"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: jimmy cannon

BGS: New Year’s


Here’s a treat from the legendary columnist, Jimmy Cannon. Originally published in 1951 and anthologized in Nobody Asked Me, But …: The World of Jimmy Cannon.

Dec. 31—Nothing will help you. You’ll get drunk and regret it with a belligerent pride. You’ll go for more money than you should. You’ll tip the captain of waiters a day’s pay to sit down close to the floor show which you’ll never see because they’ll have you out in the men’s room putting ice on your forehead when it goes on. You’ll tell the guys down at the shop about the hole the blonde’s cigarette burned in your tux. You’ll swear you’ll never do it again. It’s a pledge you’ll fracture in a year. You’ll bet you left your ring and wrist watch on the sink in the gents’ place. Your wife will contradict you and insist the cab driver rolled you when he lifted you out of the taxi. You’ll wear your eye black with the dashing pride of a company clerk showing off his Good Conduct Medal on the first furlough. You’ll be sick to your stomach.

On Saturday morning you’ll telephone your friends and describe your misconduct on the hazy night before and they’ll recite what they did. It will all sound like what happens in a hog pen at the end of a famine but it will make you proud when you relate it. It will please your wife that while you were hugging the hat-check girl the doorman leered at her with what she will confuse with desire as long as she lives. All of you know this before you start out tonight on our country’s biggest and ugliest drunk.

It will happen in farmhouses, cold-water flats, in mansions and in tenements, in apartments of all types, in houses in the countryside, in villages and in cities great and small. There will be parties in furnished rooms, in offices, in lodge halls rented for the occasion, in public places which include lunch carts and hotels.

There will be the commotion of frivolity in bars and grills, restaurants, night and country clubs, down in basements with a keg of beer tapped badly, and humid. The solvent will do it right and the bums will mooch the price of a demijohn of wine and sleep it off in doorways.

It is done unwillingly in many instances. The reason for it is economic. On all plateaus of our society being sober on New Year’s Eve lowers a man’s prestige.

The guy who can’t go to the office Monday morning and brag that he violated every dogma of indoor protocol will be considered obsolete and used-up. The junior clerks will identify this as a flaw and start scheming to grab his job before he is put on the pension and given the wrist watch for years of meritorious service.

New Year’s Eve is the time when people are deliberately rude. Normal politeness is rejected as eccentricity. I am a guy who gave up drinking for various reasons, including many defeats by guys a sick chorus girl could trim. I suffer most from sobriety on this night of mass boozing. I find myself to be the representative of conservatism at all functions pitched on this clamorous midnight. People treat me as though I were a spy among them who was there to witness their calculated gracelessness.

The most proper of my acquaintances have prepared for this night with a reluctant cunning. They protest they dread the torture of making spectacles of themselves. But they understand a man must get obnoxiously loaded on New Year’s Eve if he intends to stay socially acceptable for the next twelve months.

They cry they are being fleeced in the inns and cabarets. But they feel it is their duty to go broke getting drunk even when they have no affinity for alcohol. It is not only the amateurs and the semi-pros who do this but the real rummies.

The rummies stand against bars and control the wild impulses which whiskey instigates in most men. They preserve their dignity while under the influence of liquor every day of the year but tonight. Occasionally they knock themselves helpless with Martinis because this is the most ferocious drink ever made by man.

They go limp and their old ladies come down to the corner saloon and sweep them up like trash. On ordinary days such pass-outs shame them. They frequently go a whole hour without taking a peck at the bottle they conceal in their desk. They create alibis for these collapses and it seldom has to do with the drinking of whiskey. It is usually blamed on lack of food or an inept bartender who polluted their Martinis with the wrong brand.

On this night the saloon manners of the whole country change. Every one believes propriety is a weakness and succumbs as rapidly as he can to surliness, insensibility or the romancing of women.

Guys who can drain a quart of brandy without changing their position at the bar once have been known to put on paper hats after a tumbler full of champagne on New Year’s Eve. They throw confetti and wish people they despise a happy New Year. They roll around in the sawdust. They make passes at their best friend’s wife even when the lady doesn’t appeal to them.

On New Year’s Eve all those who drink act like demented children and a reveler is believed to be a failure at frivolity if he doesn’t insult all those who come in contact with him. But on this night it is the good drinkers I pity. The rummies suffer most.

The Banter Gold Standard: Broadway Sportsman

Here’s a 1958 gem by the great Jimmy Cannon (from The World of Jimmy Cannon).

“Broadway Sportsman”
By Jimmy Cannon

The Broadway sportsman lives in Brooklyn with his widowed mother who would starve if she didn’t get Social Security. He generally eats dinner at home, but takes his coffee in the chophouses where the gamblers congregate. His idea of a celebrity is any man who can afford to wear silk shirts. He wears ready-made suits, but tears out the label to give the impression they’re tailor-made. Just once he would like a man to ask him who his tailor is.

He would consider it an honor if a man publicly accused him of stealing his wife. He spends a lot of time in Hanson’s drugstore and suggests to the press agents who hang out there that they tie him up with one of their clients. He has never had his name mentioned in a Broadway column but he refers to columnists by their first names in conversation. He occasionally takes out a hostess in a dance hall, but describes her as a showgirl to his kind. They know he is lying, but he puts up with their lies too, and they never call him.

The Broadway sportsman thinks of himself as a gambler. He knows the price on all sporting-events, but be is terrified when it comes to risking money He goes to the trotters and the flats by himself when he gets a pass from an office boy on a newspaper who is also a Broadway Sportsman, but he never bets more than a deuce to show. He usually loses that, too, because be bets on long shots, figuring they must run third. He has never learned to read a racing form and is too embarrassed to ask anyone to teach him.

He is one of the last of the sidewalk-loafers. You can find him outside of Shor’s, Reuben’s, Lindy’s, Moore’s and Gallagher’s. He is well-liked by the doormen because he kills time with them by discussing sports. He believes Leo Durocher is a hell of a manager and considers George Raft the greatest actor that ever lived. He tries to dress like them.

He reads Variety and talks that periodical’s language. He calls press agents flacks and show business is always show biz. He worked briefly in the office of a small-time theatrical agent who handled stripteasers. He was fired when he took one of the clients out and used so much profanity, she slapped his face. He figured that was the way to talk to a burlesque dame. His mother has a political connection and every Christmas he works in the post office.

The Broadway sportsman is a panhandler. He lives by touches. His victims are the lonely. He stands for hours nursing a beer; at the bars of sporting restaurants. Guys who drink in solitude find him a glad companion. He switches to bourbon when someone else buys. He has been around so long his face is familiar and he is an eager conversationalist with a cruel style of humor. His vicious comedy is founded on the insincerity of women. He gives the impression he has been betrayed in love. His mother is the only woman who ever loved him.

In his time the Broadway sportsman has eaten well in the best restaurants and sat in the best seats at theatrical openings, ballgames, fights and nightclubs. He makes his big touches when his benefactors go to the racetrack. He runs their bets, flatters them when they win and consoles them when they lose. If they have a winning day, it is a Broadway custom to stake the stooge. He wishes he had the courage to be a tout but his ignorance of horse racing is appalling. But when he is with his own species, he insinuates that he is a hustler who bleeds marks with horse information.

Waiters hate him. He is entitled to claim the Olympic record for being Mickey Finned. He abuses them if they are slovenly or slow. He also advises his hosts how much they should tip and adds up the tab in strange joints before he allows his master to pay it. He calls a waiter by snapping his fingers. Several waiters have accused him of stealing tips. He has never been caught at it.

He pretends to root for the ball team the guy who takes him to the game likes. The Broadway sportsman was a Brooklyn fan when Durocher managed the Dodgers and switched to the Giants with him, but he has bawled insults at his idol from a box seat to agree with his benefactors. He is a pest at ballgames. He umpires calling balls and strikes before the umpire. At a race track he spits at jockeys and calls them obscene names when they lose a bet for his man. He is the first guy in a fight audience to denounce a beaten pug as yellow. At a basketball game he yells dump every time a college kid misses a shot.

The Broadway sportsman probably knows more showgirls than anyone outside of show business. They continually turn him down for dates. He promises them he will manage them to stardom. He is so obvious in his pitch that even kids in their first show are amused by him. He often rides shotgun for a married benefactor who does a little cheating. He’s the third man in the party and pretends he’s the mouse’s escort. He loses benefactors because the girls can’t stand him.

The Broadway sportsman has damaged the reputations of people he has never met. At the tables where be mooches he hears gossip which he gives to the press agents in the drugstore. Some of it reaches the Broadway columns. He passes along a rumor as absolute truth. His biggest thrill came when be read an item be distributed which told of the divorce of a Hollywood couple. His next came when be was introduced to George Raft.

[Photographs by Walker Evans; featured image by Saul Leiter]

The Banter Gold Standard: The Barber and the Dim-Time Guy

Please enjoy the deadline work of two heavyweights–Jimmy Cannon and Murray Kempton–on the unlikely winner and hard luck loser of Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. The 2-0 win by the Yankees gave them a 3-2 series lead (they’d win it in 7) but the game is remembered because Don Larsen threw the only perfect game in the history of the World Series.

From The New York Post, here’s Cannon on Larsen and Kempton on the losing pitcher, Sal Maglie.

“Perfect Day for a Dim-Time Guy” 

By Jimmy Cannon

You’re Don Larsen, the dim-time guy who pitched the perfect game. You’re a midnight kid who doesn’t miss any laughs. It’s one more for the road and no one ever gets sun-burned by a sallow morning sun. But yesterday on a sun-spangled afternoon you achieved everlasting fame in baseball. You pitched a no-hitter, the first in any World Series game, the perfect one because no one reached first base in nine rapid innings. So let them rib you about busting up a past-curfew car in St. Pete last spring. You weren’t hurt and yesterday it was 2-0 against the Dodgers in the fifth game of the World Series in Yankee Stadium.

All the night-long bus rides around the no-sleep leagues, from the village of Aberdeen to Globe-Miami in the Arizona Texas League, through the Three Eye League, through the North League, through Wichita and Wichita Falls, they brought you to the Stadium yesterday. From the St. Louis Browns to the Baltimore Orioles, and to the Yankees in ’55 after being dropped back to Denver, there fun all the way. And some grief, too, because in ’49 in Globe-Miami the right arm was sore. It wasn’t too much but down there you don’t get much help from specialists with the club picking up the bill. You were an outfielder for a while, a respectable one but pitching is your business. The arm healed itself and you returned to your trade.

You don’t counterfeit humility for the reporters. You don’t turn it on for the crowd. You’re a tall, slow-walking man and that’s the way you go. You kept to the usual routine of your life. You knocked over a few beers, grabbed a couple of laughs and hit the sheets at midnight, You belt a few every night and why not? Why go to bed early? You knew you don’t sleep. You’re a dim-time guy.

It occurred to you in the sixth or seventh inning you might be the first man to throw a no-hitter in a Series. You can’t remember exactly when this thought took shape. You don’t know who the batter was. You were taking them one at a time, hitter by hitter. The infielders didn’t give you any advice. Even Joe Collins, who generally reminds a pitcher to cover first when a lefthanded hitter is up, stayed away from you.

On the bench, Billy Hunter rolled the practice ball out to the infield. He made certain he did it every inning. Once Mickey Mantle came in and sat where Hunter had been all game long. Whispering so you wouldn’t hear it, Hunter asked Mantle for lis lucky seat. They were guided by superstition as the innings passed, each man following the same routine but not mentioning it to you.

Under the stands, Rip Coleman, who rooms with you on the road, tried to walk out the tension. He didn’t want to see the base hit that would take it away from you. A grounds-keeper told Coleman you were pitching a no-hitter. And Coleman didn’t reply, just glared at the guy.

You didn’t wind up once yesterday as you pitched the first perfect game since Charlie Robertson did it for the White Sox against Detroit during the regular season of 1922. You figured Del Baker, the Red Sox coach, was catching your pitches and tipping off the hitters. So you experimented without a wind-up after the Yankees had won the pennant this year. But your roommate claims you got this style from a comic book character called The Ghoul.

You used the fast ball, the curve ball and the slider. Only once, in the first inning to Pee Wee Reese, did you throw three balls to hitter. It came down to three and two and they the shortstop stood transfixed as a third strike was called by Babe Pinelli. In the ninth Yogi Berra told you that you had to get Jackie Robinson who was the first hitter. You threw him out, then Roy Campanella hit a ground ball to Martin and Dale Mitchell, batting for Sal Maglie, took a third strike.

At times you resembled a reflective man throwing stones into a river, so easy was your motion. Occasionally, you examined the ball as if it were made of crystal and could reveal the secrets of the innings to come. Against you, Maglie, sad as old men are who desperately hold onto their youth, squeezed the ball in both hands as if it were made of snow and he could press it smaller. He was marvelous, too, and stingy with his five hits. But Mantle hit a curve ball that slanted toward his wrists for a home run in the fourth inning. In the sixth a single by Andy Carey, your bunted sacrifice and Hank Bauer’s leftfield single made the other run.

Only four times was your perfect game in jeopardy. In the second, Robinson’s line-shot jumped out of Carey’s glove but Gil McDougald fielded it. In the fifth, Mantle, running sideways, made a spectacular back-handed catch of Gil Hodges’ fly. Also in the fifth, Sandy Amoros’ fly ball abruptly turned foul. If it had fallen fair, it would have been a home run. The one-leap ground ball Jim Gilliam hit to McDougald in the seventh was difficult, but the shortstop performed the play.

Early in the season, you were a five-inning pitcher but your stamina came back. You pitched one-and-a-third inning in the second game of this Series, but the four runs they made off of you on a hit and four bases on balls were unearned. The hell with al [sic] that. You’re Don Larsen, a dim-time guy, who pitched the perfect game.


“Maglie: Gracious Man With Dealer’s Hands”

By Murray Kempton

There was the customary talk about the shadows of the years and the ravages of the law of averages when Sal Maglie went out to meet the Yankees yesterday afternoon. It was the first time, after all the years, that he had ever pitched in Yankee Stadium, the home of champions.

He threw that humpbacked setup pitch that is last in the warm up, and then for the first time looked at Hank Bauer. He threw the curve in; Hank Bauer made a gesture at hunting; and the strike was called.

The hitter leaned over a little; the pitch was high; Hank Bauer skittered back in haste and the ball went by the catcher’s mitt and back to the wall.

“If I know Sal,” the old Giant writer in the stands said, “He threw that to tell -em on. He knows the Yankees probably think he’s a little tired. H’s saying to them, look fellas, I’m still around. You’ve got to come and get me.”

“The call was for an inside pitch,” said Sal Maglie later. “I threw it too high and it got away.” He is a gracious man who takes no pride in the legend of professional venom.

He worked his arm a little and blew on his hands as though he came from a world no sun could warm. And then Bauer plunked it up to Reese; Maglie looked once at the ball and then at the fielder, and, without needing to see the catch, bent over and worked his long, brown, dealer’s hands into the resin bag.

He got Joe Collins to hit on the ground to the wrong field; MickeyMantle went all the way around; Sal Maglie heard the sound and judged it. The left fielder was still circling under it when Sal Maglie crossed the foul line on his way to the dugout. He gives very little and can afford to to spend less.

He went that way through the line-up for the first three innings. It seemed a memorable incident when the first pitch to the eighth Yankee batter was a ball. The utility infield of the fifth-place team in the Westport Midget League League would have eaten up anything hit by either team in those three perfect 18 outs. “I figured,” said PeeWee Reese, “that both you guys weren’t giving anybody anything, and we’d have to call it at midnight.”

Sal Maglie ended the third for the Dodgers, walking out slowly carrying one bat, digging his spikes In as though anything ls possible in this game, driving the first pitch straight to Mickey Mantle and walking over towards third base to change his cap and get his glove. He threw the warm-up pitches; Roy Campanella was standing up and almost dancing at the plate.

Maglle got the two quick strikes on Bauer who hit to Jackie Robinson; Maglle did not look at the play; he was busy with the resin. He pushed the curve by Joe Collins; it was the third strike. Mantle was back.

The first strike was a curve and called. There were no times intrudlng upon the memory when he had seemed more sharp. He threw the next pitch outside, and then hit the corner again. He waited awhlle, rubbing his fingers on his shirt, wiping the afternoon’s first sweat of his forehead. He threw a pitch on the corner that was low by the distance of a bead or sweat from the skin; it was that close and was called a ball.

Mantle hit a foul. Sal Maglie knew it was out of play; the left fielder was still running and he was working on a new ball. The next pitch he threw Mantle was down the middle a little inside. Roy Campanella said later that he hit on his fists. Sal Maglie watched it almost curve and then stay fair in the stands; with the unseeing roar all around him. he walked back to the rubber and kicked it once.

“He’d been fouling off the outside pitches,” he said later. “I thought I’d try him Inside once.” He stopped for a minute, naked and dry beside his locker, the skin showing through the thin hair above his forehead. “That shows what can happen when you’re thinking out there and the other guy isn’t.” That was as close as he came to suggesting that God is too tolerant with the margin of error he assigns the very young.

Then Yogi Berra hit one hard to the wrong field; Duke Snider ran the distance of years, and tumbled up with lt. Sal Maglie had no reason lo know it then, but that was the inning and the run.

In the fifth Enos Slaughter was walked very fast. Billy Martin bunted. Sal Maglie came scuttling onto the grass and snatched the ball and turned around and fired it high and smoky to second just in time, a 40-year-old-man throwing out a 40-year-old-man and knowing he had to hurry. He was sweating hard by this time. Harold Reese went up half his height and knocked it into the air and recovered it for the double play. Sal Maglie was watching the way the ball went now; the sound was different; for the first time today he had to think of the fielders.

Don Larsen went on making the rest period painfully short. Sal Maglie took his warmups for the sixth; he was throwing the last one in hard now. Andy Carey hit one over his head into center and the old remembered tight rope walk had begun.

Larsen bunted the third strike; Maglie and Campanella scrambled off too late to get the runner at second; they had made their mistake. Carey went far off second; Bauer slapped the ball to lwft. Sal Maglie drove himself over to back up third, but the run was in and safely in. Walter Alston came out; the conference went on around Maglie. A man in the stands said that if Labine was reasy, it was time to bring him in. “Take Sal out?” Campanella said later, “the way he was pitching?” Joe Collins hit a low, hard single; Maglie went over to cover third again and came back slamming the ball into his glove. Mantle was up.

The first pitch was out of control; then he threw two strikes, one called, one swinging. Mantle hit the ball to the first baseman who threw to the catcher, who threw not well to the third baseman, who fell away and threw around Bauer to get him. After the game, Sal Maglie looked at Jackie Robinson sitting sombre across the dressing room: in a moment of surprise, Robinson’s hair was gray. “That was a throw,” he said. “Him falling away like that.” Maglie saw it and walked to the third base line and waited for the rundown so as not to interfere, like a waiter at his station, and then walked slowly back to the dugout.

He was the last to come out after the swift Dodger half of the seventh. That appears in the box score to have been all it was, except that in the bottom of the eighth, Don Larsen was the first to bat. Sal Maglie went on with his warmups; alone in that great ballpark, he and Campanella were not looking at the hitter. He struck out Larsen; he struck out Bauer; he struck out Joe Collins swinging. When he walked back, the crowd noticed him and gave him a portion of its cheers. It was the last inning of the most extraordinary season an old itinerant, never a vagrant, ever had. “If figured,” he said later, “that, for me, either way, it was the last inning and I didn’t have to save anything.”

”I would like to see him.” he said later, “pitch with men on bases.” Someone asked him if he had minded Larsen getting his no-hitter. “I might have wanted him to get it,” he answered, “If we hadn’t had a chance all the time.”

They asked him was he satisfied with the game he pitched. “How,” said Sal Maglie, “am I to be satisfied? But you got to adjust yourself.” To time and to ill chance, and the way they forget, you got to adjust yourself. Someone asked if you knew when you had a no hitter, and he said, of course you do. You remember who had hit, for one thing. “lf you ask me two years from now,” said Sal Maglie, “I’ll be able to tell you every pitch I threw this year.” He said it, in passing naked, his body white except for the red from countless massages on his right arm, tearing his lunch off a long Italian sausage.

On the other side of the room, somebody asked Campanella if Maglie had made any mistakes out there. “Sal, make mistakes?” said Campanella. “The only mistake he made today was pitching.” He pulled on jacket and turned to what was last of the assemblage. Maglie was going now, as losers are required to go, to get his picture taken with Don Larsen in the Yankee dressing room.

“I told you,” chided Roy Campanella, as Sal Maglie went out the door, “that there should be days like this.”


All efforts have been made to reach the rights-holders for these stories. If you are the rights holder and would like the material removed, please contact me.—Alex Belth

Breast or Bottle?

Head on over to Grantland for a long appreciation of the Chipmunks by Bryan Curtis. Nice to see Shecter, Merchant, Isaacs, Vecsey and company celebrated.

The only problem I have with the piece is how Jimmy Cannon is portrayed. It’s not that Curtis is inaccurate in saying that Cannon was tired and bitter by the mid-’60s, or that he was the foil that the Chipmunks needed (too bad there is no mention of Dick Young). Curtis lampoons Cannon’s writing style but I wish it was balanced with a sense of how good Cannon was in his prime. Cannon is seen here as he’s most often remembered these days–an out-of-touch old timer who had become a parody of himself. That’s a shame because while Cannon was sentimental to a fault when he was bad, he was terrific, one of the very best, when he was good.

[Picture by Bags]

From Ali to Xena: 26

A Vanishing Art 

By John Schulian

Somewhere along the line, human beings went out of fashion in America’s sports pages. You wouldn’t think it was possible, given that flesh-and-blood people play our games, but the tastemakers have deemed statistics and cockeyed opinion more important. There are exceptions, of course, like Joe Posnanski when he was pounding out a humanity-infused daily column that would have been a treasure in any era. And there are others who would love to craft character sketches and mood pieces, but realize that won’t put any biscuits on their table. And then there are the glory seekers who latch onto people only when they have a sob story to tell, because sob stories win prizes. But all the prizes tell me is that the writers who chase them so shamelessly are manipulative at best, hypocritical at worst. Forgotten are the small dramas that are played out every day in sports, and the people who inhabit them, and the artistic impulses they stir.

Over lunch, a friend who has just finished writing a non-fiction book about a boxer tells me he used a column of mine from 1980 as part of his research. The column opened with someone describing Joe Frazier’s manager, Yank Durham, in full flower as a hard ass. Frazier was about to fight Ron Stander, whom he could have beaten blindfolded, but Durham bitched loud and long about some TV lights he said were part of a plot to blind Smokin’ Joe. The people televising the fight pleaded innocent, but Durham refused to believe them. “That’s it,” he said. “We ain’t fightin’.” The TV people went into shock. So, for that matter, did Frazier. But Durham didn’t let up until the lights were taken down. That was how boxing worked then, and that’s how it works now. The guy with the biggest balls wins.

“Great column,” my friend said, “but you couldn’t write it today.”

I couldn’t write it because I used the tools of fiction – character, dialogue, dramatic tension – to depict a hard man in a hard business. I couldn’t write it because I populated the column with human beings, and I didn’t pass judgment on them. It was up to the reader to choose between Yank Durham and the TV people. I thought it was permissible for a columnist to do that. What did I know?

Let me tell you what else I couldn’t write today. Once in a great while, I would do a column about duende, an Andalusian word that is best defined by example: Willie Mays had duende, Henry Aaron didn’t; the Rolling Stones had it, the Beatles didn’t. I was borrowing shamelessly from the late George Frazier, an eccentric general interest columnist who made his last stand at the Boston Globe with a red carnation in the lapel of his Brooks Brothers suit and a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald for every situation. I was following in the tradition that inspired many another columnist to borrow Jimmy Cannon’s pet gimmick, “Nobody asked me, but . . . ” You didn’t think Mike Lupica came up with “Shooting from the Lip” by himself, did you? He and I were indulging in what Hollywood likes to call “an homage” because it sounds so much better than “theft.”

Whatever, I had a fine time passing myself off as an arbiter of style in my duende columns. In fact, I would encourage today’s columnists to do the same, but my friend Randy Harvey, once an intrepid sports writer and now one of the top editors at the L.A. Times, says duende wouldn’t fly. The wounded look on my face when I hear his verdict seems to touch something deep inside him, though. “Okay,” Randy says, “I’d let you write duende once a week if your other three columns were on the Lakers.” Call me an ingrate, but that still doesn’t sound like such a great deal.

I’m the product of an era when a sports columnist was pretty much left to his own devices. Sometimes the news dictated what I wrote about, and sometimes there were subjects that just couldn’t be ignored whether I was interested in them or not. But the rest of the time, my column reflected who I was, for better or worse. When I wrote a sad one, it was because the subject touched my inner blues man. When I did a rip job, I was putting my mean streak on display. But never was I so infatuated with myself that I thought readers wanted a dose of my opinions every day. They were smart enough to figure out where I was coming from personally and politically without my beating them about the head and shoulders with the first person.

More than anything else, I wanted to write about the human condition, good or bad, happy or sad. The fact that the people I wrote about wore uniforms, had their names in headlines, and cashed big paychecks for their labors was mere coincidence. The important thing was to let my readers know that their heroes were people, too, not the remote gods who dwell in the parallel universe that exists today.

One of the beautiful things about newspaper work is that you never know whom you’re reaching, or what your words mean to them. There are letters to the editor and angry phone calls, of course, but there are also the personal notes that become small treasures. And one night at the Chicago Sun-Times, I heard the highest praise I ever received. It came from the cleaning lady who swept the floor and emptied the wastebaskets in the sports department. She had a bad eye and a balky hip that crabbed her stride, and she was there the day I started at the paper and probably long after I left it. I’d say hello to her, but I never wondered whether she read the paper or, if she did, made it as far as the sports section. But when she reached my corner of the office that night, she looked at me and said, “You got a lot of soul.”

I know I thanked her more than once. Other than that, everything is a blank. I’m only guessing when I say I think she liked a column I had written about Johnny Bratton, a former welterweight champion who was living on the street. But maybe the subject isn’t as important as the fact that this woman had seen something in my work that had nothing to do with winners and losers and everything to do with the forces that drove me.

Still, there were times I wasn’t aware of just how much of myself I was revealing in print. I’m thinking of one column in particular, written in 1983 about regrets and missed opportunities. It opened with my musings on the White Sox, who were very good that year, as I drove home from Wisconsin on a rainy late-summer night, and then it veered into personal territory I rarely visited. By the time I finished writing, I had quoted William Blake and Tom T. Hall and pretty much revealed myself to be a ball of confusion. I could feel the first rumblings of profound changes in my life, and change was a stranger to me.

A few days later, I ran into a documentary maker named Ken Solarz and the first thing he said was, “Man, you were really hurting.” Though he and I would later arrive in Hollywood at about the same time and become great friends, I barely knew Kenny then. But he was very perceptive. I was hurting. And it would only get worse.

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

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.

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]

I am Legend (Who am I?)

Maybe his stuff doesn’t date so well, maybe he was imitated too often, maybe he became a parody of himself, his later work turned to schtick, overshadowing the former excellence. Whatever the case, Jimmy Cannon has not aged well. And it’s a shame because at his best, he was not only a terrific big city sports columnist, but one of the best we’ve ever seen.

A friend hipped me to this little piece on him from the Time Magazine archives (circa 1952):

When Jimmy Cannon was a newspaper shaver, the late Damon Runyon gave him some advice: “The best way to make a living is to be a sportswriter.” Cannon followed the advice, and Runyon liked the results so well that before he died he made Cannon “the custodian of my reputation when I’m gone.” At 43, as sport columnist for the New York Post, sad-eyed Jimmy Cannon has also come closer than any other sportswriter to taking Runyon’s place. His favorite columnar character is Two Head Charlie, a thoughtful horse player, who talks like this: “You take a real ugly bum . . . with a face a monkey would be ashamed of. Let him get a shave and a haircut and meet a broad. What’s the first thing the broad says to him, she says you look cute tonight . . . I admit I look like a kangaroo . . . But every broad I take out tells me I’m cute. Soon as a dame says that, I know I can’t trust her.”

Delicatessen Nobility. Bums, bettors, Broadway guys, hangers-on and contestants at every sports arena are material for Cannon’s column; his ear is finely tuned to their talk. “They’re a kind of delicatessen nobility,” says he. “I know lots of guys who talk like Two Head.” Cannon knows them because he was born & raised in their midst, on Manhattan’s lower West Side, still lives in a hotel midway between Broadway and Madison Square Garden. At 17, as a copy boy on the Daily News, Cannon’s skill with words caught the city editor’s notice. Once, when a crank invaded the city room and introduced himself as “God,” Cannon answered: “Pleased to meetcha. Heard a lot aboutcha.”

There is a decent collection of Cannon’s work called “Nobody Asked Me, But…” that you can find on the cheap.


feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver