Sportswriting, Then and Now
When I’m critical of current sportswriters, I’m often asked if sportswriting was better when I was starting out. My answer is no, but it was different. Truthfully, if there’s been a Golden Age of sportswriting in the Bay Area, I’ve missed it.
When I started with The Chronicle in April, 1963, everything was based on seniority. Those who had been around the longest got the choice assignments. Those of us who were young when we came to the Chron had to serve an apprenticeship by working in the office, reading out copy, writing headlines. Ndt what any of us wanted to do. Sports editor Art Rosenbaum had brought in some good young writers. Art Spander and I came first. Bruce Jenkins and Dave Bush were added later. But, we all waited for the older writers to retire before we got our opportunities to write.
Occasionally, this system brought forth a talented writer. Dick Friendlich was the best example. Dick was just amazing. He could go to a basketball game, pick up the phone at the end and dictate a 400-word story that had all the essential information. When he was in the office, I talked to him about writing because I knew I could learn from him. The other older writers? I was already better than them, as I would prove when I got my chance.
The 49ers writer at the time thought first George Mira, then Steve Spurrier were better quarterbacks than John Brodie. Neither was even close, of course, and had short careers.
When the Giants came to San Francisco, the writers who had been covering the Seals in the Pacific Coast League were automatically given the assignment of covering the Giants. One of them, Bob Stevens of the Chron, is now in the writer’s wing of the baseball Hall of Fame. The others, though, were incompetents. The Oakland Tribune writer began his story on one of the Giants openers, “One game down, 161 to go.”
Columnists weren’t much better. One who had been very good when he started out was simply re-writing himself. He’d go down to the Crosby and write the same column each year, about the whales. Older readers loved it but people who were new to the area were mystified. A typical comment from them: “How does this guy keep his job?” My feelings exactly. When I became a columnist, I made certain that, even approaching a subject on which I had often written, I’d take a different slant.
The other thing that amazed me was that writers seldom talked to players. It was as if they were reviewing a stage performance without talking to the players. When I went on a two-week road trip with the Giants in June, 1972, players came up to me all the time wanting to talk about their problems with the manager, Charlie Fox. The older writers loved Fox, with whom they drank after games. When Ron Bryant went public with his complaints and I wrote them, that was the first time that fans had known of the players’ unhappiness. The Oakland Tribune beat writer told me, “Bryant has said those things before but I didn’t know he wanted them written.” Ohmigawd.
When I started covering the Raiders in 1967, I was very close to the players. There were fences around the practice field behind the El Rancho hotel in training camp, but for beat writers like me, there were no real restrictions. We could interview players in their rooms after lunch. We traveled with them on the road (because papers wouldn’t pay for writers travel), so we talked to them all the time. At the end of training camp, the Raiders PR man would give beat writers a list of players phone numbers.
Given Al Davis’s penchant for secrecy, this sounds strange but Davis realized that the Raiders’ problem at the time was that they were too much of a secret to people. He needed to expand their fan base, so he was cooperative with the media. That would soon change, of course.
There were aspects of covering the Raiders that I didn’t enjoy – the two-week stay in the East was tough, especially because Nancy and I had gotten married that year. I don’t recommend that as a way of starting a marriage but we survived, mostly because of her understanding that this assignment was important to me.
Overall, though, it was a great experience and I made two real friends, Tom Keating and Ben Davidson, who unfortunately died just two months apart in 2012 from prostate cancer.
That was the closest I’ve ever been to players but I’ve been close to the decision-makers since, with special emphasis on Bill Walsh and Tony La Russa, who were both great teachers with their sports.
Sportswriting has changed enormously in recent years, and not for the better. The problem now is that there are too many voices with opinions that have little relation to facts. With the Internet, anybody who has an opinion can voice it and there are many who get no closer to the games than their television sets.
Now, the emphasis is on being first, not being accurate, and erroneous reports get repeated over and over. I laugh when I read a piece that starts out “reports from numerous sources” because I know the “sources” are other media people or bloggers, not anybody connected with a team.
The situation with Jim Harbaugh is the latest example. Of all these reports about Harbaugh’s “problems” in the locker room, none of them have originated from anybody in that locker room. The closest was Dana Stubblefield’s interview with KNBR which was so uninformed it was comical. For one thing, he said Harbaugh had had trouble sustaining success. In fact, at the University of San Diego and Stanford, Harbaugh did better as his time extended. That wasn’t quite true with the 49ers because he got to the Super Bowl in his second year and only to the NFC championship game in his third. But getting at least to the conference championship in each of his three years is not exactly chopped liver.
All this has led to speculation that Harbaugh will leave the 49ers after this season. One writer even noted that his wife doesn’t want to leave the Bay Area so he’d go to the Raiders. Don’t hold your breath on that one.
I don’t have any “sources” but I’ve talked enough to Jed York to know that he’s very smart and he makes good decisions. He knows he has an outstanding coach, despite his personality flaws, so he’ll sign Harbaugh to a contract extension after this season. That’s always been the plan and there’s no reason to deviate.
The other problem I have is that there’s so much emphasis on the trivial. The latest is the constant comments about the fact that the Kansas City Chiefs don’t have a touchdown reception by a wide receiver this year. The Chiefs have also won seven in a row. Which of those facts is the most important? Hint: Not the one which gets the most air time.
` Despite all this noise from the Internet, there are some good newspaper writers left. I read The Chronicle but I’ve seen enough of Tim Kawasaki’s work with The San Jose Mercury to know that he’s the best and most reliable of the area columnists. I think Ann Killion generally does a good job as a Chronicle columnist and I like some of their beat writers, Susan Slusser on the A’s, Henry Schulman on the Giants and Rusty Simmons on the Warriors. The best 49ers analysis comes from Kevin Lynch, who works on SF Gate.
No, it’s not exactly the Golden Age of sportswriting but in my career, there never has been one.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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