Saturday, March 22, 2014

Cheering in the Press Box (but not out loud)

         "We [sportswriters] have a tendency to write about the past, to let time telescope on us. We live through so many generations of ball players, they all get mixed up in our minds. We do not judge time at all. A sportswriter is entombed in a prolonged boyhood."
          -- Jimmy Cannon, from No Cheering in the Press Box
        In the past week, I have spent much time thinking of sportswriting -- my career and those of others. It's one of my favorite topics, naturally, and always was.
        It was a career for some of my favorite people and, yes, some of my least favorite. Made so many good friends and encountered a few people I wish I'd never met.
        Over the past couple of weeks, I've been cleaning out files, scanning in stories/columns from my early days in sportswriting. And I read the book No Cheering in the Press Box, a collection of oral histories from 18 of the greatest sportswriters in America over a 70-year period (early 1900s to 1973).
        I was nowhere -- nowhere -- near those legends, in ability or in person, but reading their stories -- recorded and edited by Jerome Holtzman, a legendary Chicago baseball writer, in 1973 -- helped me gain perspective on my life's work.
        My material from June 1963 -- my first bylines in The Shreveport Times when I was a high school junior-to-be -- through much of my time working in Shreveport ... some 25 years. It was a nostalgic trip and my wife, of course, likes to remind me that nostalgia is one of the best/worst attributes.
        There is -- modesty aside -- some good work in there, pieces that brought back emotion and memories. Great games and thrills, great athletes and average ones, controversy, sadness (several columns on young men who died far too soon).
        After I scanned in some clippings I thought my interest friends, I sent them via e-mail or Facebook messages. And I came across a full Shreveport Journal sports page from 1985 that I mailed  to a once-young man now grandfather whose games I covered when he was an unbeaten, state-championship high school quarterback and six years later became a co-worker at the Journal.
        To get his reaction was fun; he, too, found it a nostalgic trip. One of his points I identified with -- he never liked going back and reading something he wrote, at least not right after it was published. That's exactly how I always felt; I wasn't one of those types who scrutinized every word before I turned it in or right after it ran.
        Even now, as I read some of my early work in the 1960s and early '70s, I cringe at how much I had to learn.
        But, as he noted, going back and looking at it now, much of our work reads well. And it's good to know that people appreciated it.
        At times, it was hard work -- harder than the people might think. But mostly, it was fun. Can't think of anything else I'd rather have done. Plus, they paid us for it.
        A prolonged boyhood, as Jimmy Cannon suggested? Oh, yeah, and I had plenty of company.
        "I never felt that I was a bug-eyed fan as such. I wasn't one of those who dreamed of being a sportswriter and going around the country traveling with ball players and getting into the games free and, oh, dear diary, what a break. I'm not pretending that I haven't enjoyed this hugely. I have. I've loved it. But I never had any soaring ambition to be a sportswriter, per se. I wanted to be a newspaperman, and came to realize I didn't really care which side of the paper I worked on."
        -- Walter "Red" Smith, from No Cheering in the Press Box
        Red Smith, considered by many the best sportswriter there ever was, said he wasn't a "bug-eyed fan" nor that he had "any soaring ambition to be a sportswriter."
        At times, I was very much the fan and, from age 16, I did want to do this job. Where I do very much agree with Mr. Smith is that "I have loved it."
        My favorite two chapters of No Cheering in the Press Box were the one on Red Smith and the final one on Jimmy Cannon, also considered one of the greats. The book's title is derived from Cannon's discussion of sportswriters' demeanor covering events.
        "We were talking about cheering in the press box," he said. "It goes on all around the league. It's one of the great boasts of all journalists, and especially baseball writers, that they are not influenced by their relationships with people off the field. This is an absolute myth."
        Cannon goes on to say, "... But I never cheered out loud. I've heard guys cheering. Most of them do. They're in every town. Most of the guys traveling with ball clubs are more publicists than reporters."
        Cannon, who died in December 1973, was talking about sportswriting 50-60-70-80 years ago, so I don't think the "fandom" applies much these days.
        But, from a personal standpoint, I can tell you if a team from my area -- whether it was Shreveport, Jacksonville or Knoxville -- or the team I was covering (say, the Cowboys) was playing a team from elsewhere, I wasn't impartial. And neither were the writers covering the other team.
        I remember the writers from Baton Rouge openly cheering their teams at football and basketball playoff games. And anyone who was ever around the great Jerry Byrd knows he was not only loud but also outlandish at some games. 
          I honestly tried not to be too demonstrative at games -- yes, I know you might find that hard to believe and I'm talking about my sportswriting days, not my sports information time. But, yes, I did my share of complaining (that's a nice way to put it) about officiating.        Sure, personal relationships with coaches and athletes I really liked and my longtime ties to schools affected how I felt about covering games. But the thing to remember -- always -- was that I was there as a reporter, whose job it was to provide an impartial story.
        But, again, if you were covering a certain team, the story was slanted that way. I find that especially true these days in the coverage of the Cowboys, Mavericks and Rangers here in the Dallas-Fort Worth papers -- and if you're a Yankees fan, you won't get their slant in these papers.
        Another Jimmy Cannon view:
        "Sportswriting has survived because of the guys who don't cheer. They're the truth-tellers. Lies die. ... Telling the truth -- and writing it with vigor and clarity -- that's what makes it exciting."
        And later on, he said, "... The worst thing a sportswriter can be is a fan. I was never a fan, not since I was in short pants. ... I don't want sportswriters being fans. I want them to be the guys who neither love nor hate the sport and whose life is not wrapped up in the sport and who remember they are working newspapermen and not baseball people. ... What I care about about, what I hope I care about, is, 'Is it good for the paper? Is it a good piece?' "
        I am reminded, though, that as sportswriters, we tended to gravitate to the teams that won the most. It's just part of the business. Some coaches and fans didn't like that, felt like their teams -- perhaps not as successful -- were being ignored or picked on.
        Part of it, really, was not "rubbing in" a team or coach's misery, especially at the high school level. College and pros, that's a different game -- people are being paid (stretching it to college kids on scholarship, for instance) to be successful.
        Here is a story I always liked, one that Coach Jerry Adams tells about the 1960s days at Woodlawn High, when our football team was always among the best in Louisiana. Jerry Byrd, who covered the high-school scene as well as anyone ever has, used to spend a lot of time at the school in that era.
        Before a really big game one week, as the coaches headed out of their office to the practice field, Byrd left them a note.
        "If you win Friday night, have the boys carry you off on their shoulders toward the south end zone, for pictures and interviews," he wrote.
        Below that, he wrote, "If you lose ... see you next week."     


  1. From Jimmy Russell: I never was a writer, but you hit the nail on the head. I was not always around in the Journal years, but you guys did great. I looked forward to reading it each day. Some days I did not like what I read, or agreed with it, but you can’t satisfy everybody. As for Tweety [Byrd], that is a great story and you are right, he had his favorites.

  2. From Jim McLain: One of my favorite stories is about Bob Anderson, who you know lived and died with his beloved Northeast Indians. Many SIDs tend to hide their feelings, but not Bob.
    I was in the old Brown Stadium press box in Monroe one night. NLU was playing, if I remember right, a team from out of state. There were me and maybe two other writers in the press box. Bob made the standard NCAA-mandated "No Cheering in the Press Box" announcement in his flat monotone voice. It was either on the kickoff or a play shortly thereafter that Joe Profit broke into the clear. I heard a whoosh behind me, turned and there was Bob racing stride for stride with Profit down the press box floor screaming, "Go Joe, Go Joe!
    I also remember in close basketball game, Bob pacing up and down in one of the tunnels leading to the dressing room, too nervous to watch the action. And, no telling how many pencils he snapped when something didn't go right for the Indians.
    The unique characters you met along the way, be they writers, fans or athletes, was what made sports writing so much fun for me.

  3. From Jerry Adams: Nico, good article. Byrd is one of the bright spots in my past, even if he was always for Byrd High. I'm thinking you should consider writing a book on what you've experienced, and what you feel about sports past and present. I thought this article was a good start.