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The Write Stuff
2008-02-21 05:25
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

Over at Yankees for Justice, Todd Drew writes about going to see Jimmy Breslin speak at the Barnes and Noble on 66th street, across the street from Lincoln Center, and just a few blocks north from where bar-restaurants like The Ginger Man and Saloon and O'Neal's Ballon used to stand (bars where guys like Breslin, and my father, drank):

"Would you be a newspaperman if you were just starting out today?" I ask.

"That's a good one," he says. "The game's changed and there's probably no room for a guy like me."

He pauses for a moment and then really gets rolling.

"Pick up any newspaper in the morning," Breslin says. "Count the words in the lead sentences. There will be at least 25 in all of them: Guaranteed. The writers just want to tell you how many degrees they have from this college or that university.

"Steinbeck would use 12 words in the first sentence," he continues. "Mailer 15 words. Hemingway five. That's because they had respect for their readers. It may sound like I'm being hard on colleges and that's because I am. None of them have any idea how to teach people to write. They have wrecked the business."

The business has certainly changed. And it is still changing. Here is Frank Deford, who along with Dan Jenkins was the most celebrated of the old Sports Illustrated writers, in an on-line interview:

Given the flux in the whole journalism industry, I'd be presumptuous to advise any young student quite what to do. It's too fluid right now. All I could safely say is that if you have talent, you will succeed, but in what venue I have no idea. You got to be quick on your feet now and be instinctive in choosing the right journalistic path for you. And then it will probably require a switch somewhere down the road.

Nothing stays the same--the nature of business, art, the city. But that shouldn't stop us from appreciating the great tradition of newspaper and magazine writing. The Star-Ledger has a wonderful, eight-part tribute to Jerry Izenberg's 55 years in the business. Video clips are included along with Izenberg's memory pieces. In the second installment, he talks about his mentor, Stanley Woodward, the famed sports editor for the New York Herald Tribune. (Woodward wrote a wonderful memoir, Paper Tiger, introduced by John Schulian. Roger Kahn devotes an entire chapter to Woodward in his recent memoir, Into My Own.)

Also, in case you missed it when it ran late last summer, here is Mark Kram's poignant memoir piece about his father, also Mark Kram. The elder Kram was a gifted but troubled star writer for SI in the sixtes and seventies--his piece on the "Thrilla in Manilla" is widely anthologized:

What I remember now is his back, the way it dampened with an enlarging oval of perspiration as he sat with his big shoulders crouched over the typewriter. Steeped in piles of newspapers and assorted coffee cups corroded with tobacco ash, he labored amid a drifting cloud of pipe smoke in Room 2072 wrapping up a piece on the National Marbles Tournament, which would later be included in The Norton Reader. I remember him chasing away a young woman that day who'd come early for his copy. Even at 17 I had to laugh, because he used every second allotted to him by a deadline, be it an hour or weeks. He'd get up, jam his pipe into his pocket, and pace, up this corridor, down the other, light his pipe and end up back at his office, where his typewriter remained with the same piece of paper in it on which 12 words had been written. His editor Pat Ryan refers to this as "stall walking" — what jittery thoroughbreds do to calm down – but eventually that sweat and tobacco paid off in prose that was like slipping into a velvet boxing robe.

Managing editor Andre Laguerre unlatched whatever raw abilities Dad possessed. The legendary Frenchman did not care if he had been to Georgia for three years or even three hours; in fact, a "Letter from the Publisher" in March, 1968 played up the phony telegram he concocted at The Sun as the act of a resourceful imagination. Laguerre divined in him a deep reservoir of moody sensitivities that could swell into uncommonly seductive prose. That became abundantly clear as his work developed in the ensuing years in an array of sharply observed pieces, none better than his 1973 profile of the forgotten Negro League star Cool Papa Bell called "No Place in the Shade." That story begins: "In the language of jazz, the word gig is an evening of work: sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, take the gig as it comes, for who knows when the next will be. It means bread and butter first, but a whole lot of things have always seemed to ride with the word: drifting blue light, the bouquet of leftover drinks, spells of odd dialogue and most of all a sense of pain and limbo. For more than anything the word means black, down-and-out-black, leavin'-home black, gonna-find-me-a-place-in-the-shade black." Dad would come to think of that piece as his finest effort at SI.

But it would be his work on the boxing beat that would bring him acclaim. Down through the years, few in that Ruyonesque galaxy of unrepentant rogues were spared the sharp point of his critical lance, including Ali, his entourage, the new Madison Square Garden, and rival promoters Bob Arum and Don King. "Boxing is a world of freebooters," says Mort Sharnik, who covered boxing with Dad at SI. "And in that realm Mark was looked upon with much apprehension." And yet as cynical as Dad could be, I think Sharnik is on to something when he says that he was oddly naïve. "Whenever you told him something, he would draw on his pipe and cock his eye in this skeptical way," says Sharnik. "But a true cynic would not have allowed himself to be drawn in by some of the questionable characters Mark did. In that way there was always some rube in him."

Speaking of the old days, Bob Ryan edited The Best of Sport a few years ago, a good introduction to guys like Arnold Hano, Myron Cope and Ed Linn.

If you like that sort of thing...

Comments
2008-02-21 06:27:29
1.   Sliced Bread
The Izenberg retrospective was great, and the Star Ledger website did a nice job with his audio. I especically enjoyed his stuff about Wellington Mara, and Vince Lombardi.
2008-02-21 06:35:38
2.   Alex Belth
Yeah, I didn't know Izenberg gave the eulogy at Larry Doby's funeral either. Very interesting stuff...
2008-02-21 07:21:09
3.   JohnBlacksox
No offense, but can we go back to talking about Yankee baseball? Spring training has started already.

Your last 3 articles have been:
- Jimmy Breslin appears at B&N.
- Some writer at GQ with a "Godfather" angle on Hank.
- Touting a 1987 HBO movie.

None of this has much of anything to do with Yankee baseball.

Just for point of reference, Lohud's last 3 articles:
- Tabata as a prospect
- ARod's latest drama
- Girardi's clubhouse rules

That's stuff I want to read.

Sorry to be negative, but the literary reviewing and non-Yankee stories have gotten excessive. People don't come here for Jimmy Breslin sightings. I'm ready for some "Bronx banter" again.

2008-02-21 07:28:36
4.   Todd Drew
That lead from "No Place in the Shade" reads like the poetry of Langston Hughes or Willie Perdomo.

Most will work their whole lives and never write that kind of lead. That's what makes the greats great.

2008-02-21 07:30:56
5.   Josh Wilker
3 : For what it's worth, I love the Breslin sightings, the '87 HBO movie reviews, the links to great sportswriting of all stripes, etc.
2008-02-21 07:41:38
6.   wsporter
3 Actually over the years most of us have in fact come here for exactly that content. Right click at Lohud if your Jonesing dude.

0 As always, great post Alex, and thanks. I still have the Thrilla piece in my stuff. A great memory.

2008-02-21 07:50:54
7.   Bama Yankee
3 "People don't come here for Jimmy Breslin sightings"

No offense, but people don't come here to read about posters trashing Alex Belth's topic selections either.

If Alex wanted to write about his trip to the corner market to buy a bag of potato chips, then that is okay with me (the way he writes, that would probably be a pretty cool read, btw).

I agree with 5 & 6 keep up the good work Alex.

2008-02-21 07:57:49
8.   Alex Belth
Yeah, we write what interests us, and hopefully, you guys. If you don't like it, just skip to the next site. We're not Lo Hud nor would we pretend to be. For the latest news, River Ave Blues and a host of other sites update far more often than we do. Once, the season starts, we'll be doing games every day.
2008-02-21 08:04:27
9.   williamnyy23
3 While idolatry of sportswriters isn't my favorite topic either (ok, I admit it. I can't stand Pat Jordan), I think Alex does a great job weaving in more broad topics around the Yankee content. Considering how much effort he puts into this blog, I don't see the rationale for complaining about a few posts you don't like. I am a big advocate of simply ignoring what you aren't interested in (that goes for bloggers and commenters), so why not pass this post up and check back later?
2008-02-21 08:04:51
10.   williamnyy23
By the way, the Rays proposed new stadium looks awesome:

http://tinyurl.com/yq7hlj

2008-02-21 08:34:29
11.   Nick from Washington Heights
Posts like this are one of the reasons I visit Bronx Banter!

Here's a question to people in the know. I have to say that I find Frank Deford a bit pretentious. This is based on the pieces of his I have read in recent years. Has the quality of hos work changed over time. Is his earlier stuff much better, or is there a chance that he's not the writer for me?

2008-02-21 08:40:26
12.   Josh Wilker
11 : I'm not in the know, but I agree with you about Deford. He never really did it for me.
2008-02-21 08:44:17
13.   Josh Wilker
e.g, If Deford and not Kram had been assigned the Thrilla in Manilla story you wouldn't as a reader have been catapulted to the grisly heart of that fight, I don't think, but would have felt sort of cornered, as if at a party, by a know-it-all telling you his take on the thing. Norman Mailer has always kind of struck me similarly, but then again I'm probably being unfair since I haven't read that much Mailer and can't really point to any specific examples of Deford Defording it up.
2008-02-21 08:51:42
14.   wsporter
11 I loved his stuff when I was a kid; I think it made me feel grown up when I could begin to decipher what the hell he was talking about. Lately he's come across as pretty pretentious and kind of pedantic to me. Each time I hear him I feel like my old man is giving me a lecture about the last thing I managed to screw up. He's not my favorite. I'm getting to be kind of cranky myself so who am I to talk. He's supposed to be a pretty good guy though and does a bunch of charity stuff so who knows.
2008-02-21 08:55:09
15.   Shaun P
7 Alex wrote that "corner store for chips" piece once, except it was about a trip to a Zabars when he was a kid - and it, and the discussion it spawned, was one of my favorite posts, Alex.

3 Since no one else has said it, the post on the GQ article was written by Cliff, not Alex - and how an interview with Hank Steinbrenner doesn't have anything to do with "Yankee baseball" is beyond me.

Which means Alex's last 3 posts were this one, the one about Lone Gone, and this one (http://tinyurl.com/2jbxut) - from all of 2 days ago. Subject: Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada. Just so the record is straight.

2008-02-21 09:09:34
16.   Chyll Will
Don't change a thing, Alex; it's what sets you apart from many of the other sites. With all the info around about such things, why would anyone come and complain about not getting enough of what everyone else has already said? You want specific, up-to-date info, go to LoHud; Pete specializes in that and why many other bloggers (us included) go to him for the insight. But here, you get classical literature and statistical analysis like a well-blended cup of coffee while your out on the field! It's one thing to respect Alex and Cliff's perspectives over others, but it's quite another to demand that either one restrict it to rhetoric. Deneuve!

I don't know why exactly why I feel conflicted about Breslin; he's apparently been a fine writer for so long, but Uncle Woodrow dislikes him for crossing the picket lines during the newspaper strike. I certainly agree with his assessment that less is more; when I read or try to write a screenplay, I always look at how a character can communicate with the least amount of words as possible, via business with some object or a certain look and/or gesture. In literature, I like being allowed to imagine the character's thought or reactions to circumstances, as if I'm right there with him/her. In a newspaper, the columnist or writer should be my guide, not my principal. I don't know about anyone else, but that's what I like and look for in the same places I always go.

Alex, you write like a buddy helping a blind friend see. For that, you can write anything you want. >;)

2008-02-21 09:11:17
17.   Chyll Will
14 Ahh, that's got to be it. Thanks...
2008-02-21 09:17:13
18.   williamnyy23
16 Well said...also, in 9 , I didn't mean to exclude Cliff. Without blowing too much smoke, Alex and Cliff collectively make Bronx Banter one of the few must-reads in my daily routine. Maybe one day in the future, someone will be posting anthologies from Bronx Banter on whatever technological device takes over from the internet?
2008-02-21 09:17:39
19.   Alex Belth
I'm not well versed enough in Deford's stuff to have a real opinion, but what I have read has struck me as over-blown. I want to read some of his older pieces though, just to see what they were like.
2008-02-21 09:23:30
20.   The Mick 536
Reading sports books, especially books about the Janks, can expand one's knowledge of the game as much as seeing or hearing the game. The hot stove league is a great time to catch up. Baseball is more than a box score.

Didn't Alex write about the Linn book on Steinbrenner a few years ago? The book was a source of my comments about Ellie Howard. Linn is a spectacular writer and his book is a must for all Steiney haters and baiters.

As for Frank, I read "the entitled." Not worth the read.

2008-02-21 09:28:28
21.   markp
I agree with the 'less batting the breeze/more baseball please' argument.

Since this is the only Yankee blog listed on Toaster's front page, and since spring training has actually started, shouldn't it be more about the Yankees than about Jimmy Breslin? Nobody is saying they want the pop culture references to be gone. Just arguing about the ratio between them and the 2008 Yankees.

2008-02-21 09:46:31
22.   Chyll Will
13 Josh, have you ever seen the doc, "When We Were Kings" from 1996? (directed by Leon Gast, co-producced by Taylor Hackford)

Mailer, as well as George Plimpton among others, had some great insights on the lead-up to the fight, the fight itself and its effects on both Ali and Foreman. A really great piece which definitely benefitted from their presence and input.

2008-02-21 09:48:56
23.   wsporter
21 It is a shame that there is no where to go to get any of that. Alex and Cliff are making a pretty good wage here to write about all things Yankee in Tampa so it is unfair that they aren't giving us what we pay for.

I'm going to call the NY Attorney General, The FCC the Better Business Bureau, the ASPCA , my Mother and my Congressman about this. Enough with the constant flow of interesting cultural and literaray observations I demand the smell of Cruex, Turf and Schlitz; now get off your lazy butts and create some of that here fellas. I am entitled, Damn it!

Capiche?

2008-02-21 09:50:07
24.   Josh Wilker
22 I did see that flick and liked it a lot and, now that you mention it, I do like listening to Mailer talk. I just haven't yet become a convert to his writing.
2008-02-21 09:54:19
25.   Bama Yankee
16 "Alex, you write like a buddy helping a blind friend see."

Nice. Well said and very true, Chyll.

I've heard people say that they would pay to hear James Earl Jones read the phone book... well, I sorta feel that way about Alex's writing (the phone book part, not the paying part... um, this blog is still free isn't it? Don't get any ideas, Alex. It was just an analogy... I mean nobody would really pay to hear James Earl Jones read the phone book, would they? ;-)

2008-02-21 10:01:58
26.   markp
Wsporter: do you feel better now? I think everyone is impressed with your use of over-the-top sarcasm and brilliant use of agencies (the ASPCA-truly ingenious!) to scoff at anyone foolishly daring to suggest a baseball site write about something as mundane as baseball.

It was a request. Get a grip.

2008-02-21 10:06:14
27.   Chyll Will
21 I don't know, man, I think if you're patient you'll see the balance shifting back towards baseball-centric matters. I don't think there's a whole lot of things to say that hasn't already been analyzed and dissected already this winter, after all the first day of Spring Training doesn't constitute a whole new tide of info about the team that we don't already know. And even if it did, we'd certainly hear about in all over the internet and airwaves. Pete's usually the one with those kind of scoops.

I'm not saying that you're wrong, I'm just suggesting that there may not be anything interesting enough to rabid info junkies like us >;) to share as of yet, and Alex's OT's (if you will) represent a constructive and/or productive diversion while we all wait. With baited breath. And a cherry on top.

For what it's worth, I'm glad that we haven't been inundated with circus issues. Like A-Rod just said, it's the first time in a while that the Yanks come in not being the automatic favorites to win the WS, so they don't have as much pressure to live up to speculation. I honestly didn't think this kind of year would come until next year, but as the action picks up, so will the focus. Give them a chance to settle in and get up to speed, I think.

2008-02-21 10:17:05
28.   Chyll Will
25 Funny story, I missed out on a chance to meet him when he did a reading of a childrens' book at a bookstore in Poughkeepsie back in my first life (he had recently moved to nearby Pawling, NY which I understand was one of the towns he lived in as a child).

I only found out about it after my evening classes at DCC and he was gone by the time I got there, but I always imagined what his reaction would be if he heard his own voice greeting him. I was in the drama club at the time; that would have been a wonderful conversation, even if it was just limited to each of us saying, "Hello... wow!"

2008-02-21 10:22:54
29.   wsporter
26 But you see Markp it's not just a baseball site nor does it claim to be. The main focus is Yankees yes, is that the sole focus? No. So chill out man, there'll be lots of baseball coming. The posts here are gifted to us, we have no standing to make demands on those who post anything here. We either accept the gift graciously or move along until we find something we wish to explore. That's the way it works with a gift. Good manners at least would dictate that that be so.

Personally I liked the allusion concerning calling my mother but to each his own. :-)

2008-02-21 10:26:44
30.   Chyll Will
29 (arrgh... that last line is so tempting...>;)
2008-02-21 10:31:41
31.   wsporter
30 I am adopted, so it was meant to be! Have at it Chyll. :-)
2008-02-21 10:32:30
32.   rilkefan
0 "Over at Yankees for Justice, Todd Drew writes about going to see Jimmy Breslin speak at the Barnes and Noble on 66th street, across the street from Lincoln Center, and just a few blocks north from where bar-restaurants like The Ginger Man and Saloon and O'Neal's Ballon used to stand (bars where guys like Breslin, and my father, drank)"

Tcsh thinks that lead sentence has 59 words.

2008-02-21 10:36:47
33.   Knuckles
Apropos of pretty much nothing in this thread, I was traveling on business and got the chance to check out the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in KC yesterday. Just a beautiful little spot- I highly recommend it if you get the chance. Location-wise, it is at 18th & Vine, which was apparently the heart of black KC nightlife back in the day. The building also house a Jazz museum, and they're re-doing the street to look like its heyday. It's (the street) a little on the cheesy/artificial side, but it's early yet and will probably work when it's done. There's a theater, and an Alvin Ailey dance studio, and a lot of empty shopfronts at the moment.

The museum itself is well done. It's small but has lots of info, from the 1880's right up to the dying gasps of the Negro Leagues after MLB was integrated. There's a couple rows of lockers with uniforms and plaque reproductions of players who are in the HoF, as well as owners like Effa Manley, etc. The best thing about it though, was an art exhibit out front, of work by Kadir Nelson. It is absolutely unbelievable stuff- do yourself a favor and check it out: kadirnelson.com.

The original Arthur Bryant's (bbq) is a few blocks away and was a great capper (pork sandwich, fries, potato salad, pale ale, lemonade-iced tea) to a getaway afternoon.

2008-02-21 10:38:38
34.   Alex Belth
rilkefan, LOL, that's good. Breslin would bust my chops, but good! Then again, while I review what I write for the blog, once, twice, sometimes ten times, I find the process of blogging and writing to be very different. Blogging is so much more informal, where if I was writing a piece I'd, at least try (time willing), to go over it again and again until it was right. That's what amazes me about the old newspaper guys--dudes' who could really write well and on a deadline, and with a word count. It's what makes those Red Smith 800-word columns so incredible.
2008-02-21 10:38:59
35.   Chyll Will
31 That's sweet; you know I'm an equal-opportunity teaser. Maybe the next straight line you feed me I'll honor it with a patented crack. Thank you, friend >;)
2008-02-21 10:52:26
36.   Chyll Will
33 Wow, I had heard that 12th & Vine from the song wasn't there anymore, are they rebuilding that?
2008-02-21 11:40:57
37.   wsporter
35 I only saw Oedipus rising quickly on that one as an afterthought. I should be far more careful next time. :-)
2008-02-21 12:06:51
38.   Chyll Will
37 My brother would probably lead off with that gambit, but I was thinking more of "the dozens"... you'd have to really tick me off to go there. Trust me, your safe... >;)

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