Best of Chicago: Westbrook Pegler on Babe Ruth's called shot | Wendell Smith on the White Sox in Jim Crow Florida | Bob Greene on a hockey "intellectual" | Skip Bayless on Harry Caray | John Schulian on the end of summer
As a companion to this week's reprint series from A Century of Chicago's Best Sports Writing, here's a conversation I had with the book's editor, Ron Rapoport. Ron was a sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times for more than twenty years. He was a also a sports writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Daily News and the Associated Press, and for two decades was the sports commentator on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. He has written numerous books about sports and show business. Check out his Amazon page, enjoy our chat, and cop his new book.
Q: How did you decide to structure the book?
RR: I wasn’t sure how to handle it at first, but after I called the columnists of my era to ask them to send me the work they were proudest of, and started going through the archives, I could see certain themes beginning to emerge. Chicago’s greatest stars—many of them were the stuff of legend really—filled one long section. Banks, Payton, Hull, Sayers, Ditka, Butkus, Durocher, Halas, etc. As for Michael Jordan, I think he represents something unique in Chicago sports history so he got his own section in which a number of writers try to come to terms with him. Then there’s a section called Magic Moments that features some of the city’s greatest sporting events. I had forgotten that Joe Louis won the heavyweight championship in Comiskey Park and when you read Dan Burley’s piece in the Defender on the fight…well, there’s some serious emotion in that one. There is also a section in the book on Chicago’s neighborhoods that has some excellent pieces. John Schulian and Rick Telander have columns on the neighborhoods where Mark Aguirre and Derrick Rose grew up 30 years apart that will tear your heart out. And there’s a section called “Only in Chicago” where the Black Sox, Babe Ruth’s Called Shot, Disco Demolition Night, Steve Bartman and a few other marvelous anomalies are gathered together. The Cubs get their own section, of course. I stole a line from their long-time broadcaster Jack Brickhouse and called it “Any Team Can Have a Bad Century.” There are also two sections at the end of the book, where the writers get very personal. One is when they are called on to cover non-sports events like the earthquake at the 1999 World Series, the 1972 Olympics in Munich and other big stories away from the playing field. The other section shows writers expressing very personal feelings about their lives and families. A lot of this is beautifully written, I think.
Q: Why did you make this a book of newspaper writing as opposed to including long magazine features as well?
RR: That was my plan from the beginning. I’m a newspaperman and wanted both to celebrate the work Chicago’s newspaper sportswriters have done for more than a century and to offer a look at how those sportswriters relayed the news of the city's great athletes and games. That’s why I asked the contributors to stick strictly to what they had written about sports in Chicago. If I had included magazines, I would have had to turn to New York where most of the national magazines were published and I really wanted to keep it local. Also, by limiting it to newspaper columns and articles, I could have more writers and subjects represented.
Q: Can you pinpoint a particular sports section or period of time that serves as a golden age of Chicago newspaper writing about sports?
RR: Now that’s an interesting question. One of the reasons I started thinking about a book like this is the almost physical pain I feel about what is happening to newspapers and their sports sections today. It made me wonder if all the freedom we had, and all the space we were given, meant that we had lived in a golden age and hadn’t bothered to appreciate it. And the more I read from earlier eras, the more I began to think we probably did. I don’t mean to say the writers of my generation were better than those who came before—they weren’t—but I think the earlier writers lived with constraints and a tradition of what they wrote about that, beginning sometime in the 1960s, became anachronisms. There wasn’t much investigative reporting of the type that is common today and not as much interaction with the players as you might expect. This was an era, remember, when sportswriters didn’t go to the locker room after games. And the lengthy probing feature pretty much didn’t exist. I went through the entire run of the Tribune, for instance—it’s all on-line and searchable—and couldn’t find a single long feature about Hack Wilson or Sid Luckman or Barney Ross. I’m guessing that was true of other the papers, too.
Q: How does Chicago differ from New York, Philly and Boston as sports towns?
RR: Sports are essential to all of them, of course, but I wonder if they are quite as much a part of the fabric of the city as they are in Chicago. It is a town that is very much divided by race, class, income, neighborhood, nationality and much more. Yet when it comes to sports everybody pulls together—with the exception of Cubs fans and Sox fans, of course—with an incredible passion. I’m convinced that sports are the only thing that everybody in town has in common. You simply can’t avoid them. This isn’t true in New York and Los Angeles, where there are many people who don’t pay any attention to sports. The people in Philadelphia and Boston might argue with me, but I wonder if they quite match passionate intensity of sports in Chicago.
RR: I think the good people of Philadelphia, and certainly Boston, might have a bone to pick with you on that one. But all three towns have had wonderful sports departments at their newspapers—the Philly Daily News, the Boston Globe. In the '70s and '80s did you follow what was going on with the out-of-town papers?
RR: Ah, if you’re talking about sports sections, I make no claim to any superiority for Chicago. When I went to Philadelphia and picked up the Daily News in those years, I was blown away not only by the writing talent, but the space they were given. Every columnist got a full page to write his heart out and it was wonderful reading Stan Hochman, Bill Conlin, Ray Didinger, Mark Whicker and John Schulian over the years. Then Mark Kram Jr. came along to write his wonderful three- and four-page takeouts. And the Boston Globe had unbelievable amounts of space, too. It could take an hour to read their Sunday sports sections, especially with the likes of Bob Ryan, Dan Shaughnessy, Peter Gammons writing for them. Talk about golden ages.
Q: I should backtrack because the starting point for any conversation about Chicago sports writing should begin with Ring.
RR: That’s right, Pioneer Number 1, of course, would be Ring Lardner. I figured I had to start the book with one of his columns and I found a great one he wrote from the 1919 World Series. Contrary to legend, by the way, he didn’t have a clue that the White Sox were losing on purpose or, if he did, he didn’t so much as hint at it in what he wrote. This is interesting because James Cruisinberry, Lardner’s colleague at the Chicago Tribune, was all over the story. He’d ride in cabs after the games with Sox manager Kid Gleason, whose agonized quotes about how badly the team was playing made it clear he knew something was wrong. So when I wanted to document the Black Sox as the games were being played as opposed to when the fix came to light a year later, Crusinberry’s stories were where I turned. But when you look Lardner’s work and that of his contemporaries—Hugh Fullerton, Charles Dryden, I.E Sanborn and others—what jumps out at you is the sense of fun they brought to their work. Fullerton said the Chicago papers of the late 19th century were boisterous, rough, and undignified—the only thing dull about them, he said, were the editorial pages and the stockyard reports—and the sportswriters played right along. This was different from the way sports were being written about in other cities, where the writing was generally ponderous because the writers were so intent on showing off their knowledge of the game. The rest of the country soon caught up to what was going on in Chicago, of course, but I think city’s sports writing has been marked by a sense of fun from that day to this.
Q: Westbrook Pegler is interesting too because his work in the sports department is often obscured by his later political writing.
RR: The first time I ran across one of Pegler’s sports columns was in Glenn Stout’s fine collection, The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, and it blew me away. It was from the 1932 Winter Olympics in Germany and described the huge military presence. And while Pegler ridiculed it—he particularly went after Avery Brundage sucking up to the Nazis—he also made it clear how frightening it was. It still makes for chilling reading. I was surprised at the time that this was the same guy who later became possibly the most relentlessly reactionary political writer in history of American journalism. Even the John Birch Society’s magazine wouldn’t run his stuff after a while. But early in his career, Pegler was a sports columnist for the Chicago Tribune and when I came across his column on Babe Ruth’s called shot, I laughed out loud. It’s really good, I think—he actually used the words “call his shot”—capturing the details and the drama of the situation, yet is still very funny. Have you ever read John Drebinger’s piece on that game in the New York Times? It’s dry as dust by comparison. Red Smith, who was a friend and admirer of Pegler, said he was at his best as a sportswriter, by which I think he meant it’s a shame he ever moved on to politics. I agree.
Q: How conscious were you of representing all of the major sports, different eras, as well as a variety of writers?
RR: That was one of my primary goals. I worked in an era that had some wonderful writers and every so often I would hear older readers talk about the writers they had grown up reading. This made me curious to look up some of their work and it was a revelation. I’m not sure anybody ever had more fun writing sports than Jack Griffin at the Sun-Times. He’d disappear for weeks at a time and show up Costa Rica or the Minnesota woods with column after column about fishing. I don’t know how he got away with it. And people like John P. Carmichael, Warren Brown, David Condon, Brent Musburger (yes, that Brent Musburger), Bill Gleason, Rick Talley and others had large followings and were often a joy to read.
Q: Great to see a few columns from Wendell Smith, too.
RR: As for black sportswriters, I realized I’d never really read the Defender and doing so taught me a lot. There are two pieces in the book, by Frank A. Young and Al Monroe, that show how long and fiercely the black press fought to integrate baseball where we tend to think it all started with Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. Then there is the great Wendell Smith—I was so happy to see his contribution recognized in 42, the recent movie about Robinson—who spent the bulk of his career at the Pittsburgh Courier. But after he came to Chicago for his first job at a white paper, he started a campaign against segregated player housing in spring training that brought an end to it almost overnight. The man was a giant. Did you know Smith is not in that National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame in Salisbury, North Carolina? I find that preposterous.
Q: Doesn't make any sense about Wendell Smith, but that's institutions and awards for you. How did you arrive at the two pieces you chose from him to use in this book?
RR: Smith made his reputation writing for the Pittsburgh Courier—his work appeared in other black papers around the country, too—and he was just indefatigable. The Baseball Hall of Fame sent me some of his columns from that era and he was all over every story that had to do with black athletes. His notes columns in particular were beyond comprehensive. Then he came to Chicago to join his first white paper and, in 1961, wrote column after column in Chicago’s American about the fact that black players in spring training in Florida had to live in flophouses and eat baloney sandwiches on the bus when they traveled. He particularly went after the White Sox, who were embarrassed to tears and the following year bought their own hotel in Sarasota. This was 14 years after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, remember. I used two of Smith’s columns on this subject in the book, one describing the spring training housing situation in great detail and another about a white couple who dared to rent rooms in a motel they owned in Sarasota to the White Sox’ black players and were threatened and harassed not only by some of their neighbors but also by civic leaders. That column showed Smith’s basic humanity, I thought.
Q: There's a decent representation of women writers.
RR: Well, there are too few of them in this book—a comment on the history of the eras the book covers, I’m afraid—but as Spencer Tracy said of Katharine Hepburn, what’s there is choice. I’m proud to have been the editor of two of them at the Sun-Times, Carol Slezak and Diane Simpson, and when you see the variety of topics they have written about, I think you’ll be impressed. Jeannie Morris and Melissa Isaacson have what amount to before and after pieces on Title IX written 30 years apart and Isaacson has a beautiful piece on Michael Jordan riding the buses during his fling with baseball and breaking down when he talks about the murder of his father.
Q: I love the Bob Greene column. John Ed Bradley once told me how excited he’d be to get Esquire each month just to read Greene’s column. Can you talk about what a big deal Greene was in his prime?
RR: In one of the early reviews of the book in the Chicago Reader, Michael Miner wrote, “When I was young at the Sun-Times, and Greene was even younger, he could be so good it was frightening.” The range of Bob’s interests, his ability to get one big scoop after another, his straightforward powerful prose style and his relentless work ethic were simply astonishing. The column you’re running on Eric Nesterenko is an excellent example of how Bob’s mind worked. And remember, he was writing best-selling books and doing regular gigs on Nightline at the same time. Bob hasn’t disappeared—he’s writing for CNN.com—but if want to read a great young writer in full cry, get yourself a copy of Johnny Deadline, Reporter: The Best of Bob Greene.
Q: The Skip Bayless column on Harry Caray is sweet. Many of us younger readers just know Bayless as a TV personality and aren’t familiar with his writing in Miami, Dallas, L.A. and Chicago.
RR: I worked with Skip at the Los Angeles Times in the '70s and I thought then, and still believe, he was the best newspaper sports feature writer I ever read. I just couldn’t believe he could get people to tell him the things they did and he wrote like a dream. Skip has a TV persona now, and you’re right, it’s all younger people know of him. But I think his three pieces in this book will set the record straight. We all wrote about the death of Harry Caray, for instance, but nobody did it quite the way Skip did, describing what it meant to be growing up in Oklahoma listening to Caray broadcast Cardinals games from faraway St. Louis. I know you’re running that column this week and all I can say is check out the end and tell me it isn’t one of the most evocative closing sentences you have ever read in a newspaper.
Q: What was it about his approach—was it charm, was it doggedness—that allowed him to get close to people?
RR: I can’t be sure, but Skip had this innocent, wide-eyed earnestness about him that I think caught people unawares and got them to drop their guard and say the most amazing things. But he was dogged, too, and worked really hard. In that day, the Los Angeles Times was running 3,000-word features in the sports section almost every day—hard to imagine that today, isn’t it?—and, as I say, Skip’s were just brilliant.
Q: Would you talk about great reporters vs. great writers. Who were some of the finest reporters that you ran across in Chicago? And who were the finest stylists? And who were that rare breed that were able to combine the two?
RR: I’m not sure they’re always mutually exclusive, but you have a point. Jerome Holtzman, who was a very important baseball writer for the Sun-Times and the Tribune—he invented the save rule; how’s that for influence?—was a great reporter who had tremendous sources, but I don’t think anybody ever accused him of being a stylish writer. Bob Verdi, on the other hand, had a way of getting close to players who gave him information other writers didn’t have, and was a very deft and clever writer, too. Don Pierson, the Tribune’s football writer, was a fine reporter and good writer—his piece in the book on Dick Butkus is great fun, I think—and from what I’ve seen of Brent Musburger’s work when he was covering the White Sox and the Bears for the Chicago American he was a fine reporter, too. The great stylists on Chicago sports pages would have to start with John Schulian, who was just superb, and include Mike Downey and Bernie Lincicome—they turned whimsy into high art—Jack Griffin, Bob Greene, Rick Telander and a few others. Mike Royko is a special case, I think. He had a style you couldn’t really quantify. One straightforward English sentence after another. Nothing that a high-school dropout couldn’t understand as well as an English professor. And yet the cumulative effect was astonishing. There are two Royko columns in the book and they’re as different as they could be. But they’re both great. As I say in the introduction to one section, his column on Keith Hernandez’s book in the funniest sports column I have ever read.