AN HOMAGE TO THE GLORY OF PRINT JOURNALISM — WARTS AND ALL

Burt Lancaster, an aging smalltime hood, strolls down the boardwalk with a California kid in Louis Malle’s 1980 film “Atlantic City.”

“Wow,” the kid marvels, “the Atlantic Ocean.”

“Ah,” Lancaster says wistfully, “you should have seen it back then.”

By Theodore N. Beitchman

Not everything was better in the old days.

But journalism sure was.

Before 2007 — when the real estate bubble burst and the economy tanked and Steve Jobs invented the iPhone — most consumers of what passes for news read newspapers, magazines and even books.

In print — the dead tree versions.

And journalism back then was way better and more respected.

On every level.

If you were a Philly sports fan you had the choice of great columnists like Larry Merchant and Stan Hochman at the Daily News and Sandy Grady at the DN and then the Bulletin; terrific beat reporters like George Kiseda, Mark Heisler, Alan Richman, Bob Vetrone, Ray Didinger and Joe McGinniss (yes, that Joe McGinniss, who asked Wilt Chamberlain a legitimately tough question after a playoff loss and then ran for his life, literally).

There was great competition in Philly.

And also between Time and Newsweek, which still exist today but in hardly recognizable versions.

I preferred Newsweek because it had better and more evocative writing — Time was too-tight-assed and an editor’s magazine, even rewriting reporters’ dispatches from Vietnam to suit proprietor Henry Luce’s pro-war stance.

Now and again Time would take a chance. Like putting Bruce Springsteen on the cover on October 27, 1975. But the article, written by one of its stars, Jay Cocks, was blown away by Maureen Orth’s in Newsweek, which also had a cover of the Boss on the same date.

Newsweek writers lit up the sky: Peter Goldman and Howard Fineman on politics, Ken Woodward on religion, Orth on anything cultural, back-page columnists George Will and Anna Quindlen, Pete Axthelm and Pete Bonventre on sports, Jon Meacham and Evan Thomas on history, Fareed Zakaria, who wrote the defining “Why Do They Hate Us?” after 9/11.

Which brings me to Diane K. Shah, whose memoir, “A Farewell to Arms, Legs & Jockstraps,” is an homage to the glory days of print journalism, warts and all.

It’s a quick and funny read, especially during these sports-lockdown days of fear and loathing.

I didn’t meet Shah at Newsweek, but at its sister pub Inside Sports back in 1980, where I was an editor and she was assigned a piece on Jim Rice, which is in the book.

So is the classic column Shah wrote about the Phils’ Steve Carlton for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, whose legendary editor Jim Bellows made Shah America’s first female newspaper sports columnist.

Mickey Mantle is one of the stars of Shah’s book, as are Paul Newman, Steven Spielberg and the shark from “Jaws,” Denzel Washington, George Steinbrenner, fellow-Indianans Larry Bird and David Letterman, Jim Brown’s dreaded balcony, Cary Grant at the race track, Sean Connery and Swifty Lazar, the gnome-like potentate who perfected Hollywood deal-making.

Not all are sports types, which is just as well, since, let’s be honest, most sports types tend to be dumber than dirt and boring as white bread, even the black ones.

Shah cut her journalism teeth at Roll Call, a D. C. rag for denizens of the institution formerly known as the United States Congress; then at Dow Jones’ National Observer, and then to Newsweek, before Bellows made history by hiring her at the Herald-Examiner, which already had a ballsy and first-rate sports section.

After six years in L.A., an underrated sports town, she left to write a slew of books and free-lanced for the New York Times magazine, the L. A. Times mag, GQ, ESPN and Esquire.

It’s hard to imagine today, when women are at least a 50-50 presence on ESPN, that 40 years ago it was edgy for a woman to enter a locker room. Let alone ask a tough question of the sensitivos who play games for a living.

And Shah endured lots of abuse and sexism and gender discrimination.

All three at once when she interviewed Rice, the Red Sox slugger who told her:

“I Wanna Make It Whichoo.

And that’s the title of Chapter 16.

Shah grew up on the north shore of Chicago and went to Indiana U., with a love of sports so intense she told the Indiana University Press: “When I was 14 years old, I decided to mail myself to Mickey Mantle.”

And:

“The stages of my career were shaped by a few lucky breaks. But perhaps the best answer is what Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett told me when I asked him (he was flirting with a .400 batting average) how he was hitting so well.”

Brett shook his head and laughed. “I have no idea.”

A similar conclusion arrived at by the great screenwriter William Goldman, who when asked what the key elements are to making a successful movie, answered:

“Nobody knows anything.”

He won screenplay Oscars for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “All the President’s Men,” and he wrote books too, including “Adventures in the Screen Trade.”

Goldman is the exception to this golden rule:

The printed word lasts longer and has more weight than movies or what passes for journalism today, with its Persian bazaar method and 400-word limit and opinions based on virtually no checked facts or actual interviews — you know, the words that are surrounded by quote marks.

Books and magazines afford writers time to think and reason.

Shah’s “Farewell” is proof of that, and her style slides seamlessly from benign to biting with the ease of a Paul Newman smile.

You can’t generally tell a book by its cover, let alone the puffy quotes you see on them, but “Farewell” has endorsements from Dodgers radio man Charley Steiner, Boston Globe star Dan Shaughnessy and Hollywood mogul and Warriors and Dodgers owner Peter Guber.

Pretty good company for a very good book.

———————

Full disclosure: I am indebted to Shah for 20 of the most fascinating minutes of my life.

I was the editor on her 1980 Jim Rice piece for Inside Sports, and we needed to get first-hand, objective judgment on Rice as a hitter.

As it happened, Ted Williams, considered the greatest natural hitter of all-time, was instructing Rice in spring training. So I called a tackle shop in Key West, left a message and said that Edward Bennett Williams had given me his number.

Ted loved Ed Williams, the primo Washington lawyer whom he had gotten to know when the Senators hired Ted as manager.

The thing was, you left a message with Stacia at the tackle shop, and Williams picked up all his messages when he came back from fly-fishing every day, tossing the messages that didn’t interest him and dialing the ones that did.

He called and gave me 15 minutes non-stop on what Rice did well and how he corrected what he didn’t do well. It was great fodder for the piece.

After a while, I got comfortable enough to personalize it:

“My dad told me that, after the Philadelphia A’s Al Simmons, you were the greatest hitter he ever saw.”

A pause.

“Well, you tell your fucking father that he’s fucking right — Al Simmons was the greatest fucking hitter I ever saw.”

As Sean Connery’s character in “The Untouchables” told Kevin Costner’s:

“Here endeth the lesson.

 

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