The Road to Philly
By John Schulian
I know how I ended up in Philadelphia: I drove.
What I don’t know is why I ended up in Philadelphia.
The Daily News, home of one of the truly great sports sections of the last half of the Twentieth Century, already had three stellar columnists, Ray Didinger, Stan Hochman, and Mark Whicker. Bill Conlin was covering baseball with idiosyncratic fervor, conducting a running feud with the Phillies, delivering history lessons in his game stories, and flirting with scatology every chance he got. Long before I hit town, he set the standard for blue wordplay by quoting Dusty Baker, who had dropped a fly ball, as saying, “I had the motor faker right in my glove.” The quote only lasted one edition, but Conlin was the one guy in all of sportswriting capable of getting away with even that much.
None of the other beat writers came close to him in terms of sheer outrageousness, but each was an intrepid digger: Phil Jasner on the 76ers, Jay Greenberg on the Flyers, Paul Domowitch and the young Rich Hoffman (not long out of Penn) on pro football, Elmer Smith on boxing, and the inimitable Dick (Hoops) Weiss on college basketball. These guys were passionate about what they did. And smart. And aggressive. And competitive. I realize that the Boston Globe was regarded as the gold standard for sports sections back then-–and I know what a joy it was for me to read the Globe–but I still think the Daily News gave it a run for its money.
The Daily News certainly didn’t need me to do that. Even with a hole in its lineup after Tom Cushman, who was so solid on boxing, college sports, and track and field, left for San Diego, the paper still had all the talent–and all the egos–it needed. The Daily News hired me anyway.
No matter how good a sports columnist I was, I was hardly a marketable commodity after my inelegant departure from the Sun-Times. It was pretty much what I expected. There are more than a few newspaper editors who love to have a reason to think they have the upper hand on the talent. In my case, they could go tsk-tsk and say I was a troublemaker or that I was out of control. On the other hand, there was the reaction my blow-up got from Pete Dexter, who was a city columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News and whom I had yet to meet. Pete told our mutual friend Rob Fleder, a world-class magazine editor, “I don’t know Schulian and I don’t know exactly what happened, but I know he was right.” Which, of course, earned Pete a place in my personal hall of fame.
But guys like Pete don’t run newspapers. Guys unlike him do. And the hell of it was, I couldn’t argue with them, even though I’d been provoked and maybe set up. I was wrung out. Getting fired and divorced in a four-month span was all I could handle. I didn’t write a word for the first two months after I left the Sun-Times. I just rode my bike and ate pizza and watched the Cubs on TV. As if to spite me, they almost had a great season, but their muscle memory finally kicked in and they fell apart in the playoffs.
I didn’t put words on paper again until Eliot Kaplan, GQ’s managing editor, called because Vic Ziegel, may he rest in peace, told him I was massively available. Eliot was looking for someone to profile Mike Royko and I convinced him that I was his man. In the course of conversation, Eliot told me he’d read me when he was a kid. It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping to hear, but the truth was, he really was a kid. He couldn’t have been more than 26 or 27 when he became Art Cooper’s right-hand man at GQ. As for Royko, he couldn’t have been a more cooperative subject, right down to musing forlornly about the death of his first wife and dancing with the woman who would become his second wife on the sidewalk outside the Billy Goat Tavern.
Just like that, I was a made man at GQ, which was becoming a home for first-rate writing and reportage instead of pretty boys in clothes guaranteed to get their asses kicked. I wrote for the magazine whenever I could for the next 20 years, until Art got forced out. He died not long afterward, while having lunch at the Four Seasons. The man had style.
Looking back, I wonder if I should have lobbied for a three-story deal with GQ that would have allowed me to stay in Chicago. John Walsh, when he was running Inside Sports, told me he thought I was a natural magazine writer, and he may have been right. Magazine work certainly was a better fit for the way I approached writing than a four-times-a-week column was. The column chewed me up, and yet, when the Daily News called, I threw myself back in the meat grinder. It was partly because I was afraid let go of the identity a column gave me and partly because I was infatuated with the history of the sports section that Larry Merchant had built for glory 20 years earlier.
I saw myself joining a parade in which George Kiseda, Sandy Grady, and Jack McKinney had marched. Merchant had made them the Daily News’ pioneers in trenchant reporting, salty prose, and raucous laughter. Stan Hochman, who was there at the beginning with them, once told me about the old warehouse the paper had called home when it was known as the “Dirty News” for its emphasis on crime and cheesecake. The building wasn’t air conditioned, and one sweltering summer day, with huge floor fans shoving hot air around the newsroom, some genius got it in his head to open the windows. The fans proceeded to blow every piece of paper that wasn’t weighted down out the windows and to hell and gone.
I should have been smart enough to realize there was no recapturing those days or the spirit that infused the Merchant era. Instead, I acted according to Faulkner’s theory that the past is never really past. Faulkner didn’t play in Philly, though, and soon enough I was a man out of time, out of place.