The Chicago Sound: Talking Windy City Sportswriting with Ron Rapoport

Sportswriting as we know it more or less began in Chicago. A new anthology shows how it grew up, and grew with the times, in the Windy City.
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Chicago may not have produced as many championship teams as New York City and Los Angeles, but the Second City is second to none in producing legendary teams, players and characters. There's the Black Sox, Da Bears, and Da Bulls; Sid Luckman, Hack Wilson, Ernie Banks, Mike Ditka, Dick Butkus, and Michael Jordan; Bill Veeck, Harry Caray, and, yes, Steve Bartman.

 

Many of the writers who've chronicled the city's sports scene are equally legendary: Ring Lardner, Jerome Holtzman, John Schulian, Bob Verdi, Rick Telander, Sam Smith, to name a few. Arch Ward created the modern All-Star game while toiling in Chicago, while Frank "Fay" Young brought a dignified fury to the pages of the Chicago Defender.

 

Ron Rapoport was part of this Chicago sports elite. Between stints as a columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News, Rapoport was a classy stylist and acute eye for the Chicago Sun-Times for more than two decades. He was a longtime commentator for NPR's Weekend Edition show, and wrote and/or edited such books as "The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones and the Golden Age of Golf"and "A Kind of Grace: A Treasury of Sportswriting by Women."

 

Rapoport 's latest endeavor is an invaluable and entertaining anthology entitled From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago's Best Sportswriting from the Tribune, Sun-Times, and Other Newspapers (The University of Chicago Press). The book contains 100 articles from 59 writers and, as the title indicates, spans from Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance to Derrick Rose.

I caught up with Rapoport via email to ask him about Ring Lardner's forgotten idol, the sports coverage in the legendary African-American weekly the Chicago Defender, and why Chicago sportswriting just sounds different.

How long did it take for you to research this book? Did this involve sitting in front of microfilm machines for months on end or was it more that you sought out articles on specific topics or articles by specific writers?

A lot of the “research” involved calling my friends who wrote sports columns in Chicago from the time I arrived there in the late 1970s to the present. I know and worked with just about all of them and when they responded with the work they were proudest of, I was off and running. This was a very rich period not only for subject matter—Ditka’s Bears, Jordan’s Bulls, various and assorted Cubs disasters and more—but also for the writers. John Schulian, Rick Telander, Bob Verdi, David Israel, Mike Downey, Skip Bayless, Mike Royko and Bob Greene from time to time, and on and on. I honestly think it was a golden age of Chicago sportswriting.

When it came to earlier eras, I caught a break because the entire run of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Defender has been digitized. That let me browse for the writers and events I was looking for and cut down on the time I had to spend spooling microfilm at the Chicago Public Library.

At first, my idea was to organize the book by writers and include everyone who ever wrote a general interest sports column for a Chicago newspaper. And while I think I’ve come pretty close—I know of a few I’ve missed and there may be more—it soon became clear that the book could be two things: a gathering of so many great writers in one place and a sort of anecdotal history of Chicago sports in which many of the great players and events, and some of the famous disasters, would be included.

Is sportswriting in Chicago different than in other cities? Maybe another way to ask that is: did sportswriting develop differently in Chicago than other cities?

Well, Hugh Fullerton, who started covering sports in Chicago in the 1890s, wrote a piece for the Saturday Evening Post in 1928 in which he said that sportswriting as we know it today began in Chicago. “The papers in Chicago in those days were unlike any printed anywhere else,” Fullerton wrote. “They were written largely in the language that the wild growing young city understood… There was nothing sedate or dignified about them except the editorial pages and the stockyard reports. They were boisterous, at times rough; they lacked dignity, perhaps, but they were readable, entertaining and amusing.”

In contrast, Fullerton said, sportswriters in other cities tended to be ponderous, viewing the games as solemn occasions and using their articles to show off their knowledge. The other cities soon caught up, of course, but Chicago seems to have pointed the way.

The book includes articles from several writers who are no longer well known. For instance, who was Charles Dryden and why was he once the highest-paid sportswriter in the country?

I had never heard of Dryden, either, but when I discovered that Ring Lardner looked up to him—as a young baseball writer, he followed Dryden around so much that the players started calling him “Charlie’s Hat”—I knew he had to be in the book. Stanley Walker, the editor of the New York Herald-Tribune, said Dryden “probably deserves to be called the father of modern sportswriting” and Hall of Fame baseball writer Fred Lieb said he “towered over the baseball writers of his day and since as Mark Twain towered contemporary humorists.” Pretty heavy stuff, right?

But Dryden is credited with inventing the words “pinch-hit,” “ballyard,” and “horsehide.” He called the 1906 White Sox “the hitless wonders,” Charles Comiskey “the Old Roman” and Fred Merkle “Bonehead.” And it was Dryden who wrote of the Washington Senators, “First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.” My problem was he tended to move around between cities and newspapers and it was hard to locate his work. But as I was looking for a column on Babe Ruth’s 1-0 shutout over the Cubs in the 1918 World Series, there he was on microfilm with a column for the Chicago Herald-Examiner. It’s a perfect example of Dryden’s work, going on for paragraph after paragraph about everything under the sun except the great baseball game he was supposedly covering.

Were there certain writers and/or certain articles that popped out and "demanded" to be included in this book?

I put together a list of writers from my era and the one just before it whose names I knew. I was so happy to get acquainted with the work of Jack Griffin, John P. Carmichael, Warren Brown, Brent Musburger—yes, that Brent Musburger—the great Wendell Smith and others. Again, my aim was to be inclusive. As for articles that popped out, I’d point to James Crusinberry’s pieces for the Tribune on the Black Sox that were written as the World Series was being played. The fix didn’t come to light until a year later, remember, but when you read Crusinberry’s conversations after the games with an agonized Kid Gleason, the Sox manager, you knew something was wrong.

As for columns that demanded to be in the book, there are two of my favorite Mike Royko sports columns—on Jackie Robinson’s first game at Wrigley Field and on his reaction to a book written by the Mets’ Keith Hernandez. The first one is breathtakingly brilliant and the second is the funniest sports column I have ever read. Those two columns tell you everything you need to know about Royko. Another column that I felt had to be in the book was the one by Diane Simpson, a former U.S. Olympic rhythmic gymnast who later worked for the Sun-Times, about her battle with eating disorders. It is the most terrifying first-person description of the pressures elite athletes face that I can ever remember reading.

What was it like to read through back issues of the Chicago Defender? How much space did the newspaper devote to sports?

The Defender devoted quite a bit of space to sports. I think the editors realized not only that their readers enjoyed sports but also that sports had a lot to say about race relations in America. The one issue the paper devoted itself to was the fight to integrate baseball. There are two pieces in the book on that subject, by Frank A. Young and Al Monroe, and what strikes you is how long the battle went on. Monroe’s piece is from 1933 and he teases the Cubs about the fact they were outdrawn almost two-to-one by the Negro Leagues All-Star Game at Comiskey Park the same day.

And Young, who became the Defender’s sports editor when the paper started in 1909, wrote an excruciating column in 1942 in which he describes trying to get an audience with Judge Landis and the major-league owners at the winter meetings in Chicago to press his case for integration. He was treated, Young wrote, like a polecat in the hotel.

You read these articles and you realize two things. One is that breaking baseball’s color bar didn’t start with Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey. The second is how completely the white press ignored the entire subject until very late in the game. It was the black press that carried the fight year after year.

What most surprised you in compiling the articles for the book? Did you have to leave out some great material for space purposes?

One nice surprise was realizing that Joe Louis won the heavyweight championship from James J. Braddock in Comiskey Park. Wait until you see how the Defender handled that one. But I think the biggest surprise was seeing how certain constraints and traditions affected the work of earlier generations of sportswriters. Nobody went to the locker room after the games, of course, but beyond that there was little investigative reporting and almost no in-depth features of the kind that, beginning in the 1960s, would soon fill newspapers. I went through the entire run of the Chicago Tribune, for instance, and couldn’t find a single long feature about Sid Luckman or Barney Ross or Hack Wilson. I’m not saying that the sportswriters who came later were better craftsmen—they weren’t—but we’re all a product of our times and that’s how they worked back then. As for leaving out great material, it makes me sad to think about it. There was just so much good stuff I didn’t have room for. I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with the 100 pieces by 59 writers that are in the book.

What's next for you? Do you want to replicate the format of this book in other cities?

The format would certainly work for other cities: Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles certainly, and I have a feeling that a collection of San Francisco sportswriting would make for great reading. But somebody else will have to do them. I’ve had my fun and I think if anybody puts together those books, it should be writers who worked in those cities and have a strong sense of their sports lore and tradition.


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