The Joys of Being a Sportswriter


 By Vic Ziegel



                                New York Daily News 

The iconoclastic, combative, earthy and outrageously funny veteran sportswriter, Vic Ziegel.








                   The late Leonard Shekter, Ziegel’s great idol and  friend.


By Vic Ziegel



The Long Island Press no longer exists. (So what else is new?) When I was still in college, I showed up at the Press several nights a week – eight splendid bucks a night – to take high school basketball results over the phone and write a few paragraphs of roundup, nothing too fancy.


There were about a half-dozen of us living in this fast lane. One night, much like all the other nights, the scores starting running together. And to keep awake, and because I’m a cunning, vicious SOB, I urged my fellow eight-buckers to repeat the same phrase in the lead of our basketball roundups. The next day, on the high school page of the Long Island Press, in a half-dozen league stories, and another on non-conference games, it was reported that Chuck Lastname or Danny Lastname or Gerry Lastname led his team to victory by “performing yeoman work under the boards.”


Seven times, yeoman work under the boards. And I was back the next night, accepting congratulations, another eight bucks heading my way. What did I learn? That you can get away with a few things in this world. That nobody cares what kind of work you do if you work cheap. That if I ever fell off a roof and landed on my head I could still edit stories about high school sports for the Long Island Press. That people would laugh when I repeated the story.


Very seductive, the sound of laughter. And so I discovered, in my yeoman period, that if I wanted to continue hearing the pleasing sound of laughter, I could keep writing sports. At least until I discovered what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Nothing seems to have changed.  I can still be found in the sports section, still trying to earn a smile. Makes me think, nights in Pittsburgh, Louisville, the Iona-Siena game, that maybe I did fall off that roof.


Tom Rogers, a Times sportswriter, figured me out a long time ago. Vic doesn’t write about sports, he told a mutual friend, he writes about sportswriting.


Guilty, with the usual explanation. Sports is thrilling, fascinating, exhilarating, and happens out of town often enough to accomplish wonderful things with an expense account. Like the night in Philadelphia, when the sorry Mets of the mid-60’s, scored 20 runs against the Phils, and manager Wes Westrum explained by saying his players had their hitting shoes on. So I toured the Mets clubhouse asking the players to tell me about their shoes. Cleon Jones said he found his in an alley.


Gene Mauch, a longtime manager, once said, “I liked it a lot better when writers didn’t think they had to be funny.” Well, he never won a pennant and I’ll never win a Pulitzer, but it’s a great line. One of the great things about sportswriting was that you didn’t have to include the victim’s home address and get a quote about what a good person he was before climbing that tower and picking off eleven people. Sportswriting, back then, the second Lincoln administration, was about getting the score and explaining the why of it.


Them days is over. Now we have to worry about drugs, money, more drugs, more money, arrests, the increasing number of players who refuse to share their most intimate thoughts with us, college boys who don’t know how to spell college, the salary cap (and other man-made disasters), athletes endorsing sneakers ghetto kids are being killed for, and, to pick three names out of a Yankee cap, Alex Rodriguez, Joe Torre and Derek Jeter. If they asked me I could write a book.


Most of my columns are written in press boxes, with the stranger in the next chair typing a lot quicker. When sportswriters describe other sportswriters, good is high praise, and quick is the ultimate. (Quick and good, sounds almost lewd. Me? I never got it for free and I never will.)


The deadline is the enemy. It’s there, at the same time, every night. You relax your fingers and it comes closer. You can’t fake it out because it doesn’t move. It grows closer and towers over you. It doesn’t understand that you’re trying to do the yeoman thing. Or that you need a better word than fast to describe a baserunner. Very fast is very bad. Fleet is a bank. Swift, nimble, speedy, no, no, no. Fast is starting to look better. There’s coffee spilled on my notes. And the stranger in the next chair is on the phone telling somebody named Sweetie he’s on the way home. He offers a cheery good night and I respond, “yeah, grizzledip.”


The rare times I write at the Daily News, and the ax of a deadline is hours away from dropping, when you might think I have words enough and time, it suddenly becomes a game of playing chicken with the ax. So I schmooze with the other guys, go downstairs for another cup of cardboard coffee, call home, anybody’s home, until it’s finally the dreaded moment. The sports editor is standing over me asking “Where is it?” This is what you answer, kids. You say five minutes. Not to worry. If you miss once, nothing much happens. If you miss too many times, they make you sports editor.


When I covered baseball for the New York Post, the real New York Post, it was especially important that I finish in good time. Before the bars closed. The Lion’s Head was my bar of choice. If I got there at a decent hour, there was a great chance that Len Shecter, my friend, my idol, would be at the corner of the bar. He was the champ, tough, outrageous, funny, shrewd, fearless, acerbic, but don’t get me started. I wanted to write like Lenny – as they say in TV, the same but different – and on my best nights I came close.


He covered the Yankees when they won the pennant twice a year. When their clubhouse was colder than Greenland. Mickey Mantle was probably the main perp. It was no easy thing to be tough, outrageous, shrewd, etc. Lenny always got there. A few minutes after he left the baseball beat, Mantle told him, for his ears only, “I always thought you had a lot of guts.”


Lenny did a lousy thing to those nights at the Lion’s Head. He died. To this day, when I write a line I like, I tell my friend, “I did good, Lenny.”


History note: All through high school, my folks lived two subway stops from Yankee Stadium. But since I hated the Yankees as only a nine-year-old can, it was like growing up near Castle Dracula. And then they moved two blocks away, grizzledip.


I rooted for the New York Giants. Still do. Copied stories about the ’51 Giants into a notebook. Bought every paper in New York the day Bobby Thompson hit that sweet sweet home run.


My dad didn’t get it about sports. He was born in Russia and the boat he came over on didn’t have shuffleboard. But he knew this: If you could quote Whitey Lockman’s batting average and Dave Koslo’s earned run average it would still cost you a dollar to take the subway.


Mom did a little better. One time, when I came home from stickball, just in time for the announcement that we were having meat loaf, wash your hands (we had meatloaf more days in a row than DiMaggio had hits), I told my mother I would appreciate her asking me two vital questions: Did you win? How many hits did you get? She stayed with the program for about a week. She missed one day but it wasn’t a slump. You come out of a slump. Maybe if I had said something nice about the meat loaf…


It astounded my father – a man who rode with the Cossacks; the friendlier Cossacks – that a son of his earned a living writing 24-21, 4-3, $12.60 to win. The truth? It still astounds his son.