A Times Sportswriter Fondly Recalls the Heyday of Payola

Covering sports isn't what it used to be.

Covering sports isn’t what it used to be.

I’m springing for $319 tickets to the All-Star Game at Citi Field.

It brings to mind my days as a sportswriter at The New York Times. One day I opened my mail, and there, unsolicited, were Knicks and Rangers season tickets. I also had season tickets for the Jets. I had a pass that let me get into Giants football games for 60 cents.

This all changed when Watergate came along and the Times was one of the leading papers to distance itself from the people it covered. It embraced the new paradigm of a completely independent press, one that didn’t ask for favors or freebies. 

Until then, the habit of sending Christmas gifts to the paper had been so pervasive that the Times had a prepared letter to send out at holiday time telling sources it didn’t accept gifts. If any were sent, we’d bring them to the paper, which returned them with a polite thank-you. (I told my wife I was going to write a letter to these sources saying, “Disregard previous letter.”) The Times prevented its sportswriters from voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame, perceiving that as a conflict of interest. You couldn’t even use the Times name to buy tickets. 

But it was great once upon a time—taking the bus from breakfast at 21 to the Jets’ private boxes at Monmouth Park, or mingling with DiMaggio or Whitey or Yogi over food in the pressrooms at the Stadium, Shea or the Garden.

At the Times, we had a “slot” man—the head copy editor—who was known as “Sir Lunchalot.” He would be gone every Tuesday, from 12 to 2, dining at the track writers’ Mamma Leone luncheons ($6 a head, including a bottle of wine), or at Knicks buffets. Whenever teams signed a player, they ran a luncheon.

There were dinners, too. Both big harness tracks, Yonkers and Roosevelt Raceways, reinvented themselves in the early 1960s and threw open their doors to the press. In fact, I believe the harness-racing craze of those years was simply the result of the two tracks taking very good care of the writers. Each track had a daily racing sheet, of course, and the writers regularly turned out features for them for $25 a story. The two tracks’ smart PR men—Joey Goldstein at Roosevelt, Irv Rudd at Yonkers—quickly identified the guys who could help them. When, as a callow copy boy, I called Mr. Rudd for tickets to the trots—I just assumed that’s all you had to do—he said to me, “You’ve got a lot of nerve. I don’t know who the hell you are. I’m going to leave two tickets for you. But I just want you to remember that I did.” And during the big newspaper strike of 1962-63, Yonkers hired several sportswriters to stuff pictures of Adios, the great trotting stud, into envelopes to mail out to fans. I wasn’t even a reporter yet, but Mr. Rudd figured I had potential, and he put me to work, at more money than the paper paid.

Each track had a glitzy dining room overlooking the track—Roosevelt’s Cloud Casino and Yonkers’s Empire Terrace. Writers routinely were invited to have dinner and drinks, and I wasn’t surprised when I saw some of the reporters there with three guests, drinking away.

Perhaps the most fun belonged to those of us who covered the Jets. They were always a celebrity football team, once they were taken over in bankruptcy court by a group of investors including David A. (Sonny) Werblin, founder of MCA, the entertainment conglomerate. His clients included Elizabeth Taylor and Johnny Carson. Within a few months of Sonny’s group taking over the Jets, the team drafted Joe Namath out of Alabama. Sonny quickly realized what he had there, in addition to a guy with a great arm and a bad knee.

“He had star quality,” said Sonny, and so he mandated that Joe move into a Manhattan apartment with Joe Hirsch, the very important racing writer for The Morning Telegraph, the so-called bible of thoroughbred racing. Namath quickly became “Broadway Joe,” and under Sonny’s watch, the Jets hosted an annual outing at the racetrack that he and his partners controlled—Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J.

So we’d start the day with a breakfast at 21. White-
jacketed waiters then followed us onto luxury (air-conditioned!) buses for a day of racing, dining and dancing. They mixed Bloody Marys for us en route, and at the track, one of the owners’ wives came around with a wicker basket that contained daily double tickets. The reporters’ wives each picked one. When the races ended, we took the bus to a private beach club, where a three-piece combo played. At evening’s end, all of us, including the musicians, got back on the buses for the drive back to Midtown, during which we were serenaded.

The Jets had another nice thing for us: we traveled on their chartered jet. But the coaches didn’t want us mingling with the players, so we sat in first class with the owners and some of the coaches. We could walk around the plane, though, and I often went into coach to schmooze with Namath.

I think the high point of the continuous rain of tickets was the moment my daughter’s elementary school principal called. Somehow, Ellen had found a strip of Rangers’ tickets. Later that day, I answered the phone and learned that Ellen had been giving out Rangers tickets to all the kids on her school bus.

Now that I’m retired, I’m back voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame. And I’m paying for my baseball tickets. How could I say no to my son Mike when he told me he wanted to go to the All-Star Game? How could I tell him that one ticket cost 10 times my salary when I was a copy boy?