Over a three-year period in the early 1970s, Chicago newspaperman Jerome Holtzman interviewed 18 sportswriters. These were men from the previous couple of generations, and they’d devoted their lives to covering sports: Fred Lib, Dan Daniel, John Drebinger, Paul Gallico, Shirley Povich, Jimmy Cannon, and Red Smith, among others. Holtzman recorded and transcribed over 900,000 words, about 10 percent of which became his outstanding oral history, No Cheering in the Press Box.
No Cheering is on the short list of great sports books, the ideal companion in any home library to Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of their Times. Yet, inexcusably, No Cheering has somehow managed to fall out of print. Let’s hope that doesn’t remain the case for long (hello, University of Chicago Press; ahem, University of Nebraska Press). In the meantime, look out for it in a used bookstore or track it down online. You won’t be sorry.
Next week, in celebration of the Library of America’s new compilation, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith, we are going to reprint a Red Smith gem each day. But first, we’ve been given permission by Holtzman’s widow, the ever-gracious Marilyn Holtzman, to excerpt the Red Smith interview from No Cheering.
Without further preamble from me, here’s Red Smith.
I never felt that I was a bug-eyed fan as such. I wasn’t one of those who dreamed of being a sportswriter and going around the country traveling with ball players and getting into the games free and, oh, dear diary, what a break. I’m not pretending that I haven’t enjoyed this hugely. I have. I’ve loved it. But I never had any soaring ambition to be a sportswriter, per se. I wanted to be a newspaperman, and came to realize I didn’t really care which side of the paper I worked on.
I’m too lazy to change over now, to start something new at this stage. I just got so comfortable in so many years in sports. But otherwise I still feel that way. I never cared. When I went to Philadelphia I didn’t know what side of the paper I’d be on. I had done three or four years of rewrite and general reporting in St. Louis when I accepted the offer in Philadelphia. I knew how many dollars a week I was going to get. That was the essential thing. I never asked what they wanted me to do.
The guy I admire most in the world is a good reporter. I respect a good reporter, and I’d like to be called that. I’d like to be considered good and honest and reasonably accurate. The reporter has one of the toughest jobs in the world—getting as near the truth as possible is a terribly tough job. I was a local side reporter in St. Louis and Milwaukee. I wasn’t as good as some. I wasn’t one of those who could go out and find the kidnapper and the child. But I got my facts straight and did a thorough job.
I like to report on the scene around me, on the little piece of the world as I see it, as it is in my time. And I like to do it in a way that gives the reader a little pleasure, a little entertainment. I’ve always had the notion that people go to spectator sports to have fun and then they grab the paper to read about it and have fun again.
I’ve always tried to remember—and this is an old line—that sports isn’t Armageddon. These are just little games that little boys can play, and it really isn’t important to the future of civilization whether the Athletics or the Browns win. If you can accept it as entertainment, and write it as entertainment, then I think that’s what spectator sports are meant to be.
I’ve been having fun doing this seminar at Yale, once a week. They call it Sports in American Society. I don’t know what that name means, but obviously it’s a big, broad topic and I have got guys up to help me. It’s a round-table discussion, eighteen students, but usually there are a couple missing so it’s about fifteen. We bat around everything from the reserve system to amateurism and professionalism, and yesterday they wanted to talk about sports journalism, a subject I have been avoiding because I wanted them to do the talking. As a rule, I fire out a subject and say, “What do you think about this?” and they kick it around. I like that better. I knew that if I was alone I’d do all the talking so I got Leonard Koppett of the Times up there to help. And Koppett said that generally speaking sportswriters aren’t the most brilliant people in the world because really smart people do something else besides traveling with a ball club for twenty-five years. I don’t know. Did you ever feel discontented, feel the need to do something that other people would say was more important?
During the war, World War II, I was of draft age. By that I mean I hadn’t yet gotten to be thirty-eight. I was registered for the draft, but I had a family and didn’t think I could afford to be a private in the army and I didn’t want to go looking for one of those phony public relations commissions. So I just kept traveling with the last-place Philadelphia Athletics and, oh boy, more than once I thought, “What the hell am I doing here?” But that was during the war. Outside of that I never felt any prodding need to solve the problems of the world. You can help a little by writing about games, especially if you’re writing a column.
Oh, I don’t know if I’ve ever helped, but I have tried to stay aware of the world outside, beyond the fences, outside the playing field, and to let that awareness creep into the column sometimes. Occasionally, I’ve thrown a line about a Spiro Agnew or a Richard Nixon into a piece. I wouldn’t imagine I had any effect, excepting to make an occasional reader write and say, “Stick to sports, you bum. What do you know about politics?”
Sure, I respect the Tom Wickers. He’s certainly more effective. But somehow I have felt that my time wasn’t altogether wasted. I haven’t been ashamed of what I’ve done. I seem to be making apologies for it. I don’t mean to, because I feel keeping the public informed in any area is a perfectly worthwhile way to spend your life. I think sports constitute a valid part of our culture, our civilization, and keeping the public informed and, if possible, a little entertained about sports is not an entirely useless thing.
I did get a kick out of covering an occasional political convention, but even then my approach to it was as a sportswriter viewing a very popular spectator sport, and I tried to have fun with it. I did the presidential conventions in ’56 and again in ’68. The 1956 Democratic convention in Chicago was a pretty good one. Happy Chandler was a candidate for the presidential nomination. They finally nominated Adlai Stevenson and almost nominated John Kennedy for Vice-President. Kennedy was in the Stockyard Inn writing his acceptance speech when they decided to go for Coonskin Cap—Kefauver. Anyway, there was Happy Chandler. He was a good, soft touch for one column. There was Governor Clements of Tennessee. He made one of the great cornball keynote addresses of our time, and he was good for another column. Let me see, what else? Oh, yes, Truman came on. He looked like the old champ, trying to make a comeback, like Dempsey. Truman wasn’t running for reelection, but he showed up at the convention and made for lively copy. On the whole I just felt loose and easy and free to write what I pleased, and it seemed to come off well.
Over the years people have said to me, “Isn’t it dull covering baseball every day?” My answer used to be “It becomes dull only to dull minds.” Today’s game is always different from yesterday’s game. If you have the perception and the interest to see it, and the wit to express it, your story is always different from yesterday’s story. I thoroughly enjoyed covering baseball daily.
I still think every game is different, not that some of them aren’t dull, but it’s a rare person who lives his life without encountering dull spots. It’s up to the writer to take a lively interest and see the difference. Of course most of my years I was with a club to which a pennant race was only a rumor—the Philadelphia Athletics. I did ten years with them. They were always last.
I don’t agree with him, but yesterday, at Yale, Leonard Koppett said one of the great untrue cliches in sports is that the legs go first. He said that’s not true. He insists that the enthusiasm, the desire go first. And he said this is generally true of the athlete and, of course, when the athlete gets above thirty-five or forty he just can’t go on.
He’s physically unable to. The writer can go on, he is able to physically, but Leonard believes writers lose their enthusiasm, too. He thinks very few writers of forty-five have had the enthusiasm of their youth for the job. He said he didn’t know how writers of sixty-five felt, and I said, “Neither do I, but I don’t think I’ve lost my enthusiasm.” If I did, I’d want to quit.
My enthusiasm is self-generating, self-renewing. My life, the way it’s been going now, I see very few baseball games in the summer. I’ll start with the opening of the season. I’ll see the games then, but things like the Kentucky Derby and Preakness get in the way, and lately we’ve had a home up in Martha’s Vineyard, where I like to spend as much of the summer as I can, working from there. By the time the World Series comes along I may feel that I’ve had very little baseball for the year. But I find that old enthusiasm renewing itself when I sit there at the playoffs.
I don’t enjoy the actual labor of writing. I love my job, but I find one of the disadvantages is the several hours at the typewriter each day. That’s how I pay for this nice job. And I pay pretty dearly. I sweat. I bleed. I’m a slow writer. Once, through necessity, I was a fast rewrite man, when I had to be. I had no choice.
But when I began doing a column, which is a much more personal thing, I found it wasn’t something that I could rip off the top of my head. I had to do it painstakingly. I’m always unhappy, very unhappy, at anything that takes less than two hours. I can do it in two hours, if I must. But my usual answer to the question “How long does it take to write a column?” is “How much time do I have?” If I have six hours, I take it. I wish I could say that the ones that take six hours turn out better. Not necessarily. But I will say this: I do think that, over three hundred days, effort pays off. If you do the best you can every day, taking as much time as necessary, or as much time as you have, then it’s going to be better than if you brushed it off.
It’s not very often that I feel gratified with a piece I’ve just written. Very often I feel, “Well, this one is okay.” Or “This one will get by.” The next day when I read it in print, clean and in two-column measure, it often looks better. But sometimes I’m disappointed. If I think I’ve written a clinker, I’m terribly depressed for twenty-four hours. But when you write a good one, you feel set up, the adrenalin is flowing.
Arthur Daley once told me that Paul Gallico asked him, “How many good columns do you strive for?”
Arthur said, “One every day.”
And Gallico said, “I’ll settle for two a week.”
In my later years I have sought to become simpler, straighter, and purer in my handling of the language. I’ve had many writing heroes, writers who have influenced me. Of the ones still alive, I can think of E. B. White. I certainly admire the pure, crystal stream of his prose. When I was very young as a sportswriter I knowingly and unashamedly imitated others. I had a series of heroes who would delight me for a while and I’d imitate them—Damon Runyon, Westbrook Pegler, Joe Williams. This may surprise you, but at the top of his game I thought Joe Williams was pretty good.
I think you pick up something from this guy and something from that. I know that I deliberately imitated those three guys, one by one, never together. I’d read one daily, faithfully, and be delighted by him and imitate him. Then someone else would catch my fancy. That’s a shameful admission. But slowly, by what process I have no idea, your own writing tends to crystallize, to take shape. Yet you have learned some moves from all these guys and they are somehow incorporated into your own style. Pretty soon you’re not imitating any longer.
I was a very shy, timid kid. Going to Notre Dame and living for four years with guys—no girls, of course, were around—was good for me. It gave me a feeling of comfort mixing with my peers, a sense of comfort I didn’t have in grade school or in high school. But my defense mechanism has been at work so long I still find myself talking too much at parties, things like that. I know this is a defense to cover shyness. I often hear myself babbling on and wish I’d shut up. I know it’s because I’m shy. It’s a defensive mechanism that has developed and operated over the years.
I’m not a psychologist, but I do know, for example, that a fellow like Howard Cosell is the braggart that he is because of a massive insecurity. He has to be told every couple minutes how great he is because he’s so insecure. And if you don’t tell him, he tells you. He can’t help this.
I was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin. My father, Walter P. Smith, was the third generation in a family business—wholesale produce and retail groceries. My mother was born and grew up in New York. Her name was Ida Richardson. On vacation one time, visiting a friend out in Green Bay, she met my father and they got married. She spent the rest of her life in Green Bay, virtually all of it. My great-grandfather had come out from New Jersey and cleared a cedar swamp and started truck gardens. They raised garden truck and bought from farmers around there and shipped to northern Wisconsin and the northern peninsula of Michigan. They supplied hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores and they ran a grocery store in Green Bay. They went broke during the Depression.
There were three kids. I was the second son. My brother, Art, is still alive. He lives in the Bronx, and I guess he is retired. My brother never went to college. He had fun in high school, dating the French teacher and that sort of thing, and didn’t bother reading any books. So eventually, well, my father said, “Look, for gosh sakes, either you do something or you go to work.” So Art went to work on the hometown newspaper. He was a newspaperman all of his life. He was essentially a rewrite man and worked all the papers—Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis, and New York. In New York he did rod and gun for the Daily News and for the Herald Tribune. That was his last newspaper job. He is a bit more than a year older than I am. We had a little sister, Catherine. She died of tuberculosis at about nineteen, while I was in college.
My parents read all the time. They weren’t scholars or anything, but they were literate and there were books in the house. I remember bookcases with the glass doors in front. I read everything in the house. Corny 1910 romances entitled The Long Straight Road, and When Knighthood Was in Flower. Everything that was there, I read.
I was a real dedicated small-boy baseball fan up to World War I. Let’s see, I was nine when World War I started and the Wisconsin-Illinois League folded about that time. For years I tried never to miss a game when the Green Bay team played at home. Casey Stengel won the batting championship that year. He played for Aurora, Illinois. I don’t remember Stengel, but I can still almost recite the lineup of the Green Bay team of 1912 or 1914, whatever year Casey won the championship. I remember George Mollwitz, the Green Bay first baseman. I met him many years later in Bradenton, Florida. Somehow, all old ball players go to Bradenton. Mollwitz had a cup of coffee with the Cincinnati Reds, so he’d be in the record books.
And, of course, I played all sports. Everybody did. We played football and baseball on our lawn and we tried to take a clothes pole and vault, the way all kids do. But I never had any proficiency in sports. I learned to swim and loved it. Pretty early in life I learned to enjoy fishing, which is still my dodge. If I’m a participant in any recreation, it’s fishing.
I was always out in the woods, just a kid playing along the creek. I remember meeting a young man who was fly-casting. I had never seen a fly rod before, or anyone casting flies. He was about five years older and turned out to be a very amiable guy. He taught me how to cut a willow branch and make a very poor fly rod out of it and cast for chubs and minnows in the stream. He became a hero of mine. His name was Vince Engel. He was going to Notre Dame, studying journalism, and therefore I felt it was necessary for me to do the same. That was great. I’d be like him. And of course, later I realized that sitting on my duff pounding a typewriter was a pretty easy way to make a living. It seemed very attractive, a lot better than lifting things.
I remember one day in high school I had a Notre Dame catalogue which I was studying, and a senior who was going to go to Notre Dame borrowed it from me. This was Jimmy Crowley, the left halfback on the Four Horsemen. He was a year ahead of me and a big football star, and I remember him borrowing it. He didn’t need a catalogue because some old Notre Damer was sending him to Rockne. But he was interested in looking at it.
I stayed out of school for one year—between high school and college—simply to get a few hundred bucks because we had no money. I was an order clerk, filled orders for the Morley-Murphy-Olfell Hardware Company in Green Bay, not a very responsible job. I scuffled my way through Notre Dame. I got a job waiting on tables in a restaurant in South Bend. I borrowed money from a cousin. I contrived this and that. I got involved in class politics and, by chance, belonged to the winning party which elected the class president, and so on. As a reward for my political activities I got elected editor of the Dome and that was worth five hundred bucks.
I took a general arts course with a major in journalism. The journalism school consisted of one man, a darling old guy, Dr. John Cooney. I hadn’t written very much. I did write an essay in high school, when I was a senior, that was published in the annual, some silly little thing. If I remember correctly, and I do, it was about the debating team. It was supposed to be a humorous sketch. God, I’d hate to read that today. Then I worked a little bit on what they called the Notre Dame Daily, which came out two or three times a week. I probably did fragments of news. But I didn’t work there very long, because it was a dull operation.
I knew Rockne, of course, but whether he knew me I don’t know. I tried to run on his track team. He was the track coach as well as the football coach. He coached pretty near everything when I was at Notre Dame.
In order to graduate we were supposed to have one credit in physical education, which really meant that once or twice a week you went to gym class and took calisthenics unless you did something else. And that something else could be participation in any sport. You were excused from gym class for the season of your sport, if you participated.
I loathed this gym class and didn’t like the instructor. He was a senior trackman who just said, “Up, down! Up, down! C’mon there, Smith, get the lead out!” and so I signed up for freshman track. I don’t think I had any misconceptions about my speed. I tried to run the mile because I knew I couldn’t run very fast. I thought maybe I could run long. But I was mistaken about that, too. For just a few weeks I trained with the track team. I remember the freshman-varsity handicap meet came along, starting the indoor season, and I finished last in the mile, that’s last among many. Paul Kennedy, who was an upperclassman and the star miler, went in 4:21, which sounds slow, but this was a dirt track, twelve laps to the mile, and 4:21 was a fast mile in that day, on that track. I was many laps behind. I never did any sportswriting at Notre Dame, not even in the annual where you sum up the football season and so on.
When I finished at Notre Dame I wrote about—now I say a hundred—but maybe it was only fifty letters to newspapers I got out of the Ayers Directory. I got my first job on the Milwaukee Sentinel. That was in the summer of ’27. I was a cub reporter, chasing fire engines. I didn’t do much. I was mostly being used to cover conventions, speeches, luncheons, and dinners. Every once in a while I’d be the ninth guy covering a murder investigation and it was pretty exciting. It was a morning paper and I’d be up all night. I didn’t get off until midnight. These were Prohibition times, and I’d go down into the Italian ward where they had speakeasies and nightclubs with three-piece combos and canaries. Those were the people I knew. And I thought it was the most exciting thing in the world.
I was being promised raises but still getting twenty-four dollars a week, and then I moved to St. Louis. A guy who had been on the Sentinel had gone to the St. Louis Star, and he wrote a letter back to the makeup editor at the Sentinel which said, “Come on down, they’re looking for people.” He was really looking for friends to join him. The makeup editor had a divorce case coming up and couldn’t leave the state, so he showed me the letter. And I wired the Star, faking it, advertising myself as an all-around newspaperman with complete experience—and got an offer of forty dollars a week on the copy desk. I was terrified but I took it.
That fall the managing editor, a man named Frank Taylor, fired two guys in the sports department, and he came over to me on the copy desk and he said, “Did you ever work in sports?”
And I said, “No.”
“Do you know anything about sports?”
And I said, “Just what the average fan knows.”
“They tell me you’re very good on football.”
“Well, if you say so.”
And he said, “Are you honest? If a fight promoter offered you ten dollars would you take it?”
I said, “Ten dollars is a lot of money.”
And he said, “Report to the sports editor Monday.”
I stayed in sports about four years. Then I moved back to the local side, doing rewrite and general reporting. This was an exciting time. A lot of things were happening in St. Louis. Roosevelt had been elected and in his first message to Congress he said, “Bring back beer” and they brought it back, in about June. For months I wrote nothing but beer. It was a running story.
Beer was one of the big industries in St. Louis. I was always interviewing Gus Busch and Alvin Griesedick. I lived in the breweries in those days, doing stories such as should the alcohol content of beer be 3.2 by volume or by weight? Anheuser-Busch is almost a city by itself down in South St. Louis. The night beer came back—you wouldn’t believe it. Several hundred guests were invited to the bottling plant which had a big bar, a rathskeller sort of place. Thousands of St. Louisans jammed the streets, dancing and singing and celebrating the end of Prohibition. At 12:01 the first bottle came down the conveyor and everybody got Gussie Busch to autograph the label.
I had been Walter W. Smith in the sports department, but I was anonymous ninety-nine percent of the time on the news side. Everybody was, except Harry T. Brundage, our star reporter. He was the crime chaser and glamor boy. If Frank Taylor, the managing editor, felt very indulgent he might give you an occasional by-line. I remember seeing a note he wrote to the city desk, advising that I be sent to interview George M. Cohan, and it said, “If he writes a good story give him a by-line.”
One time Taylor called me over and said, “I want you to go out in the sticks and get some old lady, some old doll who has never been to a city, who has never seen an electric light. Bring her to town as our guest. Get an old guy if you have to, but preferably get a woman.”
I had just read a story about a strike of tiffminers in a place called Old Mines, Missouri, in the foothills of the Ozarks. This was an area settled by the French at about the same time the fur traders were coming up from New Orleans and settling St. Louis. These tiffminers were completely isolated—only I had read a travel piece about how the hard road had just come into Old Mines.
My wife and I drove to Old Mines. It wasn’t more than seventy-five miles out of St. Louis. I went to strike headquarters there and told the guys what I wanted, and they said I should go see old Lady Tygert, in Callico Creek Hollow. Susan Tygert. I found this old lady smoking a corncob pipe and wearing a black sunbonnet and living in a one-room shack with her husband, John. She was seventy-nine or eighty, at the least, and had never been out of Callico Creek Hollow. She had never ridden in an automobile, never turned on an electric light, had never used the telephone.
I had a hell of a time getting her to come to St. Louis. She liked my wife, and besides, I promised she could ride on a Mississippi riverboat. She wasn’t in St. Louis more than four or five days, and every day I wrote a story about her. I took her to the zoo and to places like the Statler Roof, where there was dancing and a show. She was charming and colorful, smoking that corncob pipe and wearing that black sunbonnet. Everybody was daffy about her. The stories got a warm response.
But O. K. Bovard, who was the managing editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—the rival paper—read them and said, “It’s a movie scenario.” Bovard simply decided I was a faker, had faked the whole thing.
A little while after that Ed Wray, the sports editor of the Post-Dispatch, made me an offer. But first I had to go see Bovard and he wouldn’t see me. I could have gone to work there, anyway, but I decided even if I could beat down his resistance it would be unwise to be working for a managing editor who was convinced I was a faker.
I went to the Philadelphia Record instead and stayed there ten years, all in sports, covering the Phillies and Connie Mack’s A’s.
In those days New York dominated the newspaper business, far more than it does today. The big papers were all here, the headquarters of the syndicates, the magazines, the book publishers, everybody so far as paper and ink was concerned. I had to take my shot at it. It was the pure ham in me, I guess. It was like playing the Palace.
I got my shot on V-J Day. I had heard Stanley Woodward was after me—he was the sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune. Early in 1945, during the first few weeks of the baseball season, an old friend of mine, Garry Schumacher, a New York baseball writer, said to me, “Have you heard from Stanley Woodward?”
I said he had called the other day, but I was out and when I called back he was out. I thought he wanted to know how old Connie Mack was, or something, you know, for a story. And Garry said, “Well, get plenty. He’s coming after you.”
I waited all summer and I never heard a sound out of Stanley, and I was dying. Finally, the morning after V-J Day, he called. We dickered and then we made a deal. It wasn’t to write a column. He just hired me to work in the sports department, to take assignments, but he told me later he hoped I would wind up doing a column. I came over on September 24, 1945, one day before my fortieth birthday. Stanley lied to the Tribune about my age. He told them I was in my early thirties.
When I first knew Stanley as a casual press box acquaintance, I guess I resented him a little bit. He was an iconoclast. He was never one to accept the handout. He wanted to know himself. Also, during the war he was dead against sports. He felt games were nonessential and that we all should be fighting the war, that there shouldn’t be a sports page, no baseball or horse racing, not even football—and he loved football. Well, of course, there shouldn’t be necktie salesmen or florists or any of the nonessential industries, if you’re fighting an all-out, one hundred percent war. I disagreed with him. I felt there was some morale value to games.
He was perhaps the most thoroughly competent, all-around newspaperman I’ve known, a fine reporter, a great editor, a man who could do anything on the paper. He would have been a great managing editor. But he was impolitic and absolutely refused to compromise. He got fired for telling Mrs. Reid that she didn’t know anything about running a newspaper.
Soon after he hired me there was an economy wave on the paper and he was ordered to cut two people from his staff, two older men who were near retirement. He said, “Give me some time and I’ll arrange their retirement and we won’t fire anybody.”
But they said, “No, you’ve got to do it right now.”
He refused. He lost his temper and said, “All right then, fire Smith and Woodward.”
In those days they had all sorts of forms for the personnel department—added to payroll, substratcted [sic] from payroll, and so on. He got one of these payroll forms, for dismissal, listing reasons from one to ten and he wrote “Incompetence” and sent it through and that night, down in the office saloon, he told me, with great glee, what he had done.
The last straw was the silliest thing in the world. The New York Times, which in those days had an awful lot of space, had a banner on one of the inside pages on a women’s golf tournament in Westchester. It wasn’t of interest to anybody but the players, but some of Mrs. Reid’s Westchester friends were offended because the Tribune didn’t carry anything about the tournament, and she raised cain.
So Stanley investigated, found it was a weekly tournament and would require so much space to publish the results. He wrote a very snotty memo to this effect to Mrs. Reid and said if she insisted on him wasting space and effort on this tripe he wanted two additional columns of space for the sports section. He also told her he wouldn’t insult one of his staff members by sending him on such an assignment. He would send a copyboy. She lost her temper and had him fired.
Stanley was a great man, and a great newspaperman and was always trying to put out the best section possible. Once, after he had left the paper, I tried to explain this to Mrs. Reid. I told her, “Didn’t you understand, he was fighting with you to help improve your paper?”
But she simply fluttered. She just said something fluttery. I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about.
Unlike the normal pattern, I know I have grown more liberal as I’ve grown older. I have become more convinced that there is room for improvement in the world. I seem to be finding this a much less pretty world than it seemed when I was younger, and I feel things should be done about it and that sports are part of this world. Maybe I’m sounding too damn profound or maybe I’m taking bows when I shouldn’t. I truly don’t know. But I do know I am more liberal and probably one of the reasons is that I married not only Phyllis, who is younger and more of today than I was, but I married five stepchildren who are very much of the current generation. They are very good friends and very articulate, and I think that this association has helped me to have a younger and fresher view.
My sympathies almost always have been on the side of the underdog, or the guy I think is the underdog. There was a time when I was more inclined to go along with the establishment. It may be because I’m no longer traveling with a baseball club and no longer exposed to the establishment day in and day out. I supported the players this past season when they went on that historic thirteen-day strike. Now that I do a column, I can stand there, a little removed, and look at what the Charlie Finleys and Bowie Kuhns are doing.
When I first heard about Marvin Miller—the players’ man—I didn’t hear anything favorable. I heard complaints from owners and club executives about how these ball players were putting themselves into the hands of a bloody labor organizer, a steel mill guy. I remember hearing one player, Dick Groat, saying he was in Pittsburgh and how he saw some of the results of union operations and that he wasn’t in favor of it. He voted against employing Miller, as some other ball players did.
Then I began to hear that Miller is a pretty smart guy, seems like a very nice guy. The owners and the hierarchy, like the league presidents and such, were beginning to be very discreet in their remarks about Marvin. I had never met him until the winter baseball meetings in Mexico City, in 1968. I introduced myself. Since then, when there has been a newsworthy dispute in baseball—and there have been a lot of them—I have found I get straighter answers from Marvin than from anyone else I know in baseball. I have yet to find any trace of evidence that he’s ever told me an untruth.
There have been times when he has said, “I think I had better not talk about that now,” which is understandable. I don’t doubt for a moment that he knows he’s talking for publication and he’s going to tell me what he thinks will look good on his side of the argument. But as far as I know, it’s the absolute truth. More honest than most. Sports promoters find lying to the press is part of their business. They have no hesitation at all about it.
This generally applies across the board. I was going to say it also includes league presidents, but I would hate to think of Chub Feeney lying. I think Joe Cronin would avoid a fact now and then, or evade one. As for the present commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, he doesn’t tell you anything so I don’t know whether he lies or not. But the sportswriter learns to adjust, to make allowances. When you’re listening to these people, who are serving special interests, you simply adjust by taking a little off the top.
Over the years, of course, all sportswriters, especially those assigned to and traveling with ball clubs, have difficulties with a ball player, or ball players. I never had anything as crucial as an actual fist fight, but I did have some differences with Bill Werber. This was when I was in Philadelphia and when he was traded or sold. The A’s sent him to the Cincinnati Reds, and when the deal was announced I think I probably wrote something to the general effect of “Good riddance.” I’m not sure. I didn’t care deeply for Bill. I thought he paraded his formal education. He was out of Duke, you know, and he used to correct the grammar of other ball players. There were things about Bill that didn’t enchant me.
In 1939 the Reds were in the World Series—that was the year the Yankees won in four straight and when big Ernie Lombardi wound up sprawled out at the plate. When we got to Cincinnati for the third game I went down to the bench before the game, and my old friend Paul Derringer said, “Hello, Red, you know Bill Werber, don’t you?”
And Werber said, “Yes, I know the sonofabitch.”
It went on, a tiny few exchanges like that, and then he said, “Get off this bench! Get out of the dugout!”
I said, “No, I’m a guest here.”
And he got up and shouldered me out of the dugout, just kind of strongarmed me out. I had my portable and I was strongly tempted to let him have it—with the typewriter. But I somehow didn’t feel like doing that on the field before the first World Series game in Cincinnati and so I left.
I remember Charlie Dexter coming along behind me and he said, “What are you going to do? Are you going to protest to the Baseball Writers Association?”
And I said, “No, Charlie, the player doesn’t like me.”
I didn’t speak to him again. And then one day I was in Washington, in the National Press Building. I was on the elevator going to the Press Club and a most successful-looking insurance salesman carrying a briefcase, well dressed, got aboard and said, “Hello, Susie,” to the elevator operator.
And I said, “Hello, Bill,” and we shook hands. It had been at least ten years.
When Curt Flood sued baseball, Bill wrote me a letter. He was absolutely against Flood’s suit and wrote disagreeing with something I had written in a column. Bill said that Curt Flood, with his limited education, was doing better than he had any right to expect.
I wrote back one letter saying that Flood had more ability and character than a great many educated men. I was trying to put Bill down. But he quickly responded with further argument which I didn’t bother to answer. I didn’t want to become his pen pal.
I won’t deny that the heavy majority of sportswriters, myself included, have been and still are guilty of puffing up the people they write about. I remember one time when Stanley Woodward, my beloved leader, was on the point of sending me a wire during spring training, saying, “Will you stop Godding up those ball players?” I didn’t realize what I had been doing. I thought I had been writing pleasant little spring training columns about ball players.
If we’ve made heroes out of them, and we have, then we must also lay a whole set of false values at the doorsteps of historians and biographers. Not only has the athlete been blown up larger than life, but so have the politicians and celebrities in all fields, including rock singers and movie stars.
When you go through Westminster Abbey you’ll find that excepting for that little Poets’ Corner almost all of the statues and memorials are to killers. To generals and admirals who won battles, whose specialty was human slaughter. I don’t think they’re such glorious heroes.
I’ve tried not to exaggerate the glory of athletes. I’d rather, if I could, preserve a sense of proportion, to write about them as excellent ball players, first-rate players. But I’m sure I have contributed to false values—as Stanley Woodward said, “Godding up those ball players.”
Over at Vanity Fair, check out this oral history of Freaks and Geeks.
Over at Grantland, check out Jonathan Abram’s oral history of The Greatest Team that Never Was.
Swell oral history on “Cheers” by Brian Raftery over at GQ. Anyone who ever loved that show, well, you’re in for a treat.
There’s a long oral history by Sam Kashner on The Sopranos over at Vanity Fair. Mind candy for those of you that dig that sort of thing.