KEEPERS OF THE GAME A Valuable Addition To Baseball Oral History

Jerome Holtzman’s “No Cheering in the Press Box” has long been one of my favorite books. Initially published in 1973 and expanded in 1995, “No Cheering” offered oral history at its best, combining insight into the daily life of sportswriters while placing their craft in the context of their times.

Keepers of the Game CMYKIn his new book, Keepers of the Game, Dennis D’Agostino aspires to follow in the formidable footsteps of the late Holtzman, the pride of Chicago sports journalism and baseball’s first official historian. After reading his 23 interviews with sportswriters from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco, Boston and Baltimore to Cincinnati and Chicago, and Atlanta to St. Louis and Denver, I am happy to report that “Keepers of The Game: When the BASEBALL Beat was the Best Job on the Paper” (Potomac Books, CAPS in the original title) is a worthy successor to “No Cheering”.

There are moments of insight, hilarity, and even poignancy sprinkled throughout virtually every chapter of “Keepers”.  D’Agostino is rightly proud that nine of his subjects won the Baseball Writers Association of America J. G. Taylor Spink Award for “meritorious contributions to baseball writing” and are honored in Cooperstown’s writers corner.

One of the nine, Los Angeles’ Ross Newhan, the only sportswriter who can boast he sired a son who played in the major leagues, infielder-outfielder David Newhan, is thankful that he started as a beat writer in 1961 for the expansion Los Angeles Angels. Unlike some of the wealthy sourpuss players of today, the first edition of Angels were interested in coverage.

Semi-retired now and enjoying a hobby growing oranges, Newhan is also proud that he was suspicious of the steroid-induced offensive binge of the 1990s. Like most of his colleagues, though, Newhan displays a good sense of humor. “My wife always thought she was going to marry Sandy Koufax, and she wound up with me instead,” he concludes.

As a New York-bred sportswriter and sports publicist now based in Los Angeles, D’Agostino not surprisingly devotes five of his chapters to New York writers – and if you include Murray Chass, initially an AP writer in Pittsburgh but who worked for over 30 years for the New York “Times,” six based in Gotham.

All of them have something trenchant or witty to say. The late Stan Isaacs of the Long Island-based “Newsday” covered the Maris-Mantle HR chase and cringes at a memory of Maris’ inability to loosen up in front of the press. The Daily “News”’ Bill Madden recalls the classic wail of “Herald Tribune” sports editor Stanley Woodward when he learned that his paper was putting on the front page instead of the lead sports page the mid-1948 news that manager Leo Durocher was shifting from the Dodgers to the Giants: “Why would you take such a great story and bury it on Page One?” Madden also provides colorful detail on the rise and fall of the once-legendary New York baseball writers dinner that in its heyday provided nearly professional entertainment.

The AP’s New York-based Hal Bock expresses great pride that he has covered more World Series games than any other writer. He details with great relish how a usually anonymous AP writer emerged as a significant news-gatherer on the sports scene.

The late Maury Allen gushes with characteristic joy about watching Willie Mays play “and getting paid for it.”  What better describes a time when players and writers could be almost collegial than Phil Pepe chuckling at the memory of his first road trip as a beat writer and being asked to help Yogi Berra in lingerie shopping for Berra’s wife.

“I don’t shop in national stores. I have never been inside a Wal-Mart.” So begins the riveting chapter of Spink Award-winner Wyoming-born Tracy Ringolsby. He learned his values from a grandfather who was a telegrapher for a railroad and a father who was a bookkeeper. Tracy’s dad may have had only one leg but would never park in disabled spaces because he didn’t consider himself handicapped.

Ringolsby’s technical advice for aspiring sportswriters is a gem: “You have to learn to talk to people with your notebook closed.”

Another poignant chapter comes from Spink winner Cincinnati’s Hal McCoy who grew close to Pete Rose but had to cover the gambling scandal that led to the Hit King’s fall from grace. McCoy talks movingly about his fight with blindness and how players and fans encouraged him to keep working.

Toronto’s Bob Elliott, the 2012 Spink winner, is especially eloquent about the beauty of baseball, “the fairest game in the world.” Though his grandfather was one of the first members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Bob contrasts how defensive specialists on the ice can totally shut down offensive players with how everyone in baseball has a chance to shine. “When Ted Williams is hitting, nobody’s holding his bat as he goes to swing,” Elliott notes sagely.

Philadelphia’s Stan Hochman shares with vivid detail some career highlights. He covered the first integrated minor league baseball game in Georgia where the black right fielder had stones thrown at him so had to be moved to left field in front of the still-segregated bleachers. He also was on the scene writing about horrible Phillies teams that forced manager Eddie Sawyer to quit one game into the 1960 season because “I’m 49 and I want to live to be 50.”

In perhaps the most hilarious story in a book filled with humor, Hochman describes his mission to Los Angeles where his tabloid employer wanted him to cover the antics on the set in Mexico during the filming of Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana”. Our hero played pool with Richard Burton who was fascinated by baseball. But Hochman could not get close to actress Ava Gardner whose contract had the stipulation, “No interviews.”
(I wonder if some sourpuss players will soon demand that perk.)

I have only two points of criticism with “Keepers of the Game,” besides the lack of an index. Many of the writers talk about legendary battles in their business meetings between the dean of Chicago sports scribes Jerome (“No Cheering”) Holtzman and the New York “Daily News”’ formidable Dick Young. I wanted a little more detail on the substance of these struggles.

Of greater concern, I question why D’Agostino didn’t include more of his interview with Bill Conlin, the 2011 Spink award-winner who wrote for the Philadelphia “Daily News” for 46 years. In his introduction D’Agostino accurately describes Conlin as “opinionated, brash, bombastic, controversial, and fearless.” He adds that Conlin gave him the best description of being a sportswriter, “like being a jazz musician with a typewriter.” He mentions Conlin’s powerful story of covering the Phillies on the road during the 1965 L.A. Watts riots.

Yet because of the child molestation revelations made public against Conlin in late December 2011, just after the Sandusky Penn State scandal broke, D’Agostino made the decision to scrap the Conlin interview.

I understand the author’s revulsion at Conlin’s behavior but why tantalize the reader with what we missed about his career? Can we not learn something from someone whose work was obviously far better than his life?

Despite these criticisms, I heartily recommend “Keepers of the Games”. As Pulitzer Prize-winning onetime Brooklyn sportswriter Dave Anderson writes in his introduction, the book brings back to life a time when “the word ‘media’ didn’t exist. The newspapers were your only connection to a team.”

 

 

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