We Write and Take Our Chances:
An Interview with John Schulian
John Schulian, the former sports columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News, is revered in some circles. What’s amazing is how quickly Schulian gained that respect.
After less than ten years as a columnist, a period that saw national syndication and a courtship from the New York Times, Schulian walked away in 1986. At age forty-one and with nary a connection, he embarked on a successful second career as a television writer for shows like Miami Vice and JAG.
Thankfully, Schulian never gave up sportswriting entirely. He continued to write pieces for magazines and newspapers. A bounty of terrific work is found in Schulian's most recent anthology, Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us. If anything, the terrific collection proves that Schulian, who writes with feeling and depth, deserved any and all accolades.
In this interview conduced via email, Schulian, sixty-six, talks about his life in newspapers, the dying art of writing a sports column, the significance of Muhammad Ali, and his hatred of cheese steaks.
Pete Croatto: In your three-part autobiography on the website Bronx Banter you talked honestly about your time in the newspaper business. Without getting into too much detail, they were ripe with highs and lows. Most of the stories from Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand are from your newspaper days, which ended in the mid-1980s at the Philadelphia Daily News. In re-reading these old clips, what memories came flooding back?
John Schulian: I suppose every piece in the book summons a memory of one kind or another. I can look at my Bear Bryant column and hear the molasses in his drawl when he said, “If you evah down in Tuscaloosa in the summer, come on by the house and Mary Harmon (his wife) and I’ll turn the hose on ya.” Or maybe it will be my ode to W.C. Heinz that makes me remember how I felt every time I saw his block printing on an envelope. John Updike wrote, “Gods don’t answer letters,” but every once in a while a hero will drop you a line, especially if he’s a writer.
My Reggie Jackson column reminds me of the constant rush of the newspaper business: a wake-up call at 5 a.m. in my L.A. hotel room so I could pore over the scribbling in my notebook, write with what I hoped was a touch of grace, and—did I dictate the finished product to someone on the desk in those pre-computer dark ages? I must have; I certainly didn’t travel with a telefax. And then, after taking care to enunciate every word carefully, I still had to shower and shave and pack and get my rental car back to LAX before I caught a noon flight to New York. It was a glamorous existence in its way. It was also debilitating.
The most memories, however, are wrapped up in my Sports Illustrated profile of Chuck Bednarik, the NFL’s last true two-way player. For one thing, Bednarik refused to believe that I could find his house on my own, so he arranged to meet me in the parking lot of a huge shopping center. There he was, wearing a Philadelphia Eagles jersey, sixty-eight years old and only three pounds over his playing weight, still an imposing figure with his huge arms folded across his chest and a scowl on his face. I didn’t know what to expect, but he turned out to be as good an interview subject as I ever met. If the man had something on his mind, it came out of his mouth. He laughed, he cried, he radiated passion for the game he loved. He also yelled at the three young grandchildren who were living with him because one of his daughters was going through a divorce. He couldn’t understand them and they couldn’t understand him. Their relationship turned out to be the thing that humanized the piece and brought it into the here-and-now. Sometimes a writer gets lucky that way.
Other times he doesn’t. No sooner had I sat down to write my Bednarik profile than my mother died. Obviously, first things had to come first. I had to take care of her funeral and make arrangements to deal with her estate later. When I finally got back to work, I was a mess emotionally. My father dead for seven years, no brothers or sisters, and now a mother I wouldn’t be calling every Sunday and visiting twice a year. So I’d write a page, or sometimes just a paragraph, and then I’d cry. It went like that for a week, but I finally finished. When I look at the story now, I think of it as one of my two or three best magazine pieces. More important, however, I think of it as a tribute to my mother.
Pete: The one thing that impressed me in reading these columns was that you were able to write so eloquently under the crush of deadline pressure—your piece on Pete Maravich being a classic example. You credit your time at the Baltimore Evening Sun, where one of your gigs was doing rewrites, with teaching you how to write quickly. With newspapers in constant danger, are aspiring journalists losing the perfect training ground? And how do you see newspapers’ irrelevancy affecting journalism down the road?
John: There’s never been a better school for writers than a newspaper. Hemingway said it better, of course, but we both worshipped at the same ink-stained church. For one thing, newspapers forced you to write on demand. No waiting for your muse to sing, no searching for inspiration—the presses were going to roll, and if you wanted something with your byline in the paper, you had to get cracking.
Although the quality of prose could vary widely from one story to another in any edition, good writing would always get attention. It certainly worked that way for me when I was breaking in as a city reporter on the Baltimore Evening Sun. I still had my training wheels on, but I managed to capture some colorful local characters in print, and as soon as I did that, I had an identity. I wasn’t just a clerk of fact; I was a wordsmith. And once you had that designation, reporters with a similar sensibility would gravitate to you. It didn’t matter whether they were old or young; they were part of daily journalism’s literary tradition. I’m reminded of how Pete Hamill talked about heading to the bar with the New York Post’s veteran reporters and re-write men to drink until the sun came up and listen to them recite from memory the greatest leads they ever read. I wasn’t there in body, but I like to think that I am somehow connected in spirit to everyone who was.
Those old newspaper guys were part of a young reporter’s introduction to life. The rest of the introduction came when the young reporter was out on the street, nostrils open, notebook in hand. In the five years I spent in Baltimore, I saw live heroes and dead bodies, covered political corruption and motorcycle-gang shootouts, interviewed Stevie Wonder and Waylon Jennings, and listened to weeping grandmothers after babies had died in shanty-town fires. I even got drunk on the job—the only time that ever happened—drinking ten-cent beers with an overweight Depression-era bicycle racer named Moon. You tell me where besides newspapers a newspaper reporter is going to get an education like that.
The fact that there are fewer—and worse—major dailies means that there is less room than ever for writers. And the kind stories I did? Forget about it. Blandness has taken control of the papers that have survived. Too many of them are faceless and soulless. I don’t work in the business any more so maybe that’s the only way they can continue to exist. But that doesn’t lessen the pain. And I haven’t even touched on the watchdog aspect of daily newspapering. There’s no more space for Woodward and Bernstein, no more time, no more budget. The hunger might still exist, but it’s a rare paper that can turn reporters loose to investigate the kind of corruption that I guarantee you is out there. The New York Times is an exception, obviously. And then there are the papers you don’t expect to knock you out that end up doing so consistently, like the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Maybe newspapers will figure out a way to make serious journalism relevant and profitable on-line. Or maybe it’s too late. I don’t know. Sometimes I think that newspapers, whether on paper or on the Internet, will exist only for the educated, the people who understand that knowledge is power. There may be a multitude of community papers and just two or three that are national. I’d bet on the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and I hope a West Coast paper emerges to join them, a paper much like the L.A. Times used to be. Mostly, though, I just wait and watch. And read, of course. That’s one thing that has never changed. I’ll go to my grave as a newspaper reader.
Pete: Another feature of the book that I really enjoyed was your section devoted to legendary sportswriters, such as Mark Kram and A.J. Liebling. Do you think sportswriting gets short shrift from the community of readers, even though the genre is filled with so much talent?
John: Once upon a time, any reader with brains should have been able to figure out that the best writing in newspapers was on the sports page. There was Jimmy Cannon at the New York Post—people read him first and then they turned to the great Murray Kempton. Before Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin and their running mates arrived at the New York Herald Tribune in the 1960s, it was the sports section that was the paper’s beacon of literacy and style, edited by Stanley Woodward, anchored by Red Smith’s column. Next came the revolution: Jack Mann preaching irreverence at Newsday, Larry Merchant doing likewise at the Philadelphia Daily News, Blackie Sherrod striking gold at the Fort Worth Press with Dan Jenkins, Bud Shrake and Gary Cartwright, Jim Murray making his L.A. Times column the stage for his sports-as-comedy routine. Suddenly, everywhere you looked, there were Young Turks writing columns—Robert Lipsyte at the New York Times, Sandy Grady at the Philadelphia Bulletin, Wells Twombly in San Francisco (and, before that, in Detroit and Houston).
I was in the next wave, with Mike Lupica, Leigh Montville, Dave Kindred, David Israel, Tony Kornheiser, Bill Nack, Tom Callahan—and those are just columnists I’m talking about. There were also feature writers under the influence of Sports Illustrated, writers producing magazine quality work while butting heads with newspaper deadlines—Kornheiser (a master of the long narrative before he wrote his first column) and Skip Bayless (before he turned to column writing) and Randy Harvey and Dan Lauck and a precocious kid at the Philly News named Gary Smith. And let me not forget those stylists who made specific sports their specialty: Tom Boswell and Peter Gammmons on baseball, Ray Didinger on football, Bob Ryan on basketball. Moreover, let me not forget the women who seized the moment—Diane Shah, Lesley Visser, Betty Cuniberti, Lynn Rosellini—and made sportswriting better for it.
Maybe America’s sports sections had once been laughingstocks populated by hacks and drunks and lowlifes eager to take bribes from wrestling promoters—but no more. The sports page became a laboratory for writing that was stylish and memorable, sometimes even great. In time, other sections would catch up—consider the lasting influence of the Washington Post’s Style section—but it was sports that was first to embrace writers and writing. Granted, there were still scribes who couldn’t get past their artlessness, but it was the good ones who counted. And the audience for their work cut across sex, race, intellectual heft and every other measure I can think of. For myself, I know how thrilled I was to learn that Studs Terkel, John Gregory Dunne, and Norman MacLean, who wrote A River Runs Through It, were among my readers. I was equally thrilled, however, every time I heard from a female reader, and there were more and more of them every year I wrote my column.
The 1970s and ‘80s were a grand time to be a sports writer, and I saw no reason for the situation to change when I left the Philadelphia Daily News to try Hollywood on for size in 1986. Oh, athletes were becoming increasingly difficult to deal with, but there were wonderful writers emerging—Charlie Pierce, Peter Richmond, Johnette Howard—and their work would trump locker-room churlishness. Go ahead, call me a dolt. I failed to foresee TV’s rapacious appetite for programming, the nuclear salary explosion for athletes, the Internet’s seizure of the American mind, the burgeoning lowball fascination with sports talk radio. I may be overlooking something, but that’s enough to upset my stomach, because all of the above helped diminish the impact high-quality sportswriting. It’s still there, of course. You just have to read Joe Posnanski, Mark Kriegel, Mark Kram Jr., S.L. Price, Wright Thompson, Jason Gay, or Thomas Lake to realize that. The New York Times’ John Branch just delivered a Pulitzer prize-worthy portrait of a hockey enforcer and the Boston Globe and Washington Post still have sports sections rippling with muscle. And yet none of the above counts as much as it would have in the days when I wrote sports. I’d say I’m sorry, but nobody wants my sympathy. I’d say things will get better, but that’s a lie. What it all comes down to, I’m afraid, is that it’s a writer’s fate to butt heads with forces beyond his control. Even then, however—even when he knows just how dire his existence is—the writer still gets the last word.
Pete: Your friend Alex Belth pointed out that you dedicated your book to your editors, which seems odd. You had your fair share of conflict with copy editors, and your contract with the Chicago Sun-Times prohibited anyone from touching your copy without you being consulted. (Granted, it was Murdoch paper, but still.) Can you explain your relationship with editors. How did the good ones (and bad ones) make you a better writer?
John: Let me correct one thing in your question. The Sun-Times wasn’t a Murdoch paper until 1984. Its owner was Marshall Field IV, who also owned the Chicago Daily News. I was a columnist for both papers, the Daily News from February 1977 to March 1978 and the Sun-Times from March 1978 to June 1984. I was able to endure less than five months under Murdoch’s Hessians, and then I was gone. The reason: a beef with an editor I’d never seen before, a wannabe thug who I later found out had been imported from Murdoch’s paper in San Antonio, presumably to teach everyone at the Sun-Times how to write about killer bees. The confrontation got physical. I threw the killer bee editor over a desk—twice. It was the only time in my career that I laid a hand on an editor. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not apologetic, either. The son of a bitch symbolized the everlasting damage that Murdoch did to a proud newspaper. But I certainly don’t think of him as an editor I worked for.
The editors I worked for were the guys who hired me, pointed me in the right direction, and encouraged me to write with style and passion and, ultimately, the voice that became my signature. They were the men in charge: Ernie Imhoff, city editor of the Baltimore Evening Sun; George Solomon, executive sports editor of the Washington Post; Ray Sons, sports editor of the Chicago Daily News; Kerry Slagle and Marty Kaiser, executive sports editors of the Chicago Sun-Times; and Mike Rather, executive sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. Every one of them was a unique personality with special talents, and though I didn’t always agree with them, they had my respect, and I like to think I had theirs.
I don’t recall any of them ever taking me aside and going over a story I’d written, pointing out how this sentence could have been tighter or that sentence should have been broken in two just for the sake of rhythm. The only editor who ever ventured onto that turf with me was an assistant city editor in Baltimore named Bob Keller, who encouraged me to take a more writerly approach to a second-day story about a shantytown fire. Other than that, I learned my craft primarily by reading great newspaper writers. The World of Jimmy Breslin was my bible for a long time. You’ve probably heard of most of the writers who influenced me—Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, W.C. Heinz, John Lardner, Mark Kram, Larry Merchant. But there were others who flew under the radar too much of the time: Paul Hemphill, a lyrical newspaper columnist in Atlanta before he turned to books and magazine work; Myron Cope, a magazine writer who specialized in characters (Muhammad Ali, Bo Belinsky, drunken football teams) before he became the voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers; and George Frazier, a quirky, Brooks Brothers-clad dandy who wrote about jazz, politics, style and sports for Esquire and a succession of Boston papers, most notably the Globe. At one point or another, I tried each of their styles on for size, some more frequently than others, until Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of the Washington Post, told me he heard echoes of Breslin in my prose. I decided then and there that I didn’t want to be Breslin or anyone else no matter how much I admired them. I wanted to be myself.
The editors I tangled with were almost inevitably the guys on the copy desk, the ones who wrote the headlines and checked stories for errors of fact, bad grammar and misspelled words, the sins that writers on deadlines inevitably commit. I wanted them on my side, and at most of the papers where I worked, they were. The crew at the Evening Sun was great. The same went for the two Chicago papers and the Philly News. But the Washington Post was an absolute nightmare. On its copy desk, the professionals were outnumbered by drunks, cretins, and jealous pricks who held writers in contempt. I had more stories ruined in my first five weeks there than I’d had in five years in Baltimore. The other writers were treated just as shabbily, but I separated myself from the pack by complaining to the sports editor about it. Not that it did any good.
The breaking point came when the desk dropped a key section from a long piece I’d written about spending the day of a fight with a heavyweight named Larry Middleton. It was a good piece, too—and the sons of bitches disemboweled it. After that, if I was in town and not on the road, I would stay at the office until the first edition came up so I could check what I’d written and make sure the desk hadn’t done harm to it. I’d never been paranoid before, and I haven’t been since, but I certainly was then. When the Chicago Daily News offered me a column, I said yes instantly. It didn’t matter that the Daily News had one foot in the grave and the Post was basking in its post-Watergate glory. I wanted to be free of that damn copy desk almost as much as I wanted the chance to be a columnist.
Pete: As a sports columnist, you came of age in a day when a metropolitan paper had a columnist (or two) who was voice of the city's sports scene: Jim Murray in Los Angeles, Furman Bisher in Atlanta, Red Smith in New York. Those days are clearly over, but in this age of the Internet, talk radio, and ESPN, does the city-based sports columnist have any clout?
John: The big-city sports columnist may be a dinosaur, but part of the blame for that falls on the columnists and not changes in the media. It’s hard – not impossible, mind you, but hard, very hard—to find a columnist working today who is truly devoted to the craft, to taking those 800 to 1,000 words and trying to make them truly special. I’m talking about honoring the tradition that can be traced back to Smith, Heinz and Cannon, and before them, Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, Heywood Broun and Westbrook Pegler. At their best, they were artists who didn’t do the same thing every day, who gave you a prose portrait of an athlete one day, an opinion the next, and a smile the day after that. Too many of today’s columnists either rehash what they’ve already said on radio or TV, or write like they’re trying out for air time. They set themselves up for parody as they posture, fulminate and take stands they’re likely to do a 180 on before the week is done. They don’t seem to give a damn that they’re singing the same song every day. Nor do they operate with any sense of perspective. These are games they’re writing about, not the end of the world. If you miss one, don’t worry—there will be another tomorrow. The same with heroes—there’s a bus pulling into town with a new batch every day. Life is going to go on. Enjoy it, examine it, try to understand it, and try to write about it in a way that will stand up for more than a day. When you have the chance and the clock is on your side, try to put something on paper that years later will help someone stumbling across your words understand the time in which you lived and wrote.
Of course, that calls for artistry, and artistry is in short supply among the columnists I read. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s not another Joe Posnanski in sight. Where’s the next Sally Jenkins? And we certainly know the New York Times won’t be giving us the second George Vecsey, don’t we? As a result, newspapers are afflicted with columnists who spend more time yakking on radio and TV than they do trying to find the right words and rhythms to make their work sing. Their artlessness makes reading them the equivalent of gouging your own eyes out. And quite frankly that’s not how I enjoy starting my morning. I realize that the columnists I’m talking about spread themselves so thin because they’re trying to cash in on the kind of opportunity they never thought they’d have. Far be it from me to tell someone they can’t chase a buck. But I’d still ask them to have more respect for their work, their readers, and the newspapers that give them the soapbox they stand on.
As vexed as I am with the state of column writing, however, I’m just stubborn enough to think that a column done properly, with style and imagination, could succeed today. You couldn’t do it the way columns were done when I was writing one because the athletes are no longer that accessible or open. But you could still use one of the great old-timers as a model. That would be Jimmy Cannon, who was a truly unique stylist, a high school dropout from Greenwich Village who fell under the spell of Damon Runyon and ended up with a voice that was uniquely his own, a voice that would later influence Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill and Mike Lupica. What Cannon may have done best as a columnist was write impressionistic pieces about prizefights and ballplayers and characters. He’d go to an Archie Moore fight and wax poetic about how the old Mongoose deserved to have a jazz song written about him. Or he’d watch Jim Brown play football and remember how listening to Caruso on the radio in a neighborhood barbershop was his introduction to greatness. Obviously, a columnist would need other pitches in his repertoire, but that kind of impressionistic piece could become a legitimate fastball. It would stand out because it would be so different from everything else on the sports page. It would have a level of the literacy that has gone missing, and it would have the kind of passion that can’t be manufactured, and it would provide soul for a soulless province. All in 800 to 1,000 words. Amazing, huh?
Pete: Speaking of which, you came up around the same time as Skip Bayless, ESPN's professional contrarian. What happened? And does the proliferation of sports pundits yapping at each other tear at your soul a little?
John: Poor Skip. Whenever I stumble across him on TV, I change the channel as fast as I can. He looks so gaunt, so haggard, so troubled. And he sounds as though he really believes that the survival of civilization depends on every word he utters. I like to think it’s an act. He’s certainly smart enough to realize that he’s just a monkey jumping around in ESPN’s cage. But maybe he went around the bend somewhere, like a professional wrestler who decided he really enjoyed setting himself on fire every night.
The people who watch Skip may not realize what a terrific sports writer he was thirty years ago. (Not that the mouth breathers and knuckle draggers in his audience care.) Like Lupica and David Israel, he was a prodigy, only without the bully pulpit of a column. At a startlingly young age, he was writing magazine-quality features for the L.A. Times, the kind of pieces that made me think he’d one day be writing great books. Of course he did write books, though I don’t think any qualified as great. But he had a lot more success as a columnist, particularly in Dallas. Personally, I never cared for his column—too shrill, too self-righteous—but it made him a star, put money in his pocket, and sent him down the path to what he is today on TV. He’s scary.
In fact most of the newspaper guys who have gone electric are scary. The only ones I’ve ever been able to watch on a regular basis are Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, who somehow managed to bring their newspaper smarts with them. Most everybody else seems smitten with the idea of being in show biz. You know, slap some make-up on them, let them spout something outrageous on camera, and wait for the congratulatory emails and tweets from beer-sodden fraternity boys. There’s no time for reflection or anecdote. There’s no emphasis on clear thinking or being an honest contrarian. God forbid anyone should say anything that suggests they’ve read a book or spent at the theater or watching a movie that wasn’t filled with exploding cars and silicone boobs. Everybody’s a smartass, and that’s enough. I guess it’s a living.
Pete: Going back to Kram, I just read his book on Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Ghosts of Manila, which completely demystified Ali in my eyes. I know that you loved covering Ali. Can you please talk about what made him special—as a subject and as a cultural icon?
John: It’s good to hear you mention Kram. He was, for my money, the most unforgettable stylist Sports Illustrated has ever produced. But too often he gets forgotten for a variety of reasons, some that he shouldered the blame for before his death in 2002, others that can be traced to editors with whom he constantly battled. For the longest time, he seemed to be a lost soul, and then he came back strong with wonderful work for Playboy and Esquire and, of course, Ghosts of Manila. We should all cross the finish line in the high style that Kram did.
Much as I admire him, though, I don’t agree with everything he wrote in his book. And yet I think it’s important that a writer of his stature and experience took up Joe Frazier’s cause. More than any heavyweight of his generation—and what a generation it was—Frazier honored the warrior code. He came from the hardest kind of life imaginable and made himself a world champion. And it wasn’t as though he was blessed with great physical gifts. Ali, George Foreman, even Ken Norton were far more imposing specimens. But Frazier had that left hook and he had that heart, and nobody ever took that away from him whether he won or lost. I’m not sure, however, that that made him a better man than Ali. Kram certainly seemed to think he was, and when Frazier died last year, there were a lot of writers who fell in line behind Kram. Fine writers like Dave Anderson from the New York Times, guys I think the world of professionally and personally. The more I read of their well-deserved tributes to Frazier, the more I felt they were using his death as a chance to diminish Ali and turn him into a villain.
Yes, Ali was unspeakably cruel to Frazier in the build-up to their fights, calling him “a gorilla” and, worse, an Uncle Tom. But no one ever said Ali was perfect. He was as flawed and complicated as any other human being, with his mean streak and his public philandering and, for all I know, his snoring. He may not have been a Rhodes scholar, either, which was a point Kram hammered relentlessly. But somehow Ali always managed to find his better self when the occasion demanded it. Rising out of a business in which men are paid to destroy each other—Ali-Frazier III is a classic example—he performed acts of charity, bravery, and self-sacrifice. Some were high profile—opposing the war in Vietnam, championing black pride—while others were small personal gestures, like financing soup kitchens or building homes for poor families. Ali may have been acting on instinct instead of intellect in some cases; in others he may have seen his selfishness morph into something good. Who knows what was going on inside his head? All I can say is that I saw him do far more good than bad, and when he was done, he had become far more than a heavyweight champion. He had become a great man.
It seems anticlimactic to say he was great to cover, too. A writer’s dream. He was funny and irreverent and brash and, when the occasion called for it, humble and sensitive. There weren’t many people in the sports media whose names he remembered—Howard Cosell, naturally, and Dick Young and George Plimpton, whom he called “Kennedy”—and yet the media flocked to him because they knew that when he was around, something was going to happen. He might trade insults with Bundini Brown, the shaman of his entourage, or back up a prediction with a goofy poem. When he took a vow of silence before his first fight with Leon Spinks, he slapped a piece of tape across his mouth—and even then he was more interesting than anyone who was talking.
I could go on and on, but you get my drift. Ali was a once-in-a-lifetime subject for a sports writer, maybe for any kind of writer. I know he was that way for me, and I always prided myself in saying the story came first. But he made me care about him in a way no other athlete did. It was his charm, his courage, his audacity, his greatness in the ring. When I saw Larry Holmes destroy him in Las Vegas, it was like watching an execution. It was the worst night of my life as a sports writer, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. I felt bad for myself, of course, because I knew I wouldn’t be writing about him for much longer. But I felt worse for Ali because of the way he’d been beaten. Even though Holmes did what he could to hold back, he had to keep fighting until Ali’s craven manager, Herbert Muhammad, told Angelo Dundee to stop it. By then Ali had been damaged in a way he will never get past. All these years later, the memory still haunts me. Maybe that’s the measure of just how special he was.
Pete: You left your sports column at the Philadelphia Daily News at age forty-one. You had, if my history is correct, less than a decade under your belt as a sports columnist. Did you ever think about what you could have accomplished if you had stayed, or was a burnout guaranteed regardless?
John: If my math is right, I fell six months short of ten years, so my run didn’t come close to those of Red Smith and Jimmy Breslin, but it was plenty for me. For one thing, I had a lot of success very quickly as a sports columnist—awards, fat paychecks (by newspaper standards), comparisons to writers who were my heroes, even an offer from the New York Times to be Red’s heir apparent. In the process, I covered all the big events that meant something to me—boxing and baseball always came first—and I had free rein to write what was in my head and heart. It was a good life, and I think I made everything I could of it. My columns have held up well enough to allow me to publish two collections in the last six years. People in the business still remember my work. Every once in a while, I get mentioned in the same sentence with Bill Heinz or Jimmy Cannon or Red. As good as that makes me feel, though, I’m not sure I deserve it. Those guys were in it for the long haul, the way Dave Kindred and Mike Lupica from my generation are. I was just passing through.
Writing four 1,000-word columns a week took a lot out of me, partly because I poured so much time and energy into crafting each one, partly because I added to my workload by always having a magazine piece going on the side. If I’d been a more effortless writer—fewer late nights, never the last man out of the press box—I might not have grown as weary as I did. If Murdoch hadn’t bought the Sun-Times, I might have gotten so comfortable that I hung around to become the kind of local institution that so many sports columnists have over the years. But Murdoch did buy the Sun-Times and my life went sideways, with a divorce added to the mix to increase the pain. I landed at the Philadelphia Daily News and almost instantly began hating much of what I was writing. I was tired of my voice, tired of talking to athletes who were increasingly uncommunicative, and soon enough I lost interest in making a name in a city I thought couldn’t come close to Chicago.
Maybe the same scenario would have played out if I’d stayed at the Sun-Times. After all, I’d had Hollywood on the brain since I was a kid in L.A. and my dad took me to second-run movie houses to see the Marx Brothers and Casablanca and the John Ford cavalry trilogy. One Christmas when I was married, my wife, who was none too crazy about the hours I kept as a sports columnist, even gave me a book of interviews with screenwriters. The first time I started thinking seriously about Hollywood as a career option was the night I watched the premiere of Hill Street Blues. I’d never been much of a TV watcher—I’m still not, to tell the truth—but I guess the fates decreed that I watch Steven Bochco’s revolutionary cop show. When it was over, I told myself that if I could do something like Hill Street, I’d be proud to write for TV. That was in 1981. Five years later, there I was, working with Bochco on the script for L.A. Law that was my introduction to show business.
Pete: The thing that amazed me about your television career was that you went in cold, essentially getting your break by writing a letter to Steven Bochco. Could this happen again? Or is the TV industry a completely different beast from 1986?
John: A wonderfully talented TV writer-producer named Jeff Melvoin told me early on that everybody gets in the business a different way. Still, I’ve never heard a story that tops mine: writing Bochco and sending him a collection of my boxing writing called Writers’ Fighters and Bochco liking what he read enough to offer me a chance to write a script even though I’d never so much as written FADE IN. It sounded impossible when it happened, an era in which writer-producers ruled TV and Bochco was the king of kings. Today, even massively talented writer-producers have been brought to heel by networks and studios. They wouldn’t let a guy like me in the door. A sports columnist? Call security!
I’m talking about network TV here, where all the spontaneity seems to have been wrung from the creative process. Executives who’ve never written a script or produced an episode are micromanaging people who’ve forgotten more than they’ll ever know. They might be smart and cunning and polished, these executives with their degrees from the right schools, but that still doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing. Look at the mess network TV is in. (Actually, I can think of one network executive who does know what he’s doing—as brilliant an executive as I ever worked for—and he just got brutalized in the ratings, which proves Wiliam Goldman right yet again: Nobody knows anything.)
I never worked in cable TV, but the impression I get is that writer-producers have a freer hand there. How else could you get The Sopranos, which was rejected by network TV, and The Wire and The Shield and Deadwood and Justified and Boardwalk Empire on the air? If you want greatness, you don’t get it by tying someone’s hands. You turn him loose and tell him to keep punching.
Pete: You're out of TV now, but still writing. Now you're working on fiction, even though you admit it's been a rough road. Has there been progress? What keeps you writing?
John: Other than reworking a short story so I could submit it to some literary journals, I really haven’t done much with fiction for the past three or four years. If the hard-boiled L.A. novel I finished in 2005 had found a publisher, I’m sure I’d have written another by now. But the idea I have for a second novel—a decidedly non-hard-boiled idea—is on the shelf while I pursue other things. Actually, I’ve been pursuing those things since I walked away from TV in ’03. I started with an assignment for Sports Illustrated—my Oscar Charleston story—and I lined up a one-semester teaching gig at my alma mater, the University of Utah, and I put together a collection of my baseball writing called Twilight of the Long-ball Gods. I don’t think I realized just how good it would feel to be free of Hollywood. Not that I couldn’t have been tempted to go back—the money is irresistible. But it was reinvigorating to be doing things, no matter how humble, that were totally mine. There are no solo acts in Hollywood. Everything is done by committee, and given my druthers, I’d just as soon not have to play with others.
I started work on my novel A Better Goodbye in early 2004 and, with four months out for teaching, finished it in June 2005. It’s about a boxer whose career went sideways when he killed a man in the ring and a young Asian girl who’s financing her college education by working in the sex trade. Their paths cross, they connect albeit uneasily, and they get swept up in a crime concocted by two sociopaths. A female friend who read it called it an unrequited love story. Sterling Lord, who agented the book for me, called it a combination of Elmore Leonard and Leonard Gardner, who wrote the classic Fat City. All I have to show for it so far is a stack of rejection letters, some of them very complimentary but rejections just the same. I’m disappointed, of course, but I still feel better for having done it. I liked the challenge of writing a minimum of three pages a day, and I welcomed the criticism I got on my early drafts, particularly from my friend Clyde Edgerton, who’s a wonderful novelist. I loved my characters, the bad guys as much as the good guys. I even cherished the rewriting process, when I cut forty pages and 10,000 words out of the manuscript. It was the greatest writing experience of my life, and I’m not sure anything is in second place.
The only success I’ve had with fiction is modest at best. I had a hard-boiled Christmas story published on Thuglit—my payment was a T-shirt—and another story made it into the Prague Revue, which hardly seems the place for the tale of a young hitchhiker who falls under the spell of a faded country singing star, but there it is.
I’ve done a lot better working on the anthologies that have gobbled up the last two years. There’s the new collection of my sportswriting, Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand, obviously, and there is also The John Lardner Reader, which came out in Fall 2010. Not only was Lardner a joy for me to read and pay tribute to, I got Dan Jenkins, who was as big an admirer as he ever had, to write the foreword. I may be old and grizzled, but that still didn’t stop me from getting a kick out of every e-mail Dan sent me. There was a laugh or a wicked smart observation in every one of them.
It was the same when I worked with my old friend George Kimball as we edited At the Fights, the anthology of great boxing writing we did for the Library of America, and the collection of boxing poetry and song lyrics that we spun out of it, The Fighter Still Remains. I’m not sure what the folks at LoA thought they were getting, but At the Fights turned out to be a critical success—great reviews in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Time—and it inspired a wonderful publication party, too. Better yet, I think those books helped keep George alive. He had esophageal cancer, and the doctors had given him six months to live in 2005. He was too busy to die, though. In addition to working on our anthologies, he wrote books and poetry and songs and plays, and collaborated on a documentary, and traveled to Ireland and France. And he never complained about what he was going through physically. He worried about the wife and grown children he was leaving behind, and he did everything in his power to secure his legacy as a sports writer, but complaining was out of the question. He’d been a wild man for much of his life—lots of booze and drugs and lost nights—but when it came to the crunch, George was absolutely noble.
I’m richer for having worked with him. He taught me about bravery and reinforced my commitment to my work. Now more than ever, I know I want to write for as long as I can. It can be the screenplay I plan to start work on next month, or the novel that’s gestating in my imagination, or an essay about some old prizefighter or ballplayer who deserves to be remembered. I don’t need to be guaranteed publication, I just want to get those words on paper and see what happens to them once they’re there. Writers write, isn’t that what they say? We write and take our chances. I like the sound of that. It makes me feel alive. Alive is good, particularly at my age.
The Lightning Round:
Five sports books any reader would love?
- The Sweet Science by A.J. Liebling
- Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger
- The Long Season by Jim Brosnan and Ball Four by Jim Bouton (must be read as an entry; Bouton doesn’t happen without Brosnan)
- The Whore of Akron by Scott Raab
- Fat City by Leonard Gardner (the only novel on the list and the only one Gardner ever wrote; a classic about dreamers trapped on the bottom rung of boxing)
Five best non-sports books you’ve ever read?
(No Shakespeare, no Dickens, no Twain, no Hemingway, no Garcia-Marquez, no McMurtry, no McCarthy, no Eudora Welty, no Joseph Mitchell, no Breslin, no Talese, no Thompson, no Didion—the list of absent giants in fiction and non-fiction is endless. Hope I don’t look like too much of a bumpkin.)
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
- The Quiet American by Graham Greene
- A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean
Going back to that malicious editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, whom you tossed not once, but twice over a desk. I can barely toss a sack of garbage in the dumpster. How did you do that?
The clean and jerk, emphasis on jerk. One hand on the collar, the other on the belt. Hoist and fling.
As the creator of Xena: Warrior Princess you must have a good rabid fan story. Any you can share?
Oddly enough, I don’t. I had no day-to-day involvement with Xena after she was spun off into her own series. I breathed life into the character on Hercules, but after that, all I did was cash checks. You might say that made me the show’s most rabid fan.
What's harder: Writing an 800-word column in 90 minutes, or re-writing an hour-long drama over a weekend?
Definitely rewriting a script over the weekend. When you write a column on deadline, your suffering is over in a hurry. With a TV script, you’re usually doing your rewriting in the margins. Your hand cramps, you can’t make sense of your own scribbling, you hate the world—and that’s on the first day.
Where can the best sports writing be found today?
More places than you might imagine. Newspapers still employ plenty of first-rate scribes—my favorite columnist at the moment is Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal, whose humor and perspective remind me of John Lardner. Sports Illustrated is better than it’s been in years: you’ve got old hands like S.L. Price and Gary Smith and a lot of fresh blood like Joe Posnanski, Thomas Lake and Lee Jenkins. I was glad to see ESPN’s magazine enlist Chris Jones; he and Wright Thompson are a great one-two punch. Grantland is far better than I thought it would be; it gives Charlie Pierce a chance to keep his hand in sports and continually surprises me with strong work by writers I’m not familiar with. And then there’s the Internet crowd—Eric Nusbaum, Tim Marchman, all those writers I’ve discovered on Alex Belth’s Bronx Banter website. They’re smart and dedicated and full of the same kind of energy that fueled sportswriting when I did it for a living.
How could you not like Philly cheese steaks?
Books mentioned in this column:
At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing edited by George Kimball and John Schulian (Library of America, 2011)
Ball Four by Jim Bouton (Wiley, 1990)
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (Vintage, 1988)
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (Back Bay Books, 2001)
Fat City by Leonard Gardner (University of California Press, 1996)
The Fighter Still Remains edited by George Kimball and John Schulian (DiBella Entertainment & Fore Angels Press, 2010)
Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger (Da Capo Press, 2006)
Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier by Mark Kram (Harper Perennial, 2002)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner, reissue edition; 2004)
The John Lardner Reader: A Press Box Legend's Classic Sportswriting edited by John Schulian (Bison Books, 2010)
The Long Season by Jim Brosnan (Ivan R. Dee, 2002)
The Quiet American by Graham Greene (Penguin Classics, 2004)
A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman Maclean (University of Chicago Press, 2001)
Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us by John Schulian (Bison Books, 2011)
The Sweet Science by A.J. Liebling (North Point Press, 2004)
The Whore of Akron: One Man's Search for the Soul of LeBron James by Scott Raab (Harper, 2011)
The World of Jimmy Breslin by Jimmy Breslin (Avon Books, 1976)
Twilight of the Long-ball Gods: Dispatches from the Disappearing Heart of Baseball by John Schulian (Bison Books, 2005)
Writers’ Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists by John Schulian (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1983)
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, AMC Filmcritic.com, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and The Weekender, and maintains a movie blog. A longtime Mets fan, Pete currently lives in Bucks County, PA, which is Phillies territory. Pray for him. Contact Pete.