He's the third person to take over the job in the strip's 45-year history. It was created in 1958 by Jack Berrill, who wrote and drew it until his death in 1996. Jerry Jenkins took over the strip then, with first Ray Burns and now Frank McLaughlin doing the drawing.
He took some time out from being a columnist at the Detroit News, which lured him away from the Free Press a few years ago, to talk with ChicagoSports.com about his new gig.
Where did you grow up?
You can make a case that I still haven't. But technically, I was raised in Orange County, Calif., within bike riding distance of Anaheim Stadium. We moved to suburban Denver when I was a junior in high school.
Where did you go to school?
I graduated with something less than distinction from Arapahoe High School in Littleton, Colo., and the University of Northern Colorado. UNC is in Greeley, as in Horace, who told everyone else to "Go West, young man," while he sat on his oversized rump in New York and helped himself to another bon-bon.
If you want to track it back further, I can trace my academic roots to Savanna High in Anaheim (one year), Crescent Junior High and Oro Grande Elementary. Crescent and Oro Grande have since found their true calling as condo developments.
What sports did you play when you were a kid?
The only sport where I was better than everyone else was table tennis. As you can imagine, keeping the girls away was almost a full-time endeavor. Baseball was my favorite sport, but I ran out of size and talent by the time I was a junior in high school. I was one of those guys who learned early to do the little things because I couldn't do any of the big things.
What teams are you a fan of?
I tend to root for individuals who strike me as good, well-rounded, friendly people. Likewise, I'll still be booing John Rocker on old-timers' day. The downside of having been a sportswriter is that I've largely lost the capacity to root. I'll applaud hustle, but in general, I watch a ballgame like other people watch an opera: "Oh, yes. Nicely done. Good show."
Give us some details on the search process.
This actually starts years ago, if you want to go back to when dinosaurs roamed the earth, it was when I first started at the Detroit Free Press. It was late '84, got to Detroit just in time for the World Series, which was nice timing. Everybody at the Free Press was a total Gil Thorp (fan), and I just got swept up in it, to the point that when Gil and Mimi got married in 1985 we had a wedding reception. I started to seize on any opportunity at all to write about Gil Thorp. Any anniversary, you wouldn't believe some of the flimsy excuses I came up with. Then every time Matt Shaughnessy, in Arlington Heights, came up with a new Gil Thorp product he does these wonderful anthologies, one year he came out with a calendar I'd find an excuse to write about those. In fact, I remember one year I came to my editor and said, "Hey, I'm about to give you a little story about this guy in Chicago who does Gil Thorp stuff, and he's coming out with a calendar." My editor said, "You just wrote about him last year." I said, "Well, yeah, but this is the second biggest market in the country for Gil Thorp merchandise." And he gave me one of those I'm-dealing-with-an-idiot looks and said, "That's because you keep writing about him."
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and Tribune Media Services is looking for somebody to take over the writing of Gil Thorp, and they called Matt Shaughnessy, who is the grand guru of Gil Thorp, and asked him for some names, and among the names he gave them was mine. So [TMS] contacted me and asked me to join the throngs in the application process. I don't actually know how many people applied. My impression was that they narrowed it down to half a dozen or so people. Everybody wrote a proposal, some sample story lines and a couple weeks of strips. Then they came back to me and said, "Okay, take your two weeks of strips, which were football season for 2004, take those two weeks, turn it into a full 13-week season, and if we like it, you get the gig. And I got the gig."
Did you meet any of your competition for the job, or was it blind competition?
Totally blind. I had no idea who it was. I couldn't even tell you why I have this impression, or if it's remotely accurate, I had the sense that some of the candidates were in-house at the Tribune. Frankly, I didn't expect to get the job because it's just so much easier to deal with somebody in-house.
Tell us a little about Matt Shaughnessy, the Gil Thorp guru.