He was 82 and he was as big a legend as the NFL has ever seen.
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 Stone, Esquire, 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.
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).