Jeff Pearlman

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Ross Newhan

#148
A Hall of Fame baseball writer explains Tommy Lasorda, debates the future of newspapers and pines for the amazing Jim Murray and his L.A. Times magic. POSTED April 2, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 10.38.59 AMOn occasion, I feel bad for the 20-something-year-old sports fan.

Oh, on the one hand it’s a great time. Games on at all hours. Stats upon stats upon stats, and images upon images upon images. You’re one click away from everything and anything.

And  yet … I can’t help but feel that a certain element of artistry has been lost. For every blog post and every Tweet, there’s a level of journalistic dexterity that no longer exists. Men like Dave Anderson and Murray Chass and Jim Murray and Peter Vecsey—profound voices; productive voices, informed voices—are pretty much ghosts, never to return.

I long for their bylines.

I long for Ross Newhan‘s byline.

For 40 years, Ross was one of America’s absolute great baseball writers. He began his career in 1961 with the Long Beach Press-Telegram, and six years later landed at the Los Angeles Times, where he covered the Angels and Dodgers for nearly two decades. He took over as the national baseball writer for the Times in 1985, and was at the paper when I started covering the game for Sports Illustrated. Whenever I’d travel out to Dodger Stadium, I’d run into Ross—one of the true gentlemen of the genre.

Perhaps best of all, in 1999 Ross’ son, David, made his Major League debut with the San Diego Padres—proving to the world (well, to the four people who cared about such issues) that sports writers have athletic genes, too.

Though he left the Times in 2004, Ross’ blog is beautifully done and a must-read. His piece on the late Jim Fregosi is one of the best things I’ve read this year.

Ross Newhan, welcome to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Ross, you started covering baseball for the Long Beach Press Telegram in 1961. That’s 53 years ago—a pretty damn long time. This is a broad question, but I wonder how you feel about sports journalism now vs. sports journalism then. Do you long for what was? The seemingly simpler age where a newspaper was a newspaper, and that’s what people read? Or are things better now, with multiple platforms, myriad ideas on what journalism is, etc?

ROSS NEWHAN: I wouldn’t put it in terms of “longing for” the way it was. I feel fortunate to remain productive after a half century in sports journalism and to have generally kept up with the technological changes. I regret the demise of so many newspapers and that generations of young people won’t know the joy of holding a newspaper in their hands and reading a story in depth. At the same time, we have seen the development of quality websites that enable a reader to weigh competitive opinions on varied subjects with a click of the mouse. In many ways I can now read more spots journalists touching on a wider range of game and cultural issues than I could ever do in the “old” days. Hell, when I started in the old days of ’61 they had Western Union operators in all the press boxes and you would hand your typewritten page to the operator and crossed your fingers that they would send it to the paper the way you had written it.

J.P.: What was your life path? What I mean is, how did you become a journalist? Why did you become a journalist? Was it luck? Hard work? An odd break? How did it happen for you?

R.N.: In my case it was luck, work and an odd break combined. I came up to my last two years in high school at Long Beach Wilson with no real direction and having never shown much interest in writing. However, I decided to take a journalism and creative writing class on a whim, and somehow, somewhere during that process, the instructor, a great bear of a man named John Gartner, found a way to light a spark. A lot of it, I think, came from the fact that he read Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, which had just been printed in entirety in Life magazine, to the class and, like many others I suppose, I was caught up in the simple, yet descriptive and complex, style that sent me to the library to read all of Hemingway I could. Gartner, in turn, asked me to be sports editor of the school newspaper and shortly later came to me and said the Long Beach Press-Telegram was looking for someone to call in the results of our high school games. I jumped at the opportunity—$5 a week represented a full tank of gas in 1952. Well, from calling in results, to working in the office and taking those results over the phone, to getting the chance to actually cover and write about a high school game, to bigger and better assignments while learning to write headlines, edit copy and lay out a page, it was all a pretty amazing development. I did enroll at what was then Long Beach State, but I was having too much fun and making too much progress at the paper to keep up my grades. Newspaper work, writing, is the only job I have ever had (besides a brief sojourn in the Army Signal Corps) and I am pretty sure that the route I took, that I fell into, happens any more in today’s journalism.

Newhan, far right, interviewing new Giants managing general partner Peter Magowan alongside Mark Gonzalez (left) and Murray Chass.

Newhan, far right, interviewing new Giants managing general partner Peter Magowan alongside Mark Gonzalez (left) and Murray Chass.

JP.: In 1967 you were hired by the Los Angeles Times to be a traveling beat writer for, at different times, the Angels and the Dodgers. What, to you, are the traits and characteristics of a great beat writer? How competitive does one need to be? Can you befriend the rival writers? Are there codes?

R.N.: Competitiveness, of course, is at the forefront. So is earning the trust of the organization—from owner to clubhouse personnel—of the club you cover. You have to protect sources. You can’t be violating that trust. When I was hired by The Times I had already been on the Angel beat for six years at the Long Beach paper, but I found at the Times that the other writers on the beat—and in the late ’60s and most of the ’70s there were still a half dozen other healthy papers in Southern California—took a delight in beating The Times, even if it meant sharing quotes and stories. It is hard not to be sociable, at least, with the group you travel with over the course of a season (for the most part the press corps is in its own cocoon), but that “ganging up” on The Times could be pretty distasteful at times and, over the course of several seasons, eroded my relationship with a couple of the writers with whom I was closest. Now, while there are fewer newspapers and fewer beat writers traveling on a regular bases, the competitive aspect might be even stronger. Any quote, injury angle or breaking story that a beat guy or gal gets on their own is immediately tweeted and/or put on Facebook and/or sent to the organization’s web site so that they can be first.

J.P.: You covered a lot of Tommy Lasorda. I’ve heard mixed things about him, and a lot of negative: Phony, fraud, deceptive, dishonest. What’s your take on Tommy Lasorda? How do you explain him—because the man has long fascinated me.

R.N.: Tommy, indeed, is a complex personality, and I have had, like others I know, quite a few periods when we were not speaking in his reaction to something I had written and even an occasion or two when he telephoned in a threatening context. Yet there were and have been other periods—particularly when he was managing and I was traveling with the Dodgers—when he invited me to lunch or dinner, greeted my wife warmly and was Uncle Tommy to my son and daughter when they were youngsters. He was, in many ways, a kick to cover. Fresh stories, old stories, screaming quotes, perceptive quotes. A man who has traveled the country giving speeches, doing good deeds (big and small), seldom (never?) paying for a meal. He has been an ambassador for baseball, a blue blood salesman for the Dodgers and a worthy Hall of Famer (whose election I supported in print). However, I also weigh the words you have employed in your question—phony, fraud, deceptive, dishonest—and at this point of his and my careers, let’s just leave it in this context: If you can’t say something nice about a person (which I think I have done) ….

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 12.29.24 AMJ.P.: You worked alongside two of the most notable and interesting sports writers we’ve seen—Jim Murray, the legendary columnist, and Mike Penner, the baseball beat writer who famously had a sex change and, ultimately, committed suicide. What was your relationship like with those two people? What made Murray so great? And did you ever feel like—toward the end—you understood what Mike was going through? And how did his passing impact you?

R.N.: What is there to say about Jim Murray that hasn’t been said? He was, indeed, a great writer who felt his responsibility—which we talked about more than once while sitting next to each other in cold and wind swept World Series press boxes—was to entertain, which he did through humor and hyperbole (“Gentlemen, start your coffins …” he began a column on the Indy 500). Pete Rose? Willie Shoemaker? Jack Nicklaus? The stars came to him, but he also knew the man of the street. He was insightful, blessed with quick recall, among the fastest writers I knew or have known and very encouraging and complimentary to me, which was like praise from heaven. The great circulation boom of The Times through the late 60s and 70s? No one was more responsible than Murray.

Mike Penner was also a terrific writer and friend with whom I traveled at different periods of our careers. He, too, brought a touch of humor to his game and feature writing, and I always felt he was headed to bigger things—book writing and more. He was that good. In addition, he and his wife had dined with my wife and I more than once, I had been with him on the road and I was stunned by his gender transition, having never an inkling. I am not a psychologist/psychiatrist, but Mike was clearly caught up in a difficult world, and I was deeply saddened by his suicide, shaken by what he must have been going through. I think of him often.

J.P.: On June 4, 1999, your son David made his Major League debut with the San Diego Padres—then stuck around to play another seven seasons in the Bigs. How the heck did a short Jewish sportswriter produce a jock son? And what was it like for you, as a sportswriter, to have him make it?

R.N.: What do you mean by a “short Jewish sportswriter?” Just because one of David’s favorite responses to inquiring reporters was “look at the genes I’ve had to overcome” doesn’t mean his mom and I didn’t have athletic ability. Consider all the years I had to tote a typewriter or computer up ballpark steps, all the books his mom had to tote as a school district librarian (lol). Yes, David had to overcome the genes of his parents, and he did it with all the traits parents like to preach: dedication, hard work, heart. All of a sudden, with David’s success, I was being quoted instead of seeking quotes, and after decades of observing the rule in regard to no cheering in the press box, I had to get used to the idea that it was quite natural to do sitting amid family and fans. I mean, how could we not act mashugana at times? Like when he had three hits off Oakland’s Tim Hudson in his first big league start or an inside the park home run off Pedro Martinez or a grand slam off Bronson Arroyo or the five four hit games in the second half of the 2004 season alone. Those genes couldn’t have been too bad.

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 12.33.12 AM J.P.: Is there hope for newspapers? And, if so, what?

R.N.: I have to believe there will always be newspapers, in big cities and small regions, doing the important, investigative work that has always made them vital. Pollyanna? Perhaps. But I have been in the business too long to feel otherwise, although I recognize the difficulties, the momentum, that has closed so many and continues to work against their success.

J.P.: We always write about fading athletes; about the inevitable loss of ability. I’m wondering if this happens in writing, too? Did you ever feel like you lost any skill or sharpness? Does ability diminish over time? And are there ways to stay particularly sharp?

R.N.: I don’t know for sure about a loss of skill or sharpness. I guess when I think of staying sharp now it’s in terms of my golf game, such as it is. I do think that writing on deadlines, as I did for four plus decades, helps you retain your skills and sharpness, keeps you at an edge, and that you can get a little soft, you can lean towards procrastination, when deadlines are no longer an issue. I still do a baseball blog and I continue to do freelance work for various publications, but there definitely isn’t the rush associated with grinding it out daily or having 10 minutes to produce 750 words.

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 12.35.00 AMJ.P.: Greatest moment of your journalistic career? Lowest?

R.N.: I don’t think there’s any question about the high point. Being voted the J.G. Taylor Spink Award by your peers and having the opportunity to give an acceptance speech touching on your career and the contributions of your family as part of the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown pretty much stands alone.

The lowest? Not sure. There were days when I’d pick up the paper or re-read my story of the previous night on the computer and immediately saw how I could have done it better. There were days when another paper might have had an angle or a story that I knew I should have gotten to first. However, over a long period I feel I was generally ahead of the game on both of those counts. I have a plaque on my office wall here that I received from The Times as part of their annual awards banquet. The category: “Sustained Excellence.” I can live with that.

J.P.: We recently saw Michael Sam, the University of Missouri defensive end, come out of the closet. I’m wondering—how do you think this sort of thing will go over when it happens in baseball? And, through the years, have you ever covered players you knew to be gay (I’m not asking names, obviously)? Do you think the Major League clubhouse can handle it?

R.N.: I have to think, and hope, that as a society and as journalists we will reach a point where a Michael Sam isn’t a story, isn’t news. I covered the Dodgers when the late Glenn Burke, who later acknowledged being gay, played for the team and I didn’t know it at the time, although some of his teammates have since said they did. He was popular, a bright, cheerful clubhouse favorite. I otherwise can’t think of any time in any year when I suspected that a player might be gay or I knew a player to be gay. The 162 game season is a long trek. No team is immune from an occasional disruption. It doesn’t and wouldn’t take a gay player for that to happen,  and I don’t think you can generalize in regard to how any one team would respond to a teammate coming out.

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 12.28.43 AMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH ROSS NEWHAN:

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Multi-million mile flyer but never thought I was going to die in a crash.

• Greatest baseball game you ever covered? Why?: Can’t narrow to one. Dramatic pitching duel between John Smoltz/Jack Morris in Game 7 of 1991 World Series; Reggie Jackson’s remarkable three home runs off the first pitch from three different Dodger pitchers in Game 6 of 1977 World Series; Boston’s Game 5 victory over California Angels in 1986 ALCS after Angels had been one out from going to World Series.

• Rank in order (Favorite to least): Bruno Mars, Orange County Register, Diane Keaton, Swingers (the movie), eggplant parm, Dave Krieg, fishing, Tony Armas, Nutella, St. Louis’ arch: Diane Keaton, fishing, eggplant parm, St. Louis arch, Swingers, Orange County Register, Tony Armas, Bruno Mars, Dave Krieg, Nutella.

• Five greatest baseball stadiums you’ve ever visited: Fenway Park, Camden Yards, Dodger Stadium, Wrigley Field, old Tiger Stadium.

• How much do you worry about climate change? Is there a solution to be had?: I do worry about it in the context of how climate change will alter the lives of my grandchildren and their children. I don’t see an immediate solution considering the polarization in Washington and the continuing doubters.

• Most awkward moment involving a player?: Probably the time Angel outfielder Brian Downing stuck a bat under my nose just because I had written that all his weight lifting must have left him muscle bound between his ears.

•  Five greatest sports writers of your lifetime?: Jim Murray, Jimmy Cannon, Red Smith, Mark Kram, Bill Nack.

• Do you consider Barry Bonds to be a Hall of Famer? Why?: Bonds deserved to be in Hall of Fame before steroids degraded his career and upgraded his cap size.

• The absolute best restaurant in Los Angeles is …: Cut at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Say Hello to Wolfgang Puck.

• The world needs to know: What was it like covering Daryl Sconiers in his prime?: Anyone have a good book?

  • Pingback: Sportswriter wisdom from Jeff Pearlman and Ross Newhan | Bleacher Report – The Writers Blog

  • R.L.B.

    Really enjoyed the interview. Growing up in a household that subscribed to the Press-telegram and LA Times I had the privilege of reading Murray, Penner and Newhan. I also have a new appreciation for their writing as an adult. The Times have certainly changed but Bill Dwyer’s still hanging on. Plaschke can evoke a tear jerker now and then and can still provoke thought. No more T.J. who seemed to just enjoy pissing others off. The thing the old guys have in common is honesty, integrity. No b.s. no fluff.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life