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Category: 3: Interviews

Bronx Banter Interview: Pete Dexter

Bronx Banter Interview

“The truest thing in the world was that you showed who you were writing a column. He said that at his lectures, and they always took that to mean politics or how you feel about the death penalty. Which had nothing to do with it. There were as many dick shrivelers that wanted to ban nuclear sites and love their brother as there were that wanted to bomb Russia. It was almost incidental, what you had for issues. But how you saw things, how physical things went into your eyes and what your brain took and what it threw back, that told who you were.”
—From Pete Dexter’s first novel, God’s Pocket (1983)

Our man Dexter was a legendary newspaper columnist in Philadelphia and then in Sacramento from the late 1970s through the mid-’80s, but unless you lived in those towns at the time or unless you hung out in the microfilm room of your local library, it was nearly impossible to track down his work. Dexter has written seven novels—the third one, Paris Trout, won the National Book Award—and they are all in print. But until Dexter’s old friend, Rob Fleder, a longtime magazine (Esquire, Playboy, Sports Illustrated) and book editor, had the notion to compile Dexter’s journalism, some of his greatest work remained unavailable to us.

First published in 2007, Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage gives us what we want—a sampling of Dexter’s work as a columnist. The good people at Ecco Press have now published a paperback edition, thus giving me an excuse to call up Pete and get him talking about his days in the newspaper business.

I got to know Pete when his last book, Spooner, was published, and I interviewed him then as part of a long-running Bronx Banter Interview series. (Last year, I interviewed Fleder for a collection he put together for Ecco, Damn Yankees. And here is an excerpt from an essay Pete wrote in that book about Chuck Knoblauch.)

What follows was put together from several recent phone conversations with Pete.

Enjoy.

Bronx Banter: What kind of reporter were you when you began?

Pete Dexter: I didn’t have a specialty or anything. I was kind of looked on as a guy who could write. I was a careful writer and a careless reporter. Reporting is a talent but it’s also just a matter of rolling up your sleeves. A guy like Bob Woodward didn’t get where he is by being charming or having a way with people I don’t think. He just did it by following all the rules and taking things as far as they could be humanly taken. That wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew that early on. I didn’t get any satisfaction out of breaking a story. It just didn’t appeal to me.

BB: You started in the Watergate Era when Woodward and Bernstein made the whole idea of being a reporter something else, a star.

PD: Yeah, all of a sudden kids were going to journalism school so they could take down a president. It was a passing fad, I guess, but it lasted ten years anyway. You used to call them “serious young journalists.” You sign up for that, and…if you don’t have your heart in it, if that’s not compulsive in you, if you don’t feel like you have to do it, you’re probably not going to be much of a reporter. Early on I recognized that I was going to have to come from some other direction. On the other hand, I loved being part of the newspaper, I loved that feeling when big stories were breaking, though it wasn’t me that broke them.

BB: And you didn’t have a need to be that guy.

PD: No, I never wanted to be Hoag Levins, who worked for the Philadelphia Daily News. Hoag would put on black face and army fatigues and crawl up to Mayor Rizzo’s house and come away with how much the doorknobs cost and then try to figure how a guy who’d made a living as a police chief and mayor could afford an expensive house. He was wildly ambitious and he was a really good guy. But eventually he made a couple of mistakes and then something got him tripped up—I can’t even remember what it was now—some story he got wrong. They had to fire him. And that would not have been done easily cause you couldn’t help but like him and admire his energy.

BB: Was there a part of reporting, even before you had the column, the part where you’d just go out and talk to people, that you liked? Were you interested in people?

PD: Yeah, not so much for the newspaper. I used to drive around a lot in this old Jeep and I’d see somebody doing something interesting and I’d always pull off the road and go talk to them. That’s been something I’ve always done. And sometimes you hear some real strange stuff. Other times people just won’t talk to you, and that’s OK.

BB: So your natural curiosity helped you.

PD: It wasn’t a conscious thing. I’ve always loved stories. If you’re patient enough there are more people than you’d ever guess that have stories. It wasn’t deliberate but that’s what my stuff’s always been about: It’s about stories.

BB: Had you thought about wanting to have a column even before Gil Spencer arrived at the paper?

PD: That had been in my head. It was the only job outside of running the paper that I wanted. And they were not going to let me run the paper, that was pretty obvious.

BB: Did you get along with your editors?

PD: All the problems I’ve had with management, and they have been legion, were with people that feel the necessity to control you or put their two cents in. This started when I was a reporter. There’s that city editor, assistant city editor, sometimes the managing editor, that certain class of people, as part of their job they feel an obligation to change things just so that they have their own imprint on it somehow. And that’s where the rub comes because if you say, “That’s silly, that doesn’t make sense and here’s why…” you are no longer questioning their editing but you’ve confronted their power, their position. And once that starts, once you let them know you’re not just on their side, that’s where the problems always come from. At least with me. I never enjoyed the confrontations, certainly not as much as I’ve been given credit for, but that’s what it always was about. Power. My thought was you can be the nighttime assistant city editor for the rest of your life and I don’t care, you don’t have anything I want, just leave me alone.

BB: They weren’t about making the piece better necessarily.

PD: I never worked for anybody I looked up to as a writer but I worked for a lot of people that I looked up to as a newspaper guy, and if those people said something, I listened. But the ones who knew what they were doing knew enough to leave me alone in what I did, and if I stepped over a line in their world then not only was I glad for the criticism—if they’d caught some mistake that kept me from being embarrassed again—I was always grateful for that. I didn’t have a sense that if I wrote it it has to be right.

BB: Before you started a column, what columnists did you read, either in Philadelphia or around the country? Not so much that you wanted to emulate them necessarily but who got you interested in the form.

PD: This is hard to explain but when I came to Philly I was in my early thirties. I came out of Florida and had been in the newspaper business on-and-off for about two years and I didn’t know what a newspaper column was. I hadn’t read Breslin or Pete Hamill or Mike Royko. I didn’t know what they did. There were two columnists at the News when I got here, Tom Fox who wrote a column on Page Two, and Larry McMullen, who recently died. McMullen would go out in the street, hear these stories, and write them. He was from South Philadelphia and he was of that time and of that place and of that paper and I’ve never seen a better fit for a paper. When I saw that he was writing stories, that’s when I wanted to do it. He was writing five times a week and when I started I was doing that too—went to four and then to three.

BB: Did you get to know McMullen well?

PD: Oh, yeah, McMullen and I were old friends. I never felt any rivalry. The other guy, Tom Fox, was one of these little guys who walks around … someone called him the best columnist in the country—someone is always saying something like that about you—and he believed it. He’d write about some shooting and he was throwing in tough guy talk like, “He blew the faggot away.” I remember someone wrote a letter to the editor and said, “Who’s really the faggot?” And some criticism of Fox came in that letter. He was just outraged. That was pretty funny to see, at least to me. Those are two perfect examples for someone who wanted to be a columnist—I saw exactly the kind of columnist I wanted to be and the kind I didn’t want to be. It’s good to have one of each.

BB: Did Spencer give you the columnist job or did you have a test run, first?

PD: There was a little time there that I wrote one or two a week when I was still a reporter. That was a short period of time, I can’t tell you how long, a couple of months. But once he gave me a taste of it I was even harder to deal with on the city desk. There was this guy Zach Stalberg who later ran the paper and who is really a good guy, the kind of guy you’d want running your newspaper if you couldn’t have Spencer. Gil made Stalberg the city editor and a couple of months later he became the managing editor. But his present to Stalberg was giving me the column so I was no longer his responsibility. When I started the column if anyone had any problems with me they went straight to Spencer and that was good for everybody. Yeah, I think everybody was happy the way that worked out.

BB: Was it a big transition for you?

PD: It was an avalanche of sudden work. You go from the city desk where someone tells you, “Go interview the widow of this guy who just got shot,” and so you go to the movies and come back and say, “She wasn’t there,” to having to do a story every day. It was more than a small change. If you are a reporter and you’re not a good reporter there are places to hide. You can do all kinds of stuff to avoid producing. But if that column space is yours and you’ve got to fill it by definition you’ve got to fill it. That was good for everybody, too. First of all, it made me a better reporter.

BB: How so?

PD: You come to realize when you’re writing a column that the best columns—the very best ones come off your head—but if you are going to do it three times a week, some of those days you go talk to real people and by the time you get back the column writes itself. I’m thinking about that column in the book [Paper Trails] about the guy in Camden who found the head in the bag. You drive 10 minutes over to Camden, talk to this guy for half an hour, and yeah, I got lucky that day, but that was exactly what a newspaper column is supposed to be. And it was just handed to you. By that time I could write well enough the words were just there, the story was there. And that sort of thing, when it worked, was what a column was about. Most of my better columns were about that, going to actually talk to somebody.

BB: The great sport columnist Red Smith didn’t think of himself as a columnist but as a reporter.

PD: Yeah, that’s right.

BB: You said earlier that you’d drive around, stop the car, and talk to a guy. When you were doing the column, did you force yourself even more to do that because you thought, hey, I’ve got to have something to write about today?

PD: When you’re writing a column, your first question when you look at things are: Is this a column? But if I saw something interesting I’d still want to go ask about it. I’m still like that. I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve talked to who are on skateboards. Just ask them how they do what they’re doing and stuff like that. In a way, I kind of believe that thing of, there are no stupid questions, although God knows I get asked a lot of them. But to me, if you don’t know something and you’ve wondered about it, why not find out?

BB: Did you ever come across something that you found interesting but felt was too big to be a column?

PD: Yeah, but you could usually turn it into a three-part column or write about the same thing for three days. Sometimes that couldn’t be done and yeah it’d be a size you couldn’t handle.

BB: Did you talk to Spencer or anyone else about what you were going to write about beforehand?

PD: No. Good Christ. No.

BB: Did you ever junk one? Or just go with something you didn’t think was that good?

PD: You can write a letters column, you can find something else to do when it’s not going your way but that didn’t happen very often. What you really need is your voice being there three times a week.

BB: How long did it take to develop your voice or style?

PD: The voice was there from the get-go. That goes back to basic writing. If you’re thinking about developing your voice you’re thinking about the wrong things. That should just be—

BB: Like your speaking voice—

PD: You don’t want to be conscious of it. It just happens, at least that’s the way I think. Jeez, I’m looking at my dog outside and he’s taking like the third crap of the last two hours. … Probably shouldn’t have given him that pork chop. We have a rule against giving them pork. Shit.

BB: Kosher, huh?

PD: Yeah.

BB: What about subject matter? Did you ever think, Oh, I’ve written three heavy pieces so far this week; I want to change it up with something light?

PD: No. Whatever came. Once, early on in my column writing, I wrote a piece, I can’t remember what it was about exactly, a guy’d lost his cat and I talked to him for a little while. A guy from one of the neighborhoods. When you write a column you get your detractors. And I got a letter from someone who said that I ripped off a Hemingway short story, where that was a line, something “and the fact that cats that can take care of themselves was all he had.” And I had. Christ knows it wasn’t conscious. I went back and looked at the story. It absolutely looked intentional and it wasn’t. It wasn’t enough on the nose where anyone could say it was plagiarism or anything but the idea of it, I sure could see why the guy said what he said. That’s the only time something like that ever happened to me. And I don’t to this day know … I know that it wasn’t intentional. I really can’t say much more about it but it was there and the idea was behind a short story that Hemingway had written and one that I’d read in college.

BB: Did you write back to the guy?

PD: Probably talked to him. I called people, I didn’t write letters much. There wasn’t much to say, really. But he did have a point. So when years later I heard that Doris Kearns Goodwin was accused of plagiarism … I guess all I’m saying is that I’ve got some sympathy. When you’re writing enough, when you’re writing everyday something like that can creep into your stuff without knowing you’re really doing it. I know it was only once and nobody ever mentioned anything else. But it bothered me.

BB: Did you read the letters that were sent to you by readers?

PD: Read them? Sure.

BB: Did you enjoy them?

PD: Eh, when they were funny. Twenty a day was a big day, six letters a day was predictable. Some were funny. Sometimes they had stories and that could be valuable. But most of the time they were either agreeing with you and disagreeing with you and who cares?

BB: You ever wake up and say, “I got nothing?

PD: No. There’s always something. I took it fairly seriously but I was always doing enough stuff. If something funny wasn’t going on or something interesting wasn’t going on I could usually do something bad enough that I could write about it the next day.

BB: In your own life?

PD: Yeah. I ended up with an FBI guy at a bar one night and I bet him that I could throw a case of beer across Pine Street. The cops showed up. So you had the cops and the FBI guy and me and everyone from Dirty Frank’s out there in the street and it looked like a riot … and that makes a nice little column.

BB: You said earlier that other than running the paper writing a column was the only job you wanted. After two or three years of doing the column, did you feel like you’d found your calling, were you happy with it?

PD: Yeah, I was happy but I didn’t feel like that was it. I would have been probably a lot better off, if you call what I did a career—whatever this is—if I’d devoted myself entirely to that space in the Philly Daily News or gone to New York or stayed with newspapers. I would have definitely been a better newspaper columnist. And who knows, you have to do what makes you happy at the time. I don’t regret any of that. I don’t regret not being in newspapers but there are sure days when I miss it.

BB: The immediacy of it?

PD: I don’t know. I just liked being in the city room, I liked the people I worked with—some of them anyway. It was just nice. You’re—

BB: Part of something.

PD: And an important part of it and that makes a difference.

BB: Writing a column sounds a whole less solitary than writing novels.

PD: Oh, yeah. There’s no comparison.

BB: Did you write the column at home or go in to the paper?

PD: No, I went into the paper every day. If I didn’t have a column the next day, I went in anyway just to see what was going on.

BB: So it was a social thing, then.

PD: Oh, yeah. I couldn’t help it.

BB: Was it like a locker room?

PD: Yeah. I was always kind of working. I mean, I didn’t write a column every day but I always went in to see what’s going on and that’s work in a way. Yeah, I just liked being around those people, I liked to see what people were doing. Some of them I still think about to this day and wish I had contact with. There were a bunch of real good reporters.

BB: Do you keep in touch with any of them?

PD: There was a guy named Bob Fowler at the Inky [the Philadelphia Inquirer] that I still talk to once in a while and when I go back there I look up a guy named Gehringer, Dan Gehringer, he’s a real good writer, who I knew from back in Florida. But for the most part, no. No, I really don’t, that’s the truth.

BB: Did you hang out and have drinks with copy editors and reporters?

PD: Eh, not too much. Once in a while, a drink with somebody. For most of that time I wasn’t in the bars at all once that thing happened in South Philadelphia, that’s when I started writing novels and I didn’t have the time or inclination for the bars anymore.

BB: When you were doing the column did you then start to read other guys like Breslin or Hamill?

PD: I’d see Breslin’s stuff and Hamill’s stuff once in awhile. A guy like Breslin, he was a columnist. And that was in spite of the The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. That’s what he was. And he never was much good at anything else that I know of.

BB: You’ve said before that you never had ambition to write novels, but after the first three, you were still writing the column. Did writing fiction inform the nature of how you wrote the column?

PD: No, I don’t think so. I’d just sort of get up and do what was in front of me that day.

BB: Did you ever go to the office to work on a novel?

PD: No, I couldn’t do that there. That’s a separate deal. I was never conscious of anything going on intentionally. It’s a funny thing to say. Every place I ever went I stumbled into accidentally. Maybe one thing led to another but not intentionally.

BB: So you didn’t have a grand plan?

PD: At some point I decided I was done with newspapers but …

BB: Yeah, before that: What was it like leaving Philly and going to the Sacramento Bee?

PD: Oh, fuck, it was the worst thing I ever did professionally. I went there because the guy that ran the paper was an old friend of mine. I’d rather not get into that, but the whole place smacked of an office environment, a business environment. I wasn’t there that long, but when I left they asked me to continue to write up in Washington State where I lived but you can’t be a local columnist and not be local. And the truth is when you’re writing well, the only columnists are local columnists. National columnists are something different. There aren’t as many stories. It’s more reports and views. Where the best columns are just there, they’re just stories. For me, anyway.

BB: In order to be a good columnist to you need to have a basic sense of outrage about things?

PD: I think different guys do it different ways. It’d just wear me out to go in the office every day outraged. And you shouldn’t do that now that I think about it because that ruins the taste for when something real comes along. You can’t go at it like one of these television guys who every night has some breaking news about how bad Obama’s fucked up or something. When you’re always outraged, it’s like the boy that cried wolf and it’s too much. It can be entertaining for someone who is reading the paper for the first time but if all you get from that space is outrage pretty soon nobody believes it, I don’t think. And if it does it appeals to people who are outraged by nature and want to be outraged more.

BB: So everything changed for you as a columnist once you Philly.

PD: It was never the same. I mean, Philadelphia is probably the best place of them all to write a newspaper column. The place is so rich. I missed that. And the paper was so open to what I had to offer, way more than any other paper in the country would have been. And Spencer was such a good guy about it. I don’t think there was a better place to work than the Philadelphia Daily News. And I left it … for reasons that don’t make any sense to me now. I left it ’cause it was time to do something else, I guess. But if I was going to stay in newspapers I’d made a terrible mistake.

BB: You were a columnist for about a decade. Are there guys that get better after 15 years or do they create a persona and then there’s a cap for how far you can go?

PD: Oh, no, you can get better. If you have initiative, if your interest is in the paper and the stories themselves, if you’re a newspaperman in your heart, you continue to get better and love it. I think at the center of things, as much fun as it was for me, I wanted to do something else.

BB: Why does it sound like you have regret about it?

PD: I’m just sorry because it was so much fun. There’s good things and bad things about anywhere but there was an awful lot of good things about that place, Philadelphia. And in that way I’m sorry we left.

BB: When you go back, is it a different place?

PD: No. The paper’s not the same, I’ll tell you.

BB: It’s funny, you could have stayed at the paper and then you’d be going through all these cutbacks and changes.

PD: Oh, I’d be way more unhappy. I mean I get sad about it, I get melancholy about it, but don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t go back and change it.

BB: There are a few longer magazine piece in Paper Trails. You had a column at Esquire for a few years but also wrote takeout pieces for Inside Sports. Did you enjoy writing for magazines?

PD: Not really. That’s an awful lot of writing for—it was an awful lot of work and in the end all you have is a magazine story. As much as I like stopping along the road and talking to somebody I don’t like invading their lives, which is what you need to do. You have to spend a couple of weeks around Jim Brown to begin to get anything. I’ve been on the other side of it, having a guy hanging around me taking notes, and I don’t like it. And I don’t like doing it to someone else for that reason.

BB: How is newspaper reporting different?

PD: You can’t hang around them at all, really. I mean, Christ, I don’t know how many columns I wrote about Randall Cobb and his quest to be the champion of the world but Cobb and I would have been friends anyway. That was a sure-fire column at least once a month, sometimes more than that.

BB: There’s a funny Cobb story about a rental car in Paper Trails. The four columns you wrote on Cobb during the week he fought Larry Holmes in Houston for the heavyweight championship aren’t in the book but I really like them. They were so emotional.

PD: Yeah, it was a sad time.

BB: Because of the Holmes fight?

PD: Yeah, it’s hard to watch somebody realize the dream of his life is never going to happen and he’s doing everything he can and it’s … you know, you really have to set your mind to do something like that. In the first place, you have to lie to yourself all the time. And then to see it all spilled out in front of you like it was, that it wasn’t going to happen … it was sad. He really tried hard.

BB: Did you feel guilty at all?

PD: No. Why?

BB: Because he’d broken his arm in the bar fight you’d been in together the previous winter in South Philly.

PD: No, that went beyond … that wasn’t guilty. I felt bad about it but he and I’d been through so much other stuff, and it just, um, what was going on between me and Randall was a lot closer to—I don’t want to say brotherhood, exactly—but we’d been … no, I didn’t feel guilty about it. But I wasn’t one of the guys … I mean, there was 5,000 people in Philadelphia thinking they’re Randall Cobb’s best friend. Because he was nice to everybody and he would tell people stuff and they would go around thinking that he’d told them something real. But he and I were friends in a different way than that. I understood and he understood exactly what happened that night.

BB: What exactly was that?

PD: No, it’s too complicated. I can’t go into that anymore than I already have 2,000 times because there’s something at the bottom of it between Cobb and me, something that if I tried to go back and explain it, it all just washes over me again. He’s just so … like I said, those were such sad times in the way that I mentioned. What you’re asking about is going into a place that I don’t talk about with anybody. It’s private in some way between me and Cobb in a way that probably doesn’t lend itself very well to words.

BB: Shit, I’m sorry if I made you uneasy even asking about it.

PD: No, it’s alright. I’d gotten hit that night in the bar and I was unconscious. It’s just … that moment when I wake up and Cobb was the only guy there and I wanted to get him—something happened there between us that I’ve not, something I can’t revisit easily, let’s put it that way. But don’t feel bad about asking me, that’s what you’re supposed to do.

BB: Did you guys stay close after the Holmes fight?

PD: Yeah. I mean, he’d started moving away before he fought Holmes. About a month before he fought Holmes he disappeared for a while. I don’t know where he was training but I couldn’t get through to him. He got rid of his manager and his trainer and showed up with a different guy at the fight. And those people were … I mean, everybody was after Cobb as a meal ticket. Money was what they all wanted. He’d been carrying a hundred people around on his back forever, y’know, being everybody’s best friend. If he had $10 and somebody asked him for it, he gave it to them. Whatever he had they could have and he was always like that. And it finally, I think it got to be too much. Christ, he didn’t care what he signed, contracts and shit like that, he never paid any attention to that. He and I kind of lost touch for a while but you don’t give up what you feel about somebody like that.

BB: So when you and Rob Fleder went through the material for Paper Trails did you read tons of columns that you’d forgotten about?

PD: Oh sure. And I’m sure there were tons more than Fleder passed on I still haven’t seen or remember. You got to remember it’s more than a thousand columns, at least. It’s kind of like finding an old diary or something.

BB: Did you enjoy reading through them?

PD: Uh, sort of. Fleder did the work. Fleder’s the guy that read them all. He’s the reason the book is there. He’s absolutely as much a reason that book exists as I am. It’s a funny thing that makes you smile when you look at it. It was such a nice thing for him to do. It wasn’t like we were going to get rich or anything. God, it’s just the nicest thing you can do for somebody in a way. When I look back on the book, I think about Fleder and what a great thing that was to do for me.

BB: In Yiddish they call that a Mitzvah. A blessing.

PD: OK.

BB: A nice thing to do.

PD: And that’s what this is, I guess. A mitz-vah.

You can buy Paper Trails here or download it for to your phone or tablet here. Source photo by Marion Ettlinger, from the back cover of Dexter’s fourth novel, Brotherly Love. Background photo via Getty.

Bronx Banter Interview: Mickey Herskowitz

Head on over to Sports on Earth and check out my Q&A with Mickey Herskowitz about Jock, his short-lived but wonderful magazine.

Here’s Mickey talking about Woody Allen and Paul Simon:

Q: I like the non-sports-writing celebrities you featured in the magazine, like William F. Buckley and Woody Allen.

A: I called Woody Allen’s agent, [Jack] Rollins and [Charles] Joffe. I don’t know whether I talked to Rollins or Joffe. I told him I was running a magazine called Jock and wanted to know if Woody would be available to write a piece about what it was like growing up playing stickball in New York. He said, “I doubt it, but I promise you I’ll mention it to him.” An hour later I got a call from Rollins or Joffe, and he said, “Yeah, Woody would love to do it. He’s doing a play, ‘Play it Again, Sam,’ and does two shows on Sunday. Come between the matinee and the evening performance, bring a photographer and you can get your story and your pictures.”

Q: So it was ghostwritten by you?

A: No. I went there and Woody dictated it to me, it wasn’t ghostwritten. And he said, “What are you doing to do for photographs?” I told him I thought we’d just take a couple of shots of him there in his dressing room. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he said, “not if you’re doing a story on stickball. I know a perfect brownstone about four or five blocks away, let’s go down there.” So about six of us walked down past Eighth Avenue to this brownstone. I had two of my kids with me, they were like 10 and 11, and two of their friends, and they were the rest of the teams. Woody had a stick and a ball, and one of the kids pitched to him and the others played in the field. And that’s where we got the pictures.

Q: All-schoolyard.

A: Now, we did this shoot before the Mets had won the pennant, and after they won I get a call from one of Woody’s managers. He said, “Woody wanted to know if he could ask you a big favor?” I said, “Sure.” “Can you get him four tickets to the World Series?” Honest to God I had to bite my tongue. Are you kidding me? You don’t think that Woody Allen would mean more to the Mets than Mickey Herskowitz from Houston, Texas? For some reason that didn’t occur to him. So I called the Mets PR guy and got him tickets to every home game. Next week I got a handwritten “thank you” note from Woody.

Q: You also had an encounter with Paul Simon, right?

A: I sure did. I was thinking of stories, and it dawned on me that Rollins and Joffe also managed Paul Simon. “The Graduate” had come out, and the song “Mrs. Robinson” was everywhere. So I called up and asked if they thought Paul would be willing to do a story for me on what it was like growing up as a Yankee fan. And Rollins or Joffe said, “Well, I don’t know. I didn’t think Woody would do a story and he did. We’ll ask Paul.” The next day I’m sitting in my office … the secretary put a call through and the voice said, “Mickey?” I said, “Yeah.”

“This is Paul.”

“Paul, who?”

“Paul Simon.”

I was stunned that Paul Simon called. I said: “Paul, jeez, terrific of you to call, and call back so quickly. And to call back yourself. Everybody usually goes through three or four layers of gatekeepers, I’m really impressed.” He said, “Well don’t be. It’s an everyday courtesy.” He talked about what I had pitched and said, “I think it’s a groovy idea and I’d love to do it.” And so I explained what I wanted but also said I’d love it if he could talk about the Joe DiMaggio line, which everyone was so touched by. It took everybody back to nostalgia in their lives.

Q: What did he say about it?

A: He said the line just came to him. He hadn’t had DiMaggio in mind, but his name came to him; he had to have a long enough name to fit the melody. It was funny because he told me that a month or so after the song hit big he was on a TV show with Mickey Mantle and Mantle said, “How come you used DiMaggio’s name in your song and not mine?” Simon said he had to explain to him that it had to do with the melody and not the name.

Q: That’s funny that Mantle asked him. Because he was also a player of Simon’s generation more than DiMaggio.

A: That’s right. Anyhow, we didn’t talk long, maybe about 10 minutes. I was out of things to say. But I was so flattered and grateful for the call, I felt like I had to say something. So I told him that “Mrs. Robinson” was my favorite song. I made it up; it was such a dumb, bulls— thing to say, but I felt I had to say something complimentary to him for calling. There was a pause on the other line. And the next thing he said was: “You didn’t like ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’?” You talk about the insecurity of an artist?

Q: He was straight, he wasn’t joking?

A: I said, “Oh, no, no, no. ‘Mrs. Robinson’ was my favorite sports song. I love ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters.’” And the truth is, I didn’t know what he was talking about. I had been hearing it for weeks but didn’t know the name of it.

Here’s more on how Jock came to be.

Bronx Banter: Before we get to Jock magazine, let’s talk about your early career in Houston.

Mickey Herskowitz: I don’t need to exaggerate what a sports-nuts state Texas is. In fact, the most famous line I ever wrote was when one of the Super Bowl’s came here, I tried to explain Houston and one of my stories started, “We never knew how important Religion was in Texas until people started comparing it to high school football.”
And so way back, I was with the Houston Post.

BB: This was before Wells Twombly, right?

MH: Well before Wells, about ten years before he came along and then he was at the Houston Chronicle. The funny thing is I hired Wells to write for Jock and then had to renege when we started running out of money. He was really hurt. I couldn’t tell him that we were going broke at the time so I had to make up some sleazy excuse. Years later, he asked me about it and I told him the truth. So anyway, I was at the Houston Post and a couple of guys came to me and wanted to have a magazine about sports in Texas. This was the year Elvin Hayes was leading the University of Houston to prominence in college basketball. So a couple of advertising guys came to me and they had a little bit of money.

BB: You were a columnist at this time for the Post, right?

MH: I was in my twenties but a columnist.

BB: You’re younger than Dan Jenkins then.

MH: I was the next generation. Blackie [Sherrod], Dan, a wonderful writer in Fort-Worth named Jim Trinkle, Orville Henry in Fayetteville and Dave Campbell in Waco, Dan Cook in San Antonio, a named Jack Gallagher in Houston, those were the top-rated writers in the state as far as sports went. Bud Shrake came a little later. Gary Cartwright came after that. I don’t know if I was their mascot but they all looked after me.

BB: And you grew up in Houston?

MH: I was born there in the late 1930s. I remember Blackie never missing a chance to pay me a compliment. And years later when Dan was at Sports Illustrated he actually referred to me in print as the best baseball writer in America. Dan told me that on Mondays or Tuesdays when the out of state newspapers came into the office there’d be a scramble to get the Houston Post to see what my ledes were on the Astros ballgames. He really told me that. They brought me up there and offered me a job and I reluctantly turned it down because I was doing a TV show and a radio show in Houston along with the column and the money couldn’t match the three jobs I had back home. The three jobs in Houston were probably easier to handle than one in New York because of the cost of living.

BB: This was before Jock?

MH: Yes, and getting back to Jock, I had these advertising guys come to me about doing a magazine about sports in Texas and if it made sense to do something about sports anywhere that’s where you would start. It was called Sport Folio. I didn’t have any literary figures but I had all the top sports writers in Houston and Dallas, Austin. It was a monthly.

BB: Did you model it after Sport magazine?

MH: No. I stayed at the Post, this was a part-time job. Truth is, I modeled it after Esquire, which is what I did with Jock, as well. Sport Folio lasted about a year. Par for the course, ran out of money the second year. Then about a year after that I got a call from Chris Schenkel. Some money people out of Dallas were going to put out a magazine out called Chris Schenkel’s Sport Scene. Chris was the Bob Costas of his day, the go-to-anchor of his time. Did the Olympics forever, a lot of golf, was a terrific football play-by-play announcer, basketball too. SI did a great cover story on him. At one time he was the biggest name in sports broadcasting. He was the anti-Cosell. Totally factual, understated, non-dramatic. And a golden voice. So Chris called and asked if I would commute to Dallas an edit the magazine. And I did. I had Blackie and Jenkins and Steve Perkins who was a fine writer from Dallas and been in New Orleans.

BB: SI would let Jenkins moonlight for you?

MH: I say I had Jenkins, he maybe did one story for me on TCU but he did it under the radar. He wasn’t freelancing for anyone else.

BB: Did you have Gary Cartwright?

MH: No. I want to put this the right way so it doesn’t seem like a criticism but at that time Gary was still young and he was fourth or fifth in line behind Dan, Blackie and Bud Shrake. Thing about Gary is that he just got better and better and he’s still around of course. But we only had four or five big stories per issue so I didn’t have a big line up. Sports Scene was in mind a success because it was really classy. The people who owned it put a lot of money into it. It was glossy. We could go anywhere and write about anything. I covered the Olympics for that magazine in ’68. And what happened was an advertising guy in New York saw Sports Scene. Keep in mind New York magazine had just made a big splash and was a big success. There may have been city magazines at the time but they were small. In Houston, you had one that strong-armed ads for dentists and doctors and lawyers. Had little fashion stories, luncheons.

BB: They were provincial.

MH: Right. They were not for reading. They were beautiful and glossy but no content. New York was the first real city magazine unless I’m overlooking something in Boston of Philadelphia. So this advertising guy saw Sport Scene and compared it to New York, which was showing a profit after three years, which if you know magazines, is rare. You are lucky to show a profit after three years, hell, you are lucky to still be in business after three years. The stock market had had a real go-go run from about ’66-’68 and he thought he could take the model of Sport Folio and Sport Scene and get a Wall Street company to back it. And that’s exactly what we did.

BB: Did you move to New York?

MH: I did. Had an apartment in the same building with the mayor though he didn’t live there. John Lindsay played tennis with Hank Greenburg outside my window on Sundays. I was at Sutton Place. Cost me about $295 a month to park my car and a luxury apartment in Houston at the time cost about $350.

BB: Did the deal happen quickly?

MH: I flew to New York and met with their key sales people. It was like Alice in Wonderland. I’m almost embarrassed. It was so easy because so many people love sports. The only people they invited to the business meeting were the ones that were nuts about sports. Why wouldn’t they want to take this company public? I called coach Paul Bear Bryant, Jimmy Demerit, AJ Foyt, Cosell, Curt Gowdy, that was my role.

BB: You wanted them to invest in the magazine?

MH: No, no, they agreed to be on the board of directors and each got 10,000 shares. They did it as a favor, nobody asked for anything. But it was a marquee lineup. We went public in June of 1969, just as the recession began. In July, the Mets were 9 games out of first place. I came up with the idea for the first cover. It would be 4 or 5 Met players raising the flag on Iwo Jima except it was on the pitcher’s mound. That was on the inaugural issue, must be worth a pretty penny today. Cleon Jones, Tom Seaver, Ed Kranepool and those guys.

BB: This was after the Jets had already won the Super Bowl.

MH: The same year. And the Knicks had lost to the Bullets in the playoffs but they won the championship the following season, in June of 1970.

BB: New York hasn’t seen a banner year like that since.

Stayed tuned. All week,  we’ll be featuring a different article from Jock.

Bronx Banter Interview: Scott Raab

The Knicks are in Miami tonight to play the Heat. What better time to hear from Scott Raab, the Esquire writer and author of “The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search for the Soul of LeBron James.”

“The Whore of Akron” is a funny, personal, and moving story, a must-read. Scott and I chatted recently about writing, the book, and LeBron James.

Dig in.

BB: You’ve been writing for decades yet “The Whore of Akron” is your first book. Before we get to that, I’d like to talk about your career. Loved the piece you wrote on your blog a few months ago where you talked about what it takes to be a writer. About endurance being a talent.

SR: I talk to people half your age who start whining that they don’t have time to write and I say, ‘Don’t worry about it — you’re obviously not a writer.’ They don’t like hearing that. They actually think they’re entitled to some kind of pity, self- and otherwise. It’s the weirdest thing in the world to me, not because I think I have any big answers but if you really find yourself saying, ‘I don’t have time to write,’ and you’re not feeding four mouths…It’s not like I knew Ray Carver, but from what I know about him the reason he wrote short stories is, first he wasn’t ever sober, but he also had two screaming youngsters and so he’d write in his car. Either you find a way or you find something else that seems more doable. But endurance is a talent.

BB: This blog, Bronx Banter, helped me fight a sense of entitlement. I set it up in such a way that I was forced to show up every day.

SR: And anyone who doesn’t think that’s a huge part of it is deluding themselves.

BB: Showing up every day.

SR: Yes. Putting one foot in front of the other. It took me decades to learn this. And that’s fine. If you don’t learn that, it doesn’t matter how talented you are, because without this talent, of endurance, what difference does it make? Nobody finds you at the soda fountain; it almost never happens. And the journalists it does happen to, like Stephen Glass, Ruth Shalit, Jayson Blair — these are people who, after early success, couldn’t follow through. They didn’t have the chops. They made shit up and committed career suicide.

BB: Is there a difference between talent and intelligence?

SR: Certainly intelligence is a tool, a crucial tool. You have to take in large amounts of material, including human material, and construct some sort of narrative. That requires focus and intelligence. But if you are missing endurance, again, it doesn’t matter how intelligent you might be. In the wake of the LeBron book, I’ve dealt with so-called journalists who have told me, ‘I don’t have time to transcribe a tape so I’m going to send you questions via e-mail.’ They say, “You have until Friday,” and so I say, “Then you have until Friday to transcribe a fucking tape.” I’ve also heard, “I don’t have trustworthy recording equipment.” Then you’re not a real journalist, so don’t waste my fucking time.

BB: When did you start writing pieces for magazines?

SR: I started at GQ in ’92 and got my first contract in ’93. David Granger was a GQ feature editor then. Granger was my big break because he was the one editor in New York who was willing to assign long stories to writers who hadn’t already published long pieces in magazines in New York. So Granger was exactly the right guy at exactly the right time for me. I was still selling columns for $40 to a weekly—when they wanted them—and I was almost 41 when I signed that first contract with GQ. I was never a newspaper guy, I was a creative writing guy.

BB: And you had written fiction at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, right?

SR: I’d published fiction. I had a literary agent. But I wasn’t prolific and wasn’t some young Phillip Roth or William Faulkner. I was a solid fiction writer with problems. Lifestyle problems. And it turns out I needed the structure that a relationship with an editor provides.

BB: And early on with Granger was he doing macro editing with you or micro stuff like line edits?

SR: Alex, if you need line-editing help you don’t ever get a contract. I mean, seriously. If the relationship with the editor is based on line editing—

BB: –You’re screwed.

SR: You don’t even get there. Why would a guy like Granger waste his time with that stuff? I hate to sound grandiose, but at that level it’s about relationship, and envisioning stories, about building trust that you’ll deliver the goods and you won’t fuck the editor in terms of expense account bullshit. It’s business, basically. But it’s also has a strong therapeutic connection in terms of the mentor-mentee relationship for me. Not because I was wet behind the ears but because I didn’t understand what the whole process was.

BB: If part of what you have know to be writing for a major magazine is how to maintain expense accounts and the business end of things, how were you able to do that when you were so fucked up on booze and drugs at the time?

SR: I’m trying to put this the right way…

BB: Is it a matter of being what they call a functioning alcoholic?

SR: Look at your dad. People can do enormous harm to themselves, those who depend on them, and their careers and still function at a really high level. I was a high-hopes-but-low-expectations guy. When you grew up the way I grew up, when you come out of Cleveland State, there weren’t high expectations. I got into Iowa when I was in my thirties and I knew it was really important. I didn’t into the program at Stamford and I didn’t get into the program at Irvine so when I got into Iowa I went in with a strong sense of affirmation and ambition. It never occurred to me that I’d be a magazine writer. I just wanted to compete against the kids that went to school with me. They weren’t from Cleveland State. They’d gone to Sarah Lawrence or Yale.

BB: You were older than a lot of your classmates but did you have an inferiority complex?

SR: You could say that but I don’t think I’m the most accurate judge of that. I know I was very nervous but it wasn’t skittish nervous it was more like I knew what a tremendous opportunity I had. I don’t think I ever operate out of the sense of mastery or security but I don’t know anybody else who does either. I don’t think of it as an inferiority complex. I don’t think that I ever looked at writing for Granger as anything less than a total miracle. That doesn’t imply an inferiority complex; I think it implies a firm grasp of what was going on. All of a sudden you meet a guy who wants you to write in your own voice and wants you to do the kinds of stories that don’t feel safe to most magazine editors and it was like, “Wow, this is the greatest thing in the world.” People ask me if I still write fiction. Of course not. I work really hard at trying to be good at writing what I’m writing. If fiction were that important to me I’d find time to do it. I think fiction is harder and I don’t mean that what I’m doing is easy; to me, it’s not. But writing fiction you have to supply almost everything and the payoff is not so good both in terms of numbers of readers and money. I’ve always looked at meeting Granger and what followed as being beyond my wildest dreams. So things like fudging expense accounts to make a few hundred dollars more seemed absurd to me. No matter how far gone I might have been in terms of my lifestyle, I wasn’t that stupid and greedy.

BB: So when did the idea for this book—

SR: Yeah, I thought we were going to talk about the book.

BB: I know you started working on it during LeBron’s final year with the Cavaliers.

SR: I started after they lost to Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals. For many years at Esquire I wrote a column, didn’t even have my name on it, where I answered questions, general questions. A guy wrote in and asked, “Is it illegal to flip off a cop or just stupid?” Turned out this guy worked for the Cavs. I wasn’t thinking about doing a book when I got the e-mail; I was thinking maybe this guy could get me tickets. I reached out to him—I was going to do his question anyway because it was good for the column—but it was clear after a couple of games in the Orlando series that it wasn’t going to end well for the Cavs. And that was the Cavs team that I really thought could and would go all the way. I got really bummed out. But I figured that they’re going into the next season with Lebron in his walk year, the coach and the general manager in their walk years, with an owner who doesn’t mind paying the luxury tax — it was all or nothing and I thought it would make a fascinating book. They ended up winning 61 games that year. They’d won 66 the year before. They lost in the second round to the Celtics and then Lebron declared free agency.

BB: So you didn’t know that the book would extend into the following season?

SR: No, no, I was looking to write the happy book.

BB: And was part of that happy book your experiences as a Clevelander and Jew?

SR: Not at all. That wasn’t even part of it after Lebron’s decision to go to Miami. Honestly. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I sit down and start writing. I don’t plan things out. I don’t go in blind, of course. But with the Cavs, after the Decision, after the book deal, I thought that the book would be full of interviews, a collection of a lot of Cleveland voices, and that’d be the spine of the book. I wasn’t thinking of that in a hard and fast way but I had whole lists of people to talk to.

BB: Like the wonderful scene of you in the black barbershop.

SR: Well, I needed a black guy to talk with about LeBron and race. And I asked some prominent black guys. I didn’t know Jimmy Israel very well but we were Facebook friends. I knew I couldn’t avoid the subject of race. That didn’t feel honest to me. But the other black writers I asked didn’t know me; some of them didn’t bother to reply and the ones who did said no. I realized, from talking to the guys who did turn me down, that what I was asking of them was essentially unfair. They didn’t know me. I offered them editorial control but the title of the book was already “The Whore of Akron.” As one guy put it to me, “You’re basically asking me to participate in a witch hunt.” That was a legitimate objection. Jimmy’s a Cleveland guy, a great writer, and he taught me a lot.

BB: So in the course of Lebron’s first season in Miami, you’re down there, writing about what’s going on for Esquire, you’re tweeting about what’s going on, were you also writing the book?

SR: I started going to Miami in September of 2010 and started writing the book a few months later, in January 2011. It was not clear to me at that point where the book would be going. I had a deadline and I needed to start getting stuff down but I hadn’t figured anything out at that point.

BB: When did you figure out the structure of the book, where you go back-and-forth between what’s doing with Lebron and the memoir stuff develop?

SR: It was organic. It’s not as conscious as it might seem. In addition to working on the book I also had a big 9/11 piece for Esquire closing in the summer. So I had to de-stress about the book. I don’t often use inspirational slogans but I did use one while I was writing the book. It came from Bob Wickman, the fat closer the Indians had for a couple of years. He said, “You gotta trust your stuff.”

BB: That’s like in “Tender Mercies” the Robert Duvall character says, “Sing it like you feel it.”

SR: That’s right. By the time July rolled around I took a place in the city and moved in for a month. I would go to the HarperCollins office in the morning and revise the manuscript starting at the beginning using the notes I got from my editors, David Hirshey and Barry Harbaugh. Then I would go back to the place I was staying at and work on the ending. Part of me looks at what I do as a plumber. A tradesman with a craft. And at some point in the process an editor realizes that you know what you’re doing. Structurally. So their notes were extensive and important but there weren’t structural issues. There were tonal and practical ones. There were points where I would start pontificating, especially about racial aspects of the story, and there were whole swaths of material that just had to go. I never had a problem with that. I’m really coachable as long as I trust the editor.

BB: One of the first reactions I had when I was reading was to a couple of jokes about Art Modell. Where you had these rim-shot putdown jokes. And I wondered if that was going to be what the book was, more and more outrageous gags.

SR: That’s a legitimate concern.

BB: I didn’t know if you would end up humping one note but then it didn’t go that way. You talk about tone. Did you have sensitivity that on some level you were coming across as being outrageous and not to overdo that at the risk of maybe losing some of the readers?

SR: I’m not sure. I know I lost a few people. Mostly, it’s been well-received but there are certainly people who thought—whether it was the Modell stuff or the Lebron stuff—that it was overdone. I wasn’t hyper-conscious of it. I’m not that conscious of readers. I’m conscious of editors; I want to please them. But it’s an internal process. It’s just a subject—Cleveland sports—about which I feel the kind of passion that I don’t really feel about almost anything. I don’t mean my family. But my relationship to those teams defines me in the same way that being a Jew defines me or being a man defines me. It’s at a profound level. I remember doing a piece on David Cone in the late ‘90s, fun guy, smart guy, and he told me—not that he was the first guy to say it—that “You’ve got to learn to take a few miles an hour off the fastball.” If you try to throw harder in a pressure situation it backfires. You want to change speeds. So I’m conscious of that, not in particular relation to the book but in general.

BB: You reminded me of Mel Brooks in the book. I mean that in the best way.

SR: Even if you meant it in the worst way I’d be honored by that comparison.

BB: I was never offended by your outrage. I accepted it, like I do with Mel Brooks. This is what it is, it’s over-the-top. This is the shtick. And for all of the outrageousness there is also a sense of restraint in this book. And it made me wonder if you would have been able to do that, 15 or 20 years ago.

SR: I couldn’t have done it. It goes back to David Hirshey, my senior editor at HarperCollins. Nobody was excited about the prospect of the Happy LeBron Book unless I could deliver the impossible, which was access to Lebron. Once that season ended with the loss to the Celtics, I said to my wife, “That was a fun year at sports fantasy camp, I spent a few grand, but I had a great time. There ain’t going to be any book, and I’m okay with that.”

I was more upset that Lebron left. So I was blogging the countdown to free agency for Esquire.com and Deadspin was also running it simultaneously. Then Hirshey got in touch with my agent, David Black. I’d never met Hirshey but he was willing to give a book deal to a guy who’d never written a book, wasn’t going to get access to the subject of the book, and was writing these venomous blog posts about LeBron. How many book editors would do that? I was at the right place at the right time. Again.

BB: Well, if you’re not going to get access you’re the perfect guy to do a story because you don’t give a shit. Was there any time during the process that you were afraid that LeBron, or one of his people was going to walk up to you and punch you in the face?

SR: That was one of my mother’s concerns. But that’s really movie-script stuff. Can you imagine what the results would have been? Obviously, it could have, and still could, potentially happen, I suppose. But: please do. I truly don’t give a shit. It has nothing to do with courage. I grew up reading National Lampoon magazine and they were brutal. And Hunter Thompson was filing for Rolling Stone and he was brutal. I didn’t think of either as role models, I just thought of them as great reads. A lot of my attitude toward LeBron or the media relations at the NBA or the Heat was like, “Fuck you, I don’t give a shit.”

BB: So you didn’t feel any shame or have any reservations about calling the guy out as a scumbag?

SR: I understand that if you’re working for a newspaper and you’re on a beat and you’re tweeting something like that a guy you’re going to get fired. I get that. I had to dial it back because I wasn’t thinking about the reflection on Esquire. It’s not as I didn’t make my share of mistakes, but they didn’t involve plagiarism or putting off the record stuff on the record. Professional breaches by today’s standards, yes. Ethical breaches? No. And we’re not talking about weapons of mass destruction or climate change or the corner grocery selling tainted meat. It’s a fucking basketball player. There were some people who thought I was stalking him because their understanding of reporting is that dim. I don’t cheer in the press box. I don’t get in a beat guy’s way. Ever. I’m very aware of protocol. And also very aware that if a magazine or book writer comes off like if he’s a big shot, he’s an asshole. I consciously try to avoid those kinds of behaviors.

BB: Is there ever point where your persona as the outraged Cleveland sports fan becomes a put-on?

SR: No. Isn’t that weird? A lot of the stuff that got taken out of the book was removed because it was violent. You know, stuff like seeing LeBron at media day and wanting to fracture his skull with one of the folding chairs. I’m the guy who wrote the book; I’m not just the guy in the book. There is a difference. But it’s only germane when you’re talking to another writer; it has nothing to do with putting on that costume of the outraged Cleveland fan. I am a totally outraged Cleveland fan.

BB: And yet you do put it in perspective.

SR: When you get a certain age, you realize that when you are feeling that inflamed by something outside of you, there’s something inside you going on. The other part is I had a lot of people call me a hater. That’s a very popular word now. How could I not be a monster if I was wishing a career-ending injury on a fine young athlete? There are a lot of answers to that. But I took the question seriously and tried to figure it out in the book.

I talked to Dwayne Wade on Media Day for a fashion spread in Esquire. And afterward I saw LeBron at the podium with Wade and Chris Bosh and responded viscerally to that, and then went to a family bar mitzvah and wondered, “Why am I so furious, why does it get to this level with me?” Part of what I realized—and it didn’t crystallize until I was doing the writing—was that at a fairly young age I shut down in terms of family. I didn’t like my people, I didn’t trust my people. I was angry and I felt abandoned. Nobody was paying attention to my pain, and on and on and on. Cleveland was a great city then. I wasn’t a sinkhole of despair, it wasn’t a joke. The Browns, in particular, were very good. They weren’t quite the Yankees, but from the late ‘40s through the mid ‘60s, they were a paragon of consistency and excellence. The city and those teams replaced my family in my heart.

BB: You also tap into something that goes on with every fan. When I watch the Yanks play the Red Sox, and I’m heated, I want each hitter to line a ball of Josh Beckett’s leg and send him to the hospital, even though I know that’s completely irrational.

SR: If you want to call yourself a fan by my standards, of course you felt that, even if you never wrote it. I don’t think it’s unique to Philly, Cleveland or New York. I’ve been in stadiums elsewhere where the home fans cheer their own player getting hurt because they just don’t want to see him fucking up on the field anymore.

BB: As far as realizing that at a point if you are getting that enraged over a sporting event do you feel, well, this is just the way I am or do you say, I don’t need to be this way anymore?

SR: There is a real chasm between intellect and emotion. Thinking or realizing something isn’t the same as actuating it. But the fans I understand the least are the people who don’t have a team to get worked up about. I get it, but I don’t get it. Why do they bother? It’s the other side of the insanity of being over-committed. I’d prefer the self-destruction to not caring much about a team.

BB: I like the quote you used from Viktor Frankl. That sums up why you do root for a team. Because something can happen. And you having a hope for it happening means you are alive — not necessarily the victory.

SR: I would like the victory, Alex. It’s like at the end of “The Unforgiven” when Clint Eastwood tells Little Bill, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” Apparently not.

BB: Talk to me about “Dayenu” for a second because I’ve been singing the song in my head for days now.

SR: It’s one of those things where the repetition and melody of it can transport you. You sing praise to God that if he had merely freed you from Pharaoh’s bondage that would have been enough. If the Cleveland Indians of 1954 had set the record that stood until the Yankees of 1998—they won 111 out of 154 games and then lost 4 straight to the Giants in the World Series—and won the Series, it would have been awful enough. The Drive. The Shot. The Fumble. The Browns moving. Each would have been bad enough alone. Each of the Cleveland franchises have built teams that were good enough, at least in paper, to win a championship. Any of those happening would have been heartbreak enough. Which is the inversion of the Dayenu thing.

BB: The other thing that occurred to me as the book went on is that it wasn’t just a tirade against LeBron, it wasn’t flip, but a very moral book in a lot of ways.

SR: I totally agree with you, but it came as a big surprise to me. And I’m not trying to be coy. I didn’t know where it was going. I think it’s an odd book. It’s like a Swiss Army Knife kind of book.

BB: It sounded like you even had pity for LeBron.

SR: I do have pity for the guy and it’s not disingenuous. There’s a certain point between fathers and sons when things are nice. I had that with my dad before my parents split up. You think all is right with the world because you’re in the presence of this all-powerful, all-knowing guy. I was old enough to feel that with my father. LeBron had none of that. Nothing. And that’s something to really feel pity for. Because you can miss the shit out of that and it can hurt a lot, but LeBron never even got that. Everyone remembers when LeBron said they weren’t only going to win seven or eight rings but in the same clip he also talked about how easy it was going to be, so easy that Pat Riley could come back and play point guard. Dwayne Wade is sitting next to him, looking sideways at him and Wade was not smiling. Have you ever heard any athlete in any sport or anyone in any profession talk about easy it was to get to the top? It’s insane. Most of us, even poor black guys without dads, have at least had someone in our life saying, “You are going to have to work for every fucking thing you get. I don’t care how good you are. You’re going to have to be a whole lot more than just good.” Maybe James gets it now. But that piece really seems to be missing in him.

BB: Did you have an awareness of being critical of yourself if you were going to be critical of James?

SR: It’s not conscious. I’m not paragon of 12-step sobriety, but part of trying to live a more honest life is self-examination and not just throwing stones at other people.

BB: Cause then you would come across as a hater. If you were only ragging on him.

SR: Of course.

BB: Another thing I liked is that you didn’t over-examine some of the game action, which came as a relief. That stuff can be deadly to read.

SR: And to write, Alex.

BB: By the end of the book, the fact that your boy gets sick is more important so as a reader, the book shifts to you as much as it is about James.

SR: I care deeply about what I do, about putting one word after another, and I think it’s a miracle that the book turned out as well as it did, or that I had such a good time with it. With a magazine piece, I usually want to keep tinkering with it, change the lede over and over, but I didn’t have the time here. So it’s a fucking miracle. I’m not a big fan of my stuff. I rarely go back and read my stuff, because I see places where I needed to do better work. I haven’t had time to go back and read the book, but I knew that when I was writing it that it was going to be good. I was happy with it because there was no way that I could have spent six more months on it and made it better. I only would have made it worse. Despite the weirdness of dealing with interviews and publicists and trying to sell copies, the feeling is still great and I’ve never felt anything like it.

BB: Probably because you don’t hate yourself.

SR: No, I don’t. And it’s funny how it all came together. If LeBron declares free agency the way every other star declares free agency there’s no book deal. It’s a strange series of events — amazing, really.

BB: He stays in Cleveland you don’t write the book that you wrote, you don’t write a loving tribute to Cleveland sports fans or write about yourself. So in a way, LeBron is the gift that keeps giving.

SR: That’s absolutely true. Irony can be cheapened in all kinds of ways but in this way it was kind of pure.

BB: I have to ask because this interview will appear on a Yankee-related site. You wrote an Esquire story on Alex Rodriguez that is famous for causing a rift between Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. How is Lebron different from A Rod?

SR: Alex is a much more self-aware, savvy guy compared to LeBron. As brilliant as Alex was at an early age, he was not anointed the Chosen One by Sports Illustrated when he was sixteen. He didn’t have Michael Jordan flying him to camp when he was a teenager. If you look at Alex’s post-season numbers career-wise they are in line with his regular season numbers. I think it’s perfectly fair, especially as a Yankees fan, to point the finger at him. He’s fair game. But I’ve never seen an athlete of Alex or LeBron’s caliber do what LeBron did last year in the Finals. James single-handedly cost the Heat the title last year. Before the games, there was LeBron giving the pre-game speech to his team after tweeting about how he couldn’t sleep. It’s so different from anything A-Rod has ever done. And LeBron’s performance was bizarre. In an elimination game, he was throwing passes to Mario Chalmers and Juan Howard. He’s the most unstoppable force in the game, but the Mavericks were totally inside his head. Being the Clevelander I am, I kept expecting LeBron to realize that he’s playing with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh—who played very well—and I was sure the Heat were going to wake up and smack the Mavericks down. I was amazed that even with Nowitzki shooting horribly in Game 6, the Mavericks looked nothing other than supremely confident. The Heat never looked like anything but scared rabbits.

BB: Well, as a true Clevelander, even if it didn’t happen last year don’t you think that whether it is this year or next year, eventually LeBron will get his act together and he’ll win that championship?

SR: That’s one of those head or heart questions. Eventually, sure, he’s young enough. But he’s also got a lot of miles on him. And I don’t think he truly cares and I know he doesn’t work as hard as he says he does. Kobe Bryant does. I remember sitting with Shaq once and he told me about how obsessive Kobe was about working. And Shaq admits that he himself was never that way. Kobe is willing to work relentlessly. That certainly was true of Michael, too. I think Alex Rodriguez is fanatical too. He’s driven. But I don’t think that helps him come playoff time. But LeBron is better at talking about this stuff than actually doing it.

BB: LeBron is having a great year so far. Do you think he’s turned the corner, learned something since last year? Or is that something that can only be answered come June?

SR: What corner? He’s a two-time league MVP, and he should’ve won it again last season. He’s the best pure basketball player I’ve ever seen, an other-worldly talent, and he has become a complete head case in the post-season. He always had an issue with managing pressure when he was on the Cavs, and he’s fallen apart as a crunch-time player if the other team doesn’t just fold up and surrender. And everyone in the NBA knows it now. We won’t find out until June if LeBron has found a heart.

Buy “The Whore of Akron” here.

Bronx Banter Interview: John Schulian

“Perhaps because he decamped to Hollywood in the 1980s, while he was still in his prime, John Schulian has never quite been recognized as one of the last in the great line of newspaper sports columnists that started with Ring Lardner, ran through W.C. Heinz and Red Smith, and probably ended when Joe Posnanski left the Kansas City Star in 2009. This is a shame. On his better days, he rated with anyone you might care to name.”

Tim Marchman on John Schulian’s latest collection, “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us.” (Wall Street Journal)

John Schulian has been entertaining us this year with the story of his career in “From Ali to Xena.” He has a new collection of sports writing out and we recently caught up to talk about it. Here’s our conversation.

Enjoy.

BB: Your work has been collected twice before: “Writers’ Fighters,” a boxing compilation, and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” a collection of baseball writing. What was the genesis of your new anthology, which is both broader and more specific than those two?

JS: “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” was born of a mixture of ego and an urge to remind readers of the kind of sports writing they’re no longer getting in newspapers. What writer doesn’t want to have his work, at least that portion of it which isn’t embarrassingly bad, preserved in book form? I got my greatest lessons in writing by reading collections of my favorite sports writers—Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner—so having a collection with my name on it became a goal early on in my career. Because “Sometimes” is my third, I may have exceeded my limit, but I hope people will forgive me when they see that it’s wider in scope than “Writers’ Fighters” and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods.” I’m not just talking about the number of different sports it touches on, either. I’m talking about the personalities involved, and how open they were about themselves and their talents.

I realize, of course, how rare such accessibility is in today’s world, with athletes wary of any kind of media, protected by their agents, and generally paranoid about revealing anything about themselves except whether they hit a fastball or a slider. I think it was you who told me the change came about in the early ‘90s, which did a lot to shape this book. Suddenly, I knew how to make it more than a vanity project. The key was to make it stand as a tribute to the kind of sports writing that enriched newspapers when guys like Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica, David Israel, Leigh Montville, Bill Nack, Tony Kornheiser, Tom Boswell and I were turned loose with our portable typewriters. It was my great good fortune to work in an era so rich in talent, so full of talented people who were both my competition and my friends. Likewise, the athletes were there to talk to when you needed them. I know I didn’t always get the answers I wanted, but I got enough of them to give my columns and my magazine work the heartbeat they needed. It was a wonderful time to be a sports writer, and I hope “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” bears that out.

BB: I was struck by your piece on John Riggins in Super Bowl XVII. Your starting and closing image is the most famous one from that game. You didn’t get any special access that your peers didn’t have and yet within those limitations the piece is just so writerly. The kind you don’t see today. How were you able to condense a guy’s career into a single column?

JS: It was pure reflex. I forget how much time I had for post-game interviews, but it wasn’t much before I had to get back to my computer. I’m guessing I had an hour or so to write the column. There were some guys who routinely finished in less time than that, but for me, that was a sprint. I still wanted the column to be as stylish as possible. Sometimes that was my undoing, because I spent too much time massaging the language and not enough just saying what I wanted to say. With the Riggins column, though, things fell into place. I’d spent a lot of time around the Redskins during the regular season and into the playoffs, so I was pretty well steeped in his story. As for working with the same post-game material everybody else had, there was something liberating about that. No scoops, no exclusive interviews, just a good old-fashioned writing contest. When you get in a situation like that, if you can get your mind right, everything just flows. And that was certainly the case when I wrote about Riggins. I knew instantly where all the pieces of the puzzle were supposed to go—imagery, post-game quotes, back-story. Then my instincts took over, and I even made my deadline. What could be better than that?

BB: The majority of the stories in the collection were written for newspapers. Can you describe the atmosphere of that business in the post-Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein days when columnists were stars?

JS: The newspaper business became truly glamorous after Watergate. Robert Redford played Woodward, Dustin Hoffman played Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post’s executive editor, practically became Jason Robards, who portrayed him on the screen. It just didn’t get any cooler than that, and the people at the Post were certainly aware of it, maybe too much so. I noticed the self-importance and inflated egos when I showed up there in 1975, in the wake of Watergate. The Post was a wonderful paper—beautifully written, smartly and courageously edited—but it was still a newspaper. There were still typos and factual errors and the kind of bad prose that daily deadlines inspire. The ink still came off on your hands, too. And there were still desk men with enlarged prostates and reporters who stank of cigar smoke, and one night some son of a bitch stole my jacket. Maybe worst of all, if you looked beyond the Post, you could see the storm clouds gathering. More and more afternoon papers were dying, and there was a segment of the population that hated the Post for unhorsing Dick Nixon and the New York Times for printing the Pentagon Papers. But newspaper people, who can be so sharp about spotting trouble on the horizon for others, tend to be blind when it comes to their own house. No wonder it felt safe and good and even magical to work on newspapers after Watergate. I loved it as much as anybody. And I probably would have liked the dance band on the Titanic, too.

BB: Before we get to the players, let’s talk about the section you have on the writers—Red Smith, A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Mark Kram and F.X. Toole—because it reminds us that the era you cover wasn’t just about the athletes, it was about the writers too. Can you talk about what a remarkable stylist Mark Kram was in his prime?

JS: I don’t think any sports writer ever wrote prose as dense and muscular and literary as Mark Kram’s. He opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you could do in terms of pure writing even though the subject was fun and games. If you want to read classic Kram, you need only turn to the opening paragraphs of his Sports Illustrated story about the Thrilla in Manila. It has to be one of the most anthologized pieces in any genre of writing. I know that it was a mortal lock to be in “At the Fighters” as soon as George Kimball and I sat down to edit the book. Kram had been on my radar since I was in college. He absolutely killed me with his bittersweet love letter to Baltimore, his hometown, on the eve of the 1966 World Series. He was under the influence of Nelson Algren when he wrote it, but I wouldn’t figure that out until years later. All I knew was that he had taken a mundane idea and turned it into a tone poem about blue collar life. Baseball was only a small part of it, and even though I was under the Orioles’ spell—Frank Robinson! Brooks Robinson! Jim Palmer!—I loved Kram’s audacity. He wasn’t afraid of the dark no matter how bright the lights on what he was writing about.

No wonder he was so great when the subject was boxing. When I was in grad school, he did a piece about the fighting Quarry brothers and how their old man had ridden the rails from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the supposedly golden promise of Southern California. He had LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, and Kram left me with a picture of him standing in a boxcar door as the train carried him toward a future filled with more sorrow than joy. I read the story standing at the newsstand where I bought SI every week, and when I got back to my apartment, I read it again. I would discover A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner, and all the other giants of fight writing later, but Mark Kram was the one who lit the way for me. And it began with that story about the Quarry brothers and the image of their old man in the boxcar door.

(more…)

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver