"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: larry merchant

Lede Time

Nice piece on Larry Merchant by Stan Hochman:

When Merchant was 50 years younger, he was sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. He was taking names and kicking ass, surrounded by a posse he had hired, hard-driving guys with similar inclinations.

He’d yanked me out of San Bernardino, Calif., and told me where to park near Connie Mack Stadium so I’d find my hubcaps intact after games. And then he told me what we owed our readers.

“Inform ‘em, entertain ‘em, and every so often surprise ‘em,” Merchant said. He wrote incisive essays about pro football. He called his column “Fun and Games” as a stark contrast to life and death. And he’d open his occasional notes columns with “Some questions answered, some answers questioned.”

Merchant informed, entertained, shocked. We were tabloid and proud of it. Not that everyone loved our swagger, our persistence.

There was that night in 1962 on the Phillies’ charter flight, Merchant in an aisle seat, typing away. The catcher, Sammy White, peered over Larry’s shoulder, unhappy with what he read.

“He yanked at the copy paper,” Merchant recalled, “and it stuck. He wound up throwing my Olivetti [typewriter] down the aisle. I went to get it and some of the keys were twisted and some vital parts scattered.

“That night, I dictated a story that said it was the best throw he’d made all season. About a month later, the Phillies sent me an invoice, paying for a replacement and indicating it had been deducted from White’s salary.”

The Banter Gold Standard: Something To Do With Heroes

Originally published in the Post (April 8, 1969) and reprinted here with permission from the author, he’s a keeper for the Yankee fans out there.

“Something To Do With Heroes”
by Larry Merchant

Paul Simon, the Simon of Simon and Garfunkel, was invited to Yankee Stadium yesterday to throw out the first ball, to see a ballgame, to revisit his childhood fantasy land, to show the youth of America that baseball swings, and to explain what the Joe DiMaggio thing is all about.

Paul Simon writes the songs, Art Garfunkel accompanies him. They are the Ruth and Gehrig of modern music, two kids from Queens hitting back-to-back home runs with records. They are best known for “Mrs. Robinson” and the haunting line, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” Joe DiMaggio and 100 million others have tried in vain to solve its poetic ambiguity.

Is it a plaintive wail for youth, when jockos made voyeurs of us all and baseball was boss? “It means,” said Paul Simon, “whatever you want it to.”

“I wrote that line and really didn’t know what I was writing,” he said. “My style is to write phonetically and with free association, and very often it comes out all right. But as soon as I said the line I said to myself that’s a great line, that line touches me.”

It has a nice touch of nostalgia to it. It’s interesting. It could be interpreted in many ways. “It has something to do with heroes. People who are all good and no bad in them at all.That’s the way I always saw Joe DiMaggio. And Mickey Mantle.”

It is not surprising, then, that Paul Simon wrote the line. He is a lifelong Yankee fan and once upon a boy, he admitted sheepishly, he ran onto their hallowed soil after a game and raced around the bases.

“I’m a Yankee fan because my father was,” he said. “I went to Ebbets Field once and wore a mask because I didn’t want people to know I went to see the Dodgers. The kids in my neighborhood were divided equally between Yankee and Dodger fans. There was just one Giant fan. To show how stupid that was I pointed out that the Yankees had the Y over the N on their caps, while the Giants had the N over the Y. I just knew the Y should go over the N.”

There was a Phillies fan too—Art Garfunkel. “I liked their pinstriped uniforms,” he said. “And they were underdogs. And there were no other Phillie fans. Paul liked the Yankees because they weren’t proletarian.”

“I choose not to reveal in my neuroses through the Yankees,” said Simon, who was much more the serious young baseball sophisticate. “For years I wouldn’t read the back page of the Post when they lost. The Yankees had great players, players you could like. They gave me a sense of superiority. I can remember in the sixth grade arguments raging in the halls in school on who was better, Berra or Campanella, Snider or MantIe. I felt there was enough suffering in real life, why suffer with your team? What did the suffering do for Dodger fans? O’Malley moved the team anyway.”

Simon and Garfunkel are both twenty-seven years old. Simon’s love affair with baseball is that of the classic big city street urchin. “I oiled my glove and wrapped it around a baseball in the winter and slept with it under my bed,” he said. “I can still remember my first pack of baseball cards. Eddie Yost was on top. I was disappointed it wasn’t a Yankee, but I liked him because he had the same birthday as me, October 13. So do Eddie Mathews and Lenny Bruce. Mickey Mantle is October 20.”

Simon played the outfield for Forest Hills High, where he threw out the first ball of the season last year. Yesterday, after fretting that photographers might make him look like he has “a chicken arm,” he fired the opening ball straight and true to Jake Gibbs.

Then Simon and Garfunkel and Sam Susser, coach of the Sultans, Simon’s sandlot team of yesteryear, watched the Yankees beat the Senators 8-4 with some Yankee home runs, one by Bobby Murcer, the new kid in town. “I yearned for Mickey Mantle,” Paul Simon said. “But there’s something about that Murcer. . . .”

The conventional wisdom is that there are no more heroes who “are all good and no bad.” Overexposure by the demystifying media is said to be the main cause. Much as I’d like to, I can’t accept that flattery. Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey were seen as antiheroes by many adults, as are Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath, but young fans always seem to make up their own minds.

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]

What Becomes a Legend Most?

There is a nice interview with Larry Merchant over at The Ring. I wish that Joseph Santoliquito, the interviewer, went deeper into Merchant’s memorable career as a newspaperman, but hey, at least he touched on it. Good job:

The Ring: What led you to journalism?

LM: My parents didn’t understand why I went to journalism school, and they tried to figure how you make a living out of that (laughs). But what I think helped me was my senior year at Oklahoma, I was sports editor and editor of the school daily. My senior year, I wrote a piece for Sport Magazine on Billy Vessels, who was becoming the Heisman Trophy award winner. I got paid $250, which was a lot of money at that time, and my parents took a deep breath and maybe they thought I could make it (laughs). But my first job was as sports editor of the Wilmington News, in Wilmington, N.C. I wrote a lot about fishing, what they caught and what they caught it with. I’d go fishing with Captain Eddie for sailfish. That sort of stuff (laughs).

I was 23, a one-man sports staff. I have vivid recollections of that time. Then an interesting thing happened. I was there for just three or four months, because I used a photo of a black second baseman in the sports section. When I picked up the newspaper later that day, where that photo had been was a blank space. When I went into the office the next morning, the managing editor took me aside and said, “If Jackie Robinson hits five home runs in a game, you can put his photo in the paper, otherwise we do not have photos of Negroes in the newspaper.” When I went back to my apartment, I got a big jar and started to fill it with my change every night. When it was filled a few weeks later, I bought a tank of gas and left town. That was it. I went back home and got a job at The Associated Press, and went from there to the Philadelphia Daily News as an assistant photo editor around 1955.

The Ring: Your big break came soon afterward, right?

LM: There was a lot of transition going on at The Daily News. I was in the generation that looked at sports differently. The Daily News was housecleaning for financial reasons, and they made me sports editor. I was 26 and reflected a newish sensibility, heightened by TV — we assumed that fans knew the score when they picked up the newspaper. We wrote about the sports scene and what was behind it, about the athletes as personalities and people as well as athletes. My column was called “Fun and Games” to convey the idea that it isn’t life and death for us, that it’s entertainment we are passionate about.

From Ali to Xena: 29

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.

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

From Ali to Xena: 19

Fighting the Good Fight

By John Schulian

Chicago was a great city for anyone who worked on a newspaper. There were three dailies when I got there–the Daily News, Sun-Times and Tribune–and people read them voraciously, passionately. They were part of the fabric of life in the city. There wasn’t a great paper in the bunch, but they were still lively and full of first-rate reporting and writing. What they did not have when I hit town, however, was memorable  sportswriting. It was, if I may be blunt, painfully mediocre.

The sports-page revolution that had swept through New York, L.A., Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington hadn’t caused so much as a ripple in Chicago. Nor did the city’s newspaper executives seem to realize that all over the country, young hotshots were seizing the moment — Dave Kindred in Louisville, Joe Soucheray in Minneapolis-–and seasoned wordsmiths like Wells Twombly in San Francisco were still going strong. The Tribune had two first-rate sportswriters, Don Pierson, a wizard at covering pro football, and Bob Verdi, a droll stylist who went back and forth between baseball and hockey. Otherwise, the Trib was dreary, uninspired and burdened with lazy, burned-out columnists. The Sun-Times was trying to shake things up by bringing in consummate pros like Ron Rapoport, Randy Harvey and Thom Greer. Tom Callahan, a ballsy columnist from Cincinnati, was supposed to be part of the revolution, but he took one look at the in-house chaos and went right back where he’d come from.

Nobody was going to get rid of me that easily. I wrote an introductory column laying out my ties to Chicago -– the days I’d spent in Wrigley Field’s bleachers, the night I’d seen Bobby Hull score the 499th and 500th goals of his career -– and I followed it up with pieces on Al McGuire, a columnist’s dream, and the Bulls’ tough guy guard, Norm Van Lier. Next thing I knew, some guy was walking up to me and saying, “So how does it feel to be the best sports columnist in town?”

Jesus, the hours I put in. The deadline for the first edition at the Daily News was something like 5 in the morning, and I can’t tell you how many times I came close to missing it. (It always made me feel better when I heard that Larry Merchant did the same thing at the New York Post.) Understandably, my work habits grated on my wife when I got married. They also raised the anxiety level for the two guys who put the sports section together, the positively Zen Frank Sugano and Mike Downey, who went on to become a star columnist at the Detroit Free Press, the L.A. Times, and the Chicago Tribune. I can still quote headlines that Downey put on my columns: “She’s Dorothy, Not the Wicked Witch” for one in defense of Dorothy Hamill, and “That Mother McRae” (well, for one edition, anyway) after things between the Yankees and the Royals got chippy during the 1977 playoffs.

As soon as I proved myself, I had the clout to lobby for bringing in Phil Hersh, an old friend from Baltimore, to cover baseball. Phil was a first-rate writer, an intrepid reporter, and a fount of story ideas. While I covered Leon Spinks’ upset victory over Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas, he jumped on a plane to St. Louis and wrote a killer feature about the God-awful Pruitt-Igoe housing project where Spinks’ family lived on government-issue peanut butter in a blistering hot apartment with no way to control the heat.

Once we did a few things like that and wrote the hell out of whatever was on the agenda for the day, the bright kids on the Daily News staff caught the fever. Kevin Lamb, our Bears writer, already had it, because he’d broken in at Newsday, which had been at the heart of the revolution. All Downey needed was someone to free him from the copy desk and point him in the right direction. It was the same with Brian Hewitt, who was straight out of Stanford.

We didn’t have much space at the Daily News, but we made the most of it by out-hustling and out-writing the competition. Even when the sports department got moved downstairs to a dreary space next to the backshop, we didn’t miss a beat, just kept on kicking ass.

Seeing that happen was one of the real thrills of my first year as a columnist. I was in the middle of something that was more than just exciting, it was important. We were doing our part to keep the Daily News alive.

After I’d been in Chicago for a couple of months, I started hearing from papers that wanted to lure me away. The Tribune was the first of them. Fat chance. Then it was the San Francisco Examiner because Twombly had up and died when he was barely 40. The only call I paid attention to came from Larry Merchant. I would have sworn he didn’t know my name and here he was on the phone telling me he was in discussions to become the New York Times’ sports editor. If he took the job, he said, he wanted his first hires to be Peter Gammons and me.

Once again my head was spinning. But Merchant didn’t get the job, so I went back to busting my hump in behalf of the Daily News. I wish I could tell you every column I wrote was a work of art, but that wasn’t the case. Sometimes they were good, maybe even very good; other times I floundered and grasped for ideas and phrases that were beyond me. Still, I’ve always been grateful that I could break in as a columnist on a p.m. paper. It gave me the time I needed to master the form.  If I’d been at an a.m. paper, I’m not sure I would have survived as well as I did.

And here’s something that could only have happened at a p.m.: When I walked out of the paper to look for a cab home in the wee small hours one snowy morning, my footprints were the first on North Michigan Avenue. I had my dream job, in my favorite city in the country, and in a few hours, the people in that city–some of them anyway–were going to read what I had stayed up all night to write for them. And in that moment, I felt the romance of the newspaper business as I never had before.

It didn’t seem anywhere near as romantic late on March 3, 1978 as the Daily News staff waited for the paper’s final edition to come off the press. My face was as long as anybody’s, but I wasn’t entitled to sadness, not the way the people who had given their lives to the paper were. I was standing next to M.W. Newman, who wrote elegantly about architecture and books and local history and pretty much anything else that popped up on his radar. He’d been at the Daily News for something like 30 years. He was the one who had the right to sing the blues. I was just somebody who came along too late to help save the paper. And yet you’d be surprised how often I think of it. And how proud I am to have been there.

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

[Photo Credit: N.Y. Times]

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