The Life of Reilly

Westbrook Pegler

Esquire/September, 1934


The era of wonderful nonsense brought a life of golden ease to the sports reporting gentry

SOME of the best writing in American journalism, and considerably more of the worst, appears on the sport pages of the newspaper. The sport department is a curious principality in the newspaper shop, presided over by an official who is called the sport editor. He has many duties, including, in some cases, that of editing the material which is used to fill the space allotted to his section. To generalize, and concede the inevitable exceptions, the sport department is editorially autonomous and the managing editor seldom intrudes.

The sport editor is a sort of pundit, probably a columnist. His task of getting around among the boys, day and night, writing his daily essay, mooching passes for the prizefights, wrestling shows and ball games and deciding solemn issues of which A is always making bets with B, does not leave him much time in which to refine the copy which goes into the paper.

For that matter, he may not have a very good ear for excellence in English prose. Sport editors are likely to have been copyboys who grew up hanging around the baseball ticker or college-varsity men of the standard, dumb athletic type who went straight from the local campus to the sport department of the paper because their education was restricted to sports and they were too lazy to go to work. A sport editor recruited from either of these groups will have missed the benefits of the professional training which is to be had only on the editorial side.

Almost any good news reporter can make good on the sport side. But a man whose entire experience in the business has been confined to the sport department, with its free-and-easy style and loose editorial discipline, would have a hard time meeting the standards of the city desk.

The sport editor also may be expected to originate contests or tournaments or imitate such activities after they have been used successfully in other cities, to stimulate circulation.

Paul Gallico, as sport editor of the New York Daily News, once conceived the not altogether novel idea of conducting an amateur boxing tournament. But he called it the Golden Gloves, and that did it. The Golden Gloves, under his promotion, became the greatest tournament of fist-fights in the history of pugilism. With its demure price range and enthusiastic fury, it interfered seriously with the business of Madison Square Garden and the languid professional artists.

Mr. Damon Runyon, of the Hearst papers in New York, contributed further to the distress of the soulless Garden Corporation with his Milk Fund promotions which have a charitable effect but do the Hearst circulation no damage, either. Mr. Runyon came to be called Tex in the profession because he learned to out-cunning Tex Rickard, himself, in the scheming for interesting matches. Mr. Rickard never did know much about fighters. He couldn’t even remember or pronounce the names of more than a few. Until two years before Gene Tunney met Jack Dempsey in Philadelphia, Mr. Rickard was still calling him Toomey or Twombley. Mr. Rickard was box-office promoter. Mr. Runyon, who has a curious taste for pickles, always enjoyed the society of prize-fighters, especially heavyweights, and their managers, and knew hundreds of them socially. When he applied himself to the box-office problem he soon became the equal of Mr. Rickard in that important phase of the business and his personal acquaintance with the talent was to his advantage. So, toward the end of Mr. Rickard’s life, he was often finding that the prizefight which he was trying to arrange for his soulless corporation was already bespoke by Mr. Runyon’s papers’ charity, the Milk Fund.

Mr. Gallico has ceased to be sport editor of the New York Daily News. The Golden Gloves, the Silver Skates, a golf driving tournament and an annual swimming and diving regatta in one of the municipal mudholes in Central Park eventually became a full-time occupation. He was turning out his daily composition one-handed much of the time, and had to choose between journalism and promotion. He slipped the ring on the finger of his original occupation and became a writer for better or for worse.

The sport writers were not very well paid until the beginning of the Era of Wonderful Nonsense, shortly before the war. The acknowledged and envied leaders up to that time were Grantland Rice, Runyon and W. G. McGeehan.

Mr. Rice had come up from Tennessee, by way of Cleveland, to introduce a heroic style of sport-writing and idealize the athlete on the New York Evening Mail. Mr. Runyon was no hero-worshipper. He was a Colorado country-boy with wish-bone legs, known as Alfred in his old hometown and a prizefight fan at heart. Mr. Rice was a fan, too, but his passions were football and golf. They both wrote verse. Mr. Rice’s was winged and inclined to beauty. Mr. Runyon’s was low-down and realistic, not to say sordid. Both of them were nigh onto poetic at times.

But Damon, or Alfred, was at his best when he was given a job of reporting. He had an ear for the American language and a remarkable passability with the truly ornery characters of the Underworld, with whom he came to be better acquainted during Prohibition than Al Capone himself. He has preserved the language and the quaint moral code of the urban hoodlum type, which is now blending off into the motorized highwayman type, in his magazine pieces and moving picture scenarios, which have lately made him one of the eminents on the income tax lists.

Mr. Rice likes refined people and became a sort of Gold-Coaster. Mr. Runyon preferred to sit around Lindy’s delicatessen on Broadway far into the night, or perch on the stoop of the all-night bank, listening to the boys and putting in an oar now and again. He lived at a prizefighters’ and book-makers’ hotel called the Forrest where his rooms, during his waking hours, were a congress of mugs, loogans, eggs and guys. He never has been seen to take any nibble or sip of any alcoholic beverage since he decided that such were not any good for man or beast more than twenty-five years ago.

A mutual friend of theirs once said that Mr. Rice never could get anything out of the dudes that he ran with but a lot of bum tips on the market, whereas Mr. Runyon was earing in usable material every time he came out of his bedroom and draped his skinny frame, attired in one of his musical comedy bathrobes, over one of his plush hotel chairs, lit a cigarette and began to listen. I do not say whether this comparison is correct. Anyway, Mr. Runyon received some very bum tips on the horses. You could make a fair living wage booking his bets on the steeds, year in and out, so often wrong and so very wrong he is.

Bill McGeehan, who died last year, was a shy, amiable man but a magnificent endurance-hater with a knack for satire which made him one of the great newspaper writers of the United States. In his last years he worked for the Herald-Tribune and received SI00 a day on a play-or-pay basis. If he didn’t turn in a column he was docked $100.

But he was no money lover. He was sick a long time and would write or wouldn’t according to his vitality and his mood. Anyway, he was cheap at his price for he was a philosopher and artist whose pieces will be culled out of the old papers some day and printed in books. People outside the circulation range of the Herald-Tribune seldom heard of him because he did not sell very well in the syndicate service. That is their misfortune.

After the War came Dempsey and the Million-Dollar and Multi-Million-Dollar Prizefight and Babe Ruth. The first Million Dollar Prizefight was one of those mockeries. Georges Carpentier was not only too little for Dempsey but passé as well and Rickard asked Dempsey to tote him along for a few rounds for the pleasure of the customers and the fair name of the prizefight profession. Mr. Dempsey agreed to do so and did until Carpentier impudently popped him with a light-hand lead to the chin in Round Two. At the end of the round, Mr. Dempsey’s manager, Jack Kearns, said, “Do not fool around with this bum no more,” and Mr. Dempsey walked out to throw in some lefts and rights to the face and body, as the phrase goes.

The baseball industry secretly needled the standard baseball and the home-run, which had been almost as rare as the straight flush in poker, became common, though not commonplace. The customers loved their illusion about the home run and refused to let themselves believe that the ball which Babe Ruth, Ken Williams, Cy Williams, George Kelly and numerous others were bunting over the outfield walls was any different from the missile which had been used in the era when a dozen home runs in a season was the individual record. Ruth presently hit fifty-nine in one year, and finally, sixty. The customers refused to discount the Babe’s stupendousness even when autopsical data were published comparing the home-run or jackrabbit ball with the old-fashioned hit-and-run or ’possum ball. They enjoyed being deceived and the sport-writers gave up trying to undeceive them after a while and just went along.

The Big Fight, the home run, Paavo Nurmi, Lenglen, Tilden, Hagen, Jones and Red Grange naturally attracted attention to the sport page and created the opportunity for sport writers to make from $15,000 to $100,000 a year with Rice, Runyon, and McGeehan leading.

Ring Lardner had been a sport writer but his newspaper copy was not his best work. He attracted little attention until he began to write his Busher series for The Saturday Evening Post. He continued to do his newspaper column for the Chicago Tribune for a few years after that but he was on his way now to become a great short-story writer and humorist and his column was neither sport copy nor the best Lardner. He worked until he died and close to the end, when Grant Rice called on him one day, he was lying in bed with his typewriter on his legs.

“I am trying to think of something that will make them laugh,” he said, so weary and weak that he could not open his eyes.

New sport writers have been coming on in the meanwhile, some of them sport editors and columnists, some just columnists, some just reporters following the ball-clubs, the racing shells, fighters, football teams and steeds.

The best football reporters in the United States are in Boston. The most prejudiced fans in the profession, who include, incidentally, some of the best though not the fanciest workmen, are employed by the California papers, where they root home their winners the year around and try to conceal the fact that they were born elsewhere. An Indiana or Pennsylvania Californian is in somewhat the same position as an octoroon in white company. He hopes you will say nothing about it. If you do confront him with that damned spot which will not out, he can only plead that he went to California where the champions grow as soon as his early circumstances permitted.

There are three California sport editors, Harry B. Smith, and Tommy Laird of San Francisco and Mark Kelly of Los Angeles, who know more about sport and the people of sport than any others. Mr. Smith is a Californian but the other two are trying to live down their shame and succeeding moderately.

It would be very brash of me to attempt to rate or even list the good sport-writers.

Generally, the best are to be found in New York and Chicago where the pay is best and the publishers, with their syndicate and chain-store connections, are able to bid in good men who put their heads up elsewhere. They can parlay the expense of the high-priced man’s base pay. Or they may retain him on a modest base pay and fatten his check with royalties from the customer papers out along the line.

But the generality would have to note exceptions in the case of Harry Salsinger, of the Detroit News, a fine journalist with a background of book-knowing; Ralph McGill, of the Atlanta Constitution; Jack Bell, of Miami, Fla.; Ed Wray of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Bob Considine, of the Washington Herald; and Walter Stewart of the Memphis Press-Scimitar.

Mr. Stewart lived in New York a while, writing fiction for the pulps. He wrote mostly about adventure in the Foreign Legion. He has never been east of Coney Island but pulp fictioneers often write about life on Mars and life in A. D. 5000.

I could name twenty other exceptions who have not moved into big jobs in New York or Chicago because they owned homes or didn’t want to move or, somehow, were not bidden in. But this is not intended to be a list or a yoo-hoo to my personal friends. In fact, Mr. Bell, of Miami, has been cross at me for some years because I once composed some living human documents about the gambling trade in Miami which he thought tactless, unethical and wantonly unkind to those of Nature’s Noblemen who were conducting games of little or no chance. Still, I think he writes a stylish, gallopy piece.

The best sport-writing jobs, not in order but just in a bunch, are those held by Rice and Runyon, Willie Corum, Gallico, Joe Williams, Dan Parker, John Kieran, Davis Walsh, Eddie Neal, Henry McLemore, and Harry Grayson. Willie Corum is the columnist for the New York Journal and other afternoon Hearst papers. Joe Williams is the sport editor and the columnist for the New York World-Telegram and columnist, as well, for the other twenty-five Scripps-Howard papers. Dan Parker, in the New York Mirror, writes a boisterous, truculent 800-a-day, and is, next to McGeehan, the master, the most redoubtable and indefatigable hater in the trade. But he is a counter-hater. He won’t hate you unless you start it. Mr. McGeehan liked to lead off. Mr. Parker’s feud with James J. Johnston, the matchmaker of the Madison Square Garden Corporation, now going into its third year, has been a classic affaire of old-fashioned personal journalism. Mr. Johnston probably will sue him and his paper for libel one of these days. But if so he will have to take six cents, at most, because he has been heard to remark, in trying to laugh off some of Mr. Parker’s unkindest cuts, that all this mention was but a help to him in his business. You cannot mulct a man in damages for helping you in your business.

Mr. Kieran, of the New York Times, knows the names of birds and flowers and the ferns in the bosky dell and is, as you might say, the spirit of the Atlantic Monthly in a realm of sweat, liniment and cauliflowers. But, though he is the favorite sport columnist of Prof. William Lyon Phelps, of Yale, I doubt that the Common Fan gets his meaning all times. He is so educated!

Mr. Walsh, the Gloomy Prince of the International News Service, forever fearing that things are going to take an abrupt turn for the better, conforms to my idea of par for the job of sport-editor and expert for a news service. This is a job which requires style in the writing but speed, brevity and a very peculiar know-how not essential in any other sport-department job. It calls for a flash-and-bulletin man with a thorough knowledge of all sports, a strong back, endurance, enthusiasm, and with it all, class.

On the Associated Press, Alan Gould, as sport editor, is more a department executive than a soloist. His department is big and he is in somewhat the same position as the chief of the Washington Bureau who also does pieces but, for his principal business, handles a staff and takes the responsibility for getting stories covered, written and moved, fast.

His soloist is Ed Neal, who won one of the Pulitzer awards for a piece about the crash of the German sled on the Olympic bob-run at Lake Placid. Mr. Neal went down the groove which curls through the rocks and groves on the face of Mount Van Hoevenberg with one of the American bob-teams. As his sled tripped the gadget at the finish, notifying the starter at the top that the run was now clear, the Germans shoved off. They left the run on an icy curve, sailed a few yards and wrecked themselves against the boulders and trees. Mr. Neal was in a position to write very feelingly about it all.

The McLemore boy is coming up. For a year or two he seemed to have only a wild desire to write. This is very good for a boy but to get the best out of the desire he ought to know how. I have not seen a young newspaper writer in twenty years with McLemore’s story sense. He sees them where they apparently ain’t. He also pines to write pretty and make the customers laugh and lately he has learned the way.

Harry Grayson has recently been named sport editor of the Newspaper Enterprise Association, the biggest of the editorial canned-goods companies, with headquarters in Cleveland. It is a big job of sport-writing and department management. The customer papers, in commentary on his work, have been using about twenty-five per cent more N. E. A. sport copy than they were using before. He can write, cover, and hunch.

These jobs pay from $7,500 to $30,000 a year and, with the income from their spellbinding on the radio which some of the boys derive, their pay is augmented about thirty per cent.

The non-editing, non-columning, nonman-about-towning specialists such as Rud Rennie and Ed Burns in baseball, Stanley Woodward and Bob Harron in football and Bob (Collapsible) Kelly, the man who wrote the book and knows more than anyone else about rowing, do not reach the top range of the columnists’ pay. But their jobs are much better than the star reporter’s on the news side and of course they often outwrite the columnist.

A fight a week. A tennis or golf tournament now and again where the green grass grows all around. Travel. Expense account. Five hundred words a day or maybe eight hundred and nothing to do till tomorrow.

A deadly grind, my friends.



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