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Question: Which sportswriters were your heroes when you were growing up?

Bert Sugar: Well, I lived near Shirley Povich, so Shirley, which is a male, of the Washington Post was one of them.  But I quickly picked up on Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner old time, and then fell in love as I grew older with others that I would read like Jim Murray and Red Smith.  But some of the best writing, Paul Gallico, et cetera, was in the sports pages.  So, it was a happy mixture, that’s what I read and that’s where they were. 

Question:
Do you feel like your work continues in their legacy?

Bert Sugar: It’s not up to me to say, but I’ve been... it’s been said even in the Village Voice this week that I’m a throwback and carry on the great tradition of Damon Runyon.  I don’t know if that’s because he wore a hat, or if that’s because I wrote the way he did.  I mean, Runyon was brilliant.  He’s the one who coined so many phrases, gave so many  names, like "Manassas Mauler" and others to athletes, and he’s probably best remembered today for something not in sports: the play, “Guys and Dolls” comes from his short story.  All of them, there are a lot of short stories in there with the Nicely Nicely Johnsons and Sky Mastersons.  But Damon Runyon was brilliant. 

Question: Are there any younger sportswriters who also continue that tradition?

Bert Sugar: Sports writing is almost an extinct species, or soon to be.  Point being, they’re writing for blogs and they don’t have a discipline.  Once they state a subject, they can go on.  There’s no space restraint.  And they’re writing quickly, so there’s no time for thought and cerebral thinking on an article, they’re just banging away. 

And in the old days, just to tell you what it was like when I first came on the scene.  I’d been a lawyer and an advertising man and then after hitting the boss in the mouth, I became a writer because there was nowhere else I could go.  Nobody would hire me.  But we used to sit at bars and tell stories; Toots Shor's, for example, in New York.  And we would tell—drink, yes, tell stories, yes, yes and yes.  And the young kids, at which point I was one, would listen to the old timers.  Now, the kids don’t go to the bars, I don’t care if they drink, have a Coke, but hear the stories.  Don’t go up to your room to figure out on your laptop how many free flyer miles you have, sit and hear what it is you’re doing so you have a reference value.  Sports did not start in 1979 with the beginning of ESPN.  It went backwards before that, I hate to tell the young writers. 

So, no.  I don’t see the tradition being carried on.  I’ll give you a story I picked up at Toots Shor's, had to be 40-45 years ago.  There was a writer in the '20s, for the New York Times who was still covering when I came on the scene named, John Drebinger, or Drebby, who told the story about the time when the writers would be on the same train with the ballclub.  And he was covering the Yankees, and they’re going when there was a western trip, there were eight teams in the American League from St. Louis overnight to Chicago.  They played the Browns; they were on their way to play the White Sox.  And the writers were in the club car dealing out a hand of bridge.  And they were fanning out their cards and the door slams open and Babe Ruth runs down the center aisle, naked.  And they look up; they fan out their cards more.  And the door slams again, and here comes a woman chasing him, equally as naked, with a knife in her hand.  And Drebby says, one of the writers said, “Well there’s another story we’re not going to cover.”  Because that’s what it was like in those days.  You protected your heroes. 

Where're these young kids gonna hear stories like that, if they don’t sit with the old fogies and listen.  They’re too busy doing something, I have no idea what.  But it sure as the dickens ain’t soakin up what they’re coverin'.

Question:
Do you have a story of your own that compares to that one?

Bert Sugar: Oh, several of them.  I remember asking Joe DiMaggio once, “Could you have made that catch Willie Mayes made in the 1954 series off Vic Wertz?”  Joe thought a second, he said, “I wouldn’t have lost my cap.”  Now, where are they gonna hear that? 

I also found out why the Runyons and the Walter Winchells and the Red Smiths and the Shirley Poviches, and on and on and on wore hats.  They wore them indoors.  I mean, if you’ve ever seen "Front Page" by Charles McArthur and Ben Hecht.  It’s been done four times in movies and plays.  The writers are wearing their hats inside.  Well, it goes back to the old, old days when type was set by linotype machines, Morganthaler linotype machines.  The hot type.  They’d type in the word, and each letter would be typed in and it would fly in and the filaments would sort of just spew out all over the place.  If the made an “A” everything that wasn’t an “A” would go flying on the metal, “B”, “C”, etc. 

Well, in the old days, the joisting in the floorboards between the type room, which was upstairs and the edit room, which was right below them because they were setting up their stories by pneumatic tube (whooshing sound).  And then it would (whooshing sound) once that come down again by tube, rolled up in a ball into a tube.  It would come filtering through like a constant drizzle.  And they took to wearing their hats.  So, I wanted to become a writer, I guess I adopted that, which makes me a throwback?  No.  It makes me a hat wearer. But It’s fun to wear one because people identify me as a writer.  Not to put a press pass in.  That’s if you’re insecure and you want somebody to know you’re in the press.  And of course, today’s kids can just have it tattooed on their arm.  But it was because in the old days, all they did was get this drizzle coming off their hat – or their head, and now their hat.  At least they protected something.

Recorded May 4, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

More from the Big Idea for Friday, May 28 2010

 

Sportswriting Is a Dying Art

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