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.
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[Photo Credit: N.Y. Times]