Born on death row, The National Sports Daily perished of its own hand 30 years ago today, June 13, 1991.
The headline screaming from the front page of the final edition of America’s first and, to date, only all-sports daily newspaper: “WE HAD A BALL.” Half of it must have fallen onto the composing-room floor. It should have read: “WE HAD A BALL … AND DROPPED IT.”
Then again, that would have required humility, never one of The National’s many strengths.
An autopsy would have revealed the cause of death as reckless spending preceded by hurried, woefully inadequate, pre-launch planning. A failure to figure out how to print and distribute it with anything even remotely resembling cost efficiency, things that should have been ironed out well before assembling a staff, doomed it from the start.
“It was a great product and a very bad business,” said Lester Munson, whose star as an investigative reporter/legal expert was born at The National. “They could never figure out how to get the papers in the hands of the readers. It was terrible.”
The National, the greatest collection of sportswriting talent ever assembled, lasted 16½ months. It’s a shame it passed so quickly. It’s amazing it lasted that long. Estimates of how much of Mexican billionaire Emilio Azcarraga’s money the organization tore through range from $100 million to $125 million to $150 million. And that was back when $150 million was a lot of money.
Putting a bunch of people who made their living making words resonate in charge of the numbers needed to operate under a feasible budget didn’t make much more sense then than putting hedge-fund operators in charge of editorial staffing decisions at newspapers now.
In many ways, The National was ahead of its time, which alternately made me proud to be on staff and terrified me. It was the first publication to include batting averages in boxscores. And sadly not the last to leave employees feeling as though they were working in the shadow of a guillotine that hovered over the necks of our careers, an inescapable reality for the majority of today’s newspaper journalists.
The face of the operation was a dashing one, rightly drawing comparisons to movie star Clark Gable, and his words were even prettier. Frank Deford’s long-form features for Sports Illustrated brought sportswriting to new heights. The tenor of his voice and depth of his words made him perfectly suited for commentaries on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” His brilliant mind and gentle soul made him resonate with SI readers and NPR listeners, who heard his final commentary May 3, 2017, 25 days before his death.
As part of his duties at The National, Deford wrote a column. It wasn’t the right platform for him. Many at the paper were more compelling columnists: Norman Chad, Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica, Scott Ostler, Ray Ratto, John McGrath, Bud Shaw, vastly underrated Lyle Spencer and others, some cursed with such massive egos that they one day just might make a special trip to spit on my grave for failing to mention them here.
Yet, even though Deford’s columns didn’t rival his features and commentaries, they didn’t miss the mark to the extent his typed words that were mailed to members of The National staff in form letters, which he addressed personally and signed with his purple felt-tip pen, missed. More on those later.
The National’s debut was delayed several weeks because of technological glitches that, if memory serves, had something to do with bouncing words off a satellite and miraculously making them appear in print. It finally was born January 31, 1990, released in three cities: New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The covers were brilliant, the stories so well reported, written and edited.
The great minds at the top of the publication, from publisher Peter Price to Deford to editors Van McKenzie and Vince Doria seemingly thought of everything that made it a must-read for every type of consumer of sports news.
Price and Deford reached into their shared past to recruit Munson, a teammate at their campus newspaper “The Princetonian,” and converted him to a sportswriter. To this day, Munson refers to himself as “a recovering lawyer.” He swiftly established himself as the pre-eminent sports media figure on all legal matters, later shining at Sports Illustrated and ESPN.
Munson was a rock star, and so was Kim Cunningham, who had just the right whispery touch to convey the juicy nuggets she unearthed in her gossip column. Nobody drew more attention to The National, though, than Chad, who had spent most of his career as a copy editor and TV columnist at the Washington Post.
“Norman Chad was hysterical every time he wrote,” said Munson, still living in Chicago and trying to revive his infectious love of life that was dealt a blow by the death of his wife and kindred spirit from cancer. “I can remember Judy reading his columns out loud, and she could barely get through them, she would be laughing so hard.”
I worked out of the Chicago office, originally hired as the Cubs’ beat writer, then shifted to general assignment reporter when the paper stopped covering beats roughly midway through its duration.
When Shaw, initially Chicago bureau (nine-deep) chief and then the one-man Detroit bureau, rattled off the names of his hires to friend Tom Stinson, starting with John McGrath, Mark Vancil, Michael Knisley and, as O.J. likes to refer to himself in his video tweets, “yours truly.” Stinson interrupted: “That’s not a bureau; that’s a bar and grill.”
We did nothing to disprove that characterization as the launch date was pushed back, and we already were drawing paychecks for writing obituaries about sports figures who’d outlived The National. My Leo Durocher obituary never made it to print: “The nasty baseball man who famously said, ‘Nice guys finish last,’ has finished living.”
A plow horse among thoroughbreds, I had a byline in the first edition of The National, as well as the last, and most in between. The first story, dropped in my lap by Kindred, made a splash.
He was living in Newnan, Ga. at the time, and spotted a couple of paragraphs in the hyperlocal paper. The estranged wife of Cubs center fielder Jerome Walton, the 1989 National League Rookie of the Year, had filed a complaint against Walton. In the police report, she accused Walton of striking her “upside the head.” The story had not been reported elsewhere. In a telephone interview with her, she revealed to me that she had offered to drop the matter in exchange for a small sum of money. I relayed that to Walton’s attorney, Skin Edge, who sounded happy to hear that. Later that night, Walton’s estranged wife called back and asked me not to use the part offering to drop the accusations in exchange for money. I told her over my hotel-room telephone that I couldn’t do that. She offered to come over to discuss it in person. Again, I told her I couldn’t do that.
It wasn’t the first request to drop my story. That came from Walton. I had called him to tell him I was flying from Chicago to interview him about his offseason and he asked if I could pick him up at Atlanta’s airport and passed along his flight information. On our ride to his place in Newnan, as I was driving 80 mph, I revealed that I needed to ask him about the incident. He erupted, and then I could see the light go off in his head as he calmed down and in turn my foot eased off the accelerator: “I got it. You just tell your boss that Jerome doesn’t want that in the paper in Chicago.”
Rather than lecture him on journalism ethics, my survival instincts kicked in and I unethically told him a little white lie: “I already tried that, Jerome, and he told me I have to write it anyway.”
Years later, while working for the New York Post, I once tried to hammer my Florida rental car up to 117 mph so that I could write what it felt like after Doc Gooden was arrested for going that speed with an open container in the car. My rental car started to shake at 105, so I brought it back down and was going 90 when a cop zapped me with the radar gun. Shaking from the speed that day in Florida wasn’t nearly as terrifying as shaking from the (peripheral) sight and sound of Walton losing it next to me. My fears were unjustified. The shy Walton never held it against me.
Big names, none bigger than John Feinstein, with strong games filled the pages with stories that leapt off cleverly designed pages. Sleuths Chris Mortensen, Jeffrey Marx and Ken Gurnick, silky-smooth writers Gordon Edes and Chuck Culpepper, gave it the feel of a daily magazine.
The National spared no expense in assembling editors (Rob Fleder, David Granger, Dan McGrath, to name a few) gifted at inspiring story ideas, spotting reporting holes, and polishing words to make them pop even brighter. Even the stats pages looked slicker and had deeper information, thanks to Lee Gordon.
The tabloid paper centered around a daily “Main Event” takeout piece written by the likes of wordsmiths Charles P. Pierce, Peter Richmond and Johnette Howard.
Part of what made The National so great was the willingness of the bosses to spend money as if it were taken from the factory that produces Monopoly board games.
Knisley, who started his stay at the National as a Chicago-based reporter on the college beat and finished as boxing and NFL editor, remembered an instance where The National’s big-spending ways more than paid off.
Most American publications didn’t spend to send a reporter to Tokyo to cover what was sure to be a Mike Tyson blink-and-you-missed it carving up of an overmatched challenger, this particular tomato can-in-waiting named Buster Douglas. Sam Donnellon, another great find by The National’s talent scouts, was in the Tokyo Dome to capture the biggest upset in heavyweight boxing history.
On the flip side of The National’s approach to Azcárraga’s coin, most of us who until joining the paper routinely griped about the stinginess of our employers, have tales of spending excesses.
Mine: At the last minute, I was assigned to cover a Memphis basketball game in Tennessee. I called the editors back at the office to inform them that I couldn’t find a flight cheaper than $900, and was told to book it.
After arriving, I was disappointed as I was told to limit the game story to 500 words. All but about 90 of those words were slashed. The first paragraph was about Memphis guard Elliott Perry’s relentless drives to the hoop, the second about Tennessee guard Allan Houston’s outrageous shooting range. The third and last paragraph had the final score: Memphis 74, Tennessee 72.
Years later, I was sitting at a bar with a table full of sportswriters and editors, including Pierce and Dan McGrath, who’d graduated from Marquette. We were in Milwaukee to watch a basketball game. When it was my turn to share a National horror story, I told of the pricey trip to Knoxville. Terry Bannon: “You mean to tell me you’re not worth $300 a paragraph?”
Pierce, who turned his considerable gifts into a lucrative career as a magazine writer, now focusing on politics, threw his arm across my chest in the manner of a defense attorney muzzling a client.
He leaned forward and said: “Hey, not even I’m worth $300 a paragraph.” A great talent and not bashful about it, he had some company at The National.
Like most, Knisley said he has no regrets about taking the risk. He just wishes it lasted longer.
“The solution to every problem there was to throw more money at it,” he said.
The paper picked up the tab to fly us to New York, put us up, and fed us so that we could attend a Christmas party more than a month before the first edition appeared.
As the paper was bleeding money on the road to extinction, staffers were reassigned to new bureaus, rather than laid off. Not all of the reassignments made sense. For example, Vancil, the most insightful voice on ESPN’s 10-episode Michael Jordan series “The Last Dance” was reassigned to Denver, even though Jordan was the hottest athlete on the planet and Vancil was closer to him than any legitimate media member.
Oh well, at least they didn’t lay us off.
News broke the day before that June 13, 1991 would be the final edition. It was a you-remember-where-you-were moment. I was at Wrigley Field, covering the Cubs’ 6-1 victory over the Giants. Shaw let me know in a phone call that the party was over. I walked behind the press box to the hall where beat writers had storage lockers and rifled my scorebook against the wall. It was in midair when Joe Goddard of the Chicago Sun-Times walked out of the bathroom. I made the first paragraph of the Sun-Times’ story. Woo-hoo, look ma, I’m famous! And I’m scared to death, staring at a mortgage with three children to feed. Knisley remembers the moment that he learned the plank we walked for nearly a year-and-a-half was getting tossed into a bonfire: “We were in a budget meeting planning the next day’s paper in the middle of the afternoon. The meeting went an hour, hour-and-a-half, and when we came out of the meeting room, all the people in the newsroom were in tears, wringing their hands, tearing their hair out. We went out of business while planning the next day’s paper. We had to go back in and redo it.”
The corpse of The National wasn’t even cold yet when we all received one of Deford’s signed books in the mail with an identical message, scripted with that purple felt-tip pen and dated June 21, 1991: “Thanks for coming along with me on this wonderful adventure.”
If only he could have had an ear less tinny than Marie Antoinette’s.
When Shaw mentioned the “free” book to Ratto, he was corrected.
“That book cost me $75,” Ratto said. “I threw it through the window and had to buy a new window.”
Did you really throw “The World’s Tallest Midget: The Best of Frank Deford” through your window, Ray?
“No,” Ratto said. “I was just being an asshole. I mean, it seemed like he celebrated the end of The National by cleaning out his garage.”
Several hours after news broke of The National’s impending implosion, the Bulls defeated the Lakers for Jordan’s first NBA Championship. The headline suggestion I phoned in was rejected: “LAKERS FOLD AND SO DO WE.”
Four-and-a-half months earlier, Deford’s letter, written on the first anniversary of the launching and sent to staffers, intended to reassure us that the paper wasn’t in trouble. It did the opposite.
Shaw saved the letter. A sampling of its content:
“(rumors of demise spread by)...envious friends in the business.”
Envious of a seat on The Titanic?
And: “...at 7:30 in a press box somewhere some guy from the East Cupcake Gazette tells you it’s too bad that THE NATIONAL is being sold to the Medelin (sic) drug cartel and turned into a weekly international guns-and-ammo newsletter. And you not only believe the guy, but pass the story along as gospel.”
Yes, Frank, because cynical-by-nature sportswriters are just that gullible. By the way, here’s guessing the East Cupcake Gazette was easier for readers to find than The National.
Deford noted that a circulation decline could be traced largely to the cost increase from 50 cents to 75 cents: “...most of that comes from coin boxes, where people simply don’t have the right change. They will learn to bring more change.”
Why stop there? Why not set up 110 meters worth of high hurdles in front of each coin box? They will learn to count their steps. Let them eat cake, or in the case of the reporters at the Gazette, cupcakes.
From the letter’s final sentence: “...save your frequent flyer points to come to New York for the fabulous second anniversary party on January 31, 1992.”
By National standards, that qualified as improved budget management. The plan still called for spending for a lavish party, but this time they weren’t going to pay for our flights. We fell seven-and-a-half months and nine figures short of celebrating ourselves, yet again. Optimist that I am, I choose to look back on the bright side: Those frequent flyer miles, plus Marriott points accrued on the job, came in handy on a trip to Maui.
Based in Michigan City, Indiana, Tom Keegan is a freelance writer who has been on the staff of the Orange County Register, The National, New York Post and Lawrence Journal-World, among other newspapers.