A Sports Writer Looks Back – and Back
By Ira Berkow
Ira Berkow with Walt Frazier, star guard for the New York Knicks, with whom he would go one-on-one at his summer basketball camp in the Catskills, 1976.
By Ira Berkow
Yes, it’s true, as many believe, working for The New York Times has distinct advantages for a writer. One day, for example, in the 1980s, I was in the Yankee clubhouse talking with Dave Righetti, the left-handed pitcher. I had a good working relationship with Righetti, having done a story on him when he was in the minor leagues, which established a kind of rapport between us. I pulled up a chair and chatted with him, and then asked him a question, which I don’t now remember.
“If I give you the answer,” he said, “the guys here will read it and they’ll get pissed off.”
There was a silence.
“Hell, I’ll tell you,” he said, looking around the clubhouse. “These guys don’t read The New York Times.”
Which reminds me of another Yankee pitcher, and another question – and answer.
Goose Gossage was one of the most feared pitchers in baseball, with a wicked handlebar mustache and an even more wicked fast ball. In the clubhouse, again, I said to him, “Goose, everybody’s afraid of you. Who are you afraid of?”
He thought for a moment. “New York waiters,” he said.
And sometimes you may have to risk your pose of professionalism for a proper cause, such as pleasing a couple of kids. I refer to a time in 1971 when I was about to go to Chicago to interview Muhammad Ali, in training for a heavyweight title fight with Jimmy Ellis. Before leaving New York I ran into a woman I knew and told her what I was planning. “Oh, could you get an autograph for my two boys?” she said. “They’re such big fans of Ali.”
“No,” I said, “it’s not professional. I can’t ask a subject I’m writing about to give me an autograph.”
“Oh please,” she said. “The kids would love it!”
“Well,” I said, “if the occasion arises, maybe. But don’t count on it.”
Soon after, I spent a day with Ali, and at day’s end I said, “Champ, I hate to do this, but would you mind signing an autograph for two small boys?”
“No problem,” he said. I handed him my note pad and pen. He asked the boys’ names. I told him and, for some reason, added, “Their mother has trouble making them clean their room.”
He wrote: “To Timmy and Ricky, from Muhammad Ali, Clean that room or I will seal your doom.”
A year or so later, I was with Ali’s arch rival, Joe Frazier. I decided to ask him for an autograph for the same two boys, just to see how he would handle it, and told him the same thing about their mother’s problem with their housekeeping.
He said, “If their mother didn’t have trouble making them clean their room they wouldn’t be boys.” And then he signed, “Best wishes.” That was all. But to me it said so much about the two personalities, Ali and Frazier. Both were dead on, by their own distinctive lights – Ali and his creative “Rope-a-Dope” style, Frazier barreling forward and “smokin’.”
One of the pleasures of being a sportswriter for the last 42 years – at the Minneapolis Tribune, for the national feature syndicate Newspaper Enterprise Association and, for the last 26 years, at The New York Times – are the people you meet (such as those mentioned above) and the places you go and the events you attend. I covered the 1972 Munich Olympics, the 1989 earthquake World Series, the spine-tingling 1991 Super Bowl in which the Giants won, 20-19, as well as the hospitalization at Walter Reed of a former star Notre Dame basketball player who had her left hand shot off in the Iraq war – her shooting hand, no less, and the one with her wedding ring (the hand was later recovered and the ring returned to her).
I also had the opportunity to play pickup basketball with Oscar Robertson at the Y lunchtime games in Cincinnati (the Big O still had his deft shooting touch at age 58), go one-on-one with Walt Frazier in his prime at his summer basketball camp in the Catskills (remarkable how much he grew in front of me as he got more and more serious, and I got smaller and smaller), was at the other end of a Rod Laver serve during his practice session (the ball happened to hit my racket, like a brick, and nearly broke my wrist), faced Cy Young-award winner Denny McLain in a pickup game in Lakeland, Fla., when he was getting back into shape after his 1970 suspension from the Detroit Tigers (I was amazed at how well he concealed the pitch until it seemed it was nearly on top of me, before fanning), and once offered to spar a round with Joe Frazier (just to experience what it’s like being in the ring with a heavyweight champ), when he was at the Concord Hotel training for a title fight against Buster Mathis. Frazier, as it might be recalled, had a left hook like a wrecking ball.
“Did you ever box?” asked his white-haired trainer, Yank Durham.
“Growing up in Chicago there was a gym in the local police station where we kids would fool around,” I replied.
“Are you in shape?”
“I ride my bicycle around the Village, where I live, a few times a week.”
“Hmm,” said Durham. “Okay. Then my man will only break two or three of your ribs. You see, the Champ, he don’t know how to play.”
“Hmm,” I replied. “I think, Yank, that I’ll take a rain check.”
The sports department has sometimes been referred to as “The toy department” of the newspaper. Perhaps at least since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues; surely after newspaper reporters and editors discovered that they were often printing the lies of the brass and the administration during the Vietnam War, and then during the Watergate scandal when again newspapers were slow to understand that the Constitution was being subverted by Nixon and his cohorts, all of this influenced how even sports were being reported with greater depth and insight and investigation.
The sports department was indeed a part of the rest of the paper. And the responsibilities that were incumbent on city-side reporters, and the Washington press corps, for two examples, to get the story, and get it right, arrived at the door step of the sports departments. And less and less, it seemed, were we living the adage of Chief Justice Earl Warren who said “I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people’s accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man’s failure.” We are still recording “accomplishments ” – David Cone pitches a perfect game, or a Nadia Comaneci scores a gymnastic 10, or Vinatieri kicks a 48-yard field goal with no time left on the clock to win a Super Bowl – but “man’s failure” has increased in coverage. Did Bonds use steroids to break home-run records? Did he perjure in grand-jury testimony? Why can’t women play golf at the august site of the Masters? Why aren’t there more black coaches in college football ranks? Were the Duke lacrosse players rapists or falsely accused? The front page is now not the only province for these stories, but often that front-page story is covered by a sports reporter.
Along these lines, one of my most satisfying stories took place after the earthquake in San Francisco, which occurred just before the third game of the World Series there. Bridges collapsed, buildings toppled, fires raged. San Francisco lost its electricity for a short while and went dark at night, citizens brought out home-made flares to light up intersections. The Series was delayed 10 days. The several Times reporters on the scene were asked to cover the earthquake. One of my assignments was to find a hero. On a fall October morning, amid much devastation on the streets, I asked around, and around.
Someone mentioned a firefighter who had saved a woman in a burning building. The informant didn’t know the firefighter’s name, or his fire company. I kept asking around, and found out. His name was Gerry Shannon, age 44, and a veteran of 19 years as a firefighter. He was assigned to Hook and Ladder Engine No. 9, and was asleep when I got to his station house. He awoke to come downstairs to talk to me.
It happened only hours after the earthquake hit at 5:04 p.m., Pacific time. Shannon and his fellow firefighters were battling blazes along Beach Street, near the Bay. He heard a moan from a collapsed house. It was a woman. When the earthquake struck, she was on the second floor. The floor had opened like a trapdoor, and she tumbled down, the rest of the building crashing down around her.
Her name, as he later learned, was Sherra Cox, a 55-year-old woman, and she lay trapped under a door and a doorjamb for what seemed an eternity to her. She smelled fire – the buildings around her were aflame – and felt the creaking of wood. She feared she might be burned or crushed to death. She told herself, “Don’t panic.” She prayed, and tapped, hoping someone would hear.
Shannon heard the tapping sound from within the rubble of the house. He instinctively crawled through a dark space and began to dig his way toward the tapping.
He yelled, “Where are you? Where are you?”
He heard a woman’s voice, “I’m here! I’m here!”
He found that a wooden beam from the doorway had fallen across her body and that, by incredible good fortune, it had kept the rest of the building from burying her alive.
All around outside, sirens whirred, shouts were heard, but Shannon listened only for the woman’s voice. The space was too small for him to maneuver with his fireman’s helmet and turnout coat, so he removed them. Now, in blue T-shirt, he crawled through the debris and rubble, skinning his arms and knees as he clawed and wriggled through. After about 30 minutes he got to her. He was able to reach out and touch her. “She grabbed my fingers,” Shannon recalled, “and it was so tight I didn’t think I could get loose.”
He told her, “I’ve got to go back for equipment.”
“Don’t leave me,” she said. “Don’t leave me. I don’t want to die here.”
He explained that he had to get a saw to cut through the wood beams.
“Promise you’ll come back,” she said.
“I promise,” he said.
Shannon retreated on hands and knees, knowing he didn’t have much time, got the equipment and hurried back. He sawed through one beam, had trouble with another– “I thought, `We might not make it’” – used a hatchet to that one, and pulled Sherra Cox from the building, and, in the glow of fires, helped her onto a stretcher on the street.
I wrote this exclusive story, of this remarkable man and the storybook rescue, and it drew national attention. When the Series resumed, 10 people were picked as “heroes” of the earthquake to throw out the first ball for Game 3.
Gerry Shannon, in civilian clothes, was one of those true heroes, taking his place close to the mound, as even our “baseball heroes” in the dugout applauded. As I watched, I thought, “I know Gerry Shannon,” and, as hard-boiled a reporter as I purport to be, a tear came to my eye.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Ira Berkow, retired from the New York Times on February 1, where he had been a Sports of the Times columnist and feature writer since 1981. He is the author of 17 books, most recently the memoir “Full Swing: Hits, Runs and Errors in a Writer’s Life,” published last April.