By John Schulian
Where there are sports writers, there is booze. It’s been that way since the first scribe raced a deadline and decided he deserved a pop afterward. Or maybe he was drinking while he committed his deathless prose to paper, just a little something to kill the pain of knowing that the desk was going to make a hash of it. All these years later, I’ve seen it work both ways, heard the funny stories that the sauce inspired, and the sad ones, too.
I was supposed to give a certain shaggy wordsmith a ride to the airport the day after Sugar Ray Leonard’s first comeback, in Worcester, Mass. But my hirsute friend never showed up in the hotel lobby, and he didn’t answer his room phone, so I had to take off without him. The next week I called him at his paper to make sure he was all right, and he told me the tale of how he’d fallen in with, if I recall correctly, a toothless barfly and her one-armed boyfriend. (The mind boggles at the proposition they must have put before him.) Somewhere along the line, they slipped him a mickey, stole all his money, and left him unconscious in a fleabag hotel. It was like listening to Charles Bukowski when he told the story, laughing and coughing, savoring every dirt-bag detail. Some guys you just can’t derail.
And then there was Pete Axthelm, a genuinely good soul and a great talent who was undone by alcohol. How lucky we are that he wrote “The City Game” when he was young and the lost nights had yet to take their toll. Ax wasn’t even 50 when he died, but in the clips of his final TV appearances, he could have passed for 75. That’s not the way his friends want to remember him. Better to think of the big smile on his face as he cashed a winning ticket at Churchill Downs.
The curious thing is, sports writers of my generation will tell you it was the old-timers who drank like they had hollow legs. The king of them, as far as I could tell, was Red Smith. As Wilfred Sheed once said, “Weight for age, Red was the greatest drinker I’ve ever seen.” He favored Scotch, lots of it, but only after he had worked so hard on his column that he had sweated through his Brooks Brothers oxford-cloth shirt. He was lifting a glass to his parched lips after the Preakness one year when his hands trembled so badly that Bill Nack’s wife grew visibly alarmed. Red put down his glass, took her hand, and, patting it gently, said, “Don’t worry, dear, it’s an old Irish affliction.”
With drinking, as with writing, the wisest thing to do was to admire Red, not compete with him. In Montreal during the 1981 baseball playoffs, I wound up at dinner with him, Roger Angell, Tom Boswell, Jane Leavy, and Mike Downey – not a bad lineup, huh? – and Red got into the Scotch pretty good. Before the evening was over, he was telling us about the annual Christmas party the New York papers used to have and how people would rewrite carols and holiday songs to make them fit the occasion. And then he sang “Hark the Herald Tribune” in that wonderful old man’s voice of his. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I’d taped him.
Myself, I’ve never been much of a drinker. Don’t like the taste of the hard stuff, and I can go years between beers. I’ll drink wine with dinner, but that’s about it. The last time I got stupid with alcohol was at a party in Baltimore in the early 70s. I drank bourbon from the bottle until I was sufficiently inspired to do somersaults down the hallway of a friend’s apartment. A nice lady drove me home in the wee small hours of that cold winter’s night but refused to come inside with me, if you can imagine that. I went into a full pout and curled up on my front porch, saying I’d just fall asleep there and probably freeze to death. In her infinite wisdom, the nice lady said, “Have it your way,” and drove off. Eventually, I stumbled inside and didn’t come out for two days. I was so hung over, my eyelashes hurt.
It’s a good thing I knew I couldn’t run with the big dogs before I hit Chicago. Otherwise, I might have drowned in what the city’s newspaper booze hounds called the Bermuda Triangle of Drinking, three bars they tried to take down to the last drop every night: O’Rourke’s, Riccardo’s, and the Old Town Ale House. You could get decent Italian food at Riccardo’s, so I ate there once in a while, and I loved the jukebox at O’Rourke’s – it was one for the ages, with classical music, Miles Davis, and Hank Williams side by side. But get stupid drunk at any of those joints? No thanks. I just listened to the stories they generated, like the one about the night Nelson Algren and a Sun-Times columnist named Tom Fitzpatrick threw drinks at each other. Or were they spitting? Hell, I can’t remember. And if Algren and Fitz were still around, they might not remember, either.
All this happened just before newspapers were overrun by tight-assed careerists, so there were still reporters and editors who kept bottles in their desks in case they didn’t have time to duck out for a shot and a beer. And I’m not just passing along the legend. I saw it for myself one Friday night at the Sun-Times when I walked into the city room to get a drink of water. There was a long-in-tooth reporter with a quarter-full bottle of gin in one hand and a bottle with a few splashes of vermouth in the other. He was pouring one into the other, back and forth, back and forth, when he looked up at me with a glassy-eyed smile and said, “Welcome to my laboratory.”
Here’s mud in your eye.