Interview with John Schulian: A Legendary Sportswriter Tours His Very Own Portrait Gallery
The word genius is terribly underused these days. People throw it around like a 50-pound cinder block, probably in reaction to the days when it was overused with severity. Nowhere is the word more underused than in discussing the great sportswriters of the past century. This category doesn’t include those jabbering nincompoops on ESPN, or the soul-sick sentimentalists who moonlight with books so saccharine they can give you diabetes, or, going back much further, the perpetual Peter Pans of the so-called Golden Age whose inflation of athletes’ importance only contributed to the enduring sense of entitlement that persists, compounded, in the athletes of today.
There’s a way to write about athletes with sober elegance and evocative mood, respectful but not sycophantic, critical but not malicious. Jimmy Cannon and Red Smith knew how to do it, at mid-century, and so did Jim Murray and John Lardner, then Mark Kram and Frank Deford, soon followed by Gary Smith and Charles P. Pierce. There has also been, at various times throughout, Dick Young and W.C. Heinz and Frank Graham and Roger Angell and George Kimball and William Nack and Chris Jones and Wright Thompson.
If I’m forgetting anyone, it’s because I’m eager to get to the writer with perhaps the purest talent of them all, the closest thing to a genius among them. Making that case just became a whole lot easier, with the evidence sealed up in his newest collection, Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us. John Schulian wrote the bulk of these pieces when he was doing deadline-daily poetry as a newspaper sports columnist, from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, in Chicago and Philadelphia (primarily at the Sun-Times and the Daily News). There are also assorted magazine pieces he wrote during that run, as well as pieces he wrote afterward, mostly for GQ and Sports Illustrated. By the time he wrote the most recent among them, well into this century, he was already established as a screenwriter for television, having written on the staffs of such shows as Miami Vice and Midnight Caller before creating his very own franchise, with Xena: Warrior Princess. (He also recently edited, with the late Kimball, At the Fights, the Library of America’s recent boxing anthology—a superb collection all the way through, even if one asshole with a propensity for nitpicking dwelled entirely too long on the imperfection of their Cannon selection.)
But no kind of money or success or disillusionment has been able to take Schulian completely away from telling the stories of eccentrics, underdogs, champions, and hard-luck cases. Athletes in all their varieties have always made for some of the most fascinating biographical character studies, their lives rich in the agonies of ego and striving that are endemic to humans. They’re probably not much more or less interesting now than they’ve ever been, but they’re certainly less accessible. That’s the premise under which Schulian has given these pen-portraits their collective title.
Recently, he agreed to be interviewed by The Faster Times. I came with the questions, while Schulian brought back the answers, carefully composed in the only language he’s fluent in: lapidary prose polished to poesy.
Your career, at least in its early stages, eerily mimicked the trajectory of one of your models, Mark Kram. You both played competitive baseball at the college and/or semi-pro level, before working on the Baltimore Sun and then breaking into Sports Illustrated with streetwise pieces about that very city. There are significant differences, too, of course, but those are the similarities. How conscious of them were you at the time?
When I was trying to get out of the starting blocks, I was more aware of Kram as a writer than I was of him as a person. Thanks to the editor’s letter in SI, I knew he’d played pro ball and worked at the Baltimore Sun, but I certainly wasn’t dwelling on any parallels between us. I landed at the Evening Sun in Baltimore — actually chose it over the Miami Herald — because the city was so funky and offered so many off-the-wall subjects to write about. I still wanted to write sports, obviously, but I spent five mostly wonderful years working as a cityside reporter there. The only time I thought about following in Kram’s footsteps was when I read something of his that stirred my soul, something that left me wondering how he created the mood that clung to his best stories like harbor fog. I’ve always loved his bittersweet homage to Baltimore, his hometown, on the eve of the 1966 World Series, and I’ll never forget what he wrote about the fighting Quarry brothers’ old man riding the rails from Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl to the golden promise of California. If I recall correctly, Jack Quarry had LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, and every time I think of that story, I picture him standing in the door of an open boxcar, staring out at the ravaged countryside. I read that piece something like 45 years ago, and just thinking about it still gives me chills. That’s how good Kram was at his best.
I’ve heard you mention, in several different phrasings and contexts, that your editors at the Baltimore Evening Sun didn’t want you to become a sportswriter, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard you articulate just why it was, exactly, that you had to go elsewhere to write about sports full-time.
Before I make the city editor I worked for at the Evening Sun sound like he held me back, you have to understand my great affection for him as a person and my undying respect for him as a newspaperman. His name is Ernie Imhoff and you wouldn’t be wrong if you called him St. Ernie. The tougher things got at the paper, especially after I left, the taller he stood. In my case, he and the editors beneath him almost always gave me my head as a writer. I had the freedom to pick my subjects and to write about them in what I guess you could say was my emerging style. As far as Ernie was concerned, it wasn’t that he hated sports or sports writers. He just didn’t think about them. In that same vein, I think he was puzzled by my fascination with becoming a sports writer and a sports columnist. He lived in a world where what mattered was the governor and the mayor and cops and robbers and crooked politicians. How could the Colts and the Orioles compete with that? There was probably a little of the old newspaper disdain for sports as the toy department, too. But eventually I came to peace with it. In fact I don’t think Ernie and I ever exchanged a harsh word. And when it came time for the Evening Sun to hire a new sports columnist and people on the city desk were wondering if I’d get the job, I didn’t blink when the paper’s baseball writer was promoted. I just worked that much harder to get my turn at bat at Sports Illustrated. When I sold my first story there, Ernie shook my hand and said, “Way to go, babe.”
About a decade or so later, when you finally became disillusioned with sports writing and arrived at something of a career crisis, did you consider in fact becoming a cityside columnist? Is that a move you would have made if things hadn’t worked out in television?
Writing a cityside column became less and less of a goal, or obsession or whatever you want to call it, once I left Baltimore. By the time I was burning out in Philadelphia, I never thought of it at all. Maybe that shows you just how far gone I was. When I was in Chicago and at the top of my game, [Mike] Royko mentioned in conversation a time or two that I might be his successor. Of course he might have just been being nice to a young sports columnist. Even if he was dead serious, though, I knew deep inside that I didn’t have the range and the knowledge that writing a good cityside column required. And when I read Pete Dexter and worked with him in Philly, I knew I couldn’t come within a million miles of what he was doing, either. So I never dwelled on it and I never thought of it as a safety net when I went to Hollywood. To be honest, I thought I was going to succeed there. But if I failed, I’d promised I’d go back back to the Philadelphia Daily News, which had given me a three-month leave of absence. I doubt I would have stayed there for long if that had happened, though. I might have gotten a deal at GQ or Sports Illustrated, or maybe I would have gone to The National [Sports Daily], which was the kind of grand experiment that might have stoked the fires again. I’m glad I never had to find out. There’s a time for everything, and that was my time for Hollywood.
You make the point, in your introduction, that athletes are less candid–less willing to reveal their true eccentricities, in the rare instances when they even have any–because of the greater sums of money now at stake, the greater control their handlers have over them, and the ever present threat, through instant media, that their worst slip-ups will be amplified and made viral. That’s a lot for a sportswriter to be up against, but isn’t it also true that the extra money sometimes allows for greater security, that the more-excessive use of drugs and alcohol sometimes makes for greater candor, and that a more-tolerant society (in some senses, anyway) encourages an eccentric athlete to more comfortably be his natural self?
If there are writers chasing women, doing drugs and drinking all night with athletes — and I assume there must be some — it certainly isn’t getting in the paper. That’s no different than when I was writing sports. We had a baseball writer at the Chicago Sun-Times who may have gotten laid more than the players he covered, which would have been no mean feat. He certainly got the best-smelling mail of anybody on the staff, not to mention lacy underthings and nude photos. But to the best of my knowledge, the fact that he swapped women with some of the guys he covered never got him a scoop. At the old Washington Daily News, there was a hell-raising columnist who used to smoke dope with Joe Foy of the Senators. My old friend George Kimball certainly spent a lot of time in the company of the Red Sox’s most devout drinkers and dope smokers. All this, however, was with the unwritten understanding that nothing would find its way into print unless someone got thrown in jail. And I’m guessing that’s the case today. But how many contemporary athletes are going to risk it, given the paranoia that runs rampant among them? And how many sports writers have the money to finance these walks on the wild side? And how many athletes are going to pay the writers’ way, given the athletes’ fear that they still might get stabbed in the back and, more important, the fact that athletes are notoriously cheap? So I guess I’m right back where I started on this one: the athletes live in their own world and it’s a rare writer who gets invited to visit.
One of the better pieces in the new collection is your deadline account of what you’ve recently referred to elsewhere as “the best fight I ever covered and maybe the most electric event I ever saw in any sport.” This was the Hearns-Hagler fight of 1985, and the very next day, as it happens, you were in L.A., where you were to meet with a Hollywood producer about what you might be doing next with your life. For perhaps the most electric sporting event you’d ever seen to occur in lockstep with your first big move in the other direction must have been a vertiginous experience. Did you have second thoughts about leaving sports writing at that point, and/or did you instantly recognize Hearns-Hagler as a rare spectacle that was not likely to repeat with any regularity? And can you give us a sense of what it was that made that fight so electric?
I remember the fight more than I do what was going on in my head that night. I’d never seen anything like it, two prime-of-life bulls charging out of their corners at each other and seemingly pulling the crowd to its feet along with them. There wasn’t anybody left sitting. Even the most jaded sports writer was on his tiptoes for fear he’d miss a single second of this spectacle. And it was a spectacle. Nobody had ever seen Hagler start a fight at this pace. He’d always been so cautious, spending the first three, four, even five rounds sticking and moving and sizing up his opponents. But not against Hearns. Hagler went after him with a fury. And then, in the first round, they butted heads and Hagler got gashed. Blood all over the place. You knew right away that Hearns was going to make the most of the wound, just keep hammering away at it until the blood blinded Hagler and either the ring physician stopped the fight or Hearns knocked him out. Hagler knew it, too. It could have made him tentative, could have started him backpedaling and counterpunching. Instead, the cut just threw gasoline on his fire. There was no way Hearns was going to beat him. This was a test of heart and Hagler had the biggest one by far. Poor Hearns, who had great talent but always seemed to be lacking something inside, didn’t have a chance. Hagler destroyed him.
I’m glad you like the column I wrote about that fight. I’ve always been proud of it myself. I don’t recall either fighter having much to say afterward beyond the obvious, but it really didn’t matter. They’d been eloquent in the ring, especially Hagler. And I was jazzed in a way I rarely got when I was writing off an event late at night. I wanted to capture the visceral feeling of the fight and to pay tribute to Hagler, who had always taken a back seat to fighters who were more appealing for one reason or another, fighters like Ali and Leonard and Duran. Hagler wasn’t particularly talkative, and when he spoke, there were no great insights, no humor, no clever turns of phrase. He was a fighter, period. And fighters fight. And no fighter I’d seen with my own eyes had ever fought quite as valiantly as he had.
Still, having witnessed such a great fight and written about it well did nothing to alter my thinking about Hollywood. I was still consumed by the idea of working there and forging a new life. Maybe there would be even greater fights (or ball games or races) that I wouldn’t cover, but it really didn’t matter. That was never how I thought even when I was loving life as a sports columnist. I just covered whatever had to be covered and tried my best to capture in print some aspect of what I saw. By this point I’d seen all of sports I needed to on an up-close basis and I’d read about all of my own prose that I could stand. It was time for a change.
Burn-out over the sound of one’s own prose is a very serious occupational hazard for the daily columnist, even more so, I believe, than for other writers who write every day, because other writers who write every day don’t have to obsessively re-read and polish what they’ve written that same day. They can let their final obsessing sit for later. Many of the pieces in this collection (though you’d never know it from the pieces themselves) were, like the Hagler-Hearns account, written under night-game deadlines, one eye on the clock, and even, up to a certain year, on a typewriter. How difficult was it to polish your prose both on deadline and on a typewriter? And how did the universal advent of computers, among newspaper reporters, change your psychological approach to columnizing?
That anything good gets written on deadline has always amazed me. That I wrote anything good on deadline absolutely stupefies me. In the typewriter days, there was never any time for revision. I’d write my column and hand it a page at a time to the guy who would send it to my paper on the telecopier. The telecopier, which sent an image of the page over the telephone line, was a step up from Western Union. A big step when you consider that the Western Union guy used to re-copy what a writer had written. If you got one who was a frustrated writer, God only knew what would happen to a writer’s prose. Mercifully, I missed Western Union. But the telecopier was bad enough. One night—I think it was at a World Series— part of my Chicago Sun-Times column got sent to the Chicago Tribune and my friend David Israel of the Tribune had part of his column sent to the Sun-Times. Ah, those were the days.
My Hagler-Hearns column was written on a computer, and much as I loathe computers and technology in general, the column was better for it. As I recall I did my revising on the fly. I’d be in the middle of, say, the fifth paragraph, and I’d jump back up to the lede because I’d thought of a better word or a more felicitous phrase. Amazing how the mind works like that and still stays on track for you to keep plowing ahead. I’m not sure I re-read the column when I finished. I don’t recall re-reading much of anything I wrote in those days. I was slow and methodical enough to have faith in what I’d written, so in the case of Hagler-Hearns, I probably just hit the send button and heaved a sigh of relief.
Computers entered my life when I was still at the Baltimore Evening Sun, probably around 1973 or ’74. They had to put in a false floor so all the wiring could be housed underneath it. Talk about primitive. When I moved to the Washington Post, typewriters were still the weapon of choice. Same with the Chicago Daily News, if I recall correctly. But the Sun-Times was strictly computer, as was the Philadelphia Daily News. They were faster and cleaner than typewriters, but they couldn’t turn a bad writer into a good one. They could, however, turn a good writer into a lazy one, simply because there was so much less physical effort involved in the act of writing.
Case in point: It’s the 1977 baseball all-star game at Yankee Stadium and I’ve got to write a column, a game story and a sidebar. And I’ve got to do it in relatively short order even though I’m working for the p.m. Chicago Daily News. No sooner do I start banging out my column than my typewriter ribbon gets twisted. I stop writing, remove the ribbon, and promptly drop it and watch it roll across the press room floor past sportswriters’ big feet and through puddles of coffee and Coca-Cola. What do I do? What can I do? I get down on my hands and knees and crawl after it. A tough way to maintain my dignity, but I got everything written even if my ribbon was a tad damp.
There was a charm to typewriters that computers will never have. Today at least I trust them. But at the dawn of the computer age, they drove me nuts, particularly the portables we took on the road. They were a far cry from the reliable ones we have now. Junk, I believe they’re known as in serious scientific circles. Systems were always crashing, prose was mysteriously disappearing into cyberspace—you get the picture. There was technological chaos in the press box. David Israel, done wrong by his computer one too many times, finally picked his up and threw it down the steps in Kansas City.
Myself, I didn’t go crackers until I was in Hollywood, working on a TV series called Midnight Caller. My favorite gig out here, by the way. But the computers the studio foisted on us weren’t fit for chimps. Mine crashed just as I was polishing a script that had been pushed up in the shooting schedule after another writer went in the tank. I called the studio for help again and again, until I said that I’d be bringing in my baseball bat the next day to tune the damn thing up myself if no help arrived. And no help arrived, so I reduced it to rubble. Tech services arrived just as the dust was settling. “Boys,” I told them, “all you need is a broom.”
Your sporting interests skew very conspicuously toward boxing and baseball. Yet some of the best writing in this collection is on football and basketball, and your piece on Wayne Gretzky, I believe, also deserves to be singled out. You also write about jockeys, tennis players, and assorted Olympians. When you were a columnist, how did you approach the task of covering sports you didn’t necessarily prefer? Was it just that–a task? Or did you consider it an opportunity for novelty? Or a little of both?
I always thought of myself as a meat-and-potatoes guy when it came to choosing column subjects. I wrote about the sports I cared for the most. Baseball was the game I’d loved from childhood and played for as long as it would have me and actually knew something about. Boxing was right there with it at the top of my list, even though Chicago was dead in the water as a fight town. Boxing still provided great raw material for a writer, and I wasn’t about to turn my back on it. If readers wanted to come along for the ride, I thought they were in for a treat. If not, it was their loss.
I wrote a lot of football, too, mostly the professional variety. It was far from my favorite sport, but Chicago was a Bears town even more than it was a Cubs town, and even a rockhead like me realized that you have to give the people what they want. (Michael Jordan didn’t arrive to put the Bulls in the race until I was on my way to Philadelphia.) Fortunately, the Bears had Walter Payton, who was a mesmerizing player. He was a non-starter as an interview subject, mostly because he had the attention span of a cabbage moth, but he was so brilliant on the field that his words were beside the point. I was the one with the words; it was up to me to capture his greatness in 1,000-word chunks. But Payton wasn’t the only Bear worth writing about. The Bears of the 1980s were, in fact, a wonderful collection of personalities, most of them with sizable IQs and a gift of gab. I’m talking about Dan Hampton, the defensive end they called “Danimal,” and Steve McMichael, the defensive tackle who became a professional wrestler, and two safeties who turned themselves into kamikazes every Sunday, Doug Plank, the head knocker from Ohio State, and Gary Fencik, a Yalie who spent his off-seasons dating Playboy Playmates and running with the bulls at Pamplona. There were others, too, but you get the idea: when you talked to a Bear back then, you walked away with a full notebook.
In truth, though, I had a much better feel for writing about basketball. There was a soulful quality to so many of the stories that came out of it, stories about failed talent and hard times and how so many players could never truly escape the streets that spawned them. And then there was the majesty of the game that showcased the world’s greatest athletes. When you saw Julius Erving play, you were watching poetry come to life. And when you saw Larry Bird and Magic Johnson take their rivalry from college to the NBA, you were watching history. And, wonder of wonders, both of them could and would talk about it, with wit and insight and intelligence. There had always been players like that, but after Bird and Johnson arrived, the trickle-down effect was palpable. Even the star-crossed Pete Maravich was an open book when he finally walked away from a professional career that was less than had been predicted and less than he deserved. I don’t use the word tragedy lightly, especially when games are involved, but when I think about Maravich now, he seems almost like a tragic figure out of Shakespeare.
College basketball was less enjoyable to write about than the NBA simply because the coaches were such dominant figures and the majority of the players were very tall fetuses. I had no truck with bullies like Bob Knight and John Thompson, who were and are horse’s asses. But I got lucky when I arrived in Chicago just as Al McGuire was wrapping up his coaching career up the road at Marquette. Marquette wins its Final Four game in 1977, for instance, and the first thing McGuire does at the press conference is apologize to Pete Axthelm, the Newsweek columnist and a devoted gambler, for not covering the spread. How could I not love McGuire after that? And then DePaul, a little school by an El-stop in Chicago, had a memorable run in the early ‘80s with players like Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings, and they were coached by Ray Meyer, who had turned George Mikan into the game’s first great big man about 100 years before.
I can’t talk about basketball without mentioning Ben Wilson, a great high school player on the South Side of Chicago who was shot to death just as the world was opening up to him. I was at the Philadelphia Daily News when it happened, late in 1984, but I went back to Chicago to write about it. I sat with his coach and some faculty members for hours and they reconstructed the day of the murder for me, and the funeral, and the emptiness that closed in on them afterward. To this day, I’m touched by how much they loved that kid and by how trusting they were when they opened their hearts to me.
I never got the feeling I’d find anything resembling that kind of humanity in golf or tennis. They were the province of the wealthy and the privileged, and quite frankly I wanted nothing to do with them. It was a decision based on class and nothing more. The only thing I wanted to do with golf was to read what Dan Jenkins had to say about it in Sports Illustrated. In nearly 10 years as a columnist, I bet I didn’t write 10 columns about it, and at least one of them encouraged golfers to throw off their prissy ways and start dueling with putters every time they had a disagreement. In retrospect, I realize that I missed out on some great personalities and performances. At the very least I should have covered a Masters just to say I’d done it. But policy was policy, as Steve Carlton used to say, and my policy was to be narrow-minded to the end.
I was pretty much the same way about tennis. The only extended exposure I got to the sport was when the Philly News sent me to cover Wimbledon in 1985. All I remember is long days spent writing a column, a lead story and a sidebar, and greasy English breakfasts, and the inevitable search for a restaurant that was still serving at midnight. If it weren’t for Bud Collins, who was the soul of graciousness in addition to being a delightful tennis writer, it would have been the worst fortnight of my sports writing career. But Bud kept pointing me in the right direction, and I caught a big break when Jimmy Connors started comparing his playing style to the way Pete Rose played baseball and Joe Frazier fought. At last someone at Wimbledon was speaking my language.
Hockey left a lot of columnists cold, myself included, and yet every time I interviewed a hockey player, I came away thinking what a terrific guy he was. They were as honest and decent as the mining towns and farming communities they came from. And they were polite, too. I remember doing a column on a tough little Chicago Black Hawk named Terry Ruskowski, a brawler with no teeth and garbage cans for knees. Months pass before I show up at another Black Hawk practice, and as I’m interviewing whoever it was, I notice Ruskowski waiting by his locker. All the other players are gone. It’s just him and he’s watching me, which, in my experience, is not a good thing. So I finish my interview and turn to face him. And what does he do? He says, “Mr. Schulian, I just wanted to thank you for that nice story you wrote about me.” I’ll bet there aren’t a half dozen athletes in all the other sports combined who ever did that.
The night I wrote about Gretzky, I just wanted to see what the fuss was about. When I got a look at him in the locker room, I was struck by just how young he was, no matter what he had already accomplished. Right away I started to wonder how the world looked to him as it was opening up before his eyes. He was a colossus in the making, but did he really have any idea of what he was about to stand astride? It was probably too sophisticated an idea for the time I had to work with. But I tried, and he made an honest attempt to answer my questions. It was that old hockey decency again. I always like Gretzky after that.
I’ll tell you who else I liked before I wrap this up: I liked horse racing people. I liked the trainers and the jockeys and the exercise riders and the hot walkers and everybody else on the backstretch. They were as real as the dirt the horses ran on, and they’d look you in the eye and tell you exactly what was on their minds. Sometimes a trainer would strike it rich and start putting on airs, the way Wayne Lukas did. Some of the horse owners spent a lot of their time looking down their noses at the working press, but then an outsider would grab the spotlight the way Spectacular Bid’s owner did during the Triple Crown races in 1979. The guy’s wife had been a Baltimore barmaid, for God’s sake. She was perfect for shaking up the fat cats, and so was her old man.
Still, I didn’t know a lot about horse racing, so my fallback position was always to write about the people. When John Henry–that’s a horse, not a human being–won the first Arlington Million, in 1981, Bill Shoemaker was the rider, and the Shoe was the track’s equivalent of Babe Ruth. He proved it by maneuvering John Henry from way back in the pack to a photo-finish victory. When the other writers and I found Shoemaker after the race, he was being shielded by Whitney Tower, a fat cat who’d been writing unreadable horse racing stories for Sports Illustrated for years. I kept trying to get Shoemaker’s attention until Tower said, “Let’s go get a drink,” and started to drag him away. “Like hell,” I said. Tower looked like I’d slapped him in the face and Shoemaker’s jaws dropped. I guess he’d never heard a sports writer talk back before. To be honest, I was angry enough to knock Tower on the seat of his Brooks Brothers pants. But Shoemaker saved the old hack from the indignity by answering every question the press had. I wasn’t sure if the column I wrote was a success or a failure until Vic Ziegel, a dear friend and a uniquely funny New York sports columnist, called to say he’d read it and loved it. Vic died last year, and every time I look at my Shoemaker column or even think about it, I’m reminded of him.
Maybe the two strongest and most substantial pieces in this collection are a couple of lengthy profiles you wrote relatively recently for Sports Illustrated. Both are about these legendary folk-hero-type figures: the Negro-Leaguer Oscar Charleston, and Chuck Bednarik, an offensive-defensive roughneck from the 1950s Philadelphia Eagles. These pieces are favorites of mine because they engage the mystery of historical fog and folklore, and I want to know more about the circumstances of their composition. Can you tell us, first, how you arrived at them, as ideas for stories; and, then, what it was like to report these stories–what it was like to actually pursue these men in quest of their characters?
The pieces about Chuck Bednarik and Oscar Charleston traveled vastly different routes to get into SI, with Bednarik serving as the linchpin of the pro football issue in 1993 and Oscar surviving only on a piecemeal basis in 2005. I’ve never understood why their fates were so different. All I can tell you is that I’m immensely proud of both. I see them as proof that I became a better writer of prose after I got away from the grind of writing a daily newspaper column. I first sensed the change when the Writers Guild of America, of which I am a member, went through a five-month strike in 1988, and I, in an attempt to stave off boredom, wrote an essay for GQ about how the American male gets his first lesson in style from athletes. It’s hard to explain, but my thinking seemed clearer, my opinions more organic, my command of the language richer, my sense of myself as a writer more secure. The feeling stayed with me as I wrote book reviews for the L.A. Times and the occasional piece for GQ. And then, when I was coming off a miserable year on a TV series I had no feel for, I wrote a bonus piece for SI about the Los Angeles I had grown up in, a town with two minor league teams in the parallel universe of the Pacific Coast League. In the process, I discovered the new me.
Not that it did me any good in Hollywood. I had a movie deal at HBO blow up and I left an attempt to resurrect The Untouchables as a TV series after I said no thanks to the executive producer’s order to rip off a story from a Broadway play. For the next year, I was a non-person in show business. But that turned out to be my good fortune when Rob Fleder, one of SI‘s top editors, called and asked me to profile Bednarik. I knew Rob from Chicago, where he’d been an editor at Playboy, and we’d become great friends. I think he believed in me as a magazine writer before I believed in myself, and the Bednarik assignment proved it.
Before I headed to Pennsylvania to interview Bednarik, I read a biography of him by Jack McCallum, who was a masterful pro basketball writer at SI, and I interviewed as many of Bednarik’s old friends, teammates and victims as I could. I don’t think I’ve ever been better prepared to interview someone. But I knew I still had to come up with my own take on him, but I didn’t have an inkling of what it might be when it came time to meet him in person. On the phone, I told him just to give me his home address and I’d find it. But this was in the pre-GPS days and Bednarik wasn’t about to trust a sports writer to read a map. He said he’d meet me in the parking lot of a big shopping center not far from where he lived. Sure enough, when I pulled into it at 9 in the morning, there he was leaning against his van, wearing a Philadelphia Eagles jersey, with his big thick arms folded across his chest. He was in his late 60s, he was something like three pounds over his playing weight, and he looked like he could still give you 60 minutes at center and linebacker.
The wonderful thing about Bednarik as an interview subject was that he never had an unexpressed thought. If it popped into his head, it came out his mouth. He laughed, he choked up remembering World War II, he breathed heavy when we watched old game footage, he cried when he remembered his induction into pro football’s hall of fame. And that wasn’t all. We hadn’t been talking for more than 10 or 15 minutes when his three grandchildren started running around, laughing and screeching and generally raising hell. And Bednarik unloaded on them: Be quiet! Shut the door! Flush the toilet! The kids had undoubtedly heard it all before, but they were still properly scared. Bednarik must have looked like King Kong to them, and he had these gnarled fingers that were straight out of Grimm. So the kids skedaddled and Bednarik sat there fuming for a few minutes, muttering how it was his rotten luck to have a daughter living with him after her marriage broke up and how she brought these three sawed-off hellions with her. And there was the texture my story needed, the thing that no writer before me had seen about the toughest Eagle ever.
Chris Hunt, one of the editors at SI, told me later about an incredible postscript to the duel of wills between Bednarik and his grandchildren. When I turned in the piece and it had passed inspection, the magazine dispatched a terrific photographer named Dave Burnett to take pictures of Bednarik. Everything went great until Burnett told the kids it was time to pose with grandpa. “No,” said the eldest of them, the lone girl in the trio. Suddenly, Burnett found himself negotiating with this incredibly tough-minded 10-year-old. I don’t know how he got her to capitulate, but when she did, it was with this qualifier: “Okay, we’ll pose with him, but we won’t touch him.”
None of the above is what I remember most about my Bednarik story, however. That designation is reserved for the actual writing of it. I was one day into the process when my mother died in Minnesota. She’d been failing badly for three months, and when the hospital called me at 3 in the morning in L.A., she was down to her last three hours. I left my work on my desk and flew back that day, landing in the remnants of a rainstorm and driving the three hours from Minneapolis to the little town where she lived. Her funeral was four days later. Then, before I could do anything about her estate, I returned to L.A. and resumed writing about Bednarik. It was a blessing, I suppose, because it took my mind off my grief and my new status as an orphan: no mother, no father, no siblings. But the weight of my sadness still got the best of me now and then. There were stretches when I’d write a paragraph or two and then start crying. It was all I could do to get 600 words a day on paper. But they got written, and 10 days later I turned in the 6,000-word piece that would bear the headline “Concrete Charlie.” I’ve always thought of it as my tribute to my mother.
Death cast a shadow on my Oscar Charleston story, too. This time it was my old friend Eliot Wald, losing his battle with liver cancer. We’d worked together at the Chicago Sun-Times–he did pop culture features and TV criticism–and then he’d gone off to write for Saturday Night Live in the Eddie Murphy days. When he and his wife, Jane, moved to L.A. so he could work in movies, we were reunited. The man loved his food and his rock and roll and the house parties where he and Jane were like the reincarnation of Nick and Nora Chalres. He loved to talk, too, right to the end. If I recall correctly, when Jane called to say Eliot had died, I was midway through writing Charleston.
Once again, the idea came from an editor at SI. This time it was Greg Kelly, who admired the Josh Gibson story I’d written for the magazine in 1998 and had been at Inside Sports when I wrote an ode to the minor league sluggers of yore. I wish I didn’t have to make a confession like that, because I’ve always prided myself on having my own ideas. Josh was one of them, as were the minor league sluggers. But good editors understand what fits a writer best, and I had clearly proven myself as someone who could weave legend and reportage into a portrait of a hero who no longer walked the earth. So there I was in 2003 with an assignment to write 4,000 words about Charleston, a Negro leaguer who’d been dead nearly 50 years and who was also, in Bill James’ estimation, a better player than Ty Cobb. But I didn’t know that when Greg Kelly called. To me, Charleston was a name and nothing more. A name writ large in the history of black baseball, but still just a name. I had three weeks to steep myself in his story and pass it on to SI‘s readers. Remember that: three weeks.
So I called Negro leagues historians, who gave up what they knew about Charleston grudgingly, even resentfully, as if I were treading on their sacred territory. And I called Bill James not knowing that he didn’t like talking on the phone and communicated most comfortably by e-mail. And I called Lee Blessing, who had written a play about Cobb in which Charleston is graciously given his due. And I called some of the players whom Charleston had managed on the Philadelphia Stars, all of them old men themselves by now, but their memories were still good, and they provided the anecdotes that book-end the piece and underscore what a larger than life character he was. Then I visited the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City and talked with Buck O’Neil and Double Duty Radcliffe, legends themselves, who had played against Charleston and still marveled at the bull-chested power he exuded. I learned far more about Charleston, however, when I pored over the scrapbooks that he had left behind, wearing rubber gloves as I handled crumbling, yellowing clippings. In them, I came across a story about Charleston’s marriage to a school teacher who was a minister’s daughter, which is to say she was his opposite in every way. The marriage wasn’t built to last, obviously, but it still possessed a bittersweet quality that became clear when I tracked down his ex-wife’s niece by phone. She was as proper as Mrs. Charleston must have been, and propriety was just what the piece needed: a counterpoint to rough-and-tumble Oscar. Now he had the three-dimensional quality that is so difficult to find when you’re writing about someone who belongs to history.
Trying to capture Charleston on paper was a joy. He had the raffish quality that stirs my writerly instincts, and he was utterly fearless, a balls-out guy even in the Jim Crow era. Maybe the word I should have used to describe him was swashbuckler. Whatever, his story transcended the boundaries of mill-run journalism and became something else. A tone poem, maybe. An impressionist painting in words. No, that’s too self-congratulatory, too self-involved. But you get the picture, I think. Even though I didn’t have as much space for his story as I did for Bednarik’s, I had what I needed for a vivid portrait of the man beneath the legend that time had all but erased.
Like I said, I delivered the piece in three weeks, in July 2003, as requested. Then I waited until September 2005 for it to run. When it did, it appeared only in certain regions of the country. I don’t know which ones. I just know that the story was in the edition of SI that landed in my mailbox in Pasadena, California, but it was missing from the edition delivered to a friend of mine in Van Nuys, 20 minutes away. I haven’t the slightest idea why. I just know that every editor at the magazine signed off on it until it reached the head man, Terry McDonell, and then he held onto it for reasons I can only guess. Maybe he thought it was too similar to my Josh Gibson piece. Maybe he thought SI had run too many historical pieces. Maybe he just didn’t like the story I wrote. Whatever his reason, the piece was cursed to a half-life in those regional editions. But I never forgot it, and when I started putting Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand together, it was one of the first stories I knew I wanted in the book. Of course I had to ask Terry McDonell for permission first. He gave it without a second’s hesitation, so I guess I can’t hold a grudge any longer.
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