Book Excerpt: "Confessions Of A Washed-Up Sportswriter," From Rules Of The Game

Today's excerpt comes from a 1968 essay by Gary Cartwright, anthologized in Harper's Magazine's new sportswriting anthology, Rules of the Game, which we highly recommend.

Rules of the Game features the work of Roy Blount, Tom Wolfe, Pete Axthelm, Wilfrid Sheed, George Plimpton, Pat Jordan, and Cartwright, a member of the old Forth Worth Press rat pack that included Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake and that reshaped American sportswriting. "Let me make one thing plain: most sportswriters have no business in journalism," Cartwright writes in his essay. "They are misfits looking for a soft life." An excerpt is below. You can find the rest of the piece here.

"Listen, Tojo and Hirohito and you Nomuru and you Kurusu, and all the rest of you heathen sons of heaven, you won't understand this, it'll be far over your pagan heads, but, even so, you ought to hear about it."
—C. E. McBride, Kansas City Star, March 27, 1944. Reprinted in Best Sports Stories 1944 (Dutton).

Crew Slammer never made Best Sports Stories. He never got farther than the bulletin board at the Fort Worth Press. He was a victim of the industry, for he collided time and again with the mentality ceiling that bears down on every newspaper I know anything about. Nevertheless, I believe that Crew Slammer in his way was a better sportswriter than C. E. McBride, Stanley Woodward, or even Red Smith. He was inquisitive, sardonic, satirical, cynical, opinionated, hedonistic, and what intelligence he had was easily offended. He hated sport. "To watch it," he thought, "is a deadly bore." Baseball was something that the twentieth century had a right to do without. Spectator golf ranked in importance with bridge tournaments and Junior League rummage sales. Football, tennis, hockey, and boxing interested him for aesthetic reasons. Crew Slammer fancied that he wrote like Hemingway. A typical lead describing a junior swimming meet would begin, "In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that … "

Crew Slammer was like all my friends in those days. He wanted more. He had a competitive drive to be the best. Why did he become a sportswriter? That is the question we were all trying to answer. Inevitably we turned to the Best Sports Stories anthology, there to prosper or rot. I am sad to say that Crew Slammer did not prosper, but pretend you don't know that for a while. For Crew Slammer was a myth, a symbol of our tragic graveyard, a commentary on conditions. He lived only in our imaginations, which of course means that he lived nonetheless.

When I started writing sports in 1958 at the Press, I already knew something about basic reporting. I covered the night police beat for two years at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, much to the despair of a night city editor named Ed Capers who used to tell me, "Your trouble is, your fingers are too fast for your mind." I thought he had it backwards, so I quit and joined the sports staff of the Press. Instinctively I realized that the only way to move forward was to change newspapers every two years-a pattern I followed to the Dallas Times Herald, the Dallas Morning News, and finally the Philadelphia Inquirer, where, like Crew Slammer, I became a victim of the mentality ceiling. But almost every important thing I learned, I learned at the Press.

The Fort Worth Press is one of those dilapidated brick-box institutions that Scripps-Howard used to stake between the railroad yard and the farmers' market. Its city room with the eras of dirt and the rancid smell of machine oil reminds you of a train depot in a college-size town. For years it has been vanishing in a cloud of soot, and momentarily it will reappear as a parking lot. It is maintained as you would maintain a shoe box of old letters by a few faithful servants who are nearing retirement age. Good writers have come and gone, and the others have joined the scenery. I cannot visualize the Press city room without calling up Delbert Willis, the one-legged city editor who periodically takes a leave of absence to hunt for the Jap who got him; Caroline Hamilton, a husky, old-maidish feature writer in cowboy boots; or Marvin Garrett, a meek silver-haired farm and county editor. Marvin is sitting at his desk, barely visible behind an enormous mound of publicity releases (which we would sometimes take, turn over and use for copy paper in times of austerity), papers and clucking.

The Press is P.M., meaning that it publishes in the afternoon, and that we had to report at 6:00 A.M. The morning dark does things to the creative man. My friend and fellow sportswriter Dan Jenkins used to complain that it made his hair hurt. His wife would set her alarm for 3:00 A.M., watch his hair from her side of the bed and make notes, but they never isolated the problem. I never made it at 6:00 A.M., but I came close that first day. Twelve minutes late, in a panic, peeling off coat and sweater as I climbed the single flight of dark stairs, I smashed glue-eyed through the swinging gate that separated Sports from the other departments. Suddenly I realized that the only other person in the room was Puss Erwin, a retired postman who had signed on as our bowling writer. Puss was hunched over his typewriter, drinking vodka from a paper cup and puzzling over the previous night's bowling averages. It was the dead of winter, so the heater-the coal chute, we called it-was running full blast. Puss had removed his coat, tie, and shirt, and draped them over the back of his chair. He didn't know me yet, but I guess he had heard I was coming to work at the Press. He wouldn't look up. Between sentences he muttered: "You'll never make it, son." I knew he was right. Half an hour before deadline, our slot man, Sick Charley Modesette, arrived. Charley had been out all night, looking for his car. There was a professional detachment about Charley, a combat residual bred in men who have learned to expect nothing. "All the bastards slept in again, huh?" Charley observed, and started plugging the first edition with old pictures and dated syndicated columns by Joe Williams and Harry Grayson. We made deadline with seconds to spare. It was always this way.

Many times I put out the paper alone. All the sportswriters did. We staggered in, tore the night's run of copy from the United Press machine, selected the stories according to the page dummies supplied by the advertising department, assigned headlines and wrote them, clipped box scores and other trivia from the morning Star Telegram, selected pictures and sent them to the engravers, made up the cutlines, then hurried to the composing room where a printer named Max would be waiting to change everything. Like Charley, Max was a professional. All he ever said was, "Who the hell do you think you are?"

We survived on the assumption that no one read our paper anyhow. It is the same feeling you get on a college newspaper or on mind-expanding drugs. There are no shackles on the imagination; there is no retreat, only attack. One of my jobs was to make up little "brights" or boxes:

John Doughs made a hole-in-one yesterday at Glen Lakes Country Club when a snake swallowed his tee shot, a dog swallowed the snake, and an eagle carried off the dog, dropping him in the cup after colliding head on with a private plane flown by Doughs's maternal twin.

We went heavy on the irony. Under these circumstances you might think we got a lot of letters to the editor, but I don't remember any.

* * *

Professional football players are easily the best educated, most congenial, and most sensitive group of athletes I know. They have a different kind of courage, almost masochistic.

I fell into the habit of dropping by the Cowboys' training room before a game. It was the warmest place in any stadium, but I also needed a B-12 shot or something more stimulating. No one talks about it, but training rooms are portable pharmacies. It is the trainer's job to have his forty men ready by Sunday afternoon. If a player is injured, they shoot him full of cortisone. If his pain threshold is low, they give him morphine or another opium derivative. If his metabolism is skimpy, they give him amphetamine. When Commissioner Pete Rozelle outlawed the free use of amphetamines a few years ago, several players and maybe a few sportswriters were ruined. I suspect the National Football League was on the verge of a scandal. Certainly Big Daddy Lipscomb didn't help the image by taking an overdose of horse. Rozelle got pep pills out of the aisles and under the tables. One trainer got around the rule by putting out two pots of coffee, one straight and the other laced with dope. It was explained to me recently by an NFL player, "Every man lets the trainer know his requirements. When you get to the stadium there is a paper cup of whatever you need waiting in your locker."

* * *

[Bill] Rives looked like an aging Rudolph Valentino. He was a fanatic for words. The walls of his department were posted with signs ordering KEEP IT SHORT! or WRITE LIKE YOU TALK! The trouble was, neither Rives nor any of the other name writers followed those orders. Maxwell Stiles would open a story on the United States Women's golf championship: "Last Saturday at the Waverly Country Club in Portland I saw the face of America peer at me through a pair of dark eyes alight with the radiant glory of one who has brought honor and dignity to her native land." Then we would study Sherrod, painting his first impressions of a Kansas sophomore named Wilt Chamberlain: "If they're going to let him play basketball … they ought to let the Grand Canyon play ditch." Rives would start: "Julius Nicholas Boros, swarthy-skinned son of Hungarian immigrants, captured the National Open championship Saturday with a score of 281, one over par." and Best Sports Stories would leap on it.

Dan Jenkins could mock them all with his sweep and simplicity: "Tommy Bolt, with astonishing ease, won the 1958 U. S. Open golf championship today on a vicious course that broke Sam Snead in two days and wrenched Ben Hogan's wrists." And who was Jenkins? He was our first big-timer from the Fort Worth Press. He wrote for Golf Digest. He could be counted on to have a pocketful of press-box tickets or parking passes. Any time he passed Ben Hogan on the veranda of Colonial Country Club, Hogan was likely as not to say, "Hi, fella," the only two words Hogan used well. An ex-TCU football player named Red ("How's ya mom and them?") Marable had even confided to friends in high places that he did not want to hit Jenkins, merely "grab him and shake him around."

Bud Shrake followed hard behind Jenkins. He is a giant of a man with a poet's soul and a lumberjack's appetite. He was the accidental winner of a Chili Rice Eating Contest one time while serving as contest referee. Shrake is an enormously talented sportswriter and a keen observer of the species. For a while Shrake and I shared an apartment in Dallas. From time to time a well-known college football coach from a big-time school whose name I will not mention would show up with a bag writers were experimenting with words in the of groceries, often on the night before a major game. We would eat and drink until about 3:00 A.M., then drive through town looking for girls. We never talked football.

Shrake had a suspicious habit of being with me each time I disgraced myself, my newspaper, and my country. I have always reacted in curious ways to the pressures and exigencies of my profession. It was not Shrake who suggested that I dress up like a waiter, crash the Fort Worth Colonial Country Club's first (and last) annual poolside luau and fashion show, and leap off the three-meter diving board, spraying dinner rolls among the floating orchids.

Yet Shrake had an invitation and I had none. He helped me find a linen closet in the basement, and he was there when Club manager Virgil Bourland intercepted me on the way to the poolside. "What's this?" Bourland asked, lifting a roll from the wicker basket. "Them's rolls!" "What for?" Bourland challenged. "For hungry people." Bourland asked, "Is this some kind of joke?" and I assured him that hunger is never a joke, stomping away indignantly and crouching in the hedges while a search party was organized. It was not Shrake who threw up all over Michigan State football coach Duffy Daugherty when Daugherty told a nauseous joke (punch line: "I don't know what it is! I found it in my nose) in the hotel suite of "Coach of the Year" Murray Warmath. It was me. Yet Shrake was a ready accomplice, I confess, just before that, when we ripped off Warmath's bedding, contrived an effigy and hung it from his transom, much as his students at the University of Minnesota had been doing earlier in the year. Shrake was clear across the room when I took off my clothes and sang "Danny Boy" at Blackie Sherrod's Christmas party. He was there when I swung at and missed Norm Van Brocklin at a night spot in Birmingham. And he had grave reservations the time we found a dead carp on the banks of a gravel pit, and had it cooked and served to Bill Rives, a Catholic. The answers to why we do such things are buried with the minute and uncelebrated details of the events themselves, and maybe too fragile for the Freudian window sash. I know this: in a time my memory cannot identify, in a place I cannot remember being welcome, there is someone's voice, full of respect and anticipation, saying, "For Chrissake, here he comes again!"

Again, you can read the remainder of the essay here. Purchase Rules of the Game here.