A Pocket of Resistance: Sports Commentary I

This post began as a “potpourri” of comments about the human side of sports, i hoped humorous and interesting, a collection of my thoughts on the weekend sports events and the commentary on sports tidbits from various sources (cited) i found to be interesting.

i decided i needed to explain my attitude about sports journalism. One of the major contributors to that attitude occurred during a hiring interview for a sports reporter. I felt how this interview came about required some background.

When the background information rambled into the fourth page, i realized it was too long to hold interest of many readers. The explanation will not be a short series of posts before i get to posting my original idea of a weekly commentary on sports, likely to be here on Sundays or Mondays.

Of course, this is my website, and i may just blow it all off and not publish anything of this nature after this one.

Way back one thousand years ago or so (January 1972), i became the sports editor of The Watertown Daily Times in upstate (and i mean UPSTATE) New York. It was a wonderful, too short experience before i returned to the sea. i had a dream, a vision if you will, about how a sports section should be presented to its readers. The vision was formed by learning from the journalism magic master coach, JB Leftwich at Castle Heights where The Cavalier won national awards almost every year and JB produced a gaggle of some of the best print journalists in the country. It was enhanced by a year of tutelage from the master, the immediate descendant of Grantland Rice, Fred Russell, legendary in his own right (or is it “rite”: Blythe Jewell, Ann Donnell, or Joe, Carla, or Kate Jewell, set me straight), at The Nashville Banner. Bob Roberts, the managing sports editor taught me the ropes of organization, layout, makeup, and production, while George Leonard and Waxo Green offered me advice and counsel in a gentle manner while giving me even more insight.

i wanted the Times  sports section to be the best of the mid-size daily papers in the country. John Johnson, my Vanderbilt friend who hired me to replace Jack Case, a sports editor of the old guard (never used “football field” or “coach” when “gridiron” or “mentor” was available) gave me the chance and support and provided me with the means to step forward from linotype and metal makeup to “cold print.”

i had no intention of letting the sports section drift toward a statistics monster, a Monday quarterbacking told-you-so analysis sheet, or a confrontational approach. i wanted my sports pages to be like Fred Russell’s: about athletes, about rising above the crowd, about winning the right way, about people, about drama, about humor, and most of all, about good literary journalism.

It was a challenge. With Jack gone, i was the sports department. Since the Times with a circulation of 45,000 served most of the upstate New York area, i wanted to have complete coverage of national sports as well as expand the coverage for local sports.

When i began at the paper the previous May, my salary was $125 a week. I was one month into marriage. We had a used 1964 Oldsmobile Cutlass i had bought from my father’s Pontiac dealership for $1000. Our rent for our two bedroom upstairs apartment was $105 a month. We had an old English Sheepdog named Snooks and soon added a cat we named BK (the names were taken from my aunt and uncle, Snooks Hall and Bettye Kate Hall who were second parents for the three Jewell children). My Navy reserve weekly meetings brought in another $150.

When i took over, we were expecting our child in July. i asked for a flat $200 a week to work the hours necessary to produce the best sports section possible and not be concerned with how many hours it took.

The Times did not have unions, but it had a guild. I was told the guild would not abide my not working at hourly wages. Perhaps in two or three years, i could advance to the management level and be paid a flat fee. I did not understand this line of reasoning, but i had been in the Navy, and i knew things did not often work in what made common sense to me.

The first week of being sports editor, i worked an absurd amount of hours. The Times was an afternoon newspaper, like The Banner – oh, how i miss afternoon newspapers. For afternoon papers, staff gets in early. This sports writer got in earlier than most.

I would get up at 4:00 (sort of like i do now, but now it’s because the old man doesn’t sleep more than six hours and goes to bed earlier than he ever dreamed he would do) and walk the long two blocks through snow and minus fifteen degrees, arriving before 5:00 a.m. – Sometimes, i would take the Cutlass, but it was frequently not visible under new snow in the parking area across the street.

The paper had to go to press by 10:00. Then, i would perform the usual administrative requirements, get ready for the next day, arrange for interviews, plan the schedule, and attend a post-production meeting with the general manager at 1:00. I would get home around 2:00, eat a quick lunch my wife had prepared and take an hour’s nap (i do have some good habits or traits from my father).

After waking up, i did some chores and often covered a local sports event or watched a game on television with the purpose of commenting on the national sports scene in the next day’s paper.

That first week, the work stretched to something like 70 hours. I took home over $300 for the period and felt like a rich man but also felt somewhat guilty. I wanted to make good money, but i didn’t want to get more than my share. What was important to me was producing high-quality, much-readable sports pages.

I repeated the process the second week. Management called me in and directed me not to work more than 50 hours a week.

This began my realization i was not going to make the money necessary to support my wife and child sufficiently in this line of work. i knew i could become a success financially if i stuck with it, but i recognized the time required to make it to financial well being was too long and would be too hard on them…and me. It was when i began considering asking the Navy to allow me to return to active duty. But that is another story.

For the next seven months, i worked all of the hours necessary to publish quality sports sections, usually over 60 hours. Each week, I reported 50 hours on my time sheet.

i wanted to have the Friday night scores in the Saturday  paper. There was no structure to do that. I brought in a student on high school sports nights to man the phone switchboard and take scores, statistics, and box scores from coaches and appointed individuals. When he was to start, i went to the daytime switchboard operator (after hours, the system went to what we now call voicemail and provided phone numbers for emergencies). I asked for instructions on running the switchboard, explaining my need to do so. She was aghast and said she couldn’t do such a thing without the business manager’s approval.

I went to the business manager seeking his approval. He denied responsibility and told me the general manager had to make the decision. I went to the general manager and he informed me he could not make that decision, that it was the general manager’s decision.

I stepped outside the general manager’s office, leaned back against the wall and considered my options. Then after waiting the appropriate time, i went back to the business manager and told him my plan was okay with the general manager if it was okay with him. He replied it was certainly okay with him if the general manager approved. I returned to the general manager and told him the business manager approved. I was blessed with the general manager’s final approval as well. From then on, high school scores were reported in the next day’s paper, not two days later – i am older now, can’t remember everyone’s names, and i am too lazy to look them up.

I have surpassed my limitation rule on length of a post. It is 6:00 a.m. i need a nap. This story will be continued.

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