If the Yankees are the Evil Empire and they get in bed with the Devil does that just make them double evil?
[Pictures Via Noupe]
The Breaking Point
By John Schulian
As much as I detested how Murdoch had cheapened the Sun-Times, I kept pushing myself to write the best column I could. For a while, I might even have succeeded. But things were too different and too weird for someone as irascible as I am to keep his mouth shut for long. The paper’s new editor wanted to cut a wide swath in Chicago society, and his wife was just as pathetic and desperate for the spotlight as he was. The new sports editor was a young dolt who seemed to spend most of his time sniffing around a pretty copy clerk. I’d worked for a string of first-rate sports editors before he showed up, guys who wouldn’t have hired him to fetch coffee, and here he was acting like he knew something.
One day he made the mistake of asking what I thought of the changes Murdoch’s infidels had made to the paper. When I told him, he looked like I’d hit him between the eyes with a sack of wet brownies. I’m sure he scampered off to let his bosses know that I hadn’t drunk the Kool-Aid. That’s the way they operated. I’m surprised we weren’t required to take a loyalty oath.
It’s safe to say I wasn’t the only one at the Sun-Times who loathed Murdoch and his henchmen. But people needed a paycheck. They had families, mortgages, bills. They needed the work. And if the people they worked for were a bunch of bums, so be it. They would soldier on and hope for a better tomorrow.
I was one of them until I came home from covering the 1984 U.S. Olympic trials in Los Angeles. I’d been fighting a virus for weeks and I felt like dog meat. But I’d never called in sick in Chicago and I wasn’t about to start now. It was a Friday and I went to Wrigley Field and interviewed Ryne Sandberg, who was having his breakout season with the Cubs. Then I came back to the office to turn the interview into my Sunday column. It was noisy in sports, so I took refuge in the features department, which was empty except for two deskmen laying out the Sunday sports section. All was right with the world until this guy I’d never seen before walked up and started insulting me, saying my column wasn’t any good and I was overpaid. It turned out that he was a features editor who’d been imported from Murdoch’s paper in San Antonio. Maybe the editors there could get away with acting like drill instructors and prison guards, but this was a first for me.
I should have just hauled off and hit the son of a bitch. But I’d been ambushed. I was stunned. On top of that, I was so weary and sick that I just wanted to go home and crawl into bed. It was all I could do to call him a weasel and a motherfucker and invite him to go to the editor who had decided to pay me all that money and get me fired.
The deskmen, both gentle souls, were gob-smacked, which, in retrospect, was the only amusing thing about this episode. I don’t think they realized their jaws were on their chests until Murdoch’s provocateur left and I finished my column and drove home to Evanston, about a half hour from the office. The longer I drove, however, the angrier I got. This was before cell phones so I had to wait until I walked I the door to call the office and ask if that mouthy prick was still around. He was. “Don’t let him go anywhere,” I said.
There are people who will tell you I went back to the office that night and punched him out. I didn’t. I realize this will come as a disappointment to both those who regard me as some kind of a hero and some kind of a lunatic, but it’s true. I’ve often wished that I had beaten the son of a bitch so badly that his unborn children felt it, but I’m not nearly that tough. Almost everything I’ve punched in my life has been inanimate. I do, however, have a temper, and I refuse to be bullied, and that’s why I returned with malice aforethought. But when I saw the guy for the second time, a voice in my head started saying, “You don’t want to go to jail, you don’t want to get sued.” Hardly the thoughts you associate with someone on the verge of violence, but there you have them.
I settled for calling the guy every kind of a gutless motherfucker I could think of, hoping he’d throw the first punch. But his mouth had written a check his ass couldn’t cash. He kept backing up, and just as he was about to turn and run, I grabbed him – one hand on his collar, one on his belt — and threw him over the nearest desk. He bounced once, as I recall. Then I walked around the desk, picked up him, and threw him back where I had found him. The only real satisfaction I got was the expression on his face. He looked like the noose had just been put around his neck and I was the hangman.
The next day, the sports editor called to say I’d been suspended me without pay. In doing so, the paper violated its contract with the Newspaper Guild, which said I was entitled to a hearing before any action could be taken. The Sun-Times responded by firing me. But the Guild fought the good fight in arbitration and I won a healthy settlement. It came on top of a different kind of reward from the people in the features department who had been bullied by the son of a bitch I bounced around. He had been making their lives a misery from the day he showed up. To them, I’d struck a blow for justice.
My wife was less convinced of my virtues. I didn’t blame her. I still don’t. I wasn’t easy to live with in those days. I was either on the road for work or at home raging about a computer that had crashed or a column I’d written poorly or a typo the copy desk hadn’t caught or . . . Jesus, I was a runaway train. The blow-up at the Sun-Times only added to my anger and my wife’s confusion and frustration. The strange thing was, we never argued. Maybe we should have. But my being fired was where our paths diverged for keeps. We divorced quietly, amicably, painfully.
For the rest of the summer, I rode my bike up and down the North Shore, from Evanston to Highland Park and back, always by myself. I had a million thoughts running through my head and no concrete plans. About the only person I saw on a regular basis was a big-hearted used-book dealer named Roger Carlson. He had a little shop in an alley in Evanston. It didn’t have any windows, so Roger had one painted next to his front door. The window looked in on a bookstore, and there on the shelves, alongside Shakespeare and Dickens and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, was a book with a name on it that really didn’t belong there or, for the moment at least, anywhere else. My name.
By John Schulian
The world changed for everybody at the Sun-Times when the paper was sold to Rupert Murdoch in 1984. It was one of those things that I, forever blind to the realities of business, thought would never happen. I’d seen how he’d trashed the New York Post with his lowest-common-denominator journalism. I wasn’t wild about the Boston Herald, either. Then again, the Herald might have gone out of business if he hadn’t shown up. And it did provide a showcase for the stellar sportswriting of George Kimball, Charlie Pierce, and Michael Gee. But that was small consolation to those of us counting down the days until Murdoch took over in Chicago.
The Sun-Times had become a first-rate tabloid, solid from beginning to end and, on its best days, capable of driving the stolid, well-heeled Tribune into Lake Michigan. The newsroom was packed with aggressive young hard-news reporters–Jonathan Landman, now a ranking editor at the New York Times, was one–and they were always breaking big stories and doing great investigative work. There was plenty of good writing, too. My goal every day was to have the best-written piece in the paper, but I’m not sure how many times that happened, not when I was surrounded by Royko and Roger Simon, another fine city columnist, as well as a corps of lively feature writers that included my old friend Eliot Wald, who went on to write for “Saturday Night Live” in the Eddie Murphy years.
And then there was Roger Ebert, who could out-write us all. I always thought Roger was too generous in his movie reviews, but his features were exquisite. It didn’t matter whether he was writing about John Wayne or a B-movie queen, his prose sang. And when a movie star died, Roger soared higher still. A copy clerk would fetch him clips from the paper’s library. He’d scan them and then write 1,200 of the most beautiful words you’ve ever read in 15 or 20 minutes. Sometimes it seemed like his fingers never touched the keyboard–he just waved them like a magic wand and, abra-ka-dabra, a masterpiece appeared.
It’s for someone else to say how many masterpieces appeared in our sports section. I just know we won more than our share of honors, that out-of-town writers regularly took the time to say how much they enjoyed what we were doing, and that I was proud to be part of it. I was in the company of pros who cared deeply about what they did for a living, guys like Jerome Holtzman, Ron Rapoport, Phil Hersh, Ray Sons, Kevin Lamb, and Brian Hewitt. If I was covering something with one of them, it was easy to divvy up the workload. We knew what the stories were, and one of us would look at the other and say, for example, “Smith or Jones?” There would be an answer, not a debate or a clash of egos, and then we’d get busy with what we were there for: the work.
Our era of good feeling lasted until Super Sunday 1984, the day Murdoch and his zombies took control of the paper. There must have been three or four of us in Tampa for the game – that’s the way we did things back then–and we gathered around the phone as Rapoport called the city desk and asked, “How bad is it?”
The answer came in a headline: “Rabbi held in sex slave ring.”
It ran on page three, which was prime tabloid real estate but hardly the place where the previous administration would have played the story if it had run at all. Looking back, I confess that the headline doesn’t seem that terrible. But I have to remind myself that it wasn’t so much that I was offended by the presence of the dirtbag rabbi in the paper. I was offended by what the story about him portended. Murdoch’s people were just getting warmed up. Overnight they had changed the look of the paper, turning its bright, lively design into something garish and cheap, the print equivalent of a streetwalker addicted to rouge and eyeliner. It stood to reason that the stories would be increasingly tarted up, too.
But when Murdoch tried to foist his trademark crap on them, the good people of Chicago just said no. The Sun-Times’ circulation dropped like a shot put in a goldfish bowl. Murdoch’s henchmen were forced to pull back on the cheap thrills and gaudy garbage. The paper would never be what it had been, nor would it lure back all of its readers, but at least it regained a modicum of respectability. The readers who refused to roll over and play dead were better than Murdoch deserved. The same was true of the editors, reporters, and columnists who didn’t abandon the sinking ship. They would endure, some would even prosper, but when you looked around, there was no ignoring the empty desks.
The biggest departure, of course, was Royko, who jumped to the Tribune, which he had hated and baited throughout his career. In sports, we lost our top two editors, Marty Kaiser and Michael Davis, plus Phil Hersh, who went to the Tribune by way of the Philadelpia Inquirer and became, with Randy Harvey of the L.A. Times and Mike Janofsky and Jere Longman of the New York Times, a reigning expert on Olympic sports. I like to think that Roger Ebert stayed at the Sun-Times because he truly loved the paper where he has spent his entire career.
Would that I could say the same about myself. Truth was, I wanted no part of the Murdoch regime. I would have gone anywhere that could afford me, but the columnist gigs at papers fitting that description were locked up. The editors who had looked out for me at Sports Illustrated were gone, Inside Sports had been taken over by nickel-and-dimers, and The National had yet to become a gleam in Frank Deford’s eye. Maybe I should have tried freelancing, maybe I should have gone to work on a screenplay or a novel. But I liked the idea of a steady paycheck. When the new regime offered me a contract that would pay me six figures a year for three years–big money in that era–I forsook my principles and misgivings and signed on the dotted line.
I would pay for it.
By John Schulian
I was instantly happy at the Daily News. It was frayed around the cuffs and just about everywhere else, but that was a relief after all the power and glamour at the Washington Post. Just the same, the Daily News had a distinguished history of its own -– Carl Sandburg strumming his guitar in the city room, a distinguished cadre of foreign correspondents, Pulitzer prizes galore, and, of course, Mike Royko. But for the two decades before I got there, it had been searching for an identity. The one thing about it that couldn’t be changed was that it was an afternoon paper, and afternoon papers were the dinosaurs of the newspaper business. Readers were turning to TV instead, and besides, there was never any guarantee that our delivery trucks were going to make their way through the increasingly gnarly traffic. Add it all up and you had Chicago’s version of the Alamo.
I was at the Daily News for the last 13 months of its existence, and it was probably the most exhilarating time of my career. The paper’s old hands did great work, and most of the newcomers fell right in step with them. When the paper was re-designed, it looked great, too. (The guy who re-designed it had also given the New York Herald Tribune a new look right before it went under, so maybe he was the kiss of death.) I remember Royko saying the paper was the best it had been in all the years he’d been there, and Mike didn’t throw compliments around lightly. He couldn’t have cared less about peoples’ feelings. But he was truly proud of the Daily News as it battled extinction.
Being on the same paper with Royko was a privilege. Actually, I was on two papers with him: the Daily News and the Sun-Times. The man was a genius as a columnist. It’s not like great cityside columnists fall off trees, either. But Mike worked in an era that had a bumper crop: Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill and Pete Dexter. There was Murray Kempton, too -– God, what a beautiful writer — and the marvelously off-the-wall George Frazier in Boston. They called Paul Hemphilll “the Breslin of the South” when he wrote a column in Atlanta, and Emmett Watson was the soul of Seattle. When I look around the country now, the pickings are pretty slim. I consider myself lucky to read Steve Lopez in the L.A. Times — he really works to make sense (and fun) of an unbelievably complicated city. I can’t help thinking that he learned, at least in part, by studying the masters.
It’s a tough call–maybe an impossible call- to say who was the best of those giants from 20 and 30 years ago. They all had days when they stood atop the world. Royko and Breslin defined the cities they worked in for the rest of the country. Hamill wrote with the eye of the novelist and memoirist he became. Dexter was the most unique; he went way beyond the Philadelphia city limits to the borders of his imagination. Of course he didn’t do it anywhere as near as long as the others. Hamill kept taking side trips, too–to screenwriting, novels, editing–but I never lost the sense of him as a committed newspaperman. Still, it was Royko and Breslin who seemed to capture the most imaginations. For pure writing I’d give the nod to Breslin. But for knowing how to work a column, whether he was raising hell with the first Mayor Daley or making you laugh with his alter ego, Slats Grobnik, or breaking your heart, Royko couldn’t be beat.
And he did it five days a week. Tell that to these limp-dick editors who think a columnist should only write twice a week. Royko didn’t have the privacy of an office at the Daily News, either. He just moved filing cabinets around until they formed a wall around his corner desk. And he’d be at that desk from morning until late at night.
When he’d send a copy boy to fetch him a cheeseburger from Billy Goat’s Tavern, his instructions were to the point: “Tell the Goat to hold the hair.”
He’d answer his own phone and tell callers he wasn’t Royko and didn’t understand why anybody wanted to talk to the son of a bitch. Then he’d go off on some wild tangent about Royko’s lack of hygiene until he hung up cackling like a madman.
The time I spent yakking with Royko was always at work. He liked to drink -– man, did he like to drink -– but I stayed away from him then. He was a binge drinker, dry for weeks or months and then he’d go on a toot and turn ugly and abusive. When he was drunk, he was forever getting in a scrap or pouring ketchup on a woman who’d rejected his advances. Legend has it that he once fell out of his car while he was driving and broke his leg. There was a group of ass-kissers who tagged along after him like puppies, encouraging him to be more and more outrageous and saying yes to every nonsensical thing that came out of his mouth. As far as I could tell, the only good man in the bunch was Big Shack, who worked in the Sun-Times’ backshop. He looked out for Mike, and he wasn’t afraid to tell him when enough was enough.
Ultimately, Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times and Mike moved to the Tribune, a paper he had always hated. I like to think he still hated it when he worked there, except, of course, when it gave him a chance to call Murdoch “The Alien” in print.
Mike was the best.
Thanks to these two pussycats:
Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Dolan…
…looks like I will be one of many who won’t be watching the Whirled Serious.
[Drawing by Larry Roibal]