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The Best American Sports Writing 2000 (Best American Sports Writing)by Dick Schaap
Introduction I bring certain credentials to this guest editorship.
I always had an eye for athletic talent, and I knew from an early age that I did not have that talent. I did not have the speed, strength, or hand-and-eye coordination I needed to be a great baseball, basketball, or football player, or a good one. I decided I wanted to be a sportswriter.
When I was fourteen, I began writing a sports column for a weekly newspaper called the Freeport (New York) Leader. I think I was paid five dollars a column. I have recently reread some of those pieces. I think I was overpaid. My column was called Spanning theSports Scene” alliteration was my strong suit and one of my early efforts began (typically, Im afraid), The local football season is about to open with a bang! Two of the local titans, Hempstead and Freeport, clash ...” In subsequent columns, the prose did not markedly improve.
When I was fifteen, I went to work for a daily newspaper, the Nassau Daily Review-Star. I was in high school. My boss was Jimmy Breslin, who became a Pultizer Prizewinning columnist. Jimmy was the night sports editor, and he was twenty years old. He was in college. You can imagine how good a newspaper it was.
At first I covered only my own high schools games. I started by phoning in results. Then I began going to the office and writing the game stories. My weaknesses included an inability to type. I hunted and pecked with one finger. I took hours to write a story two or three paragraphs long.
As my typing improved, I was given more responsibility. I wrote about other high schools games. I worked four nights a week, four hours a night, for a dollar an hour. I became the papers resident horse- racing handicapper, even though I was not old enough to go to the track. I picked five winners one day.
One night, in the infancy of my career, I went to work, and Breslin had written a script for me. He told me I was to call Fred McMorrow at the Long Island Press, which was then a sister paper to the Review- Star, and I was to repeat his words to McMorrow with feeling and precisely as he had written them.
I did as I was told. Mr. McMorrow,” I said when I reached him on the phone, my name is Dick Schaap and I am fifteen years old and I am working in the sports department at the Nassau Daily Review-Star, and when Mr. Breslin came in to work tonight, he took one look at the layouts Mr. Stirrat [the sports editor] had left for him and said they were a bunch of shit and threw them in the wastepaper basket and walked out, and Im here all alone, trying to put out the sports section.” Oh, you poor kid,” McMorrow said, and then he cursed Breslin for his character flaws.
Mr. McMorrow, Ive written a headline that says, Brooklyn Baseball Club Defeats Pittsburgh Baseball Club by Score of Three to One,” I said, resuming Breslins script. And I have another one that says, Giants One Helluva Ball Club. Is that okay, Mr. McMorrow?” Oh, you poor kid,” McMorrow said again. Im gonna get you some help.” McMorrow then called the city desk at the Review-Star and asked them to assign someone to help me. Breslin, the possessor of a very good if warped mind, had thought ahead and informed the city desk of what he was doing to McMorrow. We cant spare anyone,” the desk told McMorrow.
He called me back and told me to do my best. You poor kid,” he said.
Meanwhile, of course, Breslin was putting out the sports section as well as could be expected on a paper with a twenty-year-old assistant sports editor and a fifteen-year-old reporter.
McMorrow called me again. Ive called every bar in Queens and Nassau,” he said, mentioning the two neighboring counties that were home to the Press and the Review-Star, and I cant find the bastard anywhere.” I will do my best,” I promised.
Finally, after the section closed, McMorrow called once more, and this time Breslin answered the phone. Breslin was sober, but his voice did not give it away. Where have you been?” McMorrow shouted. Ive called every joint I know.” Breslin muttered an expletive, hung up the phone, and congratulated me on a job well done. Mr. McMorrow did not speak to me for several years.
As little as I knew at the time, I knew Breslin was good. I knew I wanted to be like him. There were laws, however, against drinking at my age.
After the apprenticeship under Breslin, I went to college and became a journalistic schizophrenic. I started as a sportswriter on the Cornell Daily Sun and ended up editor-in-chief. In my sophomore year, I covered the Cornell-Penn football game. In my senior year, I defended a zoology professor against the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The summer between my sophhomore and junior years, I worked in Pittsburgh for a steel company on weekdays and at a drive-in diner on weekends. When the Brooklyn Dodgers came to Pittsburrrrrgh, Roger Kahn of the New York Herald-Tribune, whom I had met when I was in high school, invited me to dinner with Jackie Robinson, Joe Black, and Jim Gilliam. I thought I was in heaven, which is not easy to think when you are in Pittsburgh. At dinner the conversation turned to the young star of the New York Yankees, Mickey Mantle, and Kahn told a story he had heard about how dumb Mantle was. Shit,” said Jackie Robinson, we got plenty of guys that dumb, but we dont have anybody that good.” I went from Cornell to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. I won a Grantland Rice fellowship, and at the luncheon announcing the award, my father sat between Jimmy Cannon, the great sports columnist, and Willard Mullin, the great sports cartoonist. Cannon told my father that if I was going to school on a Grantland Rice fellowship, I would have to major in martinis.
At Columbia, I wrote my major paper on the recruiting of New York City high school basketball players. My professor sold my story to Sports Illustrated. They edited me drastically. They buried my lead. They inserted a word I had never seen or heard before.
After Columbia, I became assistant sports editor of Newsweek magazine. I worked for Roger Kahn, who wrote The Boys of Summer. Kahn was a good mentor but not a good person. He told me to cut down my adjectives. He also told me to add up his earnings. He rattled off his freelance sales, and I calculated he was making $30,000 a year. I was making $67.50 a week.
When Kahn left Newsweek, I got his job but not his income. I was twenty-five years old. A few weeks after I took the job, I met an eighteen-year-old fighter named Cassius Clay and took him to dinner at Sugar Ray Robinsons restaurant in Harlem. A few weeks later I met a comic named Lenny Bruce and took him to the seventh game of the 1960 World Series. They both became my friends for life. Unfortunately, Bruces life lasted only seven more years. One last four-letter word for Lenny Bruce,” I said in the obituary I wrote for Playboy. Dead. At forty. Thats obscene.” On November 22, 1963, after a one-year tour as Newsweeks youngest senior editor, I accepted an offer, at only a slight cut in pay, to become the Herald-Tribunes youngest city editor. The papers editor, Jim Bellows, made the offer over lunch at an excellent French restaurant. The owner of the restaurant interrupted our meal. Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said, but your president has been shot.” We both went back to work.
I spent ten months as city editor of the Tribune and then, just as Iwas learning how to do the job, I became, at my own request, a general three-times-a-week columnist. I covered the murder of Malcolm X, the riots in Watts, the civil-rights murders in Mississippi, and politics in New York City. I invented the nickname Fun City” for New York.
When the Herald-Tribune and its ill-conceived successor, the World Journal Tribune, both folded, I went home and wrote books for a few years. In the mid-1960s, I wrote Turned On, about a young woman who died of a drug overdose; RFK, about a young man who wanted to be president; and Instant Replay, the diary of a Green Bay Packer named Jerry Kramer. At the time, Instant Replay was the best-selling sports book ever, and its success prompted a variety of publishers to offer me contracts. I said yes to all of them. I wrote seven books in sixteen months, some of them utterly forgettable.
Among the books was I Cant Wait Until Tomorrow ...Cause I GetBetter- Looking Every Day, the ghostwritten story of Joe Namaths life. The book led to a television program called The Joe Namath Show, and I cohosted and booked the guests. One week I booked Rocky Graziano and Truman Capote together. Capote began talking about what a great athlete he had been as a youngster, and Graziano interrupted him and said, Didnt I fight you a four-rounder in Cleveland once?” In 1971, I accepted a full-time television job as the sports anchor for WNBC-TV in New York. The first day I went to work, I went on the air. I had very little idea of what I was doing. The New York Daily News critic reviewed my debut. He sounded like he wasnt going to get through it,” she wrote. Unfortunately, he did.” While I worked for WNBC, I also spent five years as editor of Sport magazine. I worked on the magazine in the morning, at the television station in the afternoon, and on both at night. At Sport, Iserved as the host of our annual athlete-of-the-year dinner. One year we honored Muhammad Ali, the former Cassius Clay, and I wanted a comedian to be part of the program. I wanted Robert Klein, but he was busy, and his agent offered an alternate. Who?” Isaid.
Billy Crystal,” she said.
Who?” I said.
Hes funny,” she said. Trust me.” She was an agent. How could I trust her? But she was right, he was funny, and since the night of the dinner, Billy and I and our extended families have been friends. When he and I collaborated on a book called Absolutely Mahvelous, Billy inscribed a copy to me and my wife Im glad Klein was busy.” I spent the seventies at NBC, the eighties and nineties at ABC and ESPN, always managing to find time to write magazine articles and books. How do you do it?” I was often asked. Alimony,” I usually explained. I collaborated with Bo Jackson on a book called Bo Knows Bo, which, like Instant Replay more than twenty years earlier, rose to number two on the New York Times bestseller list. It was the best- selling sports autobiography ever, until Dennis Rodman decided to become an author. Rodman shattered all of sports literary records.
At the turn of the century, I remained schizophrenic. I hosted The Sports Reporters for ESPN and reviewed the Broadway theater for ABCs World News Now. I was the only person who voted for the Heisman Trophy and for the Tony Awards. I also hosted a weekly two-hour radio program and an interview show, Schaap One on One, on ESPN Classic, and still made time for magazine articles, books, and speaking engagements. I still paid alimony.
I have been a journalist for half a century. I have been a reporter, a writer, an editor, and a broadcaster, using the same basic techniques to cover the Son of Sam or the San Francisco 49ers. I have played golf with Bill Clinton, tennis with Johnny Carson, and tonk with Wilt Chamberlain. I have been to the Olympics, the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Final Four, the Masters, Wimbledon, the Kentucky Derby, the Thrilla in Manila, and the World Chess Championships.
In other words, I have never worked a day in my life.
I know that stories that deserve to be in this collection have been omitted. I know that stories that do not deserve to be in this collection have been included. I know because in years past, in this series and others, I have had some of my better stories omitted and some of my lesser ones collected. They were wrong. I could be wrong.
(Now that Ive covered myself, I hope, with friends whose work is not represented ...) My errors, of omission and inclusion, are, I hope, honest errors, based purely on what I like to read and what I dont like to read. I like to read stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end, that tell a story, that lead somewhere. I like to read stories that provoke a response, anger or sadness or terror or joy or, best of all in the case of sports stories, laughter. I think sports, at its best, is entertainment, and sports writing, at its best, is entertaining. I guess I dont want sports to be a microcosm of life, even though it too often is. I want it to be an escape, a diversion, a pleasure.
In assembling this collection, I was struck by how many of the articles I chose are about so-called minor or fringe sports, especially X-sports, as they are now called, and how few are really funny. Garrison Keillors bogus ghostwritten autobiography of a wrestler who becomes governor of Minnesota is the only determinedly humorous work in the book humor in the vein, though not quite of the stature, of Ring Lardners classic epistolary novel, You Know Me, Al. The story about the Kentucky shooting party, Blown Away,” is comic but chilling. Several of the other stories have witty passages, amusing anecdotes, clever turns of phrase words and sentences and paragraphs that made me smile or laugh but they are not, essentially, funny.
There is nothing funny about my favorite piece in the package, Storm Warning,” a suspenseful article about the perilous 1998 Sydney-to- Hobart yacht race that arrived on my desk without a byline, an article whose author, as I write this introduction, I still do not know by name, age, nationality, or gender. The first faintly humorous passage in the (to me) anonymous article refers to Rupert Murdoch, whom I refer to as Americas loss, Australias gain, losing a fingertip to a screaming rope in Sydney Harbor,” forcing him to be replaced in the race by his son, because his father ran out of fingertips.” I presume that was intended to be lighthearted. Personally, I cringed. To my amazement, I shared Murdochs pain.
While I am quibbling, let me go back to the lead to Storm Warning”: Booom!” I liked the directness of it I am partial to short sentences, asyou may have noticed but I was irritated by the spelling. Booom,” so far as I can tell, is pronounced exactly the same as Boom,” so why not use the correct spelling? I inherited this prejudice from my former associate and hero, John Lardner, the son of the aforementioned Ring. John could never understand why any writer would quote the less articulate as saying wuz” instead of was,” since the two words are identical when they reach the ear.
John wrote my all-time favorite lead for a magazine article about sports: Stanley Ketchel was only twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Boom! That tells you a story, doesnt it?
Boxing, historically, has inspired masterful sports writing, fiction and nonfiction, from the Lardners to Hemingway to Mailer and Schulberg and Bill Heinz and Joyce Carol Oates, but Ive never feltthat the quality of the literature justified the brutality of the sport. Boxing, strangely enough, is missing from this collection, not because of my feelings about the sport but because no boxing story measured up to the selections celebrating yachting, skiing, skateboarding, ultra-marathoning, shooting, curling, bull-riding, free-falling, distance swimming, bass fishing, motorcycle jumping, bowling, cockfighting, and poker playing, some of which are considerably more lethal than boxing. Horse racing, which was as big as boxing in the days of Dempsey and Man o War, Ali and Secretariat, does not get a mention. Football, baseball, basketball, and hockey, the meat-and-potatoes sports, do, but none of those selections deals with the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Final Four, the NBA championships, or the Stanley Cup playoffs. This confirms my theory that the larger the event and the more sports reporters in attendance, the less the likelihood that the event will generate exceptional stories.
I am delighted by the number of writers represented whom I had never read before, whom I had never heard of, gifted men and, impressively, women, some contributing to obscure journals, some to popular publications. I am disappointed by the fact that I didnt see a single newspaper sports column as good as the ones Red Smith used to write regularly, perhaps because the columnists today have such varied interests half of them, it seems, with their own radio shows, half of them appearing on television as often as Regis Philbin (who used to cover sports) that they feel no urgency to make certain that the best of their written works are considered in an annual competition.
When I was a magazine and newspaper editor, when I wrote a weekly column about books and authors, I read much more than I read now. Helping to assemble this collection forced me back into reading, and for that I am grateful.
I hope you will be, too.
dick schaap Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company Introduction copyright © 2000 by Dick Schaap
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