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From Ali to Xena: 25

Fast Company

By John Schulian

I never wrote as a fan. To civilians, especially every Cubs fan who ever told me to go back to the South Side because I’d written a column on the White Sox, that may seem a startling confession, but there’s no getting away from the truth. I wrote sports because I yearned to be a writer and the sports page provided a laboratory where I could conduct my experiments with words. When I was breaking into the newspaper racket, there was a freedom of style in sports that couldn’t be found anywhere else. Contrary to what I see too often now, when most every columnist seems to be shouting ceaselessly, I could do a character sketch, attempt whimsy, review a book, and rant and rave about whatever was vexing me all in the same week. The idea was to entertain my readers, but the truth is, I was trying to entertain myself, too.

On the days I succeeded, it was often because I had written about a boxer with a hard past or a ballplayer who had more stories than base hits. I was never a funny writer, the way Jim Murray, Leigh Montville, and Mike Downey were, but I embraced characters who could make me and my readers laugh. And yet there was a melancholy streak in my work, too–the athletes who died young, the broken-down gyms where fighters chased their dreams, the hardscrabble playgrounds where basketball looked like the only alternative to drugs and gangs. Those were the pieces that put sports in perspective, though people never seemed to react to them the way they did when I was cutting someone up in print. When I die, if anybody bothers to write my obituary, I fully expect to be identified as the columnist who called Billy Martin “a mouse studying to be a rat.”

The important thing, if you cared about your craft, was that you had to be good a lot more often than you were bad or the competition would bury you. I’m talking about the years between, say, 1960, when sportswriting’s Chipmunks started nibbling away at sacred cows, and the mid-90s, when the sports page was finally overwhelmed by the screeching talk-radio mentality that continues to assault us.

In the beginning, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon were still around to remind the new wave of what true greatness was. As good as we were – and I think we represented the golden era of sportswriting–none of us ever reached the heights they did. And there were plenty of other writers, younger than Red and Jimmy but older than we were, whose very presence gave us a sense of perspective: Murray in L.A., Edwin Pope in Miami, Furman Bisher in Atlanta, and Blackie Sherrod, who, before he conquered Dallas, made Fort Worth the launching pad for Dan Jenkins, Bud Shrake, and Gary Cartwright. Then there was Ray Fitzgerald, Montville’s stable mate in Boston, and Wells Twombly, a world-class columnist wherever he traveled, and he traveled a lot before landing in San Francsico. And a pox on my house if I neglect to mention Vic Ziegel, Ira Berkow, Sandy Grady, Stan Hochman, and Larry Merchant, whose wry, cerebral column influenced more young writers than anyone will ever know.

They cleared the beach for the wave of columnists I rode in with: Montville, Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica, David Israel, Bill Nack at Newsday, Joe Soucheray in Minneapolis, Scott Ostler in L.A., Skip Bayless in Dallas, Ray Didinger in Philadelphia, and, begging his forgiveness for putting him last in this sentence, Tony Kornheiser. I always thought that Tony’s true genius lay in long newspaper features and magazine work–his profile of tragedy-stricken Bob Lemon will tear your heart out–but he tripped the light fantastic as a columnist, too. While Tony worked in New York and Washington, D.C., on papers where the spotlight was automatically his, Tom Archdeacon was lost in the shadows. You had to go out of your way to track down his evocative prose in the tattered Miami News, but it was always worth the trouble. Likewise, you had to keep an eye on Detroit, where Mike Downey’s star shined brightly and Shelby Strother and Mitch Albom found their way to town by the light it gave off. The auto industry was going to hell, but Detroit could claim a procession of wonderful sports columnists. And Elmore Leonard, too.

I read them all every chance I got. When I was at the Washington Post, still dreaming of becoming a columnist, there was a wall in a corner of the newsroom stacked with out-of-town papers, and I used to plow through it seeking out the bylines of old heroes and new competition. I still remember how good Lupica was when the New York Post let him have a two-week summer fling at writing a column. I’d just met him at the 1976 NBA finals, this baby-faced kid who looked like he’d fit in your pocket, and here he was writing with verve and moxie that left me wilted with envy.

There was a lesson there, just as when I started reading Kindred regularly and realized that he had studied the cadences of Red Smith’s sentences as religiously as I had. If I was going to be anything better than ordinary as a columnist, I would have to work my ass off, and it wouldn’t hurt if I wrote about things that appealed to my writerly instincts as often as I could. There were days when I couldn’t ignore the news–the big trade, big firing, big game–but when I was left to my own devices, I went where my heart took me.

For me, the best sports to write about were baseball and boxing. I felt as though I understood baseball in a way I never would football or basketball or, God help me, hockey. Baseball was still producing characters then, and better still, I was well versed in its history. But the truth of the matter was that the game still fell short of boxing when came to material that made for memorable writing. There were characters and shenanigans and life and death. I mean death literally. I saw it happen in Montreal, where a fighter named Cleveland Denny was fatally injured on the undercard of Leonard-Duran I. In the very next fight, Big John Tate, an Olympic heavyweight who was supposed to have a solid gold future, got knocked out and one of his legs started twitching uncontrollably. All I could think was, Jesus Christ, two in two fights? Tate lived, though. Cleveland Denny didn’t.

I can gin up a defense of boxing if I’m cornered, but I’d rather just tell you that I realize what a dreadful sport it can be and I love it just the same. I love the stink of the old gyms, and the fighters with their dreams that are almost sure to go bust, and the crotchety ancients who untangle their fighters’ feet and tend to their wounds and offer up wisdom written in the blood of those who didn’t heed them. Sometimes I even stop hating promoters and managers, though never long enough to think of them as anything except potential thieves. But it is the fighters I always come back to, the guys who step into the ring knowing they may die in it.

In a sport filled with liars–charming, quotable liars, but liars just the same–there is an open-book honesty about the fighters that could disarm the most resolute cynic. Want to know why a fighter ended up in jail? Want to know how it feels to fight with broken ribs? Want to know how desperately he craves a woman after going without during training? They would tell it all to you, and then invite you to a party after the fight, the way a Baltimore brawler named Wild Bill Hardney did one night. “Party at Loretta’s,” he said, which sounded great until Wild Bill’s wife read about it in the next day’s paper and asked him ever so sweetly just who the hell Loretta was.

Click here for the full “From Ali to Xena” archives.

Texas Two-Step, Part Deuce: The Ballad of Crew Slammer

Jimmy Cannon: Sportswriter.

Riding the Harper’s Magazine bandwagon today. They’ve earned it. Just published a terrific collection called Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper’s Magazine. Lots of good stuff in there including Pete Axthelm’s memorable essay The City Game (which became an excellent book), Pat Jordan on the shady baseball prospect Toe Nash, another good baseball essay by Rich Cohen, and a spot-on piece on sports writing by the critic Wilfrid Sheed, a guy who is real hit or miss for me.. Also work from Mark Twain, John R. Tunis, Shirley Jackson, Tom Wolfe, and George Plimpton. It’s the goods.

Harper’s has also made Gary Cartwright’s memorable recollection of his days at the Fort-Worth Press (included in the book), Confessions of a Washed-Up Sportswriter, available for us all on the Internet. Whoopee!

Here we have a first-hand account of Shrake and Jenkins, Blackie Sherrod and the Forth-Worth Press in the Fifties:

I did not know it at the time, but The Press sports staff was ten years ahead of the game. In 1955 The Press was perfecting what most, but not yet all, sports staffs believe they have just created: a competitive art form. Significant television competition was years away, but already The Press was rebelling against the stiff, bleak who/what/when/where architecture of its predecessors, exposing myths, demanding to know why, and treating why as the only question. It was funny about 1961 when Newsweek devoted its press section to the wry progressive sports editor of Newsday, Jack Mann. Newsday hired good, creative writers. They worked as a unit, pruning cliches from wire copy, pepping up hard news by tracing angles all over the country, barreling over dogma where they confronted it. Was Yogi Berra a lovable gnome, like it said in Sporting News? Did he sit around reading comic books and eating bananas? Or was he a noncommunicative boor whose funniest line was, “How the hell would I know?” Newsday, the magazine pointed out, demanded an answer.

There was no way for Newsweek to know it, but sports editor Blackie Sherrod had been preaching a better anarchy at The Press in 1950. Sherrod surrounded himself with such men as Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake, now well-known and excellent writers at Sports Illustrated, not to mention the irresponsible Crew Slammer. He let them write from the gut.

Cartwright recalls the early days with great fondness but he doesn’t romanticize the sports writing profession:

…Let me make one thing plain: most sportswriters have no business in journalism. They are misfits looking for a soft life. The worst sportswriters are frustrated athletes, or compulsive sports fans, or both. The best are frustrated writers trapped by circumstances. Westbrook Pegler called sportswriters “historians of trivia,” but Pegler learned his craft by writing sport. Scotty Reston, Heywood Broun, Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, and Paul Gallico wrote about sport. Winston Churchill covered cricket during the Boer War. TheNew York Times‘ John Kieran was a sportswriter, but he was much more. When students at Yale protested that a sportswriter had been invited to address them, Kieran delivered his speech in Latin.

Sportswriting should be a young man’s profession, No one improves after eight or ten years, but the assignments get juicier and the way out less attractive. After eight or ten years there is nothing else to say. Every word in every style has been set in print, every variation from discovery to death explored. The ritual goes on, and the mind bends under it. Ask a baseball writer what’s new and he’ll quote you the record book. Baseball writers are old men, regardless of age.

…There is no spectacle in sport more delightful than witnessing members of the Baseball Writers Association, who invented the box score, trampling each other at the buffet table. The first time I actually saw Dick Young, the New York Daily News‘ very good baseball writer, he was smearing deviled egg on the sleeve of Arthur Daley’s sport coat and discussing Casey Stengel’s grammar. Ben Hogan was rude and gruff but he impressed me when I learned that the caviar at his annual press party cost $45 a jar. Tony Lema had a genius for public relations at least as great as his genius for golf. Champagne Tony! I covered his funeral. It was an assignment that I did not want, but I was there, thinking that it may be years before I taste champagne again. They served some on the flight home. Bear Bryant used to insist that the way to handle a sportswriter was with a fifth of Scotch. Sportswriters deplored this attitude, but no one ever thought to sue Bear Bryant.

This was the title piece of Cartwright’s collection of his best work, Confessions of a Washed-Up Sportswriter (including Various Digressions about Sex, Crime, and Other Hobbies). If you can ever find a copy of that on the cheap, get it, it also features a wonderful piece on Candy Barr, the famous Texas stripper, and a vicious story about dog fighting that would make the dudes at Deadspin moist. Cartwright regarded it as the best piece he ever wrote even though it was rejected by Playboy, Sports Illustrated and Esquire. It was his favorite, anyway. Probably worth signing up for Texas Monthly (it’s free) for the Cartwright archive alone.

Kudos to Harper’s here. They are doing a real mitzvah and other publications like Rolling StoneEsquire, GQ, and The New Yorker could take notice and make some of the gems from their vaults available to us on occasion. Share the wealth, just a little taste, good Internet karma and all that. A little love goes a long way.

[Life picture of Jimmy Cannon via A Continuous Lean]

Texas Two-Step Part One: Permanent Press

Got a treat for you from the good people at Harper’s Magazine. They’ve taken Edwin “Bud” Shrake’s classic piece “In the Land of the Permanent Wave” out from behind the pay wall and made it available for all. If you’ve never read it before, do yourself a favor and check it out:

For about five hours I had been drinking Scotch whiskey and arguing with a rather nice, sometimes funny old fellow named Arch, who was so offended by my moderately long hair that he had demanded to know if I weren’t actually, secretly, a Communist. “Come on now, you can tell me, hell, I won’t hate you for it. Wouldn’t you really like to see the Communists take over this country?” Arch had said, placing his bare elbows on the table and leaning forward to look trustingly at me, as though he was certain that if I had one virtue it would prove to be that I would not lie to him about such an important matter. Arch was wearing a jump suit; swatches of gray chest hair, the color of his crew cut, stuck out where the zipper had got caught in it when last Arch had excused himself from the table. We were in the guest lodge of a lumber company in a small town in East Texas. Arch is an old friend of the president of the company. Sitting around the table or nearby were my wife, a State Senator in town to crown a beauty queen at a “celebration” the next evening, a U. S. Congressman who had come down from Washington to make a speech between the parade and the barbecue the following noon, a lumber lobbyist who is mayor of still another town owned by this same lumber company, and I think one or two more people but my memory of that evening has a few holes in it.

Willie Morris ran Harper’s during the magazine’s heyday in the Sixties. He said that Shrake’s story, along with Seymour Hersh’s devastating account of the My Lai Massacre, were his two favorites.

In his memoir, New York Days, Morris recalled Shrake as:

…a large, tall Texan with a blunt exterior that disguised a lyric but misdoing heart. This piece was infiintely less ambitious than “My Lai,” but struck a chord in me that I have never quite forgotten, having to do with how clean, funny, and lambent prose caught the mood of that moment in the country and mirrored with great felicity what we were trying to do at Harper’s. To me few finer magazine essays have ever been written.

The genesis of “The Land of the Permanent Wave” was itself a germane story of the magazine business of that era. Sports Illustrated sent Shrake down at his insistence to do a piece on the beautiful and haunting Big Thicket area of East Texas. This was about the time a Texas lumbering company was becoming a major stockholder in Time Inc. Shrake’s story on timber choppers and developers ruining the Thicket was not happily greeted at SI. Andre Laguerre, the managing editor later to be dismissed by the money men, broke the news to the writer at their daily late afternoon gathering in the bar around the corner from the Time-Life Building where many of their editorial decisions took place. It was the only SI story Shrake ever wrote that the magazine would not print and Laguerre embarrassed. Shrake got his permission to rewrite it and give it to Harper’s. He sat down and changed the main angle of the story from the mercenary destruction of the Thicket to his and his young wife Doatsy’s travels through Lufkin and down to the Thicket, about permanent waves and long hair in the Sixties and cowboy hats and rednecks and cops and the fumes from the paper mills.

This story speaks to that time and place as well as a movie like Easy Rider, but it is not at all dated (the same can’t be said for Easy Rider).


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