When the chestnut colt Rich Strike overcame seemingly insurmountable odds of 80 to 1 to win the Kentucky Derby with a stunning stretch run for the ages, I felt for a moment as one with all the touts, stoopers, and railbirds who love a long shot. In other words, with all the characters peopling Damon Runyon’s world of “Little Miss Marker,” “Guys and Dolls,” and the Times Square demimonde. The win became even more dramatic because Rich Strike hadn’t been penciled in for a starting berth until another Derby entry was scratched at the last moment. Too bad this plucky steed was held out of the Preakness.
Runyon’s world and his brand of writing long ago have faded to the fringes of memory as he and contemporaries Grantland Rice, Paul Gallico, Jimmy Cannon, and Westbrook Pegler (before he became an embittered right-wing columnist) chronicled a time when baseball reigned supreme, pro football was an off-season diversion, and basketball and hockey were mostly afterthoughts. A time also when boxing, pool, tennis, polo, and golf dominated, while soccer, not unheard of, was an odd, overseas sport. No cheerleaders, mascots, fist bumps, high fives, end-zone prancing, politically incorrect team nicknames, or branded merchandise were anywhere to be seen or heard.
(Yes, you are reading the Jewish Standard/New Jersey Jewish News, not the Morning Telegraph or Sports Illustrated. Please bear with this extended prologue.)
The common wisdom pervading male-dominated, smoke-wreathed city rooms of the era held that sports departments produced the paper’s most creative copy, probably because the columnists and beat scriveners were not bound by the same rules of factual reporting as their counterparts on the news side. Indeed, their self-scrubbed copy contained no hints of sleazy behavior or racial prejudice by the icons of the games. No mentions of labor unrest, gender issues (only women like Babe Zaharias or Gussie Moran rated ink), or exorbitant salary demands. These wordsmiths trafficked (or wallowed) in sentimentality and cliches, and the public lapped it up. The limitations on what their stories disclosed were self-imposed by the writers because transportation, meals, and entertainment were underwritten by the very teams they were covering.
I was fortunate enough to catch the last edition (as it were) of these sportswriters while growing up and devouring print journalism before breaking into the game as a reporter and apprentice copy editor at the Bergen Record and Newark News, and then as an editor with Star-Ledger for nearly 40 years. As a youngster, I read and worshipped Hy Goldberg, the News’s premier sports columnist. As an adult, I worked alongside him and found a kind, generous colleague. And at the Star-Ledger, I was a younger contemporary of Jerry Izenberg, now in his nineties and still writing brilliant pieces from his home outside Las Vegas.
I’ll never forget the crisp autumn day in 1969 when I shared a ride with both scribes to a Jets-Kansas City Chiefs game at Shea Stadium. It took Messrs. Izenberg and Goldberg only 30 minutes after the scrum ended to bang out their respective columns on portable typewriters in the press room and have a teletype operator dispatch them.
The next day I savored each piece, both gems from different perspectives, and each more insightful than my recollection of the game.
Although professionally happy at the Star-Ledger, I long entertained ambitions of working at the New York Times. During a vacation, I tried out at both the New York Daily News and the Times’s international copy desk. The News made an offer but the Times decided it could exist without my services. Although I was crushed, I continued reading the Great Gray Lady and remained a staunch fan of sports columnists Arthur Daley and Dave Anderson. When the Herald-Tribune folded in 1966, the Times wisely snapped up Red Smith, regarded as the dean of sportswriters, and Homer Bigart, a fearless war correspondent and accomplished stylist who had won two Pulitzers despite his pronounced stammer.
(Patience, dear reader, we are drawing nigh to the point of this exercise.)
Walter Wellesley Smith (he hated the name) combined old-school sentimentality, especially for Notre Dame, his alma mater, with the emerging new journalism’s sharper elbows and receptivity to writing about sports and social issues. His twice-weekly columns, while still heavy on the “mob” at Toots Shor’s, ventured into realms Damon Runyon wouldn’t have dreamed of.
And he wrote with an erudition rivaling contemporaries Murray Kempton and Scotty Reston. In an anthology of his columns, Smith was asked the degree of difficulty he encountered in a composing process that produced such seemingly effortless prose.
“I open a vein,” he replied.
Smith’s four-word explanation (he labored over every sentence and was willing, metaphorically, to shed blood for his craft) came to mind after reading Joseph C. Kaplan’s “I’ve Been Thinking” column in the May 6 issue of the Jewish Standard/NJJN. The always thoughtful, provocative, and articulate Mr. Kaplan provided an exegesis (I like to send readers scurrying at least once a column to check their Webster’s) of the mental and literary gymnastics he goes through to produce words and coherence that will be informative, enlightening, and opinionated, the latter in the best sense of the word.
Mr. Kaplan credited his Shabbat walks as a productive time for column possibilities to percolate and sort themselves. Next, he cited nearly half a century as a practicing attorney, during which time he meticulously prepared briefs, pleadings, and the boilerplate of his trade, with each legal paper going through several drafts until it became as airtight as he could make it, even though a judge might not rule his way.
Mr. Kaplan also believed in letting what he had written marinate and coalesce subconsciously over the course of several nights. During waking hours, he paid obsessive attention to grammar and word precision on subjects ranging from Judaism to jurisprudence, and beyond. And then he would submit the column to seven sets of eyes before it reached editors at this publication.
If the proof is in the proofs, then my colleague and his techniques have succeeded admirably, as our readers will attest. I, however, take a slightly different path to columnation (seems to rhyme with damnation).
While Mr. Kaplan and I are both retired, busy, and doting grandparents, he does the Times crossword puzzle (with ballpoint pen?) while I play chess (erratically and online).
My most productive hours are between 5 and 7 in the morning, when I awake, caffeinate, pray, stroke the cat, and then stroke the keyboard. It’s mostly fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants and instinctual in letting possible subjects play out in my mind. Once that’s decided, I open a vein and commence typing — slowly, haltingly, deletingly. It’s rare when the words just flow of their own effortless accord.
By now, I’ve engaged my inner Red Smith, although the results will never be in the same league or even ballpark as his. I read my sentences, silently then aloud, making revisions, syntactical shifts, and what I regard as subtle flourishes (hah!), often to the point lampooned by humorist S. J. Perelman: Thirty-five times is rewrite, the 36th is lapidary.
Like Mr. Kaplan, I regard it as a time-consuming but worthwhile process, during which I’m always striving for excellence. I’m left drained and slightly coiled, wondering what my editor, Joanne Palmer, will think of the effort. She grants me great latitude in choosing subject matter and edits with a discerning touch.
For this particular piece, I wanted to address less weighty issues than in my last column, which dwelled on hate groups, antisemitism, and inequality. Something whimsical and nostalgic. Whimsical and nostalgic can be good things in tough times — and these are undoubtedly very tough times.
This piece is not crafted Jewishly at all, but it is having a balming effect on me. And I must say, I think I pivoted rather nimbly from horse racing to ancient sportswriters, to the different tropes and tics in writing a column. After nearly 50 years in newsrooms, the deadline is still my friend and the process is still invigorating, untidy as it can be at times.
Jonathan E. Lazarus of West Orange is a retired editor of the Star-Ledger and a copy editor for the Jewish Standard and the New Jersey Jewish News.