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Of course, much was made about women entering the locker room when they began to join the profession. But then sportswriting, even more than the rest of journalism, was a man's world. Locker rooms? Women hadn't been allowed in press boxes. As late as 1973 my colleague Stephanie Salter was thrown out of the huge annual banquet of the Baseball Writers Association, which was being held in a hotel ballroom.
So I was very fortunate to be covering tennis when Billie Jean King took the bull by the horns. Billie Jean more than anyone else raised my consciousness. Here she was, virtually running a sport, getting up at 6 a.m. after a night match to appear on Sunrise in Cincinnati or some other TV show, serving as a symbol for a whole movement, taking a lot of crap from people who didn't appreciate her—and winning championships. I knew she would beat Bobby Riggs in their Battle of the Sexes in '73. Only two or three times in my life have I been dead sure of an outcome in sport, and that time is at the top of the list. Apart from the fact that Billie Jean was simply a better player than Bobby was then, and immune to pressure, she was really a lot like him. They both knew how to work a crowd, only Bobby was in it for the con, Billie Jean for a cause.
As I watched from the press box, television made athletes into personalities, not just distant performers on the field. TV gave sports what the movies had given actors: close-ups. Slowly, then, athletes became more human and thus potentially more heroic.
By good fortune, I also arrived just as sport was exploding. Come back, Paul Gallico, it's a new and improved February! The NFL ballooned, pro basketball and hockey weren't bush anymore, college basketball became truly national, franchises shifted, new leagues were created, free agency blossomed, players went on strike, collegians turned pro, Title IX was enacted, stadiums grew domes, AstroTurf replaced God's green earth, the Olympics were politicized, agents surfaced, money proliferated, and television brought it all to you live, right there in your family room.
Nevertheless, this was the ante-software era. You still needed paper. When on deadline, you'd contact Western Union and tell them to have someone on duty late. Then, after the game you'd go back to your hotel room and type out your piece. Typewriters were loud, especially when everyone else was trying to sleep. Sometimes the poor people in the next room would bang on my wall, or they'd get the front desk to call me. I'd go into the bathroom and turn on the shower to mask the sound of my typing on the floor. This was not conducive to inspired prose. For a sportswriter, this was the equivalent of working in a foxhole with mortars whizzing overhead.
At last I'd drive to Western Union, hand over the pieces of paper, go back and sleep, then call the office in the morning. One time I was writing about a basketball game somewhere, and when I called in, the editor said, Why didn't you write about such-and-such a strategy? I knew this editor didn't know jack about basketball; he'd obviously seen the game on television and was regurgitating what the "analyst" had proclaimed. That's when the scales fell from my eyes. As a consequence of television, sportswriters had lost their original reason for being, which had been to tell you what happened at a game you didn't see. I thought: I'm redundant now.
That was in large part why I began to spend a lot of time away from the reach of television and many of the big games, chronicling personalities or athletic exotica, out on the fringes. In a sense I got to go back in time, to see the way it had been before the big money, when sports often meant hustling and scuffling, when there was a vagabond spirit and a quaintness to it all.
I played against the Harlem Globetrotters in Bologna, Italy. This violated my promise never to do with my subjects what they did for a living. Leave that hokiness to local television reporters. I thought I'd learned my lesson when traveling in a reconfigured limousine with a wrestling bear named Victor. This noble ursine treated me with respect until I wrestled him, and he pinned me in about eight seconds. Thereafter Victor disdained me, cuffing me whenever the spirit moved him. But the Globies kept urging me to suit up as one of their patsies on the New York Nationals. After all, the Nationals were tall and white and limited, a perfect fit for me. Finally I agreed to do it, but only on our last night together. Hey, if they made too big a fool of me, Bologna would be in my rearview mirror the next morning.
As it was, the Globies decided that discretion was the better part of valor in dealing with a guy who would write about them. They treated me with kid gloves, and I went for a huge eight points. Double figures were within my grasp! But then Marques Haynes dribbled out the clock. As I left the court, Jerry Venable approached me. "Next time, Frank," he said, "it's your ass."
"Don't worry, Jerry," I assured him. "There won't be a next time."