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Bronx Banter Book Excerpt: Paper Tiger

Stanley Woodward is best remembered today for a wire he almost sent to Red Smith. Woodward was the sports editor for the New York Herald Tribune and Smith was his star columnist. One spring, according to “Red: A Biography of Red Smith,” By Ira Berkow,  “Woodward had been upset with the general sweet fare of columns” Smith had written. “Stanley was about to send a wire saying, ‘Will you stop Godding up those ball players?”

Woodward did not send the wire but Smith never forgot the sentiment. He repeated the story in Jerome Holtzman’s terrific oral history, “No Cheering in the Press Box.”

Woodward ran perhaps the finest sports section in New York after WWII. His Tribune staff included Smith, Al Laney, Jesse Abramson and Joe Palmer.

“Paper Tiger” is Woodward’s classic memoir. Fortunately for us, the good people at the University of Nebraska Press reissued the book not long ago (and it features an introduction from our man Schulian). Woodward’s gem is in print and it is essential reading. (Check out the “Paper Tiger” page at the University of Nebraska Press website.)

Please enjoy this excerpt. Woodward writes about bringing Smith, and Palmer–a writer who is also criminally overlooked these days–to the paper.

From “Paper Tiger,” by Stanley Woodward

Mrs. Helen Rogers Reid blew hot and cold on me at various times during my prewar and wartime career with the New York Herald Tribune. When I came back from the Pacific I felt I was in high favor. Not only had I written reams of copy about the nether side of the war but I worked largely by mail and so had not run up the hideous radio and cable bills the lady was used to receiving for war correspondence.

Mrs. Reid was extremely active in running the paper. She was the actual head of the Advertising Department but in the late stages of Ogden’s life she played a role of increasing importance in the Editorial Department. He started to fail in 1945, and his death occurred on January 3, 1947.

My first day in the office after getting back from the Pacific theater, Mrs. Reid invited me to her office and asked me what I would like to do for the paper. I believe I could have had any job I named at the time. But I asked merely to be returned to the Sports Department which needed reorganization. I asked to go back as sports editor on the theory, held by myself at any rate, that I would be moved out of Sports after the department had been put on its feet.

The first move I made was to install Arthur Glass as head of the copy desk. Our selection of news had been poor during the war and our choice of pictures was abysmal. Glass improved the paper the first day he worked in the slot, which was September 4, 1945.

At this time Al Laney was the columnist and didn’t like the job. He much preferred to handle assignments or to get up a feature series as he had in the case of “The Forgotten Men” before the war.

The first move I made was to attempt to get John Lardner to write our column. The first time we discussed it we renewed the old crap game argument and got nowhere. The second time I took along our publisher, Bill Robinson, and the talk was more businesslike. We met Lardner several other times but couldn’t come to terms with him. The fact was he didn’t want to write a newspaper column and kept making difficulties. So we dropped him, reluctantly.

Even before we talked to Lardner I had been scouting a little guy on the Philadelphia Record whose name was Walter Wellesley Smith. This character was a complete newspaper man. He had been through the mill and had come out with a high polish. In Philadelphia he was being hideously overworked. Not only did he write the column for the Record but he covered the ball games and took most other important assignments.

We scouted him in our usual way. For a month Verna Reamer, Sports Department secretary, bought the Record at the out-of-town newsstand in Times Square. She clipped all of Smith’s writings and pasted them in a blank book. At the end of the month she left the book on my desk and I read a month’s work by Smith at one sitting. I found I could get a better impression of a man’s general ability and style by reading a large amount of his stuff at one time.

There was no doubt in my mind that Smith was a man we must have. After I’d read half his stuff I decided he had more class than any writer in the newspaper business.

At first I didn’t think of him as a substitute for Lardner. Rather I wanted to get them both. When dealings with Lardner came to a stop I was afraid I would have to go back to writing a daily column myself, which I dreaded. I thought of myself at this time as an organizer rather than a writer, but Laney was anxious to have a leave of absence to finish the book he was writing (Paris Herald).

I telephoned Smith and asked him if he could come to New York and talk with me. We set a date and he arrived one morning with his wife Kay. She and Ricie paired off for much of the day while Smith and I discussed business.

It must be said that I was making this move without full approval of the management. George Cornish, our managing editor, knew I was looking for a man but was hard to convince when higher salaries were involved.

It is very strange to me that there was no competition in New York for Smith’s services. He was making ninety dollars a week in Philadelphia with a small extra fee for use of his material in the Camden paper, also operated by J. David Stern. Nobody in New York had approached Smith in several years. In fact, he never had had a decent offer from any New York paper. I opened the conversation with Smith as follows—

“You are the best newspaper writer in the country and I can’t understand why you are stuck in Philadelphia. I can’t pay you what you’re worth, but I’m very anxious to have you come here with us. I think that you will ultimately be our sports columnist but all I can offer you at the start is a job on the staff. Are you interested?”

“I sure am if the money is right,” said Red.

We adjourned for lunch and I told him about the paper and what I hoped to make of the Sports Department. I told him that I had lost all interest in sports during the war but now I was determined to make our department the best in the country.

“I can’t do this without you, Red,” I told him.

I left Smith parked in Bleeck’s and went upstairs to talk to George Cornish. With him it was a question of money and he blanched when I told him how much I wanted to pay Smith. I got a halfhearted go-ahead from George, but still I didn’t dare make the offer to Smith.

He owned a house in the Philadelphia suburbs and would be under great expense until he could sell it and move his family to New York. I suggested that we would perhaps be able to pay him an “equalization fee” until he moved his wife and children into Herald Tribune territory.

I went back to see Cornish and broached this subject. No one can say George wasn’t careful with the company’s money. He argued for a while but finally agreed that if we were to bring Smith to New York, it would be fair to save him from penury during his first weeks with us.

I was able to go back to Bleeck’s and make a pretty good offer to Red. I explained to him that his salary would be cut back after his family moved.

“But don’t worry,” I added. “You’ll be making five times that in three years.”

Of course, it turned out that way. As our columnist, Red was immediately syndicated. His salary was boosted within a couple of months and his income from outside papers equaled his new salary. Before anyone knew it he was making telephone numbers—and he deserved it.

I am unable to account for the fact that none of the evening papers of New York grabbed him. He could have been had, in all probability, for five dollars more a week than we gave him.

With him in hand I was able to let Laney take a few months off to finish his book while I slaved at the column, in addition to other duties. I didn’t want to put Red in too quickly. I wanted him to get the feel of the town first, and also I needed some of his writing in the paper to convince the bigwigs that he was as good as I claimed.

After Smith had been with us a month or so, I talked to Bill Robinson about making him our columnist. I wanted Bill to talk to Mrs. Reid about Smith so that Red would get away from the gate in good order. Bill had been reading him and was enthusiastic about his work. So not long after Smith had shifted his family to Malverne, Long Island, having sold his house, I told him that he was the columnist until further notice.

“I think that means forever, Red. And I’ll go right upstairs and see if I can get you more money.”

As a columnist Smith made an immediate hit and it wasn’t long before the Hearst people were showing interest in him. I told Bill Robinson it was silly not to have a contract with Smith. He agreed and it was drawn up at once. It gave him a large increase in salary and half the returns from his syndicate, which was growing fast. It now includes about one hundred papers.

I’d like to go back to the question of why Smith wasn’t hired by somebody else. My conclusion is that most writing sports editors don’t want a man around who is obviously better than they. I took the opposite view on this question. I wanted no writer on the staff who couldn’t beat me or at least compete with me. This was a question of policy.

I was trying to make a strong Sports Department and it was impossible to do this with the dreadful mediocrity I saw around me on the other New York papers.

The week the Smiths moved from the Main Line to Malverne was memorable. The kids, Kitty and Terry, were dropped off at our farm for a few days so that the parental Smiths could move in peace. I think the kids had a good time playing with our little girls.

Terry, who is now a bright young reporter and a graduate of Notre Dame and the army, was satisfied to sit on the tractor for hours at a time. To be safe I blocked the wheels with logs of wood and took off the distributor cap. The tractor had a self-starter.

With the Smiths established in Malverne, the next move was to get a racing writer. I wrote about twenty-five letters to people in racing—horse owners, promoters, trainers, jockeys, concessionaires, and gamblers. I asked each one whom he considered to be the best racing writer available to the New York Herald Tribune. The response was nearly 100 percent unanimous: “Joe Palmer.”

I asked Smith if he knew Joe Palmer. He said, “Yes, and he’s a hell of a writer.”

I found that Joe had a regular job on the Blood Horse of Lexington, Kentucky, that he was also secretary of the Trainers’ Association and was currently in New York tending to the trainers’ business.

I got hold of Bob Kelley, my old Poughkeepsie associate, and asked him if he would make an appointment for Palmer to meet for lunch in Bleeck’s restaurant at his convenience. Kelley had left the Times and had become public relations counsel for the New York race track. He got hold of Palmer and conveyed my message. Palmer answered as follows, “Tell that son of a bitch I won’t have lunch with him, and if I see him on the street I’ll kick him in the shins.”

I told Kelley that his answer was highly unsatisfactory and sent him back to talk further with Palmer. This time Joe came into Bleeck’s with his guard up. What he didn’t like about me was that I made a specialty of panning horse-racing. But once we got together we were friends in no time.

Joe liked the idea of working for the Herald Tribune. We came to terms quickly. It was agreed that he should go to work for us on the opening day at Hialeah, some months away. He needed the intervening time to finish his annual edition of American Race Horses.

I didn’t know at this time what a remarkable performer I had hired. Palmer turned out to be a writer of the Smith stripe, and his Monday morning column, frequently devoted to subjects other than racing, became one of the Herald Tribune’s most valuable features.

I was misguided in the way I handled Palmer. I should never have tied him down with daily racing coverage. He would have been more valuable to us if I had turned him loose to write a daily column of features and notes as Tom O’Reilly did for us much later. But Joe was effective whatever he wrote. He even did a good job on a fight in Florida one winter, though he hated boxing.

He and Smith were at Saratoga during one August meeting, and Smith persuaded him to go to some amateur bouts, conducted for stable boys and grooms. On their way home Palmer panned the show.

“I’d rather see a chicken fight,” he said.

“Why?” said Smith, outraged. “Chicken fighting is inhuman.”

“Well,” said Joe, “what we just saw was unchicken.”

Palmer was a big man physically and as thoroughly educated as John Kieran. Joe had earned his master’s degree in English in Kentucky and had taught there and at the University of Michigan where he studied for his Ph.D. He could speak Anglo-Saxon. His knowledge of music was stupendous and he would have made a good drama critic for any newspaper.

He had started his thesis at Michigan when he discontinued his education and went to work for the Blood Horse.

He first attracted my attention with a St. Patrick’s Day story in which he revealed that the patron saint’s greatest gift to the Irish was the invention of the wheelbarrow, which taught them to walk on their hind lefts.

Joe, himself, was of Irish decent and was brought up a Catholic. When he moved into a house in Malverne near the Smiths, he didn’t like the public education and sent his children to the parochial school. He decided on this course after a long talk with the mother superior. She asked him if he wanted his children instructed in religion and he said he did.

One day Steve and young Joe were learning the catechism. One of the questions was, “How Many Gods Are There?”

“That’s an important question and I want you to be sure to give the sister the right answer,” said Joe. “Now say this after me: ‘There is but one God and Mohammed is his prophet.’”

The story ends there. Nobody ever found out whether the boys told the sister what Joe told them. It’s a safe bet, though, that their mother, Mary Cole Palmer, touted them off Mohammed.

A few days before Palmer came to work for us, we carried a special story by him explaining his credo of racing and a four-column race-track drawing by the distinguished artist, Lee Townsend. The main point of Joe’s story was, “Horse-racing is an athletic contest between horses.”

He was not interested in betting or the coarser skullduggery that goes on around a race track. For a long time he wouldn’t put the payoff in his racing story.

“Why should I do that?” he asked Smith.

“Because if you don’t, the desk will write it in and probably get it in the wrong place.”

A few days before Joe went to work for us, Tom O’Reilly, another great horse writer, heard about it. He said, or so it was reported to me, “Holy smokes! Those guys will be hiring Thomas A. Edison to turn off the lights.”

Excerpted from PAPER TIGER by Stanley Woodward. Copyright © 1962 by Stanley Woodward. Originally published by Atheneum, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

You can order “Paper Tiger” here.

For more on Woodward, check out “Red: A Biography of Red Smith” by Ira Berkow and “Into My Own,” a memoir by Roger Kahn.

And read this about Joe Palmer:  blood horse.

(Thanks once again to Dina C. for her expert transcription.)

One comment

1 Paul A   ~  Feb 12, 2012 5:49 pm

Another terrific piece, Alex. Jerome Holtzman book, ``On Baseball - A History of Baseball Scribes'' devotes a chapter to Stanley Woodward.
That was some line-up he assembled at the Trib.

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