Great Track Record
After 70 years in the sportswriting business, what do you do when your boss says he wants a story about your career?
You think about all the wonderful things you have seen and been privileged to write about -- 35 Indianapolis 500s, 32 Daytona 500s, Formula One races, Times Grand Prix sports car races, every Long Beach Grand Prix but one, world championship motorcycle events, midgets, sprint cars and yes, even drifting.
And that’s only the motor sports.
How about two Olympic Games, a dozen Masters and U.S. Opens, a British Open at St. Andrews, Wimbledon, the World Series, Santa Anita Handicaps, and as a Pasadena native, more Rose Bowl games than I can count. And I couldn’t forget the World Cup of Cricket in Australia.
I got my first byline in a daily newspaper May 14, 1935, in the Pasadena Post. I was 14.
This may be the last. I am 85.
Retirement -- “the dirtiest 10-letter word in the English language,” said media critic George Seldes -- begins today, Monday, Jan. 16, 2006. Except for three years in the Army, it was all about sportswriting. And even in World War II, it involved writing as a member of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s public relations corps in the South Pacific.
So, where do I start?
“Write about the most memorable, or the most significant, thing you’ve seen,” prodded the boss.
Good grief, Charlie Brown!
It seems to be that as one grows older, it’s easier to recall events of youth than of last week. Perhaps that’s why what I consider the most significant event in my career occurred when I was only 17.
It happened March 13, 1938, on a baseball diamond in Brookside Park, near the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
The Chicago White Sox had their spring training there, and as a fundraiser for the city’s baseball school, the American Leaguers played a group of Pasadena youngsters in an exhibition game.
At shortstop for the Pasadena Sox was a skinny black junior college player named Jack Robinson. There was no mention of its social implications then. Robinson had played with and against white athletes all his life. It was only years later that Robinson became the lightning rod for the civil rights movement and black athletes in particular when he became the first of his race in the modern age to play major league baseball.
As a 17-year-old, it was heady stuff to be the official scorer for the game.
The White Sox won, 3-2, in 11 innings, but it was the teenager Robinson who sparkled. He had two of Pasadena’s six hits, stole second and handled seven chances without an error at shortstop.
His fielding was spectacular. When American League batting champion Luke Appling bounced a hard grounder labeled base hit toward left field, Robinson cut it off and made a perfect throw to second base to start a double play.
Jimmy Dykes, the crusty old White Sox manager and himself a legendary third baseman, nearly swallowed his cigar. Later, talking with reporters, he said, “If that boy was white, I’d sign him right now. No one in the American League could make plays like that.”
After hearing Dykes, I wrote in the Pasadena Junior College school paper, “If a black player ever makes it to the major leagues, that player will probably be Jackie Robinson.”
At that time, it seemed as preposterous as putting a man on the moon. That happened too.
Obviously, that incident took on added significance nearly a decade later. Robinson and Brooklyn Dodger president Branch Rickey changed the face of sports when Robinson appeared in a Dodger uniform for the first time in a spring exhibition game against the New York Yankees. It was April 11,1947. The color barrier was broken.
Not only baseball benefited. Robinson’s success as a player and as a representative of his race led to a wellspring of black faces in other sports. As a pivotal moment of the growing civil rights movement, the Robinson experiment occurred a decade before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and 16 years before King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Chronicling Robinson’s career at Pasadena Junior College in football (he was named to the JC Grid-Wire all-time junior college team as a running back), basketball (unanimous all-state junior college forward), track (national long jump record holder) and baseball (state junior college most valuable player) stimulated interest enough in sportswriting to make it a career.
For as long as I covered sports, I got the most enjoyment from spotting young talent before it became famous, and interviewing young people before the world claimed them.
Golf fans think of the Masters or the British Open when they think of Tiger Woods, but I think of a day in 1990, sitting in the living room of his family’s home in Cypress and being impressed by the maturity and depth of thought of the 14-year-old who had not yet begun high school.
Baseball fans think of Ted Williams as one of the game’s greatest pure hitters. I saw that hitting when the Thumper was in high school in San Diego. He hit two prodigious home runs in the Pomona 20-30 tournament.
Dick Williams managed 21 years in the majors, winning four pennants and two World Series with a testy edge of competitive leadership that I saw developing when he was a multisport star at Eliot Junior High in Pasadena.
Indy car fans think of Al Unser Jr. as a two-time winner of the 500, but my first memories of Little Al are of a teenager so small that he had to sit on two phone books to see over the hood of his sprint car at Ascot Park.
NASCAR fans recognize Jeff Gordon as the glamorous four-time Cup champion, but I remember him as a teenager with a wispy mustache that he thought made him look older, racing midget cars on the U.S. Auto Club circuit. It would be another three or four years before he became NASCAR’s “Wonder Boy,” as Dale Earnhardt called him.
Racing fans think of Roger Penske as the winningest car owner in Indy 500 history and one of the sport’s most successful entrepreneurs, but my first memory is of him as a 25-year-old driver winning the 1962 L.A. Times Grand Prix at Riverside against Dan Gurney, Ken Miles, Bruce McLaren and Rodger Ward. He retired as a driver within the next couple of years to start his racing dynasty.
More memorable than the big picture -- the winning and the losing and the whys and wherefores -- are little vignettes that stick in the mind.
Actor James Garner was driving a big Olds Banshee in the Mint 400 off-road race in the desert north of Las Vegas in the early 1970s when the fiberglass monster quit in a silt bed. Garner climbed out, covered with a fine dust that made him almost unrecognizable, and bummed a ride back to race headquarters from a couple of reporters.
When he walked in, he spotted his wife Lois, just arrived from their Vegas hotel and dressed for a party. Jim spread out his arms as if to hug her and Lois jumped back, crying out, “Don’t you touch me.”
“A thousand women downtown would die happily for an opportunity like that, and she turns him down,” said Jean Calvin, a magazine writer-racer standing nearby. “Sometimes life’s just not fair.”
Dinah Shore, on hand for the dedication of the Mission Hills course in Rancho Mirage named in her honor, was on the tee, hitting the first ceremonial ball. It was a good solid hit with a bit of a pull that sent it off to the left of the fairway.
“How’d I do?” shouted Dinah.
“Not bad, a little left of center,” said one of her partners.
“No, not that,” she said. “I mean, how did I look? How was my swing?”
“You looked great.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear,” said Dinah, flashing her best “See the USA in your Chevrolet” smile.
Jack Nicklaus, playing the 10th hole at the old La Costa course in a media tournament, hit a tree with his drive. Moments before, my drive had gone maybe 185, 190 yards down the fairway.
As we walked toward the balls, Nicklaus turned to me and said, “I think I’m away.”
Tree or not, I’ve told that story a million times.
The rest of the story: Nicklaus took a three-iron and hit the green with his second shot. I was still short with a three-wood.
Scott Brayton, in the Goodyear blimp a day or so after he had won the pole for the 1995 Indianapolis 500, was flying above the track when he peered out the window.
“Look down, there’s my car,” he enthused like a little kid as he pointed to the garage. “Let’s go around the track the way I’ll be going around it Sunday.”
The pilot let Brayton take the controls and around we went, at 25-30 mph. Brayton had gone 231 mph in his Lola-Menard in qualifying.
“Look at me, no one in front of me, lapping Indy with no traffic,” Brayton said giddily.
A year later, the Michigan driver was killed while practicing for the 500, one of the grim realities of covering motor sports.
The worst moment occurred about three hours after the Daytona 500 in 2001. Michael Waltrip had just won for the first time in 463 Winston Cup starts, and it was a joy hearing his excitement in the winner’s news conference.
On the final lap, Dale Earnhardt had hit the fourth-turn wall in a routine-appearing accident. When no information was forthcoming an hour or so after the accident, anxiety grew among the press corps.
“Why aren’t they telling us about Dale?” writers asked one another.
No one was prepared for it, however, when Mike Helton, NASCAR president, announced, “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” It was the outpouring of sorrow at the loss of the Intimidator that led to the realization of what a hold NASCAR and its Winston (now Nextel) Cup had on the sports-minded public.
After decades of asking the questions, now the questions are being asked of me. The most frequent: “What is the greatest race you ever saw?”
It was the 1992 NASCAR season finale at Atlanta. Three drivers -- Davey Allison, Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki -- still had shots at the championship. Allison crashed out early, leaving the crown and its $1-million bonus to either Elliott or Kulwicki, whichever led Lap 310 in the 328-lap race.
When Kulwicki sped past a surprised Elliott just before the start-finish line, it meant that the most laps Elliott could lead would be 102. Kulwicki had 103, enough for a five-point bonus. That was the difference in the championship after Kulwicki finished second to Elliott in the race. If Elliott had led that lap, they would have tied in points and Elliott had the tiebreaker, five wins to two.
The race was also the final one for “the King,” 55-year-old Richard Petty, and the first for a 21-year-old rookie named Jeff Gordon.
Who was the easiest person to interview?
Petty, without a doubt. Who else would say, when asked his race plans, “I just want to beat one cat in the race. The one that’s second.” Or, after losing in the last turn, at Daytona, “I had one ulcer before the race, now I’ve got two.” On his nickname, the King: “It’s better’n a lot of things I’ve been called.”
After his car caught fire in an accident in his final race: “We want to go out in a blaze of glory, but all we got was the blaze part.”
Not only was he quotable, he’d sit and chat as long as your pen or tape recorder held up, signing autographs as he talked. Perhaps the greatest ambassador any sport has had.
Who was the worst interview?
It was probably between ... naw, we don’t want to go there. The most arrogant were from Formula One, not necessarily the drivers but the entourage that surrounded them.
What was the biggest break you had?
Being plucked from the Pasadena Star-News by Otis Chandler to join the Los Angeles Mirror in the fall of 1954. Nine years later, the Mirror became part of The Times and I never left. Second-biggest break: Being selected by Sports Editor Bill Shirley to replace the veteran Bob Thomas as motor racing writer in 1969.
Biggest surprise: Seeing my name on the list of nominees two years ago for the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, never expecting to find a newspaper writer’s name alongside the likes of Bill France Jr., Bobby Rahal, Joe Amato and Danny Sullivan on the ballot.
Second-biggest surprise: When I was notified that I had been elected and saw my name with Penske’s, Barney Oldfield’s, Parnelli Jones’ and Tony Hulman’s in the at-large category. It is still unbelievable.
So there it is, Boss: Seventy years of sportswriting in 55 inches.
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