As is U.S. 1’s tradition, the issue immediately preceding Princeton University’s Reunions weekend features a story that hopefully will be of interest to our regular readers as well as those visitors who parade up and down the sidewalks of downtown Princeton in eclectic blends of orange and black.
This year two Princeton alumni from the 1960s, both former chairmen of the Daily Princetonian who went on to become lifelong journalists, share — virtually — a few memories under an imaginary Reunions tent.
One of our Reunions storytellers is Richard K. Rein, Class of ’69, now editor of U.S. 1. The other is Frank Deford, Princeton ’62, the renowned writer for Sports Illustrated, the founding editor of the short-lived National Sports Daily, the author of 18 books, the host of the NPR radio show that is aired on the first Wednesday of the month, and a reporter for Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, the HBO cable television show.
Rein is here live and in person. Deford is participating by way of excerpts plucked from his 2012 memoir, “Over Time” — excerpts edited and arranged by Rein to create the semblance of a conversation between him and Deford. Let’s eavesdrop:
Rein: To me the real brass ring of being elected chairman of the ‘Prince’ was the door it opened to the Time Inc. newsmagazine empire. When I was burning the midnight oil at the Prince offices at 48 University Place, skipping morning classes at considerable cost to my academic standing, I did it with the realization that the winner of the big chairman election in the late fall of my junior year would not only take over editorial direction of the paper, but also get an open invitation to a summer job at a Time Inc. magazine, become a campus stringer for Time during the senior year (and paid handsomely for filing dispatches on campus events worthy of national attention), and then — if you hadn’t just blown the opportunity through gross malfeasance — an automatic fulltime job offer after graduation. Talk about a pipeline for the privileged.
The door opened for me in the spring of 1968, when Time Inc. announced it was sending a representative to campus to meet with seniors interested in pursuing a career in journalism or publishing. Students were invited to sign up for a few minutes of his time. I, meanwhile, got a phone call from the representative’s secretary: Could I meet with him? Of course. What was the most convenient time for me? I chose late morning (I was burning that midnight oil, after all).
At the appointed hour, I showed up to a waiting room. A dozen Princeton seniors were sitting patiently, cooling their heels. I announced myself. A few minutes later a secretary announced: Mr. Rein, Mr. Moore is ready to see you. I waltzed to the front of the line. After some small talk, the HR person announced that he had summer positions available in four cities — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Atlanta — with any of four magazines, Time, Life, Fortune, or Sports Illustrated. Thinking that the 1968 Democratic convention was going to be a newsmaker, I chose Chicago and Time magazine.
Sure enough, the summer job (amazing as it was) led to the stringer role during my senior year (with student unrest a subject of national concern), and then a fulltime job at Time magazine starting in 1969. That was the path for chairmen of the Daily Princetonian. It had played out that same way for my predecessor, his predecessor, and his before that. As far as we knew, it had been that way since, well, the beginning of time or at least Time.
But, as I now know, Frank Deford may have had a lot to do with establishing that tradition. Let me give way to Deford, who recounts his hiring at “Timeink,” as he refers to the company, in his memoir.
Deford: The main thing was, I wanted to go to New York, which is where I knew writers went to write and live life large. . .
Fortuitously, one day I saw a notice that Time Incorporated would be interviewing on campus. The company’s celebrated, respectable magazines — Time, Life, and Fortune — were not, I thought, the right sort of showcase for my presumed ability, but I’d been a reader of Sport Illustrated and very much admired the writing in the magazine. Whereas it had a lot of yummy stuff about yachts and show dogs and what tweeds to wear when tailgating at the Yale Bowl, there was, in counterpoint, some awfully good writing in it. I also figured that, as a starter course, a magazine would be a better fit for me than would a newspaper, as I imagined that the larger canvas was better suited for my more expansive, embroidered style.
I bundled up my choice clippings and went to see the interviewer. He was a Mr. Titman — a name Dickens had somehow missed. At first Titman told me that he really wasn’t interviewing people who wrote, that he was just after business types . . . But as I was about to scoop up my clips and depart, something crossed his mind. Titman was a Princeton man himself, and he recognized me from articles I’d written for the alumni magazine, and so, as a loyal Tiger, he very nicely said he’d go the extra mile and look into getting me an interview. So, there: thanks to Titman, now I was an official cog in the celebrated Old-Boy Network. My vaunted Princeton education — uh, affiliation — had already paid off.
On my appointed day, I took the train into New York and boldly presented myself at the Time Incorporated personnel office. There I was handed two things. First a list of the editors I was scheduled to see. Second a folder with my name on it: Frank DeFort. I was advised to hand the folder to each big-shot Timeink editor that I met. Now, nobody told me not to look inside the folder, but even if anyone had, I would’ve had to be inhumanly incurious not to. So, first chance I got, I sneaked a peek. Samples of my writing were in there, but on top was sort of an assessment of who this particular Depression Baby candidate might be, and here were the very first words typed there to sum me up:
“Not very bright.”
Now, fair’s fair: if it was strictly based on my (ahem, gentleman’s) grades at Princeton, this was a perfectly reasonable assessment. Still, talk about carrying your own cross. Sure, the offensive introduction was followed by something like “but perhaps may have a passable way with words.” But still: I walk into an office and hand over the folder to Mr. High-and-Mighty Editor behind the desk, and the first thing he sees is “Not very bright.”
.. . So, rather nicely but firmly, I advised all the editors I met (who didn’t want a dummy like me anyway) that I did not want anything to do with them, either, that I was merely humoring them because the only magazine where I wanted to work in the whole lousy company was Sports Illustrated. . . .
. . . Somehow this information lasered back to the . . .. Sports Illustrated HQ, and there I became an instant hero. . . I suddenly found myself invited up to the elite company dining room for cocktails and lunch with Sports Illustrated editors. Moving right ahead at warp speed: I was escorted down to . . . the very office of the managing editor, Andre Laguerre, himself. . . I didn’t know enough to be nervous. I had no idea that the “managing” editor was the boss editor, that this was the guy. . . I was more interested in chatting up Laguerre’s pretty secretary, when the great man interrupted my patter, asked me in, and told me he’d heard so much about me and was so pleased to meet me.
Hey, not very bright, my ass.
Rein: What’s neat about Frank’s story is that a sports connection is the only reason why John Titman, the Time HR guy, even entered the Princeton Class of 1951. Titman was scheduled to begin his freshman year at Williams College. That’s because his father, Dee Titman of Binghamton, New York, a Bucknell alumnus, was a close friend of the highly regarded Williams football coach, Charlie Caldwell.
Dee Titman so admired Caldwell that he was urging his son to enroll at Williams. But in 1945 Princeton lured Caldwell to come coach the Tigers’ vaunted single wing offense. The talk around Binghamton was that Caldwell said he would take the job, but only if his buddy Dee Titman’s son could come to Princeton, as well. It was a testament to the influence of football, even at an Ivy League school.
Fifteen years later, when I was applying to Princeton, the alumni interview in Binghamton was conducted by Dee Titman, who had absolutely no official connection with Princeton but had become a die-hard booster. Now that’s a testament to those Princeton ties.
Rein: By the time I had arrived at Princeton in the fall of 1965 Daily Princetonian editors were renowned for their disregard of academic standing. The byline of R.W. Apple Jr. ’57, a former chairman, made almost daily appearances on the front pages of the New York Times. Around the Prince offices he was known as “Johnny” Apple, and the word was that he had failed out of college not once but twice.
Deford was another celebrated journalist, lighting up the pages of Sports Illustrated, but we all knew that Deford ’62 had started out as Deford ’60 or some other year. With a less-than-stellar academic record he had even squeezed in some military service before graduating. But Frank had his moments in the classroom:
Deford: In college, at Princeton, I continued apace with my writing. I had a couple of plays produced. On the newspaper, I wrote everything: stories, editorials, humor, columns, movie reviews. I covered the basketball coach . . . and the dean of students, who threw me out once (on incredibly trumped-up charges, if I must say so myself). Eventually, I became the editor of the daily newspaper, or “the chairman” as we so grandly called it.
Unfortunately, as regards actually going to college and learning something, I wasn’t very accomplished at that. I spent all my time writing and screwing around; besides, the 1950s were still an age when professors were not afraid of students, so a professor would give low grades if students deserved them. And I deserved them.
During my sophomore year I got accepted into my dream course. . . The professor was Kingsley Amis, visiting from England, where he was celebrated as one of the “angry young men” of postwar literature. He had come to Princeton ostensibly to teach this writing course to the wide-eye Tiger literati, such as myself. . . .
As a getting-to-know-you exercise, he had us list three writers who had “influenced” us. . . .
First, I put down J. D. Salinger . . . Then Shakespeare. . . The third author I was going to put down was whoever had written the novel Johnny Tremain. It was about a young lad in Boston during the Revolution, and it had so enthralled me when I read it as a child that it influenced me to start reading other books. However, I couldn’t remember who the author was, and there was no Google then. . . . Luckily, I then had an inspiration, and the name I wrote down instead was Red Smith.
So, a week or so later, when I had my introductory private session with Kingsley, he could hardly wait to inquire who exactly this Red Smith chap might be. When I told him Smith was a newspaper columnist, he nearly gagged, holding in a snicker. His eyes rolled when I added that Smith’s subject matter was fun and games. All the great writers of great books since antiquity, and this cocky American dimwit had actually named some lowlife sportswriter! In the top three! Literature! All-time!
. . . Even though I explained how the columnist had so impressed me — influenced me! — as an exemplar of good newspaper writing, it remained in Kingsley’s mind that I was the prime example of the worst kind of provincial, hopelessly dopey thinking that pervaded even the supposed best campuses on the nether side of the Atlantic.
In point of fact, I know he thought precisely that, because that’s what he wrote in a long, arch disquisition about his impressions abroad for a Sunday British newspaper. But, aha! As luck would have it, my brother Mac was attending school in England that year, at Rugby, and he read the article and mailed it to me, circling the part about the incredible naif who had listed a sports columnist in the company of the Bard. “Could this be you?” Mac wrote. It obviously was, even if Kingsley hadn’t used my real name. . . .
So, at my next appointment with Kingsley, I just ever so sweetly told him how much I’d enjoyed his article.
“What article?” he asked, swallowing the bait.
“Why, you know, sir, the one in the London paper where you made such fun of me.”
Well, Kingsley had bad, discolored teeth, and his whole pasty English face turned that off color now. He was mortified — not to also say impressed that I had such a wide-ranging network of global sources. . . .
In any event, the last assignment I headed in that semester was a one-act play, which he said was much the best thing any of his charges had written all year, so good that he gave it to his agent, and she tried to get it produced off-Broadway. The production fell through, but never mind; now I was plugged into the big time, I had an introduction to a hotshot New York agent, and I was not only immature and ambitious, but also smug. In no small part, you see, thanks to Red Smith.
Kingsley would go back to England and, I believe, write a bad novel about his year in America.
Rein: I never had such a moment of literary triumph in front of a professor, but I did have one sweet moment defying the campus stereotype of the Prince chairman as swashbuckling editor/classroom dunce. In the spring of senior year I handed over the chairman reins to my successor, and then turned my attention to the dreaded senior thesis.
Having peaked in academe in ninth grade, I bottomed out my freshman year of college and managed to level off in my sophomore and junior years of college. But in the spring of 1969, for the first time in my academic career, I was cut loose from journalism. I had nothing else to write but the dreaded senior thesis.
As an English major — a department known at the time for its rigorous standards — I knew I had to produce something fairly compelling. Amazingly, I got it done early, and while the rest of my departmental colleagues were sweating it out in their library carrels, I was enjoying an extended road trip to see college buddies in various party schools throughout the northeast.
When the theses were returned, with critical commentary accompanying the grades, most of the English seniors gathered at the Annex, the basement bar across the street from the library. Once everyone had their beers in hand we began to compare grades. Under Princeton’s quaint grading system at the time, a “1” was the top grade, with higher numbers successively worse. An off-the-chart, superior effort earned a 1+, a regular superior effort got a 1, and an effort that just missed superior got 1-.
As I recall there were a few 2s in our cohort, more 2+s and 1-s. I don’t recall any 1+s. But two or three guys had 1s. Congratulations flew through the air. Then I spoke up: I also had received a 1, I announced. The group broke into laughter. Sure, Rein, the guys asked. What did you really get?
A 1, I repeated. They didn’t believe it and made me produce the professor’s critique to prove that I wasn’t kidding. So I did.
Rein: If you were chairman of the Daily Princetonian in the 1960s or early 1970s, sooner or later you were going to address the heated issue of Bicker, the admission process to the eating clubs on which the university had relied to provide meals and social opportunities to its juniors and seniors. Nowadays it’s not as much of an issue. The university provides all sorts of dining options and barely half the eligible classes join the clubs. And roughly half the club are “sign in” clubs, meaning that pretty much anyone can join.
But in our era, Bicker was serious business. As chairman of the Prince I ignited a schism on my board when I terminated the services of an opinion editor who ran to be the officer of his club. The opposition appealed to the Prince trustees to reverse my decision. I met with the trustees for drinks at the Nassau Club to discuss the matter. By the second round the insurrection was over.
Deford: The problem was that every February when the clubs selected members in the middle of their sophomore year in what was called by the awful, revealing name of “Bicker,” a few guys wouldn’t get a bid anywhere. Most of them, invariably, were Jews, so the New York papers would make a big fuss about it, and Princeton was labeled as anti-Semitic, which it could be, and certainly during Bicker. . .
The handful of guys who didn’t get a bid to a club were known as “hundred percenters,” because, their abject failure to appeal to any of the seventeen clubs denied the university the goal of total inclusion and gave Princeton a black eye. Sometimes, then, the handful of hundred percenters were parceled out to the clubs. It was a scarring enough experience if you didn’t get a bid to one of the clubs you aimed for and your friends all left you in the lurch; just imagine how wounding it was not to have anyone at all bid you, so that you had to be foisted on someone just to be able to eat. . .
One night late I was with a couple of guys in my club’s library. One of them was a hundred percenter we had just accepted . . . He was actually a pretty good guy — different, yes, but really quite entertaining. Let me tell you, he was better company than some of the boring tweed bags who had come through the front door.
. . . Somehow the subject came around to a point where the hundred percenters started talking about how sickening it’d been to have been rejected by all seventeen clubs. The other two of us just sat there, mute, stunned. He didn’t go on for all that long, just long enough to say how it had almost destroyed him, so he had gone into the army and tried to forget it, but then he made himself come back to Princeton because otherwise he would’ve always been running away. Then he told us that he had come to appreciate how a lot of people in the club treated him nicely even though they knew he was just a bird with a damaged [wing] whom we’d taken in as our college form of noblesse oblige.
The other two of us never said a word. Then the hundred percenters simply got up, and, really quite formally, said, “Thank you, Jamie. Thank you, Frank. Thank you for listening. I have to do this every now and then just to let people know.”
And he left. And Jamie and I looked at each other, and we were touched and ashamed, both.
Rein: As a newly minted Princeton alumnus in 1962, Deford was immediately viewed as the expert on an as yet unheralded player at his alma mater who, Deford believed, was “the best sophomore player in the nation.” But Deford’s most telling anecdote in his memoir about Bill Bradley has nothing to do with sports. It’s rather a postscript to a story that Deford writes about another legendary Princeton athlete, Dan Sachs, five years ahead of Bradley, a celebrated football player who also won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford. When Sachs died of cancer at age 28 in 1967, Deford wrote a tribute in the Princeton Alumni Weekly.
Deford: Six weeks later I received this letter from Second Lieutenant William W. Bradley . . . shortly before he was mustered out of active duty and joined the New York Knicks.
“Thank you very much for your tribute to Dan Sachs. . . The story of his undergraduate life has more than once pulled me through a crisis, made me work a little harder, or forced me to disregard the criticism of those whose objections stemmed from an opposite temperament. . .”
Rein: Bradley certainly read the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Sometime in the early ’70s, when I was back in Princeton cranking out weekly accounts of the football team’s misfortunes in the alumni magazine, Bradley, by then an integral part of the New York Knicks championship team, came to campus to speak at the freshman honor assembly.
I got into a short line to shake hands with Bradley and nervously (I am sure) introduced myself. He immediately looked me in the eye: “Oh Rein, the byline.”
In 1990 Bradley, by then a U.S. senator, marched with his 25th Reunion class in the P-Rade. As the Class of ’65 passed by, I yelled out from the crowd: “Hey, Bradley. You still playing for the Knicks?” He hollered back, “No, too slow.”
After the P-Rade I walked by him and gave him a big smile. “Rein,” he said. “You were the wiseguy.” Bradley is very good with names, I thought, like every good politician. But, as I thought later reading Deford’s memoir, maybe not as good as many of us would have hoped.
Deford: Late in 1999, as he prepared to run against Al Gore for the Democratic nomination, I was asked to introduce Bill at a dinner at the 21 Club. Those in attendance were all his friends and admirers, you understand, and when I gave him the floor, I kidded him a little and left myself wide open with some self-deprecating remarks.
I thought he would take the opening and lay into me, all in good fun . . . but instead he just said, “Thank you, Frank,” very formally, and then launched into a pro forma stump speech . . . It was just Bill being very earnest . . . A few months later he lost the New Hampshire primary to Al Gore by only 4 percent of the vote. If he’d just won that, the history of the world in the early 21st century could very well have been very different — and so much for the better. Maybe if he’d just loosened up a little more for the folks.”
Rein: Swashbuckling editor or not, the college newspaper never fully prepares an editor for the big leagues of national journalism. Ted Williams, the great Boston Red Sox slugger, who had had a long feud with the Boston sportswriters, whom he derided as “knights of keyboard,” was a test for any journalist, no matter how experienced:
Deford: The first time I, as a kid reporter, had to interview Williams, he was managing the Washington Senators, and I was quaking in my boots as I waited to waylay him in the lobby of his hotel. He was annoyed at the intrusion, but he was obviously cognizant of my nervousness and perhaps sensitive to a callow innocent’s jitters.
“You’re tall for a writer,” he assayed. I agreed that that was so. It bemused him. I had known some of the Knights of the Keyboard in their declining years, and they were not men of superior height. “Well, all right,” he said, and thereupon answered my questions (whatever they were) directly, with dispatch, if without enthusiasm. Good enough. Thank you, Mr. Williams, and now lemme scram outta your way.
Rein: I was stationed in the Chicago bureau of Time in the spring of 1970, when someone in the New York office of the magazine needed a reporter to interview Ted Williams, whose team was playing in Detroit at that moment. Detroit being a very short plane ride from Chicago, I got the assignment. I was seated in the press box during the game, which entitled me to join the other writers in the clubhouse after the game. At that point Williams had been told to expect some questions from me about the subject that Time was pursuing.
The Senators lost the game on the basis of a single ball batted down the foul line, ruled foul by the umpire but so close that no one in the press box could tell whether the umpire’s judgment was correct or not. The one person in the ballpark who would know for certain was Williams, who was believed to have eagle-like eyesight. If the umpire got the call wrong, you could expect a tirade from Williams. I worried if he would even deign to consider my questions.
One of the scribes summoned up the courage to ask Williams about the play. “Ted, the ump called that ball foul. From your vantage, did it look that way to you?” In this era of no slow-motion high-definition video replays, the average manager might have answered that it was just barely foul — or fair — depending on what would benefit his team. Ted Williams put a finer, more definitive, and coldly objective point on it. With an air of resignation, he answered, “Foul by a c–t hair.”
As the scribes dutifully took down Williams’ pronouncement word by word, a subdued Williams took some extra time to answer my questions unrelated to the outcome of the game.
Clay to Ali
Rein: Deford and I are both old enough to have straddled two great eras in 20th century sports: The Cassius Clay era and the Muhammad Ali era. It was a sensitive time for everyone, and even sportswriters got caught up in the moment. Clay, soon to be known as Ali, was more gracious than any of us would have expected.
Deford: I spent a rather remarkable train trip with the young Cassius Clay in 1962, when he returned from Albany to New York. He had been dispatched to the Empire State capital, where the honorable legislators were considering the possibility of banning boxing. Clay had become a popular figure at the 1960 Rome Olympics, where he had won a gold medal. . . in Albany, Clay testified on behalf of boxing, making no real sense, but charming the pols. . . .
Being lowest man on the totem pole at the magazine, I had been dispatched to Albany just in case anything of consequence happened, and I rode back with Cassius. Incredibly, he was alone, a fate he despised, and so he settled into the seat next to me, the better to allow me to hear him bloviate. Any port in a storm. Soon, he borrowed my pad and pen and began to draw some sort of solar system (I think that’s what it was) with lines and circles indicating descending aliens and something or other about God. But although at first I almost laughed, I then realized that he was obviously deadly serious, so I suppressed all smiles as he went on, the whole way to Grand Central, with this dissertation that was perfectly incomprehensible to me.
Rein: I interviewed the champ once by phone when I was in Chicago in the summer of 1968. Even though the legal name change occurred in 1964, the Selective Service didn’t recognize his religious claims and he was charged with draft evasion. A lot of the die-hard sportswriters had not embraced the change and continued to write about “Cassius Clay.” I wasn’t sure whether to call him Mr. Ali or Mr. Clay, and a colleague suggested I take the cue from whoever answered his phone. I called, a man answered, and I took a gamble. “Is Muhammad Ali there please.”
“Speaking,” was the response.
In 1969, I was working for Time in Manhattan. As I walked down Seventh Avenue one day toward the Time-Life Building I saw Ali standing, all by himself, waiting for a cab. By then he was banned from boxing for his refusal to submit to the draft, and he was literally ignored by every passerby. I approached him, reminded him of our conversation in the summer of ’68, and asked him what he was up to.
Rehearsing for a Broadway musical, he told me. No joke. Ali appeared in a show called “Big Time Buck White.” I went to the show and thought it was pretty good for a guy who normally made his living with his fists. It closed after seven performances.
Ali, the provocateur in public, was a sweetheart in a one-on-one encounter. That may explain why Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne Bleeder and parttime boxer who nearly defeated Ali in a 1975 fight that helped inspire the movie, “Rocky,” was able to catch Ali off guard. I interviewed Wepner for People magazine and asked him what gave him the edge. At the introduction in the center of the ring, Wepner told me, “I gave him an old Marine Corps greeting — ‘gung ho black motherf–ker.’ I don’t think anyone ever talked to him like that.”
Rein: Billy Martin was a larger-than-life character packed into a 5-foot-11, 165-pound body. As the second baseman on the New York Yankees’ championship teams he made news on the field and off — remember Martin and the guys at the Copacabana? As manager of the New York Yankees he was the guy who was hired and fired by George Steinbrenner five times. Deford got to appear in a Miller Lite beer commercial with the fiery Martin.
Deford: The commercial itself was easy: Me standing at the bar next to the third member of the ensemble, who was Billy Martin. This particular year, he was managing the Oakland A’s — Billy Ball: remember? You never quite knew what you were going to get with Martin, but it was well before cocktail hour when we shot the commercial, and he arrived on time and was most genial, perfectly happy to be at the conceited fall guy in the script. . .
Rein: I felt the same when I first met Martin, in the Yankees clubhouse after a game. The press was crowded into the manager’s office. Martin had a generous sized tumbler, filled with what appeared to be Scotch on the rocks. Someone asked him how he was doing. “I dunno,” he replied disconsolately. “The doc just told me I got a spot on my liver.” He took a gulp of the Scotch, before finishing the report. “The size of a quarter.”
Years later I was surprised to learn that Martin and his wife were living in upstate New York, just outside Binghamton. I wasn’t surprised to hear the word in 1989 that Martin had died when the car in which he was riding with a buddy went off a road. He and the buddy had just closed down a nearby bar. Billy was not wearing a seat belt.
Rein: In the 1960s most sportswriters relied on the coaches and managers as their sources. Talking to the players was still a novel idea.
In the summer of 1965 at the Binghamton Evening Press, where I began my professional career, my colleagues, eager to get the beat on our crosstown rival, the morning Sun-Bulletin, were already interviewing some of the minor league ball players and coming away with some scoops. One of the starting pitchers had been sidelined by a medical ailment — “the clap,” according to his teammates, using the vernacular for a venereal disease. How to present that news was a challenge. The sportswriter cleaned it up: The player was sidelined by a groin injury.
When I got to college, the guys on the Daily Princetonian were still mining the coaches for all they were worth but mostly ignoring the players. I was assigned to cover hockey and asked the coach, a former NHL player named Johnny Wilson, if it would be OK to interview the players. “Go ahead,” he replied. “They’re in the thick of things. From where I am on the sidelines I can hardly tell who did what down at the goal.”
I never did know who was responsible for this journalistic turnaround, but Deford has a candidate: Dick Young of the New York Daily News.
Deford: Young, you see, really did change the way business was conducted. While sportswriters had long been allowed in the locker rooms, it was usually just to chew the fat with coaches, but Young pioneered the art of haunting the players’ sanctuary, picking up grit and gristle . . .
Young would arrive early, work the locker room, return after the game, and fill his game story with the skinny and knowing quotes. Soon, in order for the other beat writers to compete with him, clubhouses became chat rooms, as well. The downside was that now everyday quotes, scribbled by journeymen reporters, began to proliferate, often, alas, choking out literature and sociology.
Rein: Even some of the ballplayers have come to realize the banality to which they have been reduced in the media. In the spring of 1984 I was doing a story on a Phillies pitcher named John Denny, who had won the Cy Young Award in 1983. Tug McGraw was with the Phillies then and we had a friend in common, Mike Witte (Princeton ’66), the nationally published cartoonist who collaborated with McGraw on the syndicated cartoon strip, “Scroogie.” McGraw opened all the doors for me. After a few days hanging around with the players, one of the Phillies pitchers — I think it was Larry Anderson — let me in on a secret. On the inside of his locker door he had a list of 20 cliches. “You gotta take it one game at a time.” “We gave it everything we had.” “You gotta trust your stuff,” and so on.
As reporters asked their mundane questions, the pitcher would pick an answer off the list.
Question: How does it feel to bounce back after that terrible loss the night before?
Answer: This game isn’t about any one guy, it’s a team effort.
The reporter: Did you feel you had better command tonight?
Answer (the player reciting the next one on his list): I don’t want to take anything away from the other team.
Rein: If any readers are keeping score of anecdotes, they should realize that Deford’s are just a sliver of what appears in his 354-page memoir, which in itself is one of nearly 20 books and hundreds of articles. Among many other honors, Deford won a National Magazine Award for his 1999 Sports Illustrated article on Bill Russell, a Peabody Award recipient for the 1999 HBO documentary “Dare to Compete,” and — take this, Kingsley Amis — the 2012 Red Smith Award from the Associated Press Sports Editors.
How do you tell a big league sports writer from a minor league guy? One measure is what happens when you schedule an interview with boxing promoter Don King (or Donking, as Deford refers to him) and he doesn’t show up on time:
Deford: Don King stood me up twice when I had appointments to interview him.
Now, understand, there were many occasions when an athlete was late for his interview with me. You can almost expect that. Constitutionally, a great many athlete don’t think they have to be on time for journalists. Or many other people. But Donking stood me up twice, and nobody else in sports ever did that to me even once. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice . . .
Rein: By 1974 Don King, who got his start in Cleveland and had served prison time there for stomping a man to death in 1966 over a $600 debt, had moved into the big leagues of boxing, promoting the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman heavyweight fight in Zaire. Cleveland Magazine asked me to interview King at his new offices in New York — a plum assignment for a struggling freelance writer.
I arrived on time for the interview, and was greeted by King’s office manager, a charming lady named Connie Harper, a former teacher and newspaper editor. Mr. King was finishing up another meeting, she assured me, and would be out soon for our interview.
Long story short: Minutes became hours. If I hadn’t needed the money so much, I would have stalked off. But King eventually emerged, a couple of very tired looking suits left his office, and I was summoned in. King began talking, I asked questions when I could, and I took notes ‘til my hand hurt. My half hour interview turned into two hours or so. When it finally came to an end, there were new people in the outer office, looking angry, waiting their turn.
Don King bellowed out as I left: “Make me big, Richard! Make me biiiiiiiig!”
The News Business
Rein: My accumulation of sports anecdotes falls off precipitously with the launch of U.S. 1 newspaper in 1984. The days of following baseball umpires up and down the east coast were over. Instead I became immersed in newspaper editing, production, and — last but not least — delivery. It didn’t take long to realize that, no matter how clever a writer you were or how artistically you put text and photos together on the page, it all meant squat if the paper didn’t get from your keyboard to the readers’ hands.
Deford, meanwhile, had his own foray into the world of publishing start-ups. In 1989 he quit Sports Illustrated and Time Inc. to become the founding manager editor of a daily sports newspaper, the National. In 1991, after its wealthy Mexican owner had spent $100 million on it, the National — weakened in part by circulation challenges — went out of business.
Deford: So, as the National lost money because we couldn’t deliver it, we’d all talk about the situation . . . but we never could, for the life of us, figure out how to beat those economics. I mean, I knew we were in trouble when they couldn’t even deliver the paper to my house, and I was the editor. Don’t tell me about putting a man on the moon. I don’t know technology. But I was in awe at how USA Today got its papers into all the hills and hollows of America, so you’d wake up in the morning in some Motel 6 on the edge of nowhere and there USA Today would be, always so incredibly bland, its editors positively petrified to be lively or daring or even charming; journalism jejune — but so what? It was there where you were, and it even had all the damn West Coast scores.
Time for a Drink?
Rein: Deford and I both came of age in the journalism business when the workday didn’t really end until you kicked back a few drinks with your colleagues at a neighborhood bar. Over those drinks reporters, writers, and sometimes even editors (at their own peril) shared the “back stories” behind what would appear in print, second-guessed each other’s efforts, as well as their own, and shared strategies about how to nail down the next big story. Those days are over.
Deford: Drinking was something of a merit badge for writers. Most newspapers had a designated bar in the neighborhood where reporters gathered. . . Sports Illustrated had one, too. When I arrived it was a humble joint called Three G’s. When it was closed down, the managing editor, Andre Laguerre, took one writer, Bud Shrake, off the mere sportswriting detail and gave Bud the really important assignment of reconnoitering the neighborhood to choose the next appointed vocational gin mill. It immediately became, however undistinguished, the office away from the office . . .
It was . . . part of the liturgy that many great magazine story ideas came out of the colloquies at the bar. Truth to tell, though, the ratio of story ideas to blather was one to a million. It was an article of faith, though, which excused all the time spent at the bar, that a plethora of brilliant story ideas had, through the years, flowed out of the conversation. . .
And just for the record: how many stories are dreamed up nowadays by modern healthy journalists hanging out at gymnasiums and vegan restaurants?
Don’t Aim, Throw
Rein: Our craft can be dissected and analyzed as closely as the highest forms of literature Deford studied with Kingsley Amis. But, given the reality of deadlines that poets and novelists usually don’t face, journalism can be over-analyzed. Deford offers this example, about one of his former colleagues at Sports Illustrated, Mark Kram.
Deford: Kram’s work could be positively luminous . . . the sort of brilliance that only came from standing too close to the fire, so you never could be sure where the flames would light. To Mark, writing was a laboratory science more than a craft; he could not write the second word ’til the first word was perfect. He also believed that he was like a female holding a finite number of eggs — that he had only so many words within him. . .
My everlasting vision is of Mark Kram, pacing, fitful, struggling; at last: simply tormented. If only he could’ve just been able to sit down and write. I told him once, “You know, Mark, you’re like one of those pitchers who can throw a hundred miles an hour, but you have to aim every pitch. Don’t always aim. Sometimes just throw the sonuvabitch.”
Rein: The Mark Kram story hits me hard. I am exactly one of those guys who aims. Even worse, I am one the aimers who doesn’t have 100 mile per hour stuff. I can also allow the writing process to turn into a science project.
The most over-analyzed project I ever directed was a book to be co-written with baseball umpire Ron Luciano, who was born and raised in Endicott, right next door to my hometown in upstate New York. As Luciano gained notoriety as a flamboyant umpire, I realized his story had book potential. I reached him by phone at a hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was umpiring a series of Royals games. I introduced myself, suggested he ought to write a book, and proposed that I would be his co-writer. He agreed.
Simple. Then I made it complicated. Before we would submit a proposal to a publisher, I reasoned ever so carefully, we would pitch a profile story to People magazine, and then assemble enough material to submit two fully developed chapters, along with an outline. I’m sure Luciano didn’t want to argue balls and strikes with me and we embarked on this great venture.
I turned in the People story in the summer of 1977. The next summer I moved the book project into high gear. I wrote a chapter on the history of umpiring, devised an outline for the book, and began compiling more rich anecdotes about Luciano and his colorful umpiring colleagues. I followed his crew to series in Baltimore, New York, and Boston. At Fenway Park I sat so close to Luciano, umpiring at first base, that he and I carried on a conversation between pitches.
At the all-star game break, Luciano and I had planned to get together in Endicott. I called. No answer. Called again. The loquacious Luciano had gone silent.
When the baseball season resumed I finally reached him at his next assigned city. Sorry, he said, his agent had gotten wind of the book project and wanted him to work with an established author. He signed up David Fisher, a former Life reporter. On the strength of a single query letter, Fisher had a book deal in place. The first book, “The Umpire Strikes Back,” was published in 1982, became a bestseller, and led to four more books — and nice paychecks for Luciano’s collaborator.
Eventually I learned my lesson. In 1984, frustrated by the enormous competition for freelance writing assignments, I came up with the idea for U.S. 1. I immediately went into new business start-up mode: Formulate a business plan, reach out to friends and family for financing and support, consider partnerships to complement your talents, and don’t forget that business plan.
I started to formulate the business plan, doing research on the Route 1 corridor, rooting out demographic statistics and job statistics in this pre-Internet era. I floated the idea of some partnerships, with people who reasonably presented some devil’s advocate positions. Good points, for which I had no good answers, just a gut “build it and they will come” feel.
My last attempt to write that business plan took the form of a newspaper front page. The front page morphed into a four-page paper. Finally I decided to scrap the business plan and just create a “sneak preview” of the paper itself. I printed 4,000 copies and dropped them off — uninvited — at the new offices in the emerging Route 1 business corridor. The thought piece I wrote on the dynamics of suburban land planning was virtually ignored. Everyone glommed on to a piece I threw together at the last minute — a guide to where you could dance to live music. The story was illustrated by a front-page photo of a bright young couple dancing at the Hyatt.
People loved it, and U.S. 1 was launched. Business plan, my ass.
Rein: Maybe because they constitute a minority of journalists, and maybe because the majority of journalists, the news reporters, look down on them as the toy department of their enterprises, sportswriters tend to form their own support group. Fifty-one years after I arrived as a summer intern in the sports department of the Binghamton Evening Press, I can still tick off the names of the five full timers I joined: Editor John W. Fox, slot man Russ Worman, and writers Dave Rossie, Dennis Randle, and Bill Hart. (Whew.)
Deford has a broader view, of course, but in his memoir he talks about his good fortune to read the New York Herald-Tribune — “a journalistic light” — as a kid growing up in Baltimore. The Herald-Tribune was “a writer’s paper,” and the sports department, led by Red Smith, was the best in the country, and much better than that of the New York Times. Deford praised a tennis and golf writer named Al Laney, a source for Deford’s book on tennis star Bill Tilden.
Deford: I met Mr. Laney later in his life; he had a bushy salt-and-pepper mustache and always wore a fedora, rather resembling the fellow who adorns Moretti beer bottles. The last time I spoke with him, I was researching my book on Big Bill Tilden, and Al was in a nursing home. Still, though, he talked lucidly about the glamorous events and heroes of the 1920s.
Like a lot of old people, he welcomed the opportunity to speak to some young person who wanted to hear tell about the days of his youth. History being of no interest in America, because it’s, by definition, old, this is a rare occurrence, especially nowadays. I can’t, for the life of me, for example, imagine that any run-of-the-mill young person will want to read the old stuff I’m writing about now.
Rein: I don’t know about that, Frank. I have found your old stuff fascinating, entertaining, and insightful. And I am run-of-the mill enough, and plenty young — 69, still almost a year away from 70. In answer to the question, “who cares?” in the headline above, one answer is that I do. And that’s enough for me.
Michelle Liu, a sophomore at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, assisted in researching this article.