I asked a friend, Deb, at work if she'd help me figure out how to scan this in.
Deb said sure -- then decided she didn't like any of the scanning options, so she TYPED the damn thing in. Said she used to be a typesetter, and it was a challenge.
I'm kind of disbelieving, but appreciative. And many thanks, Deb.
Here's the whole thing, in order:
The Death of Sportswriting
Our sports pages once bristled with writing that was as elegant as it was contentious. Now it’s just a numbers game. Where have you gone, George Kiseda? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
By Alan Richman
Baseball, the timeless game, stumbles into the Nineties: Kirk Gibson, oft-injured hero of the dodgers, is returning to the home-team lineup. Mark Heisler, seasoned sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, walks up to him before the game, spiral notebook in hand, muttering the interviewer’s classic opening line: “Kirk, can I talk to you for a minute?”
This is not investigative reporting. This is not a trick question, although to the professional athlete of today almost any question is a snare. This is beautiful night at dodger Stadium, happy fans swirling the turnstiles, a writer seeking a few comforting words for the morning paper: The leg’s fine, everything’s okay, I’ll play ‘em one game at a time.
Well, it isn’t going to work out that way.
Heisler is asking for a few minutes from a player whose workday consists of about ten of them, unless you count the time he spends standing motionless in the outfield when the opposition bats, or sitting motionless on the bench when his team does. Major-league payrolls, which average nearly $900,000 per player this season, are the only heavy lifting in baseball.
“He wheels on me,” Heisler recalls, “and says, ‘Are you fucking kidding? It’s game time.’ This is two hours before the game. Nobody’s in the stands. He starts to stamp off. I say to him, ‘Oh, game time, I guess I better get upstairs to the press box then.’ He wheels on me again, says, ‘I don’t appreciate your fucking attitude.’ I say, ‘I was kidding, as I assume you were.’ He proceeds to tell me several times about my ‘fucking attitude.’ Then he advances on me, this guy who’s six-three, 215 pounds. Anyway, he finally decides he doesn’t need to kill anybody before the game.”
Gibson is a professional athlete, deemed special at a young age and coddled throughout life. Having found no reason to mature except from the neck down, most professional athletes do only that. Heisler is a veteran bat reporter, perhaps more acerbic than most, but Gibson didn’t recognize him and certainly hadn’t analyzed his body of work. That confrontation was simply one of the perils of present-day sportswriting, another skirmish in the ballpark wars. It’s one of the reasons, but far from the only one, sportswriting is a dying art, a victim of antagonistic players, constricting deadlines, debilitating travel, lowered standards and salaries so modest that $55,000-per-year sportswriters now work on their as-told-to books before games, instead of on their sidebars. The job has gotten so impossible that sportswriters can’t even blame editors for their troubles anymore.
What was bothering Gibson that day? Most likely nothing, at least nothing more than the presence of a sportswriter. “We’ve become a nuisance to them, a green fly,” says Stan Hochman, a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News for more than thirty years. And what says the sportswriter, invariably so much smaller, older, shorter, and poorer, of those he immortalized in print? “Baseball players are the biggest assholes on the planet,” concludes Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, a man sometimes criticized by his peers for being too nice.
There has always been some of this around, the enmity of unwilling subject toward unsympathetic scribe or unappreciated question. Legend has it that Ty Cobb chased a sportswriter with a bat and that Rogers Hornsby tried to throw one off a moving train. When David Hirshey, a sportswriter for the New York Daily News in the Seventies, learned that Reggie Jackson of the Yankees fantasized about harmonizing with the O’Jays, he decided it was worth a column. “I walked up to him at his locked, asked, ‘Reggie, I know you can carry a team. Can you carry a tune?’ He was facing me. He turned around lifted a leg, farted, and said, ‘How’s this tune?’ It was shortly thereafter that I left sportswriting.”
Give Reggie credit. A least he was responsive. Today the hostility is automatic, the expression a blank. A request for a minute of time, seemingly so banal, is reason enough to erupt. Once, athletes and sportswriters had a few things in common, even if those weren’t much more than flannel pants and adjoining Pullman cars. Hochman used to play cards in the clubhouse with Pete Rose. Frank Hyland of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution fondly remembers watching a game on television with Brooks Robinson at the bar of the Helen Wilkes Hotel in West Palm Beach, Florida. When an athlete got mad a at a sportswriter in the old days, it was because something had been written or said, not because he was in his line of sight. Today, sportswriters and athletes are not merely adversaries, which is normal in journalism, but natural enemies.
Says Bob Ryan, a columnist for the Boston Globe and a man so in love with sports that he’s been known to rage over an unsatisfactory banquet speech, “Knowing what I know now, there is no way I would ever reenter this profession. It was fun before. It’s tedious now. They got agents. They got contracts. They got attitudes.”
I lasted ten years in the business. I was a sportswriter in Philadelphia, Montreal and Boston back when almost every city had its own style of sportswriting, like Italian city-states had their own form of government. I came out of the Philadelphia school, which means I was cranky, combative and wrote a lot of bad one-liners. Overall, I was pretty good, but the guy I replaced on the basketball beat was George Kiseda, the best there ever was, so nobody ever heard of me. I covered the 76ers under Jack Ramsay, Roy Rubin and Gene Shue and didn’t get along with any of them. Five years after Ramsay left the 76ers, he won the NBA championship as coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, beating those same 76ers, and I sent him a one-sentence telegram: “I always said as long as you were coaching the 76ers could never win.” That what I thought sportswriting was all about. I still do, and I don’t find much of it anymore that I admire.
It bothers me that the first byline I turn to when I open the paper these days is Dow Jones. Men like to read sports pages; it’s what we do while women are clipping coupons or passing around People magazine. It’s a link to childhood that won’t get us laughed at, an escape from reality that can’t get us arrested. Unfortunately, at the same time sportswriting is getting worse, it’s getting more attention than ever before.
Emilio Azcarraga, the “Mexican media mogul,” as he was so often called, invested – and lost – more than $100 million in The National before it folded. (For that, he could have bought his own major-league team, not read about somebody else’s.) After years of dogged lethargy, The Sporting News hired a new editor and set its sights on the twentieth century. Robert Maxwell launched The Racing Times to challenge the Daily Racing Form. The New York Times breathlessly expanded its sports coverage (“IT’S A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME!”). USA Today, as well-known for getting the latest box scores to its reads as for its pepperoni pizza-colored full-page weather maps, started Baseball Weekly, seemingly a parody of what The Sporting News used to be.
A study by the Newspaper Advertising Bureau shows that daily-newspaper readership among Americans ages 30 to 44 fell from 75 percent in 1972 to 45 percent in 1989, and desperate publishers believe increased sports coverage can lure readers back. While publishers might know a lot about who reads newspapers and who does not, they don’t know a thing about who writes well for newspapers and who does not. They’re building opera houses and filling them with mezzo-sopranos who sing off-key.
There is a risk, of course, of remembering the past too fondly, like Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City, standing on the boardwalk, saying “You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.” W.C. Heinz, one of the great sportswriters from the era of icons Jimmy Cannon and Red Smith, says, “On the New York Sun, we had a boxing writer who put in his story that this fighter was ‘the lightweight champion of Panamanian.’ He said, ‘Sure there is. It’s right here in the press release that he was the Panamanian champion.’ They all weren’t like him, but there’s nobody like that today. It would be impossible today on a major newspaper to have anyone that illiterate work for a number of years.” George Kiseda, the ex-Philadelphia sportswriter now retired and living in Los Angeles, worked briefly on the sports desk of The New York Times in the Seventies and was told how one of the old-timers on the staff got his job: “His family owned a market. During World War II, he supplied the sports editor with meat.”
I’ll concede this: There are fewer butchers writing sports today, and the vast mid-level of sportswriting is better than ever. Almost everybody knows his nouns from his adjectives. Almost everybody took an ethics course in college and knows enough not to accept home-entertainment centers as Christmas gifts from the teams he covers. Still, I think it takes a kind man to find much to celebrate in that.
John Updike, whose 1960 piece in the New Yorker on Ted Williams’s final game (“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”) remains one of the finest sports stores ever written, does raise a voice in praise of the modern sportswriter, or perhaps in sympathy for him. “I still read – skim, really – the [Boston] Globe and marvel that the sportswriters can still find words for the same old phenomena the millionth time around,” he says.
Indeed they do, but too many of these wordsmiths are like rookie-league batters, lunging at pitches inches off the plate. They don’t understand that selection is everything. Here’s Updike on Williams, stepping up for his last swings, one of which will send the ball over the center-field fence: “The air was soggy; the season was exhausted.” Here’s a sentence from The National: “In the last 10 years, no other team from the East has been in postseason play more than the Red Sox, who began spring training with more holes in their pitching staff than a Victor Kiam apology, but still managed to fend off the Toronto Blue Jays, who, like Canadian birds of another feather, went south come autumn.”
Sure, that’s a cheap shot, expecting The National to measure up to Updike. You should have anticipated it. I told you I was from Philadelphia.
To the list of reasons for the decline of sportswriting must be added the obvious: Why would anybody want to be a sportswriter these days? Larry Merchant, an excellent sports columnist and an even better sports editor in Philadelphia and New York during the Sixties and Seventies, says, “I wonder who becomes one now. Do kids still grow up dreaming of being sportswriters?” He questions whether the profession still attracts the kind of literate essayist it once did, and, indeed, why would it? Why would anybody capable of writing a screenplay or a novel go into sportswriting? Lesley Visser, who left The Boston Globe’s sports staff to become a broadcast with CBS Sports, recalls talking with Ron Rapaport of the Los Angeles Daily News about the future of a friend who was deciding between a career as a sportswriter and as a lawyer. “Ron is saying that newspapers are a dying industry and she has to go to law school. I’m saying, ‘You want her hanging around with people who say things like “By and large …”?’ Ron says, ‘No, you’d rather she hung around with people who say things like “Outta my face, muthafucker …” ’ I had to admit he had a point.”
At its best – and to almost everyone, that means Smith and Cannon – sportswriting was as evocative as a baseball card between bicycle spokes, as uniquely American as New Orleans jazz. It required a blending of artistry and craftsmanship beyond any of the other journalistic disciplines, and it always lured the best writers interested in newspaper careers. The beginner had two choices: He could work in the cop shop, listening to police radios, the MTV of the newspaper business, or he could write sports. The only requirement – a simple one, really – was a belief that sports were of significance. Before he became a successful novelist, Kurt Vonnegut was hired by Sports Illustrated to write a story about a racehorse that had jumped a fence, cross the infield, jumped back on the track ad finished first in the race. Vonnegut sat at his typewriter for a few minutes, got up, left the room ad never returned. Found on his typewriter was one sentence: “The horse jumped over the fucking fence.” Some people aren’t quite right for the job.
In a way, sportswriting mirrors professional hockey, which requires such an amalgam of speed, balance, dexterity, toughness and sharpshooting that hardly anybody can do it well. Inept hockey players fight; frustrated sportswriters complain. (“What’s the difference between a three-week-old puppy and a sportswriter?” snapped Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears not long ago. “In six weeks, the puppy stops whining.”) Maybe sportswriters don’t sound tough, but they are. Seasons are endless, Iliads of such antiheroic proportions that Homer wouldn’t have lasted through the play-offs. Imagine a life of horrible hours, terrible press-box food and excruciating organ music, of having to ask questions of the same hormone-crazed offensive lineman you just wrote was slower than your Uncle Solly. Probably the best young meanspirited wit to appear on the sports pages in recent years is Norman Chad, late of The National, who once characterized Duke University as a school that “combines a fine academic setting with a loathsome, preppy environment,” Chad, however, made his living critiquing TV sports and never had to face anything more menacing than his VCR. Says John Schulian, twice the Associated Press Sports Editors columnist of the year and now a television writer and producer, “It’s a lot tougher to do when you’ve got to walk back into the locker room and face a six-eight, 280-pound guy who wants to rip off your head and shit down your neck.”
While pro football players seem determined to close the gap, baseball players, as a group feature the most offensive personalities. Kirk Gibson. Jose Canseco. Ricky Henderson. Lenny Dykstra. Names that evoke chills in the hearts of children, send shudders down the spines of sportswriters. (And how about Thurman Munson, Willie Mays, and Dave Kingman, charter members of the Bad Guys Hall of Fame?) Pro Basketball, the best-run sports, simply won’t tolerate boorish behavior, although Michael Jordan, once the most accommodating of players, no longer talks before games unless he’s in the mood. Pro hockey players are fine, since nobody wants to talk to them, who cares? And if you ever thought the sports pages paid too much attention to boxing, this might one of the reasons: “Fighters were always the best,” says Schulian. “Know why? Nobody ever told them they were special, and they got no breaks, except occasionally from their parole officers.”
I approached Dwight Gooden as he walked through the Mets’ clubhouse on a day he wasn’t going to pitch, and asked for a minute of his time. Reflexively, he told me to come back later, then turned back and said, “We can talk now.” Speaking softly, he said the problem with sportswriters is that they are always “trying to outdo each other, especially in New York,” with so many reports looking for back-page headlines for their tabloid. “For readers, it might be great, but for players, it’s kind of tough.” Howard Johnson, the Mets’ third baseman, added, “Sportswriters are okay, but they’re always looking for different angles and stories. It wears on players after a while.” And while he would prefer less sensationalism, he wouldn’t mind a bit of imagination. He begs this of today’s sportswriters, as no doubt their editors must: “It’s the same questions over and over again. I’d sure rather hear something different.”
All that scrutiny can’t be fun, especially when the New York Daily News and the New York Post engage in one of their circulation wars that leave reputations, as well as the First Amendment, mortally wounded. While the examination of sports by newspapers is more relentless than ever, the exercise is more pointless. Teams are portrayed as carnival houses of horror, and any dissension within is exposed for the sheer job of exploitation. A few years ago, a slow day in sports invariably resulted in a call to George Steinbrenner, who was less an owner than a freak, something to poke with a stick until it roared. Get George to say something stupid for today’s headline, get some miserable player to respond for tomorrow’s headline, reconcile all parties on the third day. A cheap half-week of work.
In the old days, athletes had a perception that a healthy relationship with the city they played in and the sportswriters they dealt with would bring rewards. That’s no longer true. Athletes are better off becoming free agents and moving to new teams, and there is nothing a sportwriter can do for the financial health of a player that an agent, a union or an arbitrator can’t do better. Athletes believe that sportswriters will misquote, misinterpret or misunderstand them and that public utterances are safer (and more profitable) when made in a one of those dreadful as-told-to books.
Day-to-day publicity is still perceived as useful, but why deal with an unpredictable writer who may venture into undesirable areas – money, drugs, girlfriends? Television is harmless. Get on good terms with Chris Berman of ESPN, who will bestow a neat nickname. Better yet, try for your own TV ad. Nothing does more for an athlete than a thirty-second Nike spot, where an image is applied and polished by professionals. Not high-profile enough for an ad? Work on TV exposure during your at bats: Step from box, tap cleats, check depth of outfielders, check position of cameras, return to batter’s box, repeat after next pitch. Athletes might know nothing about sportswriting, but they sure grasp broadcasting. Visser remembers being invited to an athlete’s home twice in sixteen years as a sportswriter. “In TV,” she says, “it happens all the time.”
For sportswriters, who are invited nowhere by athletes except to step outside, the locker room remains the primary place of business, even though it is no longer a reasonable place to conduct interviews. In part, that’s because of the prevailing sociopathic atmosphere. Every baseball locker room seems to employ a nasty, fat kid as an attendant, the mutant twin of that sweet, porky batboy in The Natural. The sportswriter enters with the same expectations a community-relations officer must have when he visits the headquarters of the Hell’s Angels. In part, it’s not the fault of the athlete. Just about anybody who shops at Radio Shack can come out with enough hardware to make him an accredited electronic-media correspondent. Locker rooms are overrun with guys from 12-watt radio stations trying to get up close and personal with the star of the game.
While locker rooms have become places of unhappiness, where morose athletes sit on stools as mini-cams, microphones and wise-mouth scribes crowd around, sportswriters continue to defend their need for access to them. In the past year, the locker room has become a focus of attention, all year, the locker room has become a focus of attention, all because Zeke Mowatt of the New England Patriots showed his weewee to reporter Lisa Olson of the Boston Herald. While the idiocy of Mowatt, several teammates sand team owner Victor Kiam was certainly worthy of coverage, it was not worth so much philosophizing, particularly not the deluge of stories reflecting upon the meaning of the locker room in American life. The ordinarily same Tom Callahan, writing in the Washington Post, referred to it as “a silly and savage sanctum … a microcosmic village.” Even non-sportswriter Russell Baker of The New York Times was moved to reflect, stating “It’s about the male dislike of growing up … The locker room is the temple where they worship arrested development.” (Note to Baker and the other novice sportswriters: It’s a place where men change pants.)
Why, all of a sudden, so much interest in the locker room? Sportswriters, who have always been accused of writing in clichés, now think in clichés, and everybody had the same idea all at once: the locker room. Vince Doria, former executive editor of The National, might unintentionally be offering one explanation for the expiration of his newspaper when he says “The same story is written a thousand times. When writers say they have a good idea for a story, it’s a story they’ve read elsewhere. Sportswriting has ranged so far afield we’re running out of good stories to write.”
There have been so many golden ages of sportswriting, so many evolutions of the craft, that the profession is hard-pressed to compete with itself. The so-called Golden Age, the one that gets the capital letters, is the era of Grantland Rice, symbolized by the famous “Four Horsemen” story of 1924, when Rice sat high up in a press box and somehow saw four football players outlined against a blue-gray October sky. Today, that wouldn’t get by the copy desk. It was an era of worship and wordiness, of masters of the overwrought.
After them came the men who crafted sportswriting. Some did it beautifully, with a twinkle, like Red Smith. Some did it artfully, out of the sides of their mouths, like Jimmy Cannon. Some did it maniacally, wielding a typewriter like a mace, like Dick Young. Those three, and others like them, created modern sportswriting; although they were a little light on social consciousness, almost everything else that has been accomplished in sportswriting was started by them. “Tom Wolfe said he invented something he called New Journalism,” says David Halberstam. “I never liked the phrase much, but I think sportswriters like Cannon, Smith, Heinz, and even Murray Kempton [of Newsday] were the forerunners of what became known as New Journalism. It had its roots in the sportswriting of the Forties and Fifties.”
In the late Fifties and early Sixties came another development, the sportswriter as cynic, iconoclast, critic and sociologist, men like Kiseda, Merchant and Milton Gross. They reflected the Sixties before the Sixties were defined. Pat Williams, now the president of the Orlando Magic but a fledgling team executive back then, says, “They were a new breed, and they scared everyone in sports to death.” That was followed by the era of the long, detailed feature story, labeled the “takeout,” practiced with the most consistent excellence by a young Sports Illustrated staff that included Mark Kram, Dan Jenkins and particularly Frank Deford, maybe the best of them all. Tony Kornheiser, now a sports columnist for the Washington Post but then a skillful takeout writer for The New York Times, says, “He was the god of us all. Everybody wanted to be Frank Deford. Every time he wrote a takeout, there was a trail of broken hearts. Maybe it was that way with the painters, a real good French Impressionist is going along and then Claude Monet comes out with one a crushes you.”
Although the sportswriting field is now crowded with all manner of specialists – the national-beat writer, the Olympic expert, the takeout writer, the TV analyst – there was a time when there were but two kinds of sportswriter. The beat reported covered one of the local teams for his entire career, unless he was good enough or lucky enough to be promoted to columnist, the purveyor of wisdom, cantankerousness and humor. Beat reporting and column writing are still the core of any sports staff, or at least they should be, and yet the great beat reported, the one who goes to the ballpark and writes the game story, is no more.
So empty is the reservoir of talent that last year the Philadelphia Inquirer assigned two cityside reporters to cover premier sports beats, assigning the Eagles to Mark Bowden and the Phillies to Michael Bamberger. I’m sure morale in the sports department soared after that. Neither experiment went for extra bases. Bowden wrote well, if naively. Bamberger wrote earnestly but ineptly and continually discovered what fans already know: that defense wins games and that “baseball is a wholly unpredictable game.”
The definers forevermore of beat reporting and game story writing were three members of the Boston Globe in the mid-Seventies. Although this was already the era of the takeout, the Globe’s was clearly the best sports section in the nation not because of its long features but because of Bob Ryan on the Celtics, Peter Gammons on the Red Sox and Will McDonough on the Patriots. McDonough, the best reporter of the three, became a folk hero of sorts in 1979 by punching out defensive back Raymond Clayborn in the Patriots’ locker room. Ryan and Gammons had a certain lunatic passion for their work that made their stories particularly informative and entertaining. Ryan always seemed the more intense of the two, but he demurs, explaining, “I don’t know anybody who likes anything as much as Peter Gammons likes baseball.”
The classic game story survives mostly in memory. It was killed by onerous deadlines that require sportswriters to write quicker and file earlier so their papers can be delivered through city streets increasingly harder to navigate. It was killed by the demise of afternoon papers, which always had the best stories because its writers had hours to contemplate and compose. Afternoon papers, the PMs, are dropping like flies hit deep to Canseco. While both AMs and PMs have been affected b difficult delivery schedules, PMs are a direct victim of television. If you can get today’s information on the six o’clock news, why read a paper filled with results from the day before?
The game story is also a victim of changing priorities, because the additional duties required of the beat reporter can make the activities on the playing field seem like mere fun and games. Leigh Steinberg, a lawyer and a sports representative, says he sometimes gets thirty to forty calls a day from writers, most of them asking questions about subjects they must cover but are in no position to comprehend. “In the old days, it was questions about the personality of the player. Now, the economics of sports is on center stage: contract negotiations, the size of salaries, the economics of television, the income sources of a team. The modern sportswriter has to understand the relationship between guaranteed and non-guaranteed salaries, the present value of deferred compensation, annuities, how injury-protection insurance works, salary caps, pay scales, arbitration and free agency.”
Asked how many who write about it understand it all, Steinberg replies,“Very few.”
The current state of column writing is considerably better, but for an ultimately discouraging reason: Almost every good sportswriter of the past quarter century is not a columnist, and the pool of young sportswriters talented enough to make up a next generation is pitifully shallow. The columnists most often mentioned as the best of today are Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press and Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News. The worst, editor Frank Deford of The National, is no longer writing them. Deford, to some a living legend, is living proof that people who write well do not necessarily write columns well. Last October, he offered readers a parable about a king, a cooked ox and some badly dressed guests, then concluded: “…this sort of thing is what happens most autumns in college football.”
Albom, a wonderfully versatile writer, is the Audie Murphy of sports columnists: He’s young (33), baby-faced and laden with decorations, including eight APSE first prizes, five for columns, two for feature stories and one for event coverage. He says Detroit takes “enormous, enormous civic pride in its teams.” And it seems he does too. (Contrast this with Bruce Keidan, a former baseball writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, who once said of the Phillies, “They don’t root for me to write a good story, so why should I root for them to play good ball?”)
Albom, says a rival, “…can be very, very clever, but some of his columns can turn your stomach with sickening, gooey shit.” Another sportswriter, a veteran of the tougher Seventies, calls him “the print Harry Caray, the homer of all time.” Albom replies, “I suppose compared to some columnists I am, but there are guys who will rip the shit out of somebody every day. I talk to them. I ask, ‘You really hate these guys?’ They say, ‘Nah, they pay me to do it, take the hard line.’ ” When the barbaric Detroit Pistons were swept by the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs Albom wrote that they left the court like “deposed kings” and that it was fitting the end came on Memorial Day, “when you honor fallen heroes.”
Despicable hometown jingoism? Perhaps, but at least he gets people to read him, which is the primary duty of a columnist, and he goes about it the hard way. It takes courage to write positively in an era when put-down – joke writing is more fashionable. I am speaking now of Scott Ostler, formerly of the Los Angeles Times and The National, and Kornheiser of the Post, who are derivative of but less exalting than Jim Murray of the L.A. Times. I am hard-pressed to criticize either Ostler or Komheiser because they are both so good at what they do. (Kornheiser on Post colleague George F. Will: “… a man who looks like an usher at a Whiffenpoofs concert.”) What makes Ostler and Komheiser dangerous is that they could open sportswriting academies and provide this kind of career counseling: Become a columnist without leaving the comfort of your home! A columnist with the potential to join the Big Four is Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe, who’s improving almost daily, but that will happen only if he pays attention to his columns and stops writing all those damn books about Boston teams.
Books are killing sportswriting. Imagine that. Not the reading of books. God forbid the sportswriter of today should read something other than box scores, discover there’s a Clemens other than Roger. What’s frightening is that all these sportwriters who never read books are writing them. They write them quick and they write them bad. Ron Fimrite, who has to review them for Sports Illustrated, says, “I don’t know how much longer I can take it.”
Red Smith didn’t write books. Jimmy Cannon didn’t write books. You might wonder how the sportswriters of today can find the time to write books, since they have to cover so many games and compose so many stories.
The career goal of most sportswriters is to stay on the job long enough until all they have to do is tell jokes if they’re columnists or make conference calls if they’re not. The conference calls I refer to are not with ballplayers; they’re with other sportswriters. Story by conference call is a relatively new and totally loathsome trend in sportswriting, one that results in something called the around-the-league notes column. These are compilations of gossip and factoids, what you might expect if Kitty Kelley were covering sports.
During the golden Age, sportswriters like Rice, Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon would ponder from above and reflect on the wonders they had seen. They never interviewed the players, probably because it never occurred to them to do so. (As Larry Merchant once observed, if sportswriters back then had asked questions, we would know whether Babe Ruth really pointed toward the stands before his home run in the 1932 World Series.) The modern sportswriter has taken the distancing one step further: He merely picks up the telephone and asks his colleagues for stuff.
This networking is one of the reasons sports pages throughout America have so little individuality. It’s also another reason for athletes to distrust sportswriters. An athlete has a right to expect his comments to appear first in the newspaper of the sportswriter interviewing him, not to see them passed around. Readers are cheated too, because the currency of these around-the-league columns, in addition to secondhand quotes, is innuendo and rumor. Traditionally, a reporter would track down a rumor until it was proved; these days, the publication of the rumor is considered good enough.
Sports editors have found two other means of filling pages, both considerably less titillating than notes columns. One is off-year Olympic coverage of the Lady Bing Trophy. The other is statistics.
All those numbers, charts, graphs and computations now appearing in sports sections provide a skewed view of sports. They measure everything and evaluate nothing. They prove that Wilt Chamberlain dominated Bill Russell. Supposedly, such statistics are of interest to the hundreds of thousands of obsessive-compulsives who participate in those fantasy Rotisserie leagues. I can’t understand why newspapers would want these living dead for readers, nor can I imagine advertisers desiring them in their stores. Nevertheless, I am not altogether opposed to the increase in statistics, since it means a decrease in sportswriting.
So intense has the craving for statistics become that sportswriters are inventing new ones. Remember Bobby Bonds, who stole thirty bases and hit thirty home runs in a season five times, making him the most celebrated 30-30 man? He was eclipsed by Canseco, the first 40-40 man. (Actually, I’ve always felt Canseco was the first 40-40-40 man, referring to home runs, stolen bases and IQ.) Last year, Dave Anderson of The New York Times invented the .300-100-100-30-50 man, proudly declaring Barry Bonds “the only major leaguer ever to hit .300, drive in 100 runs, score 100 runs, hit 30 homers and steal 50 bases in a season.” Can’t you see Dave, a Pulitzer Prize winner, rushing out of his office, triumphantly waving sheaves of computer printouts when his theorem was proved?
Much missed on sports pages, but perhaps only by a few of us, are the in-depth features that fewer and fewer newspapers both with anymore. The National did them better than any other publication, including Sports Illustrated, but it’s unlikely anyone noticed. The readers of today like their stories short and their pictures big.
The National, which lasted only sixteen months, did not go out of business because it emphasized long features. It failed because of an ineffectual delivery system and insufficient advertising. It failed even though it had transformed Dave Kindred, a well-respected columnist, into a house shill who exhorted people to “Whip out that small change at the nearest National box …” (I’m surprised the Columbia Journalism Review didn’t put out a contract on his life.) It failed because Americans love their local teams, and local teams are best covered by local newspapers. (Aside to Emilio Azcarraga: America needs a national daily sports newspaper the way Tijuana needs a Taco Bell.)
Still, it’s dispiriting to realize that the good writing in The National was ultimately of little value, that the long, thoughtful pieces by Peter Richmond and Charlie Pierce had a negligible effect on circulation. Earlier this year, Editor Deford wrote an internal memo comparing The National to Sports Illustrated, which concluded: “The editorial war is over. We’ve won.” (Along with columns, Deford should have given up memos.) He missed the point. Sports Illustrated, which in its golden era published stories comparable to those in the New Yorker, no longer aspires to brilliance. The SI of today features informative, predictable copy and slick packaging. It is very successful.
It’s tempting to chastise the editors of SI for giving up too easily, catering to a less literate audience. I forgive them, because I blame everything on Rick Reilly, a staff writer. Reilly is a one-man cautionary tale. He was absolutely the best young talent in sportswriting in the Eighties. He wrote for the Los Angeles Times before being hired away by SI in 1985, and he had the kind of rookie year for SI that Fred Lynn had for the Red Sox in 1975. Since then he’s knocked out as-told-to books with Brian Bosworth and Wayne Gretzky. His magazine pieces, once lively and insightful, have become long, indulgent and embarrassing. This past April, he profiled golfer Nick Faldo prior to the Masters. The story opened with nine consecutive unsuccessful one-liners (“Every time Faldo says ‘nice shot’ to somebody, they put up another pyramid in Egypt”) and moved along to a vivid, ground-breaking 154-word anecdote about Faldo throwing up on an airplane. Oh, well, there’s good news here: At last nobody can complain anymore that Time Inc.’s magazines are over-edited.
At the same time that SI is becoming less daring, The New York Times is experimenting, “gearing up,” as one Times writer puts it, “for the coming Armageddon against Newsday.” Earlier this year, The Times announced a new, expanded sports section in a promotional pullout that devoted more space to what the paper planned to do for sports coverage than it ever actually gives to sports coverage. The paper hired a few new writers, but that seems unlikely to have any effect, since talent tends to join The Times and flop there, gasping for air like fresh-caught fish. There is no indication that The Times’s sports section is doing what the rest of the paper does so well – using its enormous credibility to obtain access to people who avoid other media, then writing stories with insight and perspective. On the other hand, The Times continues to cover the Westminster Dog Show masterfully.
Most notably, The Times brought back Robert Lipsyte, sportswriting legend of twenty years ago, to write a Friday column. In his first piece, about athletes who returned after long layoffs, Lipsyte reminded readers that in 1974, George Foreman “played Grendel’s mother to Muhammad Ali’s Beowulf.” Librarians everywhere moaned with pleasure. What isn’t so great about Lipsyte’s return is that he joins three other white, middle-aged male columnists – Anderson, George Vecsey and Ira Berkow – as the voices of sports commentary on America’s newspaper of record. All are intelligent and thoughtful, but they aren’t exactly a rainbow coalition.
Sportswriting, at its best, is an art form accomplished with a work ethic. There are still writers who function that way, some already mentioned and others worth noting, Like Joe Gergen of Newsday, Edwin Pope of the Miami Herald and Mark Whicker of the Orange County Register. Add to the list a select few from Sports Illustrated, with special mention to Leigh Montville, often misused as the “Point After” columnist, and Curry Kirkpatrick, who can be the best writer on the staff when he’s not shivering with simile fever, like a jungle fighter out of quinine and crawling for home.
Sportswriting, at its worst, panders to the lowest tastes of readers, offering rumor instead of information, jokes instead of passion, opinion instead of insight. Newspapers have to teach sportswriters how to cover a beat and write a game story. Bring in the belligerent Bill Conlin of the Philadelphia Daily News for lessons on how to walk into a locker room, leading with chin and gut. Let Sally Jenkins of Sports Illustrated show your writers how to describe action by getting closer to the field than even television can. (“Afterward, Miami tackle Mike Sullivan would say that all he could hear during a near flawless Hurricane drive that consumed more than six minutes was the sound of his own labored breathing.”)
Make your columnists get out to the ballpark, and tell them to write as little as possible about what they saw and as much as possible about how they felt. Instruct your golf writer, the one wearing the Pebble Beach sweater, to ask Jack Nicklaus what it’s like to design segregated golf courses. Go to the library and pick up back issues of Inside Sports, circa 1981, and see what imagination and humor can do for sports coverage. (Don’t miss Mordecai Richler on “What Hockey Needs Is More Violence.”) Put a lawyer on retainer so your writers don’t look like idiots the next time they write about the salary cap. Stop cribbing notes from reporters in other cities and pretending they’re your own. Unless it’s an Olympic year, fire the Olympic-beat guy. Better than that, hurl a javelin through his heart. Make the national baseball writer – the one writing the around-the-league notes column – cover the home team. If he doesn’t like it, fire him too.
At the very least, do this: If you can’t get it right, get even.
Steve Kelley, a columnist for the Seattle Times, repeatedly tried to interview Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the basketball great who reinvented himself twice, once by changing his name from Lew Alcindor and later by metamorphosing into a nice guy.
“Over the years, I’d see him,” Kelley says, “he’d say, ‘After the game,’ I’d see him after the game, he’d say, ‘Back at the hotel.’ I’d call his room, he wouldn’t be there. He probably did something like this to me ten times. Then, when his autobiography came out, his publishing house called, telling me ‘Kareem wants to talk to you.’ He had something to sell, so he was going to be accommodating. We set up a time and place.”
Kelley pauses. He is happy. There are so few joyful moments left in sportswriting.
“I didn’t show up. I can’t tell you how good I felt about that.”
Thursday, September 22, 2005
I asked a friend, Deb, at work if she'd help me figure out how to scan this in.
Posted by SWE_BLOGGER at 6:03:00 PM