Earlier this year Stan Hochman paid tribute to Larry Merchant, who was a great sports editor at the Philly Daily News and a terrific columnist before he turned to TV:
When Merchant was 50 years younger, he was sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. He was taking names and kicking ass, surrounded by a posse he had hired, hard-driving guys with similar inclinations.
He'd yanked me out of San Bernardino, Calif., and told me where to park near Connie Mack Stadium so I'd find my hubcaps intact after games. And then he told me what we owed our readers.
"Inform 'em, entertain 'em, and every so often surprise 'em," Merchant said. He wrote incisive essays about pro football. He called his column "Fun and Games" as a stark contrast to life and death. And he'd open his occasional notes columns with "Some questions answered, some answers questioned."
The Ring: What led you to journalism?
LM: My parents didn’t understand why I went to journalism school, and they tried to figure how you make a living out of that (laughs). But what I think helped me was my senior year at Oklahoma, I was sports editor and editor of the school daily. My senior year, I wrote a piece for Sport Magazine on Billy Vessels, who was becoming the Heisman Trophy award winner. I got paid $250, which was a lot of money at that time, and my parents took a deep breath and maybe they thought I could make it (laughs). But my first job was as sports editor of the Wilmington News, in Wilmington, N.C. I wrote a lot about fishing, what they caught and what they caught it with. I’d go fishing with Captain Eddie for sailfish. That sort of stuff (laughs).
I was 23, a one-man sports staff. I have vivid recollections of that time. Then an interesting thing happened. I was there for just three or four months, because I used a photo of a black second baseman in the sports section. When I picked up the newspaper later that day, where that photo had been was a blank space. When I went into the office the next morning, the managing editor took me aside and said, “If Jackie Robinson hits five home runs in a game, you can put his photo in the paper, otherwise we do not have photos of Negroes in the newspaper.” When I went back to my apartment, I got a big jar and started to fill it with my change every night. When it was filled a few weeks later, I bought a tank of gas and left town. That was it. I went back home and got a job at The Associated Press, and went from there to thePhiladelphia Daily News as an assistant photo editor around 1955.
The Ring: Your big break came soon afterward, right?
LM: There was a lot of transition going on at The Daily News. I was in the generation that looked at sports differently. The Daily News was housecleaning for financial reasons, and they made me sports editor. I was 26 and reflected a newish sensibility, heightened by TV — we assumed that fans knew the score when they picked up the newspaper. We wrote about the sports scene and what was behind it, about the athletes as personalities and people as well as athletes. My column was called “Fun and Games” to convey the idea that it isn’t life and death for us, that it’s entertainment we are passionate about.
And check out Merchant's 1969 column on Paul Simon and Joe DiMaggio:
“I’m a Yankee fan because my father was,” he said. “I went to Ebbets Field once and wore a mask because I didn’t want people to know I went to see the Dodgers. The kids in my neighborhood were divided equally between Yankee and Dodger fans. There was just one Giant fan. To show how stupid that was I pointed out that the Yankees had the Y over the N on their caps, while the Giants had the N over the Y. I just knew the Y should go over the N.”
There was a Phillies fan too—Art Garfunkel. “I liked their pinstriped uniforms,” he said. “And they were underdogs. And there were no other Phillie fans. Paul liked the Yankees because they weren’t proletarian.”
“I choose not to reveal in my neuroses through the Yankees,” said Simon, who was much more the serious young baseball sophisticate. “For years I wouldn’t read the back page of the Post when they lost. The Yankees had great players, players you could like. They gave me a sense of superiority. I can remember in the sixth grade arguments raging in the halls in school on who was better, Berra or Campanella, Snider or MantIe. I felt there was enough suffering in real life, why suffer with your team? What did the suffering do for Dodger fans? O’Malley moved the team anyway.”