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Sometimes the Bear Eats You
March 29, 2010
Confessions of a Sportswriter
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March 29, 2010

Sometimes The Bear Eats You

Confessions of a Sportswriter

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We all turned to look at him, shocked that he had ventured a personal revelation, never mind that it was so spectacular. "It was from Paris to London," he said. "We crashed just short of Heathrow."

But having ventured that far, he merely reached for his glass, leaving us all in suspense. Well, The Kid couldn't stand it. I asked, "So, sir, what'd you do next?"

He took a swallow, allowing the drama to build, and then said, "Why, I took a cab, Frankie."

While Andre was a considerable influence on me, I can recall only one occasion when he offered me advice about writing. I imagine he guided me mostly by osmosis. His genius as an editor was that he made you want to please him, but he wanted you to do that by writing in your own distinct way.

The time he gave me advice was when I wondered whether writing about sports was really substantial. Laguerre simply said, "Frankie, it doesn't matter what you write about. All that matters is how well you write." I suppose that has helped sustain me all these years.

It also helped that Laguerre featured one long story at the end of every issue. He called it the bonus piece. Till then, the marquee piece of sportswriting had been the newspaper column—just a few hundred words. Styles varied, but for someone like Jimmy Cannon or Jim Murray, the column could consistently be a gem. I always thought that reading Red Smith in the New York Herald Tribune for the first time was like being in Delft around 1660 and stumbling on Vermeers: perfectly framed little portraits with just the right touches of light. But I didn't aspire to that. It was Laguerre's bonus pieces that I wanted to write and, after a time, did. I saw my stories less as small, precise Vermeers than as big, fleshy Rubenses.

Institutionally there was real camaraderie among sportswriters, because more than other journalists we traveled together and then wrote en masse, in the press box. I was hardly surprised that last July, when Mets general manager Omar Minaya attacked New York Daily News beat writer Adam Rubin, all Rubin's competitors came passionately to his defense. Sportswriters are rivals, but close ones, like chefs who eat in each other's restaurants.

I came in a bit after airplanes became the accepted mode of long-distance travel, but stories of writers—especially baseball reporters—caravanning on trains with the players they covered were still fresh and legion. The leading men, the columnists, would often drive south together for spring training and then reassemble for the traditional progression of prime events: the Masters (scheduled purposely to catch the writers coming north) and the other major golf tournaments, the Triple Crown races, the U.S. tennis championships at Forest Hills and the Davis Cup, championship fights, the World Series and the most important college bowl game. It was a well-ordered universe, unpolluted by playoffs. Playoffs were hokey, tainted, bush. The NBA, it was harrumphed, "played 72 games to eliminate the Knicks." In the same way, sportswriters had previously thought night baseball was Satan's work, and they were chary of anyone, like Bill Veeck, who dared to marry sports with showbiz. That too was bush.

After all, for decades—for half a century!—American sport had been static. There was no real difference between what mattered in 1900 and in 1950. Everything was played in the same place, and there was a distinct pecking order. Baseball ruled supreme, then came boxing, horse racing and college football. Golf, tennis and track popped up periodically. Basketball and ice hockey were pretty much afterthoughts. When the great Paul Gallico was asked, in the late '30s, why he was giving up sportswriting for the Daily News to write novels in the south of France, he replied, "February." There was just nothin' cookin' from the bowl games on New Year's Day till the pitchers and catchers reported.

Of course, this would serendipitously lead to the ultimate sports journalism sacrilege, the notorious Swimsuit Issue. To fill the late winter vacuum, SI would invariably run a tropical travel story, usually (and hopelessly) titled FUN IN THE SUN. In 1964 Laguerre chose to put fun in the sun on the cover in the person of an attractive young lady standing ankle-deep in water. She was by no means seductive—more preppy—and not at all buxom, in a bathing suit that was more burka than bikini. But sure enough, a few letters of shock and protest came in, one from a librarian declaring that such pornography had no place in her sanctuary. Laguerre, who was invariably bemused by American puritanism, merely mumbled something like, "Wait'll next year," and thus from little acorns do big oaks grow. Soon enough, there was Cheryl Tiegs in a fishnet top.

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