Big George got Little George his first job, answering phones at the AP as a teenager, and at that point the boy began to distance himself from the family. Little George had gorged himself on Wolfe, on books about breaking loose of the loving family prison to become a great writer, and he grew increasingly aloof as he fed his mind at Hofstra and then at Newsday on Long Island, where he got his career break covering major league baseball for Jack Mann's cocky, irreverent sports section—at age 20. By then George had also left May's beloved Catholic Church and fallen for a strong-willed, arty Protestant girl named Marianne, whom he would marry. May never forgave him. Her shining light went out, and as for George's wife.... "My mom just cut her dead," George says.
With the world and love to distract him, George never saw—didn't want to see—all the clues his father dropped about his gambling problem. Big George worked constantly, but in the '50s and early '60s the family never had any money. Husky-voiced men kept calling the house. Little George didn't link that with the ongoing game of gin in the AP locker room or with the fact that Charlie Morey, Big George's boss, was so sad to see him go home. Big George, Morey says, laughing, was one of his "pigeons."
"I'll tell you why George was so bad," Morey says. "When he played gin rummy, he was either mad or scared—mad because he was losing money and scared that he was going to lose more. You can't play any card game like that."
But Peter knew what young George refused to see. In 1960, while Little George was covering baseball for Newsday, Big George got Peter, a junior in high school, a job at the Daily News. Aside from brief stints at Hofstra and in the merchant marine and then a two-year Army hitch, Peter lived in the three-story house on 188th Street in Jamaica, Queens, with his parents and little brother and two sisters and went to work at the News with Pop. He was there when Big George began his desperate slide, remortgaging the house and taking out usurious loans. Peter was there, a 17-year-old, when loan sharks trailed Big George home, and the sounds of Pop's cries filtered through the windows. "They beat the crap out of him, right in front of our house," Peter says. "I went out and talked to them. I knew they wouldn't hurt me. I was young and thought I could kick everybody's ass, and they thought that was funny. I stood up for the guy, and he obviously loved that.
"I am my father. No doubt about it. He got such a kick out of me because I was him, and he was me."
George isn't so convinced of this. His father's literary interests and radical politics were all but lost on the hoops-centric Peter. But there's no doubt that Big George was a tabloid man, with an ego-lancing humor and a grittiness that the rarefied Times never reflected. In Little George, Pop instilled the love of newspapers and baseball. He knew enough not to guide the boy with a heavy hand. But when Peter started writing at the News, Big George was different. He looked out for his son, checking his grammar, correcting his tortured spelling, proofreading everything. "Pete was his best creation," George says. "And he worshiped my father."
Little George didn't. By 1962 Big George had started going to Gamblers Anonymous, but his first son held him in contempt wanted nothing to do with healing. He got himself into trouble? He can get himself out. It wasn't until much later, when Little George spent a week in an addiction treatment center while re searching his 1982 book on pitcher Bob Welch, that he understood how cold he'd been. He apologized to his father, who waved his absolution and let it go. But how do you get back 19 years? A few years ago, Little George went to pick up his own son, David then a 24-year-old reporter, at the same AP building where his father had gotten him his first job. He walked into an office and fell his skin go cold: There was his son where Big George had once been, looking out the window at Rockefeller Center. Fifty years disappeared. Quietly, George wept.
By 1984 Pop was struggling. George would hang back in the press box while his father tried vainly to square the numbers in the box score, snapped at deskmen on the phone, began to die of a blood disorder. There was a nice Thanksgiving dinner with the whole family in the old house and that night George tucked his father in and kissed him on the cheek. "Leave the papers by the bed," Big George said. "Maybe I'll read them later."
He didn't wake up. The next day readers turned to Peter's column in the Post and saw a first: Nothing about frauds or incompetents, nothing about the Knicks or the scoop du jour. Instead, Peter wrote a lovely appreciation of Big George, "the nicest thing he's ever written," Little George says. It read, in part:
If he could die with newspapers or his breath and ink smudges on his hands, then the natural progression for me to write about him. No one is more responsible for my success that my father.