Article — From the April 1968 issue
- Current Issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
“Listen, Tojo and Hirohito and you Nomuru and you Kurusu, and all the rest of you heathen sons of heaven, you won’t understand this, it’ll be far over your pagan heads, but, even so, you ought to hear about it.”
—C. E. McBride, Kansas City Star, March 27, 1944. Reprinted in Best Sports Stories 1944 (Dutton).
Crew Slammer never made Best Sports Stories. He never got farther than the bulletin board at the Fort Worth Press. He was a victim of the industry, for he collided time and again with the mentality ceiling that bears down on every newspaper I know anything about. Nevertheless, I believe that Crew Slammer in his way was a better sportswriter than C. E. McBride, Stanley Woodward, or even Red Smith. He was inquisitive, sardonic, satirical, cynical, opinionated, hedonistic, and what intelligence he had was easily offended. He hated sport. “To watch it,” he thought, “is a deadly bore.” Baseball was something that the twentieth century had a right to do without. Spectator golf ranked in importance with bridge tournaments and Junior League rummage sales. Football, tennis, hockey, and boxing interested him for aesthetic reasons. Crew Slammer fancied that he wrote like Hemingway. A typical lead describing a junior swimming meet would begin, “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that … ”
Crew Slammer was like all my friends in those days. He wanted more. He had a competitive drive to be the best. Why did he become a sportswriter? That is the question we were all trying to answer. Inevitably we turned to the Best Sports Stories anthology, there to prosper or rot. I am sad to say that Crew Slammer did not prosper, but pretend you don’t know that for a while. For Crew Slammer was a myth, a symbol of our tragic graveyard, a commentary on conditions. He lived only
in our imaginations, which of course means that he lived nonetheless.
When I started writing sports in 1958 at the Press, I already knew something about basic reporting. I covered the night police beat for two years at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, much to the despair of a night city editor named Ed Capers who used to tell me, “Your trouble is, your fingers are too fast for your mind.” I thought he had it backwards, so I quit and joined the sports staff of the Press. Instinctively I realized that the only way to move forward was to change newspapers every two years—a pattern I followed to the Dallas Times Herald, the Dallas Morning News, and finally the Philadelphia Inquirer, where, like Crew Slammer, I became a victim of the mentality ceiling. But almost every important thing I learned, I learned at the Press.
The Fort Worth Press is one of those dilapidated brick-box institutions that Scripps-Howard used to stake between the railroad yard and the farmers’ market. Its city room with the eras of dirt and the rancid smell of machine oil reminds you of a train depot in a college-size town. For years it has been vanishing in a cloud of soot, and momentarily it will reappear as a parking lot. It is maintained as you would maintain a shoe box of old letters by a few faithful servants who are nearing retirement age. Good writers have come and gone, and the others have joined the scenery. I cannot visualize the Press city room without calling up Delbert Willis, the one-legged city editor who periodically takes a leave of absence to hunt for the Jap who got him; Caroline Hamilton, a husky, old-maidish feature writer in cowboy boots; or Marvin Garrett, a meek silver-haired farm and county editor. Marvin is sitting at his desk, barely visible behind an enormous mound of publicity releases (which we would sometimes take, turn over and use for copy paper in times of austerity), papers and clucking.
The Press is P.M., meaning that it publishes in the afternoon, and that we had to report at 6:00 A.M. The morning dark does things to the creative man. My friend and fellow sportswriter Dan Jenkins used to complain that it made his hair hurt. His wife would set her alarm for 3:00 A.M., watch his hair from her side of the bed and make notes, but they never isolated the problem. I never made it at 6:00 A.M., but I came close that first day. Twelve minutes late, in a panic, peeling off coat and sweater as I climbed the single flight of dark stairs, I smashed glue-eyed through the swinging gate that separated Sports from the other departments. Suddenly I realized that the only other person in the room was Puss Erwin, a retired postman who had signed on as our bowling writer. Puss was hunched over his typewriter, drinking vodka from a paper cup and puzzling over the previous night’s bowling averages. It was the dead of winter, so the heater—the coal chute, we called it—was running full blast. Puss had removed his coat, tie, and shirt, and draped them over the back of his chair. He didn’t know me yet, but I guess he had heard I was coming to work at the Press. He wouldn’t look up. Between sentences he muttered: “You’ll never make it, son.” I knew he was right. Half an hour before deadline, our slot man, Sick Charley Modesette, arrived. Charley had been out all night, looking for his car. There was a professional detachment about Charley, a combat residual bred in men who have learned to expect nothing. “All the bastards slept in again, huh?” Charley observed, and started plugging the first edition with old pictures and dated syndicated columns by Joe Williams and Harry Grayson. We made deadline with seconds to spare. It was always this way.
Many times I put out the paper alone. All the sportswriters did. We staggered in, tore the night’s run of copy from the United Press machine, selected the stories according to the page dummies supplied by the advertising department, assigned headlines and wrote them, clipped box scores and other trivia from the morning Star Telegram, selected pictures and sent them to the engravers, made up the cutlines, then hurried to the composing room where a printer named Max would be waiting to change everything. Like Charley, Max was a professional. All he ever said was, “Who the hell do you think you are?”
We survived on the assumption that no one read our paper anyhow. It is the same feeling you get on a college newspaper or on mind-expanding drugs. There are no shackles on the imagination; there is no retreat, only attack. One of my jobs was to make up little “brights” or boxes:
John Doughs made a hole-in-one yesterday at Glen Lakes Country Club when a snake swallowed his tee shot, a dog swallowed the snake, and an eagle carried off the dog, dropping him in the cup after colliding head on with a private plane flown by Doughs’s maternal twin.
We went heavy on the irony. Under these circumstances you might think we. got a lot of letters to the editor, but I don’t remember any.