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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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There are many roles a man plays in life. Son, Husband, Father, Breadwinner. If he is successful: Star, Boss, Grand Old Man. But nothing, I believe, is quite so thrilling as getting to be The Kid. That is, you, as a novice, are accepted by your elders into their privileged company. You are not quite their peer. You are on trial, tolerated more than embraced, but at least you are allowed to step into the penumbra of the inner circle, to sniff the aroma of wisdom and humor and institutional savoir faire that belongs to those old hands. It's a heady sensation.

It was at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that I was, for the one time in my life, The Kid. I had come to the magazine fresh out of Princeton. Understand, in 1962 it was hard for someone like me not to move to the head of the line. Women and minorities were not given such opportunities at that time, so competition was limited to my own kind: the male WASP. On top of that, I was a Depression Baby—and, even better, conceived during a bad dip in the Depression. Except for my dear parents, nobody in America with any sense was having babies around the time I was born, so when I came out of college and dutifully did my six months in the National Guard, there were only a handful of us coming into the job market.

Also, I had Bill Bradley in my hip pocket.

Back then basketball was barely a national sport; the NBA drafted players based on their newspaper clippings. But it happened that when I was a senior, Bradley showed up at Princeton. Freshmen were allowed to play only on freshman teams then, before crowds of parents and girlfriends, so who, outside the basketball curia, knew about Bradley? Well, by dumb luck I did, and so I casually told SI's basketball editor that, guess what, the best sophomore in the country was at, of all places, Princeton. Naturally, everybody snickered at me as a silly Tiger, but when I told them that Bradley had turned down Duke and I threw in some statistical mumbo jumbo, they got interested. A great basketball player at Princeton? Hey, that could be a classic fish-out-of-water piece. Almost on a lark I was sent out on what would be my first big story.

So, because of yours truly, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED introduced Bill Bradley to the world. And Bradley was even better than I had touted him. Hey, The Kid knew inside stuff. The Kid was obviously a comer.

In those halcyon days there was still a lot of booze in journalism. Writers were understood to be two-fisted drinkers. You wrote a story, you wrote a chapter; then you went out and bellied up to the bar. When I was The Kid, I was regaled with tales of the sportswriter who covered for his tosspot buddy by filing a story for him; the punch line was invariably that the sober writer's editor called him the next day and asked him why he couldn't write as well as his rival—when, of course, he had written the rival's story himself.

Most newspapers had a designated bar where reporters gathered. SI had one too. In fact, when it closed down, one writer, Bud Shrake, was taken off mere sportswriting and given the more important assignment of reconnoitering the neighborhood for the next appointed watering hole.

I was given to understand that, as The Kid, I could go down to the saloon where the managing editor and his apostles drank and take a position on the fringes, listen and learn, dare speak only when spoken to. The youngest writer above me in this coterie, Bill Leggett, was about seven years older than I, but he was so callow compared with the others that he was simply called Young. "Hey, Young." "What's up, Young?" And here I was, far younger than Young himself. What were they going to call me: Real Young? Too Young? Instead, it was the only time in my life I was called by my diminutive, Frankie.

The managing editor was a mythic character named Andre Laguerre, who had restructured our magazine, saving it from going out of business after 10 years of steady losses. He had a French father and a British mother, spent his formative years just like me, going to the racetrack and serving as a newspaper copyboy—me in Baltimore, he in San Francisco, where his father was posted for a few years as a consul. Laguerre was a fascinating paradox: He was almost constitutionally withdrawn, but among the friends he chose he was magnetic. He had not been an especially good writer, distinguishing himself most as a sports columnist in Paris writing under the rakishly Yank name of Eddie Snow, but he loved good writing and seemed to have had drinks with every famous writer extant. If he ever played a sport, I never heard tell. He smoked cigars and drank Scotch and made the sun move across the heavens.

Laguerre's mysterious past came out only in dribs and drabs. There was the early upbringing in the U.S., then schooling in Britain. International correspondent. In World War II he was wounded and barely escaped Dunkirk, plucked from the flaming waters of the North Sea. He became Charles de Gaulle's press secretary. He married a daughter of Russian royalty. One rare moment of revelation came of an evening at the bar when the subject of a recent plane crash arose. To my surprise, Laguerre spoke up: "I was in a plane crash once."

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