THE LOVE OF SPORTS
How do we develop a love for sports? In my case, it was simple: It came from my dad, starting with our listening to the 1945 World Series between the Cubs and Tigers, when I was only nine.
It was fitting that it was baseball we were listening to because baseball had been my dad’s favorite since he was young. Growing up, he lived in Belle Plaine, Iowa, a small town that happened to be a central station for the railroad. His dad, my grandfather, was an engineer for the railroad and all of his eight children could ride free of charge until they were 18.
My dad took advantage of that to travel all the way to Arizona just before his 18th birthday, but mostly, he used it to travel to Chicago to watch the White Sox play. He remained a White Sox fan the rest of his life.
Probably because of the influence of my father, I became a huge baseball fan when we moved cross country from Minnesota to San Diego in 1946. I soon became a member of the “Knothole Gang” so I could get into San Diego Padres games free. The Padres were in the Pacific Coast League then and drew poorly, so there were always seats available in the left field stands. It didn’t bother me that they were poor seats. I was at a baseball game. There had been little baseball played in northern Minnesota. Hockey was the major sport but I lost interest in that sport when we moved to San Diego and never regained it.
I also played baseball on the school playgrounds and a version of it in the streets around my home. The cover quickly came off the ball, but we simply put on friction tape and continued playing.
Before I entered seventh grade, my dad, moving up the ladder in the U.S. Forest Service, was transferred to North Fork, a small town in the foothills above Fresno. In the summer, I played baseball all day long, sometimes with supervision, sometimes not, on a field which had an outfield that sloped sharply uphill. That didn’t matter because I was playing baseball.
It never seemed to occur to me that I was not a good player. I continued deceiving myself almost through my senior year in high school, by which time we were living in Sonora. By that time, I had several accomplishments. I was always a very good student and had been admitted to Cal before the final semester of high school. I was sports editor of the school newspaper. I was a soloist in the school choir. Nonetheless, when the yearbook came out that spring, my stated ambition was to become a major league baseball player. Since I had been dropped from the Sonora High baseball team before the season had started, that was very embarrassing. I never played in an organized game again.
But, I remained a fervent fan. My dad was transferred to Santa Barbara in the summer of 1954 so I went to UC Santa Barbara for the first two years, finally making it to Berkeley for the final two years. In those two years, I made only two trips to San Francisco. One was when my friends insisted on taking me there and getting me drunk to celebrate my 21st birthday. The second was when the Boston Red Sox played what was then their Triple-A farm team, the San Francisco Seals, so I got a press credential (I was on the Daily Cal) so I could see my idol, Ted Williams, for the first time.
When I graduated, I went to work for the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian and, with friends who were equally addicted to baseball, came up to watch occasional Giants’ games. One of them was the game in which Willie McCovey broke in with a 4-for-4 day. McCovey at that time hit to all fields. When the Giants moved to Candlestick, they hired Lefty O’Doul to teach McCovey to pull the ball. That screwed up Willie Mac for the year but it’s hard to quarrel with the long-term results.
While still with the R-P, I covered an All-Star game in 1961 at Candlestick, one of two played that year. My account of the game was used in E. P. Dutton’s “Best Sports Stories”, which was published annually, as the best on that game.
When I came to The Chronicle in 1963, I was sometimes assigned to do dressing room stories on the Giants. Too often, I was restricted to working inside, copy reading what was written by other writers. Those shifts generally ran from 3 to midnight, so when the Giants were home and playing a day game – at that time, the only night games were Tuesday and Friday – I’d go out to catch a few innings in the hope of seeing Willie Mays do something I’d never seen before. I was seldom disappointed.
By 1967, I was covering the Oakland Raiders and my five years covering them were very enjoyable. Because most Bay Area papers wouldn’t pay the way of writers on the road, we traveled with the team, sitting with players on the plane. Because there were few writers, we had great access to the players. I was not much older than the players and became friends with some, especially Ben Davidson and Tom Keating. When Keating lived in the Bay Area after his career ended, we often had lunch at Tadich’s Grill in San Francisco. Sadly, Ben and Tom died about two weeks apart in 2012 of the same malady, prostate cancer. The last time I talked with Tom, on the phone, was about three weeks before his death. At the time, he told me he was weak from his medication but was sure he’d recover. As soon as he did, he promised, he’d call me to make a date for Tadich’s. I still miss him.
The last year I covered the Raiders, 1971, I was also writing a column three times a week. Without thinking about it, I had gradually changed from being a fan to being an analyst. In June, 1972, I was made a full-time columnist, and the change was complete.
By that time, I had realized that the best way to do my job was to find people who knew more about their sport than I did and listen to them. That process had started with Al Davis, who was still relatively sane, when I was on the Raiders beat. It accelerated when I first met Bill Walsh, after he’d been hired as Stanford’s head coach. When I talked to Walsh, I realized that he was way ahead of the curve. Two years later, I pushed for him to be hired by the 49ers and continued to support him even when he had two losing seasons. He had inherited a terrible team but in the second year, I could see considerable progress. In his third year, of course, the Niners won the Super Bowl. I hadn’t expected that but I had predicted they’d make the playoffs.
Because of my support in the dark years, I had special access to Walsh. After he had conducted his usual news conference at the start of the week, we’d go to his office and talk more. Much of the time he’d say, “I don’t want my name attached to this,” but I knew it just made me look better to advance his ideas under my byline.
I learned even more when I worked with him on a book on his career. He brought in Guy Benjamin, who was also a good friend of mine, to help and it was fascinating to hear the two of them discuss the way they broke down the defenses of other teams. That was especially true of Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys. In Walsh’s first two years, when he had inferior talent, the Cowboys beat the Niners. The second game was a 59-14 rout. But, starting with 1981, Walsh had Landry’s number. Landry had a set defensive system, with each player having specific assignments, so Walsh planned his offense to turn that rigidity against the Cowboys. Landry never beat Walsh and the Niners again, and both coaches retired after the 1988 season.
My experience with Walsh was special but I learned a lot about other sports from top coaches and players.
My basketball mentor was Pete Newell, whom I’d first me when he was coaching at Cal and I was an undergraduate. Pete always gave me credit for knowing more about basketball than I did. When we’d get together in the years after his retirement, he’d diagram plays on a piece of paper to try to get me to understand what was happening. Still, my basketball knowledge lags far behind what I know of football and baseball.
In baseball, I enjoyed talking with Frank Robinson and Al Rosen when they were with the Giants because they could give me examples from their playing careers. Robinson was a Hall of Fame player and Rosen would have been if he’d had a longer career but he served in World War II before he had reached the majors and later in his career quit because Cleveland general manager Hank Greenberg hard-balled him in contract negotiations. Rosen moved into the financial world and made far more money than he would have in baseball.
Both Sandy Alderson and Billy Beane, as A’s general managers, also advanced my baseball knowledge but my chief tutor was Tony La Russa, when he was managing the A’s.
La Russa was not popular with other writers because they’d ask very general questions. “They want me to write their stories for them,” Tony often complained to me.
In contrast, I asked very specific questions and got a baseball education in return. La Russa had a law degree and he never made a move without analyzing it thoroughly. When I asked the right question, he’d give me a very detailed answer.
When La Russa was named to the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in May, I wrote the words for his bio. I had called him to get the information I needed – in the middle of our conversation, he got a call from the national Hall of Fame and told the caller he’d get back to him – and I asked a question that elicited a very long answer. At the end, he said, “You asked a good question, but then, you always did.”
It’s been a fascinating journey as I morphed from sports fan to one who really wanted to know how sports work. That’s something I could never have predicted, but I’m glad it happened.
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OOPS: My memory failed me when I was writing about the finish of the 1962 World Series in my column on “World Series Memories”. Matty Alou was on first base, not second, when Willie Mays doubled and a very good throw from Yankee right fielder Roger Maris held Alou at third. The Chronicle’s Bob Stevens wrote at the time that “The only man who could have scored on that play was the one who hit the ball.” When I interviewed Mays for my 1995 book on the San Francisco Giants, he agreed. “I would have found a way to score,” he said.
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