The good folks at Deadspin have this excerpt from Frank Deford’s new memoir. It concerns Granny Rice.
Have at it.
The good folks at Deadspin have this excerpt from Frank Deford’s new memoir. It concerns Granny Rice.
Have at it.
If you’ve never read “The Boxer and the Blonde” by Frank Deford, well, here’s a reminder. It’s a good one:
The boxer and the blonde are together, downstairs in the club cellar. At some point, club cellars went out, and they became family rooms instead. This is, however, very definitely a club cellar. Why, the grandchildren of the boxer and the blonde could sleep soundly upstairs, clear through the big Christmas party they gave, when everybody came and stayed late and loud down here. The boxer and the blonde are sitting next to each other, laughing about the old times, about when they fell hopelessly in love almost half a century ago in New Jersey, at the beach. Down the Jersey shore is the way everyone in Pennsylvania says it. This club cellar is in Pittsburgh.
The boxer is going on 67, except in The Ring record book, where he is going on 68. But he has all his marbles; and he has his looks (except for the fighter’s mashed nose); and he has the blonde; and they have the same house, the one with the club cellar, that they bought in the summer of 1941. A great deal of this is about that bright ripe summer, the last one before the forlorn simplicity of a Depression was buried in the thick-braided rubble of blood and Spam. What a fight the boxer had that June! It might have been the best in the history of the ring. Certainly, it was the most dramatic, alltime, any way you look at it. The boxer lost, though. Probably he would have won, except for the blonde—whom he loved so much, and wanted so much to make proud of him. And later, it was the blonde’s old man, the boxer’s father-in-law (if you can believe this), who cost him a rematch for the heavyweight championship of the world. Those were some kind of times.
The boxer and the blonde laugh again, together, remembering how they fell in love. “Actually, you sort of forced me into it,” she says.
“I did you a favor,” he snaps back, smirking at his comeback. After a couple of belts, he has been known to confess that although he fought 21 times against world champions, he has never yet won a decision over the blonde—never yet, as they say in boxing, outpointed her. But you can sure see why he keeps on trying. He still has his looks? Hey, you should see her. The blonde is past 60 now, and she’s still cute as a button. Not merely beautiful, you understand, but schoolgirl cute, just like she was when the boxer first flirted with her down the Jersey shore. There is a picture of them on the wall. Pictures cover the walls of the club cellar. This particular picture was featured in a magazine, the boxer and the blonde running, hand in hand, out of the surf. Never in your life did you see two better-looking kids. She was Miss Ocean City, and Alfred Lunt called him “a Celtic god,” and Hollywood had a part for him that Errol Flynn himself wound up with after the boxer said no thanks and went back to Pittsburgh.
“Damn Yankees” is a winning new collection of essays about the Bronx Bombers. Edited by Rob Fleder, it features an All-Star lineup and is a must not just for Yankee fans or baseball fans but anyone who appreciates good writing. I recently talked to Fleder about the project. Here’s our chat. Enjoy.
RF: We’ve been catching up the TV series “Friday Night Lights.” I don’t really watch much TV but it’s great, just so well done. If you summarized the plot line, it would sound like cliché after cliché, but that never occurs to you because it’s great story telling, it’s so well executed. It makes me think of Colum McCann’s piece in the book. We’ve all read some version of that story. If you’re a Sports Illustrated editor you’ve seen it a hundred times—and almost none of them have worked. It’s very rare that someone can pull it off, and he did spectacularly. I think it’s a fantastic piece.
BB: It’s the father-and-son piece, the outsider-coming-to-baseball story.
RF: Right, but you don’t even think about reducing it to those terms because it’s so beautifully done.
BB: I think it’s one of the best pieces in the book. Now, when you approached Colum, did you know that was the piece he was going to write?
RF: Yeah. Even before I got in touch with him, I knew from Dan Barry that Colum had a son and that he’d come to baseball through his son. He has lived here for many years but he’s still an Irishman too. His kids have grown up here. I’d read “Let The Great World Spin” and some other things by him and loved his work. I thought if anybody could do this kind of story, it’s him. What’s cool is that because he didn’t grow up in a baseball culture, I think he was more or less oblivious to the fact that he was doing something that many other people have tried, usually without much success.
BB: There is no guile or irony in his story.
RF: That’s right, and it’s an enduring theme in baseball, fathers and sons—except that he does turn the whole thing on its head, in a way. He’s coming to the game through his son, and that process takes him back to his father and grandfather. It’s great when someone is artistic enough to take material is familiar and seems predictable in some ways and does something truly original with it. That’s the magic—to take something that’s right in front of the readers eyes and to dazzle him by revealing something he never saw. That’s what good writing is about to me.
BB: The other piece in the book that I think took a familiar theme and did a nice job making it work is Will Leitch’s essay, which is really a Babe-in-the-Woods story. It’s funny, and I think he really got the tone right.
RF: Very much so. I hadn’t met Will, but he’s a friend of my friend Dave Hirshey, who’d edited him at Harper Collins. So Dave said, let’s go get a drink with Will Leitch. And when I started this whole project, my son, Nick, a deeply knowledgeable sports kid, said, “Oh, you’ve got to get Will Leitch, he’s really funny and a really good writer.” We sat down at a bar and we connected immediately. He had an idea for the book, and I was like, “Yeah, Huckleberry Finn comes to New York, that’s it.” And he ran with it. Again, a hard one to pull off, but he did a great job with it. His piece is laugh-out-loud funny but it’s also sincere. The irony in it doesn’t create distance, it does just the opposite.
BB: Going back for a minute, how did this book begin?
RF: Roy Blount was in some ways the genesis of the whole book. Dave Hirshey reminded me of this, because I’d forgotten. There is a charity dinner I go to every year where Roy is a featured guest, and he’s always hugely entertaining. So I mentioned to Hirshey that I’d been to this dinner and Roy was telling all these great old Yankee war stories from his days writing sports. I don’t know how the subject came up but Roy had all these great stories. I mentioned this to Hirshey in passing and he called me the next day and said, “Do think there’s a book in this? The best writers you can think of, writing about the Yankees?” At the very least, I thought, it’d be a lot of fun to think about, and that’s how the whole thing started.
BB: Did you know what you wanted each writer to do before you approached them or did they have an idea in mind when you first talked to them? Or did you say, I want Leigh Montville, I want Richard Hoffer, and they’ll figure it out?
RF: Some had specific idea, and some didn’t. I tried to have several possible ideas for each writer I called, things I thought might appeal to them and they might be especially good at, but I always wanted to hear the writers’ ideas first—if they had anything specific—before I suggested possible topics for them. But I did want them to be aware of the range of possibilities, so I would tell them the sorts of things other writers were doing.
BB: You do have such a wide range in the book, not only of writers but of takes on the Yankees. I mean, you’ve got Dan Okrent and Frank Deford who are classic Yankee haters.
RF: Plus, there is a little cluster from Boston, Charlie Pierce and Leigh Montville. Montville, of course, had written a big biography of the Babe as well as one of Ted Williams, and Jane Leavy had written about Mickey Mantle. And these are big books—-not just “big” as in best-sellers, but deeply researched, substantial volumes that cover a lot of ground. So I asked, “What’s the best thing that didn’t make the book?” It took Leigh a while and of course he drew on material that he’d used in the book, but his take was new, and I think what bubbled up for him with passage of time was a new perspective, a fresh insight about Ruth. And Jane just went out and did a whole lot of new reporting. She had a situation with Frank Sullivan, the old Red Sox pitcher, where she mistakenly pronounced him dead in her Mantle book. Sullivan contacted her and wondered when she planned to announce his rebirth—or something like that. It was very funny. She was mortified by her mistake, but he had a great sense of humor about it. So she dug into it and—typical of her—she did more reporting and came up with a terrific piece. So sometimes I went to people who’d already written about subjects involving the Yankees and other times I went to people who were just writers I admired who I knew had some feeling for baseball, though I didn’t know what their feelings were about this team.
BB: Who were some of those guys?
RF: I knew our friend Dexter watched every Yankee game. And as much as I’ve talked to him about the Yankees over the years—even gone to Yankee games with him—it’s never clear what Pete’s going to come up with, how he’s going to land on a subject. That’s true with anything that he’s going to write.
BB: Yeah, like that book review he did last year for the Times on the Jim Harrison novel.
RF: The book report, he called it. Exactly. You’ve read his columns and magazine pieces. That’s part of Dexter’s genius—-you never know where he’s going to be coming from on a particular subject, or where he’s going to land.
BB: Were you amused then when in typical Dexter fashion he chose Chuck Knoblauch, of all people, to write about?
RF: Well, Pete had been very sick a few years ago, very nearly died, as he writes about in the piece. Then it took him a long time to come back and there was a stretch where he felt seriously damaged by his illness, where he couldn’t write. And it was awful. And it was during that period when he landed on the idea of Chuck Knoblauch, a guy who had done something as well as anyone in the world, had done it every day of his life, and then woke up one day and suddenly couldn’t do it at all. Pete had a personal connection to that story, something you couldn’t have predicted. I mean, I knew about Pete’s illness and its aftermath, but I never could have predicted that he would connect it to that Yankees by way of Chuck Knoblauch. And you look at it and it’s a brilliant, funny piece about the awful things that went wrong for him and for Knoblauch. Nobody else could have written that piece.
BB: You’ve known and worked with Pete for a long time. You edited “Paper Trails,” his collection of newspaper columns and magazine pieces. How much editing did you do with him on his piece, and with the other writers too, for that matter? Did Pete give you a final draft and that was it or did you actually work on the piece with him?
RF: It varied with each writer how much editing it took to get from the first draft to the final. In Pete’s case, it’s hard for him to let go of what he’s writing. He’s a perfectionist. He will rewrite everything until you badger him to give you a peek at it. He sent a draft and it was late in the process of the book’s production—meaning I was feeling the crushing weight of a deadline. The piece was brilliant, it was fall-out-of-your-chair funny but he kept working on it. He was just getting back up to speed for himself. A week or so later he sent a draft that was completely different. He tried to come at the same subject from a totally different direction. It was written like a mock children’s book, and it might have been one direction too many. He sent me about half or two-thirds of it. He’d written the whole thing and then lost the original version on his computer— he was having technical difficulties as he sometimes does. It was like “Paris Trout”—
BB: Jesus. That’s when he lost more than 100 manuscript pages somewhere in his computer back in the mid-‘80s and then took a baseball bat to the machine and had to start over from the beginning.
RF: Right. The second version of his Yankee piece was still funny but I liked the earlier way he did it better. So he did a third version, which was recreating the first version, different and better. That was classic Dexter.
BB: You talked about Pete not wanting to let things go and being a perfectionist, does there ever come a point where a writer can cross a line and keep hold of something too long?
RF: I think it happens to writers all the time, and usually they know it and can see that they’ve pushed it too far or changed directions once too often, and will go back to the sweet spot that was working before. For instance, Pete bounced the second version of his piece off me, and by the time I got it and read it—we don’t work electronically with Pete, it still comes the old fashioned way, on paper, by Fed Ex—he’d already gone back to his first version, or what he could remember of it, and finished it that way.
BB: Is he the only writer in the collection who works like that?
RF: In technological terms, Frank [Deford] was like that for a long time—he was the last guy I worked with who used a typewriter—but he moved decisively into the electronic mode a long time ago. But there were other writers who were as meticulous as Pete, who worked on things until the last minute and wanted to see every draft, every galley, every version. It’s a matter of style, I think—some writers work one way, some work another. It doesn’t mean that someone like Frank or Jim Surowiecki or Roy Blount, who file pieces that are virtually finished the first time you lay eyes on them, are any less meticulous or aren’t perfectionists. Their process is different—at least, that’s the way it looks from the vantage point of an editor—but I think they’re all trying to make their words as good as they can possibly be, one way or another.
BB: I’m sure for some writers it’s never going to be good enough, even when the book is published they’ll still look at their piece and want to tinker with it.
RF: Yeah, Bruce McCall is a very meticulous writer who found things he wanted to fix in his piece until the very end. And when the book was about to close we shot this little video, and Dan Okrent left the shoot with a copy of the galleys, which were outdated by that point, and by the time I got home from the video shoot I had a message from Dan saying that there were two mistakes in Bruce’s piece. And Bruce is a careful writer. We were able to correct the things Dan found at the last minute, even though the book was already at the printer. I know there will be other things that we missed—it’s inevitable—but you do the best you can in the time that’s allotted.
BB: That’s agonizing but at some point—
RF: You have to let go. And the writers do the same thing. Some writers sent me drafts that were virtually perfect.
BB: Was Richard Hoffer one of those guys?
RF: Actually Rick and I worked on it because he was worried in his first draft of the piece about making it baseball-y enough. I always think of Hoffer as a great essayist. He’s always been one of my favorite SI writers.
BB: So understated and yet he’s not humorless. There’s a strong sense of wit in his writing. It’s just dry.
RF: Very much so. He’s extremely skillful and has a distinctive voice. And he has truly original thoughts in a world that I think is filthy with group-think. A Hoffer piece is never just the same old thing.
BB: And you don’t think of him as a baseball guy especially.
RF: No, but Hoffer’s one of those guys that I want to read on anything. I had an idea that I thought would make a perfect Hoffer essay, but at first he did much more of a narrative history piece without much of the essay component. He said to me as we were working, “I have two gears: this one and the other one.” I told him that I was envisioning a piece that included more of the other one, so he wrote a draft that was almost pure essay and left out much of the great historical narrative, all these great details. So we took both versions and put them together and I think it worked out beautifully. I love the piece. And I think it’s quintessential Hoffer.
BB: You were at Playboy and Esquire and SI as an editor and have worked with many of the writers featured in this collection. How many of the writers had you not worked with before?
RF: I can count them. I didn’t know J.R. Moehringer or Nathanial Rich or Jim Surowiecki. Pretty much everybody else I was at least acquainted with or had worked with directly. I met Will Leitch in the very early stages of the book. I’d been introduced to Colum McCann at Dan Barry’s book party, but that was the extent of it at that point. I’d admired Mike Paterniti’s work for a long time and tried to get him to write for me at one magazine or another, but can’t say I really knew him.
BB: What about Bill James?
RF: Bill James I’ve known since he was sending out his Abstract on mimeograph. I met him when I was a fact checker or a baby editor at Esquire. Okrent introduced Bill to us at Esquire, and in some sense, Esquire introduced him to a wider audience. It was great. Okrent wrote the first big piece about Bill that I remember and I worked on a little piece Bill wrote for an Esquire baseball package one year, and he was obviously an original thinker and, I thought, a terrific writer. I touched base with him every so often over the years and followed his ascension. I’d write to him from SI and say, “I don’t know if you remember who I am but would you be on a panel to pick the greatest all-time team…” or whatever. And he always remembered our connection from way back and was always generous with his time. So I called him for this book. He works with the Red Sox but is still as clear-headed about baseball as anyone I’ve ever read, and he’s a funny, quirky writer. I had no idea what he’d write about and neither did he, as it turns out. One day, late in the process, I got an e-mail from him in which he said, “I’ve been thinking about Yankee catchers….” And he was off and running.
BB: And it’s really a perfect kind of Bill James piece. It’s smart and irreverent.
RF: Analytical and full of all his digressions and humorous asides and deep baseball knowledge.
BB: That’s one of the things I noticed about the book, you’ve gotten kind of a quintessential piece from so many of the contributors.
RF: That’s the ideal—what you dream about as an editor. You pick writers of this quality and then you hope they get into it and just do what they do.
BB: I also like the variety. There are humorous pieces, memoir pieces—Sally Jenkins’s piece that is so evocative of New York City, historical stories, analytical pieces.
RF: I’m glad it hit you that way. My big picture idea was to have a bunch of voices that I really like to hear on the subject of the Yankees, more or less directly. In some cases I had specific topics in mind, like Jane Leavy on Mantle or Tom Verducci on Jeter. I told every writer who some of the other contributors were, so they knew who else was playing, and I just hoped all the writers would bring their game. As it turned out, they did.
BB: I’m forever grateful for Charlie Pierce’s piece if only because he punctured that horseshit Seinfeld routine, which has somehow become celebrated, that rooting for a sports team is like rooting for laundry.
RF: Charlie is another one you can count on to come up with something unpredictable.
BB: Right, because he starts there and shifts gears in the middle of the piece about growing up and what the Yankees meant growing up in Boston.
RF: He does lay waste that whole Seinfeld bit about laundry. But in a much larger context he also writes about what baseball’s tribal experience means to people who come to this country from somewhere else, and he does it in a way that is immediate and on a human scale. Charlie’s piece has a lot of common ground with Column McCann’s, but they are totally different essays.
BB: Taken as a whole were there any surprises in the collection, a theme, or a player who jumped out as somebody that appeared in more than a few of the pieces?
RF: There are some threads that run through the book, yeah. And I was aware of them when I was figuring out the order of the pieces and was conscious of spacing them out so that they didn’t come together too quickly. Catfish Hunter comes up more often than I would’ve anticipated. And he’s the focus for Mike Paterniti, who wrote just a beautiful piece.
BB: The book ends with Steve Rushin talking about Catfish, too.
RF: And I was aware that. I’d really admired Mike’s classic Thurman Munson piece in Esquire. When I spoke to him, he mentioned that he’d seen Catfish Hunter near the end of his life and had written a quick remembrance of him in the early days of Esquire.com. He sent me the little post he’d done and he went back to that and really dug in. So I knew that Mike and Steve were going to touch on some of the same ground, and Rushin wrote a gem of a piece in which he gets the last word in the book, which is fitting. And Catfish also comes up again in Bill Nack’s amazing story about the Bronx Zoo Era Yankees. There’s a different focus and context in each of the three pieces in which Catfish appears.
BB: Also, what a beautiful guy to come up. A guy with a sense of himself and a sense of humor about the Yankees and how crazy George was even though he was the first big free agent. Yankee fans love him but also probably saw himself as being apart from that too.
RF: And there was another surprise in the book. Steinbrenner comes up, obviously, over and over again. But Jim Surowiecki, the financial writer for the New Yorker, who is another really original thinker, did a revisionist analysis of what Steinbrenner did with the team economically—a totally fresh take on Steinbrenner’s ownership .
BB: I also like that there are a few essays on the modern Yankees. Verducci on Jeter but also Steve Wulf on Robinson Cano, which is important I think—to talk about a Latin star.
RF: As the book was taking shape I knew Tom was going to do Jeter but I thought it’d be good to have a piece on a player who represented the future. I think of Steve as the guy who first wrote about Dominican baseball, about Dominican shortstops. I remembered his piece from the ‘80s, and I thought Cano was the guy for this book. He is a monstrously good player and will be the center of gravity when Mariano and Jeter are gone. Steve took it and ran. He’s been an editor at ESPN for a while now, but he was a great baseball writer at SI for a really long time and knows the game as well as anyone. It was a perfect match of writer and subject.
BB: And it’s an important piece because for so many years the Yankees didn’t have Dominican players, certainly not stars, despite playing a stones throw from Washington Heights.
RF: That’s right. Another surprising piece came from Dan Barry.
BB: Which is great because the Mike Burke, CBS years were covered.
RF: The last thing you think of is the Yankees as underdogs.
BB: Celerino Sanchez.
RF: “Poor Celerino Sanchez,” is a little refrain from Dan’s piece, which is both poignant and very funny. And he had a deeper connection to that team than I expected before I talked to him. Then there’s Roy Blount, who I knew had Yankee stories to tell, but the nature of a Blount piece—the beauty of a Blount piece—is that you have no idea how he’s going to get at his subject and can’t possibly predict where he’s going to go with it.
BB: Then you see writers like Moehringer, McCann and Dexter and you think, I wonder what those guys have to say about them?
RF: J.R. Moehringer had an intimate connection with the team through his grandfather, who was a key figure in his life. “The Tender Bar” is J.R.’s great memoir about growing up with an absent father, and his grandfather is in that book. But what J.R. has done here is an element of the story that wasn’t in his book.
BB: And Moehringer is a Mets fan.
RF: I contacted him and he said that he wanted to write about the Yankees from a Mets fan’s point of view. And I already had Nathaniel Rich doing that. In fact, I had Nathaniel’s story already, and it was terrific, extremely amusing. So I told J.R. that I had that piece but that I really wanted him to write for this book. At that point I suggested a couple of topics, but he had something else he wanted to try. And after a while he sent me what he said was a really rough draft of something that was well on its way to being this piece. He’s another one who goes back to his copy over it over and over again, making it better and then going back to it again. It’s a wonderful piece about how he connected with baseball. It’s amazing.
BB: Plus, watching the games on TV and listening to the Scooter. You needed to get the Scooter in there.
RF: Had to. And he’s another thread. He’s also gets a prominent mention in Rushin’s piece.
BB: Yankee fans will obviously be interested in the book but there are enough of the writers in the book who are Yankee-haters that I suspect you want to draw readers that aren’t Yankee fans, too.
RF: Yeah, I think anybody who is interested in reading good writers is the potential audience for the book. The natural audience is Yankee fans, baseball fans. They are a team that people have strong feelings about: people love them and people really love to hate them.
BB: This is the book you want to read.
RF: That was the hope. The plan, insofar as I had one, was to get the writers I want to read on a subject I want to read about. Beyond that I didn’t really know where it would go. I wanted to be surprised and delighted, and by that measure I think the book is a real success.
“Damn Yankees” is available for pre-order at Amazon. It will be published on April 3rd.
A Summons to Manhattan
By John Schulian
It’s startling to think of how much movement there was among sports writers in the 70s and 80s, especially when you consider the state of the business today, with everybody frozen in place, just glad to have a job. Dave Kindred took his column from Louisville to the Washington Post, Skip Bayless traded feature writing at the L.A. Times for a column at the Dallas Morning News, Bill Nack gave up his column at Newsday and became one of Sports Illustrated’s most venerated writers. I suppose it was inevitable that I would have my day in the barrel.
Oddly enough, it was the New York Times again, and this time I got a call from someone who really was the sports editor there, Le Anne Schreiber. She was the first woman to hold that job at a major American daily, and one of her first challenges, in 1979, was to find a successor to Red Smith. He was in his 70s but still wrote with the elegance and gentle wit that was his trademark. I remember in particular a column about morning at Saratoga, and how Mike Lupica and I instantly started quoting lines from it the next time we saw each other. Just the same, the Times wanted an heir apparent in house for the day Red crossed the finish line.
I went to New York to meet executive editor Abe Rosenthal and the paper’s other mucky-mucks, and they pumped me full of praise and told me my picture might one day be hanging on a wall filled with photographs of the paper’s Pulitzer prize winners. The job they were offering was a big step down from the one I had at the Sun-Times: one column a week and long features the rest of the time. When Red left the paper, I would be first in line to replace him as a four-times-a-week columnist. The money they were offering wasn’t what I was making in Chicago, either. But this was the New York Times. Better yet, this was a chance to claim a small piece of newspaper history by being the man who succeeded Red Smith.
I was married at the time, and my wife, Paula Ellis, wanted me to take the job. Not only would she have been closer to her family, in Bethesda, Maryland, she would have had more opportunities professionally. She was in the newspaper business, too-–very smart, very driven, with a glorious future ahead of her as an editor, publisher, and journalism foundation executive. I understood where Paula was coming from. I felt more than a little guilty, too, since I was giving far more of myself to my column than I was to being a husband. But I was the one whose career would be at risk if I went to the Times. I didn’t want to be sportswriting’s answer to George Selkirk, the poor soul who replaced Babe Ruth.
I thought about the Times’ sports section, which Tony Kornheiser, bless his heart, once compared with to Raquel Welch’s elbow. It seemed to be improving steadily. But no matter how brainy and talented Le Anne Schreiber was-–and, buddy, she had brains and talent in spades-–there was no guarantee that the section might not backslide into mediocrity. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure the Times would give me the freedom I enjoyed in Chicago. Rosenthal and Co. might have loved the character sketches I did, but some of my commentary got pretty rough. I don’t recall ever seeing a Times sports columnist peel the hide off someone the way I did.
So there was that. And there was the thought that people would think I was sitting around waiting for Red Smith to die. Worse, maybe Red would, too. And the money bothered me, even though it was only a couple grand shy of what the Sun-Times was paying me. And then there was New York itself, which was decidedly short on charm in that era, a point that was driven home every time I visited and saw the decay, poverty, and violence.
But I also heard the siren song of friends and colleagues who said the Times would give me the biggest soapbox in the business. There would be chances to write books that would never come my way in Chicago. Dave Anderson, a wonderful guy as well as a pro’s pro, called to say how much he was looking forward to working with me. Lupica told me he was looking forward to reading me regularly, although I suspect he really wanted to see if I was as slow a writer as he’d heard.
Long story short: everything was up in the air when I arrived for my final visit with Abe Rosenthal. He ushered me into a small sitting room off his office. It was the essence of plush–perfect furniture, exquisite Oriental rugs, pricey art on the walls. All together, it was probably worth more than my entire house in Chicago. I’m sure I gawked like the hoople I was.
Rosenthal offered me tea and I said no thanks. After some obligatory chitchat, I told him, nicely, that I wasn’t sure I would be comfortable perched on Red’s shoulder, waiting for him to finish his last stand. If I said no, would the Times come back to me when Red was gone? And Abe Rosenthal said, “John, the brass ring is coming around now. You better grab it.”
In that instant, I knew I wasn’t going to take the job. No way I was going to be told to take it or leave it. Some friends who heard the story later told me I was nuts to be offended, that Rosenthal had every right to put things in those terms. But grabbing his brass ring wasn’t my style.
I read later in the Village Voice that Frank Deford and Pete Axthelm had turned down the Times, too. That was good company to be in. And the guy who ultimately took the job was good company as well. Ira Berkow was a perfect fit at the Times–a thoroughly engaging writer who came at his column subjects from a unique angle and had a big heart for the underdog. What Ira wasn’t, of course, was Red Smith. He was Red’s biographer, and a damned good one, but that was as close as he was going to come.
I wouldn’t have been Red Smith, either. I would have tried mightily and I would have failed and I have no idea how I would have reacted, only that it wouldn’t have been pretty. One Red Smith is all you get. It was one of those basic truths that took a long time to sink in, but once it did, it made me gladder than ever that I said no to the Times. And when I tell you that I never second-guessed my decision, feel free to factor Red into the equation.
Over at Grantland, there is a long, entertaining oral history piece compiled by Alex French and Howie Kahn on “The National,” Frank Deford’s influential, short-lived sports newspaper:
Peter Richmond (Main Event Writer): I had a Nieman fellowship at Harvard when I heard about The National. You’re obliged, if you get a Nieman, to go back to the newspaper you were working at. I worked at the Miami Herald as the national sports correspondent. I’d go to the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA Finals. I’d go to prize fights. I had a column. Then I got a free ride at Harvard for a year. In the middle of it, I had heard in the New York Daily News that Frank Deford was rounding up this all-star team for The National. I thought, “Oh my god. I’ve got to get there.”
Charles P. Pierce (Main Event Writer): As soon as I heard about it, I basically hurled myself out a window.
Frank Deford: What was my sales pitch like? It wasn’t a reach, and I wasn’t blowing smoke. I’d say, “This paper is going to be the first of its kind. We’ve got this extraordinary staff and we’ve got a lot of money behind it. Go look up anything you want about Emilio Azcárraga. He’s into this, and these sorts of things have worked all over the world, so why can’t they work in the United States? Then I’d pause and say, “I understand it’s risky. We all know this is new territory. But you’re a sports guy. Don’t you want to be part of this?”
Rob Fleder (Main Event Editor): Here was this great adventure and chance to invent something new. It was clear even before it started, and certainly long before it failed, that you were going to get one chance to try this in your life. This was as close to a frontier as we had.
Pierce: Rob Fleder, who was one of the original founding members of Rotisserie baseball, literally in the Rotisserie restaurant, had seen some of my stuff in New England Monthly. He called and said, “Would you like to come down and talk about this thing we have?” So I went down to New York. They didn’t even have real offices yet. They were in some space with pieces of paper hanging on the door.
For all their fine work, somebody at Grantland should have known how to spell Glenn Stout’s name. Otherwise, this is a terrific read.
And while you are at it, dig Charles Pierce’s memories of “The National”:
Oh, money. Yeah, wait. I should tell this story about money, first. In the spring of 1991, the last spring of our newspaper’s life, I got a call from New York. Mike Lupica was leaving the paper to return to the New York Daily News, a development that surprised approximately nobody. He was taking with him his “Shooting From The Lip” column, the three-dot bullet template invented by the great Jimmy Cannon and subsequently appropriated by almost everyone else in the history of newspapers, including, most notably, in USA Today by Larry — “If it’s Wheatena, I’m all in!” — King. The column had been running in The National every Friday, and it had developed an audience. They wanted to keep the idea under a different name, and someone had mentioned that I’d done a similar kind of thing when I was writing a column at the Boston Herald. So they asked me if I’d do it.
Of course, I told them, but I’d need more money to do it.
How much, they asked.
I had no idea, so I quoted them a figure that I thought probably indicated I was on mushrooms at the time.
They didn’t even blink.
You start this week, they said.