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Category: From Ali to Xena

From Ali to Xena: 16

The Enemy Within

By John Schulian 

What a nightmare the Post’s copy desk was, its few capable pros outnumbered by drunks, burnouts, incompetents, and one hostile ex-marine. The worst of all, which is really saying something, was the slot man, who had covered University of Utah basketball for the Salt Lake Tribune during the Billy (the Hill) McGill era. I’d read every word he’d written when I was a kid and I thought he’d be an ally, maybe even a friend. Instead, he spent his time combing his vanishing pompadour and looking down his nose at writers. I don’t know that I ever met a bigger horse’s ass in the business.

One Sunday, after covering a Bullets game I swung by the office just in time to see page proofs. The slot man had rewritten the top of my story. Okay, you don’t like what I write? Fine. I don’t like a lot of what I write, either. But give me a chance to rewrite it in my own words. That’s why I called the office when I finished the piece, to see if there were any problems with it. The slot man hadn’t said a word then, and I wouldn’t have found out until I opened the paper the next morning if I hadn’t got lucky. The first thing I did was make the slot man take my byline off the story. That was my right, according to the Newspaper Guild. Then I sat down and wrote a new top for the story, and I wouldn’t leave until the slot man had signed off on it. Now he was pissed off. But I can tell you for a fact that I was more pissed off.

Things with the copy desk finally got so bad that when I wrote a piece that was supposed to be special in some way, I’d stay at the office until the first edition came up so I could check it. Nuts, huh? But maybe you’ll understand why I did it if I tell you about a long feature I wrote about spending the day of a fight with a heavyweight named Larry Middleton. Went to his pre-fight meal with him, hung around his overheated hotel room with him, watched him warm up in his dressing room, then go out and lose to Duane Bobick in Madison Square Garden. Last scene of the story: he’s out on the street hunting for a pay phone so he can call his wife in Baltimore and tell her what happened. When I dictated the story the next day–it was still the typewriter era at the Post–the girl getting it all down told me it sounded just like a short story. Made my day. But when I came home a couple of days later–-no short road trips when you worked for George Solomon–I discovered that there was an entire section missing from my story. The section about the fight. Call me foolish, but I thought it was critical, seeing as how the fight was the reason for the story’s existence. Maybe it got sacrificed for reasons of page make-up. (Not an acceptable excuse.) Maybe it was incompetence. Maybe it was sabotage. There wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent because I was on the road. But I promised myself that when I was in town, I was going to do some serious lurking in that goddamned office.

George Solomon finally told me I couldn’t talk to the copy editors the way I did. I told him I was going to keep talking to them the way I did as long as they kept screwing things up. Poor George. You have to remember that he was still getting used to being sports editor, and I was one of the first real tests of his patience and managerial skills. I know he liked my writing and I think he liked me as a person-–we still trade e-mails occasionally all these years later-–but I also think I made him uneasy. I was the first writer he ever had who fought back loudly and passionately. You’d think it would have been different on what was considered a writers’ paper. But the Post was also a serious newspaper, a newspaper of record, and when you’re dealing with an animal like that, editors ultimately carry more weight than writers.

My salvation was a copy editor named Angus Phillips, who later turned to writing and did beautiful, even poetic work covering the outdoors. Maybe he was worried that violence would erupt or maybe he actually liked to read what I wrote. Whatever, when a story of mine came in, Angus would raise his hand and ask to handle it. If he had questions about the piece, he’d ask me. If he made changes in my copy, I trusted him enough not to argue. I believe this is known as mutual respect. You’d think someone at the Post would have thought of it before.

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From Ali to Xena: 15

The Seeds of Discontent

By John Schulian 

George Solomon made sure I hit the ground running. I covered a couple of Redskins practices- it couldn’t have been much different than covering the Kremlin. Then I took off for Detroit to cover a three-game series with the Orioles, who were very much in the pennant race. And to write two features on them, too, even though I’d never covered a big league game before and they had never laid eyes on me. And I had to cover the Howard University-Wayne State football game, too. My football story was a stinker, but the baseball stuff I could do, partly because I had always followed the game and partly because the Orioles were so easy to get along with. All I remember from that weekend is typing, checking my watch, grabbing cabs, and drinking Vernor’s ginger ale when it was still strictly a Detroit delicacy. It was a trial by fire, and I knew I’d passed when George apologized for not being able to play my Monday feature on Jim Palmer on the front of the section.

It didn’t take George long to figure out that I wasn’t meant to be a beat reporter. It was like I had SHORT ATTENTION SPAN written in neon lights on my forehead. Besides, we had Len Shapiro as the first-string Redskins reporter, and he was terrific-–intrepid, fearless, tireless, all in the face of the paranoid monster that was George Allen. Lenny will tell you today that covering the Redskins, the prize beat in the Post sports department, took years off his life.

Shirley Povich

I filled in wherever George wanted me, the Redskins, a big NFL game, the NBA. But mostly I wrote features and series. One series was about black dominance in the NBA (to show you how long ago this was) and another was about the NFL psyche. I remember Shirley Povich, a lovely, classy gent whose sports column was an institution at the Post for half a century, coming up to me after part one of the NFL series ran and saying, “This is too good for a newspaper.” I was deeply gratified by the praise, but at the same time I was surprised that Shirley, who had been the Post’s sports editor when he was barely out of his teens, would say something like that. I’d read somewhere that Jimmy Cannon had said nothing was too good for a newspaper. He wasn’t in the same league with Shirley when it came to being gracious, but I think Cannon was right on the money about that one.

I had freedom at the Post and yet I didn’t. Nobody told me what to write, so I could continue trying to figure out what my voice was. That was one of the great things about the sports page in those days: it was a laboratory for writing. As time went on, there would be stylish writing throughout all of the country’s best newspapers, much of it inspired by the Post’s Style section, where there was great work done on society dames, movies, TV, books, and rock and roll. But the Post’s sports section was my new playground, and I was happy to be there.

I would have been even happier if George Solomon had let me turn one of my ideas into a story once in a while. But George didn’t do business that way. He bubbled over with his own ideas, many of them good ones but some clinkers too, and he had the energy level of a hyperactive two-year-old. As a result he didn’t expect you to ever be tired. I remember coming off one of his hellish road trips-–Columbus, Ohio to St. Louis to Milwaukee to Toronto to Cleveland in five hectic, work-filled winter days-–and the first thing he said to me was, “Come on in the office. We’ll talk about what you’re going to do next.” I told him that what I was going to do next was pick up my paycheck and go home and go to bed. And that’s what I did.

It wasn’t long before I realized that I was probably the only writer on the staff who questioned authority. Everybody else was too damned nice. I mean, the place was crawling with good guys -– Tom Boswell, Dave Brady, Ken Denlinger, Paul Attner, Angus Phillips, David DuPree, Gerry Strine, Mark Asher. But I never heard any of them raise their voices. And they had reason to, particularly after the copy desk got through making a hash of their prose. All they’d do, however, was whisper among themselves while they licked their wounds. I couldn’t make myself do that. I marched into George Solomon’s office one day and said, “I’ve had more stories fucked up here in five weeks than I had fucked up in five years in Baltimore.” And that was the God’s truth.

From Ali to Xena: 14


By John Schulian

Like every other job candidate at the Post in those days, I had to get the approval of Ben Bradlee, the executive editor who had covered himself in glory with the paper’s Watergate coverage. One of the first things he said to me was that he liked my Jimmy Breslin style. As soon as I heard that, I knew I’d better develop my own style, and do it fast. If I was going to prosper at the Post, I couldn’t be a cheap imitation.

I realized I was in the deep end of the pool the instant I walked into the place. It was crawling with heavy hitters and on-the-make newcomers, intrepid reporters and positively wonderful wordsmiths, all of whom seemed to buy into Bradlee’s theory of creative tension. I’d hate to think of all the intramural treachery that went on there — and that was in addition to going out and bumping heads with the New York Times and L.A. Times and Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal. On top of that, the people at the Post seemed exceedingly full of themselves-–no surprise, I suppose, since I showed up in the wake of Woodward and Bernstein bringing down Nixon and his cronies. In fact, the paper was building its Batman and Robin an office back by the sports department. Nobody thought it was funny when I asked if they were going to take high school football scores on Friday nights. What did I know? I’d just come from Baltimore, where people took their work seriously, but not themselves.

I’m probably going to wind up sounding negative about my time at the Post-–it was not the greatest 17 months of my life-–but I want you to know that it was an honor to work there. I was never on a better paper, never kept company with more talented people, never had more of a sense of the glamour of the newspaper business. Bradlee was forever strutting around in his Turnbull & Asser shirts-–the kind with bold stripes and white collars-–and he loved to go slumming in the sports department so he could see what we’d dug up on the Redskins. He was big pals with the team’s owner, Edward Bennett Williams.

One day I get into the elevator to go up to the newsroom and a guy jumps in at the last minute. He’s dressed the same way I am: tan corduroy sport coat, blue button-down collar shirt, Levi’s, cowboy boots. One big difference, though: he was Robert Redford and I wasn’t. They were making “All the President’s Men” then, and Redford must have been hanging around to do research on Bob Woodward, whom he played in the movie. When we got off the elevator, it was like I was invisible.

There was a copy boy at the Post-–the head copy boy, to be specific-–who wore Gucci loafers and was said to have a degree from the University of Virginia. And there was a copy girl who was an absolute babe-–absolute babes are a rarity in the newspaper business–and was said to have a tattoo of a butterfly on her ass.

In the midst of all that whatever-it-was, there was Donnie Graham, son of Katherine, the publisher who stood so tall during the Wategate era. Donnie would be publisher one day, too, but on his way there, he spent time doing every kind of job there was at the paper, from loading trucks to reporting to taking a turn as an editor in the sports department. This in addition to having been a beat cop in D.C. for a year or two. All of which is to say he was as decent and down to earth as he could be. I forget what job he had at the paper when I was there, but he still used to swing by sports to shoot the bull. One day he comes up to me while I’m pounding away on my typewriter and asks what I’m working on. I tell him it’s a feature about a former University of Maryland quarterback who washed out of the NFL and is playing semipro football in Baltimore on Saturday nights. And I mean down-and-dirty semipro football, on a field as hard as an interstate highway. “Oh,” Donnie says. He didn’t need to say anything else. I could tell he thought this one was a loser. But I wrote the hell out of it, and when I came into the office the day after it ran, there was a note from Donnie saying that in the hands of a good writer, anything could be a wonderful story. With the note was a copy of George Orwell’s essays. Memories don’t come much better than that.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the pressmen’s strike a month or so after I started at the Post on Labor Day 1975. The paper was getting ready to change from hot type to cold type and jobs were being lost in the backshop. One night everything went sideways, blood got spilled, the paper didn’t come out, and the next thing I knew, my fellow members of the Newspaper Guild and I were voting on whether to honor the pressmen’s picket line. I thought we should. Many more people thought we should cross it. And so we did. A few people actually left the Post because of that. I wasn’t one of them, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel a sense of shame and betrayal every time I crossed the picket line. I did, and it has stayed with me to this day.

I’m still not sure exactly why the Post came after me, particularly when so many good young sportswriters around the country would have sold their wives/mothers/firstborn for a chance to work there. Nor am I sure whether it was Donnie Graham or George Solomon who spotted me first. Sometimes I heard that it was my SI story on the Baltimore fight promoter that stirred their interest. Other times it was a funny but barbed Evening Sun feature I’d done about students at the school where the Colts trained standing up to the team’s abrasive general manager.

A funny thing about that fight promoter. Well, not funny, because he died in the time between my departure from the Evening Sun and my arrival at the Post. His name was Eli Hanover and he was barely into his 50s, one of those guys who’s so full of piss and vinegar that you figure he’ll outlive everyone. George Solomon told me he tried to get hold of me to write something about Eli, but I was off on an assignment for Sports Illustrated and nobody knew how to reach me. (Ah, those were the days.) The Post had a new sports columnist, a guy named William Barry Furlong who had had a truly distinguished career as a magazine freelancer, and he wound up writing about Eli. But all he did was lift things from my SI story, quotes and paraphrases and anecdotes. I don’t recall his having another source for his column. I hope he did. I hope he made at least one phone call. But if he did, I don’t remember it. Uncharacteristically, I didn’t say anything about it, not to Furlong, not to Solomon, not to anyone. It was one of those things I just filed away and said, Okay, pal, it’s good to know that’s how you play the game.

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From Ali to Xena: 13

Up, Down, Up, and Out

By John Schulian

In my mind, it was going to be either a city column at the Evening Sun or a job at SI, and trust me, I campaigned like a mad man to get my foot in SI’s door. The magazine’s Baltimore stringer was a big-hearted, hugely energetic guy named Joe D’Adamo, who ran the backshop at the Evening Sun. Not a writer or editor, but a guy who oversaw the actual physical production of the paper. The editors at SI appreciated Joe because he was a fount of ideas, and Joe liked the way I wrote enough to talk me up to them. When Frank Deford came to town  to promote a novel he’d written, I did a visiting-author story in which I described him as looking like a waterbed salesman. I just couldn’t resist. Frank must have recognized the impulse, because he didn’t hold it against me. The next thing I knew, Joe D’Adamo was telling me that Frank had mentioned me to SI’s editors. Just the same, when Robert Creamer showed up in Baltimore to hustle his Babe Ruth book, I wrote about him, too.

Finally, in 1973, Pat Ryan, SI’s freelance editor-–soon to be known forever in my mind as the wonderful Pat Ryan-–asked me to send her a list of four story ideas. I did, and the one she liked the best was about the boxing promoter on the Block. When I sent in my first draft, Pat asked me to rewrite the ending so it involved a night at the fights. I did, and that was the last change that was made to the piece. Every word that appeared under my first byline in Sports Illustrated was mine. I was amazed, gratified, and filled with bigger dreams than ever.

Pat had a wonderful way with writers, a real gift for nurturing them. Her father, if I recall correctly, was a successful racehorse trainer, and she had started at SI as a secretary and worked her way up to writer and then editor. Nobody had strewn rose petals at her feet, and if she got the idea that you were committed to your work, she would beat the drum for you. She invited me to New York, took me to lunch, introduced me to other key editors, and treated me like I belonged even though I must have seemed like a rube. She kept giving me story assignments, too-–short items for the front of the book as well as longer stuff like the magazine’s first Moses Malone story and a piece on the amateur baseball team in Baltimore that produced Reggie Jackson and Al Kaline.

All the while I was still writing for the Evening Sun. It was a terrific place to work, as I’ve said, and the people I worked with were salt of the earth. They knew and cared about the city, and they were passionate about honest, energetic, imaginative reporting. They also knew how to put on a great ugliest tie contest. No, I never won. I was actually a pretty good dresser. I remember when I went to interview Jerry Lee Lewis, he looked me over with those spooky eyes of his and said, “I like a sharp-dressed man.” What I might have won at the paper was a bad temper award. Just about anything could set me off-–typos in a story I’d written, an inability to get a long-distance line, the list is endless, really. My standard response was to pound my desk or stand up and punch the nearest wall while yelling the obligatory “fuck!” It’s funny how in the 36 years since I left the paper, the legend of my temper has grown. One woman said I broke the window in the managing editor’s office. (Not true.) A guy said I broke a typewriter. (Also not true.) The only thing I might have broken was my hand when I punched a wall. The fact that I didn’t proves that God really does look out for drunks and fools.

By the time 1975 rolled around, I was starting to get antsy. SI didn’t have any openings for writers at my level and wasn’t expecting any. I could have lived with that if I sensed that I was about to be anointed the Jimmy Breslin of Baltimore. Instead, I was told that the managing editor had decided to kill my music column because nobody cared about rock and roll anymore. This, mind you, just as Springsteen was taking flight-–do I need to say more about the thickness of the managing editor’s skull? I was more than pissed off. I was crushed. Looking back, it was a great life lesson, because it was awfully easy to get comfortable at the Evening Sun and in Baltimore, which was just entering its resurgence. But the only way you’re going to get better is by challenging yourself, by going up against writers who are better than you are. If you do that, it’s sink or swim, and that was what I needed if I was going to make anything out of the career that consumed my life.

When I finally got my wits about me, I started plotting my great escape. I figured I could freelance for Sports Illustrated and a new magazine called New Times, which was showcasing up-and-coming writers like Bob Greene (already a star columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times), Frank Rich (in his pre-New York Times days), Paul Hendrickson (later a star in the Washington Post’s Style section), and Robert Ward (a novelist from Baltimore whom I didn’t meet until we both wound up in Hollywood). I was going to wait until my fifth anniversary at the Evening Sun-–September 1975-–and then I’d be gone. I just had to get through the next three months.

So I’m sitting at my desk one afternoon, not really giving a damn about whatever I was supposed to be working on, and my telephone rings.


“Is John Schulian there?”

“You got him.”

“This is George Solomon, from the Washington Post. How’d you like to make George Allen’s life miserable?”

I’m not making this up. That’s exactly how the conversation went. Solomon was the Post’s new sports editor, and Allen was the Washington Redskins’ head coach and the Richard Nixon of the NFL. And I, as I hastened to point out, was a guy who had never written a sports story for a newspaper. I mean I’d cheated a couple of times and done features about Willie Mays in retirement and a great local playground basketball player, but I’d never written a story about a game. You know, one with a score in it.

So I said, “Are you sure you’ve got the right John Schulian?”

“I’m sure,” Solomon said.

My life had just changed.

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From Ali to Xena: 12

The Book of Dreams

By John Schulian

The stars were beginning to align for me even before I headed to Nashville in early 1974. The previous fall, I’d sold my first story to Sports Illustrated, and it ran a month after I scribbled my last notes at the Grand Ole Opry. The story was about a promoter in Baltimore who put on fights at Steelworkers Hall and ran a gym that was above a strip joint on the Block. I don’t think the guy could have existed anywhere else.  The smell of the sausages at Polock Johnny’s across the street drifted into the gym when the windows were open. You could feel the music downstairs coming through the floor. The promoter’s best fighter kept getting the clap from the dancers. And I thought I captured it all perfectly. A fat lot I knew.

I wasn’t given to asking other people their opinion of my work, but this time a voice in my head said I’d better stash my pride. If I screwed up the story, I might never get another shot at SI. So I took my deathless prose to an editor in the Evening Sun’s business department and asked him to read it. He wasn’t a close friend and his conversation usually had an edge to it, but I trusted him to be unsparing. And he was. When he walked up with his verdict, there was a wary little half-smile on his face. “If I was you,” he said, “I’d hit me with a sack of snot for what I’m going to say.” In short, the piece was good enough for the Evening Sun and most any other newspaper, but it wasn’t good enough for Sports Illustrated.

I spent the next couple of nights tearing it apart, reworking the structure and figuring out new transitions. I knew I had a winner as soon as I wrote my first sentence: “Baltimore is a gritty old strumpet of a city where unwritten sociological imperatives require a boxing arena to have Polish bakeries on one side, steel mills on another, and redneck bars all around.”

SI called the story “On the Block — Way of All Flesh,” and it wound up in the old “Best Sports Stories” anthology and put my name in bright lights. Tony Kornheiser told me years later that when he read the piece, he knew there was a new gun in town. He wanted to work at SI as badly as I did, and there were hundreds of other writers out there who had the same dream. SI was the holy grail.

Getting in “Best Sports Stories 1975” was the first time I felt like I’d really accomplished something professionally. I’d been fascinated with the anthology since I discovered it at Northwestern, mainly because it showcased the kind of writing I wanted to do. There were always big names like Red Smith and Jimmmy Cannon in the book, but the ones who captured my attention were writers from places other than New York who were doing great things: Myron Cope in Pittsburgh, Sandy Grady in Philadelphia, Wells Twombly in Houston and Detroit and San Francisco, even a young Philly basketball writer named Joe McGinniss, who went on to write “The Selling of the President” after he infiltrated Nixon’s 1972 campaign.

When the Evening Sun made me a one-man bureau in Harford County, I checked the public library there and found an even better collection of the “Best Sports Stories” anthologies than Northwestern’s. Every now and then, I’d slip down to the library and grab one. And I wasn’t just reading the stories. I was reading the bios of the authors who wrote them. I wanted to see where they came from and if the path I was on bore any resemblance to the one they had traveled. As soon as my story about the fight promoter ran in SI, I knew I was going to submit it to “Best Sports Stories.” I found out I’d made the book when a copy landed on the front porch of my $155-a-month furnished apartment. I was thrilled, naturally, but there was more to what I was feeling than that. I felt like I’d finally done something that would last longer than a day, something with permanence. Hell, my story was in a book.

It wasn’t that much longer before there was a year when “Best Sports Stories” didn’t come out. The editors had gotten old and one of them had died, and nobody had stepped forward to replace them. I wrote an essay for Inside Sports in which I said goodbye and, lo and behold, someone at the Sporting News read it and jumped in to bring the anthology back to life. It’s long gone now, of course, replaced by Glenn Stout’s more sophisticated and vastly superior “Best American Sports Writing” series, but I’m glad I got to do “Best Sports Stories” a good turn. I owed it.

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[Illustrations by David Noyes]

From Ali to Xena: 11

Living and Dying in ¾ Time

By John Schulian

Call me self-deluded, but my shortcomings as a writer didn’t stop me from campaigning to become the Evening Sun’s city columnist, the Breslin of Baltimore, if you will. The strategy I concocted was simple: in addition to writing the best feature stories I could, I would write about rock and roll. There were always great acts coming through town or playing in D.C. or out at Meriwether Post Pavilion in Columbia, the planned city. But the Evening Sun acted as if rock and roll didn’t exist, even with Rolling Stone getting bigger and bigger in the cultural zeitgeist. So I asked the city editor if I could write about a Grateful Dead concert, and he said sure, why not. And then I wrote about Alice Cooper, who borrowed my pen and used it to stir his drink. I wrote about Muddy Waters, too, even though he was too drunk to talk before his show and I spent most of my time hanging out with his piano player, Pinetop Perkins, who was a hell of a nice guy.

Anyway, one thing led to another, and before I knew it I had a once-a-week pop music column. I spent a lot of weeknights and weekends going to shows and interviewing musicians in hotels and motels and bars. I still had to take my regular turn on re-write and do my features and anything else that came my way, but it was all worth it. The music was great even if Sly Stone never showed up and Al Green’s girl friend looked like she wanted to dump hot grits in my lap. I wrote about great, great talents like Bruce Springsteen (just before he hit it big), Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Wonder, Emmylou Harris, Sonny Stitt, Steve Goodman, Ernest Tubb, Bo Diddley, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup, the bluesman who wrote “That’s All Right, Mama,” which became one of Elvis Presley’s early hits. I wrote about Kinky Friedman, too. Twice, in fact, because he was so funny, Groucho Marx in a cowboy hat. He played the old Cellar Door in Georgetown and dedicated a song to my future ex-wife. Thank you for being an American, Kinky.

Wonder of wonders, when I said I’d like to go to Nashville to write a week’s worth of stories about country music, the Evening Sun sent me. Yeah, that’s right, the paper that threw nickels around like manhole covers. Nobody ever told me why and I never asked. I just went. And I had the absolute best experience of the nearly 16 years I spent in newspapers.

In a week of reporting, I played pinballs with Waylon Jennings, whose greasy mixture of country and rock stirred my soul; had an audience with Dolly Parton-–a genius songwriter, in case you didn’t know-–and she was as smart as she was funny and self-effacing; sat with Chet Atkins, the king of Nashville in those days, while he puffed on a cigar in his darkened office and mused about the shadow that Hank Williams still cast over the country music business 20 years after his death at the ripe old age of 29; had a beer and a bowl of chili at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, where all the great songwriters–Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson–had taken refuge when they hit town; spent an afternoon with Tom T. Hall, a wonderful songwriter, while he laid down a demo of a song called “You Love Everybody But You”; and got on stage at the Grand Ole Opry when its home was still the Ryman Auditorium and it was strictly a radio show.

For the sake of perspective, I wanted to do a piece on Nashville as a whole–its aristocracy was locked in a culture war with the folks on Music Row–so a friend from the Army told me to call a guy he served with in Vietnam. A reporter from the Nashville Tennessean named Al Gore. He picked me up at my hotel and drove me all over town, giving me the rundown on its politics, social structure, race relations, and everything else I wanted to know about. Gore couldn’t have been smarter or more accommodating or nicer. Years later, when I saw his presidential campaign, he seemed like a completely different person, and not one I’d want to show me around Nashville. More like one whose brain waves had been intercepted by Martians.

And then there was Paul Hemphill, who was as open as Gore became sealed off. Along with Johnny Cash’s “Live at Folsom Prison,” which I listened to almost every day that I was in the Army, Hemphill’s book “The Nashville Sound” opened my mind to country music. There’s certainly never been a better piece of work on the subject. I’d read Hemphill in Life and Sport, and one of the guys at the Evening Sun had worked with him at an Atlanta paper and carried his favorite Hemphill column in his walle. He said Hemphill was good people, so I got his home address and wrote him about the trip I planned to take to Nashville. He wrote back right away with the names of people I should look up. From that moment forward, we were friends until he died last year. Mostly we stayed in touch by phone and letters and, later, e-mail. I was stunned by how candid he was about his life, especially his drinking and his frustrations as a writer, but that was Hemp, honest in the way every truth-seeker should be.

We only met once, in ’97 or ’98, when I was in Atlanta working on a story for Sports Illustrated. He took me to a bar called Manuel’s, which was a favorite haunt for politicians, cops, and newspaper reporters He loved the place-–he’d written about it a lot-–and you could tell the people there loved him. He was one of the great writers of his generation and one of those true Southern liberals who overcome the ignorance and bigotry they’re born into. I wish more people knew about him, just like I wish I’d been able to make more trips to Manuel’s with him.

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From Ali to Xena: 10


By John Schulian

The Evening Sun didn’t have the biggest staff in the world, so a lot of us had to do double duty. For me, that frequently meant coming in at 6 or 7 in the morning to work re-write for the first edition before they turned me loose on the world. It was great experience because when I was under the gun, I had to force myself to write fast. You know, a news story 700 to 1,000 words long in 20 minutes or less, and you had to get the facts right from the reporters in the field who were calling them in.

Just as often, I’d be the one out on the street, hoping I’d be able to get back to the office in time to write the story myself. I’d get a call from an assistant city editor at 4:30 in the morning to get over to a rowhouse fire in West Baltimore that killed a couple of kids, and by the time I got there, I could hear their mother or grandmother screaming “My babies, my babies!” from two blocks away. Or it would be a shantytown fire in a speck on the map called Principio Furnace, with more dead babies. Or a bunch of volunteer firemen who drowned while trying to rescue somebody in a hellacious rainstorm. Or maybe just two motorcycle gangs that shot each other to pieces.

The story that still haunts me was about a town out in Western Maryland called Friendsville.  Population 600 and six of its boys had been killed in Vietnam. I went out there to talk to the families of the first five casualties and wait for the body of the sixth to come home. I got a number for what I guess is best described as Friendsville’s general store, talked with the woman who ran it, and she wound up saying she’d have everybody ready to talk to me. And she did. If you want an example of small-town trust and graciousness, there it was. But the story was still a painful one to report because I knew I was opening old wounds for everybody I interviewed. The people I remember best were a couple my parents’ age, which is to say well into their 60s. They lived in a stone house on a dirt road outside town, just the two of them and the photos of the boy they’d lost in the war, their only child. All I could think of was how I could have been that dead boy instead, and my parents the ones stumbling around under the weight of their loss. Somehow I made it through the interview without crying, but as soon as I got in my car, I bawled like a baby-–for them, for my folks and me, for all the dead soldiers in that godforsaken war.

I wish I could tell you I turned Friendsville into a great story, but I didn’t. I didn’t have the chops yet. I wrote it in, I think, 1971, and I was still trying on styles for size, still pretending I was somebody different every time I sat down at the typewriter. When David Israel and Mike Lupica burst onto the scene a few years later, I was struck by how fully-formed they were as writers, and they were kids. To read them was to think they never suffered from self-doubt or indecision. Tony Kornheiser was that way, too, an absolute joy to read seemingly from Day One. I had days when I was good, I suppose, but mostly I was a work in progress.

Throughout my time at the Evening Sun, Jimmy Breslin was my greatest influence, just as he had been since the day before I went in the Army. I’d ordered his classic collection “The World of Jimmy Breslin” as soon as I’d returned from grad school, but it didn’t show up until 36 hours before I became Uncle Sam’s property. I sat down and read the book from cover to cover, swept away by Breslin’s great characters–Marvin the Torch, Fat Thomas, Sam Silverware–and touched in a deeper, more profound way by his column about the man who dug JFK’s grave. When I put the book down, I told myself that if I lived through whatever the Army had in store for me, I wanted to come home and write just the way Breslin did. And I tried mightily when I worked in Baltimore. Of course I wasn’t the only young buck who worshipped Breslin. You could see his influence on hot young newspaper writers everywhere, whether they were on the city desk or in sports:  Lupica in New York, Israel in Washington, Bob Greene in Chicago. And the hell of it was, they were all better at imitating Breslin than I was.

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From Ali to Xena: 9

The Evening Sun Also Rises

By John Schulian

I’m always surprised and more than a little disappointed in myself when I tote up how many people helped me along the way and how easily I’ve forgotten some of them. The one I’m thinking of at the moment is Bill Tanton, who opened the door for me at the Baltimore Evening Sun. He was the sports editor there when I was using Army time to write letters in my campaign for a job at every paper that caught my fancy–the L.A. Times because of Jim Murray, the pre-Murdoch New York Post because of Larry Merchant and Vic Ziegel, the Washington Daily News because of Jack Mann. Tanton’s response was like most of the others in that he said he didn’t have any openings, but he didn’t let it go at that. He passed my letter and clips on to the Evening Sun’s city editor because he thought I had the makings of a good feature writer. It turned out that Tanton recruited a lot of the first-rate talent that passed through the paper –Tom Callahan, Mike Janofsky, Phil Hersh, Dan Shaugnessy–but I wouldn’t realize I was part of the parade until after I had rejoined the civilian world in August 1970 and chosen between job offers at the Evening Sun and the Miami Herald, which, by the way, didn’t want me as a sports writer, either.

Unfailingly, every editor I met yearned to save me from life in what serious newspaper people considered the toy department. It was, I suppose, the curse of being a relatively bright young man. They talked about transforming me into a cityside reporter who might one day cover the state house or the White House or even become a foreign correspondent. I could tell I was going to have to get to sports by my own devices. The important thing at the time, however, was to work, to get some experience, and to develop as a writer. I’m sure I could have done that in Miami — working there certainly hasn’t hurt Carl Hiassen. But what I remember best about my visit was sitting in an editor’s office and looking out at Biscayne Bay sparkling in the sunshine. I worried that if I said yes to the Herald I’d always feel like I was on vacation.

I didn’t have that problem when I visited Baltimore. The city looked the way I imagine Dresden must have after World War II-–burned-out, desiccated, hopeless. On the ride in from the airport, I saw a sign for Shilinksi’s Lithuanian sausage and, a short distance away, the landmark Bromo-Seltzer Tower. For me, a great first impression. The clincher, though was my interview with the city editor, a live wire named Ernie Imhoff who called everybody “babe.” We had a cup of coffee in the Sunpapers’ cafeteria, a setting about as joyless as Death Row, and then we went back upstairs to the city room, where I was treated to a view of the city jail. All this and the Evening Sun had to play second fiddle to the Morning Sun, which had overseas bureaus and a Washington bureau and, obviously, a far bigger budget than the A.S. Abell Company’s p.m. stepchild. Hell, the Evening Sun had yet to assign a single reporter to cover Washington, which was all of 30 minutes away by car. And it didn’t have enough money to send reporters around the block, much less around the globe. But it had been H.L. Mencken’s paper, and it put a premium on tough reporting and lively writing. Add all that to the view of the city jail and there was no way I could say no to Baltimore.

I knew I’d made the right choice when my first assignment was to go to what is called the Block to find out what the strippers and lowlifes there were doing to get ready for the World Series between the Orioles and the Cincinnati Reds. The Block was a stretch of East Baltimore Street downtown devoted to strip joints, dirty-book stores, the city’s only tattoo parlor, and Polock Johnny’s Polish sausage emporium, all in the shadow of police headquarters. The strippers, especially one who called herself Fanta Blu, turned out to be raunchy and wonderful, particularly when talking about big-name baseball and football players who occasionally stopped by. I could only quote them up to a point–the Evening Sun was a family newspaper, after all-–but the story I wrote still got me the right kind of attention.

Just the same, I spent my first year in Baltimore covering suburban Harford County. I shared an office with the Morning Sun’s reporter, Edna Goldberg, a middle-aged dynamo who doted on her two sons, had a husband named Sol, invited me to dinner with her family, taught me Yiddish curse words, and was as competitive as anybody I ever bumped heads with in the newspaper business. My salvation was that she loved doing stories about budgets and zoning, subjects I would write about only under threat of death. Mostly I wrote features and slipped back into the city to see if there was something there I might do. The one good political story I wrote was about Joseph Tydings, a liberal Democrat from Harford County who was driven out of the U.S. Senate by the pro-gun crowd. Years later, in Hollywood, when I was the head writer on “Hercules,” we hired Tydings’ daughter Alexandra as a guest star. She played Aphrodite as if the goddess of love were a surfer girl, and she was dynamite. Small world.

Once I moved onto the city desk full-time, I was in high clover. Baltimore embraced weirdness and lionized eccentrics, and the Evening Sun basically let me run amok. I wrote features about pool hustlers and singing newsboys; vice cops on the Block and a saloonkeeper who put up a billboard supporting Nixon and Agnew; Edith Massey (the egg lady from “Pink Flamingoes”) and a vastly overweight Depression-era bicycle racer who watched me make the most of his neighborhood bar’s 10-cent beers and get hammered on the job for the first and only time in my career. One day I waltzed off to write about the Block’s last surviving tattoo artist and came back with a story about a hooker named Rosie who was just out of jail and wanted a rose tattoo. Our education reporter, a sweet little lady named Sue Miller, accused me of making the whole thing up. But the beauty of Baltimore was that you didn’t need to write fiction. The truth had it beat every which way.

And yet no matter how woolly the people I wrote about were, I was still who I was, and there was no getting away from it. I remember one of the pool hustlers I was always pestering for stories looking at me one day and saying, “John, you’re the straightest guy we ever met.”

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From Ali to Xena: 8

. . . But You Can’t Hide

By John Schulian

I worked as a copy editor at the Salt Lake Tribune while I waited for Uncle Sam to come calling. I think I was the only guy on the desk who wasn’t in AA. That was a great crew. Lots of laughs even if one of them kept trying to talk me into joining the Marines. (Like hell. I’d seen “The Sand of Iwo Jima.” Even John Wayne couldn’t survive in the Marines.) My last night at the paper, these old drunks took me out for a farewell toot-–steak and lobster and booze at one of Salt Lake’s bottle clubs where we found ourselves with a lovely red-haired waitress we promptly named Peaches. Ah, yes, Peaches.

I went into the Army in August 1968, with a master’s degree in journalism in hand and the news of the Tet Offensive echoing in my ears. My dad dropped me off at the Salt Lake induction center on his way to work. I don’t recall what we said to each other-–it certainly wasn’t much-–but he told me years later it was the worst day of his life. I thought about him and my mother a lot in my first days in the Army, and how if I got killed in what I was now certain was an utterly useless war, it might kill them, too.

The funny thing is, I never thought about running to Canada or hunting up a doctor who could concoct an excuse that would keep me out of the Army’s clutches. Hell, I have one friend who told me he got out of the draft when a doctor wrote that my friend’s mother would have a nervous breakdown if anything happened to him. That still bothers me. What made him and his mother so special? My mother would have had a nervous breakdown too. A lot of other mothers did have nervous breakdowns because their sons came home in a box. My two years in the Army were a waste of my time and the taxpayers’ money, but at least I didn’t hide behind mommy to avoid them. I just took my chances and lived to tell the story.

Basic training was at Ford Ord, California, up by Carmel and Monterrey, beautiful country. My company was a curious mixture of returned Mormon missionaries from Utah and surfers and street kids from L.A. Our senior drill instructor had one basic message: “You’re all going to Vietnam and you’re all going to die–unless you listen up!” In the middle of the night, he’d come back to the barracks drunk and wake us up to tell us about his two tours as a door gunner in Vietnam. That was creepy enough by itself. But other nights I could hear advanced infantry training units coming back from maneuvers. These were the guys whose next stop really was Vietnam. They’d be marching through the fog, singing “Wide river, river of Saigon” or–to the tune of the Coasters’ “Charlie Brown”–“In the night time when you’re sleeping, Charlie Cong comes a-creeping, all around-round-round-round.”

Lots of nutty things happened in basic: Guys at the beachfront rifle range deciding they’d rather shoot at luxury boats than Army-approved targets. A drill instructor listening to a drooling loony from airborne and then telling us, “Boys, there’s only two things that come out of the sky and that’s bird shit and fools.” The guy I was supposed to partner with on bivouac trying to kill himself when he learned that his next stop was advanced infantry training, which was likely his ticket to Vietnam. The long faces when we figured out that of our 165 men, 105 received orders that involved what was called “combat arms.” They knew where they were going.

The nuttiest thing of all, though, was that the Army, in its infinite wisdom, decided that I should be a computer programmer. “Get the fuck out of my sight,” my senior DI said when he handed me my orders. He only wanted men who were going to kill Commies for Christ.

My next stop was also my last stop: Fort Sheridan, Illinois. It was Fifth Army headquarters and had a huge data processing center, hence the need for computer programmers. It was also, as fate would have it, on the North Shore of Chicago, between Highland Park and Lake Forest, two very pricey suburbs, not far from Northwestern and, better yet, Wrigley Field. The guys I ran into at Fort Sheridan were mostly smart and funny and a hell of a lot better company than anybody I’d met in grad school. They’d been plucked from jobs at places like IBM, Texas Instruments and NASA, and they really knew what they were doing when it came to computers. I, on the other hand, had never even seen a computer.

Amazingly, nobody made a big deal over it. I ran errands for my civilian boss, an older guy named John Munn–everyone who worked for him was called a Munnster-–and I tried to read every book I hadn’t been able to in college. Six months later, just as I was about to lose my mind, I learned that the post newspaper was looking for an enlisted man to help its civilian editor run it. The editor was Joe Neptune. I’m telling you, that fort was loaded with great names. Joe Neptune, AKA the King of the Sea, signed me up immediately. A couple of other really talented enlisted men showed up not long afterward, and just like that, I was home free. The toughest thing I had to do for the rest of my tour of duty was put the paper to bed by 11 a.m. Thursday so I could jump on a commuter train and then the L and make it to Wrigley Field’s bleachers by the bottom of the first inning. War is hell.

It’s easy to joke about it now, but there was no joking when you saw the guys coming back from the ’Nam. I remember senior NCOs screwing over a black guy with a purple heart and a bad limp. It wasn’t enough that they’d gotten their pound of flesh from the poor bastard; they had to bust him back to private, too. I played basketball with a returnee who won a Silver Star in Vietnam–he’d crawled out in the middle of a firefight to rescue a couple wounded buddies. The one I remember best, though, was a solider who had been badly wounded in combat and whose hair was completely gray at the age of 22. When we were on KP, he fell asleep between breakfast and lunch and a cook tried to be funny by dropping a stack of trays on the table where he had laid his head. It must have taken us 10 minutes to pry his hands off the cook’s throat. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the violence. The potential for it was always there. I knew that for a fact when there was a shakedown inspection in the barracks next to mine and they found .45 automatics and machetes right next to the drugs and hypodermic needles.

I still thank God I never saw combat. Who knows if I would have lived, or if I had, what kind of a mess I would have come back as. On one of my last days in the Army, I was having an obligatory out-processing chat with my company commander, who was looking at my background for the first time. “Why, you have a master’s degree,” he said. “You could have been an officer.”  I didn’t bother telling him what the life expectancy of a second lieutenant was in combat. I just said I’d rather be a civilian. Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, I was free at last.

I left the Army as quietly as I had gone into it. I didn’t get drunk or get laid. I’m not sure anybody even shook my hand. I just caught a plane to Salt Lake for a brief visit before I started a job as a reporter at the Baltimore Evening Sun. In my bedroom, among the letters I’d written home, I found an obituary that my mother had clipped from the Tribune. It was of a guy I’d been in basic training with, a returned Mormon missionary who’d been killed in combat in Vietnam. He was a year younger than me, but we had the same birthday: January 31.

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From Ali to Xena: 7

You Can Run…

By John Schulian

I went to graduate school in journalism at Northwestern, and the best thing about it was that it kept me out of the Army’s clutches for one more year. Other than that, I didn’t care much for the experience. I’d spent the summer before I went there playing ball and blacktopping roads, so I had a pretty good tan. No sooner had I started hunting for an apartment than some guy asked where I’d “summered.” “On the end of an idiot stick,” I told him. When the guy didn’t realize I was talking about a shovel, I knew I was in the wrong place. Nothing against Northwestern–it’s a great school and having a master’s from there definitely helped me get a job in Baltimore when I finished my two-year hitch in the Army. But Northwestern is also a haven for children of privilege, and I’m allergic to them. Always have been, always will be.

It was like I was watching a movie as one big car after another delivered a succession of beautiful coeds to campus, mothers and fathers bidding adieu to their little darlings. It didn’t take me long to realize that I had nothing in common with about 90 percent of my fellow grad students. Some were horse’s asses like a guy from Brown who wore a suit but no socks with his penny loafers. Some were budding drones who knew lots about government but couldn’t write a letter home. Some were lost causes like the guy who decided he’d rather join the Air Force. And then there was the professor who yelled at me for showing up early for a meeting. He was the biggest horse’s ass of all. But if he or anyone else on the faculty had taught anything I was interested in, I would have made myself pay attention. Unfortunately, the faculty in 1967-68 was fixated on covering courts and government and water and sewers, and I wanted to write about flesh-and-blood people, the more colorful the better. I got my best lesson in that when Jimmy Breslin blew into town to cover a Mafia trial for the Sun-Times. He wrote a piece about getting a tip on a racehorse from one of the defendants, Paul (The Waiter) Ricca, and the judge declared a mistrial. Now that was what I had in mind when I went to Northwestern.

Ultimately, I wound up spending almost all of spring quarter in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. I think it’s safe to say I had the best tan in grad school. I got my master’s, too. And 30 days after I returned home, the draft board reclassified me 1A. And 30 days after that, I reported to the Army induction center. My heart may have been God’s, but for the next two years, my ass belonged to Uncle Sam.

Hell, yes, I was afraid of going overseas, because overseas in those days usually meant Vietnam, and even though the women and the country were beautiful, it was no vacation for American troops. Most of them were REMFs (Rear Echelon Motherfuckers), but there were enough bombs going off in Saigon to kill you just as dead as you could get killed humping through the jungle.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s go back to the beginning of this particular chapter of my life. I wasn’t the least bit political when I was an undergrad from 1963 to 1967. Nor do I remember seeing that many kids at Utah sporting peace signs or even long hair. I know I didn’t have long hair; I leaned toward the short look favored by Peter Gunn, the TV detective. What can I tell you, I was just a kid in Bass Weejuns, khakis or Levi’s, and a button-down collar shirt. If there had been an anti-war rally to go to in Salt Lake, I would have looked completely out of place. Not that I had my head in the sand about Vietnam. I read Jonathan Schell’s “The Village of Ben Suc,” which gave me a good idea of how screwed up things were in Vietnam. But the Salt Lake papers were running wire service stories from the war, and they leaned on body counts and bombing runs, not trenchant analysis. Time magazine, which I read regularly, was foursquare behind the war, to the point that its New York editors were replacing the truth its correspondents found in Vietnam with lies and propaganda. David Halberstam of the New York Times was one of the few brave reporters on the scene who refused to buy the military’s bullshit, but I didn’t read the Times then. And the news about anti-war demonstrations elsewhere in the country seemed so far away. Sometimes everything seems far away when you’re in Utah.


David Halberstam, far left

I don’t know many guys from Salt Lake who wound up serving in Vietnam. One who did was a wonderfully funny guy I played football with; his reserve company got called to active duty, and the next thing he knew, he was building an airstrip and praying that a sniper didn’t draw a bead on him. He made it back in one piece, by the way. There was another kid-–he was two years behind me in high school-–who I heard got shot up pretty badly over there. Among guys my age, there was a stampede to get in the reserves -–Army, Marines, anything to avoid the draft. They were even going up to Idaho if they heard of openings there. If I’d stayed in Salt Lake, I probably would have joined them. But I was off at Northwestern and didn’t really start thinking about what I was going to do until winter quarter. I remember exploring officers candidate school in the Navy, but when they told me I’d have to sign up for four or five years, I said forget about it. I’d take my chances with the draft.

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From Ali to Xena: 6


By John Schulian

We didn’t have a TV in our house until 1954, when I was nine. Maybe it was for economic reasons, maybe my parents just didn’t think it was important. They seemed perfectly content with listening to the radio, my mother in particular. I listened along with her. The first thing I remember hearing was the news that Babe Ruth had died. Honest. I was three years old and I had not the slightest idea who the Babe was, but there was something about the way the man on the radio talked about him that made it possible for even a child like me to grasp the importance of his death. Just remembering that moment makes me feel older than dirt. It’s the same when I remember listening to Tom Mix’s radio show-–his doctor was my mother’s doctor, by the way-–and Fibber McGee and Molly, Lum and Abner, Arthur Godfrey, and Art Likletter’s House Party. Linkletter’s band leader had one of the great names ever: Muzzy Marcellino. Muzzy, for crying out loud.

Something else we listened to was Lux Radio Theater, where Hollywood stars of a certain wattage acted in half-hour recreations of movies that were then in the theaters. In my house, we ate up movies, all three of us in the beginning, then just my father and me as time went on. There wasn’t any reason for this movie love. My parents weren’t star-struck, nor were they given to long, thoughtful discussions of performances, directing choices, or cinematography, good or bad. It was just something that was in the air in L.A. along with the aroma of the orange groves and the stench of the burning tires that warmed them on winter nights. If you listened to the radio, you could even hear broadcasts of the premieres of big movies and breathless interviews with stars like Cary Grant and Lana Turner.

The movie house we went to most often was the Academy, an art deco palace near the intersection of Manchester and Crenshaw boulevards. (It’s now a church.) If I went to see Burt Lancaster in “The Crimson Pirate” with my parents on Saturday night, I’d be back at 1 p.m. Wednesday for the kiddie matinee, two movies for a quarter. Might be two Abbott and Costello comedies, or two war movies (“Halls of Montezuma” with Richard Widmark and “Operation Pacific” with John Wayne), or an Audie Murphy Western paired with one starring Jeff Chandler, or-–hang onto your hat–“King Kong” and “Mighty Joe Young.”

Come summer we’d head for the Centinela Drive-In, where we saw “Shane,” “Strategic Air Command” and the truly awful circus movie “The Greatest Show on Earth.” (There’s a scene in “Heat” that was shot at an abandoned drive-in. I’d swear it was the Centinela, which sits in what is now regarded as hard-core gang territory.)

When 3-D movies were all the rage-–”Hondo,” “Charge at Feather River,” “House of Wax”–we went to see them at the big movie houses on Hollywood Boulevard, which was still glamorous and exciting then. (The first movie I remember seeing was “Pinocchio,” at the Pantages.) Afterward, we’d eat at Café de Paris, a little French restaurant around the corner from Charlie Chaplin’s studio. My father’s French buddies hung out there. My parents ate escargot and I drank Shirley Temples.

And then it was just my father and me going to the movies. It had to be by design. My parents were ancient by the standards of the day: when they married, my father was 41 and my mother 39. My guess is she was going through menopause and desperately needed some time away from her rambunctious son.

It was a blessing in disguise for my father and me. We didn’t get to spend much time together, mainly because he worked such long hours and spent a lot of time sleeping in his easy chair when he was home. I don’t want you to think he was distant or cold, though. He was, rather, the nicest man I have ever known. He was charming and funny and gracious, and he had a Danish accent that gave him, I don’t know, a continental air, I guess you’d call it. No wonder he oversaw all the big weddings in Salt Lake when he became catering manager of the Hotel Utah, the No. 1 hotel in the city. He took care of not just Mormons but Greeks and Jews and Italians and anybody else who wanted to be treated right. He loved them all, but he loved the good tippers best. To me, however, he was the dad who took me to see the Hollywood Stars in the old Coast League. And who played catch with me in the backyard, and, when we lived in Inglewood, took me to sprawling Centinela Park to pitch me batting practice and hit me fly balls. And remember, he’d never played an inning of baseball. He was a Danish immigrant who didn’t see a game until he worked in Chicago at a hotel where the big league teams stayed. He told me about players who took out their tobacco chaws only to eat, and of how forlorn the Pirates-–well, I think it was the Pirates–were when the Cubs’ Gabby Hartnett beat them with his Homer in the Gloamin’.

Truth be told, though, he was probably more comfortable going to the movies with me. His choice of theaters was an odd one, not any of the first-run houses, the Academy or the 5th Avenue or the United Artists, but a second-run house called the Inglewood Theater. And it was there that my education in movies, such as it is, began. We saw the John Ford-John Wayne cavalry trilogy, and “The Big Sleep” and Red Skelton comedies and Robert Mitchum in “Blood on the Moon.” Sometimes the old movies bored me witless-–”Saratoga Trunk” with Gary Cooper, in particular-–but more often they fed my imagination and my dreams.

The fact is, I loved movies before I loved baseball. For all I know, I read the movie ads in the newspaper before anything else. And I read Louella Parsons’ column, too, checking it for movie-star names in boldface. Then I would cut out the movie ads and paste them in a scrapbook, which wasn’t as pointless an exercise as it might seem, because I would then use the title of a movie that had captured my imagination and create my version of it. The movie I remember was “Kansas Pacific,” a Republic Pictures Western starring Sterling Hayden that I didn’t get around to watching until a couple of years ago. It was dreadful.) I drew the story in cartoon blocks on pieces of paper about the size of a postcard and I taped or glued the pieces together. Then I took a piece of cardboard, drew a screen with curtains around it, and cut slits on both sides of the screen. Then I would pull the strip of paper on which my movie was laid out through the slits while I provided the dialogue and narration. nd my parents would watch. But only after they had paid a nickel or a dime for the privilege. Even then, at the age of 9 or 10, I realized that movies were for making money.

There was something at work besides the profit motive, though. It was the ability to imagine, to let a couple of words in a newspaper inspire me to create the most primitive kind of art. I suppose the same forces were at work when I listened to the Mutual Game of the Day on the radio and envisioned what the Green Monster in Fenway Park looked like and how the ivy on the walls at Wrigley Field was coming in. I could even read about a minor league slugger in the back pages of the Sporting News-–Frosty Kennedy or John Moskus or Chuck Weatherspoon-–and spend my paper route imagining how they looked as they smacked another home run. It was as though I imagined life with a score by Dimitri Tiomkin or Max Steiner and a big, booming orchestra to back them up. If I listen closely, I can still hear the music.

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From Ali to Xena: 5


By John Schulian

My parents were devoted newspaper readers. They subscribed to two newspapers everywhere we went. In L.A., it was the Times in the morning and Hearst’s Herald Express in the afternoon. When I was 11, I started delivering the Herald: 77 copies Monday through Saturday from, if I recall correctly, 75th Street and Florence Avenue, between Crenshaw Boulevard and 8th Avenue, in Inglewood. I can’t tell how many stories about pachuco gang fights in East L.A. I hurled onto lawns with my trusty right arm. It was the same stuff I read about when I was home. I was a monkey-see, monkey-do kid, so, following my parents’ lead in my own particular way, I’d spread the paper on the living room floor and scan everything that was in it, right down to Sam Balter’s sports column and the ads for a downtown burlesque house that booked big-time strippers like Lili St. Cyr. I was aware of the bald-headed row long before I knew about “Macbeth.”

Although I mentioned Sam Balter, I’m not sure any of the L.A. sportswriters really registered on me when I was a kid. I remember Balter mainly because he was an ex-USC basketball player who played in the Hitler Olympics and broadcast the Trojans’ games. He certainly wasn’t a great prose stylist. In the Fifties, the brightest lights in L.A. sportswriting were Maxwell Stiles at the liberal Mirror and Morton Moss at the Examiner, Hearst’s morning paper. When I’ve had reason to go back and look at the Times from that era, it had a truly dreadful sports section. Jim Murray didn’t start writing for it until after we moved to Salt Lake. Bad timing on our part, because he took the sportswriting world by storm.

There were books in our house, too, of course, even though neither of my parents had made it past the eighth grade. They were from families where work came before education, and yet they made it perfectly clear that I was going to get the kind of education they never had a chance for. I have a hazy memory of my mother reading me “Treasure Island” and “Robinson Crusoe” and “Swiss Family Robinson,” and then handing me the books to see how well I could read from them. That’s probably why all these years later, I never go anywhere without a book. It probably helped, too, that I walked past a small public library to and from my way to Lutheran school. When I started going nuts about baseball, I would check out player biographies and histories of the game. One day I marched up to the checkout desk with “The Hank Sauer Story”–he presumably merited hard-cover immortalization because he was the National League’s 1952 MVP–and the librarian gave me the thrill of my young life. She said Hank lived on the same block she did. How great was that? But I never asked if she would introduce me or get me an autograph. I never hopped on my bike and tried to track old Hank down. I was going to get the kind of education that had eluded them.

It becomes more and more clear to me how much I lived in a world of my own design when I was a kid. The one year I was in junior high in L.A., I read 100 books in addition to whatever I had to read for class. Lots of Hardy Boys mysteries, lots of John R. Tunis, which was predictable for that time, but also lots of Duane Decker, who wrote about a fictional team called the Blue Sox, with Marty (Beef Trust) Blake at first base and the octopus-armed Patsy Bates (a guy, definitely a guy) at shortstop. I’m sure I read a pile of sports bios, too, you know, so I’d know the right thing to say when I was a big-league star who had his own biographer. I did a lot of dreaming like that, particularly when I was out on my paper route, riding my bike up and down those streets.

The first serious author I read-–Updike doesn’t count because “Rabbit, Run” was so far over my head-–was J.D. Salinger. No surprise there unless you consider the fact that I fancied myself more jock than anything else when I discovered him in my junior year of high school. Some seniors on the football team turned me on to “Catcher in the Rye” and I became a fan for life. The guys who told me I should read Salinger were an interesting group: one was the son of one of my future professors at Utah, another was the son of a sports columnist at the afternoon paper in Salt Lake, and I’ll be damned if I can tell you what the third kid’s father did, although he may have been an academic, too. What these guys were telling me and another friend who fell under their spell was that it was okay to nurture an intellectual streak and play sports, too. It was certainly a message no high school coach I played for was ever going to deliver.

As far as finding newspaper writers in Salt Lake who inspired me, fat chance. There were two editors from the Salt Lake Tribune who moved on to have splendid careers, Bob Ottum as a very stylish writer of skiing and auto racing at Sports Illustrated and Hays Gorey as a Washington correspondent for Time. (I went to high school with Gorey’s son, who always seemed incredibly grounded and preternaturally mature.) But I don’t think I ever saw their bylines in the Trib. And the sportswriters at the Trib and the Mormon Church-owned Deseret News were primarily living, breathing examples of how not to practice your craft. Once in a while, the Trib ran a Jim Murray column, but more often it relied on Arthur Daley, the New York Times snoremonger, for an out-of-town voice. That should tell you all you need to know about local tastes.

Jim Murray

When I was in college, I interviewed with the editor of the Tribune, a sallow, pinch-faced gentleman who looked like a good laugh might kill him. He asked me what I wanted to do in the business and I told him I wanted to be a syndicated sports columnist. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, I knew that I was a dead man in his eyes. In Salt Lake’s newspapers, you dreamed of life beyond the city limits at your own peril.

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From Ali to Xena: 4



By John Schulian

I wouldn’t cross paths with McGurk again until I was out of grad school and holding an Army draft notice. By then, his promise to keep an eye on me didn’t matter. I was fully aware of the fact that I wasn’t good enough for pro ball. But that doesn’t mean I stopped loving the game. Of I hadn’t love it anymore, it wouldn’t have hurt so much to make the first truly difficult decision of my life. I was a sophomore at Utah and we were working out in the fieldhouse, an old barn with worse lighting than an abandoned coalmine. It seemed like every day I’d wind up catching this left-handed maniac who eventually signed with the Giants. He had a great fastball, a wicked curve, and absolutely no control. While his pitches bounced off my chest and shins, I started looking at my future in a different light.

In the fall quarter, for the first time in my life, I’d done really well in school. Something like three A’s and a B. And it felt good. Better still, I was starting to think I might want to be a newspaper reporter. But if I played baseball, I was going to miss classes and not have as much time to concentrate on my writing as I needed, and, really, for what? For the chance to sit in the bullpen when the wind was turning Laramie, Wyoming to ice? For the chance to do that for one season and maybe two before I got a decent shot at starting? Baseball wasn’t my future anymore. My brain was, for better or worse. Whatever the future held for me, I knew I wasn’t going to stay in Salt Lake. I needed to get the best grades I could so I could use them as my ticket to ride. So I walked away from my baseball scholarship. Nothing dramatic. No pleas for me to stay. The team would get along fine without me. I cried a lot of tears that nobody ever saw, but I knew I’d done the right thing. And I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, which is something I’ve never made a lot of noise about, mainly because I’ve never fit my idea of what a Phi Beta Kappa should be. A Phi Beta Kappa should be legitimately smart, a true intellectual. I’m just the guy Pete Radulovich turned into a catcher.

I thought that was the end of me and baseball. But come summer Utah Power & Light’s amateur team called and offered me a chance to play. I promptly went out and had the worst year of my life. I’m not sure I hit .250. But they asked me back the next year, when the team added two terrific players from BYU, one of whom happened to be a catcher. I wasn’t sure why UP&L needed me, but I hung around, doing a little catching and wondering if I was wasting time. And then one night I whacked a pinch-hit double over the left fielder’s head, and everything changed. They made a place for me in the lineup, sometimes catching, sometimes at third, but mostly in the outfield because our other catcher’s idea of playing there was to wait until he saw where a fly ball landed before he went after it. I led the team in hitting and he was right behind me.

The next year was even better. I caught full-time and my friend Steve Radulovich, Pete’s son, who’d been drafted by the Yankees and Cincinnati but never signed, played first base. We had a lot of good college players and a couple of former minor leaguers on the team, plus a curve-baller from Utah who went 8-0. We won our league and the state amateur championship, and I hit .397, best year I ever had, even if Radulovich out-hit me by 70 points. (It’s almost embarrassing to remember this stuff, but I do.) One of the guys I played with—we called him Starchy—still says I was the craziest SOB he ever saw, and he’s probably right. After doing nothing but study in school, I had a lot of steam to let off. I hardnosed our pitchers, bitched incessantly at umpires, challenged a lot of opponents who could have kicked my ass, and swore like a stevedore if I hit a weak ground ball. I’ve still got the trophy they gave me as the team’s most valuable player. But the story I want to leave you with has nothing to do with that.

We had a pitcher, one of those kids who’d been a monster all the way through high school and then hurt his arm. I could have caught his best fastball barehanded. But one night he’s throwing a beautiful game — it might even have been three innings of no-hit ball–and he calls me to the mound. Our manager, a big guy with the face of a baby bird, trots out immediately.

“What’s the problem?” our manager says.

“I’m tired,” the pitcher says.

Our manager looks at him for a beat, then slaps him on the back and says, “John will tell you when you’re tired.”

Click here for more “From Ali to Xena.”

[Painting by Dane Tilghman]

From Ali to Xena: 3

By John Schulian


I loved playing baseball beyond reason and certainly beyond my talent level. I was never a natural athlete and I was never the best player on any team I was on, but I was a dogged son of a bitch. I got my teeth on that bone and I wouldn’t let go until I was able to do it on my terms. To be honest, if we had stayed in L.A., I’m not sure I would have been able to play as long as I did. Most likely I would have been bowled over by the competition and either been a benchwarmer or just some dreamer sitting in the stands. But Salt Lake was a different story. There were some wonderful ballplayers there, guys who played pro ball and even one from my era-–the Mets’ George Theodore-–who played in the majors, but there weren’t so many of them that I couldn’t compete.

The question was finding a position to play. All through Little League and Cops League, I’d been a third baseman and an outfielder and, just once, a shortstop who almost killed his amigo the second baseman when we were turning a double play in infield practice. (Did I tell you I had a hell of a throwing arm? If you don’t believe me, ask my amigo about the time I almost threw a ball through him.) When it was time to try out for Babe Ruth League, however, there were lots of third basemen and outfielders who were just as good as I was. Our coach was the first truly hard man I ever met, an ex-minor league catcher who could be irascible, profane, quick to throw a punch even if it cost him a job. But when he sensed how desperately I needed baseball and the identity it gavee me, his better self emerged. He asked if I wanted to try my hand at catching. I said yes, and he proceeded to give me the kind of education at the position that kids today take for granted and kids of my generation almost never got. He taught me how to shift behind the plate, how to block low pitches, how to throw properly, how to flash signs to the pitcher without having them stolen, how to catch pop-ups-–and it was a rare kid catcher in those days who could catch one. He spun me round in circles as he hit me pop-ups that first day and I dropped a bunch of the. After that, I never dropped another.

The coach’s name was Pete Radulovich. He was the first of many people who would give me a break that somehow changed my life for the better. I put him right there with Pat Ryan, who gave me my first assignment at Sports Illustrated, and Steven Bochco, who gave me a shot at Hollywood even though I’d never written a script. Pete’s eldest son, Steve, was the second baseman I almost decapitated in Cops League. We played ball together from the time we were 14 until we were 22, and we still stay in touch. I had dinner with him in Las Vegas, where he lives, a year or so ago, and he said that when his dad was in his final years and they were talking about baseball, his dad said that one of the things that made him proudest was that I’d become such a good catcher. I’ve lived a long time and I’ve had a decent share of success, but that really made me proud. Pete didn’t throw around a lot of compliments.

I did better than all right in high school and American Legion ball and got a baseball scholarship to the University of Utah. The biggest thrill I had was in the state Legion tournament in 1962. We were the Cinderella team and we were playing the juggernaut that had won the high school championship. It was a bad night to run out of pitching, but we did, and we got clobbered. But I had a couple of hits, threw out a couple of runners, and picked another off second base. Afterwards, this guy with a big cigar comes out of the stands and says, “I’m John McGurk of the Boston Red Sox. You caught a big league game tonight. I’m going to keep my eye on you.” Swear to god, this really happened. I didn’t need a ride home after that. I could have floated.

Pete Radulovich

Click here for Part I and here for Part II.

[Painting by Roger Patrick]

From Ali to Xena: 2

One Isn’t the Loneliest Number

By John Schulian

Somehow I survived the constant moves and my social backwardness. When I went back to East as a junior and senior, I found a comfort level that I’d never had before. I played baseball and football, got good enough grades, wrote for the school newspaper, emceed the farewell assembly my senior year, and had friends, the best of whom I’m still in touch with all these years later. By some wonderful twist of fate, I’d landed in a public high school that had all the qualities prep schools charge $20,000 and $30,000 a year for today. Great teachers cared about you and pushed you. I had a U.S. history teacher who actually got me to spend one Christmas vacation working on a paper for her class. I got an A on it, too. I’ll bet 90 or 95 percent of the class of 1963 went on to college of some kind. The best and brightest went to schools like Yale and Columbia and Berkeley. I, like most everybody else, just moved down the street to the Univesity of Utah.

Looking back, I’m amazed at what an innocent time it was. Maybe it was the last innocent time. A couple of years later, it seemed like half the kids who’d been underclassmen when I was at East were drinking and screwing and raising all kinds of hell. (No drugs yet, however. You have to remember this is Salt Lake I’m talking about.) My class, on the other hand, was tame in the extreme. There was a small group that boogied until they puked, but the vast majority seemed to get their high from sugar and make-out sessions. Me, I went to Utah basketball games and hung out in poolrooms with some buddies who were as inspired by “The Hustler” as I was. Never had a date, I’m embarrassed to say. I came close with a long-haired girl who reminded me of Audrey Hepburn–I even walked her home a couple of times–but I was still too damn shy. Graduation night, a friend from the football team and I–he was the good fullback, I was the other fullback–went to a Coast League baseball game instead of the dance. But a terrific girl (not Audrey Hepburn) came up and kissed me as I was on my way out the door. She may not remember it, but I do. It was a lovely moment.

The biggest thing about bouncing around the way I did as a kid was that I learned to never be afraid of solitude. I was pretty self-sufficient emotionally before I was self-sufficient in the sense of being able to actually take care of myself. If there was a high-school dance, I’d hang around the house until 8:30 or 9, then walk over to the neighborhood variety store and look through the magazines and paperbacks. (I had a driver’s license but no car; the car wouldn’t come until I was a sophomore in college.) That’s how I discovered “Rabbit Run” by John Updike. I read the first page and thought it was about basketball. Let’s just say I had a rude awakening when I bought it and read the second page, and the third, and so on. I made it all the way through, eventually. But it wasn’t until years later that I read “Rabbit Run” again and finally realized what it was about.

Maybe the ability to entertain yourself comes with being an only child. It just seemed natural to me. Lots of days there wasn’t anybody around to play with me, so I’d dream up something on my own. Or I’d turn on my little table radio and listen to Mutual’s Game of the Day or, when I was living in L.A., the Hollywood Stars’ baseball game. I listened to a lot of music on the radio, too. Not just Elvis, either, though he was the coolest thing going. I found myself, at the age of 10 or 11, attracted to black music. There were two disc jockeys in L.A.–Hunter Hancock on KPOP and Johnny Otis on KFOX–who played nothing but black music, and there I was, this blond, blue-eyed kid utterly mesmerized by Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and a guy named Sonny Knight, who had a hit with a song called “Confidential.” It was as though I considered this black music an antidote to the Pat Boone 45 my mother gave me as a birthday present. (Pat Boone singing Little Richard? For the love of God, Mom!) There was that incredible mix of Saturday night and Sunday morning in the music-–saxophones straight out of whorehouses and voices right from the choir. I can tell you for sure that I was the only kid in my neighborhood who made Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby” the first 45 he bought. Only later did I hear the influence of country music on the song, so in addition to being proof that I loved my rhythm and blues as a child, I was harboring the inner hillbilly who would emerge later.

Click here for Part One of From Ali to Xena

From Ali to Xena

John Schulian is one of our most gifted storytellers and a wordsmith who has been compared to Red Smith and A.J. Liebling. He came of age as a newspaper reporter and sports columnist in the 1970s, part of a generation of young turks that featured the likes of David Israel, Leigh Montville, Mike Lupica, Jane Leavy, Tony Kornheiser and Tom Boswell. Then he left sports behind and went to Hollywood where he wrote for “L.A. Law,” “Miami Vice,” “Wiseguy,” “JAG,” and numerous other series–including “Slap Maxwell,” the short-lived Dabney Coleman show about a sportswriting hack. He was also the co-creator of “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Before, during and after his foray into show business, Schulian wrote long-form articles for Sports Illustrated and GQ. His work has been collected in “Writers’ Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists,” “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” and the forthcoming “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand.” Schulian has been featured in “The Best American Sports Writing,” and, on ten occasions, the old “Best Sports Stories” series. He also edited “The John Lardner Reader” and co-edited (with George Kimball) “At the Fights: American Writers of Boxing.”

Last fall I sat down with John to talk about his career and what came out was more than just an interview but an oral history of the newspaper business, of the sporting scene and of Hollywood.  So I am proud to present John’s story, in his own words, “From Ali to Xena,” which will be posted in column-like segments twice a week.

You are in for a treat.

–Alex Belth


From Ali to Xena

By John Schulian



Good things have happened to me all my life, whether I deserved them or not, and “At The Fights”is the latest of them. When George Kimball and I started working together, we had nothing more in mind than a modest book of stories by writers who had won awards from the Boxing Writers Association of America. The way we looked at it, no sport has inspired more wonderful prose than the Sweet Science. But for every great piece we found, there was another one that even a generous critic would have had a difficult time calling mediocre. I won’t say we were ready to give up, but the bloom definitely was off the rose.

Then, out of nowhere, George’s literary agent, Farley Chase, called and said the Library of America was interested in having us edit an anthology of great boxing writing. “The same Library of America that does Twain and Poe and Raymond Chandler?” we said. “That’s the one,” Farley said. So we wrote a proposal and talked to LOA’s big cheeses and lobbied like a couple of Tammany Hall politicians. And we got the gig.

It turned out to be an incredible amount of work that was definitely pleasurable. You don’t have to ask me twice to read Heywood Broun, W.C. Heinz, and Carlo Rotella, and I know George feels the same. But there was also more than a little pain in the process because we didn’t have room to include all the pieces we love and all the writers we admire. The book we wound up with, though, is one we believe in wholeheartedly. “At the Fights” reflects both our personal tastes and the importance of boxing in American nonfiction. Just think of the big names whose work we’ve showcased: Mailer, London, Baldwin, Schulberg, Plimpton. Maybe George expected to be to sit in judgment of them at some point in his career, but it’s a complete surprise to me.

Honestly, I never expected any of what has happened to me over the last four decades. Not the big-city sports column or the magazine work or the books, not Hollywood and the modest success I had in TV, not the fascinating projects that still fall in my lap as I enter my golden years. Sure, I dreamed about it when I was a kid, but dreaming is far different than expecting. There were guys I met on newspapers who fairly radiated their expectation of success and became wet-behind-the-ears sensations. I, on the other hand, moved at a far slower pace, forever unsure of what lay in store for me.

I don’t mean to be disingenuous. That’s just a natural fact. I knew I wanted to be a newspaper reporter and columnist, but I thought I might just as easily wind up as a copy editor. (I can hear the copy editors I worked with saying, “You never could have cut it.”) If I saw myself doing anything, it was bouncing around to a lot of different newspapers — but not papers in glamorous cities and not papers with glowing national reputations. I was thinking more along the lines of Toledo for a couple of years, then maybe see what was available in Portland or Albuquerque. The only thing I was sure of was that I had a shot at an interesting life.


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