Thursday, March 10, 2005

Boy, I'm just going to dine out on this guy for a week.

Few more stories Roger Kahn told Saturday night when he was reading from his new book, Beyond the Boys of Summer These are about life as a sportswriter.

Kahn started his career as a sportswriter at the New York Herald Tribune when he was 22 years old. One day shortly after he started he was covering a horse race at Belmont Park. The race was not exactly Seabiscuit against Man of War. No history, no drama. Kahn was in his box, desperately trying to come up with a lede to make his routine story interestering. In the box next to his was a veteran sportswriter for the New York Times, Joe Nichols. Nichols saw Kahn struggling. He leaned over and said, "Relax, kid. It ain't the Iliad."

Herald Tribune had a staff of sportwriters of uneven talent. Some were very good, like the young Red Smith and (though Kahn left his name out of it) the young Roger Kahn. Some were good at some kinds of stories, not so good at others. A few were good reporters but lousy writers. The Herald Tribune's Sports section's fine reputation was due to the editor, Stanley Woodward. Woodward was a kindly sort, a little too easy going, maybe, but he was insistent that his reporters write well.

One day the guy covering the Yankees turned in a story describing a game as "spine-tingling." Woodward blew his stack.

"Next time you want to call a game spine-tingling," he told the writer, making sure the rest of the sports desk heard, "You are first going out in the bleachers and ask every one of those fans if his spine actually tingled!"

Kahn's fairly certain the word "spine-tingling" never appeared in anybody's copy ever again.

Later in his career, Kahn was covering a story, which if it wasn't the Iliad, was at least a couple passages of it, a fight between Ingemar Johansson and Floyd Patterson in Miami, Patterson defending his heavyweight title against the Swede who'd taken it away from him once before. One of the celebrities down to see the fight was Max Schmeling, the German boxer who'd faced Joe Louis twice in the thirties in fights that were seen as symbolic of the coming war. Kahn happened to be on the spot to watch Schmelling causing a bit of a stir as he strolled down Collins Avenue, people applauding and coming up to Schmeling for his autograph, and he wrote about it. Remembering that Schmeling had been a paratrooper in the Wermacht during the war, Kahn wrote, "Shemeling, of course, was never a Nazi. As I get the picture, there were never more than six or seven Nazis in Germany. But they worked very hard."

Beautiful, but Kahn got nervous that it might upset some advertisters, thinking particularly of Volkswagen, so he put it deep inside his column.

Next time he saw his editor, Woodward asked him, "Why did you bury your lede?"

Still later in his career, like close to now, when Kahn was famous and could enjoy the perks of being one of the deans of sportswriting, he was down in Florida for Spring Training, looking in on the Yankees, and he got into a conversation with a young woman reporter for a second-tier newspaper. Kahn remembered what it had been like when he was a young nobody trying to get famous athletes to give him the time of day and he asked her if the Yankee players were treating her all right. She said they were ok to her, probably meaning she was just grateful they didn't treat a lot worse.

"Who's the nicest Yankee?" Kahn asked.

"Bernie Wiliams," she said, "He's the only one who seems to care if I live or die."

"What about Jeter?"

"He's polite," she said. "But his mind's always somewhere else when he talks to me."

"Who's the meanest Yankee?" Kahn said.

"Scott Brosius."

Kahn was agahst.

"Brosius? Brosius! He's not good enough to be mean!"


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