A Sportswriting Christmas Story

The boy sat on a city bus at the end of another semester, Christmas approached, and he stared out the window and watched people talking and smoking in a business park. There were no illusions left. He wasn’t going to become an accountant like his mother had hoped. His accounting professors had made that clear with failing grades. Then, the boy had known the truth for a long time. Even the most basic accounting concepts eluded him. Credits. Debits. He just couldn’t get those clear in his mind. Weren’t debits good and credits bad? But then, why is it good when your account gets credited? And why was debit so close in spelling to debt? Mysteries.

The boy was 18 years old, and he knew only two things about himself. The first thing he knew was that he had no discernible talents. He couldn’t sing, write or draw. He wasn’t strong enough to impress anyone when he worked at the factory, wasn’t glib enough to sell anything to anybody, wasn’t ambitious enough to excel despite his shortcomings. He called himself average and strongly suspected that this was probably optimistic. He wasn’t quite average height, couldn’t see past his nose without glasses and already he was balding.

The second thing the boy knew about himself was that he loved sports.

It wasn’t much to go on. * * *

The boy owned an electric typewriter. His mother had purchased it for him from a store that was having a one-day going-out-of-business sale. That one day was October 19, 1980 — he would always remember the exact date because it was the day the Cleveland Browns played the Green Bay Packers, and the boy NEVER missed a Cleveland Browns game on television. On this day, the game was not on the television -- the game was not sold out -- and his mother proclaimed that this would be his one and only chance to ever get a typewriter … The family didn’t have much money, and this was a one-day offer only. After much agonizing, he decided to go to the store with his mother.

The store was packed — apparently other mothers had made similar ultimatums — but they found an electric typewriter in their price range. As they walked to the register, the boy heard whooping in the back. Brian Sipe had completed a last second touchdown pass to Dave Logan to give the Browns a miraculous victory. The boy saw it as a good sign.

Five years later, he walked off the city bus, got a ride to the apartment where the family lived until they could afford their own home. His father worked at the factory. His mother was at community college studying computer programming. He went to his room and crashed on his bed and stared at the ceiling. He was 18 years old, and he had run out of ideas. He thought about what he might do, and the only thought that made any sense at all to him was to do something involved in sports. But what? Sportswriter? Sportscaster? Were these even real jobs? He didn’t know anything about these things. He didn’t know anyone who knew anything about these things.

He looked over at his desk — there was his typewriter. He got off his bed, sat at his typewriter, and almost involuntarily began to write letters.

* * *

Letters. The boy didn’t know anyone to send letters to … he only knew OF people. There was a local radio personality he liked listening to in the evenings, a man named Gary Sparber. He seemed a nice man. The boy called the local radio station, WBT, and asked for an address. And then, he wrote Gary Sparber a letter asking if it was possible for a kid with no discernible talents to become a sportswriter or sportscaster.

To the boy’s amazement, Gary Sparber wrote back immediately.

“If you are good at sportscasting or sportswriting but not great at it, in my opinion, there is no point in going into it,” Sparber wrote. “The pay is small. The hours are long. Frankly you will do better as an accountant, much better I would guess. And even if you have the talent to be great, you will likely have to spend a good deal of time living far worse than you would as an accountant paying dues and never be sure if it would pay off.

“Ask yourself two questions: 1. Do you have the talent to make it big? 2. Do you have an intense enough desire to do it that you are willing to sacrifice, maybe for a long period of time, to get what you want?”

These were new questions, ones the boy turned over in his head again and again. He felt quite sure that he lacked the talent. And the desire? Well, that was a harder question. How badly did he want this? How badly did he want anything? On Sparber’s recommendation, he made a tape of himself announcing a game off the television and sent it off. Sparber politely pointed him toward sportswriting.

* * *

The boy’s favorite reading in the world was Bill Mazeroski’s Baseball magazine — it came out every year to preview the upcoming baseball season. The boy would go to the local newsstand (the perhaps grandiosely named “Newsstand International) just about every day of winter to see if Bill Mazeroski Baseball had arrived. In the front of the magazine was an address (way out in Washington State) and the name of an editor — Doug Weese. The boy sat at his typewriter and wrote Mr. Weese a letter asking how he might become a sportswriter.

Once again, the boy was amazed. Mr. Weese wrote back.

“If I were doing it over again,” Mr. Weese wrote the boy, “I think I’d choose a college major that would help broaden my knowledge of WHAT to write about. For example, take the journalism and English classes to develop your writing ability but “major” in business (if I wanted to be a business writer) or education, political science or psychology (depending on what field you were headed). A solid background in history, for example, would come in very handy for any sort of writing, including sports. When it’s evident a sportswriter is literate in more areas than tackles, home runs and three-point plays, he/she offers much more to readers.

“When I’m looking to hire a writer, my first concern is that he/she can write. Where or how they learned is not important. At the same time, college is a great environment to develop those writing skills while still having the opportunity to gain experience by working on a newspaper part-time.”

The boy read this letter again and again, as if trying to commit it all to memory. Did he know enough about history and stuff to offer much as a sportswriter? Well, he HAD memorized the Gettysburg Address. He had done that for a school musical where a particularly ambitious teacher had set the whole thing to music. Four score and seven years ago. Cha cha cha. The boy tried to remember other stuff he had learned.

Could he write? Nobody had told him that he could. Then again, as he thought about it, nobody had ever told him that he couldn’t write. He began to read with a little bit different eye. How did J.D. Salinger do that thing where he had Holden Caufield talking too loudly and then too quietly without actually mentioning how loudly he was talking? How did the local sports columnist, Tom Sorensen, get so many jokes into a column? How did Frank Deford make his sentences read fast and then slow and then fast again, like he was a conductor?

These were things he had never thought about before. He had never paid attention in his English classes. Could he write? He began sitting at his typewriter and trying … silly things, baseball previews about his Cleveland Indians, movie reviews, short stories with obvious twists at the end. Could he write? He didn’t know, but he began to enjoy trying.

* * *

The boy didn’t get many magazines, but he began looking in the front of them to see if there were addresses where he could send a letter. He subscribed to Sports Illustrated, the Sporting News and Cleveland Browns News/Illustrated. He wrote to Ray Yannucci, editor of Browns News/Illustrated.

“It is my suggestion that you enroll yourself in the school of journalism,” Ray wrote back. “To make it big in this business you almost must have a college degree. I would also encourage you to find part-time work at your local papers, or find some free-lance writing assignments. If you go to college, work on the school paper. In summary, get as much practical experience as you can.”

This advice made sense to the boy. He had not thought about writing to the local paper, the Charlotte Observer. He called the paper to get the address and the name of the sports editor. Then he wrote to a man named Frank Barrows. The boy did not realize that Frank Barrows would change his life.

* * *

Before he wrote to Frank Barrows, though, he wrote to Jim Beckett, who was the editor and publisher and guru of Beckett Monthly, a baseball card magazine. Jim Beckett had been on the cutting edge of a growing phenomenon in America — the rising value of baseball cards. For many years, baseball cards had been for children, they had been pieces of cardboard you flipped and traded and put in your bicycle wheel spokes. But those children grew older, and baseball cards were tinged with nostalgia for better days, and people began paying real money to get them again. Jim Beckett began publishing an annual price guide which became the bible for card dealers and collectors. And then, the prices would fluctuate enough that he began updating them every month in his magazine.

The boy somewhat obsessively collected cards — he had particular interest in his Cory Snyder rookie cards — and so he had a couple of Beckett Monthly magazines in his room. He found the address in the front and sent off a letter. Incredibly, Jim Beckett himself wrote back to say that the boy was welcome to submit a baseball article and, if accepted, the magazine would pay three cents a word.

The boy raced to his typewriter — this was his big moment. But what to write? He didn’t know. What kind of baseball story would interest a baseball card magazine? And then, it hit him. Baseball cards go up in value when the player is elected to the Hall of Fame. The boy decided to write an article about which players would go to the Hall of Fame. He decided to start with the American League because he knew it better.

He had no idea how to write such a story. He went through his baseball cards and looked at the numbers on the back. And then, he began to write:

“It is the ultimate dream of every ballplayer,” he wrote. “It’s baseball’s highest compliment. To be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame means a spot in baseball history, next to Ruth, Cobb, Williams and Aaron.”

The rest of the story was, if anything, more cliched. The boy sent off 1,231 words. A few weeks later, he received a check for $36.93. He also received a request for him to write the same kind of story for National League players. Not long after that, he received the magazine with Dwight Gooden on the cover. He opened the cover and saw his name among the staff writers. There was a note written below from Jim Beckett: “Thanks for your article.”

The boy's astonishment could not be reduced to words.

* * *

Frank Barrows had been one of the best sportswriters in the country particularly when it came to college basketball. He wrote a famous story about Dean Smith in the late 1970s, one that concluded Smith was brilliant at building a program but perhaps was not suited to making the most of his great talent at tournament time. Dean Smith’s teams had been to numerous Final Fours, but they did not win the big one. The story struck a nerve with Dean Smith, so much so that when North Carolina finally won the championship in 1982 (with the freshman Michael Jordan), Smith called out Frank’s story in his postgame press conference.

“A bright writer in Charlotte once said the reason I hadn’t won a national championship was because of my system,” Smith said. “Now I can finally say that’s ridiculous.”

Writing, though, was hard for Frank Barrows. Each article he wrote felt like a war. He later would tell the boy — in one of their many thought-provoking lunches — that he literally had to tie himself to a chair, using real rope, just so that he would stay seated and keep writing. Barrows felt like he was losing his war with writing and in the early 1980s he became an editor and then the Charlotte Observer’s sports editor.

He wrote back to the boy: “I can tell you there are lots of opportunities in sports journalism — newspaper circulation is growing — and what it takes to succeed in this field is a willingness to work with great intensity. … By that I mean 12-hour days some of the time and 50-hour weeks pretty regularly. It is not a 9-to-5 job, and it is not a Monday-through-Friday job. It involves night and weekend work on a fairly consistent basis.

“The only way to tell if you have the ability is to try your hand at the work. Because we are frequently in need of stringers — people who occasionally cover a sports event for us for, say, $35 — we can give you an opportunity to see how you might do. If you will contact assistant sports editor David Scott, he will talk with you about taking on a game assignment.”

At the time, the boy worked in the photo department at a department store. He was getting $4 an hour. He sat in a tiny room and called people through the evening to ask when they would like to schedule a photo shoot so that they could get their free 5 x 7 portrait. This was a miserable job, but it was better than the factory job. He’d also worked for a mortgage company; the job was to call delinquent customers and try to set up payment. The photo studio job was better than that one too.

Thirty-five dollars to write a sports story sounded like the greatest deal in the world.

* * *

David Scott sent the boy to West Mecklenburg to write about a girls basketball game between West Meck and West Charlotte. Scott asked the boy for six to eight grafs. The boy had no idea that “grafs” meant “paragraphs,” — he thought the newspaper expected actual graphs about the game, and this panicked him for much too long. When that “Three’s Company” misunderstanding was finally quelled, the boy went to the game and scribbled his first live sports story on a yellow legal pad. He called in his dictation:

“It took a few quick steals, some timely free throws and two overtimes to give West Charlotte a 57-44 victory over West Mecklenburg in girls Tri-County action Friday.

“The game was close throughout. The Indians jumped to an 8-2 lead and were up 12-8 at the end of the first quarter. But they were then bothered by the West Charlotte press.

“We are a better team when we are pressing and running,” said West Charlotte coach Gayle Fox. “We slowed it up a little to stay away from turnovers, but we really like to run with the ball and the press helped us.”

The next morning, the boy woke up at 5 a.m. and waited outside for the newspaper. He danced around when he saw his story. He was an actual sportswriter. He called Frank Barrows to thank him, and Barrows said that he had done well for a first-timer and that if interested, the paper could send him to another game. The boy was so absurdly thrilled that he spluttered yes, and began calling poor David Scott every single day to ask for an assignment. Before that, he called the photo studio and quit.

* * *

The boy’s college did not offer a journalism major, but it did have a newspaper, a weekly tabloid called ‘The 49er Times.” He had never been the type of person to try out for things, but something about the letters he kept receiving animated him. He went to the office and met the new student media advisor, a brilliant man named Wayne Maikranz, who had just received his master's degree from Ball State. Wayne explained that there just might just be an opening for sports editor. He did not explain that nobody else at the entire school wanted the job.

The two would sit in Maikranz’s office for hours and just talk about writing. The boy made plenty of dreadful mistakes. He misspelled some names. He pasted his copy in crooked and cropped his photos way too tight. And he took cheap shots, silly and mean college things. One of those cheap shots was at the pep band, which led to him receiving his first critical letter (“I hope you get hit by a bus”). Wayne Maikranz said there were two lessons. One was that every person you write about is a real person with real feelings, and it’s the writer who must decide how to handle that information. “You can take cheap shots if you want — a lot of writers do,” he said. “But you have to ask yourself: Is that who you are? Is that the kind of writer you want to become?”

The second lesson, he said, was that sportswriters will always have readers who hope they get hit by busses.

* * *

All the while, the boy kept writing letters to strangers and kept getting letters back.

“The key to this business,” the Washington Post sports editor George Solomon wrote, “is getting the opportunity to write and edit and making the most of one’s opportunities.”

“There is no great secret to impart,” the Boston Globe’s sports editor Vince Doria wrote. “Write as much as you can. Seek out summer internships. Meet as many people in the business as you can.”

“I think the best advice I could offer is that you stand fast by your aspiration to be a writer,” wrote Thom Greer, sports editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Read as much about as many things by as many good writers as you can consume.”

“Keep up the hard work,” wrote NBC’s Bob Costas. “We share some of the same perspectives on baseball. Just keep writing from the heart.”

Jane Bachman Wulf, Chief of Reporters at Sports Illustrated — the mountaintop of sportswriting — sent the boy a long letter filled with practical advice. “Get some experience writing,” she wrote. “Look into summer internships. Develop your reportorial skills. Gain a facility with the language and an understanding of what writing is all about.”

The boy began to learn about different writers styles. He was particularly fond of the Boston Globe’s Leigh Montville and wrote a letter admitting that he tried to copy Montville’s style. Montville wrote back: “Everybody copies the style of writers they admire,” he wrote. “You keep doing that, copying the people you like, until one day, like a rose emerging from the snow, you find that you have your own voice.”

The assignments at the Charlotte Observer grew bigger. He covered his first tennis tournament. He covered his first swimming meet. He covered his first ACC football game. The paper hired him to work in a bureau in Rock Hill, S.C. Frank Barrows sent him letters with small pieces of advice. The new sports editor, Gary Schwab, sent him a note encouraging him to trust what he saw. Foster Davis, a genius of a writing coach, sent him a typewritten note that simply said: “Make people see.”

When the boy was 24 years old, a wonderful old Chicago newspaperman named Dennis Sodomka hired him to write a sports column for The Augusta Chronicle. “Write from your heart,” Sodomka wrote him.

* * *

On Christmas Eve this year, the man walked into the attic in search of something. The man did not go into the attic much, not since he stepped in the wrong spot and pushed his foot through his bedroom ceiling. This attic, unlike most attics, was immaculately organized because the man’s wife is that sort of person. While looking for something else, the man came across three boxes, each roughly the size of Victorian bathtubs. Each box was labeled: Letters. The man came from the last generation of sportswriters who received real letters.

He opened up the first and, without realizing it at first, began reading through the last 30 years of his life. There were words on cards and gorgeous stationary and half-ripped scraps of paper. There were letters written in pencil, in pen, in pink in, in crayon — letters typed, some immaculately typed by secretaries, some by people whose typewriters clearly had a broken caps lock. There was a 12-page handwritten letter — back and front — from a man in jail who wanted a sportswriter to know that he was turning his life around.

There were some treasures — a five-page handwritten note from AFL Founder Lamar Hunt, a marvelously tidy letter from Vin Scully, several beautiful notes from NFL Films’ Steve Sabol, a gorgeous and heartbreaking letter from Dallas Green, a card from a future pro bowler Terence Newman signed “From your biggest fan.” He found a Dale Murphy autograph from when he was a boy, and he found a letter from NFL defensive coaching legend Gunther Cunningham after the birth of his first daughter.

“Enjoy the game,” Cunningham had written, “and remember the scoreboard is for the fans.”

And there were some angry letters, some “Hope you get hit by a bus letters” — but not as many as you might expect. Mostly they were just kind letters from kind people, letters of encouragement, letters of curiosity, letters of helpful advice. English teachers. Truck drivers. Retirees. Kids.

And then, the man came upon a folder labeled: “Advice.” He opened it up … and there were all these letters from all these people, Doug Weese and George Solomon and Frank Barrows and Jane Bachman Wulf, Leigh Montville and Dave Kindred and Vince Doria and Gary Sparber, people who didn’t know him, people who had more important things to do. They saved him, those people did.

The man was crying a little when he came to the last letter. It was written much later than the others — 15 years later, after the boy had grown up to become a real live sportswriter. It was written not by a writer or editor but by a groundskeeper, George Toma, who at age 85 still prepares the field for the Super Bowl every year. The man was not sure why his wife had filed this under “advice,” but then he read this part:

“At age 72,” Toma wrote, “I’m still an underdog. That’s what I love about you. You’ve always been for the underdog. Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you think you’re an underdog too.”