Introduction I bring certain credentials to this guest editorship.
I always had an eye for athletic talent, and I knew from an early age that I did not have that talent. I did not have the speed, strength, or hand-and-eye coordination I needed to be a great baseball, basketball, or football player, or a good one. I decided I wanted to be a sportswriter.
When I was fourteen, I began writing a sports column for a weekly newspaper called the Freeport (New York) Leader. I think I was paid five dollars a column. I have recently reread some of those pieces. I think I was overpaid. My column was called “Spanning theSports Scene” alliteration was my strong suit and one of my early efforts began (typically, I’m afraid), “The local football season is about to open with a bang! Two of the local titans, Hempstead and Freeport, clash ...” In subsequent columns, the prose did not markedly improve.
When I was fifteen, I went to work for a daily newspaper, the Nassau Daily Review-Star. I was in high school. My boss was Jimmy Breslin, who became a Pultizer Prizewinning columnist. Jimmy was the night sports editor, and he was twenty years old. He was in college. You can imagine how good a newspaper it was.
At first I covered only my own high school’s games. I started by phoning in results. Then I began going to the office and writing the game stories. My weaknesses included an inability to type. I hunted and pecked with one finger. I took hours to write a story two or three paragraphs long.
As my typing improved, I was given more responsibility. I wrote about other high schools’ games. I worked four nights a week, four hours a night, for a dollar an hour. I became the paper’s resident horse- racing handicapper, even though I was not old enough to go to the track. I picked five winners one day.
One night, in the infancy of my career, I went to work, and Breslin had written a script for me. He told me I was to call Fred McMorrow at the Long Island Press, which was then a sister paper to the Review- Star, and I was to repeat his words to McMorrow with feeling and precisely as he had written them.
I did as I was told. “Mr. McMorrow,” I said when I reached him on the phone, “my name is Dick Schaap and I am fifteen years old and I am working in the sports department at the Nassau Daily Review-Star, and when Mr. Breslin came in to work tonight, he took one look at the layouts Mr. Stirrat [the sports editor] had left for him and said they were a bunch of shit and threw them in the wastepaper basket and walked out, and I’m here all alone, trying to put out the sports section.” “Oh, you poor kid,” McMorrow said, and then he cursed Breslin for his character flaws.
“Mr. McMorrow, I’ve written a headline that says, ‘Brooklyn Baseball Club Defeats Pittsburgh Baseball Club by Score of Three to One,’” I said, resuming Breslin’s script. “And I have another one that says, ‘Giants One Helluva Ball Club.’ Is that okay, Mr. McMorrow?” “Oh, you poor kid,” McMorrow said again. “I’m gonna get you some help.” McMorrow then called the city desk at the Review-Star and asked them to assign someone to help me. Breslin, the possessor of a very good if warped mind, had thought ahead and informed the city desk of what he was doing to McMorrow. “We can’t spare anyone,” the desk told McMorrow.
He called me back and told me to do my best. “You poor kid,” he said.
Meanwhile, of course, Breslin was putting out the sports section as well as could be expected on a paper with a twenty-year-old assistant sports editor and a fifteen-year-old reporter.
McMorrow called me again. “I’ve called every bar in Queens and Nassau,” he said, mentioning the two neighboring counties that were home to the Press and the Review-Star, “and I can’t find the bastard anywhere.” “I will do my best,” I promised.
Finally, after the section closed, McMorrow called once more, and this time Breslin answered the phone. Breslin was sober, but his voice did not give it away. “Where have you been?” McMorrow shouted. “I’ve called every joint I know.” Breslin muttered an expletive, hung up the phone, and congratulated me on a job well done. Mr. McMorrow did not speak to me for several years.
As little as I knew at the time, I knew Breslin was good. I knew I wanted to be like him. There were laws, however, against drinking at my age.
After the apprenticeship under Breslin, I went to college and became a journalistic schizophrenic. I started as a sportswriter on the Cornell Daily Sun and ended up editor-in-chief. In my sophomore year, I covered the Cornell-Penn football game. In my senior year, I defended a zoology professor against the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The summer between my sophhomore and junior years, I worked in Pittsburgh for a steel company on weekdays and at a drive-in diner on weekends. When the Brooklyn Dodgers came to Pittsburrrrrgh, Roger Kahn of the New York Herald-Tribune, whom I had met when I was in high school, invited me to dinner with Jackie Robinson, Joe Black, and Jim Gilliam. I thought I was in heaven, which is not easy to think when you are in Pittsburgh. At dinner the conversation turned to the young star of the New York Yankees, Mickey Mantle, and Kahn told a story he had heard about how dumb Mantle was. “Shit,” said Jackie Robinson, “we got plenty of guys that dumb, but we don’t have anybody that good.” I went from Cornell to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. I won a Grantland Rice fellowship, and at the luncheon announcing the award, my father sat between Jimmy Cannon, the great sports columnist, and Willard Mullin, the great sports cartoonist. Cannon told my father that if I was going to school on a Grantland Rice fellowship, I would have to major in martinis.
At Columbia, I wrote my major paper on the recruiting of New York City high school basketball players. My professor sold my story to Sports Illustrated. They edited me drastically. They buried my lead. They inserted a word I had never seen or heard before.
After Columbia, I became assistant sports editor of Newsweek magazine. I worked for Roger Kahn, who wrote The Boys of Summer. Kahn was a good mentor but not a good person. He told me to cut down my adjectives. He also told me to add up his earnings. He rattled off his freelance sales, and I calculated he was making $30,000 a year. I was making $67.50 a week.
When Kahn left Newsweek, I got his job but not his income. I was twenty-five years old. A few weeks after I took the job, I met an eighteen-year-old fighter named Cassius Clay and took him to dinner at Sugar Ray Robinson’s restaurant in Harlem. A few weeks later I met a comic named Lenny Bruce and took him to the seventh game of the 1960 World Series. They both became my friends for life. Unfortunately, Bruce’s life lasted only seven more years. “One last four-letter word for Lenny Bruce,” I said in the obituary I wrote for Playboy. “Dead. At forty. That’s obscene.” On November 22, 1963, after a one-year tour as Newsweek’s youngest senior editor, I accepted an offer, at only a slight cut in pay, to become the Herald-Tribune’s youngest city editor. The paper’s editor, Jim Bellows, made the offer over lunch at an excellent French restaurant. The owner of the restaurant interrupted our meal. “Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said, “but your president has been shot.” We both went back to work.
I spent ten months as city editor of the Tribune and then, just as ...