“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.
The starting salary for a college graduate was about $45.67 a week. It went up in pennies. For that reason we ate our meals at the Lavender Cafeteria. Three biscuits soaked in cream gravy cost 26 cents. Cowboy Hardley, a photographer, favored gravy over cantaloupe, which cost slightly more but got results from those of us who had to watch him eat it. Cowboy was a chow hustler. We called him Everman Fats for his hometown of Everman. He would bet his breakfast against yours that you wouldn’t finish.
I did not know it at the time, but The Press sports staff was ten years ahead of the game. In 1955 The Press was perfecting what most, but not yet all, sports staffs believe they have just created: a competitive art form. Significant television competition was years away, but already The Press was rebelling against the stiff, bleak who/what/when/where architecture of its predecessors, exposing myths, demanding to know why, and treating why as the only question. It was funny about 1961 when Newsweek devoted its press section to the wry progressive sports editor of Newsday, Jack Mann. Newsday hired good, creative writers. They worked as a unit, pruning cliches from wire copy, pepping up hard news by tracing angles all over the country, barreling over dogma where they confronted it. Was Yogi Berra a lovable gnome, like it said in Sporting News? Did he sit around reading comic books and eating bananas? Or was he a noncommunicative boor whose funniest line was, “How the hell would I know?” Newsday, the magazine pointed out, demanded an answer.
There was no way for Newsweek to know it, but sports editor Blackie Sherrod had been preaching a better anarchy at The Press in 1950. Sherrod surrounded himself with such men as Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake, now well-known and excellent writers at Sports Illustrated, not to mention the irresponsible Crew Slammer. He let them write from the gut.
‘What obsessed us all was the species. We could watch for hours out the window of The Press composing room which overlooked the New Gem Hotel, where God knows what the Negroes were up to, speculating out loud what the species might otherwise become. Without sport, what would Mickey Mantle do? He would drive a fork lift, Crew Slammer was certain. Joe Kuharich would be night watchman for a company that manufactures caskets. Joe Namath raised carrier pigeons and sold hubcaps. Roger Maris operated a liquor store on the Illinois-Missouri border. Bud Wilkinson was Norman Rockwell’s chauffeur, and Vince Lombardi operated an academy for the sons of South American dictators. Rice football coach Jess Neely, a slight, shallow-faced man with a Southern drawl who has since retired, was a kindly Southern scientist who devoted his life to crossbreeding the boll weevil with the bull elephant. He always seemed to be at cross purposes.
It was a great joke, of course, but after a while Jess Neely did suggest something unusual. I remember being assigned to do what we called a jock-strap story after an SMU-Rice game in Houston about 1960. It appeared from The Press box that Rice lost the game because Neely refused to gamble on fourth down late in the fourth quarter when the alternative was certain defeat. In the twenty minutes before deadline I had to race to the Rice dressing room to gather some quotes from Neely and write six hundred words. All I could think to ask was, “Coach Neely, what were you thinking out there on fourth down?” Neely gave me a sorry scowl and said, “Why, young man, to score more points than my opponents, naturally.” At the time I questioned his sincerity. Now that I am older and wiser I believe that Neely was answering as well as he knew how. Frank Howard, the former coach at Clemson, was one of the best men I ever interviewed. In a situation much like the one Neely found himself in, Frank Howard first talked about the other team (“Those big old fine-looking athletes”), then concluded, “We were gonna get our tails whipped, it was a question of by how much.”
In most cases the argot of the sports industry can be traced to the sports pages. An American Football League player discussing the ability of a rival kickoff-return man observed recently, “He good! He good! He have developed the knack to alter directions on a dime.” He read that somewhere. On the other hand, originality and imagination can be trouble, as Darrell Royal frequently discovers. Royal, the University of Texas football coach, thought himself amusing a few years ago when he likened the rival team from Texas Christian to “a bunch of cockroaches.” And he was. The trouble started because a few sportswriters stopped short of explaining that while TCU had not won many games, it had occasionally risen to the moment and spoiled a good thing for someone else. This slip is still a psychological spook anytime TCU plays Texas.
Press conferences such as this one are hazardous. Sportswriters are too absorbed by their own questions to understand the answers. Harold Ratliff, sports editor for the Associated Press in Texas, is the dean of the press conference because he has made himself a focal point for years. Harold likes to bait his subject. He is always asking coaches to predict how much they will win by, or better yet say something rotten about the opponent. While he is never successful, he believes that he is. A recent AP story out of Dallas begins, “Coach Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys professed concern over his team’s future Wednesday although the Cowboys hold a three-game lead … ” On the face of it, this is a strong story. Good Lord, the entire future of the Cowboys? Well, not quite, as the story goes on to explain. What happened, I am certain, is that Ratliff asked Landry something like, “Coach, your team about has it [the championship] wrapped up, wouldn’t you say?” Landry would not. Landry pointed to the difficult schedule in the final weeks of the season, and he said,”We could still lose it…”
I remember a discussion that several of us had with Landry one afternoon. The subject was “field position,” a term you hear more frequently from college coaches than professional coaches.The concept of the game of football is attack and retreat, the same as war. The ultimate object is to capture the opponent’s goal, but a secondary consideration is keeping the ball as far as possible from your own goal line. Professional teams with their superior striking power are less cautious about field position, but no less concerned, as Landry was explaining. After taking some time to ferment his question, Ratliff cornered Landry and asked, “Tell us, Tom, what do you consider the best field position?” I looked at Landry. He didn’t need anyone to remind him to answer with care. He said, “Harold, I am personally attracted to my opponent’s one-inch line.”
I respect Landry. One reason is that he defended me before a mob of super-fans who wanted to know why Landry had neglected to have me fired for writing terrible things about his team. (It somehow amazes the super-fan to learn that writers are not hired or fired by the teams they are assigned to cover.) Landry told them, “You have to remember one thing, when the game is over and we’re all feeling bad about losing, he is the one with the typewriter.” I have thought about what Landry said. Especially in the escaping minutes after a night game, plunging into the irretrievable deadline, I have written my story upside down and backwards and then hoped to hell I could find a first paragraph to justify it. Don Meredith, the Cowboys’ quarterback, is a good friend of mine, but one afternoon when he failed to rise to the occasion, I started my game story:
“Outlined against a gray November sky, the Four Horsemen rode again: Pestilence, Death, Famine, and Meredith.”
Meredith read it and thought it was funny. His fans did not. Fans of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Sherrill Headrick thought it was funny when I wrote that he had “the face of an Oklahoma chicken thief.” Headrick’s wife did not. Buddy Dial’s wife canceled her subscription to the Dallas Morning News when I wrote that he had been benched because Landry felt he wasn’t playing well. I didn’t even write that. I was drunk. Three friends wrote it for me. I have done as much for them. Sportswriters will pull you out of a ditch.
All of our hearts went out to the old sportswriter from the Rio Grande Valley—I forget his name—who stumbled into the Cotton Bowl Press box one New Year’s Day. Someone on the field fired a cannon and he fell out of his chair. I asked him, “Didn’t you get to bed last night?” He said, “Damn near. Only missed it about that far,” holding his hands to indicate a foot or so.
Professional football players are easily the best educated, most congenial, and most sensitive group of athletes I know. They have a different kind of courage, almost masochistic.
I fell into the habit of dropping by the Cowboys’ training room before a game. It was the warmest place in any stadium, but I also needed a B-12 shot or something more stimulating. No one talks about it, but training rooms are portable pharmacies. It is the trainer’s job to have his forty men ready by Sunday afternoon. If a player is injured, they shoot him full of cortisone. If his pain threshold is low, they give him morphine or another opium derivative. If his metabolism is skimpy, they give him amphetamine. When Commissioner Pete Rozelle outlawed the free use of amphetamines a few years ago, several players and maybe a few sportswriters were ruined. I suspect the National Football League was on the verge of a scandal. Certainly Big Daddy Lipscomb didn’t help the image by taking an overdose of horse. Rozelle got pep pills out of the aisles and under the tables. One trainer got around the rule by putting out two pots of coffee, one straight and the other laced with dope. It was explained to me recently by an NFL player, “Every man lets the trainer know his requirements. When you get to the stadium there is a paper cup of whatever you need waiting in your locker.”
Almost any football player would be astonished to have explained to him the deliberate change that football has made to his body chemistry. Ernie Stautner, a wide, strong, innocent, hard-living former defensive end who now coaches for the Cowboys, nearly died from being given the wrong drug before It game in Cleveland. Stautner should have been in the hospital that day, but he was determined to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers. After the team doctor inadvertently stoked him up with 1,200 milligrams of Demerol instead of Novocain, he was in the hospital, dying he suspected. “Nurses and doctors were running around like a British comedy,” he told me later. “I kept thinking: I’m just a statistic now. I thought about this testimonial dinner they were having for me in two weeks back in Pittsburgh. Boy, that’s gonna be a dead affair! Pittsburgh! Boy! That’s the irony—the only team in the league I never wanted to play for, and here I was dying on their time.”
Someone called a priest and Stautner made his final peace with The Maker. “Father,” he said weakly, “I don’t have much time, so if it’s okay with you I’ll just hit the highlights.”
Just as an athlete, if he’s any good, will rise to the occasion, so will a sportswriter. That is the essence of his profession, and one of the reasons there are so few good sportswriters. The other reason is editors. Unfortunately, there is not a hint of a parallel between the average coach and the average newspaper editor. There was an abundance of writing talent in Texas at the time when Crew Slammer and the rest of us still considered the impossible dream to be a dateline from College Station. Few sports editors were talented enough to recognize it. The Dallas Morning News’ Bill Rives had Tex Maule working the slot. His reasoning was that it took more judgment to arrange stories than it did to write them. Maule hated the job. Now he is senior editor at Sports Illustrated and one of the top sportswriters in the country. Roy Terrell, SI’s assistant managing editor, was stuck away somewhere in Corpus Christi.
The sportswriters everyone heard of in the 1950s were Jesse Abramson, New York Herald Tribune; John Carmichael, Chicago Daily News; Red Smith, New York Herald Tribune; Maxwell Stiles, Los Angeles Mirror; Ed Danforth, Atlanta Journal; Earl Ruby, Louisville Courier-Journal; Milton Gross, New York Post; Joe Williams, New York World-Telegram & Sun; Jimmy Cannon, New York Post; Prescott Sullivan, San Francisco Examiner; Tim Cohane, Look; Bob Hunter, Los Angeles Examiner; Si Burdick, Dayton News; Shirley Pavich, Washington Post.
As E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. spread the word in its anthologies of Best Sports Stories, names like Furman Bisher, Atlanta Journal; Jack Murphy, San Diego Union; Murray Olderman, NEA; and Bill Rives, Dallas Morning News, joined the pack. Still later, Blackie Sherrod clamored over the wall of the Fort Worth Press, found an outlet at the Dallas Times Herald and became—along with two Los Angeles columnists, the Times’ Jim Murray and the Herald Examiner‘s Mel Durslag—one of the best day-in day-out sportswriters in the business. These men worked for the big papers and covered the big stories, and E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., sorted them out each year for recognition. Others, such as Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake, would occasionally break through on pure ability. The men in Best Sports Stories wrote with a diversity of styles and emphasis which only helped to confuse a novice. I can’t think of his name but there was an old-timer from Philadelphia who started every game story like this: “Army’s powerful Cadets defeated Navy’s game but outmanned Midshipmen for the second straight year here Saturday, 14-6, before a crowd of 81,342.” The second sentence was always, “Army won the toss and elected to receive.” Having created that, he tacked on the play-by-play and got drunk. We could see that this style went nowhere. We were in danger of being replaced by the ape.
As far as I know this exercise is still tacked to the bulletin board of the Fort Worth Press:
By CREW SLAMMER
The World’s Greatest Sportswriter
Baltimore, Nov. 27—Late in the fourth quarter when Army’s Black Knights of the Hudson had traveled on their bellies long enough to be mistook for Arlington National Cemetery, and had risen in an agonizing mass and smashed the United States Navy’s football team to bobbing bits and pieces, Army coach Red Blaik craned his neck toward the score board clock, whispered to an assistant, and squirmed off in the direction of the men’s room. Army had won, 23 to 7, and Blaik was ready to wash his hands of the whole affair.
Conditions conspired to prevent this from being a flawless opening paragraph. After all, it was written for the bulletin board, not the five-star final. Crew Slammer was 1,500 miles away, emptying the wastebasket, when Army defeated Navy. There was something else, though, which Bill Rives (by then assistant managing editor of the Dallas Morning News) explained to me a few years later: “You can’t use men’s room in a family newspaper!” I also learned from Rives that you can’t use “Jap-a-Nazi Rat” in a family newspaper, even when you are quoting Jules Feiffer’s Great Comic Book Heroes.
Rives looked like an aging Rudolph Valentino. He was a fanatic for words. The walls of his department were posted with signs ordering KEEP IT SHORT! or WRITE LIKE YOU TALK! The trouble was, neither Rives nor any of the other name writers followed those orders. Maxwell Stiles would open a story on the United States Women’s golf championship: “Last Saturday at the Waverly Country Club in Portland I saw the face of America peer at me through a pair of dark eyes alight with the radiant glory of one who has brought honor and dignity to her native land.” Then we would study Sherrod, painting his first impressions of a Kansas sophomore named Wilt Chamberlain: “If they’re going to let him play basketball … they ought to let the Grand Canyon play ditch.” Rives would start: “Julius Nicholas Boros, swarthy-skinned son of Hungarian immigrants, captured the National Open championship Saturday with a score of 281, one over par.” and Best Sports Stories would leap on it.
Dan Jenkins could mock them all with his sweep and simplicity: “Tommy Bolt, with astonishing ease, won the 1958 U. S. Open golf championship today on a vicious course that broke Sam Snead in two days and wrenched Ben Hogan’s wrists.” And who was Jenkins? He was our first big-timer from the Fort Worth Press. He wrote for Golf Digest. He could be counted on to have a pocketful of press-box tickets or parking passes. Any time he passed Ben Hogan on the veranda of Colonial Country Club, Hogan was likely as not to say, “Hi, fella,” the only two words Hogan used well. An ex-TCU football player named Red (“How’s ya mom and them?”) Marable had even confided to friends in high places that he did not want to hit Jenkins, merely “grab him and shake him around.”
Bud Shrake followed hard behind Jenkins. He is a giant of a man with a poet’s soul and a lumberjack’s appetite. He was the accidental winner of a Chili Rice Eating Contest one time while serving as contest referee. Shrake is an enormously talented sportswriter and a keen observer of the species. For a while Shrake and I shared an apartment in Dallas. From time to time a well-known college football coach from a big-time school whose name I will not mention would show up with a bag writers were experimenting with words in the of groceries, often on the night before a major game. We would eat and drink until about 3:00 A.M., then drive through town looking for girls. We never talked football.
Shrake had a suspicious habit of being with me each time I disgraced myself, my newspaper, and my country. I have always reacted in curious ways to the pressures and exigencies of my profession. It was not Shrake who suggested that I dress up like a waiter, crash the Fort Worth Colonial Country Club’s first (and last) annual poolside luau and fashion show, and leap off the three-meter diving board, spraying dinner rolls among the floating orchids.
Yet Shrake had an invitation and I had none. He helped me find a linen closet in the basement, and he was there when Club manager Virgil Bourland intercepted me on the way to the poolside. “What’s this?” Bourland asked, lifting a roll from the wicker basket. “Them’s rolls!” “What for?” Bourland challenged. “For hungry people.” Bourland asked, “Is this some kind of joke?” and I assured him that hunger is never a joke, stomping away indignantly and crouching in the hedges while a search party was organized. It was not Shrake who threw up all over Michigan State football coach Duffy Daugherty when Daugherty told a nauseous joke (punch line: “I don’t know what it is! I found it in my nose) in the hotel suite of “Coach of the Year” Murray Warmath. It was me. Yet Shrake was a ready accomplice, I confess, just before that, when we ripped off Warmath’s bedding, contrived an effigy and hung it from his transom, much as his students at the University of Minnesota had been doing earlier in the year. Shrake was clear across the room when I took off my clothes and sang “Danny Boy” at Blackie Sherrod’s Christmas party. He was there when I swung at and missed Norm Van Brocklin at a night spot in Birmingham. And he had grave reservations the time we found a dead carp on the banks of a gravel pit, and had it cooked and served to Bill Rives, a Catholic. The answers to why we do such things are buried with the minute and uncelebrated details of the events themselves, and maybe too fragile for the Freudian window sash. I know this: in a time my memory cannot identify, in a place I cannot remember being welcome, there is someone’s voice, full of respect and anticipation, saying, “For Chrissake, here he comes again!”
Influenced in part by men like Blackie Sherrod, Dan Jenkins, and Bud Shrake, almost all sportswriters were experimenting with the words in the name of literature by 1960. It is impossible to overestimate the damage this has done to subsequent sportswriters, as this lead, selected at random from the October 22, 1967, Dallas Morning News suggests:
Houston—There was mutiny of SMU’s Good Ship Destiny here Saturday night and the Rice Owls found themselves marooned all alone on the Southwest Conference’s unbeaten Isle of Desire.
In the fifth paragraph the writer lets you in on the secret: Rice defeated SMU, 14 to 10.
Dan Jenkins is probably the best sportswriter I have ever read, but until he went to Sports Illustrated it was difficult to plead his case. Take the creative mind and lash it to a pillar in the city room some Saturday night. Bombard it with the rattle of Western Union printers. Give it headlines to write and other people’s stories to read and paste up, and you will understand why from time to time rats have been trained to play the piano. Boredom may be the mother of genius; certainly it comes equipped with its own safety valve.
Boredom is the reason why at the Dallas Times Herald in 1960 we came to invent the mythical football power from Metcalf R. The name honors the late newspaper poet James J. Metcalf (the R. stands for nothing in particular, it just sounded better than Metcalf U. or Metcalf Poly). On any Sunday among the agate lines of type telling who won, a Times Herald reader was privileged to find the results of the Metcalf R. game. Metcalf R. scheduled such worthies as Indiana McGruder and Southeastern Oklahoma Central, and always won by three points.
Do not suppose this went unchallenged. On one occasion when the Metcalf R. score was accidentally lost on the composing-room floor, a neighbor of the city editor complained. This complaint was the inspiration for our next move: the invention of the Corbet Comets, a small high-school football power of unspecified classification.
The Comets streaked along on the energies of their twin halfbacks, Dickie Don and Rickie Ron Yewbet—named for TCU football coach Abe Martin’s speech pattern (“We gonna play some foobuhl, yewbet we are !”). Every Friday night we inserted under a 14-point headline a paragraph celebrating Corbet’s newest triumph. Corbet did not lose for two seasons, in which time Rickie Ron got mumps and died. Someone had blue and black Corbet window decals printed, and someone else suggested a story to the editor of the women’s page when E. O. (Shug ) Kempleman, Corbet Ford dealer, donated the world’s largest tuba to the tennis tournament without inviting the best Fighting Corbet Band. Later, when I worked for the Dallas Morning News, someone slipped in to print the results of the city of Corbet municipal elections. F. D. Orr defeated E. O. (Shug ) Kempleman, 43 votes to 38. Rives, by then an assistant managing editor, blamed me. He called me “flip” and suggested that I read The Texas Almanac sometime and grow up.
What is much harder to forgive is what Rives did to my “Study in Black and White” story, the year that the Mississippi State basketball team conquered everyone except its state legislature. There was a law in Mississippi prohibiting integrated sports events. On the day before the MSU basketball team was supposed to leave for the NCAA tournament in Louisville, this law was stretched to include sports events anywhere in the world so long as they involved state teams from Mississippi.
This was a banner story anywhere in the country. No one had to tell me to place a long-distance call to the captain of the MSU team. I don’t remember the captain’s name, but I remember that he was surprisingly candid. To his way of thinking there was justice in the fact that the Mississippi State basketball team could not claim a national championship until it had played and beaten teams of Negroes. In a touching aside, he told what happened the night of his senior dance in his hometown of Poplarville, Miss. That night, some of the town rednecks kicked down the jail door, hauled out a Negro named Parker, tied him with rope, and threw him in the river. The MSU captain could not remember what the victim had done to rile the population, but the lynching dampened his heart where it would never dry. “The night of our senior dance!” he repeated. “Imagine.” I wrote the story straight and Rives killed it. He gave this reason: “This puts the Dallas News in a position of taking sides.” Well, my God, what if it does? Rives could have just dropped it there. Instead, in an amazing burst of rationale, he added, “If it were a wire-service story, maybe it would be different. But this story … this story is written by our own man. Our own man!”
Rives wasn’t there a few years later when the Morning News destroyed another story, this one considerably closer to home. I learned from a friend that Dallas Country Club was discreetly planning to drop its annual invitational tennis tournament rather than open it to Arthur Ashe, a Negro. The friend put me in touch with an influential club member who confirmed the story and added, “We can’t very well have an invitational player in the country. And the mossbacks who run this place can’t very well bring themselves to let Arthur Ashe in the front door.”
For several years running I had been assigned to cover the tournament. I didn’t like it, but there it was in my assignment folder. Dallas Country Club is where The Establishment that Dallas claims does not exist runs the city, including both of its newspapers. Hence the annual DCC Invitational Tennis Tournament was displayed by both Dallas newspapers as you would display WORLD WAR THREE … right up till the moment when my story that the whole thing had been dropped was dumped in the’ editor’s wastebasket. After a day and a half of soul-searching, I learned. the rival Dallas Times Herald also reached the conclusion that there was no story here.
Then an unfortunate thing happened. Sports Illustrated got wind of the story and printed it completely, including the part which made mention of the fact that Times Herald executive editor Felix McKnight was a board member at the Country Club. McKnight is a onetime sportswriter and wire-service reporter with a reputation as a no-holds-barred newsman. It was shortly after McKnight took over that Times Herald staff members adopted a motto for their paper: “We wait until the bandwagon gets rolling, then throw ourselves under it.”
By this time I knew I would never be a good sportswriter. Yet to turn away from the only profession you have ever known would not be an easy thing. Especially a profession with all those beautiful conflicts of interest. Sportswriters get in and free, to sports events or most anything else. They are fed and liquored and given unusual considerations. There are cocktail parties, and wealthy sportsmen with yachts and planes and private islands in the Bahamas, and moonlight jobs in communications. The pay is poor but no one bothers to live on his salary.
There is no spectacle in sport more delightful than witnessing members of the Baseball Writers Association, who invented the box score, trampling each other at the buffet table. The first time I actually saw Dick Young, the New York Daily News‘ very good baseball writer, he was smearing deviled egg on the sleeve of Arthur Daley’s sport coat and discussing Casey Stengel’s grammar. Ben Hogan was rude and gruff but he impressed me when I learned that the caviar at his annual press party cost $45 a jar. Tony Lema had a genius for public relations at least as great as his genius for golf. Champagne Tony! I covered his funeral. It was an assignment that I did not want, but I was there, thinking that it may be years before I taste champagne again. They served some on the flight home. Bear Bryant used to insist that the way to handle a sportswriter was with a fifth of Scotch. Sportswriters deplored this attitude, but no one ever thought to sue Bear Bryant.
Editors across the land dove for their memo pads a few years ago when the trade magazine, Editor & Publisher, exposed the practice of permitting sports teams to pay traveling expenses for writers assigned to cover them. The practice still exists. Some editors see no special evil in the fact that their writers accept cash per diem from the team, usually $25 a day for room and meals. I know a sportswriter who accepts per diem and signs for all expenses. The team pays double, but this is how he keeps his daughter in college.
W. O. McGeehan is credited with drafting the industry’s code. “If it’s a bribe,” McGeehan allegedly told a public-relations man, “it’s not enough. If it’s a gift, it’s too much.” Still, ethics is a nebulous question to a profession that has never really defined its purpose. To report? To expose? To speculate? To entertain? To criticize? To subsist and endure? A good sportswriter does it all. I do not know a sportswriter who would accept, say, one hundred dollars to print something he did not believe.
On the other hand, I can believe damn near anything. In 1960 after I had written that their training camp was “A Mickey Mouse Operation,” an official of the Dallas Texans (now the Kansas City Chiefs) put an envelope into my shirt pocket. It contained, I learned after I had thanked him and walked off, three one-hundred-dollar bills, the only three I had ever seen. It was an offer in the nature of a living allowance, for we were guests at the training camp. The club was training in the spartan quarters of the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell. In keeping with tradition, sportswriters lived there too. Windowpanes and indoor plumbing had not yet weakened NMMI, which I suppose was part of the reason the Texans selected it as a training site, aside from the fact it was cheap. I had been sitting on my cot, sweating and drinking gin from a chipped coffee cup when destiny happened by the open window—Paul Miller, a defensive end who once trained with the uptown Los Angeles Rams. Miller was a constant but authoritative bitcher. He became the source for my Mickey Mouse story. The morning after it appeared in print, this club official pushed the three bills in my pocket. All he said was, “I guess things haven’t been too easy on you guys these last few weeks.”
Well, it was true: they had not. What is more, I had seen the Texans’ owner Lamar Hunt squander that much money warming up the engines of his airplane. The Hunts were perhaps the richest family in the world. Lamar and all of his brothers and all of his children and all of his brothers’ children each inherited $20 million at birth. Bunker, his older brother, is fat and right-wing to a fault, but I liked him and had traveled places with him in his airplane. I think of Bunker now, half-asleep on the team bus waiting outside the Polo Grounds in New York … bitter cold, blowing snow, Christmas music, and the blind blue faces of the people outside in the crowding darkness. An old woman in a stocking cap stomped her feet to keep from freezing. A boy—he couldn’t have been ten—pressed close to a burning trash basket. Something stirred Bunker; he started and saw them too. He looked at them a while, then he told me, “Boy hi-dy, that’s what I call ‘The Great Unwashed.’ “
I carried the three hundred dollars with me all morning. I really was broke, having ripped through my expense money from the Times Herald in defense of sanity. But I gave back those three bills. I finally realized they were payment for all the Mickey Mouse stories I would ever write.
That is the only time anyone ever offered me money. There is a more subtle practice, however—hiring sportswriters to do program stories or other inconsequential writing jobs for the team they are assigned to cover. It pays well, up to $50 for a couple of pages. I could nominally consider myself a professional writer, so I accepted this sort of arrangement. It is about the same as baseball writers accepting $25 a game to serve as “official scorer.”
The answer to conflict of interest, Texas E. Schramm used to explain, is to write positive. Schramm is president and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, but he learned the business as publicity man and later general manager of the Los Angeles Rams. Los Angeles was and still is a sportswriters’ holy place. Athletes step softly. Management is generous. Nevertheless, a big game is a big game, and tickets can be hard to come by.
When the Rams’ management prohibited passing out free tickets to the 1951 championship games in the Coliseum (in accordance with league rules), local newspapermen talked it over and decided that the event was not worth covering. They stuck by the position until the Rams reassessed their own and purchased at full price from the league office several hundred “complimentary” tickets.
As a publicity man, Schramm sometimes wrote a column under the by-line of a well-known Los Angeles sportswriter. While Schramm slanted the columns in favor of his employers, he wrote nothing that the columnist might not have written for himself, had he been up to it. All Schramm did was accent redeeming qualities. Ex-Tulane publicity man Larry Karl provided a similar service for a New Orleans sports columnist in the 1950s. Karl would write the column, deliver it, fix it with a standard headline and tuck it in the columnist’s typewriter. On one occasion Karl appendaged the column with a personal note—”Ed” (or whatever), “the plane leaves at noon.” He discovered how far things had gone when the message appeared in print as the final sentence to the column.
Let me make one thing plain: most sportswriters have no business in journalism. They are misfits looking for a soft life. The worst sportswriters are frustrated athletes, or compulsive sports fans, or both. The best are frustrated writers trapped by circumstances. Westbrook Pegler called sportswriters “historians of trivia,” but Pegler learned his craft by writing sport. Scotty Reston, Heywood Broun, Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, and Paul Gallico wrote about sport. Winston Churchill covered cricket during the Boer War. The New York Times‘ John Kieran was a sportswriter, but he was much more. When students at Yale protested that a sportswriter had been invited to address them, Kieran delivered his speech in Latin.
Sportswriting should be a young man’s profession, No one improves after eight or ten years, but the assignments get juicier and the way out less attractive. After eight or ten years there is nothing else to say. Every word in every style has been set in print, every variation from discovery to death explored. The ritual goes on, and the mind bends under it. Ask a baseball writer what’s new and he’ll quote you the record book. Baseball writers are old men, regardless of age. Crew Slammer contended it was the sport that made it so, but all sport has a tedium that eventually gets too heavy for the human soul. Men who have traveled the deadly dull cycle too often are forever deafened to what they started to say. One writer with the Philadelphia Bulletin has been with the Philadelphia Eagles Football Club so long that he refers to them as “we.” Difficulty with pronouns is a terminal sign for the journalist.
A writer whose ear is gone can become an editor, which is to say he can become a censor and accountant. Newspaper editors pretend to be appointed guardians of the old mentality ceiling (“write to the sixth-grade reader”: never mind why he is sixth-grade), yet in reality they are the mentality ceiling. Crew Slammer and the rest of us formulated the theory that the higher a man climbs in the newspaper business, the less he becomes. It must be like a pencil sharpener up there.
I never did learn the name of the man in The Tower who had me fired from my last job as sports columnist of the Philadelphia Inquirer. I saw him once. He was pale and, as I recall, walked with a limp. I believe the last time he came down from The Tower was in ’07, to overturn a Bulletin truck or something. His reason for letting me go was he couldn’t understand what I was writing. I appreciated his position.