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Tag: ira berkow

On the Slant

A few weeks ago I had a phone conversation with Red Smith’s biographer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Ira Berkow. He told me:

Walter Matthau once told me that his idea of good writing is that you have to come in on a slant. You want the reader to pause for a moment before it hits them. It’s telling a good joke.

I’ll give you an example. Matthau’s wife was good friends with Oona O’Neill who was Charlie Chaplin’s wife. When Chaplin finally came back to America Mathau and his wife gave them at a party at Matthau’s Palisades house in New Jersey. Matthau went out onto the lawn with Chaplin and they overlooked the Atlantic Ocean which was dotted with sail boats. Chaplin looked out over the ocean from Matthau’s backyard and said, “Must have cost you a fortune.”

Matthau told his wife the line and weeks later they’re driving on a hill near their home and they see the same scene–gorgeous view of the ocean. His wife said something like, “After you bought all those boats it must have cost you a lot of money.” And Matthau said to her, “That’s not good writing. You have to come in on the slant.”

Red did that kind of thing.

Sweet and Sauer

Over at Chicago Side, here’s Ira Berkow on Hank Sauer.

Bronx Banter Book Excerpt: Paper Tiger

Stanley Woodward is best remembered today for a wire he almost sent to Red Smith. Woodward was the sports editor for the New York Herald Tribune and Smith was his star columnist. One spring, according to “Red: A Biography of Red Smith,” By Ira Berkow,  “Woodward had been upset with the general sweet fare of columns” Smith had written. “Stanley was about to send a wire saying, ‘Will you stop Godding up those ball players?”

Woodward did not send the wire but Smith never forgot the sentiment. He repeated the story in Jerome Holtzman’s terrific oral history, “No Cheering in the Press Box.”

Woodward ran perhaps the finest sports section in New York after WWII. His Tribune staff included Smith, Al Laney, Jesse Abramson and Joe Palmer.

“Paper Tiger” is Woodward’s classic memoir. Fortunately for us, the good people at the University of Nebraska Press reissued the book not long ago (and it features an introduction from our man Schulian). Woodward’s gem is in print and it is essential reading. (Check out the “Paper Tiger” page at the University of Nebraska Press website.)

Please enjoy this excerpt. Woodward writes about bringing Smith, and Palmer–a writer who is also criminally overlooked these days–to the paper.

From “Paper Tiger,” by Stanley Woodward

Mrs. Helen Rogers Reid blew hot and cold on me at various times during my prewar and wartime career with the New York Herald Tribune. When I came back from the Pacific I felt I was in high favor. Not only had I written reams of copy about the nether side of the war but I worked largely by mail and so had not run up the hideous radio and cable bills the lady was used to receiving for war correspondence.

Mrs. Reid was extremely active in running the paper. She was the actual head of the Advertising Department but in the late stages of Ogden’s life she played a role of increasing importance in the Editorial Department. He started to fail in 1945, and his death occurred on January 3, 1947.

My first day in the office after getting back from the Pacific theater, Mrs. Reid invited me to her office and asked me what I would like to do for the paper. I believe I could have had any job I named at the time. But I asked merely to be returned to the Sports Department which needed reorganization. I asked to go back as sports editor on the theory, held by myself at any rate, that I would be moved out of Sports after the department had been put on its feet.

The first move I made was to install Arthur Glass as head of the copy desk. Our selection of news had been poor during the war and our choice of pictures was abysmal. Glass improved the paper the first day he worked in the slot, which was September 4, 1945.

At this time Al Laney was the columnist and didn’t like the job. He much preferred to handle assignments or to get up a feature series as he had in the case of “The Forgotten Men” before the war.

The first move I made was to attempt to get John Lardner to write our column. The first time we discussed it we renewed the old crap game argument and got nowhere. The second time I took along our publisher, Bill Robinson, and the talk was more businesslike. We met Lardner several other times but couldn’t come to terms with him. The fact was he didn’t want to write a newspaper column and kept making difficulties. So we dropped him, reluctantly.

Even before we talked to Lardner I had been scouting a little guy on the Philadelphia Record whose name was Walter Wellesley Smith. This character was a complete newspaper man. He had been through the mill and had come out with a high polish. In Philadelphia he was being hideously overworked. Not only did he write the column for the Record but he covered the ball games and took most other important assignments.

We scouted him in our usual way. For a month Verna Reamer, Sports Department secretary, bought the Record at the out-of-town newsstand in Times Square. She clipped all of Smith’s writings and pasted them in a blank book. At the end of the month she left the book on my desk and I read a month’s work by Smith at one sitting. I found I could get a better impression of a man’s general ability and style by reading a large amount of his stuff at one time.

There was no doubt in my mind that Smith was a man we must have. After I’d read half his stuff I decided he had more class than any writer in the newspaper business.

At first I didn’t think of him as a substitute for Lardner. Rather I wanted to get them both. When dealings with Lardner came to a stop I was afraid I would have to go back to writing a daily column myself, which I dreaded. I thought of myself at this time as an organizer rather than a writer, but Laney was anxious to have a leave of absence to finish the book he was writing (Paris Herald).

I telephoned Smith and asked him if he could come to New York and talk with me. We set a date and he arrived one morning with his wife Kay. She and Ricie paired off for much of the day while Smith and I discussed business.

It must be said that I was making this move without full approval of the management. George Cornish, our managing editor, knew I was looking for a man but was hard to convince when higher salaries were involved.

It is very strange to me that there was no competition in New York for Smith’s services. He was making ninety dollars a week in Philadelphia with a small extra fee for use of his material in the Camden paper, also operated by J. David Stern. Nobody in New York had approached Smith in several years. In fact, he never had had a decent offer from any New York paper. I opened the conversation with Smith as follows—

“You are the best newspaper writer in the country and I can’t understand why you are stuck in Philadelphia. I can’t pay you what you’re worth, but I’m very anxious to have you come here with us. I think that you will ultimately be our sports columnist but all I can offer you at the start is a job on the staff. Are you interested?”

“I sure am if the money is right,” said Red.

We adjourned for lunch and I told him about the paper and what I hoped to make of the Sports Department. I told him that I had lost all interest in sports during the war but now I was determined to make our department the best in the country.

“I can’t do this without you, Red,” I told him.

I left Smith parked in Bleeck’s and went upstairs to talk to George Cornish. With him it was a question of money and he blanched when I told him how much I wanted to pay Smith. I got a halfhearted go-ahead from George, but still I didn’t dare make the offer to Smith.

He owned a house in the Philadelphia suburbs and would be under great expense until he could sell it and move his family to New York. I suggested that we would perhaps be able to pay him an “equalization fee” until he moved his wife and children into Herald Tribune territory.

I went back to see Cornish and broached this subject. No one can say George wasn’t careful with the company’s money. He argued for a while but finally agreed that if we were to bring Smith to New York, it would be fair to save him from penury during his first weeks with us.

I was able to go back to Bleeck’s and make a pretty good offer to Red. I explained to him that his salary would be cut back after his family moved.

“But don’t worry,” I added. “You’ll be making five times that in three years.”

Of course, it turned out that way. As our columnist, Red was immediately syndicated. His salary was boosted within a couple of months and his income from outside papers equaled his new salary. Before anyone knew it he was making telephone numbers—and he deserved it.

I am unable to account for the fact that none of the evening papers of New York grabbed him. He could have been had, in all probability, for five dollars more a week than we gave him.

With him in hand I was able to let Laney take a few months off to finish his book while I slaved at the column, in addition to other duties. I didn’t want to put Red in too quickly. I wanted him to get the feel of the town first, and also I needed some of his writing in the paper to convince the bigwigs that he was as good as I claimed.

After Smith had been with us a month or so, I talked to Bill Robinson about making him our columnist. I wanted Bill to talk to Mrs. Reid about Smith so that Red would get away from the gate in good order. Bill had been reading him and was enthusiastic about his work. So not long after Smith had shifted his family to Malverne, Long Island, having sold his house, I told him that he was the columnist until further notice.

“I think that means forever, Red. And I’ll go right upstairs and see if I can get you more money.”

As a columnist Smith made an immediate hit and it wasn’t long before the Hearst people were showing interest in him. I told Bill Robinson it was silly not to have a contract with Smith. He agreed and it was drawn up at once. It gave him a large increase in salary and half the returns from his syndicate, which was growing fast. It now includes about one hundred papers.

I’d like to go back to the question of why Smith wasn’t hired by somebody else. My conclusion is that most writing sports editors don’t want a man around who is obviously better than they. I took the opposite view on this question. I wanted no writer on the staff who couldn’t beat me or at least compete with me. This was a question of policy.

I was trying to make a strong Sports Department and it was impossible to do this with the dreadful mediocrity I saw around me on the other New York papers.

The week the Smiths moved from the Main Line to Malverne was memorable. The kids, Kitty and Terry, were dropped off at our farm for a few days so that the parental Smiths could move in peace. I think the kids had a good time playing with our little girls.

Terry, who is now a bright young reporter and a graduate of Notre Dame and the army, was satisfied to sit on the tractor for hours at a time. To be safe I blocked the wheels with logs of wood and took off the distributor cap. The tractor had a self-starter.

With the Smiths established in Malverne, the next move was to get a racing writer. I wrote about twenty-five letters to people in racing—horse owners, promoters, trainers, jockeys, concessionaires, and gamblers. I asked each one whom he considered to be the best racing writer available to the New York Herald Tribune. The response was nearly 100 percent unanimous: “Joe Palmer.”

I asked Smith if he knew Joe Palmer. He said, “Yes, and he’s a hell of a writer.”

I found that Joe had a regular job on the Blood Horse of Lexington, Kentucky, that he was also secretary of the Trainers’ Association and was currently in New York tending to the trainers’ business.

I got hold of Bob Kelley, my old Poughkeepsie associate, and asked him if he would make an appointment for Palmer to meet for lunch in Bleeck’s restaurant at his convenience. Kelley had left the Times and had become public relations counsel for the New York race track. He got hold of Palmer and conveyed my message. Palmer answered as follows, “Tell that son of a bitch I won’t have lunch with him, and if I see him on the street I’ll kick him in the shins.”

I told Kelley that his answer was highly unsatisfactory and sent him back to talk further with Palmer. This time Joe came into Bleeck’s with his guard up. What he didn’t like about me was that I made a specialty of panning horse-racing. But once we got together we were friends in no time.

Joe liked the idea of working for the Herald Tribune. We came to terms quickly. It was agreed that he should go to work for us on the opening day at Hialeah, some months away. He needed the intervening time to finish his annual edition of American Race Horses.

I didn’t know at this time what a remarkable performer I had hired. Palmer turned out to be a writer of the Smith stripe, and his Monday morning column, frequently devoted to subjects other than racing, became one of the Herald Tribune’s most valuable features.

I was misguided in the way I handled Palmer. I should never have tied him down with daily racing coverage. He would have been more valuable to us if I had turned him loose to write a daily column of features and notes as Tom O’Reilly did for us much later. But Joe was effective whatever he wrote. He even did a good job on a fight in Florida one winter, though he hated boxing.

He and Smith were at Saratoga during one August meeting, and Smith persuaded him to go to some amateur bouts, conducted for stable boys and grooms. On their way home Palmer panned the show.

“I’d rather see a chicken fight,” he said.

“Why?” said Smith, outraged. “Chicken fighting is inhuman.”

“Well,” said Joe, “what we just saw was unchicken.”

Palmer was a big man physically and as thoroughly educated as John Kieran. Joe had earned his master’s degree in English in Kentucky and had taught there and at the University of Michigan where he studied for his Ph.D. He could speak Anglo-Saxon. His knowledge of music was stupendous and he would have made a good drama critic for any newspaper.

He had started his thesis at Michigan when he discontinued his education and went to work for the Blood Horse.

He first attracted my attention with a St. Patrick’s Day story in which he revealed that the patron saint’s greatest gift to the Irish was the invention of the wheelbarrow, which taught them to walk on their hind lefts.

Joe, himself, was of Irish decent and was brought up a Catholic. When he moved into a house in Malverne near the Smiths, he didn’t like the public education and sent his children to the parochial school. He decided on this course after a long talk with the mother superior. She asked him if he wanted his children instructed in religion and he said he did.

One day Steve and young Joe were learning the catechism. One of the questions was, “How Many Gods Are There?”

“That’s an important question and I want you to be sure to give the sister the right answer,” said Joe. “Now say this after me: ‘There is but one God and Mohammed is his prophet.’”

The story ends there. Nobody ever found out whether the boys told the sister what Joe told them. It’s a safe bet, though, that their mother, Mary Cole Palmer, touted them off Mohammed.

A few days before Palmer came to work for us, we carried a special story by him explaining his credo of racing and a four-column race-track drawing by the distinguished artist, Lee Townsend. The main point of Joe’s story was, “Horse-racing is an athletic contest between horses.”

He was not interested in betting or the coarser skullduggery that goes on around a race track. For a long time he wouldn’t put the payoff in his racing story.

“Why should I do that?” he asked Smith.

“Because if you don’t, the desk will write it in and probably get it in the wrong place.”

A few days before Joe went to work for us, Tom O’Reilly, another great horse writer, heard about it. He said, or so it was reported to me, “Holy smokes! Those guys will be hiring Thomas A. Edison to turn off the lights.”

Excerpted from PAPER TIGER by Stanley Woodward. Copyright © 1962 by Stanley Woodward. Originally published by Atheneum, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

You can order “Paper Tiger” here.

For more on Woodward, check out “Red: A Biography of Red Smith” by Ira Berkow and “Into My Own,” a memoir by Roger Kahn.

And read this about Joe Palmer:  blood horse.

(Thanks once again to Dina C. for her expert transcription.)

From Ali to Xena: 23

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.

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

Elaborating and Collaborating

The King of what? King of Style

In case you missed it, Triumph recently reprinted Clyde Frazier’s classic fun time book, “Rockin’ Steady” (written with Ira Berkow).

Grand Master

The New Yorker’s recent compilation, The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting from the New Yorker, is a fine and handsome collection but it is does not contain a single piece by John Lardner, which begs the question: Is Lardner the most neglected great sports writer of all-time?

Sure, Jimmy Cannon is  overlooked these days and he was a legend during his time; Joe H. Palmer was on his way to a PHD in English Literature when he became a full-time chronicler of horse racing–which he did as well as anyone ever has–but he died young and his name is lost; and Lenny Shecter was a funny, irascible talent, the patron saint of cynicism and snarki, and he’s sadly known as just the “co-writer” of “Ball Four.” Shecter also died young.

Over at SI.com, I’ve got an appreciation of a new collection of Lardner’s best sportswriting:

John Lardner was painting a prose portrait of a legendary con man when he wrote: “On a small scale, Titanic Thompson is an American legend. I say on a small scale, because an overpowering majority of the public has never heard of him. That is the way Titanic likes it. He is a professional gambler. He has sometimes been called the gambler’s gambler.”

Lardner might well have been writing about himself, although calling him a writer’s writer is too limiting, not to mention entirely inadequate. In a career that spanned three decades, the ’30s through the ’50s, he wrote for The New Yorker about everything from movies and TV, to the invasions of Normandy and Iwo Jima. But it was as a sports columnist for Newsweek that Lardner left his deepest footprint, and he underscored it with long, brilliant pieces for magazines like True and Sport. His trademark, as Stan Isaacs, the former Newsday sports columnist recently pointed out, was a “droll touch — precise, detached.”

“Time has a way of dimming the memory and achievements of writers who wrote, essentially, for the moment, as writers writing for journals must do,” Ira Berkow, the longtime columnist of the New York Times, told me recently. “But the best shouldn’t be lost in the haze of history and John Lardner was a brilliant writer — which means, in my view, that he was insightful, irreverent, wry and a master of English prose.”

Al Silverman, who ran Sport magazine in the Sixties, edited Lardner’s once-a-month sports column in True for a year-and-a-half in the early ’50s. “We never did meet but talked over the phone about his piece every month,” said Silverman. “I don’t remember ever saying, ‘You made a little grammatical error here, John.’ Always it was me saying, ‘Another great one, John.’ And they all were wonderful.”

In the epilogue to a posthumous collection “The World of John Lardner” (1961), his friend Roger Kahn wrote, “Although most perceptive sports writers accepted him as matchless, sports writing was not the craft of John Lardner. Nor was it profile writing, nor column writing. After the painstaking business of reportage, his craft was purely writing: writing the English sentence, fusing sound and meaning, matching the precision of the word with the rhythm of the phrase. It is a pursuit which is unfailing demanding, and Lardner met it with unfailing mastery.”

Do yourself a favor and pick up the new Lardner collection. You won’t be sorry.

[Drawings by Walt Kelly]

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