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Tag: red smith

BGS: The Moving Finger Writes, Etc.

Red Smith is the most respected sports columnist we’ve ever had. In his prime, Jimmy Cannon, Smith’s friendly rival, was certainly as well-known. Cannon, the Voice of New York, was an emotional, colloquial writer whose reputation, unfortunately, has faded. But Smith endures. What is it about his writing that ages so well?

“It’s the same reason Shakespeare ages well,” Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist told me recently. “He wrote beautifully, it’s as simple as that.”

The Library of America presents Smith’s finest work in the new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. It is available now and a must-read for all sports fans, young and old (and an ideal gift for Father’s Day). This week, with permission from Smith’s family, we’ll reprint a Red Smith column every day to offer you a sample of what he was all about. Today’s column is “The Moving Finger Writes, Etc.” which ran on October 19, 1977, the day after Reggie Jackson hit three home runs on three pitches in the deciding game of the World Series. 

So, enjoy, and for more on Smith, check out this oral history from Jerome Holtzman’s classic,No Cheering in the Press Box; this excerpt from Stanley Woodward’s memoir, Paper Tiger; anice tribute by his son, Terrance Smith; and this excerpt from Dan Okrent’s introduction toAmerican Pastimes. ‘Course it goes without saying that if you want to know from Red Smith you need to go find a copy of Ira Berkow’s excellent biography, Red.

It had to happen this way. It had been predestined since November 29, 1976, when Reginald Martinez Jackson sat down on a gilded chair in New York’s Americana Hotel and wrote his name on a Yankee contract. That day he became an instant millionaire, the big honcho on the best team money could buy, the richest, least inhibited, most glamorous exhibit in Billy Martin’s pin-striped zoo. That day the plot was written for last night—the bizarre scenario Reggie Jackson played out by hitting three home runs, clubbing the Los Angeles Dodgers into submission, and carrying his supporting players with him to the baseball championship of North America. His was the most lurid performance in seventy-four World Series, for although Babe Ruth hit three home runs in a game in 1926 and again in 1928, not even that demigod smashed three in a row.

Reggie’s first broke a tie and put the Yankees in front, 4–3. His second fattened the advantage to 7–3. His third completed arrangements for a final score of 8–4, wrapping up the championship in six games.

Yet that was merely the final act of an implausible one-man show. Jackson had made a home run last Saturday in Los Angeles and another on his last time at bat in that earthly paradise on Sunday. On his first appearance at the plate last night he walked, getting no official time at bat, so in his last four official turns he hit four home runs.

In his last nine times at bat, this Hamlet in double-knits scored seven runs, made six hits and five home runs, and batted in six runs for a batting average of .667 compiled by day and by night on two sea-coasts three thousand miles and three time zones apart. Shakespeare wouldn’t attempt a curtain scene like that if he was plastered.

This was a drama that consumed seven months, for ever since the Yankees went to training camp last March, Jackson had lived in the eye of the hurricane. All summer long as the spike-shod capitalists bickered and quarreled, contending with their manager, defying their owner, Reggie was the most controversial, the most articulate, the most flamboyant.

Part philosopher, part preacher and part outfielder, he carried this rancorous company with his bat in the season’s last fifty games, leading them to the East championship in the American League and into the World Series. He knocked in the winning run in the twelve-inning first game, drove in a run and scored two in the third, furnished the winning margin in the fourth, and delivered the final run in the fifth.

Thus the stage was set when he went to the plate in last night’s second inning with the Dodgers leading, 2–0. Sedately, he led off with a walk. Serenely, he circled the bases on a home run by Chris Chambliss. The score was tied.

Los Angeles had moved out front, 3–2, when the man reappeared in the fourth inning with Thurman Munson on base. He hit the first pitch on a line into the seats beyond right field. Circling the bases for the second time, he went into his home-run glide—head high, chest out. The Yankees led, 4–3. In the dugout, Yankees fell upon him. Billy Martin, the manager, who tried to slug him last June, patted his cheek lovingly. The dugout phone rang and Reggie accepted the call graciously.

His first home run knocked the Dodgers’ starting pitcher, Burt Hooton, out of the game. His second disposed of Elias Sosa, Hooton’s successor. Before Sosa’s first pitch in the fifth inning, Reggie had strolled the length of the dugout to pluck a bat from the rack, even though three men would precede him to the plate. He was confident he would get his turn. When he did, there was a runner on base again, and again he hit the first pitch. Again it reached the seats in right.

When the last jubilant playmate had been peeled off his neck, Reggie took a seat near the first-base end of the bench. The crowd was still bawling for him and comrades urged him to take a curtain call but he replied with a gesture that said, “Aw, fellows, cut it out!” He did unbend enough to hold up two fingers for photographers in a V-for-victory sign.

Jackson was the leadoff batter in the eighth. By that time, Martin would have replaced him in an ordinary game, sending Paul Blair to right field to help protect the Yankees’ lead. But did they ever bench Edwin Booth in the last act?

For the third time, Reggie hit the first pitch but this one didn’t take the shortest distance between two points. Straight out from the plate the ball streaked, not toward the neighborly stands in right but on a soaring arc toward the unoccupied bleachers in dead center, where the seats are blacked out to give batters a background. Up the white speck climbed, dwindling, diminishing, until it settled at last halfway up those empty stands, probably four hundred fifty feet away.

This time he could not disappoint his public. He stepped out of the dugout and faced the multitude, two fists and one cap uplifted. Not only the customers applauded.

“I must admit,” said Steve Garvey, the Dodgers’ first baseman, “when Reggie Jackson hit his third home run and I was sure nobody was listening, I applauded into my glove.”

BGS: A Little Greedy, and Exactly Right

Red Smith is the most respected sports columnist we’ve ever had. In his prime, Jimmy Cannon, Smith’s friendly rival, was certainly as well-known. Cannon, the Voice of New York, was an emotional, colloquial writer whose reputation, unfortunately, has faded. But Smith endures. What is it about his writing that ages so well?

“It’s the same reason Shakespeare ages well,” Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist told me recently. “He wrote beautifully, it’s as simple as that.”

The Library of America presents Smith’s finest work in the new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. It is available now and a must-read for all sports fans, young and old (and an ideal gift for Father’s Day). This week, with permission from Smith’s family, we’ll reprint a Red Smith column every day to offer you a sample of what he was all about. Today’s column is “A Little Greedy, and Exactly Right” which ran on June 11, 1973 the day after Secretariat won the Triple Crown.

So, enjoy, and for more on Smith, check outthis oral history from Jerome Holtzman’s classic, No Cheering in the Press Box; this excerpt from Stanley Woodward’s memoir, Paper Tiger; a nice tribute by his son, Terrance Smith; and this excerpt from Dan Okrent’s introduction to American Pastimes.Course it goes without saying that if you want to know from Red Smith you need to go find a copy of Ira Berkow’s excellent biography, Red.

“A Little Greedy, and Exactly Right”

By Red Smith

Belmont, N.Y., June 11, 1973 

The thing to remember is that the horse that finished last had broken the Kentucky Derby record. If there were no colt named Secretariat, then Sham would have gone into the Belmont Stakes Saturday honored as the finest three-year-old in America, an eight-length winner of the Kentucky Derby where he went the mile and a quarter faster than any winner in ninety-eight years and an eight-length winner of the Preakness. There is, however, a colt named Secretariat. In the Derby he overtook Sham and beat him by two and a half lengths. In the Preakness he held Sham off by two and a half lengths. This time he and Sham dueled for the lead, and he beat Sham by more than a sixteenth of a mile. There is no better way to measure the class of the gorgeous red colt that owns the Triple Crown. Turning into the homestretch at Belmont Park, Ron Turcotte glanced back under an arm to find his pursuit. He saw nothing, and while he peeked, his mount took off.

Secretariat had already run a mile in one minute, 34 1/5 seconds. Up to three weeks ago, no horse in Belmont history had run a mile in less than 1:34 2/5. He had run a mile and a quarter in 1:59, two-fifths of a second faster than the Derby record he had set five weeks earlier. Now he went after the Belmont record of 2:26 3/5 for a mile and a half, which was also an American record when Gallant Man established it sixteen years ago. With no pursuit to urge him on, without a tap from Turcotte’s whip, he smashed the track record by two and three-fifth seconds, cracked the American record by two and a fifth, and if Turcotte had asked him he could have broken the world record. If he had been running against Gallant Man, the fastest Belmont winner in 104 years, he would have won by thirteen lengths. Unless the competition spurred him to greater speed.

“It seems a little greedy to win by thirty-one lengths,” said Mrs. John Tweedy, the owner, and then repeated the rider’s story of how he saw the fractional times blinking on the tote board, realized there was a record in the making, and went after it in the final sixteenth.

It is hard to imagine what a thirty-one-length margin looks like, because you never see one, but Secretariat lacked eight panels of fence—eighty feet—of beating Twice a Prince by a sixteenth of a mile. This was the classic case of “Eclipse first, the rest nowhere.”

The colt was entitled to his margin and his record. At the Derby he drew a record crowd that broke all Churchill Downs’ betting records and he set a track record. He set attendance and betting records at the Preakness and may have broken the stakes record, but if he did discrepancies in the clocking denied him that credit. Last Saturday belonged to him.

Indeed, Belmont was kinder to the Meadow Stable than Pimlico had been, in more ways than one. On Preakness day, while the Tweedy party lunched in the Pimlico Hotel near the track, a parking lot attendant smashed up their car. They walked to the clubhouse gate, found they hadn’t brought credentials, and paid their way in. While the horses were being saddled in the infield, somebody in the crowd accidentally pressed a lighted cigarette against Mrs. Tweedy’s arm. On his way back to his seat, John Tweedy had his pocket picked.

“Boy,” he said after that race, “we needed to win this one today, just to get even.”

At Belmont there were the few scattered boos that most odds-on favorites receive here, but the prevailing attitude was close to idolatry. Well, perhaps that isn’t the best word because it suggests a cathedral restraint. Idols are remotely chilly. This congregation was warm. Horseplayers passing the Tweedy box raised friendly voices:

“Mrs. Tweedy, good luck.”

“Thank you.”

The voices followed her to the paddock where her colt was cheered all around the walking ring. They followed as she returned to the clubhouse.

“Mrs. Tweedy, good luck.”

“Thank you.”

Secretariat was cheered in the post parade, cheered as he entered the gate, and when he caught and passed Sham on the backstretch the exultant thunders raised gooseflesh. At the finish the crowd surged toward the winner’s circle, fists brandished high. After twenty-five years, America’s racing fans had a sovereign to wear the Triple Crown.

Parallels are striking between this one and his predecessor, Citation. Both colts raced nine times as two-year-olds and finished first eight times. At three, each lost once en route to the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. Both made each event in the Triple Crown easier than the last. After the Belmont, Citation won his next ten starts for a streak of sixteen straight. Secretariat’s stud duties won’t permit that. Love will rear its pretty, tousled head.

On the Slant

A few weeks ago I had a phone conversation with Red Smith’s biographer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Ira Berkow. He told me:

Walter Matthau once told me that his idea of good writing is that you have to come in on a slant. You want the reader to pause for a moment before it hits them. It’s telling a good joke.

I’ll give you an example. Matthau’s wife was good friends with Oona O’Neill who was Charlie Chaplin’s wife. When Chaplin finally came back to America Mathau and his wife gave them at a party at Matthau’s Palisades house in New Jersey. Matthau went out onto the lawn with Chaplin and they overlooked the Atlantic Ocean which was dotted with sail boats. Chaplin looked out over the ocean from Matthau’s backyard and said, “Must have cost you a fortune.”

Matthau told his wife the line and weeks later they’re driving on a hill near their home and they see the same scene–gorgeous view of the ocean. His wife said something like, “After you bought all those boats it must have cost you a lot of money.” And Matthau said to her, “That’s not good writing. You have to come in on the slant.”

Red did that kind of thing.

BGS: The Black Berets

Red Smith is the most respected sports columnist we’ve ever had. In his prime, Jimmy Cannon, Smith’s friendly rival, was certainly as well-known. Cannon, the Voice of New York, was an emotional, colloquial writer whose reputation, unfortunately, has faded. But Smith endures. What is it about his writing that ages so well?

“It’s the same reason Shakespeare ages well,” Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist told me recently. “He wrote beautifully, it’s as simple as that.” 

The Library of America presents Smith’s finest work in the new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. It is available now and a must-read for all sports fans, young and old (and an ideal gift for Father’s Day). This week, with permission from Smith’s family, we’ll reprint a Red Smith column every day to offer you a sample of what he was all about. Today’s column is “Night for Joe Louis” which ran on October 19,1968 the day after Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and gave a Black Power salute at the summer Olympics.

So, enjoy, and for more on Smith, check out this oral history from Jerome Holtzman’s classic, No Cheering in the Press Box; this excerpt from Stanley Woodward’s memoir, Paper Tiger; a nice tribute by his son, Terrance Smith; and this excerpt from Dan Okrent’s introduction to American PastimesCourse it goes without saying that if you want to know from Red Smith you need to go find a copy of Ira Berkow’s excellent biography, Red.  

“The Black Berets”

By Red Smith

Mexico City, Mexico, October 19, 1968

The four-hundred-meter race was over and in the catacombs of Estadio Olimpico Doug Roby, president of the United States Olympic Committee, was telling newspapermen that he had warned America’s runners against making any demonstration if they should get to the victory stand. A fanfare of trumpets interrupted him.

In stiff single file, the three black Americans marched across the track. All of them—Lee Evans, the winner; Larry James, second, and Ron Freeman, third—had broken the recognized world record. Rain had fallen after the finish and, although it was abating now, the runners wore the official sweatsuits of the United States team, plus unofficial black berets which may or may not have been symbolic.

Each stopped to enable John J. Garland, an American member of the International Olympic Committee, to hang the medal about his neck. Then each straightened and waved a clenched fist aloft. It wasn’t quite the same gesture meaning, “We shall overcome,” which Tommie Smith and John Carlos had employed on the same stand after the two-hundred-meter final.

Lord David Burghley, the Marquis of Exeter who is president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, shook hands with each, and they removed the berets, standing at attention facing the flagpole as the colors ascended and the band played the Star-Spangled Banner. Smith and Carlos had refused to look at the flag, standing with heads bowed and black-gloved fists upraised.

Evans, James, and Freeman stepped down, and out from under every stuffed shirt in the Olympic organization whistled a mighty sigh of relief. The waxworks had been spared from compounding the boobery which had created the biggest, most avoidable flap in these quadrennial muscle dances since Eleanor Holm was flung off the 1936 swimming team for guzzling champagne aboard ship.

The four-hundred-meter race was run Friday, about forty-eight hours after Smith and Carlos put on their act and 1.2 hours after the United States officials lent significance to their performance by firing them from the team. The simple little demonstration by Smith and Carlos had been a protest of the sort every black man in the United States had a right to make. It was intended to call attention to the inequities the Negro suffers, and without the aid of the Olympic brass might have done this in a small way.

By throwing a fit over the incident, suspending the young men and ordering them out of Mexico, the badgers multiplied the impact of the protest a hundredfold. They added dignity to the protestants and made boobies of themselves.

“One of the basic principles of the Olympic games,” read the first flatulent communiqué from on high, “is that politics play no part whatsoever in them. . . . Yesterday United States athletes in a victory ceremony deliberately violated this universally accepted principle by using the occasion to advertise their domestic political views.”

Not content with this confession that they can’t distinguish between human rights and politics, the playground directors put their pointed heads together and came up with this gem:

“The discourtesy displayed violated the standards of sportsmanship and good manners. . . . We feel it was an isolated incident, but any further repetition of such incidents would be a willful disregard of Olympic principles and would be met with severest penalties.”

The action, Roby said, was demanded by the International Olympic Committee, including Avery Brundage, president, and by the Mexican Organizing Committee. They are, as Mark Antony observed on another occasion, all honorable men who consider children’s games more sacred than human decency.

Soon after the committee acted, a bedsheet was hung from a sixth-floor window of the apartment house in Olympic Village where Carlos has been living. On it were the letters: “Down with Brundage.”

There were, of course, mixed feelings on the United States team. Lee Evans was especially upset, but when asked whether he intended to run as scheduled, he would only reply, “Wait and see.”

“I had no intention of running this race,” he said over the air after taking the four-hundred, “but this morning Carlos asked me to run and win.”

Said Carlos: “The next man that puts a camera in my face, I’ll stomp him.”

BGS: Night For Joe Louis

Red Smith is the most respected sports columnist we’ve ever had. In his prime, Jimmy Cannon, Smith’s friendly rival, was certainly as well-known. Cannon, the Voice of New York, was an emotional, colloquial writer whose reputation, unfortunately, has faded. But Smith endures. What is it about his writing that ages so well?

“It’s the same reason Shakespeare ages well,” Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist told me recently. “He wrote beautifully, it’s as simple as that.” 

The Library of America presents Smith’s finest work in the new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. It is available now and a must-read for all sports fans, young and old (and an ideal gift for Father’s Day). This week, with permission from Smith’s family, we’ll reprint a Red Smith column every day to offer you a sample of what he was all about. Today’s column is “Night for Joe Louis” which ran on October 27, 1951, the day after 27-year old Rocky Marciano knocked out 37-year old Louis. 

So, enjoy, and for more on Smith, check out this oral history from Jerome Holtzman’s classic, No Cheering in the Press Box; this excerpt from Stanley Woodward’s memoir, Paper Tiger; a nice tribute by his son, Terrance Smith; and this excerpt from Dan Okrent’s introduction to American PastimesCourse it goes without saying that if you want to know from Red Smith you need to go find a copy of Ira Berkow’s excellent biography, Red.  

“Night for Joe Louis”

by Red Smith

Joe Louis lay on his stomach on a rubbing table with his right ear pillowed on a folded towel, his left hand in a bucket of ice on the floor. A handler massaged his left ear with ice. Joe still wore his old dressing-gown of blue and red—for the first time, one was aware of how the colors had faded—and a raincoat had been spread on top of that.

This was an hour before midnight of October 26, 1951. It was the evening of a day that dawned July 4, 1934, when Joe Louis became a professional fist fighter and knocked out Jack Kracken in Chicago for a fifty-dollar purse. The night was a long time on the way, but it had to come.

Ordinarily, small space is reserved here for sentimentality about professional fighters. For seventeen years, three months, and twenty-two days Louis fought for money. He collected millions. Now the punch that was launched seventeen years ago had landed. A young man, Rocky Marciano, had knocked the old man out. The story was ended. That was all except—

Well, except that this time he was lying down in his dressing-room in the catacombs of Madison Square Garden. Memory retains scores of pictures of Joe in his dressing room, always sitting up, relaxed, answering questions in his slow, thoughtful way. This time only, he was down.

His face was squashed against the padding of the rubbing table, mulling his words. Newspapermen had to kneel on the floor like supplicants in a tight little semicircle and bring their heads close to his lips to hear him. They heard him say that Marciano was a good puncher, that the best man had won, that he wouldn’t know until Monday whether this had been his last fight.

He said he never lost consciousness when Marciano knocked him through the ropes and Ruby Goldstein, the referee, stopped the fight. He said that if he’d fallen in mid-ring he might have got up inside ten seconds, but he doubted that he could have got back through the ropes in time.

They asked whether Marciano punched harder than Max Schmeling did fifteen years ago, on the only other night when Louis was stopped.

“This kid,” Joe said, “knocked me out with what? Two punches. Schmeling knocked me out with—musta been a hunderd [sic] punches. But,” Joe said, “I was twenty-two years old. You can take more then than later on.”

“Did age count tonight, Joe?”

Joe’s eyes got sleepy. “Ugh,” he said, and bobbed his head.

The fight mob was filling the room. “How did you feel tonight?” Ezzard Charles was asked. Joe Louis was the hero of Charles’ boyhood. Ezzard never wanted to fight Joe, but finally he did and won. Then and thereafter Louis became just another opponent who sometimes disparaged Charles as a champion.

“Uh,” Charles said, hesitating. “Good fight.”

“You didn’t feel sorry, Ezzard?”

“No,” he said, with a kind of apologetic smile that explained this was just a prize fight in which one man knocked out an opponent.

“How did you feel?” Ray Arcel was asked. For years and years Arcel trained opponents for Joe and tried to help them whip him, and in a decade and a half he dug tons of inert meat out of the resin.

“I felt very bad,” Ray said.

It wasn’t necessary to ask how Marciano felt. He is young and strong and undefeated. He is rather clumsy and probably always will be, because he has had the finest of teachers, Charley Goldman, and Charley hasn’t been able to teach him skill. But he can punch. He can take a punch. It is difficult to see how he can be stopped this side of the heavyweight championship.

It is easy to say, and it will be said, that it wouldn’t have been like this with the Louis of ten years ago. It isn’t a surpassingly bright thing to say, though, because this isn’t ten years ago. The Joe Louis of October 26, 1951, couldn’t whip Rocky Marciano, and that’s the only Joe Louis there was in the Garden.

That one was going to lose on points in a dreary fight that would have left everything at loose ends. It would have been a clear victory for Marciano, but not conclusive. Joe might not have been convinced.

Then Rocky hit Joe a left hook and knocked him down. Then Rocky hit him another hook and knocked him out. A right to the neck followed that knocked him out of the ring. And out of the fight business. The last wasn’t necessary, but it was neat. It wrapped the package, neat and tidy.

An old man’s dream ended. A young man’s vision of the future opened wide. Young men have visions, old men have dreams. But the place for old men to dream is beside the fire.

The Art of Fiction is Dead

Red Smith is the most respected sports columnist we’ve ever had. In his prime, Jimmy Cannon, Smith’s friendly rival, was certainly as well-known. Cannon, the Voice of New York, was an emotional, colloquial writer whose reputation, unfortunately, has faded. But Smith endures. What is it about his writing that ages so well?

“It’s the same reason Shakespeare ages well,” Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist told me recently. “He wrote beautifully, it’s as simple as that.” 

The Library of America presents Smith’s finest work in the new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. It is available now and a must-read for all sports fans, young and old (and an ideal gift for Father’s Day). This week, with permission from Smith’s family, we’ll reprint a Red Smith column every day to offer you a sample of what he was all about. Today’s column is “Miracle Of Coogan’s Bluff,” which ran on October 4, 1951, the day after Bobby Thomson sent the New York Giants to the World Series with his historic Shot Heard ‘Round the World.

So, enjoy, and for more on Smith, check out this oral history from Jerome Holtzman’s classic, No Cheering in the Press Box; this excerpt from Stanley Woodward’s memoir, Paper Tiger; a nice tribute by his son, Terrance Smith; and this excerpt from Dan Okrent’s introduction to American PastimesCourse it goes without saying that if you want to know from Red Smith you need to go find a copy of Ira Berkow’s excellent biography, Red.  

“Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff”

By Red Smith

Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.

Down on the green and white and earth-brown geometry of the playing field, a drunk tries to break through the ranks of ushers marshaled along the foul lines to keep profane feet off the diamond. The ushers thrust him back and he lunges at them, struggling in the clutch of two or three men. He breaks free, and four or five tackle him. He shakes them off, bursts through the line, runs head-on into a special park cop, who brings him down with a flying tackle.

Here comes a whole platoon of ushers. They lift the man and haul him, twisting and kicking, back across the first-base line. Again he shakes loose and crashes the line. He is through. He is away, weaving out toward center field, where cheering thousands are jammed beneath the windows of the Giants’ clubhouse.

At heart, our man is a Giant, too. He never gave up.

From center field comes burst upon burst of cheering. Pennants are waving, uplifted fists are brandished, hats are flying. Again and again the dark clubhouse windows blaze with the light of photographers’ flash bulbs. Here comes that same drunk out of the mob, back across the green turf to the infield. Coattails flying, he runs the bases, slides into third. Nobody bothers him now.

And the story remains to be told, the story of how the Giants won the 1951 pennant in the National League. The tale of their barreling run through August and September and into October. . . . Of the final day of the season, when they won the championship and started home with it from Boston, to hear on the train how the dead, defeated Dodgers had risen from the ashes in the Philadelphia twilight. . . . Of the three-game playoff in which they won, and lost, and were losing again with one out in the ninth inning yesterday when—Oh, why bother?

Maybe this is the way to tell it: Bobby Thomson, a young Scot from Staten Island, delivered a timely hit yesterday in the ninth inning of an enjoyable game of baseball before 34,320 witnesses in the Polo Grounds. . . . Or perhaps this is better:

“Well!” said Whitey Lockman, standing on second base in the second inning of yesterday’s playoff game between the Giants and Dodgers.

“Ah, there,” said Bobby Thomson, pulling into the same station after hitting a ball to left field. “How’ve you been?”

“Fancy,” Lockman said, “meeting you here!”

“Ooops!” Thomson said. “Sorry.”

And the Giants’ first chance for a big inning against Don Newcombe disappeared as they tagged Thomson out. Up in the press section, the voice of Willie Goodrich came over the amplifiers announcing a macabre statistic: “Thomson has now hit safely in fifteen consecutive games.” Just then the floodlights were turned on, enabling the Giants to see and count their runners on each base.

It wasn’t funny, though, because it seemed for so long that the Giants weren’t going to get another chance like the one Thomson squandered by trying to take second base with a playmate already there. They couldn’t hit Newcombe, and the Dodgers couldn’t do anything wrong. Sal Maglie’s most splendrous pitching would avail nothing unless New York could match the run Brooklyn had scored in the first inning.

The story was winding up, and it wasn’t the happy ending that such a tale demands. Poetic justice was a phrase without meaning.

Now it was the seventh inning and Thomson was up, with runners on first and third base, none out. Pitching a shutout in Philadelphia last Saturday night, pitching again in Philadelphia on Sunday, holding the Giants scoreless this far, Newcombe had now gone twenty-one innings without allowing a run.

He threw four strikes to Thomson. Two were fouled off out of play. Then he threw a fifth. Thomson’s fly scored Monte Irvin. The score was tied. It was a new ballgame.

Wait a moment, though. Here’s Pee Wee Reese hitting safely in the eighth. Here’s Duke Snider singling Reese to third. Here’s Maglie wild-pitching a run home. Here’s Andy Pafko slashing a hit through Thomson for another score. Here’s Billy Cox batting still another home. Where does his hit go? Where else? Through Thomson at third.

So it was the Dodgers’ ballgame, 4 to 1, and the Dodgers’ pennant. So all right. Better get started and beat the crowd home. That stuff in the ninth inning? That didn’t mean anything.

A single by Al Dark. A single by Don Mueller. Irvin’s pop-up, Lockman’s one-run double. Now the corniest possible sort of Hollywood schmaltz-stretcher-bearers plodding away with an injured Mueller between them, symbolic of the Giants themselves.

There went Newcombe and here came Ralph Branca. Who’s at bat? Thomson again? He beat Branca with a home run the other day. Would Charley Dressen order him walked, putting the winning run on base, to pitch to the dead-end kids at the bottom of the batting order? No, Branca’s first pitch was a called strike.

The second pitch—well, when Thomson reached first base he turned and looked toward the left-field stands. Then he started jumping straight in the air, again and again. Then he trotted around the bases, taking his time.

Ralph Branca turned and started for the clubhouse. The number on his uniform looked huge. Thirteen.

BGS: No Cheering in the Press Box

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.”

Cruel Shoes

Here’s Red Smith on Mickey Mantle’s first day in the big leagues:

Bronx Banter Book Excerpt: Paper Tiger

Stanley Woodward is best remembered today for a wire he almost sent to Red Smith. Woodward was the sports editor for the New York Herald Tribune and Smith was his star columnist. One spring, according to “Red: A Biography of Red Smith,” By Ira Berkow,  “Woodward had been upset with the general sweet fare of columns” Smith had written. “Stanley was about to send a wire saying, ‘Will you stop Godding up those ball players?”

Woodward did not send the wire but Smith never forgot the sentiment. He repeated the story in Jerome Holtzman’s terrific oral history, “No Cheering in the Press Box.”

Woodward ran perhaps the finest sports section in New York after WWII. His Tribune staff included Smith, Al Laney, Jesse Abramson and Joe Palmer.

“Paper Tiger” is Woodward’s classic memoir. Fortunately for us, the good people at the University of Nebraska Press reissued the book not long ago (and it features an introduction from our man Schulian). Woodward’s gem is in print and it is essential reading. (Check out the “Paper Tiger” page at the University of Nebraska Press website.)

Please enjoy this excerpt. Woodward writes about bringing Smith, and Palmer–a writer who is also criminally overlooked these days–to the paper.

From “Paper Tiger,” by Stanley Woodward

Mrs. Helen Rogers Reid blew hot and cold on me at various times during my prewar and wartime career with the New York Herald Tribune. When I came back from the Pacific I felt I was in high favor. Not only had I written reams of copy about the nether side of the war but I worked largely by mail and so had not run up the hideous radio and cable bills the lady was used to receiving for war correspondence.

Mrs. Reid was extremely active in running the paper. She was the actual head of the Advertising Department but in the late stages of Ogden’s life she played a role of increasing importance in the Editorial Department. He started to fail in 1945, and his death occurred on January 3, 1947.

My first day in the office after getting back from the Pacific theater, Mrs. Reid invited me to her office and asked me what I would like to do for the paper. I believe I could have had any job I named at the time. But I asked merely to be returned to the Sports Department which needed reorganization. I asked to go back as sports editor on the theory, held by myself at any rate, that I would be moved out of Sports after the department had been put on its feet.

The first move I made was to install Arthur Glass as head of the copy desk. Our selection of news had been poor during the war and our choice of pictures was abysmal. Glass improved the paper the first day he worked in the slot, which was September 4, 1945.

At this time Al Laney was the columnist and didn’t like the job. He much preferred to handle assignments or to get up a feature series as he had in the case of “The Forgotten Men” before the war.

The first move I made was to attempt to get John Lardner to write our column. The first time we discussed it we renewed the old crap game argument and got nowhere. The second time I took along our publisher, Bill Robinson, and the talk was more businesslike. We met Lardner several other times but couldn’t come to terms with him. The fact was he didn’t want to write a newspaper column and kept making difficulties. So we dropped him, reluctantly.

Even before we talked to Lardner I had been scouting a little guy on the Philadelphia Record whose name was Walter Wellesley Smith. This character was a complete newspaper man. He had been through the mill and had come out with a high polish. In Philadelphia he was being hideously overworked. Not only did he write the column for the Record but he covered the ball games and took most other important assignments.

We scouted him in our usual way. For a month Verna Reamer, Sports Department secretary, bought the Record at the out-of-town newsstand in Times Square. She clipped all of Smith’s writings and pasted them in a blank book. At the end of the month she left the book on my desk and I read a month’s work by Smith at one sitting. I found I could get a better impression of a man’s general ability and style by reading a large amount of his stuff at one time.

There was no doubt in my mind that Smith was a man we must have. After I’d read half his stuff I decided he had more class than any writer in the newspaper business.

At first I didn’t think of him as a substitute for Lardner. Rather I wanted to get them both. When dealings with Lardner came to a stop I was afraid I would have to go back to writing a daily column myself, which I dreaded. I thought of myself at this time as an organizer rather than a writer, but Laney was anxious to have a leave of absence to finish the book he was writing (Paris Herald).

I telephoned Smith and asked him if he could come to New York and talk with me. We set a date and he arrived one morning with his wife Kay. She and Ricie paired off for much of the day while Smith and I discussed business.

It must be said that I was making this move without full approval of the management. George Cornish, our managing editor, knew I was looking for a man but was hard to convince when higher salaries were involved.

It is very strange to me that there was no competition in New York for Smith’s services. He was making ninety dollars a week in Philadelphia with a small extra fee for use of his material in the Camden paper, also operated by J. David Stern. Nobody in New York had approached Smith in several years. In fact, he never had had a decent offer from any New York paper. I opened the conversation with Smith as follows—

“You are the best newspaper writer in the country and I can’t understand why you are stuck in Philadelphia. I can’t pay you what you’re worth, but I’m very anxious to have you come here with us. I think that you will ultimately be our sports columnist but all I can offer you at the start is a job on the staff. Are you interested?”

“I sure am if the money is right,” said Red.

We adjourned for lunch and I told him about the paper and what I hoped to make of the Sports Department. I told him that I had lost all interest in sports during the war but now I was determined to make our department the best in the country.

“I can’t do this without you, Red,” I told him.

I left Smith parked in Bleeck’s and went upstairs to talk to George Cornish. With him it was a question of money and he blanched when I told him how much I wanted to pay Smith. I got a halfhearted go-ahead from George, but still I didn’t dare make the offer to Smith.

He owned a house in the Philadelphia suburbs and would be under great expense until he could sell it and move his family to New York. I suggested that we would perhaps be able to pay him an “equalization fee” until he moved his wife and children into Herald Tribune territory.

I went back to see Cornish and broached this subject. No one can say George wasn’t careful with the company’s money. He argued for a while but finally agreed that if we were to bring Smith to New York, it would be fair to save him from penury during his first weeks with us.

I was able to go back to Bleeck’s and make a pretty good offer to Red. I explained to him that his salary would be cut back after his family moved.

“But don’t worry,” I added. “You’ll be making five times that in three years.”

Of course, it turned out that way. As our columnist, Red was immediately syndicated. His salary was boosted within a couple of months and his income from outside papers equaled his new salary. Before anyone knew it he was making telephone numbers—and he deserved it.

I am unable to account for the fact that none of the evening papers of New York grabbed him. He could have been had, in all probability, for five dollars more a week than we gave him.

With him in hand I was able to let Laney take a few months off to finish his book while I slaved at the column, in addition to other duties. I didn’t want to put Red in too quickly. I wanted him to get the feel of the town first, and also I needed some of his writing in the paper to convince the bigwigs that he was as good as I claimed.

After Smith had been with us a month or so, I talked to Bill Robinson about making him our columnist. I wanted Bill to talk to Mrs. Reid about Smith so that Red would get away from the gate in good order. Bill had been reading him and was enthusiastic about his work. So not long after Smith had shifted his family to Malverne, Long Island, having sold his house, I told him that he was the columnist until further notice.

“I think that means forever, Red. And I’ll go right upstairs and see if I can get you more money.”

As a columnist Smith made an immediate hit and it wasn’t long before the Hearst people were showing interest in him. I told Bill Robinson it was silly not to have a contract with Smith. He agreed and it was drawn up at once. It gave him a large increase in salary and half the returns from his syndicate, which was growing fast. It now includes about one hundred papers.

I’d like to go back to the question of why Smith wasn’t hired by somebody else. My conclusion is that most writing sports editors don’t want a man around who is obviously better than they. I took the opposite view on this question. I wanted no writer on the staff who couldn’t beat me or at least compete with me. This was a question of policy.

I was trying to make a strong Sports Department and it was impossible to do this with the dreadful mediocrity I saw around me on the other New York papers.

The week the Smiths moved from the Main Line to Malverne was memorable. The kids, Kitty and Terry, were dropped off at our farm for a few days so that the parental Smiths could move in peace. I think the kids had a good time playing with our little girls.

Terry, who is now a bright young reporter and a graduate of Notre Dame and the army, was satisfied to sit on the tractor for hours at a time. To be safe I blocked the wheels with logs of wood and took off the distributor cap. The tractor had a self-starter.

With the Smiths established in Malverne, the next move was to get a racing writer. I wrote about twenty-five letters to people in racing—horse owners, promoters, trainers, jockeys, concessionaires, and gamblers. I asked each one whom he considered to be the best racing writer available to the New York Herald Tribune. The response was nearly 100 percent unanimous: “Joe Palmer.”

I asked Smith if he knew Joe Palmer. He said, “Yes, and he’s a hell of a writer.”

I found that Joe had a regular job on the Blood Horse of Lexington, Kentucky, that he was also secretary of the Trainers’ Association and was currently in New York tending to the trainers’ business.

I got hold of Bob Kelley, my old Poughkeepsie associate, and asked him if he would make an appointment for Palmer to meet for lunch in Bleeck’s restaurant at his convenience. Kelley had left the Times and had become public relations counsel for the New York race track. He got hold of Palmer and conveyed my message. Palmer answered as follows, “Tell that son of a bitch I won’t have lunch with him, and if I see him on the street I’ll kick him in the shins.”

I told Kelley that his answer was highly unsatisfactory and sent him back to talk further with Palmer. This time Joe came into Bleeck’s with his guard up. What he didn’t like about me was that I made a specialty of panning horse-racing. But once we got together we were friends in no time.

Joe liked the idea of working for the Herald Tribune. We came to terms quickly. It was agreed that he should go to work for us on the opening day at Hialeah, some months away. He needed the intervening time to finish his annual edition of American Race Horses.

I didn’t know at this time what a remarkable performer I had hired. Palmer turned out to be a writer of the Smith stripe, and his Monday morning column, frequently devoted to subjects other than racing, became one of the Herald Tribune’s most valuable features.

I was misguided in the way I handled Palmer. I should never have tied him down with daily racing coverage. He would have been more valuable to us if I had turned him loose to write a daily column of features and notes as Tom O’Reilly did for us much later. But Joe was effective whatever he wrote. He even did a good job on a fight in Florida one winter, though he hated boxing.

He and Smith were at Saratoga during one August meeting, and Smith persuaded him to go to some amateur bouts, conducted for stable boys and grooms. On their way home Palmer panned the show.

“I’d rather see a chicken fight,” he said.

“Why?” said Smith, outraged. “Chicken fighting is inhuman.”

“Well,” said Joe, “what we just saw was unchicken.”

Palmer was a big man physically and as thoroughly educated as John Kieran. Joe had earned his master’s degree in English in Kentucky and had taught there and at the University of Michigan where he studied for his Ph.D. He could speak Anglo-Saxon. His knowledge of music was stupendous and he would have made a good drama critic for any newspaper.

He had started his thesis at Michigan when he discontinued his education and went to work for the Blood Horse.

He first attracted my attention with a St. Patrick’s Day story in which he revealed that the patron saint’s greatest gift to the Irish was the invention of the wheelbarrow, which taught them to walk on their hind lefts.

Joe, himself, was of Irish decent and was brought up a Catholic. When he moved into a house in Malverne near the Smiths, he didn’t like the public education and sent his children to the parochial school. He decided on this course after a long talk with the mother superior. She asked him if he wanted his children instructed in religion and he said he did.

One day Steve and young Joe were learning the catechism. One of the questions was, “How Many Gods Are There?”

“That’s an important question and I want you to be sure to give the sister the right answer,” said Joe. “Now say this after me: ‘There is but one God and Mohammed is his prophet.’”

The story ends there. Nobody ever found out whether the boys told the sister what Joe told them. It’s a safe bet, though, that their mother, Mary Cole Palmer, touted them off Mohammed.

A few days before Palmer came to work for us, we carried a special story by him explaining his credo of racing and a four-column race-track drawing by the distinguished artist, Lee Townsend. The main point of Joe’s story was, “Horse-racing is an athletic contest between horses.”

He was not interested in betting or the coarser skullduggery that goes on around a race track. For a long time he wouldn’t put the payoff in his racing story.

“Why should I do that?” he asked Smith.

“Because if you don’t, the desk will write it in and probably get it in the wrong place.”

A few days before Joe went to work for us, Tom O’Reilly, another great horse writer, heard about it. He said, or so it was reported to me, “Holy smokes! Those guys will be hiring Thomas A. Edison to turn off the lights.”

Excerpted from PAPER TIGER by Stanley Woodward. Copyright © 1962 by Stanley Woodward. Originally published by Atheneum, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

You can order “Paper Tiger” here.

For more on Woodward, check out “Red: A Biography of Red Smith” by Ira Berkow and “Into My Own,” a memoir by Roger Kahn.

And read this about Joe Palmer:  blood horse.

(Thanks once again to Dina C. for her expert transcription.)

From Ali to Xena: Postscript


By John Schulian

I look in the mirror and see the faces I have worn. I see the kid with a baseball cap snugged on his head, and the newspaper reporter who grew a beard to look older, and the TV writer who shaved his beard to look younger. The only face I don’t see – the only face I refuse to see – is the one on my driver’s license. I look like someone Winslow Homer might have painted. Though I insist it is nothing more than the product of a bad day at the DMV, I know I will see that face in the mirror, too. But not just yet. Not as long as writing can arm me with a crucifix to ward off the vampire that is old age.

I won’t be so bold as to say writing keeps me young. If it did, I wouldn’t curse technology or struggle to remember the names of new bands or look away in embarrassment when I’m caught staring at women one-third my age. But writing gives me purpose and fills my head with the notion that there are still things to be accomplished: essays and short stories, one novel completed, another taking shape in my imagination alongside a screenplay. Somewhere around here I’ve even got a verse and a chorus written for a country song. Maybe I’ll take my guitar down from the wall and finish it someday. It will be just three chords, but what was good enough for Hank Williams is good enough for me.

This is how I always imagined life on the other side of the rainbow. Writers don’t throw retirement parties. They write, and hope their words find their way before the public. Some will, some won’t. I understand the vagaries of the process. I just need to score often enough to let whoever is out there counting know that I’m still kicking. Otherwise, I might have to answer in the affirmative the next time someone asks if I’m retired. For the moment, however, I’m proud to say hell no.

I may have lost a step or two, but that’s far different than being ready for a sedate game of shuffleboard before I sit down to the early bird special. It’s those codgers I see at the doctor’s office who are retired. I’m just a lad of 66. When Red Smith was this age, he was reviving his career at the New York Times and five years away from winning a Pulitzer Prize. Red wanted to die at his typewriter, the way his hero Grantland Rice did, and damned if he didn’t come within three days of doing it.

I wouldn’t consider changing my position on retirement unless I knew I could go out with the high style that Sheik Caputo did at the railroad. The Sheik has been part of my life since I was 13, as a neighbor, a baseball coach, a proponent of pepperoni and cold beer, and, most of all, a cherished friend. He worked as a Union Pacific machinist for 30 years, crawling inside filthy steam engines and never making as much as two bucks an hour. The day he turned 60, he showed up at the Salt Lake City yards at 7 a.m., just like always, and the foreman said, “Hey, Caputo, you’re eligible to retire.”

“Right now?”

“Yeah, if you want to.”

“Goodbye,” Sheik Caputo said, and headed for the golf course.

But there is only one Sheik, and he is 96 and still getting mileage out of that story. I’m happy just to pass it along, which probably underscores the difference between the way he and I look at retirement. He was ready for it, maybe beyond ready, because he had a job he hated. I, on the other hand, am one of the lucky ones. I love my life as a writer, so why would I want to put it behind me? Writing is the one thing I could do with any success. I couldn’t pound a nail straight or sell you a pair of shoes, and I never wanted to revisit a job I had sweeping out a ballpark after the crowd was gone, wading through peanut shells and hotdog wrappers and breathing the smell of spilled beer. I was spared the heartbreak of trying to teach kids who didn’t love reading as much as I do for the deceptively simple reason that I could write a story, be it fact or fiction. Because people would pay me for those stories, I never was a high school coach beset by parents who make more of their kids than they are. I knew the life I wanted, and I got to live it.

Now I am in the process of seeing out what else is out there. I began my search in earnest when I wrote the first two sentences of a hard-boiled novel that had been in my mind for years: “Too bad Barry was from Santa Barbara. Suki would have told him her real name if he’d been local.” Barry is a wandering husband who’s too slick for his own good and Suki is working her way through college in L.A.’s sex trade. In time they will cross paths with a boxer whose career went sideways when he killed a man in the ring. He cares about nothing, least of all his life, until he meets the girl, and then he cares too much, in the way only a noir hero can. Someone out there might be aware of all that if my novel, “A Better Goodbye,” had been published. But the manuscript languishes beside a tall stack of rejection letters.

Still, I reveled in everything about the process from the three-page-a-day discipline to the constant rewriting, and I cling to the hope that my novel will yet be published. A small press has made noises about it, but whether that happens or not, I have another novel in mind and I don’t think I can stop myself from writing it. It’s as if I’m trying to live the life of a starving writer without the risk of going hungry.

I write my fiction in bursts in a time when most literary agents will tell you fiction isn’t selling. But I am fueled by blind faith and the confidence I’ve gained from having two short stories published, one in the Prague Revue (yes, that Prague), the other on a now-defunct website called Thuglit.com. Neither paid anything, but I did receive a Thuglit T-shirt that I treasure too highly to wear. More important I gained just enough swagger to wonder why the hell my best short story has yet to be published. Nothing to do but keep sending it out, I guess.

I beat my head against a different kind of wall when I taught for a semester at my alma mater, the University of Utah, in fall 2004. The wall was constructed in part of the innocence and naivete that reminded me of myself at that age, but there was something more than that at work. There was an unsettling preoccupation with getting a degree instead of an education and, even worse, a lack of basic writing skill. One class in particular – Literary Journalism, of all things – was a wasteland that symbolized for me the parlous state of the language in this age of email happy faces and LOLs. If it weren’t for the hungry minds who made my Art of Storytelling class a joy, I might have staggered off the academic battlefield jabbering like a chimp. Of course my young scholars might tell you I was too demanding. They thought my “Always honest, seldom kind” policy was hilarious only when it didn’t apply to them. Since then, I’ve apologized to the Humanities Department’s guiding lights for being too tough only to be told I should have been tougher. I assume they would have established a bail fund for me.

If I have done anything right as I adapt to geezerhood, it is put books together. Two are collections of my sportswriting, “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” and I will leave it to someone else to speak good or ill of them. But you will find pieces of my heart in the other three books that bear my name. When I edited “The John Lardner Reader,” I was doing more than reviving the work of a brilliant and acerbically funny sportswriter out of print for half a century. I was thanking him and all the other press box legends whose work I’d studied – Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, and Jimmy Cannon in particular – for lighting the way for me.

Editing “At the Fights,” a collection of classic boxing writing, proved even more personal because I was working with George Kimball, who stared death in the eye every step of the way. He was as heroic as any prizefighter memorialized in either that book or “The Fighter Still Remains,” the slender volume of boxing poetry and song lyrics that we spun out of it. There were many things that helped keep George alive so he could feel the love and admiration wash over him at the publication party in New York, but I’ll never stop believing it was “At the Fights” itself that gave him the will to battle cancer for the full 12 rounds. Not once did I hear him complain or wallow in self-pity. The book was always foremost in his mind, just the way George is now in mine, four months after his death at 67.

I wish he’d been here the other day when the cable guy walked into my office and saw a blow-up of the cover for “At the Fights.” “I read that book,” he said, and proceeded to tell me what is in it. It was one of those moments that prove both the breadth of the book’s appeal and the populist nature of sportswriting in general. It was, in other words, what George and I hoped for all along. I even know the song that should have been playing in the background. It’s “Too Many Memories,” by the late Stephen Bruton, and there’s a line in it that says: “What makes you grow old is replacing hope with regret.” I think about those lyrics a lot, their wisdom and humanity and how right they are for me at this time of life. I think about them especially now, as I tell you this: Goodbye but don’t call me gone.

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

Bronx Banter Interview: John Schulian

“Perhaps because he decamped to Hollywood in the 1980s, while he was still in his prime, John Schulian has never quite been recognized as one of the last in the great line of newspaper sports columnists that started with Ring Lardner, ran through W.C. Heinz and Red Smith, and probably ended when Joe Posnanski left the Kansas City Star in 2009. This is a shame. On his better days, he rated with anyone you might care to name.”

Tim Marchman on John Schulian’s latest collection, “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us.” (Wall Street Journal)

John Schulian has been entertaining us this year with the story of his career in “From Ali to Xena.” He has a new collection of sports writing out and we recently caught up to talk about it. Here’s our conversation.


BB: Your work has been collected twice before: “Writers’ Fighters,” a boxing compilation, and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” a collection of baseball writing. What was the genesis of your new anthology, which is both broader and more specific than those two?

JS: “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” was born of a mixture of ego and an urge to remind readers of the kind of sports writing they’re no longer getting in newspapers. What writer doesn’t want to have his work, at least that portion of it which isn’t embarrassingly bad, preserved in book form? I got my greatest lessons in writing by reading collections of my favorite sports writers—Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner—so having a collection with my name on it became a goal early on in my career. Because “Sometimes” is my third, I may have exceeded my limit, but I hope people will forgive me when they see that it’s wider in scope than “Writers’ Fighters” and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods.” I’m not just talking about the number of different sports it touches on, either. I’m talking about the personalities involved, and how open they were about themselves and their talents.

I realize, of course, how rare such accessibility is in today’s world, with athletes wary of any kind of media, protected by their agents, and generally paranoid about revealing anything about themselves except whether they hit a fastball or a slider. I think it was you who told me the change came about in the early ‘90s, which did a lot to shape this book. Suddenly, I knew how to make it more than a vanity project. The key was to make it stand as a tribute to the kind of sports writing that enriched newspapers when guys like Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica, David Israel, Leigh Montville, Bill Nack, Tony Kornheiser, Tom Boswell and I were turned loose with our portable typewriters. It was my great good fortune to work in an era so rich in talent, so full of talented people who were both my competition and my friends. Likewise, the athletes were there to talk to when you needed them. I know I didn’t always get the answers I wanted, but I got enough of them to give my columns and my magazine work the heartbeat they needed. It was a wonderful time to be a sports writer, and I hope “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” bears that out.

BB: I was struck by your piece on John Riggins in Super Bowl XVII. Your starting and closing image is the most famous one from that game. You didn’t get any special access that your peers didn’t have and yet within those limitations the piece is just so writerly. The kind you don’t see today. How were you able to condense a guy’s career into a single column?

JS: It was pure reflex. I forget how much time I had for post-game interviews, but it wasn’t much before I had to get back to my computer. I’m guessing I had an hour or so to write the column. There were some guys who routinely finished in less time than that, but for me, that was a sprint. I still wanted the column to be as stylish as possible. Sometimes that was my undoing, because I spent too much time massaging the language and not enough just saying what I wanted to say. With the Riggins column, though, things fell into place. I’d spent a lot of time around the Redskins during the regular season and into the playoffs, so I was pretty well steeped in his story. As for working with the same post-game material everybody else had, there was something liberating about that. No scoops, no exclusive interviews, just a good old-fashioned writing contest. When you get in a situation like that, if you can get your mind right, everything just flows. And that was certainly the case when I wrote about Riggins. I knew instantly where all the pieces of the puzzle were supposed to go—imagery, post-game quotes, back-story. Then my instincts took over, and I even made my deadline. What could be better than that?

BB: The majority of the stories in the collection were written for newspapers. Can you describe the atmosphere of that business in the post-Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein days when columnists were stars?

JS: The newspaper business became truly glamorous after Watergate. Robert Redford played Woodward, Dustin Hoffman played Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post’s executive editor, practically became Jason Robards, who portrayed him on the screen. It just didn’t get any cooler than that, and the people at the Post were certainly aware of it, maybe too much so. I noticed the self-importance and inflated egos when I showed up there in 1975, in the wake of Watergate. The Post was a wonderful paper—beautifully written, smartly and courageously edited—but it was still a newspaper. There were still typos and factual errors and the kind of bad prose that daily deadlines inspire. The ink still came off on your hands, too. And there were still desk men with enlarged prostates and reporters who stank of cigar smoke, and one night some son of a bitch stole my jacket. Maybe worst of all, if you looked beyond the Post, you could see the storm clouds gathering. More and more afternoon papers were dying, and there was a segment of the population that hated the Post for unhorsing Dick Nixon and the New York Times for printing the Pentagon Papers. But newspaper people, who can be so sharp about spotting trouble on the horizon for others, tend to be blind when it comes to their own house. No wonder it felt safe and good and even magical to work on newspapers after Watergate. I loved it as much as anybody. And I probably would have liked the dance band on the Titanic, too.

BB: Before we get to the players, let’s talk about the section you have on the writers—Red Smith, A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Mark Kram and F.X. Toole—because it reminds us that the era you cover wasn’t just about the athletes, it was about the writers too. Can you talk about what a remarkable stylist Mark Kram was in his prime?

JS: I don’t think any sports writer ever wrote prose as dense and muscular and literary as Mark Kram’s. He opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you could do in terms of pure writing even though the subject was fun and games. If you want to read classic Kram, you need only turn to the opening paragraphs of his Sports Illustrated story about the Thrilla in Manila. It has to be one of the most anthologized pieces in any genre of writing. I know that it was a mortal lock to be in “At the Fighters” as soon as George Kimball and I sat down to edit the book. Kram had been on my radar since I was in college. He absolutely killed me with his bittersweet love letter to Baltimore, his hometown, on the eve of the 1966 World Series. He was under the influence of Nelson Algren when he wrote it, but I wouldn’t figure that out until years later. All I knew was that he had taken a mundane idea and turned it into a tone poem about blue collar life. Baseball was only a small part of it, and even though I was under the Orioles’ spell—Frank Robinson! Brooks Robinson! Jim Palmer!—I loved Kram’s audacity. He wasn’t afraid of the dark no matter how bright the lights on what he was writing about.

No wonder he was so great when the subject was boxing. When I was in grad school, he did a piece about the fighting Quarry brothers and how their old man had ridden the rails from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the supposedly golden promise of Southern California. He had LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, and Kram left me with a picture of him standing in a boxcar door as the train carried him toward a future filled with more sorrow than joy. I read the story standing at the newsstand where I bought SI every week, and when I got back to my apartment, I read it again. I would discover A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner, and all the other giants of fight writing later, but Mark Kram was the one who lit the way for me. And it began with that story about the Quarry brothers and the image of their old man in the boxcar door.


From Ali to Xena: 25

Fast Company

By John Schulian

I never wrote as a fan. To civilians, especially every Cubs fan who ever told me to go back to the South Side because I’d written a column on the White Sox, that may seem a startling confession, but there’s no getting away from the truth. I wrote sports because I yearned to be a writer and the sports page provided a laboratory where I could conduct my experiments with words. When I was breaking into the newspaper racket, there was a freedom of style in sports that couldn’t be found anywhere else. Contrary to what I see too often now, when most every columnist seems to be shouting ceaselessly, I could do a character sketch, attempt whimsy, review a book, and rant and rave about whatever was vexing me all in the same week. The idea was to entertain my readers, but the truth is, I was trying to entertain myself, too.

On the days I succeeded, it was often because I had written about a boxer with a hard past or a ballplayer who had more stories than base hits. I was never a funny writer, the way Jim Murray, Leigh Montville, and Mike Downey were, but I embraced characters who could make me and my readers laugh. And yet there was a melancholy streak in my work, too–the athletes who died young, the broken-down gyms where fighters chased their dreams, the hardscrabble playgrounds where basketball looked like the only alternative to drugs and gangs. Those were the pieces that put sports in perspective, though people never seemed to react to them the way they did when I was cutting someone up in print. When I die, if anybody bothers to write my obituary, I fully expect to be identified as the columnist who called Billy Martin “a mouse studying to be a rat.”

The important thing, if you cared about your craft, was that you had to be good a lot more often than you were bad or the competition would bury you. I’m talking about the years between, say, 1960, when sportswriting’s Chipmunks started nibbling away at sacred cows, and the mid-90s, when the sports page was finally overwhelmed by the screeching talk-radio mentality that continues to assault us.

In the beginning, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon were still around to remind the new wave of what true greatness was. As good as we were – and I think we represented the golden era of sportswriting–none of us ever reached the heights they did. And there were plenty of other writers, younger than Red and Jimmy but older than we were, whose very presence gave us a sense of perspective: Murray in L.A., Edwin Pope in Miami, Furman Bisher in Atlanta, and Blackie Sherrod, who, before he conquered Dallas, made Fort Worth the launching pad for Dan Jenkins, Bud Shrake, and Gary Cartwright. Then there was Ray Fitzgerald, Montville’s stable mate in Boston, and Wells Twombly, a world-class columnist wherever he traveled, and he traveled a lot before landing in San Francsico. And a pox on my house if I neglect to mention Vic Ziegel, Ira Berkow, Sandy Grady, Stan Hochman, and Larry Merchant, whose wry, cerebral column influenced more young writers than anyone will ever know.

They cleared the beach for the wave of columnists I rode in with: Montville, Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica, David Israel, Bill Nack at Newsday, Joe Soucheray in Minneapolis, Scott Ostler in L.A., Skip Bayless in Dallas, Ray Didinger in Philadelphia, and, begging his forgiveness for putting him last in this sentence, Tony Kornheiser. I always thought that Tony’s true genius lay in long newspaper features and magazine work–his profile of tragedy-stricken Bob Lemon will tear your heart out–but he tripped the light fantastic as a columnist, too. While Tony worked in New York and Washington, D.C., on papers where the spotlight was automatically his, Tom Archdeacon was lost in the shadows. You had to go out of your way to track down his evocative prose in the tattered Miami News, but it was always worth the trouble. Likewise, you had to keep an eye on Detroit, where Mike Downey’s star shined brightly and Shelby Strother and Mitch Albom found their way to town by the light it gave off. The auto industry was going to hell, but Detroit could claim a procession of wonderful sports columnists. And Elmore Leonard, too.

I read them all every chance I got. When I was at the Washington Post, still dreaming of becoming a columnist, there was a wall in a corner of the newsroom stacked with out-of-town papers, and I used to plow through it seeking out the bylines of old heroes and new competition. I still remember how good Lupica was when the New York Post let him have a two-week summer fling at writing a column. I’d just met him at the 1976 NBA finals, this baby-faced kid who looked like he’d fit in your pocket, and here he was writing with verve and moxie that left me wilted with envy.

There was a lesson there, just as when I started reading Kindred regularly and realized that he had studied the cadences of Red Smith’s sentences as religiously as I had. If I was going to be anything better than ordinary as a columnist, I would have to work my ass off, and it wouldn’t hurt if I wrote about things that appealed to my writerly instincts as often as I could. There were days when I couldn’t ignore the news–the big trade, big firing, big game–but when I was left to my own devices, I went where my heart took me.

For me, the best sports to write about were baseball and boxing. I felt as though I understood baseball in a way I never would football or basketball or, God help me, hockey. Baseball was still producing characters then, and better still, I was well versed in its history. But the truth of the matter was that the game still fell short of boxing when came to material that made for memorable writing. There were characters and shenanigans and life and death. I mean death literally. I saw it happen in Montreal, where a fighter named Cleveland Denny was fatally injured on the undercard of Leonard-Duran I. In the very next fight, Big John Tate, an Olympic heavyweight who was supposed to have a solid gold future, got knocked out and one of his legs started twitching uncontrollably. All I could think was, Jesus Christ, two in two fights? Tate lived, though. Cleveland Denny didn’t.

I can gin up a defense of boxing if I’m cornered, but I’d rather just tell you that I realize what a dreadful sport it can be and I love it just the same. I love the stink of the old gyms, and the fighters with their dreams that are almost sure to go bust, and the crotchety ancients who untangle their fighters’ feet and tend to their wounds and offer up wisdom written in the blood of those who didn’t heed them. Sometimes I even stop hating promoters and managers, though never long enough to think of them as anything except potential thieves. But it is the fighters I always come back to, the guys who step into the ring knowing they may die in it.

In a sport filled with liars–charming, quotable liars, but liars just the same–there is an open-book honesty about the fighters that could disarm the most resolute cynic. Want to know why a fighter ended up in jail? Want to know how it feels to fight with broken ribs? Want to know how desperately he craves a woman after going without during training? They would tell it all to you, and then invite you to a party after the fight, the way a Baltimore brawler named Wild Bill Hardney did one night. “Party at Loretta’s,” he said, which sounded great until Wild Bill’s wife read about it in the next day’s paper and asked him ever so sweetly just who the hell Loretta was.

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From Ali to Xena: 23

A Summons to Manhattan

By John Schulian

It’s startling to think of how much movement there was among sports writers in the 70s and 80s, especially when you consider the state of the business today, with everybody frozen in place, just glad to have a job. Dave Kindred took his column from Louisville to the Washington Post, Skip Bayless traded feature writing at the L.A. Times for a column at the Dallas Morning News, Bill Nack gave up his column at Newsday and became one of Sports Illustrated’s most venerated writers. I suppose it was inevitable that I would have my day in the barrel.

Oddly enough, it was the New York Times again, and this time I got a call from someone who really was the sports editor there, Le Anne Schreiber. She was the first woman to hold that job at a major American daily, and one of her first challenges, in 1979, was to find a successor to Red Smith. He was in his 70s but still wrote with the elegance and gentle wit that was his trademark. I remember in particular a column about morning at Saratoga, and how Mike Lupica and I instantly started quoting lines from it the next time we saw each other. Just the same, the Times wanted an heir apparent in house for the day Red crossed the finish line.

I went to New York to meet executive editor Abe Rosenthal and the paper’s other mucky-mucks, and they pumped me full of praise and told me my picture might one day be hanging on a wall filled with photographs of the paper’s Pulitzer prize winners. The job they were offering was a big step down from the one I had at the Sun-Times: one column a week and long features the rest of the time. When Red left the paper, I would be first in line to replace him as a four-times-a-week columnist. The money they were offering wasn’t what I was making in Chicago, either. But this was the New York Times. Better yet, this was a chance to claim a small piece of newspaper history by being the man who succeeded Red Smith.

I was married at the time, and my wife, Paula Ellis, wanted me to take the job. Not only would she have been closer to her family, in Bethesda, Maryland, she would have had more opportunities professionally. She was in the newspaper business, too-–very smart, very driven, with a glorious future ahead of her as an editor, publisher, and journalism foundation executive. I understood where Paula was coming from. I felt more than a little guilty, too, since I was giving far more of myself to my column than I was to being a husband. But I was the one whose career would be at risk if I went to the Times. I didn’t want to be sportswriting’s answer to George Selkirk, the poor soul who replaced Babe Ruth.

I thought about the Times’ sports section, which Tony Kornheiser, bless his heart, once compared with to Raquel Welch’s elbow. It seemed to be improving steadily. But no matter how brainy and talented Le Anne Schreiber was-–and, buddy, she had brains and talent in spades-–there was no guarantee that the section might not backslide into mediocrity. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure the Times would give me the freedom I enjoyed in Chicago. Rosenthal and Co. might have loved the character sketches I did, but some of my commentary got pretty rough. I don’t recall ever seeing a Times sports columnist peel the hide off someone the way I did.

So there was that. And there was the thought that people would think I was sitting around waiting for Red Smith to die. Worse, maybe Red would, too. And the money bothered me, even though it was only a couple grand shy of what the Sun-Times was paying me. And then there was New York itself, which was decidedly short on charm in that era, a point that was driven home every time I visited and saw the decay, poverty, and violence.

But I also heard the siren song of friends and colleagues who said the Times would give me the biggest soapbox in the business. There would be chances to write books that would never come my way in Chicago. Dave Anderson, a wonderful guy as well as a pro’s pro, called to say how much he was looking forward to working with me. Lupica told me he was looking forward to reading me regularly, although I suspect he really wanted to see if I was as slow a writer as he’d heard.

Long story short: everything was up in the air when I arrived for my final visit with Abe Rosenthal. He ushered me into a small sitting room off his office. It was the essence of plush–perfect furniture, exquisite Oriental rugs, pricey art on the walls. All together, it was probably worth more than my entire house in Chicago. I’m sure I gawked like the hoople I was.

Rosenthal offered me tea and I said no thanks. After some obligatory chitchat, I told him, nicely, that I wasn’t sure I would be comfortable perched on Red’s shoulder, waiting for him to finish his last stand. If I said no, would the Times come back to me when Red was gone? And Abe Rosenthal said, “John, the brass ring is coming around now. You better grab it.”

In that instant, I knew I wasn’t going to take the job. No way I was going to be told to take it or leave it. Some friends who heard the story later told me I was nuts to be offended, that Rosenthal had every right to put things in those terms. But grabbing his brass ring wasn’t my style.

I read later in the Village Voice that Frank Deford and Pete Axthelm had turned down the Times, too. That was good company to be in. And the guy who ultimately took the job was good company as well. Ira Berkow was a perfect fit at the Times–a thoroughly engaging writer who came at his column subjects from a unique angle and had a big heart for the underdog. What Ira wasn’t, of course, was Red Smith. He was Red’s biographer, and a damned good one, but that was as close as he was going to come.

I wouldn’t have been Red Smith, either. I would have tried mightily and I would have failed and I have no idea how I would have reacted, only that it wouldn’t have been pretty. One Red Smith is all you get. It was one of those basic truths that took a long time to sink in, but once it did, it made me gladder than ever that I said no to the Times. And when I tell you that I never second-guessed my decision, feel free to factor Red into the equation.

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From Ali to Xena: 20

Demon Rum

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.

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From Ali to Xena: 17

Friends and Connections

By John Schulian

When I became a sportswriter, it was as though I was inducted into a special lodge filled with lots of guys and a few women who shared my interests, my passions, my problems. I didn’t have to explain to them who Red Smith and Larry Merchant were. They thought it was cool if I slipped an obscure cultural reference into a game story, and they sympathized if an editor boned me on deadline. They even knew when I was looking for a job, sometimes before I did.

I never experienced anything like it during my five years on the city desk in Baltimore, and I say that even though I loved the Evening Sun and still consider many of the people I worked with as friends.  But when I started there, I was a rarity–a single person. Everybody else seemed to be married, with children, and dead-set on becoming middle-aged before they hit 30. Only later did more single people start showing up, bringing with them their passion for rock-and-roll and sports and carrying-on.

With sportswriting, on the other hand, I knew instantly that I belonged. And by the time I left newspapering, I was part of a band of ink-stained gypsies that seemed to turn up at every major event: Red Smith, Jim Murray, Dave Anderson, Blackie Sherrod, Eddie Pope, Furman Bisher, David Israel, Mike Lupica, Bill Nack, Dave Kindred, Leigh Montville, Ray Fitzgerald, Diane Shah, Stan Hochman, Joe Gergen, Pete Axthelm, George Vecsey, Jerry Izenberg. Unfortunately, Tony Kornheiser didn’t fly much, which cut into his traveling, but on those rare occasions when he did go airborne, he had to drink his courage first, which only made his legendary neuroses more fun than ever. Anyway, they were, and are, good folks one and all, and if I forgot to name anybody, the same description applies to them. I was proud to be in their number.

My best friend at the Post was Tom Boswell, even though he had made his peace with those rat bastards on the copy desk. He had better diplomatic skills than I did, for one thing, and he also loved what he was doing. Where I looked at things strictly as a writer, he maintained a fan’s sensibility. He was, and is, very much an enthusiast. I didn’t have a name for it until a year or two ago when I heard Robert Hilburn, the L.A. Times pop music writer for 40-odd years, speak. Here was a guy who was absolutely in love with the music and the artists and the world they lived in, a guy who was as excited by U2 as he had been by Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon. Totally unjaded. Just like Boz. Boz is as fired up about Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper as he was about his first Roy Sievers baseball card. He writes like a dream for readers who are on the same wave length as he is. That’s why he’s the biggest sportswriting institution in D.C. since Shirley Povich.

Boz and I were both single and about the same age when we met at the Post. He was finishing up a tour as the prep writer-–you’ve never read better or more imaginative high school coverage-– and he was moving onto the baseball beat, with golf as a sideline. If we were working late, we’d walk across the street to get dinner at the Madison Hotel. This is the same hotel where a Style section writer canoodled with Kathleen Turner when she was the hot-tomato femme fatale in “Body Heat.”  All I remember Boz and me getting there was Reuben sandwiches and an English trifle for dessert. There’s a reason why sportswriters are seldom lean.

Boz was great company, not just full of baseball stats and theories but an endless source of quotes from French philosophers and Emily Dickinson. The only knock on him was his threads–no natural fibers, colors unknown to civilized man. The kindest thing that could be said about his wardrobe was that it didn’t contain white shoes. Then, when I was working in Philly, he shows up wearing a blue blazer, a pink polo shirt, khakis and nice loafers. I knew instantly that he was in love. Only a woman who truly cared about him would have taken the time to dress him at Brooks Brothers. He married her, too.

The other great friend I made in Washington was David Israel, who was then the enfant terrible sports columnist at the Star, the city’s No. 2 paper. He was 23 or 24 and as different from Boz as Mick Jagger is from Tony Bennett. David was all hair and opinions and hot babes and finding out where the party was. I was dating the woman I would marry, so I wasn’t doing any night crawling with him. What we bonded over was writing.

I was looking for a way out of Baltimore when he hit Washington, and I remember my friend Phil Hersh, who was covering the Orioles for the Evening Sun, saying that David had liked a feature I’d written about a stolen pool cue. (My hustler friends again.) David asked if this guy Schulian was a city columnist, and when Phil told him I was a rewrite man, David threw the paper in the air. That’s when I knew he might be a kindred spirit.

He’s six years younger than I am, but he’s always been the best-connected guy I know. Back then he was already friendly with Breslin and Dick Schaap. He’d met them when he was a summer intern at Sport magazine. If I’m not mistaken, it was Breslin who helped him get the column at the Star. David had the chops to handle it, too. He was smart and outrageous and fearless -– he’d knock anybody and anything, and he did it with more style than whoever passes for a newspaper hell-raiser today.

I remember one time in Dallas, after a big Redskins-Cowboys game, the first thing he said to me as we were leaving was, “Did you use the tape?” The Redskins had lost and the tape they’d peeled off littered their dressing-room floor. It was forlorn and bedraggled, perfect for evoking the mood.

“Yeah,” I said. “You?”


Just a little thing, but also the kind of thing someone with a writer’s eye looks for.

Anyway, David and I talked a lot about writing, and he went with my girl friend and me to see some concerts, and I hung out with him on the road. Before I knew it, there was talk he might become the Star’s city columnist. He couldn’t have been there much more than a year, but in those days, dying No. 2 newspapers were always taking chances like that. That’s why they were so much fun to read.

David had this plan that if he became the Breslin of D.C., he’d lobby for me to succeed him as the Star’s sports columnist. I would have done it in a heartbeat. But the city column didn’t work out, so David stayed in sports and I stayed at the Post. I wasn’t beside-myself unhappy there or anything, but I knew I could be happier somewhere else. I just wasn’t sure where that was, or if I would ever get a chance to get there.

Then, later that year, David told me his old paper, the Chicago Daily News, was looking for a new sports columnist. The Daily News had been at death’s door since before I read it in grad school, and now its new editor, Jim Hoge, who was already running the Sun-Times, was importing talent for a last stand. David had covered college sports for the News before he became the Star’s columnist, and predictably he had stayed tight with Hoge.

“Tell him I’m his guy,” I said.

“You mean it?” David said.

“Damn right I do.”

Not long afterward, just before the NFL playoffs are about to start, Hoge comes to D.C. on business. He doesn’t have time for a sit-down  with me, but he wants to know if I’ll share a taxi out to National Airport with him. Hell, yes, I will. I don’t know what I said to impress him, but he asked to see my clips. And then I got a call to meet with the Daily News’ sports editor, a folksy, easy-going guy named Ray Sons. And then, wonder of wonders, I was the new sports columnist at the Chicago Daily News.

My first day on the job was Jan. 31, 1977. It was my 32nd birthday. Best one I ever had.

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