When Pro Athletes Actually Had Something to Say

Former New York Times sportswriter Gerald Eskenazai reflects on 46 years covering the likes of Ali and Namath

The writer with Muhammad Ali (Courtesy of Gerald Eskenazi).

My 18-year-old grand-daughter, Alexa, bound for Cornell, has just completed an internship at The New York Times sports department. One of her assignments was to tweet breaking news, linking it to fleshed-out stories. And it brought back a flood of remembrances, of my own New York Times career and the culture of the place that informed all of us. This was how I recalled some of those days, as excerpted from A Sportswriter’s Life: From the Desk of a New York Times Reportera memoir of the 46 years I spent covering sports for the New York Times.

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My romance with writing for newspapers began in the sixth grade, when I saw my name over a story in the class newsletter. That first byline leaped from the page, for it proclaimed that what followed below was official. I was an avid newspaper reader by then, and with this byline I had joined a fraternity. People would read me to understand something. It was a wonderful responsibility.

And at the City College of New York, I joined a newspaper, the Observation Post. It was an endeavor, a shared, unpredictable, bumpy ride.

And then one day, I made my way up to The New York Times, answering an ad in the paper. There were two openings for “copy boys”—one in news, the other in sports. The man behind the desk asked me only one pertinent question: was I the editor-in-chief of the CCNY newspaper. I answered yes, he offered me a job for $38 a week.

Although my background was more in news writing, I thought that sports at the paper was in a cozier location, that I’d get a chance to write more since the news staff was overflowing with Pulitzer Prize winners.

Toward the end of my journey that began on May 26, 1959, and rode into the 21st Century, I wondered, what can we all learn from this spectacular trip?

51oZwSFsSWL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_For me, The Times has always had a majestic quality, even after I joined it and should have lost my awe. But there I was, a copy boy, just a few weeks into the job, when around midnight a professorial-looking fellow I instantly recognized from his thumbnail picture over his column in the New York PostMurray Kempton—walked in. He seemed to belong at the Times more than he did at the agitating, confrontational Post, and he acted as if he knew everyone at the paper where I worked, and as if it should be the most natural thing in the world for him to show up there.

He was one of the icons I grew with when the Post was the paper my mother brought home from work every day—the passionately liberal paper of Max Lerner and Jimmy Cannon and Milton Gross and the political cartoonist Herblock. Kempton didn’t come in to jaw with our political writers. He was a baseball Giants’ fan, and the bastards had moved to California the year before. So for whatever reason—I figured he lived around Times Square—he would wander in late at night, walk over to the rear of the newsroom to the sports department (we always were far from the nerve center), open the bell jar where the Western Union ticker was housed, and unravel the ribbon of paper, looking for the inning-by-inning account of his beloved Giants.

It is a memory I cherish still, along with the look and feel and smell of the place, long after we stopped working with paper, long after there was no more ink, long after the paper moved a few blocks south into a brand-new building. As a copy boy, I often had to bring messages to other departments, or move copy to the composing room, where the pages were put together in metal forms dating to the 1890s. I explored other areas of the old building as well: old store-rooms with the musty smell of yellowing newspapers; the crisp neatness of the Sunday-section offices all the way up on the eighth floor; the red-carpeted entrance to the publisher’s office on the 14th, as high as you got at The New York Times.

The smell. The printing presses were in the sub-basement, in New York City bedrock, so that the vibrations wouldn’t make the building shudder. Sometimes after nine o’clock at night I would walk down a back stairwell to the press room from the third floor. I wanted to see and hear the presses. As I got closer to that sub-basement, the walls in the stairwell got black and the smell of ink was more pervasive. Finally, when I got to the place where the printing presses were housed, the walls were virtually painted with ink. Touch the doorknob, and the ink came off. Then I’d walk back up and the higher I got the cleaner the air, and the walls and banister and stairs. By the time I got to the seventh or eights floors, there was no ink at all on the walls.

It was almost as if the paper was covered with a century of dust and memories. Things that we did once upon a time, we did again—a repetition of stories. And even our sensibilities were Victorian. One editor changed the word “revealed” I had written. Instead, he made it “disclosed.” I asked why.

“I think of a woman revealing her leg,” he explained.

And when the Jets’ frustrated coach, Walt Michaels, chewed out his punter, Chuck Ramsey, for a botched punt that cost the game, he scolded, “I can fart farther than you can punt.”

The paper made me change the “fart” to “spit.”

We did not wish to offend—and we didn’t.

Gerald Eskanazi and Joe Namath (Courtesy of Gerald Eskenazi).
Gerald Eskanazi and Joe Namath (Courtesy of Gerald Eskenazi).

I avoided the cynicism of many of my colleagues—and certainly of a growing number of fans, whose heroes’ feet of clay have long ago crumbled–I discovered the sports world was nothing like the real world. In fact, the news department at the Times liked to derisively call us “the toy department.” And yet all of us in the sportswriting business somehow knew it was something more.

Few of us today actually write stories from inside a newspaper office. And that, I think, makes for a disconnect. Imagine what newspaper life was like when you were in the paper’s environment:

You made a left out of the New York Times, walked diagonally across 43d Street, and entered Gough’s, the newspaperman’s bar. Cigarette smoke smacked your nostrils when you first opened the door. Then the noise. A few feet inside was the bar, where the pressmen—guys wearing hats formed out of the newspaper–sat alongside reporters. Money was splayed on the bar, the change the bartender laid down after you paid for a drink. You never picked up that change until you were ready to leave. You were among honorable men. The bartender also cashed paychecks, and so every Wednesday at seven o’clock the pressmen and the writers and the printers brought in their yellow checks to be cashed, always leaving something for the bartender. In the back there was a restaurant—pork chops, scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese—presided over by John the Waiter, a horse player.

Did Gough’s make you a better writer, or pressman? Did the smoke, the booze, the guffaws, the stories, help you in the business? Well, of course they did. Just in the way barracks humor made you a better soldier, or fraternity hi-jinks made you a better collegian.

A lot of it was stupid and coarse, so different from the church-like newsroom. But you also became part of what had come before. I may have been a copy boy, but I was sitting next to and exchanging stories with Pulitzer Prize winners, or gray-haired, red-nosed printers who had been there since H.L. Mencken’s heyday in the 1920s. I was in that stream that started when, of course, things were so much more fun. At least, that was what they told me.

In 1959 there still were three tabloids in the city, still the afternoon papers, still the Trib and the Times. Many of these fellows had been doing their jobs since the Twenties—the height of the tabloid wars, when head-busters from Moe Annenberg’s Hearst newspapers went out in trucks, bent on destroying competitors’ newspapers; when fallen women with cigarettes dangling from their lips made Page One, when there were sob sisters and leg men and calls of “Get me rewrite!” Or so they liked to say. Still, when I began there were seven newspapers for seven constituencies, reporters wearing snap-brim fedoras. Buccaneers with typewriters, for the most part.

I was in what the union called Group I–$38 a week to start, the same as messengers and elevator operators at the paper. Reporters were in the lofty Group 10. But I already had tasted the newspaper business by the time I started at The Times. Two years earlier, back in 1957, I had a summer job at the New York Mirror—the home of Walter Winchell, Dear Abby, and a funny, unremembered sports columnist named Dan Parker. I was Brooklyn-savvy so when I brought coffee to the reporters I always made sure they had napkins and a stirrer and extra sugar.

“You’ll go far,” the city editor, a baldish guy with green eyeshades named Ed Markel, told me. “Smart guy,” he added.

Success with the “coffee run,” as we called it, led to me being the Mirror’s Page One copy boy. I sat next to Markel as edition time got closer. They ran me on little errands—picking up Winchell’s copy, bringing “cuts,” or photos, to the composing room. Then one day in July, we had a big breaking story. No, not the start of the landmark federal trial on integration in the South. The one about the actress Maureen O’Hara suing Confidential Magazine, which had claimed she was necking in the balcony of Grauman’s Chinese Theater with her “Latin Lover.”

I went to the Page One conference. A big argument followed: “What do we lead with—integration, or ‘Maureen?’” A compromise: Big headline about integration, and below, a picture of Maureen.

Gerald Eskanazi at Madison Square Garden.

The Times was more placid than the Mirror, had more of a sense that what was happening today would, to some degree, still be happening tomorrow. At the tabloid Mirror you were engulfed in the moment—that day’s rape, or liquor-store robbery, or bookie bust, was the most important thing in your world. Part of that immediacy came because of proximity—everyone in the cramped newsroom at the Mirror was touching. The Times, on the other hand, was spread out—and many of the departments weren’t even on the same floor. The Sunday section virtually had the eighth floor to itself. The third-floor newsroom sprawled from 43d to 44th Streets, taking up almost all of the block between Broadway and Eighth Avenue.

The sportswriters loved to talk about their moments with athletes. These dialogues took place after hours, in bars, hotel lobbies, restaurants, the track. One rumpled, sweating, overweight clever guy, Jerry Mitchell of the Post, told me of the time he shared a train compartment with the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige on a spring training jaunt. Mitchell got to the train late one night at a whistle-stop somewhere in Arizona, opened the door to the compartment he shared, “And Satch says to me, ‘Hey, come back later. I got my wife in here with me.’”

My generation not only bridged a transition of the craft of sportswrting, but also asked a deeper set of questions. And yet, we were still sharing with the old-timers the same athletes. Consider the stars of their time when I broke in: baseball’s Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays; basketball’s Will Chamberlain, Bob Cousy; football’s Jim Brown, Frank Gifford; boxing’s Floyd Patterson; hockey’s Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe; tennis’s Ken Rosewall, Billie Jean King; horse racing’s Eddie Arcaro, Ted Atkinson. Pantheon names—yet some newer types were coming along, sporting long hair, some even making fun of their older managers, or coaches. In fact, whole teams like this were on the horizon: the Mets, the Jets. The Yankee Clipper did not understand Simon and Garfunkel when when they sang, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”

“I haven’t gone anywhere,” he told friends. “I’ve been here all the time.”

But the new writers and the new athletes got it. It didn’t come easily, either the old or the new. If there was one person of the Sixties who catalyzed the final break with the past in sportswriting, who coalesced the new against the old, it was Muhammad Ali. He created a rift not only in sportswriting, but in America as well. And we’re still writing about it.

When Pro Athletes Actually Had Something to Say