Mourning the End of National Pastime

The National, America's gambling and pro wrestling newspaper, died Thursday. It was 1 1/2.

Oh, how much longer it could have lasted, how much more it could have done, how much more it could have been. Its editors had such lofty ambitions, its readers such high hopes. But by the end, the National had become a publication that would publish practically anything to lure an audience--not lies, but nonsense--staffed by gifted writers who amused themselves no end writing about one another.

It became a paper full of private jokes, the National did, incestuous and self-serving, offsetting the eloquent feature writing, quotable column writing and statistical banquet that made this all-sports daily such a noble venture from the very beginning. Its death at 17 months of red-ink poisoning is pathetically sad, and my armband is black.

For those who do not mourn, for those who never even knew such a periodical existed, indulge me today as I mark its passing, same way I would a crumbling United States Football League or some prominent jock coaxed into premature retirement, or even a scandal at Dodger Stadium over a decision to stop serving hot dogs grilled. A minute of silence for the National is the least I can give.

Frank Deford, who either is, or fancies himself, the most famous sportswriter in America, came armed with a declaration of principles not dissimilar to Charles Foster Kane's and perhaps even shared that citizen's sentiment: "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper." Alas, Kane, too, couldn't make a go of it.

Which reminds me of a parody TV sketch starring Dan Aykroyd, in which he, as editor and publisher, established his declaration of principles for putting out a newspaper:

1. Make a million dollars.

2. Make that a billion dollars.

Acclaimed as an author of magazine articles, nonfiction books and novels, and possibly publicly recognized from his appearances on network pregame programs and beer commercials, Deford longed to imbue his new newspaper with a literary bent. In the world-premiere issue of the National on Jan. 31, 1990, we, the readers, were duly apprised:

"Bringing out a sports newspaper is, presumptuously, like being Mister Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre, trying, at once, to bellow at the hoi polloi down in the pit with bawdy, obvious, even vulgar jokes, but then, moments later, reaching out to the educated swells in the stalls--and the heavens beyond--with words that soar down through the ages."

As sentences go, here was one either to savor or to serve, as with a prison stretch.

A little literature never hurt anybody, even if all anybody wanted out of a newspaper was Who Won the Game and By How Much. What this editorial did, nonetheless, was direct us, quite appropriately, to the opposite page to columnist Dave Kindred's original donation to the National, and this line:

"Our wise and wonderful readers ought to be advised, then, that some material in this otherwise brilliant newspaper will raise in them a mad desire to throw pies at the author."

Some of us certainly could empathize with that, having been less often the pie-thrower than the pie-throwee. Yet, brother Kindred was right on the money, for soon we began reading things in the National that made us, and undoubtedly friend David, squint at the fine print and wince.

Like the reams of oddsmaking info and bookmaking dope that suddenly materialized, right on the heels of a columnist's sermon on the pitfalls of gambling inside a Denver newspaper's sports department. Or the weekly column on professional wrestling that made one wonder if Harlem Globetrotter results would be next.

The National did goofy things, though don't we all? Who who ever read it will soon forget the "Real World" half-page summary of international news bulletins, complete with illustration of a man with a globe for a head, a thermometer protruding from his mouth and his bare feet soaking in a pail of water? Or the accompanying weather map that dispensed "cloudy, 66 degrees" information to readers planning to attend that evening's indoor sporting events?

Or "Ask Casey," featuring weeks' worth of fabricated Q & A with Casey Stengel, who had the distinct disadvantage of being dead. Or "Fungo," a three-name parlor game in which the parties were somehow linked. For months on end, no solutions were provided, which was probably wise, since one of the first puzzles linked three men who had been accused of beating their wives.

On its good days, which were many, the National delivered prose from tremendously popular people including Scott Ostler and Mike Lupica, hilariously vicious wit from writer-sniper Norman Chad, aggressive reporting and information for 75 cents a pop, no more than one pays these days for a big-gulp cup of coffee. If only more people would have paid the price, made the National their pastime. It could have been America's favorite toy department.

This, alas, is the real world.

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