I can hardly wait to read the shop talk from Mark Landler, who does such a masterful job as the NYT’s correspondent based in London.
Just the mention of coronations always makes me think of the great memoir of Russell Baker, who covered the 1953 ceremony for Queen Elizabeth, for the Baltimore Sun. (see below)
Now, a great coronation output by Landler – my teammate during the Times’ coverage of the 2006 World Cup in Germany – on deadline, of the coronation of King Charles III on Saturday. (Landler was joined by a story on Queen Camilla by Megan Specia and a fashion Vanessa Friedman who has trained me to read her fashion essays.)
Landler wrote a breaking news story with the lush details any Times reader would want – including, who was that lady in the blue-teal gown, carrying the sword? Why, it was Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons – her very presence in the ancient ceremony another sign of inclusivity in not-your-grandparents’ England.
Whether “we” should care about royals and coronations is another story.
I checked, and my two rellies – Sam from the States and Jen from Australia – were not in their London base but rather in southwest France – and they were most decidedly NOT WATCHING.
But I was, and so was the lady next to me, both of us with genes and family names and ancestry that go back to….well, in her case, William the Conqueror. (Me Mum was born in England but was decidedly a Churchill fan, not a royals fan.)
Anyway, we gave the royals' production firm good marks for the visible Sikhs and Muslims and Buddhists plus the mention of Ephraim Mirvis, the UK grand rabbi, who was quartered near Westminster Abbey overnight to observe the Sabbath.
(One favorite moment was the modern alleluia hymn sung and danced by the Ascension Gospel Choir, gracing the ceremony with their voices and their joy.)
All of that was lavishly presented on the tube (anchored by Alex Witt, the weekend pro on MSNBC, with the indispensable Katty Kay back home in London, sending vital posts from a favorable spot on the parade route.) And soon the NYT will surely tell how its staff produced a masterpiece (color photos!)
Speaking of shop talk: The landmark for coronation tales has less to do with young Elizabeth than with young Russell Baker, who had been posted in London by the Baltimore Sun, which in 1953 was a major, major American daily, always looking for young talent.
Many decades later, as part of his memoirs, ("Growing Up" and "Good Times") Baker wrote about covering the 1953 coronation -- delightful details of how he scouted out a proper outfit for the ceremony, and how he packed a brown-bag lunch with two sandwiches and a few chunks of cheese and a tiny bottle of brandy to fortify himself during the long day. And how his wife, Mimi, was invited to a friend’s house where there was a TV set.
Ever since Baker’s coronation tale was published, I consider it one of the inspiring great glimpses of a young journalist, being challenged by a great paper, and obviously succeeding, and how, decades later, Baker could recall the details of that assignment-of-a-lifetime.
Brown-Bagging It to Buckingham
By Russell Baker
Jan. 1, 1989
MY INTENTION WAS TO become a great novelist, not a foreign correspondent, so naturally I never expected to end up in Westminster Abbey covering the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
The chain of events that put me there began in 1947. The Baltimore Sun needed a police reporter that year. The managing editor mentioned it to an editorial writer who lectured at Johns Hopkins, and the editorial writer mentioned it to a professor, who mentioned it to me and gave me a phone number to call at The Sun. I was to ask for a Mr. Dorsey.
Newspaper work didn't really interest me, but some great novelists had started as newspaper men. Newspaper people could never be much better than hacks. Still, they did write, didn't they? What's more, they got paid every week. I began to feel reality taking residence in my soul.
''What's your experience?'' Mr. Dorsey, The Sun's managing editor, was asking when I came to his office a few days later.
''I've worked on the Johns Hopkins News-Letter.''
''You realize you can never get rich in the newspaper business,'' Mr. Dorsey said.
''Rich?'' I tried to smile the smile of a man calmly resigned to a life of penury. ''I never expect to make a lot of money.''
Mr. Dorsey sent me away with a handshake and a loud snort. A week later, the phone rang while I was eating supper.
''This is Dorsey. If you still want to work for me, you can start Sunday at $30 a week.''
I was flabbergasted. Thirty dollars a week. That was Depression pay. This was 1947. A pair of shoes cost $9. I'd been in New York a few weeks earlier, and the prices there were incredible. A theater ticket had cost me $1.50, the hotel was $4.50 a night, a sirloin steak restaurant dinner, $3.25. Thirty dollars a week was an insult to a college man.
''I'll take it,'' I replied.
A MISFIT AT POLICE REPORTING, after a year on the job I was falling behind at The Sun. New people were being hired, assigned to police coverage for a month or two, then moved inside. ''Moved inside.'' On The
Sun, those words meant having your own desk, being sent on fascinating general assignments, and never having to humor a policeman again.
Luckily for me, The Sun's famously miserable pay had sent morale so low by 1949 that there was constant personnel turnover. Everybody seemed to be looking for a job with better pay, and many were finding them. This left the paper perpetually short of experienced reporters. As a result, to get ahead you didn't have to be very good, you simply had to hang around. Being unmarried and living at home, I could get by on my Sun salary, which averaged $50 a week in 1949, so I could afford to hang around.
By the end of the year, I was making a gaudy $70 a week. This was enough to get married on, if you were young and foolish enough to believe in happy endings, which was precisely how young Mimi and I were.
Then there came a miracle.
The telephone woke me around 10:30 in the morning. I normally didn't get to bed until 4, so it was still dawn on my personal clock, and I growled a sour hello.
THE MARTINIS CAME, THEN THE food and the beer, and when we started to eat, Buck Dorsey said, ''How old are you?''
I said I was 27.
''How would you like to go to London?'' he asked.
The question was so preposterous that at first I did not absorb its implication. Well, I said, a little hesitant, we had just had a new baby, and I wasn't sure it was a good time to go off and leave Mimi alone.
''Could I think about it a little while?'' I asked.
Buck Dorsey was looking at me very strangely, and as the full weight of his great announcement broke over me, I understood why: He wanted me to go to London.
''I mean, how long would you want me to be away?'' I said.
''Probably two years,'' he said. ''That's the usual assignment for men we put in the London bureau. Of course, once you get there and find a place to live, you'd move your family over with you.''
Then Buck Dorsey was talking about the coming coronation of young Queen Elizabeth, which would be the great story during my time in London, but I was now too excited to pay close attention. I was going to escape the drudgery of the local newsroom, after all.
I ROSE AT 4:30 ON CORONATION morning and started dressing in white tie and tails. Heavy rain was beating against the window and it had been raining all night, drenching a million people camped in the streets. What should have been a rosy June morning looked like the start of a wet, black nightmare.
I was going to have to walk out into that downpour in fancy dress because I had been too stupid to apply for a permit to take a car to Westminster Abbey. If I had filled out the forms, authoritative windshield stickers would have been issued, and I could have ridden in splendor.
But I had laughed at the idea. An absurd fuss, a preposterous waste of car-rental money. Living within a short walk of the Abbey, I could easily stroll up there on a lovely June morning. It wasn't just chintziness that impelled me to walk. The American in me was tickled by the idea of walking to a coronation instead of being chauffeured by a lackey. Thomas Jefferson had walked to the Capitol for his first Inauguration. Let the English see how Americans did these things.
Watching the rain outside made me curse my foolishness. That short walk to the Abbey seemed short only because I had never walked it in pouring rain. Actually, it was at least a mile. And in top hat, white tie, tails
Instructions had been firm about dress. People not entitled to wear ermine, coronet, full dress uniform, court dress, levee dress coats with white knee breeches, kilt, robes of rank or office or tribal dress must wear white tie and tails, with medals.
I didn't have medals. Since I didn't have a dressy suit either, I rented the full rig from Moss Bros., famous among the haberdashery-wise throughout the Empire and always pronounced ''Moss Bross.'' Knowing there would be a coronation run on Moss Brothers, I went early and got a fairly decent fit. Because I'd never worn tails before, I got up a little earlier than necessary against the possibility I might have a breakdown getting into the thing.
Mimi fixed a big breakfast. It was going to be a long day. I had to be in position inside the Abbey by 7:30 and wouldn't get out until 4 in the afternoon. The rain let up while we were eating. Mimi got the camera and, while Kathy and Allen watched, took snapshots of Daddy wearing his coronation suit to show their grandchildren.
Whatever gods may be, they were with me that day. The rain faded to a weak drizzle, then stopped altogether just when it was time to start for the Abbey. No, I would gamble and leave the raincoat home. Walking to the Abbey in top hat, white tie and tails could be a great gesture only if it were done right. Wrapping up in a dirty raincoat would make it comical.
Mimi was going to the house of Gerry Fay, London editor of The Manchester Guardian, to watch the day's events on television. There weren't a lot of television sets in London yet, but Gerry's house had one, and his wife, Alice, had invited several disadvantaged families like mine to come see the show. Because it was a big day for me, as well as for the Queen, I kissed Mimi and the children goodbye, said, ''Wish me luck,'' stepped out into Lower Belgrave Street and headed toward Victoria Station.
Not a soul in sight from Eaton Square all the way to Victoria. I strolled briskly along through the heavy, wet air, getting used to the feel of the high silk hat on my head, happy to discover that it was not going to tip and fall off. In my hip pocket I had a half-pint flask of brandy to keep me awake during the long day. In my hand, I carried a brown paper bag containing two sandwiches and three or four chunks of yellow cheese. In my pockets, I had a sheaf of official cards issued by the Earl Marshal, conveying the Queen's command for policemen to pass me safely through all the barricades and instructing me which church entrance to use, how to conduct myself while eating during the ceremony (discreetly), and where to find toilet facilities in the Abbey.
Rounding Victoria Station, I heard the hum of a great, damp concentration of humanity. Packed from curb to building line on both sides, all along the five-mile route of the coronation procession, people had spent the rain-soaked night on the sidewalks. How many there were I didn't try to guess. The papers said millions, overstating it a bit, as newspapers usually do when writing of crowds. Still, there were plenty.
I had walked among them the night before. They were bedded down in sleeping bags and soggy quilts, under raincoats and makeshift oilskin tents. Many had brought camp stools, portable stoves, knapsacks, picnic baskets, knitting bags, radios. They brewed tea on the sidewalk, they read, they slept, they sang, they sat stoically in the rain with only a felt hat against the downpour, they dozed with heads pillowed against tree trunks and lampposts.
During the war, London's ability to ''take it,'' no matter how much punishment the Luftwaffe gave them, became such a cliche that it later turned into a small joke. On this cold, bitter, rainy night, with those good-natured hordes cheerfully camped on rainswept concrete, I had a glimpse of that peculiar British fortitude, dogged and indomitable in the face of adversity, which made them so formidable to Hitler.
At the morning's soggy dawn, in my top hat and tails and graced, I hoped, with some of the elegance Fred Astaire brought to the uniform, I presented my credentials to the police guarding the barricades on the route to the Abbey. Miracle of miracles! The police recognized them, passed me through, waved me into the broad empty avenue called Victoria. The avenue ran straight to Westminster Abbey. I prayed I could make it before the skies opened again and stepped out as rapidly as I could without losing dignity before the damp mob staring at me.
And, yes, now applauding me. A smattering of applause came off the sidewalks as I strode along. They had been waiting so long for something wonderful to appear. Now here was the first sign that wonders would indeed pass before their eyes this day. I fancied myself a vision for them, a suave, graceful gentleman in top hat, white tie and tails, signaling the start of a momentous event.
At that moment, I was the event. The applause grew as I stepped along. Having always prided myself on shyness, modesty and distaste for theatrics, I was surprised to find myself not only enjoying my big moment, but also, here and there, where the applause seemed especially enthusiastic, tipping my silk hat to the audience.
It wasn't until I got within a block or two of the Abbey that I understood what was happening. There I noticed a man in the crowd talking to a companion and pointing to my hand holding the brown bag with my lunch. At this, his companion laughed, then applauded vigorously: What delighted the crowd was the spectacle of a toff brown-bagging his lunch to the coronation.
By this time, I was certain to reach the Abbey before the downpour resumed. That certainty and the pleasure of strutting a great stage exhilarated me. Triumphantly, I raised my lunch over my head and waved it at the crowd, and was washed with a thunder of cheering and applause that the great Astaire himself might have envied. A moment later, I passed into the Abbey for a long day's work.
I HAD A GOOD SEAT IN the Abbey. It was in the north transept looking down from about mezzanine level onto the central ceremonial theater. It provided a clear, unobstructed view of the Queen and the throne in left profile. Opposite, in the south transept, sat the lords and ladies of the realm in scarlet and ermine. The few good seats allotted to American correspondents had been distributed by a lottery drawing, and I had got lucky.
After being ushered up the ramp to the chair I was to occupy for the next seven or eight hours, I took a spiral note pad out of my pocket and began taking notes, just as I would have done at a three-alarm fire in Baltimore.
This was by design. After worrying for weeks how to cover a coronation, I had decided to cover it pretty much the way I would cover any routine assignment on the local staff. I would show up, keep my eyes open, listen closely and make notes on what I saw and heard.
My hope was to produce a story that seemed fresh, and I thought this might be possible if I treated it as though I'd just strolled into the newsroom one afternoon and the city editor had come dancing at me, shouting: ''They're having a coronation up at the Abbey in 10 minutes. Get up there as fast as you can.''
This was not the safe way to cover the coronation, but it offered the best chance of doing a good story. The safe way was to write the story before the coronation was held. This was also the surest way to produce a lifeless story.
This idea I discarded quickly. For one thing, I was cocky about my ability to produce a fresh story of several thousand words under deadline pressure. I had always worked well on deadlines, maybe even better than when there was time to dawdle.
So I entered the Abbey with no backup story ready to send in case of emergency, took out my spiral pad, and started jotting notes on what I saw. Tier upon tier of dark blue seats edged with gold. The stone walls draped with royal purple and gold. The stained glass of rose windows transforming the gray outer light into streams of red, yellow, green and blue high up against the Abbey roof.
Many of these notes appeared almost unchanged.
''Yellow men and tan men, black men and pink men, men with cafe au lait skins and men with the red-veined nose of country squiredom.''
''Malayans with bands of orange and brown-speckled cloth bound tightly about their hips. . . .''
''Men dressed as Nelson might have dressed when he was sporting in London . . . like courtiers who dallied with the Restoration beauties of Charles II's court . . . like officers in Cornwallis's army. . . .
''. . . violins far away eerily unreal. . . .''
Writing to my mother later, I disposed of the coronation in a single paragraph:
''I am so sick of the whole business that I can't write about it. Suffice it to say that I was in the Abbey about 7 and didn't get out until 4 P.M. In this time, I ate two sandwiches, several chunks of cheese, went to sleep three times, and drank a half pint of brandy to keep my blood flowing. I was seated in the midst of all the African and Oriental potentates and had a fine view of the staircase leading down to the water closets, where I could see Africans in leopard skins and Chinese dressed like French admirals queuing up to wait their turn to make water. I came out of the Abbey, stiff as a board and woozy, and had to run through a cold driving rainstorm to find a taxicab. Then I had to write for six hours, producing that mass of type which ran in The Sun. I didn't feel that I laid an egg completely, because next day mine was the only story from any American newspaper which had parts reproduced in any of the London papers. Considering that papers like The New York Times and Tribune had 25 and 30 reporters to do the job, I felt we did fairly well.''
The humility in this last sentence was entirely bogus. By the time I wrote my mother, the reaction from Baltimore was in, and I felt I had done far better than fairly well. I felt I had scored an absolute triumph. The day following the coronation, I had a cable signed by 16 members of the city staff. It said:
''Magnificent. Your coverage worthy of the coronation, and of Baker.''
Pete Kumpa, one of the best newsmen on the staff and an old friend whose regular correspondence kept me posted on events in the home office, reported: ''Your story received here in the greatest admiration. Magnificent is the word.''
The greatest ego bloater of all, however, was a note from Buck Dorsey's wife, Becky, marked ''Very Personal.'' She reported various compliments about the coronation piece which Buck had received from various high and mighty types in the Sun hierarchy, then said:
''The nicest of all, Tom O'Neill, said, 'Buck, the boy knows how to use the English language. It's a finished piece, beautifully done.' '' O'Neill was the most dashing reporter on The Sun.
Closing, Becky wrote, ''I do not know that Buck would approve of my telling you all this, but on thinking of that fine ignorant old face of yours, I couldn't help myself.''
I could have discounted praise from my friends on the city staff. They had been writing glowing reviews from my very first days in London. They were my cheering section back in Baltimore, and for good reason. Being picked from the local staff for The Sun's plum assignment abroad, I was a symbol of hope for them. If one man from the local staff could escape into the sweet world of foreign correspondence, there might be hope for all. They had a stake in seeing me succeed and wrote constantly, applauding and cheering me on to keep my morale high.
Becky's report about Tom O'Neill, however, was not so easily explained away. Nothing could have done more to puff me with self-admiration than those few words about Tom O'Neill's remarks to Buck. I was not the type to have wildest dreams, but if I had been, the wildest I could have concocted would have had Buck Dorsey listening with the respect he always accorded his favorite reporter as the great O'Neill heaped me with praise.
Two months after the coronation had crowned me with glory, my triumph was confirmed in a cable from Baltimore:
''Ten dollar merit raise effective next week for you. Happy August Fourth and all that. Love. Dorsey.''
That brought my salary up to $120 a week. I was a $6,240-a-year man.
Russell Baker is a columnist for The Times. This article was adapted from his book, ''The Good Times,'' to be published by William Morrow & Company in June.
(15 MARCH 2023. BEWARE THE IDES OF MARCH.)
AS OF WEDNESDAY MORNING, I HAVE RENEWED CONTACT WITH THE WEB COMPANY. I'LL TRY TO ADJUST TO NEW CONDITIONS IN NEXT FEW DAYS.
THANKS FOR THE NOTES, YOU HARDY FEW WHO NOTICED I HAD BEEN DISAPPEARED.
TO BE CONTINUED. MAYBE.
IT IS, AFTER ALL, THE IDES OF MARCH. GV
Rupert Murdoch's star agitator, Tucker Carlson, is sharing the secrets of his squirrelly heart, via internal e-mail. He says he hates Donald Trump, as opposed to the slavish adoration he shows on Fox Fables.
How to explain this?
Your explanation is welcome on Comments. (below)
Meanwhile, Alex Murdaugh is locked up, permanently.
Rupert Murdoch may be out a billion dollars or more for emitting falsities about the Dominion company and called it "journalism," when he actually admits they are lies.
I was wondering about the two blokes with similar names a couple of weeks ago, wondering if they are related, so I looked it up.
“Originally, the name was a nickname for a person associated with the sea,” says the website, House of Names. The name Murdoch derives from one of two Gaelic names which have become indistinguishable from each other. The first of these, Muireach, means belonging to the sea or a mariner. The second name is Murchadh, which means “sea warrior.”
As for the other man in the news: The name “Murdaugh” is “an altered form of Murdoch,” according to “The Dictionary of American Family Names.”
I do not mean to make light of the terrible events in South Carolina that sent Alex Murdaugh, a so-called scion of an old family off to prison in handcuffs, convicted of the murders of his wife and younger son. And there are other deaths in the backdrop, including a Murdaugh family housekeeper who died, perhaps from falling downstairs, or perhaps not. (At the very least, the scion stole her insurance money.)
That is a tale of privilege and money and also the contemporary usage of drugs. I wouldn’t have minded seeing an occasional mention of the family that profited from OxyContin (and the doctors and pharmacists and flat-out criminals who doled them out like candy, hooking thousands of poor people as well as a lawyer and “scion” with too many toys in lowland South Carolina.)
We are left with the image of a wife apparently on the verge of separation, and one son (“the little detective”) discovering more piles of OxyContin, both murdered, and the older son sitting in court, thinking, what?
Also in the news is the similarly-named Murdoch, Rupert, who has been infecting public discourse going back to his origins in Australia. He brought his sniggering style of “journalism” to Great Britain and then to the United States.
I still remember when a quirky liberal tabloid, the New York Post, morphed into a Murdoch property in the 1970s.
Soon we were treated to the Page Six gossip of a lightweight real-estate poseur who would brag about the women he had slept with, allegedly. For many, that was the first time they ever heard the name “Trump.” So we have Rupert Murdoch to thank for that.
Recently, in the manner of ganglords, Rupert Murdoch turned on Donald Trump when he began losing at the polls. A Post headline referred to “Trumpty-Dumpty” after recent congressional elections.
However, Fox television continued to make money from blather by its commentators – most scandalously in the wake of Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump’s legion of thugs attacked the Capitol. The most famous names on Fox – I cannot even type their names, and of course I never, ever, watch them – stuck with their on-air position that Jan. 6 was a picnic for gentle tourists.
In their spare time, however, these paragons of Fox journalism ridiculed some of the buffoon lawyers supporting Trump, and they acknowledged that Trump did lose the 2020 election. But tell that to their viewers out there? People like Tucker Carlson worried about the company profits.
“They endorsed,” Mr. Murdoch said under oath in response to direct questions about the Fox hosts Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo, in a $1.6-billion defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems, the New York Times reported.
“I would have liked us to be stronger in denouncing it in hindsight,” he added, while also disclosing that he was always dubious of Mr. Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud.
Now he tells us.
Rupert Murdoch has testified that he knew his stars really did not believe the lies they were spewing on-air. He sounds a bit dazed from recognizing reality. But his words are out there. Rupert Murdoch does not believe what makes him rich. So much for journalism.
Alex Murdaugh has been sentenced to two life terms. He’s yesterday’s news, sad and horrible news.
Rupert Murdoch created a media empire that disregards truth – a television network that helped send thousands of thugs climbing into the American capitol building.
Rupert Murdoch undermined a nation, leading to a Gaetz-Greene-McCarthy infestation in Congress. (Can he be deported?)
Now his empire is being sued. Apparently, over half the Fox stock is owned outside the Murdoch dynasty. If Murdoch’s acknowledgements ultimately hurt the product -- bad ratings = defections by sponsors – the Murdoch dynasty could be in trouble.
Your comments about the strange psycho-drama with Carlson and Trump, and the bizarre hiccups of reality from Rupert. Under "Comments:"
RIP, Grant Wahl, Journalist
In his final hours, Grant Wahl wrote that he had been wrong. He had predicted that the Croatian star Luka Modric was too old at 37 to take the team any further, but after Croatia reached the semifinals on Friday, Grant wrote a mea culpa. Then he went on to write about the second World Cup quarterfinal of the day, and he died, at 48.
The circumstances must be examined by American authorities. It’s way too easy for Elon Musk’s new toy to carry kneejerk claims that Grant Wahl was given the Khashoggi treatment, some kind of chemical bonesaw. But we don’t know, not yet.
The New York Times and other responsible news agencies quickly examined Grant’s own recent articles mentioning his not feeling well in Qatar, and going to a clinic at the stadium, and he described how other journalists covering this marathon had the same symptoms, from long hours and work stress and crowded press rooms and Lord-knows what kind of travelling microbes. I’ve been there, done that, under the same conditions, during World Cups and other mass events. (More on that, below.)
Grant Wahl was one of the major journalists covering soccer, and had been right about so much, including the repressive air to this World Cup in Qatar, born from scandal – packets of $100 bills to delegates -- in the world soccer body, FIFA.
One day at the World Cup, Grant wore a rainbow t-shirt, the universal symbol of support for gay rights, gay existence, and he was held by stadium police, until released. That takes courage. Most people learned after Grant’s death that the rainbow t-shirt was a tribute to his brother, Eric, who is gay.
His brother linked the death to Grant’s speaking up for gays, and for thousands of itinerant laborers who have died building these pop-up stadiums in a country with enough money to buy FIFA, the most corrupt sports organization in the world.
“They just don’t care,” Grant wrote about leaders of Qatar and FIFA.
I read Grant’s posts from Qatar, on the personal website he was building after leaving Sports Illustrated during the ongoing pandemic. He was offering his experience and courage for paid subscriptions, but also made some free essays available. He was no home-bound typist – known as an Underwear Guy -- pecking away on a laptop. Grant Wahl was out there, fully credentialed, with the respect of the soccer community, and also with the eyes of the Qatar security force on him.
In a very real sense, he was a lone wolf, existing on his own guts, his own instincts, his own strength, in a FIFA/Qatar environment that had no reason to like what he was typing.
As soon as I heard about Grant’s death, I had a pang of déjà vu.
I was also 48 during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, a country I love, traveling to modern and hospitable cities, hundreds of miles apart. I stubbornly continued to jog at high altitude, taking in the bad air. After a few weeks, I was shot. Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t type. Fortunately, my wife was with me, to witness that I was running down.
I also had something Grant Wahl did not have these days – a home office. I called the NYT sports department and said I was dragging, and needed a day or three off, but my editors, my friends, Joe Vecchione and Lawrie Mifflin, agreed that I had another great assignment, the Goodwill Games in Moscow, coming up, and I needed to be strong for that.
My editors told me to come home, see my doctor, and determine if I was strong enough to go back out to Moscow – which I was. One of the best assignments I’ve ever had. (Plus, my wife was with me, buying fresh vegetables and fruit at a farmer’s market in a nearby square.)
I also had editors watching my back, whether as a news reporter or a sports columnist. To this day, even as a typist for my own Little Therapy Website, I consider every word, every opinion, from the vantage point of the great editors, who found mistakes, even reined me in sometimes, much as I griped.
Journalism has its dangers. I’ve been sent to riots and shootouts and assassinations and coal-mine disasters where I had to be quick on my feet, but nothing like colleagues currently in brave, admirable Ukraine. Sometimes, “even in sports,” the hours, the travel, the diet, the microbes in crowds, can beat you down. We will learn more.
What we know now is that Grant Wahl was doing his work, writing so well about a subject he loved, and he has passed, way too young.
The Things a Reporter Can Discover
(Laura Vecsey was a terrific news reporter in upstate New York even before she became a sports columnist. She liked to tell me about the stuff a town clerk told her, or a farmer knew. She is revisiting her old reporting grounds as part of her new site, "You Know What I Mean?" )
By Laura Vecsey
A Whole World In Your Own Backyard
The Town of Malta seems a pretty boring place, until ...
The world, we all pretty much know, is a big place. Lots of continents, hundreds of countries, seas and oceans, mountains and deserts, billions of people. The enormity of the world makes it exotic — a feast too big to eat even for the most insatiable explorers and travelers.
So why then I am talking about Malta, a nondescript town on a sandy patch of land in upstate New York’s Saratoga County?
Ask my friend Lisa Smith.
Last week, from her Japanese-Zen influenced home that fronts Willapa Bay in serene Seaside, Washington, Lisa Smith read a post I had written here about buying your first home. It was there, buried in the comments section, that the ever-curious Lisa Smith noted that my spouse, Diane, noted that the first home she ever bought more than 35 years ago was a townhouse in Malta.
If that name stirs any sense of excitement, maybe it’s because the town of Malta carries the same name as the country of Malta, that archipelago between “Sicily and the North African coast — a nation known for historic sites related to a succession of rulers including the Romans, Moors, Knights of Saint John, French and British.”
That Malta, set in shimmering green-blue waters, does conjure centuries of world history and human migration. So the name “Malta” rightfully triggers the imagination, especially for curious people like Lisa Smith, an inveterate world traveler who lived in Abu Dhabi and scaled an NYU program there.
Lisa has also toured India, graduated from Harvard, ran public TV radio and stations in Seattle and Oregon. She’s also been long paired with the award-winning journalist and book writer Buzz Bissinger. In other words, Lisa Smith has a nose for stories, as much as she possesses a delicious little streak of sarcasm.
So what was I to make of Lisa Smith’s quip about the apparently insignificant town of Malta?
More important, what was I going to do about Lisa’s pithy remark? I decided that I would take it as an invitation.
The Saratoga County, New York town of Malta, it turns out that, is just like all other places in the world: Just another name on a map and yet also a place where there’s a lot more than meets the eye.
In fact, the seemingly nondescript town of Malta can make the case that any named place on Earth is its own world. Even more strange, it’s one of the places that taught me, as a newspaper reporter and writer, to look harder and longer and you’ll be surprised what you find.
In addition to Malta being the town where Diane bought her first home, Malta was a town I covered for the Albany Times Union. In the late 1980’s, Malta was a part of my news beat in Saratoga County. My job to know what was going on there, and to dig out stories, and to monitor Malta’s local government.
This is a townhouse in Malta’s Luther Forest just like Diane first bought.
For me, covering Malta served as a primer on how America planned, regulated and protected its citizens and natural resources. I saw how conventional and orderly local governmental bodies carried out their duties. How town budgets were negotiated and passed. How water quality, fire station grants, street plowing and extensions were managed.
In Malta, I saw how developers had to demonstrate the impact new housing developments would have; how commercial development was cautiously promoted, how senior citizens would get access to services.
And based on what I heard about in the town board meetings, I’d go out and explore for further background or news feature stories that the Times Union would run to show how suburban America was being built out.
That included writing about Luther Forest, a section of Malta that was the site for a new housing development where Diane — who I didn’t know at the time — had bought her first house!
In 1945, rocket testing was done at the Malta site hidden deep in Luther Forest.
The Luther Forest housing development was a planned community, which meant it had a homeowner’s association and a general manager to keep the place running tip top. The manager’s name was Barney Granger, a lanky and taciturn man I spent a lot of time trying to chase down for information or a quote.
It wasn’t easy. Barney Granger was always hellbent on riding away from me in a golf cart or his green Ford Ranger pickup. But this quirky memory of Barney Granger in his Ford Ranger is just a little sliver of the real story of Luther Forest.
Like a lot of places that seem to have no true personality or any easily identifiable points of interest, Malta’s Luther Forest is riddled with intrigue — not that you could easily tell without doing a little digging, or sky gazing.
But the acres of towering pine trees, and the fenced-off areas that warned about criminal trespassing, were a clue. It turns out that the “boring little town of Malta” is actually a nexus of American history from World War II to the Baby Boom era of suburban sprawl to today’s Tech Age of semiconductors and massive retail warehouses.
The center of the Malta story is how the 7,000 acres of pine forest started in 1898 by a man named Thomas C. Luther turned into a rocket test site for the U.S. government in the 1940s, after Luther gave some of the land to the U.S. government to serve as a site to test rockets and rocket fuel. That’s when things got really interesting.
After WWII, the U.S. started a secret military intelligence program called Operation Paperclip in which more than 1,600 German scientists, engineers, and technicians were taken from Germany to the United States. That included Wernher von Braun and his V-2 rocket team, plus former members, and some were former leaders, of the Nazi Party. The goal of the Operation Paperclip was to gain military advantage during the Cold War and during the Space Race.
In 1945, Luther Forest became the home of the Hermes Project Rocket Test site. Von Braun’s team and 400 General Electric scientists worked at the Malta Rocket Test Station to help the U.S government improve upon Germany's expertise in missiles. That lasted until the 1960.
Von Braun, who eventually became the director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and was the chief architect of the super-booster that launched American astronauts to the moon, came to Malta for weeks at a time. When he came to Malta, locals were said to hear the ground rumble and smoke plumes filled the air.
It’s said that Von Braun enjoyed his time in Malta, because Luther Forest reminded him of Bavaria.
In the 30+ years since I first covered Malta and learned about Operation Paperclip, Malta has further enhanced its standing as the nondescript little town where big things happen.
Chip manufacturer Global Foundries’ 1,400-acre campus in Malta, New York.
The Luther Forest Technology Campus is a $3.5 billion development that spans 1,400 acres. It is home to Global Foundries, a multinational semiconductor contract manufacturing and design company incorporated in the Cayman Islands and headquartered in Malta. “The company manufactures silicon chips designed for markets such as mobility, automotive, computing and wired connectivity, consumer internet of things (IoT) and industrial.”
Global Foundries has brought hundreds of jobs and boosted the development of more suburban housing in Saratoga County. It’s also opened the doors for Amazon to propose a new million-square-foot warehouse on 235 acres south of the Global Foundries headquarters.
That plan for an Amazon warehouse was scrapped this year, but not before the little town of Malta and its local planning board had once again flexed its muscle against the big boys from a multi-national company.
In other words.
Malta? There must be a story there.
Right, Lisa Smith?
Here’s a photo of the curious Lisa Smith reading in her beautiful home on the coast of Washington State. It was taken by the Daily Astorian (Oregon) newspaper for a story about how people were coping during the pandemic.
If you liked this post from You Know What I Mean?, why not share it?
Photos Galore online:
Another Old-Timer Back in the Ball Park
Not all the old-timers wore uniforms at the grand celebration of antiquity.
The old players, legends all, visited Queens on Saturday as the tradition of Old-Timers’
Day was honored after a gaping absence of 28 years.
How wonderful it was to sit in my home cave and watch Frank Thomas, Jay Hook, Ken McKenzie and Craig Anderson from the first team in1962. They were good people then, helping Casey Stengel create the lovable myth of the Amazin’ Mets.
Now, in the very young and very promising era of the new owner, Steven Cohen, the Mets brought back 60 old-timers to stand in for the Richie Ashburns and Alvin Jacksons who toiled so honorably in 1962.
Wonderful touch: room on the field for family members representing Gil Hodges, Tommie Agee, Willie Mays and my departed friend, 1986 coach, Bill Robinson.
Mingling with the old-timers was my friend Steve Jacobson who helped cover the first season for Newsday and starred as columnist for decades. Steve, going on 89, was welcomed by Jay Horwitz, the haimish maestro of Mets alumni affairs, who also invited me as a surviving veteran of 1962. But I’m still ducking public gatherings during the pandemic, so I stayed home and waited for Steve to call me with the gossip.
Steve said he wished he could have chatted with all of them, but there was such a crush, everywhere. He could have talked to Frank Thomas about hitting 34 homers and driving in 94 runs, and Ken McKenzie, who had the only winning record (5-4), and Craig Anderson, who won both ends of a May doubleheader over the Milwaukee Braves to raise the Mets’ record to 12-19 and cause manager Bobby Bragan to call the Polo Grounds a “chamber of horrors.”
Oh, yeah. The Mets promptly lost 17 straight, en route to a 40-120 record.
Steve also could have talked to Jay Hook, with his engineering degree, who won a game one day and told the writers it was like eating sour cherries but then tasting a sweet cherry. (All three 1962 pitchers present Saturday were part of Casey’s respected “University Men” – McKenzie from Yale, Anderson from Lehigh and Hook from Northwestern.)
Steve did have time to mingle on the field, wearing a Newsday ball cap, with his wife, Anita, snapping photos of him with epic Mets including Ron Swoboda and Mookie Wilson (who later would gambol in the outfield in the old-timers’ game, along with another sleek alum, Endy Chavez.)
The part that Steve treasured most was having a few old Mets tell him he had been one of those sportswriters who did not throw them under the bus when they had a bad hour on the field. We were reporters, we were critics, but we were not rippers.
Now the Mets are in a new era. Steven Cohen, a grown-up Mets fan, used his money to hire Billy Eppler, Buck Showalter, Francisco Lindor and Max Scherzer. Who knows if the Mets will hold off the Braves and go far in the post-season? But gestures like the recent Keith Hernandez number-retirement and Willie Mays number retirement (honoring the jolly first owner, Joan Whitney Payson, indicate a generosity of pocketbook and heart.
(Speaking of not throwing people under the bus: a few old players and writers and fans have blasted the previous ownership of Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz for not putting enough money into the franchise. I have a friend who ran a center called Abilities, Inc., on Long Island, which helps people function better in work and social life. I am told that the Wilpon-Katz family was generous with money and energy.)
Let's just say: the Mets are in a new era. I was happy to hear my friend Steve Jacobson bubble about his hours back at the ball park with similarly elderly Mets who once upon a time gave the fans so many memories -- some of them even good.
The other day I was writing about Dominic DiSaia, and his photo of Vin Scully, and I mentioned photographers I ran around with, back in the day.
One of them is John McDermott, who bonded with me on the soccer beat and also at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway. Speaking Italian fluently, John charmed our way into the Italian hospitality tent up on an icy mountain plateau, by offering some of my NYT souvenir pins (“distintivi”) -- pure gold at the Olympics.
The food was great, as one might expect, and so was the scene when Alberto Tomba, three-time Olympic gold medal ski racer, slowly checked out every table, like an entitled don in one of the Coppola masterpieces.
(Oh, yes, that was Roberto Baggio's voice on John’s cellphone.)
John McDermott – originally from Philadelphia -- gets around; he loved San Francisco for decades, riding his bike and hanging around with locals like Dusty Baker, but six years ago he moved to Italy with his wife, Claudia Brose, originally from Cologne.
They live in Appiano, in the northeast corner of Italy, where German and Italian intermingle, but lately the couple has been making forays to Naples for the ambiance.
Claudia has a business conducting photography seminars, and John demonstrates the art of street photography in one of the most vital cities on earth.
In Naples – Napoli --- English or northern RAI broadcast Italian only go so far, but in Napule life is often conducted in Neapolitan, not so much a dialect of Italian as a Romance language, endangered, to be sure, descended from Latin.
John enclosed a link to a video he put together, using his photographs, backed up by the song by Pino Daniele raised in the Spaccanapoli district, who died in 2015.
What draws John and Claudia back to Naples?
"The warmth, energy and openness of the people, the chaos and the way everything just works out," John wrote the other day.
I get it. My first foray to Naples was in 1970 when my wife and I took our three young children around Italy, the most child-friendly country I know.
I went back in 1989 to work on a Times magazine feature on Diego Maradona, the Argentina soccer star who played for the Napoli club – a perfect spot for the flawed athlete. Maradona defied the club’s attempt to set up an interview, even when the club driver took my to Maradona’s villa at the top of the old Greek hill area, Posillipo.
I called the number I had for him and somebody messed with my mind, leaping from Spanish to Italian and back. And when I went to a club practice Maradona did not show up that day, leaving his coach sputtering and fuming.
Tough town. I realized this at the Napoli club match that Sunday. As I made my way to the press tribune, my guide nudged me under the overhang – just before a wadded cannonball of wet tissue splatted against the wall, like a baseball, where I had been standing. The “ultras” in the stands surely had good aim.
Next time I visited Naples was at the 1990 World Cup when Argentina was defending its 1986 title.
While I was working, my wife meandered down to the harbor, with life pulsing in the shops – at least until a couple of older ladies wagged index fingers and warned, “Signora, Signora,” and motioned for her to hide the bracelet on her wrist. The local lads were quite adept at snatching jewelry from tourists, they signalled.
The pre-teens of Naples are known as “scugnizzi” – urchins – a matter of civic pride. Sit at an outdoor café and a scugnizzo will try to sell a few loose cigarettes, as a way of getting closer. Oh, yes, tough town.
Maradona, local hero, played to the Napolitani by urging them to root for his Argentina team when it played Italy in the semifinal.
His words, as John McDermott recalls them, were, “364 days a year they call you “terroni” -- an Italian pejorative term for southerners. “Today they want you to be Italian. Don’t be fooled by them. We are your team! You belong with us!”
Maradona’s brazen appeal was rewarded with a victory over Italy, but Argentina lost the final to West Germany.
He’s gone, now, a victim of his excesses, but Diego Armando Maradona is the flawed patron saint of Naples. As John and Claudia wander through the tangled, pungent streets, they see his likeness everywhere -- the man who found his spiritual home.
“It’s dirty and chaotic and sometimes nerve-wracking,” McDermott wrote me. “But it is also a constant, vibrant, non-stop show of real life lived out in public.”
John expands on his love for Naples in this link:
As I work my way through John’s photos, I can hear, can smell, and surely can see the pulsing life in the alleyways of Naples.
Long live the photographers who take us to these places.
The NYT – the former gray lady – now lavishes color photos on its subscribers.
Did you see this recent masterpiece on Budapest?
Joe Vecchione: My Boss, My Friend
In the midnight hour on a murky Saturday night in late October of 1986, Shea Stadium was going mad.
A squiggly grounder by Mookie Wilson had somehow kept the Red Sox from winning the World Series that night – and fans were screaming, and nearly a dozen New York Times writers were pounding away at their laptops, shouting into phones, bustling noisily to update their early stories for the last print deadline of the evening. Enlightened cacophony.
The sports editor, Joseph J. Vecchione, sitting behind us in the pressbox, was coordinating with the staff in the office, making dozens of decisions, on the spot.
Then it was over. We had gotten it done, on deadline.
A young Times news reporter, doing spot duty to cover fan madness, police activity, etc., watched the sportswriters (so often maligned as “the toy department”) do their jobs. When things quieted down, the young reporter said casually to the sports editor, “Wow, that was impressive,” or words to that effect.
And Joe Vecchione said drily: “We do it every day.”
If Joe had added, “Kid,” he would have sounded just like Clint Eastwood in “The Unforgiven.”
That professional pride epitomized Joe Vecchione, my friend and advisor in my early days of writing the sports column. Joe passed Friday evening at 85, after years of suffering from Lewy body disease, cared for by his wife, Elizabeth, a wise and devoted nurse. They are parents of Elissa Vecchione Scott and Andrea Vecchione, with three grandchildren: Joe’s aura of family man was clear to people around him. He was a boss with values.
I got to know him as a terse, decisive voice on the phone, in the 70’s, when he was an editor in the photo department, and I was a news reporter. Sometimes I was at breaking news and I had to coordinate with the photo editors. Joe was authoritative and efficient.
Then he was plucked by Abe Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb to help form the new SportsMonday section, and he was there in 1980 when sports editor LeAnne Schreiber recruited me to be a reporter, filling in for Red Smith or Dave Anderson here and there. When LeAnne moved on, Joe became sports editor, and when Smith died in 1982, it was Abe Rosenthal’s decision to hire a new columnist, and it turned out to be me.
Here is where the kindness and shrewdness of Joe Vecchione took over. I had been conditioned by 10 years as a Times news reporter, to keep any trace of myself out of the copy. Give sources. Quote authorities. No opinions. That was the old, gray NYT – and I was one of the foot soldiers, thoroughly indoctrinated. As a columnist, I knew the subject matter, and could write and report, but I was trying too hard to find a voice, hinting at my opinions. I was being too cute.
Joe had some advice (and I paraphrase:)
“Be yourself. Tell us what you think. People want to know how you feel, what you know, what is right and wrong. Don’t hold back. This is the way things are going these days. You have freedom.”
He removed a decade of thoroughly valid reportorial rules, freeing me up to be a columnist.
Joe also had an instinct for hiring and enabling good people, hiring columnists Ira Berkow and Bill Rhoden, relying on deputy editors like Bill Brink and Lawrie Mifflin, and he backed up his columnists.
I benefited from this in 1990, when I was writing columns from the World Cup of soccer, held in Italy. The young American team, in its first appearance in 40 years, managed a taut 1-0 loss to the Italian team – a huge accomplishment. But I pointed out that Italy did not have great strikers – that is, players gaited to score goals from up close – and I wrote this was because their great national league imported scorers from Germany and Argentina and Brazil. I wrote:
“The home-grown players do not develop the knack of scoring. Mussolini once lamented that his was a nation of waiters. It is not stretching the truth to say that Italy is currently a nation of midfielders.”
The next day, the sports department got a call from an Italian-American reader who felt using the remark attributed to Mussolini was prejudicial. (Fact is, I love Italy and root for the Azzurri, except when they play the U.S.)
The person in the office, taking the call, told the reader that the sports editor was okay with my comment.
And who is the sports editor?
“Joseph J. Vecchione.”
That pretty much ended the conversation.
Joe could be tough, and he had to make a lot of decisions. I once was whining in the office about something or other, and Lawrie Mifflin, the deputy sports editor and loyal friend of Joe’s and mine, told me, in effect, “You have no idea how much he has to handle every day” – including complaints from leagues, teams, player unions, sponsors, agents, public officials, fans, to say nothing of staff members. In Joe’s regime, we let it fly, and Joe fielded the complaints, kept most of it from our ears.
Joe was sports editor for a decade, then moved back into the mainstream of the paper. He retired at 65 and the editors promptly brought him back to help the transition to the new building a few blocks away.
Over the years, I was impressed by the masthead names, the serious people (some of whom condescended to sports personnel), who were his social friends. They trusted him – for core values, like honesty, like thoughtfulness, like culture. That is no small statement about a Times official, my friend, who helped move the sports department into the future.
(Any insights/anecdotes about Joe? Please add them in Comments, below.)
Déjà Vu in Trump Hearings
It all came back to me – my telephone interview with the popinjay proprietor of a doomed gambling den.
Watching the Jan. 6 hearings on Monday, I heard former toadies Bill Barr and Bill Stepien talk about the emptiness of Donald J. Trump, who lost the 2020 election and then went blank when aides tried to tell him it was over.
Could not take in information or considered opinion, even when it was meant to help him in his chosen field, that is to say, the presidency.
Then I remembered -- the good old days of 1999, when Trump was not trying to wreck the United States of America but instead was merely bringing down the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.
In addition to siphoning money from people with a gambling jones, the Taj also ran boxing cards, for people who like to see others bleed.
Always hustling his faux-golden appearance, Trump was up front when a boxer named Stephan Johnson was beaten unconscious and lugged off to the hospital where he died within hours.
As an abolitionist toward boxing (tempered by liking so many boxers I met), I wondered if the death of Stephan Johnson might touch some primitive form of Trumpian conscience.
So I made a call to Trump's gatekeeper, asking for an interview. They knew me. I had grown up not far from the Trump Tara, knew his older brother Fred (a nice guy), and had also met Ivana Trump through a New York Czech connection.
Plus, I had seen Ivana – twice as smart as her husband – try to coach the man through press sessions regarding the New York Generals football team he owned. I could see he did not have a grip on details. Now I was wondering how he could explain his part in boxing, in the death of Stephan Johnson.
Over the phone, he was dim-wittedly vague, coming up with cliché after cliché about boxing:
''I love boxing, but it's a dangerous sport.”
''I hate what happened. 'It's something you have to get through. I think boxing is an alternative.' In some cases, the boxing ring is better than anything else.''
''You have to understand that we do not sanction the fights,'' Trump said. ''That is done by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Commission. All we are is the venue -- and fighting is popular. Every fight sells out. We have other things like gymnastics; they don't sell out. All I know is, boxing sells out.''
I’ve talked to other boxing people who made more complex arguments for boxing. But Trump was inarticulate. Flat. Empty. Didn’t know. Didn’t care.
The world has since seen what is really inside -- the raging egocentric sending the deluded and the deranged out to do battle at the Capitol, telling them he would be along shortly.
Now we are getting sworn testimony from people who served him, like Barr, who back-stabbed his old law and church pal Robert Mueller. Even Bill Barr had enough of Trump.
Solid Republican campaigners and lawyers and advisors describe him as not able to follow their advice that it was over.
Sounds like the guy on my phone in 1999 -- the good old days, when he merely wrecked his businesses, and his family.
How far would Trump go? His inability to know truth has even scared off Ivanka Trump, the oldest child, the one he sent off to mingle with European leaders, much to their disdain. This committee showed taped testimony from Ivanka, whose furtive eyes darted from side to side, looking for the nearest escape hole.
In this spectacle of a nation in trouble, I found two positive scenes:
--The former head of the Fox election evaluation grew, Chris Stirewald, was asked how his group on election night, 2020, had analyzed the incoming returns in the pivotal state of Arizona. With visible pride, Stirewald told about the experts from both parties, who reached the judgment that absentee ballots, counted later, would swing the state to Joe Biden. Fox beat the opposition – that is a big thing in journalism -- and they were correct. As a journalist, I felt great pride in what this guy and his staff had done. For his proven expertise, the network of Tucker Carlson fired him.
--One of the panel members, Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, noted that Bill Stepien had been scheduled to give live testimony Monday, but had rushed home when his wife went into labor. (With little notice, the committee staff pulled out vital segments of his previously taped testimony.)
I was touched when Rep. Lofgren noted that Stepien had every right to go home to be with his wife. Let me just add that if the other party were running a hearing, and that happened, I would not expect such a note of grace
(My interview with the inarticulate Donald Trump, when he was merely a New York joke, in 1999.)
Roger Angell: Pressbox Pal
Ever since Roger Angell passed last week, friends have been e-mailing about how great he was, and asking how well I knew him.
Let me say, he was grand company in a pressbox watching a game. I always thought he seemed liberated by his mid-life discovery, his strange hobby, writing about baseball.
It began as his left-brain, right-brain activity, when he wasn’t editing temperamental fiction writers or conducting in-house business at the New Yorker or dealing with the vicissitudes of life. He enjoyed the hell out of this other world, and it showed.
He also loved paddling his kayak or sailing along the Maine coast when he wasn’t writing about Pete Rose or Reggie Jackson or the baseball denizens of the Pink Poodle, his hangout in Arizona during spring training, or editing what any sportswriter would respectfully call “real writers.”
Now and then, he would pop into Yankee Stadium or the Mets’ ballpark, without the weary pack-mule trudge of the beat writer or old-fashioned sports columnist (been there, done that) lugging a laptop, expected to produce profundity on deadline, halfway through the season, 81 up, 81 to go, plus the endless autumn trek.
As we all said in our alibis for why we were not Roger Angell: we had deadlines.
While we were pecking away, he could hang back and chat up a ball player who grasped that this older guy knew the game and was not looking for a few quick quotes. I admired the working friendship he developed with, let’s say, Dan Quisenberry, a submarine-style relief pitcher with the Kansas City Royals, who was cool enough to explain his technique.
Roger also took seriously the first female writers in the press box and – gasp – the locker room, who were professionals, just like men, if you can imagine.
So, how well did I know him? I got off to a dumb-ass start. It must have been 1968 when I sat next to a guy near 50 and we introduced ourselves and he said something about “New York” and I thought he meant the new weekly magazine so I wished him luck with the new publication. To his credit, he did not correct me, nor did he back away from this dolt.
Later I deduced that he wrote for the New Yorker and began subscribing, not just for his occasional baseball pieces but for the great eclectic literacy of the magazine. I still subscribe to the New Yorker in the age of Editor David Remnick – a great guy who started as a daily sportswriter, for goodness’ sakes. The arrival of the New Yorker—the print version – is a highlight of this pensioner’s life.
Did I learn anything from Roger Angell? The best part was the way he thought independently and observed the sub-marginal things and had the time and space and license to elaborate. Plus, he had talent -- could play with themes and details, knowing exactly what he was doing.
He was a model, but then again, in our collective world, no journalist should lack for models. My parents were journalists and I came along in the pioneer Newsday sports department in the 60s, with crusty old editors and the new breed of chattering younger types, known as Chipmunks.
And then there were books that made me want to write longer and better. In the early 60s, I sought out “Bull Fever” by Kenneth Tynan, a London drama critic who roamed to the corridas of Spain, or “Cars at Speed,” by Robert Daley (son of the noted Times columnist, Arthur Daley), who had bolted to Europe to write about the Grand Prix – and life in the old world – and ignited my wanderlust.
In the same period, I read “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” by Harry Caudill, a lawyer from an old Kentucky family, whose lament for the defaced mountains made me want to go to Appalachia and see what was left.
So many great writers, out and about, dealing with current issues, from their heart, from their eyes, from their brains, writing at entertaining length.
Over the decades, I was always happy to spot Roger Angell in the press box. I cannot remember what we talked about, but it was fun.
When I retired at the end of 2011, I kept up by phone when I particularly loved something he had written, and I called when he had a death in the family.
When my wife and I started visiting her elderly uncle in coastal Maine, I called to tell Roger how much we loved his other world. My wife says I should have told him that some Angells popped up in her sprawling family tree from New England in the 17th and 18th Centuries.
Finally, a confession: Every year, readers would look for Roger’s annual Christmas poem, hailing and pairing people with exotic and yet topical names.
For decades, every December, I scanned the poem for my name, but it never appeared. I never told him how sad I was.
Other than that, Roger Angell was, just as you imagined, great company as well as great reading.
* * *
In case you missed:
Obit by Dwight Garner:
Tyler Kepner’s appreciation:
And a labor-of-love sampling of Roger’s work, from Lonnie Shalton, lawyer in Kansas City and a true lover of baseball:
Digitizing NYT Artist-Photographers
Omigosh, Mike was there! That was my reaction while electronically poking around online files and saw this angle of Jackie Robinson sliding toward Yogi Berra in the 1955 World Series.
The umpire ruled Robinson had stolen home, but to the end of his days, Yogi would levitate loudly, to dispute that call.
But I’m not writing about baseball today. I’m writing about photographers like my late friend Meyer (Mike) Liebowitz, who passed in 1976 but lives forever in the stock of photos, now being included in a digitizing project by the Times. (That project was described in a two-page spread in Sunday's Metropolitan section. See link below.)
In the dozens of times Mike and I worked together on news – not sports – stories on Long Island, he never once mentioned that he was one of the photographers arrayed around Yankee Stadium that epic day. (John Rooney of the AP caught the slide/tag that, to this day, proves nothing.)
Mike Liebowitz one of dozen photographers I got to know – and admire – on our assignments together. This digital project reminds me that one of the under-described relationships in journalism is somebody with a pad and somebody with a camera, going on assignment, watching each other’s back.
I was in my mid-30s and Mike was surely twice my age when we were paired by the random needs of the Photo Desk, Sometimes I would be in his car because it held his equipment.
Once we were chasing a politician allegedly visiting an estate in Nassau County’s gold coast. Down a long driveway, we knocked on a door and were told to take a hike, so Mike backed out the driveway – and we nearly got T-boned by a speeding car.
Another time we were doing something way out on the North Fork (a project to save the fading potato farms?) on a glorious early October day, and Mike was driving along an untended beach and the tide was high, so I asked Mike if he had 20 minutes to spare, which he did, so I stripped down to my skivvies and dove into the warm, placid waters, and then we proceeded due west.
In that two-page spread in the Times’ Sunday metropolitan section, there are 12 vintage photos about reading in public. What touched me was that I worked with just about all the photographers – Jim Wilson, Keith Meyers, Marilyn K. Yee, Fred R. Conrad, Andrea Mohin, Chester Higgins, Jr., and William E. Sauro, who did a lot of sports.
And that doesn’t include other Times pioneers like Michelle Agins (who one Christmas Eve popped over to my family dinner and took a treasured photo of four generations) and Sarah Krulwich, who has become an institution with her photos of everything Broadway.
Or dapper little Ernest Sisto, who worked on the field back in the day of bulky Graflex cameras, and would get a discreet signal from his compagno Phil Rizzuto when the Scooter was about to drop a bunt.
And then there are my two pals from the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway – Paul Burnett, who took photos of the presumed winner, Nancy Kerrigan, and Barton Silverman, who was snapping Oksana Baiul, who went later.
Barton was – and I am sure still is – a force of nature. He got roughed up covering the 1968 Democrat convention in Chicago, and in 1996 he was nearly arrested in Atlanta for trespassing in the new Olympic park in downtown Atlanta. (I tried to warn him.)
I know I am omitting a dozen or two Times photographers, but I want to discuss another facet – free-lance photographers. I don’t know what it is like now, but when I was a news reporter based in Louisville, the Times used great photographers from the Courier-Journal in their spare time (my late friend Ford Reid, for one), and also a free-lancer named Kenneth Murray, a true son of Appalachia from the Tri-Cities area where Virginia and Tennessee meet.
I met Ken at the first funeral after the terrible Hyden coal-mine disaster in Eastern Kentucky, Dec. 30, 1970, and he kept going to funerals for most of the 38 miners. Later he began working with me all over Appalachia.
In March of 1972, we got together when a coal-mine’s lethal lake of waste water broke loose and drowned 125 people along Buffalo Creek, W. Va, one rainy Saturday morning, with no warning from the coal company.
Ken and I decided to look around for more of these “slurry ponds” and got caught in some deep woods, by a few guards flashing pistols. As we tried to explain it was all a big mistake, Ken whispered to keep edging our way down to the state road, to public land, which we did, safely.
Some of my best times were spent out on the road somewhere, with Tom Hardin of Kentucky, Don Hogan Charles of the NYT, Gary Settle of the NYT and Seattle, Chang Lee of the NYT, John McDermott my soccer buddy from San Francisco and now Italy….and more.
And the news about the digital project makes me happy that the Times will preserve the work of its own artist-journalists, in its way, a hall of fame for these people who became legends to me.
Praise, in a Hard Time
With the Putin pandemic raging and the Covid pandemic lessening, two public figures caught my attention in the past 24 hours.
As a journalist, I watched with awe and admiration Thursday evening as Shepard Smith, on live television, reported the ominous news about the nuclear plant in southern Ukraine.
For whatever reason Smith and CNBC were ahead of other TV outlets on my tube. Lately, we have been switching to Smith at 7 PM because it seems more like an old-fashioned hour of evening news.
Shepard is a pro, and he was welcome on Thursday as his station recognized the seriousness of the breaking news about undisciplined and amoral Russian soldiers bombarding the nuclear plant. This has been a worst-case scenario for those of us who can recall the end of World War Two and then word that the Soviet Union also had atomic bombs.
So there was Smith, showing a frozen video of tracer bullets lighting up the night sky, seven time zones away, and flares dropping and smoke rising. Hell on Earth. However, Smith kept his wits and cautioned that this video was already minutes old and much could have changed.
Smith never panicked (that we could tell) and his clearly capable staff backed him up, finding experts who gave best-case and worst-case scenarios. Smith, with his soft southern drawl and experience of working abroad, was clearly reading whatever came across his laptop. and trying to make sense of it.
I have covered coal-mine disasters and city armed standoffs and know how helpless one can feel without solid facts. Yet Smith collated bits and pieces of news and expertise, keeping his wits. I cannot imagine anybody doing better. The network wisely kept him on for a second hour, until they could ascertain that, whatever the Russian thuggery and stupidity – undisciplined boys with heavy weapons – the plant was apparently unharmed. That was good enough, for the moment.
I really don’t know much about Shepard Smith, except that he used to be on Fox, but jumped ship nearly two years ago. His politics? Whatever. They do not get in the way of his news smarts.
Smith reported his way through a fresh crisis. We could breathe, momentarily. I want to send word to an admirable journalist, for excellence in live time. Thanks, man.
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The other person I want to praise is Eric Adams, the new mayor of New York City. I have liked and admired him from afar – his Brooklyn roots, his career with the NYPD, and the way he fought off diabetes and obesity with a professed vegetarian diet. Does he slip in some fish protein once in a while? Who cares?
There are questions about his politics and who supports him, and with how much, but that could be said about most, or all, politicians. As a city kid, I just like him.
On Friday,Adams stood in Times Square and announced that the Covid mandates were mostly gone, given the sharp drop in new cases and deaths in the city. Some of us are not ready to leap into a crowded theater or restaurant, but we don’t have to.
Mayor Adams gave warm praise to Dr. David Chokshi, who stayed on as NY health commissioner in the first months of 2022, to get the city to this point of documented hope. Dr. Chokshi has been a welcome presence on public-service announcements, with his knowledge and gentle smile.
The mayor also praised somebody else – Bill DeBlasio, the previous mayor. Speaking with fervor, the mayor noted that “Bill” had taken a lot of pot-shots from critics, but had made decisions and presided over a terrible time. To paraphrase the new mayor: “It’s not easy. Try it some time. He gave us eight years, and we’re still standing.”
Not every politician, in my home town or anywhere, has the grace to praise a predecessor. I have no way of knowing how the Adams regime will go, but the new mayor showed a heady mix of street smarts and grace. Thank you, sir.
Queens Boy Went to Paris
(This is one of those pieces I hate to write, but am compelled to do.)
It was March in 1953 and I bumped into John Vinocur in the GG subway, the local that ran underneath Queens Blvd.
John was a year behind me in Junior High 157 but we had gotten to know each other on the daily ride to Rego Park.
The headlines in the papers – everybody read a paper in those days – The Daily News! The Times! The Trib! The Mirror! – and these were just the AM papers -- were about the death of Joseph Stalin on March 5.
The question was, would the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S. be lessened or heightened by whoever came next, a fun discussion in any decade. John was a news junkie and so was I and we chatted animatedly, and no doubt loudly and ostentatiously, until the GG local had arrived at our stop.
I thought of that subway ride when I read that John passed Sunday in Amsterdam, yet another great city he knew from his time as reporter and editor at the Associated Press, International Herald Tribune, New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
He lived the dream that was perhaps in our brash Queens minds on that March morning of 1953.
The obituaries tell of his accomplishments and hint at his bluster. I know somebody who worked in the Paris office of the IHT for a year in the early 80s – “dashing and vibrant” were the words she used.
That was when the IHT was an eccentric wing of the Times, its office never far from the Champs Elysées, its product a must-read for ex-pat or vacationing Americans, long before the Internet. News from home! Sports scores! It was the offshoot of the paper being hawked by Jean Seberg – “New York Herald Tribune!" – in Paris, as Jean-Paul Belmondo sharks her, in the 1960 movie “Breathless.”
That was the same world sought out by John Vinocur, who had played a little basketball at Forest Hills High, went to Oberlin, and then off to France, where he played semi-pro basketball. The hoops were part of his rep, and he often mentioned it to me, knowing I would be properly impressed.
At some point, John went to work for the Associated Press in Paris, earning good assignments like the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Here is eager young John Vinocur, covering the massacre of Israeli athletes, described by another deceased pal of mine, Hubert Mizell, late of the St. Petersburg Times.
"A native New Yorker, he… matriculated to backwater France, learning the language from natives and picking up money playing semi-pro hoops.”
Hubert then describes how John “ignored police warnings and scaled a fence to get close to Building 31.”
That would be John from Queens, scaling a fence.
I can find no reference in his obit to how John got his job at the Times, but as I recall it, John was working for the AP in Paris when the movie “Last Tango in Paris” came out, portraying the club world of Paris in all its seediness, and John went to one of the raunchier clubs and wrote about it, and somebody at the NYT noticed. That’s how it worked: somebody likes your clips.
John worked in the home office of the NYT for a while but my guess is he was used to being The American in Paris, so he went back. We ran into each other over the years, and would share opinions of New York sports, our Queens voices the loudest in any brasserie or café, still bonded from the GG local subway.
If you can leap the paywall, you can find Sam Roberts’ obituary of John Vinocur here:
And just to get a feel of the dream, Paris in the 60s, here is the clip from “Breathless:”
Brian Williams Has Been Released
He did the crime and now he has done the time. The crime was exaggerating – embellishing – even inventing – a few moments in an otherwise admirable career. In telling and re-telling, he put himself in more dangerous positions covering war than he had actually been – not a good thing for an anchor, a correspondent, a star.
Brian Williams’ punishment was a work-release program. Instead of appearing on the main network of NBC, for the past five years he toiled at 11 PM on MSNBC, the cable version of the network, where he provided gravitas, experience, even grace.
Now Williams has announced he is leaving the network,. He has been a pro, listening to his guests, reacting to what they were saying, or what they were not saying. He presided over a recap of the day’s news and also the latest “breaking news” that never seems to stop. And when their segment was over, he thanked his guests, often with a turn of a phrase. (Wish I could come up with a few right now, but they were unfailingly witty and gracious.)
Some Friday nights, Williams’ handsome face has seemed drawn, his hair more gray, at 61, from dog years on the air. I feel the same way from watching MSNBC -- the same commercials for old-people ailments, plus a parade of hosts, some of whom have lost their charm, who natter on, before finally prodding the guests, who can’t always deduce the question, much less the answer.
And for four years, the whole process was polluted by a president who did not know truth or reality, only what he could stuff in his gunnysack.
It’s not all bad, of course. Andrea Mitchell, the noon anchor, has been there, done that, for decades.
Nicolle Wallace and Lawrence O’Donnell have worked inside government; Steve Kornacki can name every county seat in this huge county. Chris Hayes is best in front of an audience. And the younger correspondents out in the field – too many of them to list -- are darn good reporters,
I remember when Rachel Maddow would go out in the field to report and editorialize about states polluting their own rivers, states doing their darndest to make Black college students dare to vote in some obscure outback. She was wonderful, and urgent. Now she talks. A lot.
Brian Williams, doing his time, pulled the whole day together in the final 60 minutes.
I don’t know whether Williams is looking to rest and spend time with his family (the standard departure goal for politicians, or come up with a fresh gig in a better time in front of much larger network audiences. That’s up to him. I only know that Brian Williams has been a ray of experience and poise. Thanks, man.
A Father Brags on His Family
Happy Father’s Day…Best Wishes at Juneteenth….and hopes for a good and healthy summer for all.
My first present – there are others – was a lovely essay in The New York Times written by one David Vecsey. The essay proved (once again, to me) that it is hard for me, being the least talented and versatile among the five members of our family.
Marianne is an artist (more on that momentarily) and has a dozen other skills.
Laura was a poet first and then a really good news reporter and sports columnist at four major papers around the country, and is now a real-estate maven upstate.
Corinna worked in journalism (in Paris, later in New York) and is now a lawyer and consultant to feelgood projects in Pennsylvania.
David could have (should have) been a sports columnist but after some time in the Web world, he learned newspaper editing from some good teachers at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and passed the editing test and tryout at the Times a decade ago, to our delighted surprise.
So….a father and husband can brag on Father’s Day.
My wife did it all. As David attests in his story, I was at the ballpark or typing in my room, putting in an appearance for meals or a catch or hoops or maybe a drive to Jones Beach or the city. I did take each of them with me on road trips to deepest America, not for games but for real life.
Marianne did the hard work, the parenting. And it shows.
They are all good parents.
They all can cook.
They all have spouses, Diane and Peter and Joelle, who match them, skill for skill, energy for energy, will for will, value for value. How blessed we are.
David is usually busy putting the last bit of polish on articles for the Print Hub (that is to say, “the paper.”) He’s been working at home the past year, and instead of riding the railroad he has been able to develop other corners of his brain.
In his younger days, he watched his mother cook, and sometimes went to the New York Philharmonic with her when I was away. He also watched her paint, in her “spare time,” late at night, her newest work materializing when we woke up in the morning.
Over the years, she won prizes, appeared in nice shows and galleries, sold around 300 paintings, some of them now around the world.
Recently, David asked if she had slides of her work, and yes, she had some tucked here and there. So he commandeered the slides, put them through the magic visual part of his computer, and turned some of them into posters and greeting cards, with themes and connections only his active mind could make.
He has put them online, displayed them at crafts shows on Long Island, placed them in some nice shops, mailed the work to Berlin, to England, and corners of the U.S. It’s all on a very modest scale, and by Dave’s decree, some of the money is going to charity. The point was never money, it was the art, the work, the product, the result.
I sit back and enjoy the smartphone pings from our scattered family.
They are the best gift, on Father’s Day.
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You should be able to open David’s story online today:
For information on David’s project, Marianne’s work:
Good for Osaka for Calling for Help
However she did it, Naomi Osaka found a way to catch the attention of all the people around her.
She dropped out of the French Open Monday, saying she has been suffering from depression since 2018. Whatever the circumstances, however she did it, she now gets better help, I hope.
Osaka rang the alarm by saying she didn't want to talk to the media, but now it is clear this is much more than a tantrum by a young adult.
My one question now is: who knew about her trouble? Who let it get this far? Did she have a worldwide number for a qualified counselor who knew her, who was reachable 24 hours a day?
One more thing: Tennis -- with a capital T -- is also to blame. I once knew a doctor who was appalled at the lack of consistent care these great athletes receive. Nothing was available for the next doc-on-call in the next continent to make a diagnosis. Maybe it's better now. But there Naomi Osaka was, in yet another great setting, in yet another Slam tournament, needing to shut it down. Everybody's meal ticket.
Did her parents know? Her coach? Her agent? Her hitting partner? Her physio? I am way out of tennis these days and know nothing of her and her "entourage." But she had to draw the line somewhere, and the media is a fine target, I don't blame her.
The tennis writers and commentators I know would be the first to say: brave lady, get some help, then come back. If you can. If you want. Be safe.
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Here is Matthew Futterman's breaking news story from Paris:
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(The following is my earlier piece.)
How much is it worth to not speak to the scurrilous wretches known as tennis writers?
It is refreshing to know that professional tennis pays so well that Naomi Osaka can willingly pay $15,000 to avoid one short session with the assassins and cut-throats of the press.
This was the going rate when Osaka ducked the media after her first round at the French Open on Sunday. She had promised not to speak, citing the threat to “mental health” from exposure to the troublemakers with pens and recording machines.
Up to now, Osaka has been known for becoming the best female player in the world and also becoming the highest paid female athlete in history, making $34.7-million dollars last year, according to Forbes.
As the daughter of a Haitian father and Japanese mother, representing Japan and growing up in the United States, she has worldwide appeal, and has often spoken out maturely on gender and racial issues. But suddenly, at 23, apparently on her own, she issued a manifesto that she would not appear at the mandatory conferences after every match.
Having covered these post-match conferences since I was younger than Osaka is now, I can attest to the rambling and scattershot tone of these sessions. Most of the accredited media members are from the tennis press – they know the sport, they are solicitous of the players, asking questions about on-court strategy, questionable officiating, luck of the bounce, and upcoming tournament plans. (“Will you be playing at Indian Wells this season?”)
Of course, there are also outliers – columnists, news reporters, and nowadays people representing websites and electronic media, looking for a snippet of quote or tantrum or tears.
Over the years, I have seen most of the enduring players adjust to sudden swerves of questions just as they adjust to swirling winds or glaring sunlight or capricious surfaces. Nobody gets to major tournaments without learning to cope.
Serena Williams deflects questions and criticisms with a combative mode. Her older sister Venus Williams does it with a distant manner; she doesn’t really know anything about this or that. But when they want, both are mature activists for themselves and good causes.
Many of the enfants terribles had their own defense mechanisms – John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors ramped up their obnoxious level, Andre Agassi retreated into a “whut?” response, Ivan Lendl could get haughty. Guys being guys. It got them through.
The best female players were even younger when they came along, facing questions that often veered into personal issues. Some of the female prodigies seemed preternaturally poised – Chris Evert, of course, as well as Pam Shriver and Steffi Graf and Tracy Austin and Martina Hingis and Ana Kournikova most of the time, even when some male reporters seemed to be summoning their inner Humbert Humberts in person and in print.
Female players had marvelous role models – the pioneers who fought for respect and prize money, most notably Billie Jean King. Some women had to face sniggering sexuality questions, most notably from the Beastie Boys of the British press, at post-match press conferences. I remember one female player being asked whether she was wearing an engagement ring from the woman in the family box.
The volunteer steward at the Wimbledon interview room in the '80s was a mannered scion of a major British firm, who would wave off some personal questions – “please, tennis questions only.” I have seen John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova tell him politely they were more than equal to the questions. Which they surely were.
Up to now, Naomi Osaka has been able to handle herself – on the court and in the media conferences. Her manifesto seems to have come from within, without advice from family or agent or coach or friends. Nobody seems to know the origin of her phrase “mental health,” but surely Osaka has seen players be mad or hurt by questions after a loss or a dispute. Perhaps she has been, also.
I can only hope she is talking with people who care for her, including veterans of the tour – Evert and Navratilova. I would suggests she check in with a Black pioneer like Leslie Allen of New York City, who was on the tour back in the day when prize and endorsement money was measured in tens and hundreds.
Unless there is more to Osaka’s angst than we know, she needs to remember that if she can face down the great players on today’s tour, she can handle the Beastie Boys (and Girls) in the media room. We’re the easy part.
Araton and Berkow, Together Again
Not too long ago, Harvey Araton and Ira Berkow were gracing the sports pages of The New York Times with their wise columns.
Now they are both issuing books with their very personal views of the world.
Harvey’s book is “Our Last Season: A Writer, a Fan, a Friendship,” about the bond between him and Michelle Musler, who for decades was a fixture in the stands just behind the Knicks bench in Madison Square Garden.
Ira’s book is “How Life Imitates Sports: A Sportswriter Recounts, Relives and Reckons With 50 Years on the Sports Beat,” which just about tells it all.
(In alphabetical order)
Araton praises the wise businesswoman who was always there – for the Knicks and for him. He describes himself as the child of a project in Staten Island, who earns his entry into sports journalism while battling his own insecurities.
As he works his way from the Staten Island Advance to the Post to the Daily News, his talent and earnestness impress not only editors and readers but also a fan literally looking over his shoulder in the Garden.
Musler saw all – could read the body language, maybe even read lips, of the Knicks and the opponents and the refs. She had put her people skills to great advantage in the corporate world, undoubtedly by being wiser than the average (male) executive.
The Knicks were her outlet, she freely told friends, her social life. Everybody knew her – the players, nearby fans, reporters, ushers, even the team PR man, who left a packet of media stats and releases for her before every game. How cool was that?
Musler more or less adopted Harvey, counseled him, shaped him up, told him to aim big. She became friendly with Harvey’s wife, Beth Albert, and sometimes met Harvey after a game to debrief him on what she had seen from her perch.
When he fretted whether he was worthy of the Times job being offered, she figuratively slammed him up against a steel locker and gave him what a high-school coach I knew called “a posture exercise.” And when his career took a sour detour, she shaped him up, to the point that in retirement he remains an extremely valuable contributor to the Times sports section. Harvey is still what somebody once called him: “The Rebbe of Roundball.”
In return, Harvey came to know Michelle Musler – her strange childhood, her husband leaving her with five children, her career, her need to make money, her love of the Knicks. Her decades of working with male executives prepared her for a searing analysis of James Dolan, the miserable owner of the Knicks.
As Michelle’s health deteriorated, Harvey would sometimes drive from New Jersey to Connecticut to the Garden to get her to a game.
And when Michelle Musler passed in 2018, Harvey wrote a beautiful obit for the Times:
Ira Berkow’s book is also personal – about a talented, ambitious kid from Chicago who made his way to New York and became a fixture in the Times and also in books, not all about sports.
Ira has touched on most stars of the past half century – Muhammad Ali! Michael Jordan! He sized up O.J. Simpson, before and after! He had lunch with Katarina Witt! He shot baskets with Martina Navratilova! He also shot baskets with a retired Oscar Robertson! He schmoozed with Abel Kiviat, then America’s oldest living medalist! And he scrutinized a brash real-estate hustler named Donald Trump!
One of my favorite segments is about Jackie Robinson – who broke baseball’s disgraceful color barrier in 1947. Ira recalls being 15, a high-school athlete himself, watching the Dodgers take on the Yankees in the 1955 World Series.
In 2018, with JR42 long gone, Ira was being interviewed on TV about Robinson and came up with a description of how Jackie Robinson had faked the Yankees’ Elston Howard -- a catcher playing left field -- into throwing the ball to second base while Robinson steamed into third.
Later, he remembered interviewing Robinson in 1968 about his thought processes in testing Howard, who was out of position because Yogi Berra was the catcher. Robinson seemed to deflect Ira’s analysis, but the audacious move remained in Ira’s fertile brain.
A few years ago, Ira looked it up in the official play-by-play for the 1955 Series: it confirmed that Robinson, by whatever logic, had victimized Howard into throwing behind Robinson.
This section confirms the instinctive genius of Jackie Robinson and also the enlightened journalistic observation powers of Ira Berkow.
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Most of sports have been thrown off balance by the pandemic, but these very different books by Harvey Araton and Ira Berkow remind us how great sportswriters have enriched us by writing about the world, on and off the court.
Farewell, Bob Gibson
Bob Gibson passed Friday of pancreatic cancer.
He was one of the most competitive athletes I ever covered – a fierce, purposeful flame.
I wrote about Gibson (below) 26 months ago when he disclosed the fearsome diagnosis.
I would also recommend today’s obit in the NYT by my friend Rich Goldstein:
Also, you might want to see the piece I did in 2009 when Gibson and Reggie Jackson were promoting a book they had written (with Lonnie Wheeler) about the eternal struggle – that is, between pitchers and hitters.
I watched the rivalry play out over a power breakfast in New York, and when I asked a question Gibson considered cheeky, he verbally buzzed me, high and inside. I thought Reggie was going to choke on his oatmeal, or whatever he was eating. His look said: “And you writers think I’m a hard guy.”
I consider myself fortunate to have been around Gibson, in the tight little sanctums of the Cardinal clubhouse in the old, old ballpark. That kind of access to athletes is gone during the pandemic, with writers minimally getting sterile, mass interviews with a few principals, and I’m just guessing it never comes back. No writer today will see a star like Gibson, up close, the way I did in the tense last weeks of the 1964 season and World Series.
Finally, a word about superstars. My admired colleague Dave Kindred has a mythical mind game called “The Game to Save Humanity,” meaning “we” get to play Martians, or whatever, one game, Pick your team. My pitchers are Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson, lefty and righty, even beyond numbers and longevity, but just, well, just because. I saw them.
RIP, Hoot. It was an honor to observe you.
From July, 2018:
Don’t Mess With Bob Gibson
Bob Gibson is fighting pancreatic cancer – “fighting” being the operative word.
Everybody knows Gibson’s combative pose as the best right-handed pitcher in the universe, starting in 1964.
I was lucky enough to be present when Gibson morphed from very good pitcher to legend, in 22 epic days at the end of that season.
He had been underestimated by his first manager, Solly Hemus, who had lost his black players by using a racial taunt to taunt an opponent in 1960. Gibson was still very much a work in progress after Hemus was canned in 1961, and replaced by Johnny Keane, who reminded me of the kindly commanding officer, Col., Potter, in the classic series, “M*A*S*H.”
After mid-season of 1964, Gibson pitched eight straight complete games – a statistic that probably would default the computers of today’s analytics gurus. Yes, really good pitchers really did finish a lot of games.
As the Phillies started to fold, the Cardinals and Reds put on a run.
On Sept. 24, Gibson lost a complete game in Pittsburgh. On Sept. 28, he beat the Phillies, going 8 innings. On Oct. 2, with the Cardinals in first place on the last Friday of the season, Gibson lost, 1-0, to the lowly Mets as Alvin Jackson pitched the game of his life.
Then on a very nervous Oct. 4, Gibson pitched 4 innings in relief, gave up two runs, but was the winning pitcher, as the Cardinals won their first pennant since 1946.
I can still see him on the stairs to the players-only loft.
“Hoot, how’s your arm?” a reporter asked.
“Horseshit!” Gibson said. Then he was gone, up the stairs.
When Manager Keane gave his pennant-winning media conference, somebody asked why he went so often with a certifiably fatigued pitcher.
“I had a commitment to his heart,” Keane said softly.
Those words gave me a chill as Keane spoke them; they remain one of the great tributes I have ever heard from a manager of coach about a player. Keane’s faith, his shrewd understanding of the man, helped Gibson demolish the stereotype that many black players had to overcome.
Gibson then started the second game (8 innings, lost to Jim Bouton), won the fifth game in 10 innings) and the seventh game in 9 innings to won the World Series.
He had pitched 56 innings in 22 days, become a superstar after some delay, just as Sandy Koufax had done earlier. In over 70 years as fan and reporter, I will take the two of them over any lefty-righty pair you want to pick.
Gibson never put away his testy edge. He was rough on rookies, rough on how own catchers and pitching who trudged out to the mound to counsel him. “You don’t know anything about pitching, except you can’t hit it,” he told Tim McCarver, who has relished that taunt ever since.)
He did not observe the fraternity of ball players, even chatty types like Ron Fairly of the Dodgers.
One time Fairly stroked a couple of hits off Gibson, who then hit a single of his own. But Fairly made the mistake of engaging Gibson in a collegial way. I always heard that Fairly praised Gibson for his base hit, but Gibson insisted that Fairly had raved about Gibson’s stuff and wondered how he had possibly made two hits off him. Either way, Gibson glared at Fairly. Didn’t say a word.
Next time up, Fairly observed Gibson, glowing on the mound, and mused to the catcher, Joe Torre, that he did not think he was going to enjoy this at-bat, was he? Torre wasn’t going to lie about it; he just smiled as Fairly took one in the ribs.
That is Gibson. Don’t mess with him. Torre later brought Gibson to the Mets as his “attitude coach,” as if you can coach attitude.
Gibson remains competitive. A decade or so ago, he and Reggie Jackson collaborated on a nice book about the age-old yin/yang of pitcher/hitter. They met me for a power breakfast in New York to discuss their book, and it went fine until near the end. Working on a book on Stan Musial, I asked Gibson if I could ask one question about Stan the Man.
“Absolutely not,” Gibson snapped. He and Musial had the same agent, and he knew that Musial had put out a fatwa against friends and family discussing him with writers.
Gibson’s abruptness caused Reggie to nearly choke on his bagel as he tried not to laugh.
This is the guy who is going to fight a formidable disease.
Knock it on its ass, Hoot.
* * *
(Below: video of Christopher Russo interviewing Gibson (Reggie in background) about the friendly little incident with Fairly, back in the day.)
One of my favorite e-mail correspondents is Bill Lucey, a journalist and baseball fanatic in Cleveland. (We have never met.)
Occasionally, Lucey writes a blog, but he goes beyond the stereotype of the guy-in-underwear-slapping-together-a-pronunciamento.
He actually contacts experts for their opinions. The gall of him, working at his blog.
His latest is a very well-written look at the acceptance of the word "irregardless" by an alleged authority in grammar. He writes about other innovations, including one taking place in Major League Baseball is this very shaky season.
Ladies and gentlemen, readers of all ages, please open the following link and read Bill Lucey's erudite essay on the dumbing down of grammar:
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*- My little joke. One of my pet peeves is the misuse of the word "hopefully," particularly by sports broadcasters, but also by many people who speak in public.
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And while you're at it, check out this site for very short plays. This one is by my friend Altenir Silva, from Rio and Lisbon, Yankee fan, writer in English, frequent presence on this site. He has written a shortie about Godot, as performed by Abbot and Costello. Honest. Of course, it has allusions to baseball. I told you, he's a Yankee fan.
This Met Was Usually "In the Room"
I’m getting the feeling that baseball is negotiating itself out of even an abbreviated season.
And maybe that’s okay. I’m not sure anybody should be doing something as unimportant as playing sports, what with the murderous virus still very much floating in the air we breathe.
Then again, I truly miss baseball. I can’t watch old games on the tube, just can’t, but I can read about them.
I just read a book about my favorite team from somebody who was “in the room where it happened.” (From “Hamilton”)
That would be Jay Horwitz, owner of the largest head this side of Mr. Met, the mascot for whom he is often mistaken. The book is entitled “Mr, Met: How a Sports-Mad Kid from Jersey Became Like Family to Generations of Big Leaguers," issued by Triumph Books.
Horwitz was the head public relations person for the Mets from the time of Joe Torre through the time of Terry Collins (both of whom he openly admires.)
As Jay tells it, confident managers like Davey Johnson relied on Jay's ability to keep a secret, and explained personnel moves or strategy decisions, counting on him to put a positive spin on them.
The book is full of examples of Horwitz offering advice to players, particularly the younger ones, moments after a game, before the vicious bloodhounds of the media came yowling through the clubhouse door.
Let me attest that Jay Horwitz has not yet in his life given any journalist (or at least me) a truly newsy “scoop.” He made his rep as a college PR man who could get Fairleigh Dickinson in the sports pages, in the waning days when print dominated sports coverage, and he was not about to divulge anything damaging or derogatory about any Met that ever lived. Therefore, he had the run of the place.
For example: Horwitz was in the locker room on the night of Oct. 25, 1986, when the Mets and Red Sox played the sixth game of the World Series. When the game went into extra innings, he knew he had to get to the Mets’ clubhouse to console or congratulate the players but also to monitor the post-game madness.
He was sitting in Davey Johnson’s office with Darrell Johnson, one of the Mets’ advance scouts, watching on TV as the Red Sox scored twice. Then Wally Backman flied to left and Keith Hernandez flied to center. (Anybody who was there will never forget the Shea Stadium scoreboard prematurely flashing congratulations to the Red Sox.)
A minute later, Hernandez burst into the clubhouse, not about to gawk like some tourist as the visitors celebrated in the Mets’ house.
Then the three of them watched Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell and Ray Knight single to bring the Mets within a run
“I’m not leaving my chair,” Hernandez declared. “It’s got hits in it. It’s a hit chair.” Most ball players believe that stuff.
Then Mookie Wilson had perhaps the greatest at-bat in the history of the Mets and as the Mets roared in from the field, Jay Horwitz “was in the room."
In bad times -- and for the Mets, that's most of the time -- Horwitz suffered and sighed so visibly the players treated him as one of them, including when they divided up the World Series swag. This is the annual autumnal test of character, with some teams generous to people who serve them, and some teams not so much.
The club was passing out $4,000 bonuses to department heads but the players voted Jay in for a full share -- $93,000 -- the same amount as Hernandez and Carter and Mookie, a highly unusual gesture.
He was hesitant to break tradition, but says players like Mookie insisted he take it. Then Jay consulted the person who truly had his back – his mother, Gertrude.
“I didn’t raise a schmuck,” she told her son. “Take the 93.”
The share was a big payoff for Jay Horwitz but it sounds as if he had a payoff every day he reported to work -- a loyal PR man, as unathletic as they get, who has gone through life with only one eye working due to glaucoma at birth. A bachelor, he has put his loyalty into the Mets since 1980, and the players (often the stars like Tom Seaver or John Franco) often showed their love by dousing him from the whirlpool hose, cutting his tie, slipping greasy foodstuffs in his jacket pocket as he slept on the team airplane.
Jay still seems to beat himself up that he did not do enough to steer young Doc Gooden and young Darryl Strawberry, who found ways to self-destruct early and often. He does not go into details, but he trusts the reader to know them.
After the 2018 season, the Mets’ new front office created a new job as vice president of alumni relations; Jay now brings back old Mets, some immortal, some transient, for some feel-good events, plus he still gets to report to the ballpark every day.
In the absence of baseball, this sweet book shows the beating heart of a sport that normally takes place every day. Jay Horwitz and loyal fans (I outed myself as a Mets fan after retirement) may have a long wait to root and suffer during a game, any game. The Horwitz book gives a glimpse of the daily agony, unique to baseball.
Finding My Old Column About Epic Game
Omigosh, you never know what will pop up. I picked up “the paper” in the driveway on Monday and there in the sports pages was a column I wrote 33 years ago, and it seems like yesterday.
Actually, it did involve two yesterdays – a seventh game of a Stanley Cup series that began Saturday night outside Washington, finished Sunday morning on Long Island (I was columnizing from home) and appeared in the Monday paper.
In those days, there was no Web, no 24-hour urgency to the newspaper business. I watched the Islanders (descendants of the mythic champs I had loved covering from 1980-83) battle the upstart Capitals for the right to move on to the next round.
Sports columnists were caught up in the interminable pedaling on the hamster wheel, the typing, the travel, the creating - - a mission, an honor. Only six months before, also on a Saturday night, Mookie Wilson and Bill Buckner had gotten caught up in another epic game.
In the long madness of that night, I declared that the Red Sox’ misery was somehow linked to their disposal of Babe Ruth nearly half a century earlier. One gets very wise very late at night.
(And speaking of momentous marathons in the middle of the night, one of my favorite books about sports, and suffering, is “Bottom of the 33rd,” about baseball’s longest game between Pawtucket and Rochester, by Dan Barry, now one of my favorite bylines at the NYT. By the quirks of the calendar, that April 19 was both Holy Saturday for Christians and Passover for Jews, spiritual overtones galore.)
The Islanders-Capitals marathon also began on Holy Saturday and led into Easter Sunday while the lads kept playing, and playing, and playing.
I was living the life of the sports columnist, circa 1987 – when you knelt before the editor-in-chief and he tapped you on the shoulder with a mythical sword and dubbed you a knight of the keyboard, giving a modest raise for the honor of working your fingertips and frazzled brain around the clock, around the calendar-- three or four columns and week, often on deadline, deputized to explain sports to Times readers (and editors.)
I took my mission seriously and went out to slay dragons around the clock, around the week, around the cycle of sports as we knew it then. Fact was, I loved it, the freedom to think, and type, and see it in the paper, regularly.
(How trivial it all seems now, when most of the “news” of sports is about whether to resume competition, while in the Real World people are merely hoping they and their loved ones can continue breathing and eating. It is just possible that the longing for sports only leads to more Foxed-up yahoos picketing state governments to get people “back to work,” no matter what those scientists say about the killer virus. Personally, I don’t miss sports at the moment, well, except for the Mets.)
As my column from April 1987, materialized in the NYT, I was proud to read the way a columnist could converse regularly and familiarly with readers.
After the Islanders outlasted the Caps, I seem to have slept for a few hours, and gotten up early on Sunday and written about our Saturday evening – walking the dog often, my wife prepping Easter dinner (we had two friends coming for dinner), our youngest-the-busboy coming home from Louie’s smelling like fried shrimps, and how I switched channels so often that I also watched chunks of my all-time favorite movie, “The Third Man.”
But I wrote the column – keeping the faith with the holy mission of the sports columnist. Thirty-three years later, how much fun it was – and still is.
* * *
Here is the 1987 column:
Here’s a review of Dan Barry’s lovely book about the longest baseball game:
Cutting Corners..."For the Family"
The other day we saw a gripping American play, about dishonesty.
It made me think about:
--- The current baseball scandal?
--- The former representative going away for insider stock selling?
--- All of the above?
The play is “All My Sons,” written by Arthur Miller in 1947 about a Middle American factory that shipped flawed parts for planes during World War Two, with disastrous consequences – first for the pilots, then for the people who ran the factory.
We saw the play on the screen at the Kew Gardens Cinema in my home borough of Queens, part of the National Theatre Live series, at movie houses all over the world.
We caught the play while the baseball scandal continues to unravel, at the cost of dishonored championships, ruined careers and realistic suspicions about other aspects of Major League Baseball – supersonic balls in orbit last season, plus Commissioner Rob Manfred’s threat to blow up the historic network of minor-league baseball.
Baseball’s grubby face was on my mind as we went to see the important American play from the landmark Old Vic in London. The two leads were Americans: Sally Field, as a midwestern Mother Courage trying to keep the lid on her cover story, warning her husband to “be smart,” and Bill Pullman, with his large, open, American male physicality, reminding me of the aging Ted Williams.
The rest of the cast is British -- terrific actors sometimes a tad off in American inflection or body language. The back-yard setting is a bit too folksy, post-war middle class, for a family with a factory that prospered during the war.
But you get into it, way into it.
The older son disappeared in aerial action during the war. The younger son is trying to live in the vacuum of loss. And the family that used to live next door has been broken by the jailing of the other partner for malfeasance with the faulty parts.
As we sat in the movie house in Queens, we thought about Boeing, with its two new planes that crashed recently, killing hundreds of people, followed by superb reporting in The New York Times about wretched management and disgruntled workers who knew the planes were flawed. But the planes had to be delivered so shareholders could have a a new vacation home, a new luxury car, a new wife. How American. How courant.
Money is at the core of the play. The father takes over the stage (all arms and shoulders, like Ted Williams giving batting tips) as he tells his son (returned from combat) that he has held the factory together so he can pass it on to the son, who is known to neighbors as idealistic.
There will be money.
That very day, in upstate New York, former Rep. Chris Collins was sentenced to 26 months for passing along inside information that a stock he had championed was about to fall apart. Collins, in tears, said he broke the law for his son, so there would be money, for the family.
My wife and I sat in our favorite movie house, watching Arthur Miller’s post-war statement take very human form. My eyes teared up as I watched these very real people – the older couple trying to “be smart,” the son trying to make it all right by marrying the girl who used to live next door.
When we left the movie house, in the funky old section of Kew Gardens, it was 2020, not 1947. Impeachment was in the air. People were still sending flawed airplanes into the air, all in the name of family. The American dream.
Arthur Miller would feel right at home.
* * *
National Theatre Live website:
Guardian review of "All My Sons."
Former Rep. Chris Collins sentenced to 26 months:
Tyler Kepner's latest great piece on the Houston Asterisks:
Recent article on suspicions by Boeing workers, by Natalie Kitroeff:
How Imus Saved My Life
Say what you will about the I-Man, this alternately cruel and shy character who passed Friday at 79, he kept me alive many years ago.
I had paid him no attention until he popped up on the new sports talk station, WFAN -- 660 on the AM dial – in the late 80’s. Most of the station was devoted to hard-core sports babble but his four hours in the morning – “the revenue-producing portion of the day,” I think he called it – was a snarling, sneering refutation of sports, plus music critiques and skits.
One of the best things I have ever heard on the radio was a skit in which Princess Diana visits America to get away from that strange bunch she had married into. (I forget the name of the woman who portrayed Diana.) Somehow or other, Diana is invited to Imus’ home in Connecticut, for a hot-dog roast with real people, that is to say, the I-Man. She is so enthralled by his informality that she pleads for asylum, asking in a plaintive voice, “Please, may I stay here?” Oh, if only she had.
Imus grew on me, with his frequent praise for his favorite musician, Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. He also acted as a one-man media critic of the noble knights of the keyboard back when newspapers and sports sections and columnists played to the snarky taste of the New York region.
He was vicious toward his station mates, calling Mike Francesa and Chris Russo “Fatso and Fruit Loops.” He derided his literary agent and consigliere, Esther Newberg, referring to her as, of course, “Lobsters.” He regularly berated the plugged-in sports columnist of the Daily News, Mike Lupica, and sometimes when he had nothing else to do, he picked on me.
(Let it be noted that Lupica and I are clients of the sainted Ms. Newberg.)
One time Imus relayed a new item about an elderly gent who was left, in a wheelchair, I believe, by his guardian at some rural dog track. This became the Imus standard for irrelevancy, for being past it. He often would ridicule my masterpieces and state the obvious: “Dog-track time for Vecsey.”
One time my sister Janet rang up the station to blast the I-Man and he put her on the air, and was oh, so civil to her. That was the I-Man, a human mood swing. I met him a few times, hanging out in a baseball press box, making no fuss. In person, the radio tough guy would softly say hello and kind of look sideways at me.
How did Imus save my life? My wife was on a trip somewhere and I thought it made sense for me to drive our car from south Florida to Long Island – straight through, overnight (with a couple of 15-minute naps at rest stops.)
I got near Baltimore, the sun rising, and to keep awake I punched the dial seeking Imus going on the air at 6 AM.
But I was sleepy. Very sleepy. I could feel the car starting to edge onto the rough border of the inside lane. I righted the steering wheel and willed myself to stay awake. But I was sleepy.
Just then, Imus began a tirade against a failing columnist who had just written another piece of foolscap. In his basso voice of denunciation and doom, Imus pronounced: “Dog-track time for Vecsey.”
That got my adrenaline surging – who doesn’t like attention? – and I gripped the wheel and listened to Imus for the next four hours until the revenue-producing part of the day was over, and I got home, alive.
* * *
I’d like to say that my debt to the I-Man made me a listener for life, but that’s not true. He and his radio sidekicks increased their racial crap and their creepy comments about women until one day he made ugly comments about the mostly-black players on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, competing in the Final Four. That was it. I turned Imus off, and never listened to him again.
In a way, Imus was a predictor of where we are today. However, unlike some public figures I could name, he appeared to be generous, to have a heart. According to the obituaries, the I-Man hosted young people at his Imus Ranch and raised funds for Iraq veterans, and his wife Deirdre has her own charity at a New Jersey hospital. It seems he affected thousands of lives – plus one sleepy driver, edging off the Interstate on a warm sunrise.
* * *
Here’s a treat: the NYT’s star, Robert McFadden, on the I-Man:
Out in the driveway was the Sunday Times, with a well-reported article about the precipitous decline of boys playing American football.
The trend is so worrisome that football supporters held a private summit about the potential drop in candidates to get their brains scrambled in the next generation.
I can remember covering Congressional hearings in which the National Football League’s answer to brain concussions was to malign expert witnesses.
The most telling detail in the Times article was the graph showing the vast dropoff – in Texas.
Sounds like Texas high schools now have Friday Night Lights for soccer – with cheerleaders, and college scholarships, and crowds, but without nearly as much residual brain damage down the road.
While I was reading the paper, my son-in-law texted me from Deepest Pennsylvania. Sometimes he texts about Christian Pulisic, the lad from Hershey who has scored 5 goals for Chelsea already this season, probably the best showing by any American in a top European league.
At first, he and his first-born, Mister George, were planning to watch the big Liverpool-Manchester City match in a pub, not any pub, but a Liverpool soccer pub in the area. Shortly after, they decided to watch at home. From his early days with the FIFA computer game, our grandson has been a Liverpool fanatic. This is where the country is heading.
Both Liverpool and Man City have charismatic managers – Jürgen Klopp of Liverpool, a German, and Josep (Pep) Guardiola of Man City, a Catalan who speaks five languages. In the same issue of the Sunday Times, their ingenuity was discussed by Rory Smith, the Times’ expert in Europe.
In the meeting of the current masterminds, Liverpool drubbed Man City, 3-1. I skipped that match to work out at at the high-school track, where I spotted a soccer match between two teams of girls, fit and competitive, in their mid-teens. Two other teams were waiting to play on the turf field.
My soccer-watching for the day was going to come later -- the championship match of Major League Soccer, now in its 24th season. The league started with 10 teams and now has 24, soon to be 30.
Nobody claims MLS is at the level of Champions League or World Cup powerhouses but the league has improved drastically. Last year the best MLS team I ever saw, Atlanta, won the title with an open attacking style, with finesse and good coaching, but Tata Martino was scooped up to manage the Mexican national team, and one of Atlanta's fleet stars, Miguel Almiron, was scooped up by Newcastle of the Premiership, (he is yet to score in 24 appearances) and Atlanta did not reach the finals this year.
Instead, Toronto played at Seattle, in front of the largest crowd ever to watch a sporting event in Seattle – 69,274 fans, demonstrative and knowledgeable. There were familiar faces, including two long-time stars of the American national team, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, both with Toronto. Altidore was still hampered by a strained quad, and could not start. and it cost his team,
Soccer, as all fans know, is a capricious sport. Toronto outplayed the home team well into the second half but no goals were scored. While Altidore warmed up, Toronto yielded a fluke goal when a defender deflected a shot heading wide. (It should have been listed as an own goal, but was not – shame on the league for allowing that scoring decision.) Then Seattle scored twice more before Altidore pounded in a header. Neither team matched the firepower of the super Atlanta team last year, but the league gets better every year.
The MLS season is over but the European season is in full gear, and will more than carry me over to the Mets' season. And really, what else is there?
* * *
Ode to Sports Illustrated
With a dollop of guilt, I read about the plague of layoffs at Sports Illustrated.
After all, I dropped my subscription shortly after retiring as a sports columnist at the Times, nearly eight years ago. I no longer needed to keep up with most of the sports; I needed time to read other things. So it’s hard to level blame at the decline of a giant that meant so much to generations of fans and readers.
It’s a sign of the times. I have seen very good newspapers decline or disappear. No sense going over the list. Apparently, the economy does not support the printed word you can hold in your hand and read without having advertisements and other diversions slither into your vision.
Thank goodness the NYT and Washington Post and Wall Street Journal and others keep up the staffs and budgets and the standards to keep track of the scoundrels in our midst.
But Sports Illustrated – once a plush weekly with talent and swagger plus the budget to back them up – has now been sold to something called a digital platform company.
As a young newspaper reporter, I appreciated the writing style -- and space -- that went far beyond the daily accounts in the papers. Stars like Dan Jenkins and Robert Creamer in the early years, Neil Leifer with his camera, always in position, and then young stars like Frank Deford and Gary Smith. It took time to read their articles. These were no tweets, no muscle-twitch fire-the-bum impulses from the Blogosophere.
If I had to pick one article that stood for all the expertise and talent (and space, and money) of Sports Illustrated, I would choose the ode to Secretariat written by my friend Bill (William in his byline) Nack, upon the putting down of the great champion in October of 1989. (As it happened, I had petted Secretariat on his swayed back in May, had felt the earth tremble when he moved. )
Bill loved the big red horse, loved the Bluegrass milieu, and he cried when he got the phone call he had been dreading. Later, Bill went through the self-torture of writing he felt every time, only worse this time. But SI had space, and patience, and when Nack was done, there was the article, the masterpiece.
But Nack was not alone. Like a Secretariat of magazines, Sports Illustrated raced through more decades of stories and stars: Tim Layden with his versatility, Steve Rushin with his columns, Michael Farber on hockey, Tom Verducci with baseball, Grant Wahl treating soccer seriously, Doctor Z -- Paul Zimmernan - with pro football. So many more I could, should, mention.
(Plus, I should note, before SI, there was the great Sport Magazine, RIP, edited for over a decade by my friend Al Silverman, who passed recently. Sport was doing long-form articles long before SI did.)
Then the model began to show its age. Advertisements declined. Attention span declined. People were slinging opinions over the Web. Instant gratification. I’m old. I don’t know 99 percent of what goes on out there in the Web. I get the New Yorker in print form every week, and peruse it ceremoniously, and The New York Times arrives in my driveway every morning, plus its magnificent website, and if I want to find out what my Mets did in the past 24 hours I consult Newsday (paid) or the New York Post (on line.)
Plus hard-covered books, all over our house, plus magazine articles friends send me. More than enough to read. Hence, my tremor of guilt about the imperilment of Sports Illustrated.
Then I read about good people, whom I knew when they were youngsters just breaking in, like Chris Stone, the editor-in-chief, who just got fired by the “digital platform,” whatever that is.
Bill Nack cried over Secretariat. I just shake my head and write this piece…and put it out there…on line.
Thanks, Sports Illustrated, for all the great articles over the years.
* * *
Bill Nack's masterpiece on the death of Secretariat, standing in for all the glorious long pieces in SI:
NYT article on the talent massacre at SI:
A list of great writers at SI:
The time I petted Secretariat, courtesy of a friend:
Why I Love the U.S. Open
Part of it is the tennis, of course. But I will admit, the high point of the U.S. Open these days, for me, is getting to see old friends and familiar faces, from decades of Opens and Wimbledons.
Tennis is a traveling circus, quite unlike any other sport -- writers, commentators, experts, former players, coaches, business types, publicists and officials who pop up in sunny places from Melbourne to Monaco to Miami, kaleidoscopic yet permanent. (There was Virginia Wade, 1977 Wimbledon champion, with Queen Elizabeth II in attendance, looking as brisk as she did rushing the net, on her way, presumably to a BBC assignment.)
I go to Flushing Meadows to see my friends, the ones who have survived the shrinking of the print-media corps. Some in this international rat pack seem to have been here forever –like Ubaldo Scanagatta from Florence, Italy, who files for three Italian papers and provides expertise on TV and radio on his site, Ubitennis.com. (In four languages.)
Ubaldo – who turns 70 on Saturday -- knows how to live. On his annual fortnight in New York, he comes prepared with familiar food -- grated cheese (Colla Parmigiano Reggiano), olive oil (Esselunga Extra Virgin) and Rigamonti Bresaola, which is described online as “air-dried, salted beef that has been aged two or three months until it becomes hard and turns a dark red, almost purple color. It is made from top round, and is lean and tender, with a sweet, musty smell. It originated in Valtellina, a valley in the Alps of northern Italy's Lombardy region.”
Even in these barbarian parts of the New World, it might perhaps be possible to find such Parmesan and Olive Oil and Bresaola, but Ubaldo takes no chances. He deigns eating with plastic, and therefore carries a real fork and a real knife in his kit, and when Italian players are not keeping him busy il mangia bene.
One of the highlights of my journalistic career was before the Monday final in 2009, when Ubaldo invited a few American amici sportivi to the dining room, where he broke out the Parmesan, the Extra Virgin and the Bresaola.
On Thursday I spotted Ubaldo in the Italian corner of the media writing room and I thought of other compatrioti famosi – Rino Tommasi, who analyzed the daily matchups on the Open programs for many decades, and Gianni Clerici, the squire of Lake Como, former amateur player (including Wimbledon, 1953), novelist, expert, with a waspish humor on and off the air. Clerici bestowed Italian heritage on Bud Collins, re-naming him “Collini.” But alas, Gianni does not come around anymore at 89, and neither does Rino at 85, and Bud passed in 2016. (The Media Center is named for him.)
Many of my American friends are still typing and talking. A few days ago, I sat with tennis high priests Steve Flink and Joel Drucker during a match in Ashe Stadium, and also caught up with Johnette Howard, John Jeansonne, Wayne Coffey, Jeff Williams, Helene Elliott, Bob Greene, Anne Liguori, Chuck Culpepper, Andre Christopher and my tennis pal Cindy Shmerler.
Three more were hanging together in the media center: NYT international reporter Chris Clarey, retired NYT columnist (but still active) Harvey Araton and Adam Zagoria, New York sports expert who writes for the NYT on occasion. Nice guy that he is, Adam took a photo of the three of us.
For all the camaraderie, there is an air of nostalgia to the Bud Collins Media Center. A decade ago, the place bustled from morning to post-midnight with dozens and dozens of tennis writers from major cities – Boston, Miami, Denver, Orlando, Dallas, and on and on. There was a clatter of writers who were competitors but also friends – Robin Finn of the NYT provided a stash of Twizzlers (and really nasty nicknames for tennis stars.) Alas, falling circulation and earlier deadlines and changing Web priorities have cut back on the banter and the community.
The tennis endures. On Thursday, I watched in the lower press area of Arthur Ashe Stadium, as sixth-seeded Alexander Zverev of Germany matched his power and height against the mixture of power and drop shots of Frances Tiafoe, an American born in Sierra Leone.
On a sleepy, sunny, pre-holiday afternoon, the predominantly American crowd urged Tiafoe as he befuddled Zverev in the second and fourth sets, but ultimately Zverev prevailed, 6-3, in the fifth.
The fans surged out into the midway in search of refreshment or more tennis on the back courts. I went back to the Media Center to schmooze.
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.