OUT OF LEFT FIELD
Revising the Legend of
and 'THE CHIPMUNKS'
...did he revolutionize sports
journalism with one story?
SOME INSIDE BASEBALL:
A Response to the Times
Leonard Shecter Story
By STAN ISAACS
A Sept. 14 Sunday New York Times piece by Alan Schwarz created a bit of a stir in the sports writing trade. Schwarz was kind enough to say a nice thing about me and some of my friends in the business, but I think he exaggerated the effect of the central incident in his piece.
The story focused on the time Leonard Shecter revealed there had been a fight between Yankee coach Ralph Houk and pitcher Ryne Duren on a train after the Yankees had clinched the pennant in 1958. The fight was ignored in all the New York papers. But Shecter made the mistake of mentioning the incident a few days later to Ike Gellis, the sports editor of The New York Post. (This was the Post of Dorothy Schiff, not the scurvy right-wing mouthpiece of today.)
Managing editor Paul Sann jumped on the details and The Post blew it up to be the biggest story in town. The Times story points to this as a watershed event which changed the face of journalism. With one dispatch, Schwarz writes, Shecter had violated a sacred code that had existed in the 100 years of newspaper coverage of baseball. He adds that many of the writers covering the Yankees have described it as the turning point in the athletes relationship with the journalists who covered them. (A note: I covered the Yankees off-and on that season, but was not on that train. I hereby admit I would not have thought the story of a tiff started by a drunken pitcher worthy of attention).
The Times piece is exaggerated because there were publicized incidents like that before Shecters story. Roger Kahn, the author of the celebrated Boys of Summer, wrote to The Times, saying, Reporting brawls on or off the field was routine for enterprising reporters by the time I started covering baseball for The Herald Tribune in 1952.
He cited an incident in 1947 after the Yankees won the World Series, The team president, Larry MacPhail, went on a rampage during the victory party, fired his general manager, George Weiss, and got into a physical struggle with Dan Topping, one of the owners. MacPhail then resigned. All this was reported by Tom Meany in the exceptional newspaper PM, Kahn wrote.
Schwarz wrote, Shecter, along with his friend Stan Isaacs of Newsday and younger writers who joined the business in the next five years, moved New York sports pages away from hero worship by portraying players far more accurately than ever before, fights and foibles included.
I appreciate the compliment but worry that people might conclude from this that we were scandal mongers. Not so
We were a group of younger writers, more likely to be college-trained than the older writers, We saw ourselves as not very different from good cityside reporters, but with the good luck of having the freedom of the sports pages. We wanted to write and report honestly and well, free of clichés. We cared about our stories more than whether a team won or lost
We rejected the approach of the fan-like-cliché-ridden sports reports of old. We didnt see what Robert Lipsyte termed Sports World as Life-and-Death World. Some of the old timers were good writers, but were more like cheerleaders than reporters. In the main we felt we were bringing an adult perspective to sports.
We were, I must confess, the chipmunks. Shecter, Larry Merchant, then of The Philadelphia News, and I had an irreverent view of sports. We and kindred spirits came to be known as the chipmunks--a derisive term coined by columnist Jimmy Cannon. He saw a younger reporter with a mild profusion of front teeth among a group interviewing Yankee Jim Bouton and said, Look at them, look at them--chipmunks.
We took the term as a badge of honor, as did the younger writers mentioned by Schwarz. There were George Vecsey and Steve Jacobson of Newsday; Paul Zimmerman and Vic Ziegel of The Post; Stan Hochman and Jack McKinney of The Philadelphia News; Bud Collins of The Boston Globe; Roy McHugh and George Kiseda of The Pittsburgh Press; and John Crittenden of The Miami News.
We regarded Shecter, who died too-young at 47 in 1974, as the best of us. He is most remembered for encouraging and collaborating with Bouton on the entertaining book Ball Four which bared inside aspects of baseball, warts and all, by a player who was an outsider among his peers. It is an irony that the Times piece celebrated Shecter for an incident in which he felt he had not covered himself with glory.
Actually, there was nothing new about the chipmunks. Periodically in all aspects of journalism a comfort and lethargy sets in among those who have been on a beat too long, and inevitably younger men and women come along to do things with more energy, more fervor. It happens more rapidly these days; and I think Shecter and chipmunks grown old like me do not necessarily approve of the scabrous work of some of the new breed.
©2008 by Stan Isaacs. The Stan Isaacs caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. This column first posted Sept. 22, 2008.
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