Up, Down, Up, and Out
By John Schulian
In my mind, it was going to be either a city column at the Evening Sun or a job at SI, and trust me, I campaigned like a mad man to get my foot in SI’s door. The magazine’s Baltimore stringer was a big-hearted, hugely energetic guy named Joe D’Adamo, who ran the backshop at the Evening Sun. Not a writer or editor, but a guy who oversaw the actual physical production of the paper. The editors at SI appreciated Joe because he was a fount of ideas, and Joe liked the way I wrote enough to talk me up to them. When Frank Deford came to town to promote a novel he’d written, I did a visiting-author story in which I described him as looking like a waterbed salesman. I just couldn’t resist. Frank must have recognized the impulse, because he didn’t hold it against me. The next thing I knew, Joe D’Adamo was telling me that Frank had mentioned me to SI’s editors. Just the same, when Robert Creamer showed up in Baltimore to hustle his Babe Ruth book, I wrote about him, too.
Finally, in 1973, Pat Ryan, SI’s freelance editor-–soon to be known forever in my mind as the wonderful Pat Ryan-–asked me to send her a list of four story ideas. I did, and the one she liked the best was about the boxing promoter on the Block. When I sent in my first draft, Pat asked me to rewrite the ending so it involved a night at the fights. I did, and that was the last change that was made to the piece. Every word that appeared under my first byline in Sports Illustrated was mine. I was amazed, gratified, and filled with bigger dreams than ever.
Pat had a wonderful way with writers, a real gift for nurturing them. Her father, if I recall correctly, was a successful racehorse trainer, and she had started at SI as a secretary and worked her way up to writer and then editor. Nobody had strewn rose petals at her feet, and if she got the idea that you were committed to your work, she would beat the drum for you. She invited me to New York, took me to lunch, introduced me to other key editors, and treated me like I belonged even though I must have seemed like a rube. She kept giving me story assignments, too-–short items for the front of the book as well as longer stuff like the magazine’s first Moses Malone story and a piece on the amateur baseball team in Baltimore that produced Reggie Jackson and Al Kaline.
All the while I was still writing for the Evening Sun. It was a terrific place to work, as I’ve said, and the people I worked with were salt of the earth. They knew and cared about the city, and they were passionate about honest, energetic, imaginative reporting. They also knew how to put on a great ugliest tie contest. No, I never won. I was actually a pretty good dresser. I remember when I went to interview Jerry Lee Lewis, he looked me over with those spooky eyes of his and said, “I like a sharp-dressed man.” What I might have won at the paper was a bad temper award. Just about anything could set me off-–typos in a story I’d written, an inability to get a long-distance line, the list is endless, really. My standard response was to pound my desk or stand up and punch the nearest wall while yelling the obligatory “fuck!” It’s funny how in the 36 years since I left the paper, the legend of my temper has grown. One woman said I broke the window in the managing editor’s office. (Not true.) A guy said I broke a typewriter. (Also not true.) The only thing I might have broken was my hand when I punched a wall. The fact that I didn’t proves that God really does look out for drunks and fools.
By the time 1975 rolled around, I was starting to get antsy. SI didn’t have any openings for writers at my level and wasn’t expecting any. I could have lived with that if I sensed that I was about to be anointed the Jimmy Breslin of Baltimore. Instead, I was told that the managing editor had decided to kill my music column because nobody cared about rock and roll anymore. This, mind you, just as Springsteen was taking flight-–do I need to say more about the thickness of the managing editor’s skull? I was more than pissed off. I was crushed. Looking back, it was a great life lesson, because it was awfully easy to get comfortable at the Evening Sun and in Baltimore, which was just entering its resurgence. But the only way you’re going to get better is by challenging yourself, by going up against writers who are better than you are. If you do that, it’s sink or swim, and that was what I needed if I was going to make anything out of the career that consumed my life.
When I finally got my wits about me, I started plotting my great escape. I figured I could freelance for Sports Illustrated and a new magazine called New Times, which was showcasing up-and-coming writers like Bob Greene (already a star columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times), Frank Rich (in his pre-New York Times days), Paul Hendrickson (later a star in the Washington Post’s Style section), and Robert Ward (a novelist from Baltimore whom I didn’t meet until we both wound up in Hollywood). I was going to wait until my fifth anniversary at the Evening Sun-–September 1975-–and then I’d be gone. I just had to get through the next three months.
So I’m sitting at my desk one afternoon, not really giving a damn about whatever I was supposed to be working on, and my telephone rings.
“Is John Schulian there?”
“You got him.”
“This is George Solomon, from the Washington Post. How’d you like to make George Allen’s life miserable?”
I’m not making this up. That’s exactly how the conversation went. Solomon was the Post’s new sports editor, and Allen was the Washington Redskins’ head coach and the Richard Nixon of the NFL. And I, as I hastened to point out, was a guy who had never written a sports story for a newspaper. I mean I’d cheated a couple of times and done features about Willie Mays in retirement and a great local playground basketball player, but I’d never written a story about a game. You know, one with a score in it.
So I said, “Are you sure you’ve got the right John Schulian?”
“I’m sure,” Solomon said.
My life had just changed.