in touch by phone and letters and, later, e-mail. I was stunned by how candid he was about his life, especially his drinking and his frustrations as a writer, but that was Hemp, honest in the way every truth-seeker should be.
We only met once, in ’97 or ’98, when I was in Atlanta working on a story for Sports Illustrated. He took me to a bar called Manuel’s, which was a favorite haunt for politicians, cops, and newspaper reporters He loved the place-–he’d written about it a lot-–and you could tell the people there loved him. He was one of the great writers of his generation and one of those true Southern liberals who overcome the ignorance and bigotry they’re born into. I wish more people knew about him, just like I wish I’d been able to make more trips to Manuel’s with him.
Chapter 12: The Book of Dreams
The stars were beginning to align for me even before I headed to Nashville in early 1974. The previous fall, I’d sold my first story to Sports Illustrated, and it ran a month after I scribbled my last notes at the Grand Ole Opry. The story was about a promoter in Baltimore who put on fights at Steelworkers Hall and ran a gym that was above a strip joint on the Block. I don’t think the guy could have existed anywhere else. The smell of the sausages at Polock Johnny’s across the street drifted into the gym when the windows were open. You could feel the music downstairs coming through the floor. The promoter’s best fighter kept getting the clap from the dancers. And I thought I captured it all perfectly. A fat lot I knew.
I wasn’t given to asking other people their opinion of my work, but this time a voice in my head said I’d better stash my pride. If I screwed up the story, I might never get another shot at SI. So I took my deathless prose to an editor in the Evening Sun’s business department and asked him to read it. He wasn’t a close friend and his conversation usually had an edge to it, but I trusted him to be unsparing. And he was. When he walked up with his verdict, there was a wary little half-smile on his face. “If I was you,” he said, “I’d hit me with a sack of snot for what I’m going to say.” In short, the piece was good enough for the Evening Sun and most any other newspaper, but it wasn’t good enough for Sports Illustrated.
I spent the next couple of nights tearing it apart, reworking the structure and figuring out new transitions. I knew I had a winner as soon as I wrote my first sentence: “Baltimore is a gritty old strumpet of a city where unwritten sociological imperatives require a boxing arena to have Polish bakeries on one side, steel mills on another, and redneck bars all around.”
SI called the story “On the Block — Way of All Flesh,” and it wound up in the old “Best Sports Stories” anthology and put my name in bright lights. Tony Kornheiser told me years later that when he read the piece, he knew there was a new gun in town. He wanted to work at SI as badly as I did, and there were hundreds of other writers out there who had the same dream. SI was the holy grail.
Getting in “Best Sports Stories 1975″ was the first time I felt like I’d really accomplished something professionally. I’d been fascinated with the anthology since I discovered it at Northwestern, mainly because it showcased the kind of writing I wanted to do. There were always big names like Red Smith and Jimmmy Cannon in the book, but the ones who captured my attention were writers from places other than New York who were doing great things: Myron Cope in Pittsburgh, Sandy Grady in Philadelphia, Wells Twombly in Houston and Detroit and San Francisco, even a young Philly basketball writer named Joe McGinniss, who went on to write “The Selling of the President” after he infiltrated Nixon’s 1972 campaign.
When the Evening Sun made me a one-man bureau in Harford County, I checked the public library there and found an even better collection of the “Best Sports Stories” anthologies than Northwestern’s. Every now and then, I’d slip down to the library and grab one. And I wasn’t just reading the stories. I was reading the bios of the authors who wrote them. I wanted to see where they came from and if the path I was on bore any resemblance to the one they had traveled. As soon as my story about the fight promoter ran in SI, I knew I was going to submit it to “Best Sports Stories.” I found out I’d made the book when a copy landed on the front porch of my $155-a-month furnished apartment. I was thrilled, naturally, but there was more to what I was feeling than that. I felt like I’d finally done something that would last longer than a day, something with permanence. Hell, my story was in a book.
It wasn’t that much longer before there was a year when “Best Sports Stories” didn’t come out. The editors had gotten old and one of them had died, and nobody had stepped forward to replace them. I wrote an essay for Inside Sports in which I said goodbye and, lo and behold, someone at the Sporting News read it and jumped in to bring the anthology back to life. It’s long gone now, of course, replaced by Glenn Stout’s more sophisticated and vastly superior “Best American Sports Writing” series, but I’m glad I got to do “Best Sports Stories” a good turn. I owed it.
[Illustrations by David Noyes]
Chapter 13: Up, Down, Up, and Out
In my mind, it was going to be either a city column at the Evening Sun or a job at SI, and trust me, I campaigned like a mad man to get my foot in SI’s door. The magazine’s Baltimore stringer was a big-hearted, hugely energetic guy named Joe D’Adamo, who ran the backshop at the Evening Sun. Not a writer or editor, but a guy who oversaw the actual physical production of the paper. The editors at SI appreciated Joe because he was a fount of ideas, and Joe liked the way I wrote enough to talk me up to them. When Frank Deford came to town to promote a novel he’d written, I did a visiting-author story in which I described him as looking like a waterbed salesman. I just couldn’t resist. Frank must have recognized the impulse, because he didn’t hold it against me. The next thing I knew, Joe D’Adamo was telling me that Frank had mentioned me to SI’s editors. Just the same, when Robert Creamer showed up in Baltimore to hustle his Babe Ruth book, I wrote about him, too.
Finally, in 1973, Pat Ryan, SI’s freelance editor-–soon to be known forever in my mind as the wonderful Pat Ryan-–asked me to send her a list of four story ideas. I did, and the one she liked the best was about the boxing promoter on the Block. When I sent in my first draft, Pat asked me to rewrite the ending so it involved a night at the fights. I did, and that was the last change that was made to the piece. Every word that appeared under my first byline in Sports Illustrated was mine. I was amazed, gratified, and filled with bigger dreams than ever.
Pat had a wonderful way with writers, a real gift for nurturing them. Her father, if I recall correctly, was a successful racehorse trainer, and she had started at SI as a secretary and worked her way up to writer and then editor. Nobody had strewn rose petals at her feet, and if she got the idea that you were committed to your work, she would beat the drum for you. She invited me to New York, took me to lunch, introduced me to other key editors, and treated me like I belonged even though I must have seemed like a rube. She kept giving me story assignments, too-–short items for the front of the book as well as longer stuff like the magazine’s first Moses Malone story  and a piece on the amateur baseball team in Baltimore that produced Reggie Jackson and Al Kaline. 
All the while I was still writing for the Evening Sun. It was a terrific place to work, as I’ve said, and the people I worked with were salt of the earth. They knew and cared about the city, and they were passionate about honest, energetic, imaginative reporting. They also knew how to put on a great ugliest tie contest. No, I never won. I was actually a pretty good dresser. I remember when I went to interview Jerry Lee Lewis, he looked me over with those spooky eyes of his and said, “I like a sharp-dressed man.” What I might have won at the paper was a bad temper award. Just about anything could set me off-–typos in a story I’d written, an inability to get a long-distance line, the list is endless, really. My standard response was to pound my desk or stand up and punch the nearest wall while yelling the obligatory “fuck!” It’s funny how in the 36 years since I left the paper, the legend of my temper has grown. One woman said I broke the window in the managing editor’s office. (Not true.) A guy said I broke a typewriter. (Also not true.) The only thing I might have broken was my hand when I punched a wall. The fact that I didn’t proves that God really does look out for drunks and fools.
By the time 1975 rolled around, I was starting to get antsy. SI didn’t have any openings for writers at my level and wasn’t expecting any. I could have lived with that if I sensed that I was about to be anointed the Jimmy Breslin of Baltimore. Instead, I was told that the managing editor had decided to kill my music column because nobody cared about rock and roll anymore. This, mind you, just as Springsteen was taking flight-–do I need to say more about the thickness of the managing editor’s skull? I was more than pissed off. I was crushed. Looking back, it was a great life lesson, because it was awfully easy to get comfortable at the Evening Sun and in Baltimore, which was just entering its resurgence. But the only way you’re going to get better is by challenging yourself, by going up against writers who are better than you are. If you do that, it’s sink or swim, and that was what I needed if I was going to make anything out of the career that consumed my life.
When I finally got my wits about me, I started plotting my great escape. I figured I could freelance for Sports Illustrated and a new magazine called New Times, which was showcasing up-and-coming writers like Bob Greene (already a star columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times), Frank Rich (in his pre-New York Times days), Paul Hendrickson (later a star in the Washington Post’s Style section), and Robert Ward (a novelist from Baltimore whom I didn’t meet until we both wound up in Hollywood). I was going to wait until my fifth anniversary at the Evening Sun-–September 1975-–and then I’d be gone. I just had to get through the next three months.
So I’m sitting at my desk one afternoon, not really giving a damn about whatever I was supposed to be working on, and my telephone rings.
“Is John Schulian there?”
“You got him.”
“This is George Solomon, from the Washington Post. How’d you like to make George Allen’s life miserable?”
I’m not making this up. That’s exactly how the conversation went. Solomon was the Post’s new sports editor, and Allen was the Washington Redskins’ head coach and the Richard Nixon of the NFL. And I, as I hastened to point out, was a guy who had never written a sports story for a newspaper. I mean I’d cheated a couple of times and done features about Willie Mays in retirement and a great local playground basketball player, but I’d never written a story about a game. You know, one with a score in it.
So I said, “Are you sure you’ve got the right John Schulian?”
“I’m sure,” Solomon said.
My life had just changed.
Chapter 14: The Deep End of the Pool
Like every other job candidate at the Post in those days, I had to get the approval of Ben Bradlee, the executive editor who had covered himself in glory with the paper’s Watergate coverage. One of the first things he said to me was that he liked my Jimmy Breslin style. As soon as I heard that, I knew I’d better develop my own style, and do it fast. If I was going to prosper at the Post, I couldn’t be a cheap imitation.
I realized I was in the deep end of the pool the instant I walked into the place. It was crawling with heavy hitters and on-the-make newcomers, intrepid reporters and positively wonderful wordsmiths, all of whom seemed to buy into Bradlee’s theory of creative tension. I’d hate to think of all the intramural treachery that went on there — and that was in addition to going out and bumping heads with the New York Times and L.A. Times and Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal. On top of that, the people at the Post seemed exceedingly full of themselves-–no surprise, I suppose, since I showed up in the wake of Woodward and Bernstein bringing down Nixon and his cronies. In fact, the paper was building its Batman and Robin an office back by the sports department. Nobody thought it was funny when I asked if they were going to take high school football scores on Friday nights. What did I know? I’d just come from Baltimore, where people took their work seriously, but not themselves.
I’m probably going to wind up sounding negative about my time at the Post-–it was not the greatest 17 months of my life-–but I want you to know that it was an honor to work there. I was never on a better paper, never kept company with more talented people, never had more of a sense of the glamour of the newspaper business. Bradlee was forever strutting around in his Turnbull & Asser shirts-–the kind with bold stripes and white collars-–and he loved to go slumming in the sports department so he could see what we’d dug up on the Redskins. He was big pals with the team’s owner, Edward Bennett Williams.
One day I get into the elevator to go up to the newsroom and a guy jumps in at the last minute. He’s dressed the same way I am: tan corduroy sport coat, blue button-down collar shirt, Levi’s, cowboy boots. One big difference, though: he was Robert Redford and I wasn’t. They were making “All the President’s Men” then, and Redford must have been hanging around to do research on Bob Woodward, whom he played in the movie. When we got off the elevator, it was like I was invisible.
There was a copy boy at the Post-–the head copy boy, to be specific-–who wore Gucci loafers and was said to have a degree from the University of Virginia. And there was a copy girl who was an absolute babe-–absolute babes are a rarity in the newspaper business–and was said to have a tattoo of a butterfly on her ass.
In the midst of all that whatever-it-was, there was Donnie Graham, son of Katherine, the publisher who stood so tall during the Wategate era. Donnie would be publisher one day, too, but on his way there, he spent time doing every kind of job there was at the paper, from loading trucks to reporting to taking a turn as an editor in the sports department. This in addition to having been a beat cop in D.C. for a year or two. All of which is to say he was as decent and down to earth as he could be. I forget what job he had at the paper when I was there, but he still used to swing by sports to shoot the bull. One day he comes up to me while I’m pounding away on my typewriter and asks what I’m working on. I tell him it’s a feature about a former University of Maryland quarterback who washed out of the NFL and is playing semipro football in Baltimore on Saturday nights. And I mean down-and-dirty semipro football, on a field as hard as an interstate highway. “Oh,” Donnie says. He didn’t need to say anything else. I could tell he thought this one was a loser. But I wrote the hell out of it, and when I came into the office the day after it ran, there was a note from Donnie saying that in the hands of a good writer, anything could be a wonderful story. With the note was a copy of George Orwell’s essays. Memories don’t come much better than that.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the pressmen’s strike a month or so after I started at the Post on Labor Day 1975. The paper was getting ready to change from hot type to cold type and jobs were being lost in the backshop. One night everything went sideways, blood got spilled, the paper didn’t come out, and the next thing I knew, my fellow members of the Newspaper Guild and I were voting on whether to honor the pressmen’s picket line. I thought we should. Many more people thought we should cross it. And so we did. A few people actually left the Post because of that. I wasn’t one of them, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel a sense of shame and betrayal every time I crossed the picket line. I did, and it has stayed with me to this day.
I’m still not sure exactly why the Post came after me, particularly when so many good young sportswriters around the country would have sold their wives/mothers/firstborn for a chance to work there. Nor am I sure whether it was Donnie Graham or George Solomon who spotted me first. Sometimes I heard that it was my SI story on the Baltimore fight promoter that stirred their interest. Other times it was a funny but barbed Evening Sun feature I’d done about students at the school where the Colts trained standing up to the team’s abrasive general manager.
A funny thing about that fight promoter. Well, not funny, because he died in the time between my departure from the Evening Sun and my arrival at the Post. His name was Eli Hanover and he was barely into his 50s, one of those guys who’s so full of piss and vinegar that you figure he’ll outlive everyone. George Solomon told me he tried to get hold of me to write something about Eli, but I was off on an assignment for Sports Illustrated and nobody knew how to reach me. (Ah, those were the days.) The Post had a new sports columnist, a guy named William Barry Furlong who had had a truly distinguished career as a magazine freelancer, and he wound up writing about Eli. But all he did was lift things from my SI story, quotes and paraphrases and anecdotes. I don’t recall his having another source for his column. I hope he did. I hope he made at least one phone call. But if he did, I don’t remember it. Uncharacteristically, I didn’t say anything about it, not to Furlong, not to Solomon, not to anyone. It was one of those things I just filed away and said, Okay, pal, it’s good to know that’s how you play the game.
Chapter 15: The Seeds of Discontent
George Solomon made sure I hit the ground running. I covered a couple of Redskins practices- it couldn’t have been much different than covering the Kremlin. Then I took off for Detroit to cover a three-game series with the Orioles, who were very much in the pennant race. And to write two features on them, too, even though I’d never covered a big league game before and they had never laid eyes on me. And I had to cover the Howard University-Wayne State football game, too. My football story was a stinker, but the baseball stuff I could do, partly because I had always followed the game and partly because the Orioles were so easy to get along with. All I remember from that weekend is typing, checking my watch, grabbing cabs, and drinking Vernor’s ginger ale when it was still strictly a Detroit delicacy. It was a trial by fire, and I knew I’d passed when George apologized for not being able to play my Monday feature on Jim Palmer on the front of the section.
It didn’t take George long to figure out that I wasn’t meant to be a beat reporter. It was like I had SHORT ATTENTION SPAN written in neon lights on my forehead. Besides, we had Len Shapiro as the first-string Redskins reporter, and he was terrific-–intrepid, fearless, tireless, all in the face of the paranoid monster that was George Allen. Lenny will tell you today that covering the Redskins, the prize beat in the Post sports department, took years off his life.
I filled in wherever George wanted me, the Redskins, a big NFL game, the NBA. But mostly I wrote features and series. One series was about black dominance in the NBA (to show you how long ago this was) and another was about the NFL psyche. I remember Shirley Povich, a lovely, classy gent whose sports column was an institution at the Post for half a century, coming up to me after part one of the NFL series ran and saying, “This is too good for a newspaper.” I was deeply gratified by the praise, but at the same time I was surprised that Shirley, who had been the Post’s sports editor when he was barely out of his teens, would say something like that. I’d read somewhere that Jimmy Cannon had said nothing was too good for a newspaper. He wasn’t in the same league with Shirley when it came to being gracious, but I think Cannon was right on the money about that one.
I had freedom at the Post and yet I didn’t. Nobody told me what to write, so I could continue trying to figure out what my voice was. That was one of the great things about the sports page in those days: it was a laboratory for writing. As time went on, there would be stylish writing throughout all of the country’s best newspapers, much of it inspired by the Post’s Style section, where there was great work done on society dames, movies, TV, books, and rock and roll. But the Post’s sports section was my new playground, and I was happy to be there.
I would have been even happier if George Solomon had let me turn one of my ideas into a story once in a while. But George didn’t do business that way. He bubbled over with his own ideas, many of them good ones but some clinkers too, and he had the energy level of a hyperactive two-year-old. As a result he didn’t expect you to ever be tired. I remember coming off one of his hellish road trips-–Columbus, Ohio to St. Louis to Milwaukee to Toronto to Cleveland in five hectic, work-filled winter days-–and the first thing he said to me was, “Come on in the office. We’ll talk about what you’re going to do next.” I told him that what I was going to do next was pick up my paycheck and go home and go to bed. And that’s what I did.
It wasn’t long before I realized that I was probably the only writer on the staff who questioned authority. Everybody else was too damned nice. I mean, the place was crawling with good guys -– Tom Boswell, Dave Brady, Ken Denlinger, Paul Attner, Angus Phillips, David DuPree, Gerry Strine, Mark Asher. But I never heard any of them raise their voices. And they had reason to, particularly after the copy desk got through making a hash of their prose. All they’d do, however, was whisper among themselves while they licked their wounds. I couldn’t make myself do that. I marched into George Solomon’s office one day and said, “I’ve had more stories fucked up here in five weeks than I had fucked up in five years in Baltimore.” And that was the God’s truth.
Chapter 16: The Enemy Within
What a nightmare the Post’s copy desk was, its few capable pros outnumbered by drunks, burnouts, incompetents, and one hostile ex-marine. The worst of all, which is really saying something, was the slot man, who had covered University of Utah basketball for the Salt Lake Tribune during the Billy (the Hill) McGill era. I’d read every word he’d written when I was a kid and I thought he’d be an ally, maybe even a friend. Instead, he spent his time combing his vanishing pompadour and looking down his nose at writers. I don’t know that I ever met a bigger horse’s ass in the business.
One Sunday, after covering a Bullets game I swung by the office just in time to see page proofs. The slot man had rewritten the top of my story. Okay, you don’t like what I write? Fine. I don’t like a lot of what I write, either. But give me a chance to rewrite it in my own words. That’s why I called the office when I finished the piece, to see if there were any problems with it. The slot man hadn’t said a word then, and I wouldn’t have found out until I opened the paper the next morning if I hadn’t got lucky. The first thing I did was make the slot man take my byline off the story. That was my right, according to the Newspaper Guild. Then I sat down and wrote a new top for the story, and I wouldn’t leave until the slot man had signed off on it. Now he was pissed off. But I can tell you for a fact that I was more pissed off.
Things with the copy desk finally got so bad that when I wrote a piece that was supposed to be special in some way, I’d stay at the office until the first edition came up so I could check it. Nuts, huh? But maybe you’ll understand why I did it if I tell you about a long feature I wrote about spending the day of a fight with a heavyweight named Larry Middleton. Went to his pre-fight meal with him, hung around his overheated hotel room with him, watched him warm up in his dressing room, then go out and lose to Duane Bobick in Madison Square Garden. Last scene of the story: he’s out on the street hunting for a pay phone so he can call his wife in Baltimore and tell her what happened. When I dictated the story the next day–it was still the typewriter era at the Post–the girl getting it all down told me it sounded just like a short story. Made my day. But when I came home a couple of days later–-no short road trips when you worked for George Solomon–I discovered that there was an entire section missing from my story. The section about the fight. Call me foolish, but I thought it was critical, seeing as how the fight was the reason for the story’s existence. Maybe it got sacrificed for reasons of page make-up. (Not an acceptable excuse.) Maybe it was incompetence. Maybe it was sabotage. There wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent because I was on the road. But I promised myself that when I was in town, I was going to do some serious lurking in that goddamned office.
George Solomon finally told me I couldn’t talk to the copy editors the way I did. I told him I was going to keep talking to them the way I did as long as they kept screwing things up. Poor George. You have to remember that he was still getting used to being sports editor, and I was one of the first real tests of his patience and managerial skills. I know he liked my writing and I think he liked me as a person-–we still trade e-mails occasionally all these years later-–but I also think I made him uneasy. I was the first writer he ever had who fought back loudly and passionately. You’d think it would have been different on what was considered a writers’ paper. But the Post was also a serious newspaper, a newspaper of record, and when you’re dealing with an animal like that, editors ultimately carry more weight than writers.
My salvation was a copy editor named Angus Phillips, who later turned to writing and did beautiful, even poetic work covering the outdoors. Maybe he was worried that violence would erupt or maybe he actually liked to read what I wrote. Whatever, when a story of mine came in, Angus would raise his hand and ask to handle it. If he had questions about the piece, he’d ask me. If he made changes in my copy, I trusted him enough not to argue. I believe this is known as mutual respect. You’d think someone at the Post would have thought of it before.
Chapter 17: Friends and Connections
When I became a sportswriter, it was as though I was inducted into a special lodge filled with lots of guys and a few women who shared my interests, my passions, my problems. I didn’t have to explain to them who Red Smith and Larry Merchant were. They thought it was cool if I slipped an obscure cultural reference into a game story, and they sympathized if an editor boned me on deadline. They even knew when I was looking for a job, sometimes before I did.
I never experienced anything like it during my five years on the city desk in Baltimore, and I say that even though I loved the Evening Sun and still consider many of the people I worked with as friends. But when I started there, I was a rarity–a single person. Everybody else seemed to be married, with children, and dead-set on becoming middle-aged before they hit 30. Only later did more single people start showing up, bringing with them their passion for rock-and-roll and sports and carrying-on.
With sportswriting, on the other hand, I knew instantly that I belonged. And by the time I left newspapering, I was part of a band of ink-stained gypsies that seemed to turn up at every major event: Red Smith, Jim Murray, Dave Anderson, Blackie Sherrod, Eddie Pope, Furman Bisher, David Israel, Mike Lupica, Bill Nack, Dave Kindred, Leigh Montville, Ray Fitzgerald, Diane Shah, Stan Hochman, Joe Gergen, Pete Axthelm, George Vecsey, Jerry Izenberg. Unfortunately, Tony Kornheiser didn’t fly much, which cut into his traveling, but on those rare occasions when he did go airborne, he had to drink his courage first, which only made his legendary neuroses more fun than ever. Anyway, they were, and are, good folks one and all, and if I forgot to name anybody, the same description applies to them. I was proud to be in their number.
My best friend at the Post was Tom Boswell, even though he had made his peace with those rat bastards on the copy desk. He had better diplomatic skills than I did, for one thing, and he also loved what he was doing. Where I looked at things strictly as a writer, he maintained a fan’s sensibility. He was, and is, very much an enthusiast. I didn’t have a name for it until a year or two ago when I heard Robert Hilburn, the L.A. Times pop music writer for 40-odd years, speak. Here was a guy who was absolutely in love with the music and the artists and the world they lived in, a guy who was as excited by U2 as he had been by Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon. Totally unjaded. Just like Boz. Boz is as fired up about Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper as he was about his first Roy Sievers baseball card. He writes like a dream for readers who are on the same wave length as he is. That’s why he’s the biggest sportswriting institution in D.C. since Shirley Povich.
Boz and I were both single and about the same age when we met at the Post. He was finishing up a tour as the prep writer-–you’ve never read better or more imaginative high school coverage-– and he was moving onto the baseball beat, with golf as a sideline. If we were working late, we’d walk across the street to get dinner at the Madison Hotel. This is the same hotel where a Style section writer canoodled with Kathleen Turner when she was the hot-tomato femme fatale in “Body Heat.” All I remember Boz and me getting there was Reuben sandwiches and an English trifle for dessert. There’s a reason why sportswriters are seldom lean.
Boz was great company, not just full of baseball stats and theories but an endless source of quotes from French philosophers and Emily Dickinson. The only knock on him was his threads–no natural fibers, colors unknown to civilized man. The kindest thing that could be said about his wardrobe was that it didn’t contain white shoes. Then, when I was working in Philly, he shows up wearing a blue blazer, a pink polo shirt, khakis and nice loafers. I knew instantly that he was in love. Only a woman who truly cared about him would have taken the time to dress him at Brooks Brothers. He married her, too.
The other great friend I made in Washington was David Israel, who was then the enfant terrible sports columnist at the Star, the city’s No. 2 paper. He was 23 or 24 and as different from Boz as Mick Jagger is from Tony Bennett. David was all hair and opinions and hot babes and finding out where the party was. I was dating the woman I would marry, so I wasn’t doing any night crawling with him. What we bonded over was writing.
I was looking for a way out of Baltimore when he hit Washington, and I remember my friend Phil Hersh, who was covering the Orioles for the Evening Sun, saying that David had liked a feature I’d written about a stolen pool cue. (My hustler friends again.) David asked if this guy Schulian was a city columnist, and when Phil told him I was a rewrite man, David threw the paper in the air. That’s when I knew he might be a kindred spirit.
He’s six years younger than I am, but he’s always been the best-connected guy I know. Back then he was already friendly with Breslin and Dick Schaap. He’d met them when he was a summer intern at Sport magazine. If I’m not mistaken, it was Breslin who helped him get the column at the Star. David had the chops to handle it, too. He was smart and outrageous and fearless -– he’d knock anybody and anything, and he did it with more style than whoever passes for a newspaper hell-raiser today.
I remember one time in Dallas, after a big Redskins-Cowboys game, the first thing he said to me as we were leaving was, “Did you use the tape?” The Redskins had lost and the tape they’d peeled off littered their dressing-room floor. It was forlorn and bedraggled, perfect for evoking the mood.
“Yeah,” I said. “You?”
Just a little thing, but also the kind of thing someone with a writer’s eye looks for.
Anyway, David and I talked a lot about writing, and he went with my girl friend and me to see some concerts, and I hung out with him on the road. Before I knew it, there was talk he might become the Star’s city columnist. He couldn’t have been there much more than a year, but in those days, dying No. 2 newspapers were always taking chances like that. That’s why they were so much fun to read.
David had this plan that if he became the Breslin of D.C., he’d lobby for me to succeed him as the Star’s sports columnist. I would have done it in a heartbeat. But the city column didn’t work out, so David stayed in sports and I stayed at the Post. I wasn’t beside-myself unhappy there or anything, but I knew I could be happier somewhere else. I just wasn’t sure where that was, or if I would ever get a chance to get there.
Then, later that year, David told me his old paper, the Chicago Daily News, was looking for a new sports columnist. The Daily News had been at death’s door since before I read it in grad school, and now its new editor, Jim Hoge, who was already running the Sun-Times, was importing talent for a last stand. David had covered college sports for the News before he became the Star’s columnist, and predictably he had stayed tight with Hoge.
“Tell him I’m his guy,” I said.
“You mean it?” David said.
“Damn right I do.”
Not long afterward, just before the NFL playoffs are about to start, Hoge comes to D.C. on business. He doesn’t have time for a sit-down with me, but he wants to know if I’ll share a taxi out to National Airport with him. Hell, yes, I will. I don’t know what I said to impress him, but he asked to see my clips. And then I got a call to meet with the Daily News’ sports editor, a folksy, easy-going guy named Ray Sons. And then, wonder of wonders, I was the new sports columnist at the Chicago Daily News.
My first day on the job was Jan. 31, 1977. It was my 32nd birthday. Best one I ever had.
Chapter 18: Remembering Royko
I was instantly happy at the Daily News. It was frayed around the cuffs and just about everywhere else, but that was a relief after all the power and glamour at the Washington Post. Just the same, the Daily News had a distinguished history of its own -– Carl Sandburg strumming his guitar in the city room, a distinguished cadre of foreign correspondents, Pulitzer prizes galore, and, of course, Mike Royko. But for the two decades before I got there, it had been searching for an identity. The one thing about it that couldn’t be changed was that it was an afternoon paper, and afternoon papers were the dinosaurs of the newspaper business. Readers were turning to TV instead, and besides, there was never any guarantee that our delivery trucks were going to make their way through the increasingly gnarly traffic. Add it all up and you had Chicago’s version of the Alamo.
I was at the Daily News for the last 13 months of its existence, and it was probably the most exhilarating time of my career. The paper’s old hands did great work, and most of the newcomers fell right in step with them. When the paper was re-designed, it looked great, too. (The guy who re-designed it had also given the New York Herald Tribune a new look right before it went under, so maybe he was the kiss of death.) I remember Royko saying the paper was the best it had been in all the years he’d been there, and Mike didn’t throw compliments around lightly. He couldn’t have cared less about peoples’ feelings. But he was truly proud of the Daily News as it battled extinction.
Being on the same paper with Royko was a privilege. Actually, I was on two papers with him: the Daily News and the Sun-Times. The man was a genius as a columnist. It’s not like great cityside columnists fall off trees, either. But Mike worked in an era that had a bumper crop: Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill and Pete Dexter. There was Murray Kempton, too -– God, what a beautiful writer — and the marvelously off-the-wall George Frazier in Boston. They called Paul Hemphilll “the Breslin of the South” when he wrote a column in Atlanta, and Emmett Watson was the soul of Seattle. When I look around the country now, the pickings are pretty slim. I consider myself lucky to read Steve Lopez in the L.A. Times — he really works to make sense (and fun) of an unbelievably complicated city. I can’t help thinking that he learned, at least in part, by studying the masters.
It’s a tough call–maybe an impossible call- to say who was the best of those giants from 20 and 30 years ago. They all had days when they stood atop the world. Royko and Breslin defined the cities they worked in for the rest of the country. Hamill wrote with the eye of the novelist and memoirist he became. Dexter was the most unique; he went way beyond the Philadelphia city limits to the borders of his imagination. Of course he didn’t do it anywhere as near as long as the others. Hamill kept taking side trips, too–to screenwriting, novels, editing–but I never lost the sense of him as a committed newspaperman. Still, it was Royko and Breslin who seemed to capture the most imaginations. For pure writing I’d give the nod to Breslin. But for knowing how to work a column, whether he was raising hell with the first Mayor Daley or making you laugh with his alter ego, Slats Grobnik, or breaking your heart, Royko couldn’t be beat.
And he did it five days a week. Tell that to these limp-dick editors who think a columnist should only write twice a week. Royko didn’t have the privacy of an office at the Daily News, either. He just moved filing cabinets around until they formed a wall around his corner desk. And he’d be at that desk from morning until late at night.
When he’d send a copy boy to fetch him a cheeseburger from Billy Goat’s Tavern, his instructions were to the point: “Tell the Goat to hold the hair.”
He’d answer his own phone and tell callers he wasn’t Royko and didn’t understand why anybody wanted to talk to the son of a bitch. Then he’d go off on some wild tangent about Royko’s lack of hygiene until he hung up cackling like a madman.
The time I spent yakking with Royko was always at work. He liked to drink -– man, did he like to drink -– but I stayed away from him then. He was a binge drinker, dry for weeks or months and then he’d go on a toot and turn ugly and abusive. When he was drunk, he was forever getting in a scrap or pouring ketchup on a woman who’d rejected his advances. Legend has it that he once fell out of his car while he was driving and broke his leg. There was a group of ass-kissers who tagged along after him like puppies, encouraging him to be more and more outrageous and saying yes to every nonsensical thing that came out of his mouth. As far as I could tell, the only good man in the bunch was Big Shack, who worked in the Sun-Times’ backshop. He looked out for Mike, and he wasn’t afraid to tell him when enough was enough.
Ultimately, Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times and Mike moved to the Tribune, a paper he had always hated. I like to think he still hated it when he worked there, except, of course, when it gave him a chance to call Murdoch “The Alien” in print.
Mike was the best.
Chapter 19: Fighting the Good Fight
Chicago was a great city for anyone who worked on a newspaper. There were three dailies when I got there–the Daily News, Sun-Times and Tribune–and people read them voraciously, passionately. They were part of the fabric of life in the city. There wasn’t a great paper in the bunch, but they were still lively and full of first-rate reporting and writing. What they did not have when I hit town, however, was memorable sportswriting. It was, if I may be blunt, painfully mediocre.
The sports-page revolution that had swept through New York, L.A., Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington hadn’t caused so much as a ripple in Chicago. Nor did the city’s newspaper executives seem to realize that all over the country, young hotshots were seizing the moment — Dave Kindred in Louisville, Joe Soucheray in Minneapolis-–and seasoned wordsmiths like Wells Twombly in San Francisco were still going strong. The Tribune had two first-rate sportswriters, Don Pierson, a wizard at covering pro football, and Bob Verdi, a droll stylist who went back and forth between baseball and hockey. Otherwise, the Trib was dreary, uninspired and burdened with lazy, burned-out columnists. The Sun-Times was trying to shake things up by bringing in consummate pros like Ron Rapoport, Randy Harvey and Thom Greer. Tom Callahan, a ballsy columnist from Cincinnati, was supposed to be part of the revolution, but he took one look at the in-house chaos and went right back where he’d come from.
Nobody was going to get rid of me that easily. I wrote an introductory column laying out my ties to Chicago -– the days I’d spent in Wrigley Field’s bleachers, the night I’d seen Bobby Hull score the 499th and 500th goals of his career -– and I followed it up with pieces on Al McGuire, a columnist’s dream, and the Bulls’ tough guy guard, Norm Van Lier. Next thing I knew, some guy was walking up to me and saying, “So how does it feel to be the best sports columnist in town?”
Jesus, the hours I put in. The deadline for the first edition at the Daily News was something like 5 in the morning, and I can’t tell you how many times I came close to missing it. (It always made me feel better when I heard that Larry Merchant did the same thing at the New York Post.) Understandably, my work habits grated on my wife when I got married. They also raised the anxiety level for the two guys who put the sports section together, the positively Zen Frank Sugano and Mike Downey, who went on to become a star columnist at the Detroit Free Press, the L.A. Times, and the Chicago Tribune. I can still quote headlines that Downey put on my columns: “She’s Dorothy, Not the Wicked Witch” for one in defense of Dorothy Hamill, and “That Mother McRae” (well, for one edition, anyway) after things between the Yankees and the Royals got chippy during the 1977 playoffs.
As soon as I proved myself, I had the clout to lobby for bringing in Phil Hersh, an old friend from Baltimore, to cover baseball. Phil was a first-rate writer, an intrepid reporter, and a fount of story ideas. While I covered Leon Spinks’ upset victory over Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas, he jumped on a plane to St. Louis and wrote a killer feature about the God-awful Pruitt-Igoe housing project where Spinks’ family lived on government-issue peanut butter in a blistering hot apartment with no way to control the heat.
Once we did a few things like that and wrote the hell out of whatever was on the agenda for the day, the bright kids on the Daily News staff caught the fever. Kevin Lamb, our Bears writer, already had it, because he’d broken in at Newsday, which had been at the heart of the revolution. All Downey needed was someone to free him from the copy desk and point him in the right direction. It was the same with Brian Hewitt, who was straight out of Stanford.
We didn’t have much space at the Daily News, but we made the most of it by out-hustling and out-writing the competition. Even when the sports department got moved downstairs to a dreary space next to the backshop, we didn’t miss a beat, just kept on kicking ass.
Seeing that happen was one of the real thrills of my first year as a columnist. I was in the middle of something that was more than just exciting, it was important. We were doing our part to keep the Daily News alive.
After I’d been in Chicago for a couple of months, I started hearing from papers that wanted to lure me away. The Tribune was the first of them. Fat chance. Then it was the San Francisco Examiner because Twombly had up and died when he was barely 40. The only call I paid attention to came from Larry Merchant. I would have sworn he didn’t know my name and here he was on the phone telling me he was in discussions to become the New York Times’ sports editor. If he took the job, he said, he wanted his first hires to be Peter Gammons and me.
Once again my head was spinning. But Merchant didn’t get the job, so I went back to busting my hump in behalf of the Daily News. I wish I could tell you every column I wrote was a work of art, but that wasn’t the case. Sometimes they were good, maybe even very good; other times I floundered and grasped for ideas and phrases that were beyond me. Still, I’ve always been grateful that I could break in as a columnist on a p.m. paper. It gave me the time I needed to master the form. If I’d been at an a.m. paper, I’m not sure I would have survived as well as I did.
And here’s something that could only have happened at a p.m.: When I walked out of the paper to look for a cab home in the wee small hours one snowy morning, my footprints were the first on North Michigan Avenue. I had my dream job, in my favorite city in the country, and in a few hours, the people in that city–some of them anyway–were going to read what I had stayed up all night to write for them. And in that moment, I felt the romance of the newspaper business as I never had before.
It didn’t seem anywhere near as romantic late on March 3, 1978 as the Daily News staff waited for the paper’s final edition to come off the press. My face was as long as anybody’s, but I wasn’t entitled to sadness, not the way the people who had given their lives to the paper were. I was standing next to M.W. Newman, who wrote elegantly about architecture and books and local history and pretty much anything else that popped up on his radar. He’d been at the Daily News for something like 30 years. He was the one who had the right to sing the blues. I was just somebody who came along too late to help save the paper. And yet you’d be surprised how often I think of it. And how proud I am to have been there.
[Photo Credit: N.Y. Times ]
Chapter 20: Demon Rum
Where there are sports writers, there is booze. It’s been that way since the first scribe raced a deadline and decided he deserved a pop afterward. Or maybe he was drinking while he committed his deathless prose to paper, just a little something to kill the pain of knowing that the desk was going to make a hash of it. All these years later, I’ve seen it work both ways, heard the funny stories that the sauce inspired, and the sad ones, too.
I was supposed to give a certain shaggy wordsmith a ride to the airport the day after Sugar Ray Leonard’s first comeback, in Worcester, Mass. But my hirsute friend never showed up in the hotel lobby, and he didn’t answer his room phone, so I had to take off without him. The next week I called him at his paper to make sure he was all right, and he told me the tale of how he’d fallen in with, if I recall correctly, a toothless barfly and her one-armed boyfriend. (The mind boggles at the proposition they must have put before him.) Somewhere along the line, they slipped him a mickey, stole all his money, and left him unconscious in a fleabag hotel. It was like listening to Charles Bukowski when he told the story, laughing and coughing, savoring every dirt-bag detail. Some guys you just can’t derail.
And then there was Pete Axthelm, a genuinely good soul and a great talent who was undone by alcohol. How lucky we are that he wrote “The City Game”  when he was young and the lost nights had yet to take their toll. Ax wasn’t even 50 when he died, but in the clips of his final TV appearances, he could have passed for 75. That’s not the way his friends want to remember him. Better to think of the big smile on his face as he cashed a winning ticket at Churchill Downs.
The curious thing is, sports writers of my generation will tell you it was the old-timers who drank like they had hollow legs. The king of them, as far as I could tell, was Red Smith. As Wilfred Sheed once said, “Weight for age, Red was the greatest drinker I’ve ever seen.” He favored Scotch, lots of it, but only after he had worked so hard on his column that he had sweated through his Brooks Brothers oxford-cloth shirt. He was lifting a glass to his parched lips after the Preakness one year when his hands trembled so badly that Bill Nack’s wife grew visibly alarmed. Red put down his glass, took her hand, and, patting it gently, said, “Don’t worry, dear, it’s an old Irish affliction.”
With drinking, as with writing, the wisest thing to do was to admire Red, not compete with him. In Montreal during the 1981 baseball playoffs, I wound up at dinner with him, Roger Angell, Tom Boswell, Jane Leavy, and Mike Downey – not a bad lineup, huh? – and Red got into the Scotch pretty good. Before the evening was over, he was telling us about the annual Christmas party the New York papers used to have and how people would rewrite carols and holiday songs to make them fit the occasion. And then he sang “Hark the Herald Tribune” in that wonderful old man’s voice of his. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I’d taped him.
Myself, I’ve never been much of a drinker. Don’t like the taste of the hard stuff, and I can go years between beers. I’ll drink wine with dinner, but that’s about it. The last time I got stupid with alcohol was at a party in Baltimore in the early 70s. I drank bourbon from the bottle until I was sufficiently inspired to do somersaults down the hallway of a friend’s apartment. A nice lady drove me home in the wee small hours of that cold winter’s night but refused to come inside with me, if you can imagine that. I went into a full pout and curled up on my front porch, saying I’d just fall asleep there and probably freeze to death. In her infinite wisdom, the nice lady said, “Have it your way,” and drove off. Eventually, I stumbled inside and didn’t come out for two days. I was so hung over, my eyelashes hurt.
It’s a good thing I knew I couldn’t run with the big dogs before I hit Chicago. Otherwise, I might have drowned in what the city’s newspaper booze hounds called the Bermuda Triangle of Drinking, three bars they tried to take down to the last drop every night: O’Rourke’s, Riccardo’s, and the Old Town Ale House. You could get decent Italian food at Riccardo’s, so I ate there once in a while, and I loved the jukebox at O’Rourke’s  – it was one for the ages, with classical music, Miles Davis, and Hank Williams side by side. But get stupid drunk at any of those joints? No thanks. I just listened to the stories they generated, like the one about the night Nelson Algren and a Sun-Times columnist named Tom Fitzpatrick threw drinks at each other. Or were they spitting? Hell, I can’t remember. And if Algren and Fitz were still around, they might not remember, either.
All this happened just before newspapers were overrun by tight-assed careerists, so there were still reporters and editors who kept bottles in their desks in case they didn’t have time to duck out for a shot and a beer. And I’m not just passing along the legend. I saw it for myself one Friday night at the Sun-Times when I walked into the city room to get a drink of water. There was a long-in-tooth reporter with a quarter-full bottle of gin in one hand and a bottle with a few splashes of vermouth in the other. He was pouring one into the other, back and forth, back and forth, when he looked up at me with a glassy-eyed smile and said, “Welcome to my laboratory.”
Here’s mud in your eye.
Chapter 21: The Sun-Times Also Rises
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.
Chapter 22: Schulian vs. Israel, or Vice Versa
Once the word got out that the Daily News was going belly up, life got real interesting.The Tribune took another run at me, a serious one this time, and the Sun-Times wanted me, too. But the brain trust there had a fallback plan if I jumped: they would hire my old friend David Israel. If I landed at the Sun-Times, the Tribune would hire him.
I don’t know how the executives we were dealing with felt, but Israel and I had a hell of a good time. We told each other what the kind of money we were being offered, and we wound up settling for pretty much the same deal, Israel at the Trib and yours truly at the Sun-Times, which was where I belonged. The people who were running the paper were the same ones who had hired me at the Daily News. It was great to tweak their noses-–you’ve got to keep the big cheeses honest, you know-–but it also would have been severely bad form to turn my back on them a little more than a year after they gave me the chance of a lifetime.
The end result of all the wooing and courting was supposed to be a showdown: Schulian vs. Israel, or, if you prefer, Israel vs. Schulian. All I can tell you is that I did what I did and he did what he did, and we were both damn good at it. We weren’t going to make anybody forget Red Smith and Jimmmy Cannon battling for the heavyweight championship of New York’s sports pages, but we gave the people what was probably the best show of its kind for the next couple of years.
Israel made the Trib’s sports section better by walking in the door. With his brains and writing talent, he forced the sleepwalkers on the staff to step up and do better work.He still loved to stir things up, too, especially when he was ripping Larry Bird, who was an uncommunicative dolt in college. And yet Israel wasn’t as outrageous as he’d been when he was the Washington Star’s enfant terrible. Maybe he had outgrown that stage, or maybe he was already looking for a life beyond sportswriting. He’d seen Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake  make the jump from Sports Illustrated to doing books and movies, and he wanted to do the same. After the 1981 Final Four, he left the Tribune to take a job as a city columnist at the L.A. Herald Examiner. It was his first step toward a new life in Hollywood.
I thought he’d made a smart move, but even though I’d had show business in the back of my mind since I was a kid, I still saw myself as a newspaperman. There was something exhilarating about writing four columns a week and having a magazine piece to do on the side. I was making more money than I ever dreamed of (but never as much as some people thought I was), and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t like the awards and kind words, too.
Just when I’d start to need a bigger hat, though, I’d have one of those days where, to borrow a line from Red Smith, I didn’t have anything to say and I didn’t say it very well. Amazing how something like that can remind you how great you aren’t.
Chapter 23: A Summons to Manhattan
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.
Chapter 24: The Job, Chicago Style
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.
Chapter 25: Fast Company
I never wrote as a fan. To civilians, especially every Cubs fan who ever told me to go back to the South Side because I’d written a column on the White Sox, that may seem a startling confession, but there’s no getting away from the truth. I wrote sports because I yearned to be a writer and the sports page provided a laboratory where I could conduct my experiments with words. When I was breaking into the newspaper racket, there was a freedom of style in sports that couldn’t be found anywhere else. Contrary to what I see too often now, when most every columnist seems to be shouting ceaselessly, I could do a character sketch, attempt whimsy, review a book, and rant and rave about whatever was vexing me all in the same week. The idea was to entertain my readers, but the truth is, I was trying to entertain myself, too.
On the days I succeeded, it was often because I had written about a boxer with a hard past or a ballplayer who had more stories than base hits. I was never a funny writer, the way Jim Murray, Leigh Montville, and Mike Downey were, but I embraced characters who could make me and my readers laugh. And yet there was a melancholy streak in my work, too–the athletes who died young, the broken-down gyms where fighters chased their dreams, the hardscrabble playgrounds where basketball looked like the only alternative to drugs and gangs. Those were the pieces that put sports in perspective, though people never seemed to react to them the way they did when I was cutting someone up in print. When I die, if anybody bothers to write my obituary, I fully expect to be identified as the columnist who called Billy Martin “a mouse studying to be a rat.”
The important thing, if you cared about your craft, was that you had to be good a lot more often than you were bad or the competition would bury you. I’m talking about the years between, say, 1960, when sportswriting’s Chipmunks started nibbling away at sacred cows, and the mid-90s, when the sports page was finally overwhelmed by the screeching talk-radio mentality that continues to assault us.
In the beginning, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon were still around to remind the new wave of what true greatness was. As good as we were – and I think we represented the golden era of sportswriting–none of us ever reached the heights they did. And there were plenty of other writers, younger than Red and Jimmy but older than we were, whose very presence gave us a sense of perspective: Murray in L.A., Edwin Pope in Miami, Furman Bisher in Atlanta, and Blackie Sherrod, who, before he conquered Dallas, made Fort Worth the launching pad for Dan Jenkins, Bud Shrake, and Gary Cartwright. Then there was Ray Fitzgerald, Montville’s stable mate in Boston, and Wells Twombly, a world-class columnist wherever he traveled, and he traveled a lot before landing in San Francsico. And a pox on my house if I neglect to mention Vic Ziegel, Ira Berkow, Sandy Grady, Stan Hochman, and Larry Merchant, whose wry, cerebral column influenced more young writers than anyone will ever know.
They cleared the beach for the wave of columnists I rode in with: Montville, Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica, David Israel, Bill Nack at Newsday, Joe Soucheray in Minneapolis, Scott Ostler in L.A., Skip Bayless in Dallas, Ray Didinger in Philadelphia, and, begging his forgiveness for putting him last in this sentence, Tony Kornheiser. I always thought that Tony’s true genius lay in long newspaper features and magazine work–his profile of tragedy-stricken Bob Lemon will tear your heart out–but he tripped the light fantastic as a columnist, too. While Tony worked in New York and Washington, D.C., on papers where the spotlight was automatically his, Tom Archdeacon was lost in the shadows. You had to go out of your way to track down his evocative prose in the tattered Miami News, but it was always worth the trouble. Likewise, you had to keep an eye on Detroit, where Mike Downey’s star shined brightly and Shelby Strother and Mitch Albom found their way to town by the light it gave off. The auto industry was going to hell, but Detroit could claim a procession of wonderful sports columnists. And Elmore Leonard, too.
I read them all every chance I got. When I was at the Washington Post, still dreaming of becoming a columnist, there was a wall in a corner of the newsroom stacked with out-of-town papers, and I used to plow through it seeking out the bylines of old heroes and new competition. I still remember how good Lupica was when the New York Post let him have a two-week summer fling at writing a column. I’d just met him at the 1976 NBA finals, this baby-faced kid who looked like he’d fit in your pocket, and here he was writing with verve and moxie that left me wilted with envy.
There was a lesson there, just as when I started reading Kindred regularly and realized that he had studied the cadences of Red Smith’s sentences as religiously as I had. If I was going to be anything better than ordinary as a columnist, I would have to work my ass off, and it wouldn’t hurt if I wrote about things that appealed to my writerly instincts as often as I could. There were days when I couldn’t ignore the news–the big trade, big firing, big game–but when I was left to my own devices, I went where my heart took me.
For me, the best sports to write about were baseball and boxing. I felt as though I understood baseball in a way I never would football or basketball or, God help me, hockey. Baseball was still producing characters then, and better still, I was well versed in its history. But the truth of the matter was that the game still fell short of boxing when came to material that made for memorable writing. There were characters and shenanigans and life and death. I mean death literally. I saw it happen in Montreal, where a fighter named Cleveland Denny was fatally injured on the undercard of Leonard-Duran I. In the very next fight, Big John Tate, an Olympic heavyweight who was supposed to have a solid gold future, got knocked out and one of his legs started twitching uncontrollably. All I could think was, Jesus Christ, two in two fights? Tate lived, though. Cleveland Denny didn’t.
I can gin up a defense of boxing if I’m cornered, but I’d rather just tell you that I realize what a dreadful sport it can be and I love it just the same. I love the stink of the old gyms, and the fighters with their dreams that are almost sure to go bust, and the crotchety ancients who untangle their fighters’ feet and tend to their wounds and offer up wisdom written in the blood of those who didn’t heed them. Sometimes I even stop hating promoters and managers, though never long enough to think of them as anything except potential thieves. But it is the fighters I always come back to, the guys who step into the ring knowing they may die in it.
In a sport filled with liars–charming, quotable liars, but liars just the same–there is an open-book honesty about the fighters that could disarm the most resolute cynic. Want to know why a fighter ended up in jail? Want to know how it feels to fight with broken ribs? Want to know how desperately he craves a woman after going without during training? They would tell it all to you, and then invite you to a party after the fight, the way a Baltimore brawler named Wild Bill Hardney did one night. “Party at Loretta’s,” he said, which sounded great until Wild Bill’s wife read about it in the next day’s paper and asked him ever so sweetly just who the hell Loretta was.
Chapter 26: A Vanishing Art
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.
Chapter 27: Murdoch Descending
The world changed for everybody at the Sun-Times when the paper was sold to Rupert Murdoch in 1984. It was one of those things that I, forever blind to the realities of business, thought would never happen. I’d seen how he’d trashed the New York Post with his lowest-common-denominator journalism. I wasn’t wild about the Boston Herald, either. Then again, the Herald might have gone out of business if he hadn’t shown up. And it did provide a showcase for the stellar sportswriting of George Kimball, Charlie Pierce, and Michael Gee. But that was small consolation to those of us counting down the days until Murdoch took over in Chicago.
The Sun-Times had become a first-rate tabloid, solid from beginning to end and, on its best days, capable of driving the stolid, well-heeled Tribune into Lake Michigan. The newsroom was packed with aggressive young hard-news reporters–Jonathan Landman, now a ranking editor at the New York Times, was one–and they were always breaking big stories and doing great investigative work. There was plenty of good writing, too. My goal every day was to have the best-written piece in the paper, but I’m not sure how many times that happened, not when I was surrounded by Royko and Roger Simon, another fine city columnist, as well as a corps of lively feature writers that included my old friend Eliot Wald, who went on to write for “Saturday Night Live” in the Eddie Murphy years.
And then there was Roger Ebert, who could out-write us all . I always thought Roger was too generous in his movie reviews, but his features were exquisite. It didn’t matter whether he was writing about John Wayne or a B-movie queen, his prose sang. And when a movie star died, Roger soared higher still. A copy clerk would fetch him clips from the paper’s library. He’d scan them and then write 1,200 of the most beautiful words you’ve ever read in 15 or 20 minutes. Sometimes it seemed like his fingers never touched the keyboard–he just waved them like a magic wand and, abra-ka-dabra, a masterpiece appeared.
It’s for someone else to say how many masterpieces appeared in our sports section. I just know we won more than our share of honors, that out-of-town writers regularly took the time to say how much they enjoyed what we were doing, and that I was proud to be part of it. I was in the company of pros who cared deeply about what they did for a living, guys like Jerome Holtzman, Ron Rapoport, Phil Hersh, Ray Sons, Kevin Lamb, and Brian Hewitt. If I was covering something with one of them, it was easy to divvy up the workload. We knew what the stories were, and one of us would look at the other and say, for example, “Smith or Jones?” There would be an answer, not a debate or a clash of egos, and then we’d get busy with what we were there for: the work.
Our era of good feeling lasted until Super Sunday 1984, the day Murdoch and his zombies took control of the paper. There must have been three or four of us in Tampa for the game – that’s the way we did things back then–and we gathered around the phone as Rapoport called the city desk and asked, “How bad is it?”
The answer came in a headline: “Rabbi held in sex slave ring.”
It ran on page three, which was prime tabloid real estate but hardly the place where the previous administration would have played the story if it had run at all. Looking back, I confess that the headline doesn’t seem that terrible. But I have to remind myself that it wasn’t so much that I was offended by the presence of the dirtbag rabbi in the paper. I was offended by what the story about him portended. Murdoch’s people were just getting warmed up. Overnight they had changed the look of the paper, turning its bright, lively design into something garish and cheap, the print equivalent of a streetwalker addicted to rouge and eyeliner. It stood to reason that the stories would be increasingly tarted up, too.
But when Murdoch tried to foist his trademark crap on them, the good people of Chicago just said no. The Sun-Times’ circulation dropped like a shot put in a goldfish bowl. Murdoch’s henchmen were forced to pull back on the cheap thrills and gaudy garbage. The paper would never be what it had been, nor would it lure back all of its readers, but at least it regained a modicum of respectability. The readers who refused to roll over and play dead were better than Murdoch deserved. The same was true of the editors, reporters, and columnists who didn’t abandon the sinking ship. They would endure, some would even prosper, but when you looked around, there was no ignoring the empty desks.
The biggest departure, of course, was Royko, who jumped to the Tribune, which he had hated and baited throughout his career. In sports, we lost our top two editors, Marty Kaiser and Michael Davis, plus Phil Hersh, who went to the Tribune by way of the Philadelpia Inquirer and became, with Randy Harvey of the L.A. Times and Mike Janofsky and Jere Longman of the New York Times, a reigning expert on Olympic sports. I like to think that Roger Ebert stayed at the Sun-Times because he truly loved the paper where he has spent his entire career.
Would that I could say the same about myself. Truth was, I wanted no part of the Murdoch regime. I would have gone anywhere that could afford me, but the columnist gigs at papers fitting that description were locked up. The editors who had looked out for me at Sports Illustrated were gone, Inside Sports had been taken over by nickel-and-dimers, and The National had yet to become a gleam in Frank Deford’s eye. Maybe I should have tried freelancing, maybe I should have gone to work on a screenplay or a novel. But I liked the idea of a steady paycheck. When the new regime offered me a contract that would pay me six figures a year for three years–big money in that era–I forsook my principles and misgivings and signed on the dotted line.
I would pay for it.
Chapter 28: The Breaking Point
As much as I detested how Murdoch had cheapened the Sun-Times, I kept pushing myself to write the best column I could. For a while, I might even have succeeded. But things were too different and too weird for someone as irascible as I am to keep his mouth shut for long. The paper’s new editor wanted to cut a wide swath in Chicago society, and his wife was just as pathetic and desperate for the spotlight as he was. The new sports editor was a young dolt who seemed to spend most of his time sniffing around a pretty copy clerk. I’d worked for a string of first-rate sports editors before he showed up, guys who wouldn’t have hired him to fetch coffee, and here he was acting like he knew something.
One day he made the mistake of asking what I thought of the changes Murdoch’s infidels had made to the paper. When I told him, he looked like I’d hit him between the eyes with a sack of wet brownies. I’m sure he scampered off to let his bosses know that I hadn’t drunk the Kool-Aid. That’s the way they operated. I’m surprised we weren’t required to take a loyalty oath.
It’s safe to say I wasn’t the only one at the Sun-Times who loathed Murdoch and his henchmen. But people needed a paycheck. They had families, mortgages, bills. They needed the work. And if the people they worked for were a bunch of bums, so be it. They would soldier on and hope for a better tomorrow.
I was one of them until I came home from covering the 1984 U.S. Olympic trials in Los Angeles. I’d been fighting a virus for weeks and I felt like dog meat. But I’d never called in sick in Chicago and I wasn’t about to start now. It was a Friday and I went to Wrigley Field and interviewed Ryne Sandberg, who was having his breakout season with the Cubs. Then I came back to the office to turn the interview into my Sunday column. It was noisy in sports, so I took refuge in the features department, which was empty except for two deskmen laying out the Sunday sports section. All was right with the world until this guy I’d never seen before walked up and started insulting me, saying my column wasn’t any good and I was overpaid. It turned out that he was a features editor who’d been imported from Murdoch’s paper in San Antonio. Maybe the editors there could get away with acting like drill instructors and prison guards, but this was a first for me.
I should have just hauled off and hit the son of a bitch. But I’d been ambushed. I was stunned. On top of that, I was so weary and sick that I just wanted to go home and crawl into bed. It was all I could do to call him a weasel and a motherfucker and invite him to go to the editor who had decided to pay me all that money and get me fired.
The deskmen, both gentle souls, were gob-smacked, which, in retrospect, was the only amusing thing about this episode. I don’t think they realized their jaws were on their chests until Murdoch’s provocateur left and I finished my column and drove home to Evanston, about a half hour from the office. The longer I drove, however, the angrier I got. This was before cell phones so I had to wait until I walked I the door to call the office and ask if that mouthy prick was still around. He was. “Don’t let him go anywhere,” I said.
There are people who will tell you I went back to the office that night and punched him out. I didn’t. I realize this will come as a disappointment to both those who regard me as some kind of a hero and some kind of a lunatic, but it’s true. I’ve often wished that I had beaten the son of a bitch so badly that his unborn children felt it, but I’m not nearly that tough. Almost everything I’ve punched in my life has been inanimate. I do, however, have a temper, and I refuse to be bullied, and that’s why I returned with malice aforethought. But when I saw the guy for the second time, a voice in my head started saying, “You don’t want to go to jail, you don’t want to get sued.” Hardly the thoughts you associate with someone on the verge of violence, but there you have them.
I settled for calling the guy every kind of a gutless motherfucker I could think of, hoping he’d throw the first punch. But his mouth had written a check his ass couldn’t cash. He kept backing up, and just as he was about to turn and run, I grabbed him – one hand on his collar, one on his belt — and threw him over the nearest desk. He bounced once, as I recall. Then I walked around the desk, picked up him, and threw him back where I had found him. The only real satisfaction I got was the expression on his face. He looked like the noose had just been put around his neck and I was the hangman.
The next day, the sports editor called to say I’d been suspended me without pay. In doing so, the paper violated its contract with the Newspaper Guild, which said I was entitled to a hearing before any action could be taken. The Sun-Times responded by firing me. But the Guild fought the good fight in arbitration and I won a healthy settlement. It came on top of a different kind of reward from the people in the features department who had been bullied by the son of a bitch I bounced around. He had been making their lives a misery from the day he showed up. To them, I’d struck a blow for justice.
My wife was less convinced of my virtues. I didn’t blame her. I still don’t. I wasn’t easy to live with in those days. I was either on the road for work or at home raging about a computer that had crashed or a column I’d written poorly or a typo the copy desk hadn’t caught or . . . Jesus, I was a runaway train. The blow-up at the Sun-Times only added to my anger and my wife’s confusion and frustration. The strange thing was, we never argued. Maybe we should have. But my being fired was where our paths diverged for keeps. We divorced quietly, amicably, painfully.
For the rest of the summer, I rode my bike up and down the North Shore, from Evanston to Highland Park and back, always by myself. I had a million thoughts running through my head and no concrete plans. About the only person I saw on a regular basis was a big-hearted used-book dealer named Roger Carlson. He had a little shop in an alley in Evanston. It didn’t have any windows, so Roger had one painted next to his front door. The window looked in on a bookstore, and there on the shelves, alongside Shakespeare and Dickens and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, was a book with a name on it that really didn’t belong there or, for the moment at least, anywhere else. My name.
Chapter 29: The Road to Philly
I know how I ended up in Philadelphia: I drove.
What I don’t know is why I ended up in Philadelphia.
The Daily News, home of one of the truly great sports sections of the last half of the Twentieth Century, already had three stellar columnists, Ray Didinger, Stan Hochman, and Mark Whicker. Bill Conlin was covering baseball with idiosyncratic fervor, conducting a running feud with the Phillies, delivering history lessons in his game stories, and flirting with scatology every chance he got. Long before I hit town, he set the standard for blue wordplay by quoting Dusty Baker, who had dropped a fly ball, as saying, “I had the motor faker right in my glove.” The quote only lasted one edition, but Conlin was the one guy in all of sportswriting capable of getting away with even that much.
None of the other beat writers came close to him in terms of sheer outrageousness, but each was an intrepid digger: Phil Jasner on the 76ers, Jay Greenberg on the Flyers, Paul Domowitch and the young Rich Hoffman (not long out of Penn) on pro football, Elmer Smith on boxing, and the inimitable Dick (Hoops) Weiss on college basketball. These guys were passionate about what they did. And smart. And aggressive. And competitive. I realize that the Boston Globe was regarded as the gold standard for sports sections back then-–and I know what a joy it was for me to read the Globe–but I still think the Daily News gave it a run for its money.
The Daily News certainly didn’t need me to do that. Even with a hole in its lineup after Tom Cushman, who was so solid on boxing, college sports, and track and field, left for San Diego, the paper still had all the talent–and all the egos–it needed. The Daily News hired me anyway.
No matter how good a sports columnist I was, I was hardly a marketable commodity after my inelegant departure from the Sun-Times. It was pretty much what I expected. There are more than a few newspaper editors who love to have a reason to think they have the upper hand on the talent. In my case, they could go tsk-tsk and say I was a troublemaker or that I was out of control. On the other hand, there was the reaction my blow-up got from Pete Dexter, who was a city columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News and whom I had yet to meet. Pete told our mutual friend Rob Fleder, a world-class magazine editor, “I don’t know Schulian and I don’t know exactly what happened, but I know he was right.” Which, of course, earned Pete a place in my personal hall of fame.
But guys like Pete don’t run newspapers. Guys unlike him do. And the hell of it was, I couldn’t argue with them, even though I’d been provoked and maybe set up. I was wrung out. Getting fired and divorced in a four-month span was all I could handle. I didn’t write a word for the first two months after I left the Sun-Times. I just rode my bike and ate pizza and watched the Cubs on TV. As if to spite me, they almost had a great season, but their muscle memory finally kicked in and they fell apart in the playoffs.
I didn’t put words on paper again until Eliot Kaplan, GQ’s managing editor, called because Vic Ziegel, may he rest in peace, told him I was massively available. Eliot was looking for someone to profile Mike Royko and I convinced him that I was his man. In the course of conversation, Eliot told me he’d read me when he was a kid. It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping to hear, but the truth was, he really was a kid. He couldn’t have been more than 26 or 27 when he became Art Cooper’s right-hand man at GQ. As for Royko, he couldn’t have been a more cooperative subject, right down to musing forlornly about the death of his first wife and dancing with the woman who would become his second wife on the sidewalk outside the Billy Goat Tavern.
Just like that, I was a made man at GQ, which was becoming a home for first-rate writing and reportage instead of pretty boys in clothes guaranteed to get their asses kicked. I wrote for the magazine whenever I could for the next 20 years, until Art got forced out. He died not long afterward, while having lunch at the Four Seasons. The man had style.
Looking back, I wonder if I should have lobbied for a three-story deal with GQ that would have allowed me to stay in Chicago. John Walsh, when he was running Inside Sports, told me he thought I was a natural magazine writer, and he may have been right. Magazine work certainly was a better fit for the way I approached writing than a four-times-a-week column was. The column chewed me up, and yet, when the Daily News called, I threw myself back in the meat grinder. It was partly because I was afraid let go of the identity a column gave me and partly because I was infatuated with the history of the sports section that Larry Merchant had built for glory 20 years earlier.
I saw myself joining a parade in which George Kiseda, Sandy Grady, and Jack McKinney had marched. Merchant had made them the Daily News’ pioneers in trenchant reporting, salty prose, and raucous laughter. Stan Hochman, who was there at the beginning with them, once told me about the old warehouse the paper had called home when it was known as the “Dirty News” for its emphasis on crime and cheesecake. The building wasn’t air conditioned, and one sweltering summer day, with huge floor fans shoving hot air around the newsroom, some genius got it in his head to open the windows. The fans proceeded to blow every piece of paper that wasn’t weighted down out the windows and to hell and gone.
I should have been smart enough to realize there was no recapturing those days or the spirit that infused the Merchant era. Instead, I acted according to Faulkner’s theory that the past is never really past. Faulkner didn’t play in Philly, though, and soon enough I was a man out of time, out of place.
Chapter 30: The Wrong Fit
I had come up in the newspaper game and I had succeeded in it, even if I was in the penalty box. I thought I had to be a sports columnist again, if I was doing any thinking at all that summer. But I was so numb that I couldn’t even get angry when my phone didn’t ring with offers. I just climbed on my bike and pedaled away, numb to a business that would take its own sweet time to acknowledge my existence again.
Finally, the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called to ask what I’d think about working there. I actually liked the town, but not well enough to make it the next place I rolled the dice with my career. The Philadelphia Daily News was a different story. I’d considered jumping to the News in ’81 or ’82, when a beguiling character named Gil Spencer was running the paper. Gil was the kind of free spirit you don’t find in an editor’s office anymore-–a Main Line kid who hadn’t bothered going to college, an ex-marine, a devout horseplayer, a Pultzer prize-winning editorial writer, and a tabloid guy in the best sense of the word. Here’s how smart he was: he gave Pete Dexter a column when Pete was a reporter best known for getting himself in bizarre situations. The first time I met Gil, he was driving me to lunch. “While we’re fucking around,” he said, “why don’t you tell me a little about yourself?” How could I not like an editor like that?
By the time I was on the market again, Zach Stalberg had replaced Gil. Zach was someone to like, too, a Philly guy who wore cowboy boots, an ex-City Hall reporter, a bit of a swashbuckler. But it wasn’t Zach who came after me. It was the paper’s executive sports editor, Mike Rathet, who had been an Associated Press sportswriter and a Miami Dolphins PR man. And I still don’t know why.
Sometimes I think it was because Rathet liked the way I wrote. Other times I think it was because he wanted to say he’d tamed John Schulian. He made a point of telling me my column could be edited, and he made sure I knew that he was making more money than I was.
I took a 25 percent pay cut when I went to the Daily News, although I’m not sure anyone at the paper except the brass knew it. I always had the feeling that everybody, in and out of sports, thought I was still pulling down six figures. It probably didn’t help that I bought a little restored farmhouse out in Bryn Mawr when most everybody else on the paper seemed to live either in the city or in the South Jersey suburbs. The way it turned out, though, I traveled so much while I was at the Daily News that I should have just rented a motel room by the airport. Between work and vacation, I was gone 195 days in 1985. I get tired just looking at that number now, but back then, I was glad to be on the move.
It quickly dawned on me that Philadelphia was going to be a hard city to embrace. Chicago still owned my heart, and the only two cities in the country that could compete with it in my mind were L.A. and New York. If Philly had any charms, they eluded me. The cheesesteaks were borderline inedible, the drivers were second only to Boston’s when it came to apparent homicidal urges, and the city’s general disposition seemed to flow from those same drivers.
It wasn’t much better at the Daily News. Once I got past Zach Stalberg and his secretary, the only people outside of the sports department who engaged me in real conversations were Maria Gallagher, a reporter who later married Ray Didinger, and Gene Seymour, who went on to write about movies and pop culture at Newsday. And Pete Dexter, of course. He was already on his way to becoming a great novelist when he told me with a straight face that he really wanted to write an episode of Bob Newhart’s TV show. Pete could always make me laugh, but something in his eyes said he knew how it felt to be an orphan in the storm, too.
That solitary feeling followed me into the sports department. I’d invaded territory to which the Daily News’ other columnists had long ago staked claim. Only the unfailingly gracious Didinger refused to let that stop him from treating me like a friend. Stan Hochman, who had always been so amiable when I was an out-of-towner, warily kept his distance, and Mark Whicker left the impression that he’d rather talk about me than to me. Not surprisingly, Bill Conlin proved harder to read than any of them. I assumed hated me – what can I say, he just has that way about him – but we bonded over our antipathy toward Whitey Herzog at the 1985 World Series.
Even if we’d all been singing “Kumbaya,” however, it would have been hard to get the sports staff together because we were always racing somewhere to cover the next big story. I had dinner a couple of times with Rathet and his delightful wife, Lois, who would die much too young, but that was about it. The one person I truly connected with was a woman who didn’t even read newspapers. She was very artsy, very stylish, and brave enough ultimately to live through four years with me.
True to form, my career butted in line ahead of my personal life as I set about re-living what I had gone through as a columnist in Chicago. But the first time was a thrill: to discover that I was good at it, to be anointed a star, to be covering the sports events that every writer dreamed of. The second time, in Philly, was borderline torture. It wasn’t because of the chilly reception I received at the Daily News, either. I’d been the new kid in school more times that I cared to count. I could deal with that, even though it was a bit disconcerting to think that I was getting along better with editors than I was with my fellow troops. What I hadn’t counted on was the toxic reaction I found myself having to the job itself. I’d long ago tired of airplanes and hotel rooms and room service meals that were guaranteed to shorten my life, but now the dread with which I faced them was spreading. I couldn’t generate any excitement for the crowds, the bright lights, or even the biggest games and fights and horse races. The stories all felt like I’d written them before. Worse, I could barely stand to read my own prose.
I needed a new challenge, not one I’d already conquered. I needed something to save me from a future as a grumpy, overweight sports columnist who was odds on to keel over dead while running to catch a plane. Shortly before dawn on the day I turned 40, I discovered what my ticket out was. It had been in my head nearly all my life.
Chapter 31: Hello, I Must Be Going
My life began to change for the better as soon as I caught a glimpse of Hollywood in my future. I believe that’s known as the magic of show business. Of course, the Philadelphia 76ers, being mostly very tall, as professional basketball teams inevitably are, did what they could to obscure my view by playing a game they appeared to be as uninterested in as I was. But we all had to be someplace that January night in 1985, so there we were. Afterward, out of desperation more than anything else, I tried, unsuccessfully, to coax a sentence or two out of Moses Malone. All Moses seemed to have in him was a few grunts, and a few grunts do not a column make.
It was snowing when I headed back to the Daily News wondering how I was going to tap dance my way through this one. Sometime between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., I remembered the “Red on Roundball” feature that Red Auerbach used to do on the NBA’s TV games. One of his guests had been Moses, and when Auerbach asked him what the secret of rebounding was, Moses said, “I take it to the rack.” Though hardly as memorable as “Give me liberty or give me death” or “I can’t get no satisfaction,” those words became my inspiration for an ode to Moses, who, after all, would end up in the hall of fame as a player, not an orator.
Afterward, while driving home through the snow, I realized that (1) I had turned 40 while I was in the process of immortalizing that big sphinx, and (2) I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life doing this. In truth, I didn’t want to spend another day doing it. But I needed the dough, and besides, in just a few hours, I had an appointment to see Steve Sabol at NFL Films about his search for someone to replace the late John Facenda as the voice that would stir the soul as the game’s behemoths shook the earth. For what it’s worth, I wrote a column nominating Tina Turner. She didn’t get the job.
Not that I cared. I was too busy thinking about Hollywood. At first it was an abstraction, the way it had been when I was a kid so fascinated by movies–-never TV, always movies–that I drew crude versions of them on sheets of paper. If you want to be generous, I guess you could call what I did storyboards. The movies I chose to give my special touch were primarily Westerns, and not great ones, either. We’re talking about the bottom half of a double bill. I didn’t start thinking bigger until I picked up “The Craft of Screenwriting,” a book of interviews with heavy hitters like William Goldman and Robert Towne that my wife had given me for Christmas in 1981. In her inscription, she had said she expected me to be writing in Hollywood in five years. She was my ex-wife by this point, of course, but I realized that if I hustled, I still had a chance to make her deadline.
I’d been in Philly for less than three months, and I already knew it wasn’t for me. The only time I liked the city was when I was looking down at it from a plane bound for Los Angeles. Mike Rathet, the Daily News sports editor, was incredibly generous about giving me assignments on the West Coast. I must have made eight or 10 trips there in 18 months. In each of the two holiday seasons that I worked for the News, I spent three weeks in L.A., ensconced in an out-of-the-way hotel where somebody interesting was always in the lobby–Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, James Earl Jones. I heard that Elvis Costello stayed there, too. Lots of rock-and-rollers did. God bless them, because the women they attracted made the rooftop swimming pool the eighth wonder of the world. But I was equally fond of the clerk who greeted me on one of my visits by saying, “Oh, Mr. Schulian, welcome back. Are you filming?” Only in my dreams.
The spoiler was always my return trip to Philadelphia and the low-grade depression that set in the moment my flight touched down. Once again, I would be trapped in a world where the good guys were becoming harder to find. They were still there, of course–the ones with the stories and the one-liners and the moments of insight and reflection–but there were more and more athletes, coaches and executives who were the writers’ enemy and reveled in it.
And so there came a night when John Thompson, the Georgetown basketball coach, decreed that there would be no speaking to his two star players after they had mumbled a couple of forgettable clichés in a post-game press conference. This was in Madison Square Garden after the Hoyas had just beaten Chris Mullin and St. John’s. I marched down the hallway to Georgetown’s locker room, determined to either talk to the kids or get thrown out trying. And then I hit the brakes. Screw it, I told myself. There would be no confrontation with Thompson or that horrible crone he had watching over the team. There would be no more groveling.
I’d spent enough time choking on the cynicism in the press box at wretched Veterans Stadium, too. There wasn’t any place in the country that was its equal for toxicity. While the artificial turf curled like discount-store shag and the paying customers howled for blood, some immensely talented knights of the keyboard entertained themselves by, among other things, mocking a ballplayer with a speech impediment.
What I was sickest of, however, was my own writing. I’d read years before that someone–-I think it was Russell Baker, the New York Times’ op-ed page wit–said you spend your first year as a columnist discovering your voice and the rest of your career trying to get over it. In Philadelphia, where I was new to readers, everything felt old to me -– the anecdotes, the turns of phrase, the choices of column subjects, the striving to establish myself. I’d done it all in Chicago, and the prospect of doing it again felt like a death sentence.
Writing in Hollywood promised to be as different as fiction is from fact. There was a chance it might even be my salvation. That may seem a curious choice of words when you consider the fate of writers far better than I who have washed up on the rocky shoals of the movie and TV business. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote the most beautiful prose America has ever seen, was baffled by screenwriting no matter how hard he worked at it. William Faulkner, weary of executives who thought he was loafing if his typewriter wasn’t clickety-clacking, simply went home to Mississippi and soothed his soul with bourbon. But I couldn’t be scared off by Fitzgerald’s fate, nor could I drink as much as Faulkner. This was about me and no one else. I had to close my eyes and jump.
Article printed from Bronx Banter: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com
URL to article: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/2011/12/28/from-ali-to-xena-part-two-ink-stained-wrech/
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 Paul Hemphill: http://www.bhamweekly.com/birmingham/article-971-remembering-paul-hemphill.html
 Johnny Cash’s “Live at Folsom Prison,”: http://www.amazon.com/At-Folsom-Prison-Johnny-Cash/dp/B000028U0Y
 Hemphill’s book “The Nashville Sound”: http://www.amazon.com/Nashville-Sound-Paul-Hemphill/dp/0974387711/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1308528953&sr=1-1
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 SI called the story “On the Block — Way of All Flesh,” : http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1088312/index.htm
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 the magazine’s first Moses Malone story: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1088431/index.htm
 a piece on the amateur baseball team in Baltimore that produced Reggie Jackson and Al Kaline.: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1088866/3/index.htm
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 N.Y. Times: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/06/showcase-60/
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 “The City Game”: http://www.amazon.com/City-Game-Basketball-Garden-Playgrounds/dp/0803259344
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 I loved the jukebox at O’Rourke’s: http://www.granta.com/Online-Only/A-Bar-on-North-Avenue
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 Bud Shrake: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/tag/bud-shrake/
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 Roger Ebert, who could out-write us all: http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2009/02/im_reading_newspapers_again.html
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 here for the full “From Ali to Xena” archives.: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/category/life-of-schulian/
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