It is still hard for me not to look at life through the eyes of a sportswriter. Politics and war and business are often thought of as mere games. So many fascinating matchups seem so critical to the fans and the participants, though in actual sports lives are not usually lost and governments don’t usually fall. Probably virtual reality explains it. Sports are clearly a distilled simulation of life. We can easily understand the conflict and we know it will occur in a defined space and roughly within a time period we can set aside to be in that world, totally.
The sportswriter, as opposed to the sportscaster, lays out what is at stake and who the characters are, and then describes exactly what happened in colorful detail. Nobody “beats” anybody. The winner “nabs” victory in the last minute, or the loser “falls short” in the last quarter. The sportswriter, with active words, helps the memories – the experience — of the fans and the participants. And it is unusual, if not firmly prohibited, for actual athletes to become sportswriters. Sportscasters, yes. Coaches, yes. Managers, yes. Trainers and equipment managers probably. But not sportswriters. I would be tempted to bet that no more than two city newspapers, in all of America, can present any of their sportswriters who were ever accomplished enough in any sport to be written about.
It would be a far better bet – an odds-on favorite – that 99% of all sportswriters were once aspiring athletes, who failed at the games they were so passionate about, who stood by while the stronger and the faster took the field, and who wrote about the feats of the stronger and the faster before and after.
Back in the late 1950s, I had tried hard and generally failed at most sports in high school. I also wrote sports for the high school newspaper from when I was a 14-year-old sophomore. It was an easy job to get because no one in high school every wants to write anything that is not a class assignment. So the student editors always assigned me stories and were glad to get my copy. I was dependable, and I only learned later that that, and not even slightly the quality of what you wrote, was what kept them coming back for more.
The local shopper in Burien had a once-a-week, heavy-advertising paper called the Highline Times, and the same company printed our school paper. Richard Stredicke, one of the editors at the Highline Times had been covering Puget Sound League Sports as a favor to the Seattle Times. As a young man about town, he was getting tired of staying up late to call all the local assistant coaches for the scores and highlights, and then to compile and relay all those scores and highlights of all the high school games — at midnight for the next day’s paper. So he asked me if I wanted the job. He said that they paid $7.50 a week. (Remember this is the late 1950s).
I asked did he think I could do it and he said no sweat. I would not have been so glad of the recognition if I had heard his sigh of relief to his girlfriend, who I suspect had to wait late nights for him to retrieve the scores and statistics from each high school game – football and basketball and baseball, right after the games on the days and nights they were played. So he was probably glad at the possibility he could download this awesome responsibility, even to a 14 year old. He gave me the number of Bob Schwarzmann, who ran the Sports Desk at the Seattle Times. I said I’d call in the morning and was told the afternoon was best, when he had come in for work but before the evening’s game coverage had started the phones ringing and the teletypes clacking.
Mr. Schwarzmann sounded kind, but chronically busy. He understood that I was in school and would have to come in to see him on a Saturday. On that Saturday, my mother gave me a freshly-ironed shirt and I brushed my teeth twice. She drove me to the city bus in White Center for my hour-long ride downtown and to the Seattle Times. The Seattle Times was an imposing building with an imposing logo. To me, at 14, it was like auditioning as a choirboy at the Mormon Tabernacle choir of news. They called Mr. Schwarzmann from the front desk and a kindly woman took me upstairs and past these monstrous printing presses that still held lead type generated from machines that took it hot and melted and cast it into lines of type. The linotype machine.
This big city paper had linotype machines and presses rolling out thousands of pages a day, and printer journeymen who put the lines of warm type into frames and made little spaces of “air” between paragraphs. The printers had on large black aprons and what was most impressive to me as a sports writer was when they got an ill-formed line of type. Backhand, they flung it across the shop into a large metal barrel. It could be dangerous in there for a novice, with heavy lead pieces flying across the shop from a nonchalant flip of a printer’s hand. And a clang into the metal barrel. It is a sight and a sound and a smell that will not be seen again, as chemicals now burn plates and newspapers are now photographic prints. (Or maybe some other digital magic happens by now). Actually, we may not be far from the next generation, when newspapers are not seen at all.
However, even in that next generation, and perhaps the next, we will have sportswriters. They are value-added commodities in sports. They create the sizzle, the drama, and even a few epiphanies. Sports are the religion of a lot of people, and the sportswriters are the mischievous princes of play. The kind lady walked me away from the roaring presses and passed an open floor with a few reporters clacking away on typewriters. Most were finished for their day. An Associated Press teletype machine was spitting out stories from everywhere in the world, and when an editor was short of copy for his pages, he would “rip and read” which means take a few stories from the AP wire without modifying them, and meeting his deadline with international news and often arcane news, anything he or she could justify to fill the pages.
The kind woman escorted me into Mr. Schwarzmann’s office. He was at a desk cluttered with stories, notes, telephones, spindles with impaled notes and phone numbers, and I swear an ashtray, which held his cigar when he wasn’t chewing on it. He looked slightly up at me over his cigar.
“So Dick sent you…” Cigar chewing. “So you want to write sports for the Times?”
Put like that it was really scary. My 14 year old legs wobbled. “Yes, sir,” I squeaked.
More cigar chewing. “Ok, take these facts about the upcoming Clover Park – Sumner game. Give me a story.”
He pulled a few notes from the spindle and slid them toward me across the desk. I thought he meant for me to take them home and I started scooping up the few notes.
“Now…” he said, taking out the cigar and waving it toward an empty desk and typewriter to his right. “Over there.”
“Write it now?” I trembled. “Over there?”
Mr. Schwarzman nodded. “6 inches.” That meant a one column, six-inch long story at about 30 words per inch.
He pretended to go back to his stories and took up a ringing phone, but I knew he was watching my every move as I collapsed into the chair at the typewriter, and started reading through his handwritten notes. My mother had taught me touch-typing so I composed right there on the typewriter, only peeking back at him once or twice. Never have I felt so scrutinized in my life, not up to then and not ever since. In about fifteen minutes, I finished the story. I just know he had been watching his watch, though I never saw him look. I walked over to hand him the story as he finished a call. He chewed on his cigar as he read. He snorted a bit, his eyes covering my words like a speeding cheetah after a wayward gazelle – which was me.
Finally he slid my fresh new story aside, and matter-of-factly said. “Ok, you’re hired. Get with Ramona and she’ll set you up with everything.” He then looked away. I kind of expected a handshake like they do the movies, but Mr. Schwarzmann was none of that. He was busy. I backed away and said something like OK, thank you, but he was onto other matters. I only know now after many more years of life that that was the ultimate compliment. He was trusting me to let him be busy with all the other things he had on his desk, and his bruskness was his approval that I could do the job.
After several months on the job, gathering scores and writing lead stories late at night, a competing sports editor on the Seattle Post Intelligencer called and said they liked what I was doing with the Puget Sound League sports and could I do that for them. It was OK with Mr. Schwarzmann. They would pay me the same as the Times. For a high school kid that amounted to an easy fortune. For the Post-Intelligencer, I was to write exactly the same story again but with a different, more flowery, set of expressions. Those few years of experience were most useful, though my life of journalism soon fizzled for reasons we can reveal later.