Tuesday, August 09, 2011

No One Died in the Press Box


Once in a while when the subject comes up, I inform the inquisitive that the most formative period in my life so far was my twenties and thirties, when I was raised by itinerant prizefighters, baseball players and the sportswriters who covered them: those who did well and neer-do-wells, trainers of champions and their opponents, and ball players who sometimes made foolish errors on and off the field. Like a sticky-fingered thief, I slipped into rooms of their souls to steal their stories and repurpose them into my own.

Willie Randolph
Ray Arcel
From Willie Randolph of the New York Yankees, I learned about the helplessness of fumbling baseballs, game after game in front of millions, so that a wrongly colored tablecloth at a dinner for thirty seemed so less important. Hank Steinbrenner, younger and slimmer (and so was I) spoke of the expectations of his father and I looked at the expectations of my own. Boxing trainer Ray Arcel and his quiet dignity, humanity and humility taught me that the bum in the ring is still a man with the same dignity, no matter what his price tag. From boxing gym owner Artemio Colon, I learned that one doesn’t have to be a world champion to be a success. 
Artemio Colon
I didn’t have a head full of statistics or a box of rubber-banded baseball cards and failed dreams of playing the outfield. My curiosity, plain and simple, was to understand how people lived, won, lost, loved, persevered, who they were and where they were headed. 
           Film editor and amateur boxing referee Frank Martinez pushed me out of the editing room, shoved a camera in my hand and ordered me to shoot and to write about people. I haven’t stopped.
Sitting in press boxes, kibitzing in dugouts and locker rooms, and attending sporting events alongside renowned sportswriters like Dave Anderson, Vic Ziegel, Barney Nagler, Mike Katz and Jerry Izenberg. I dismissed contemporary novels as too trivial compared to their writings and the writings of A.J. Liebling, Red Smith, Bill Heinz, Budd Schulberg and Paul Gallico, who captured a colorful sports scene when the world was a much smaller place and people spent more time with each other.

            At the non-quite yet half-century mark, I find myself bereft of an acknowledgment to the men and women who have helped shape, inspire, propel, encourage and even discourage me, and who are no longer with us. (The living are another story.) But at least half a dozen times a year, someone’s obituary appears and this part of my life reappears once again, only to disappear at the turn of a page or the click of a link on a website.

Leon Spinks

The latest, boxing promoter and entertainment impresario Butch Lewis, died suddenly at the age of 65 a few weeks ago, overshadowed by the death of singer Amy Winehouse. One testament to his generosity noted that he assisted young black men to succeed. He helped me, too, a young white woman reporting on a sport where it was easy to spot the losers, and harder to find a true winner. Butch, sharp enough to spot talent like Denzel Washington when he was an unknown actor, treated me like he had spotted talent, and arranged for interviews and conversations about and with the brothers Michael and Leon Spinks. Their lives had the same beginnings but disparate endings, and the talks that Butch and I had were lavishly seasoned with four-letter words; he spoke with me the same way he spoke with anyone else.

“You’ll clean that up for me?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” I replied, “you owe me for this one.”

 I cleaned it up, of course, for my book The Prizefighters, and thought of him every time over the years when I passed his office on 57th Street. I still think of him when I pass by and my hat would be tipped, if I wore one.

Butch’s death, combined with the painful end of an ill-fated relationship, another birthday and the closing of summer, propelled me backwards and sideways to examine the people who influenced, inspired, supported me and gave me a chance.
            My education at the hands of the previous two generations has its origins during the "Son of Sam" murders in New York City in 1977, which kept me riveted to the latest news updates by WNBC television’s Tony Guida and the New York Daily News’ Jimmy Breslin. Sitting on our tweed couch in the wilderness of the Long Island suburbs watching the pine trees sway in the breeze and the dandelions bloom and not much else going on, their reporting convinced me that bringing the world and its pathos home to others was just what I wanted to do.
            Just after graduating from college with a degree in communications at the age of 19, I was hired as a news assistant at the ABC News Library, then moved to ABC Sports, back to ABC News as part of their documentary unit, and then embarked on a career as a sports journalist. My youth, inexperience and immaturity were confusing even to me. I learned to pick up bits and pieces of life from everyone, discarding some tidbits, absorbing the rest and spinning them around like atoms in a centrifuge until they finally meshed together.
The people I worked alongside of and interviewed influenced me collectively, in so many ways. They encouraged me, some with a few words, others with a kick. A few offered brilliant words of discouragement and this, in my stubbornness, only served to inspire me. They exposed me to ideas and other ways of looking at a subject, an object or just life. I observed how they worked, how they treated people, how they organized their creativity and how much they fought for it. The enthusiasm for their craft, whether they were behind the camera, in front of it, or at the mercy of their typewriters or computers confirmed that I was in the right place.
            In his or her own way, through words or a gesture or observation, each encouraged me to find my own voice. Sometimes it wavered but it has never left me. I didn’t know where I was going, but I was headed somewhere.
You see, I was hatched from peoples who believed, as many working and middle-class people did in those days, that a steady income was a guarantee of success. But their hidden undercurrents of imagination as a standup comic in the Catskills, a writer of short stories, and an artist were what I tapped into. A journalist, particularly one covering sports, was certainly a different manifestation of art.
I was the same age as rookies, the latest hayseed or boxing prospect touted as the next champion, but decidedly more street smart. Time evened out the differences. I was young and sometimes lost, but luckily, always found by someone. Most times, I was the only woman and stood apart from the camaraderie of men, on the outskirts and never joining in, except once, at a boxing match in Atlantic City when I rose in frustration to threaten a drunken man who someone told me had mob ties. He was pacing back and forth in front of me and I couldn’t see the ring. A colleague put his hand on my shoulder and gently pushed me down into my seat.
“Don’t you worry,” he said. “I’ll call security.”
Eddie Futch and Michael Spinks
Many of the men would sit at the bar and regale each other with stories or eat dinner together. I remember dining with the boxing trainer Eddie Futch and his fighters more than once: they drank water, ate steak, and went to bed before 10 pm. So did I. Or I stayed in my hotel room and watched television or telephoned my latest boyfriend or friends to complain that the wallpaper didn’t match the bedspread and that I couldn’t wait to be home.
A woman was a novelty and sometimes I was mistaken for a sportswriter’s girlfriend or daughter or the press assistant. Never the round card girl, though. At press conferences, I was one of the fellas, mixed in with a sea of tweed jackets and plaid shirts, a distinctive fashion style I have always avoided. I must confess, though, like The Odd Couples' Oscar Madison, I have dried my hands on kitchen curtains.
Since I did not write for one particular newspaper, I missed out on the nurturing of an editor and newsroom colleagues and adapting to one newspaper style with its tics and temperaments.  Instead, I led more of a latchkey type of existence, adapting styles and becoming resourceful in finding and shaping stories for different outlets, by working the beat on the street much like a cop would. I’d pick up news and information and call editors to pitch stories and when one door closed, I rang other doorbells.
Jose Torres
Irving Rudd
Along the way, the men and women I met lived through times we will never see again. They were trailblazers and groundbreakers, some working for newspapers no longer in existence or carving out careers during the early days of television. I owe them my education, from the clever and witty press agent Irving Rudd, a Damon Runyon character who wore a 1955 Dodgers World Series ring and handled publicity for the Dodgers before they left Brooklyn, and then moved over to boxing; New York Post sportswriter Leonard Lewin who sat next to me ringside and who had more years of experience than I was old; the writer Marshall Frady whose crisp, elegant writing I only came to appreciate long after we both worked for the ABC News documentary unit; sports producer Amy Sacks and Eleanor Sanger, the first female network sports producer, whose creativity as producers at ABC Sports were limitless; the quiet, courtly and reflective boxing trainer, Eddie Futch; Daily News sports columnist Vic Ziegel; former prizefighters Danny Kapilow and Tino Raino of Ring 8; the humorous and sly boxing trainer Jimmy O’Pharrow from Starrett City, Brooklyn; Minnesota Twins baseball player Kirby Puckett, whose eyes shone with enthusiasm before he self-destructed; former White House press secretary and ABC News correspondent Pierre Salinger, who left me reeling from his cigar smoke; the uncontainable and seemingly invincible boxing champion and writer Jose Torres; the fiery Jack Newfield; writer Barney Nagler, who first refused me admission to the Boxing Writers Association and then, later, called me fearless; quiet boxing champion Floyd Patterson; cartoonist Bill Gallo, who offered, and gave me, me his unconditional support; Madison Square Garden boxing president John Condon, who gave me the opportunity to photograph at the Garden; writer Bill Heinz, who shared writing tips with me pounded out on an old manual typewriter; sportscaster Don Dunphy; writer Budd Schulberg; the classy Joan O’Sullivan and the feisty New York Times reporter Edith Evans Asbury, both of whom I met at the Newswomen’s Club; Carl Nesfield, managing editor of the black weekly newspaper, Big Red, who knew what it was like to be an outsider; Manuel de Dios Unanue, who offered me my first steady gig when he was the editor-in-chief of El Diario-La Prensa, even though I didn’t speak much Spanish; sportswriter Victor Calderone, who recommended me to Manuel; and Mickey Mantle, who conducted the interview with a drink in his hand and hoped that I would "do good in radio."
Victor Calderon and Rene Cubas
Bobby Murcer
Ira Becker, the owner of Gleason’s Gym on 30th Street, forced me to pay admission a couple of times before I was accepted; Yankees shortstop and broadcaster Phil Rizzuto was quite a character while outfielder turned sportscaster Bobby Murcer sent me to an art gallery; Dick Sandler, the sports editor of Newsday, gave me a chance to write for his paper while irrepressible Will Lieberson, who gave early roles to Dustin Hoffman and Jane Curtin, directed Broadway and off-Broadway shows and reported for the Armed Forces, regaled me with stories about the theater. From ABC News, the producer Steve Fleischman, who was married to film editor Dede Allen, spoke about the business of television; Emmy award winning producer and director Tom Priestley; Judy Crichton, whose legacy in television can never be matched, introduced me to her husband, novelist Robert Crichton, my first meeting with a real author; film editor Nils Rasmussen, who introduced me to the work of his late wife, Life magazine photographer Lisa Larsen, who photographed fashion, Khrushchev and documented refugees, among other subjects; videotape editor Walter Essenfeld who treated production assistants with the same respect as veteran news correspondents; ABC News correspondent Jules Bergman, who recommended books about science; Kitty Lynch of the ABC News Library, who stretched in the ladies room every day at three p.m. wearing a little black dress and perfectly coiffed hair and reading glasses.
I remember riding to Atlantic City with New York Times sportswriter Phil Berger as he sang Frank Sinatra songs. He died much too soon at 58 and treated me like an old Army buddy. He had a work ethic learned in the Army that I still admire: at the keyboard at nine a.m. sharp with an hour for lunch, and then writing until five p.m. I tried, but there were too many distractions.
Pete Sheehy
 Pete Sheehy, the Yankees clubhouse man who dated back to the days of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, would bring me popsicles and stored my camera equipment in his locker, possibly making me the only woman to have a locker (of sorts) with the New York Yankees. He died on my birthday in 1985.
Most of the men I met who treated me like a comrade were old enough to be my father or grandfather. These weren’t relationships of shared intimacies and confidences but more like a young soldier in the trenches. We were too far apart in age and temperament and respect for anything but that.
“Hey, kid,” was a common greeting by p.r. men Irving Rudd and Murray Goodman.
Thankfully, I didn’t pick up the vices of some of the writers or what they might explain as indulgences, which included drinking, chain-smoking, chasing women, and in one case snorting cocaine. Every so often a fist fight or feud, or a skirmish or scuffle would erupt. No one died in the press box. One, Manuel de Dios Unanue, was murdered after exposing Columbian drug traffickers.
The men all had stories, particularly the ones who covered the sixties. I wished I had been old enough to live through it, to witness and write about the turbulent times of Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Muhammad Ali. While theirs are collections of stories and relationships, mine is one of small moments and incidents. I remember a Yankees relief pitcher named Tim Stoddard who commanded the space by his locker; at six feet eight inches tall, there was no quarrel from me. Whenever a herd of sportswriters moved towards him, he would inform them in no uncertain terms where to go. He sat in his locker reading a book on the day I decided to approach him.
Tim Stoddard
“Don’t you know I don’t speak to the press?” he growled without looking up.
“I had heard that,” I replied cheerfully, “but I didn’t think that included me. I’d like to ask you about your mother for a Mother’s Day story.”
Tim put his book down and answered every question, paying an emotional and tearful tribute to his mother who had died the year before.
Another, the volatile George Bell of the Toronto Blue Jays, cursed at reporters and women sportswriters in general. People knew to stay away. Only one person didn’t know any better. When he launched into a tirade in Spanish, I answered back with a curse word in Spanish. He approached me a few minutes later.
“What do you want to talk to me about?” he asked. “Do you know what you said to me in Spanish?”
“I most certainly did,” I replied haughtily. “But I don’t expect to be treated the way you spoke to me. I’ll be in the Dominican Republic on assignment and would like to arrange for an interview.”
He gave me his telephone number and I did interview him and others. When one of my contact lenses ripped leaving me unable to see, he drove me to his eye doctor for a replacement.
My colleagues once reminded each other, the day before a fight, that Roberto Duran would not grant interviews. I pretended I hadn’t heard and with nothing else to do, I tracked Roberto down in his room and knocked on the door. He was playing dominoes with friends.
Roberto Duran
I introduced myself and said that I was there to ask a few questions and to take a few photographs.
“Oh, come on in,” someone said. “He speaks English but he doesn’t feel comfortable with the language.”
“Oh, good,” I said, easing myself into a chair at the table, “because I speak Spanish and I don’t feel comfortable speaking it so we’re even.”
Marvin Kohn
While the men spoke about champions and contenders, Jack Dempsey’s fourth, last and most loyal wife, Deanna, was lending me a sparkly gold sweater for a Boxing Writers dinner. A female publicist wanted to pluck my unruly blond eyebrows and I allowed it (I still feel the pain). Marvin Kohn, who handed the press for the New York State Athletic Commission and was once Dorothy Dandridge’s p.r. guy, telephoned me one day to tell me that he had consulted with Barney Nagler: “We think you should dress better.” They were right. I shopped for better dresses for boxing dinners and squeezed my feet into painful heels. Barney and Marvin were from a different time and place, when men wore suits and hats and women wore gowns to the boxing matches, and when press credentials stated that no women were allowed in the press box.
The best advice I never took from them: “Marry the poor bastard.”
The old adage “If I knew now what I knew then” doesn’t always hold true. You have to go through most experiences first to be able to appreciate them later. Sometimes it’s best not to know, but to look back with relish.
So when the dust settles on another year lived and when I finally hit that half-century mark, I’ll raise a glass with overdue gratitude for everyone getting me through the first fifty years. I shared a birthday, August 13, with Marvin Kohn and for a few years’ running we would share a celebratory lunch at Ellen’s Cafe down near City Hall.
“Another year has passed,” he would remark.
Yes, Marvin, another year.
But this year and long overdue, I’ll look up and tell Irving and Marvin and Barney and Bill and Pete and Amy and Judy, Walter and the rest: “The kid owes you all a thousand thanks.”

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