Question: Which sportswriters were your heroes when you were
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.
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
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?
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.
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