More precisely, I was on a scholarship for prospective sportswriters. The scholarship, at Vanderbilt, was a memorial to Grantland Rice, whom you could have reasonably called "the old sportswriter" even then, because he had passed away. Rice had been a great friend of the sport of kings, so the Thoroughbred Racing Associations were funding the scholarship, which included summer internships related to horse racing. It was a wonderful deal, but to be a sportswriter, as such, was not my dream. I wanted to write about everything, and I wanted to feel about what I wrote the way Reggie told me, years later, he felt when he connected just right: "When you take a pitch and line it somewhere, it's like you've thought of something and put it with perfect clarity." I'm still working on that.
In the summer of 1968, when SI offered me a job as a staff writer, I was 26. Because I could type good sentences, I had already managed to get by as a misfit grad student, a misfit Army officer, a misfit newspaper reporter and a misfit husband. I figured I could pull off being a misfit sportswriter. And SI was the big time: a base in New York City and travel everywhere. Back then we were required, I was told, to fly first class. My starting salary was $11,500, a $4,000 increase over what I'd been making as an editorial writer and general columnist at The Atlanta Journal, and the equivalent of $76,000 today. We got a three-room apartment in Greenwich Village for $335 a month.
Many people informed me at that time that I had the greatest job on earth. However, I have always had trouble finding my way around in complicated buildings. Locating press boxes and locker room doors, not to mention getting down on the field in one stadium after another, was not, for me, a snap. And I had not been in a locker room since high school baseball. I was a third baseman, but my strong suit was pitching batting practice. I did have that going for me. Interviewing ballplayers is comparable to pitching batting practice—giving them something to hit—only you're also in a game with them, ready to catch them off base. And who was I to get into a tangle like that with my hero Willie Mays, sitting there wearing a towel and taking an immediate dislike to me.
In 1968 my working garb was an inexpensive sport coat, white shirt and tie. And there I was in a roomful of people who were either garishly got up, naked or in major league uniforms, and I didn't know any of them, except by reputation, and they all knew each other pretty well, and none of them knew me by reputation, because I didn't have one, and my job was to coax them into quotable reflections upon themselves and each other. I would say that I felt like a church lady trying to solicit contributions in a harem, except that a church lady, presumably, would not have had the issue of trying not to come across as making too much of an effort not to seem unmanly. I felt uncool even in comparison with the newspaper guys covering the teams regularly. "There's nothing sadder than an old baseball writer," Ring Lardner is supposed to have said, but I admired how the old guys kept cheap cigars going while banging away at their typewriters with two fingers. Later on I was advising a magazine writer who was writing about how the Super Bowl was covered. She turned up her nose at the general run of sportswriters. "They're just scruffy old guys," she said.
"I like scruffy old guys," I said. And now that I am one, they're out of style.
Bill Leggett, SI's main baseball writer when I was hired, wore leisure suits and lacked sparkle as a writer, but he knew the baseball beat, and he said memorable things around the office. When a new bulletin board went up in the corridor, several writers were standing around speculating on what sort of corporate intrusion this portended. Leggett walked by and said, "Pin a mitten on it." When I was just getting started covering baseball, Leggett made this observation: "Every time somebody hits a home run and I ask him what pitch he hit, he always says, 'A c--k-high fastball.'" I stored that nugget away.
Shortly thereafter, in the San Francisco Giants' dressing room, postgame, I stood before Willie McCovey—a man whom Bob Gibson described as the scariest hitter in baseball. McCovey was attired in an athletic supporter. He had hit a long home run, and he looked nearly as long himself. Several of us scribes surrounded his locker. Someone complimented him on his titanic blast.
My cue. "Was it a c--k-high fastball?" I crisply inquired, with a touch of knowing amusement. McCovey did not answer me in words. Nor did he chuckle. He—well, it wasn't the first time in my life that I had been regarded with disdain. But never with such enormous disdain, shading over into downright repugnance. I felt shoetop high, and yet very visible among my assembled old-guy peers. The hardest part was trying to think of something to pretend to be writing down in my reporter's notebook.
"Special treat for you old Giants fans tonight. Put your hands together for the old Giant Willie McCovey! Great to have you on the show, Stretch."
"Great to be here, Nightster."