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Bert Randolph Sugar is a writer sports historian who has written over 50 books, mostly about baseball and boxing.  He was the owner and editor of of Boxing Illustrated magazine[…]

Today’s sportswriters don’t have the discipline that their predecessors did. “They’re writing quickly, so there’s no time for thought and cerebral thinking on an article. They’re just banging away.”

Question: Which sportswriters were your heroes when you were rngrowing up?

Bert Sugar: Well, I lived near Shirley Povich, so rnShirley, which is a male, of the Washington Post was one of them.  But Irn quickly picked up on Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner old time, and then rnfell in love as I grew older with others that I would read like Jim rnMurray and Red Smith.  But some of the best writing, Paul Gallico, et rncetera, was in the sports pages.  So, it was a happy mixture, that’s rnwhat I read and that’s where they were. 

Do you feel like your work continues in their legacy?

Bert Sugar: It’s not up to me to say, but I’ve been... rnit’s been said even in the Village Voice this week that I’m a throwback rnand carry on the great tradition of Damon Runyon.  I don’t know if rnthat’s because he wore a hat, or if that’s because I wrote the way he rndid.  I mean, Runyon was brilliant.  He’s the one who coined so many rnphrases, gave so many  names, like "Manassas Mauler" and others to rnathletes, and he’s probably best remembered today for something not in rnsports: the play, “Guys and Dolls” comes from his short story.  All of rnthem, there are a lot of short stories in there with the Nicely Nicely rnJohnsons and Sky Mastersons.  But Damon Runyon was brilliant. 

Question:rn Are there any younger sportswriters who also continue that tradition?

Bert Sugar: Sports writing is almost an extinct species, rnor soon to be.  Point being, they’re writing for blogs and they don’t rnhave a discipline.  Once they state a subject, they can go on.  There’s rnno space restraint.  And they’re writing quickly, so there’s no time forrn thought and cerebral thinking on an article, they’re just banging rnaway. 

And in the old days, just to tell you what it was like rnwhen I first came on the scene.  I’d been a lawyer and an advertising rnman and then after hitting the boss in the mouth, I became a writer rnbecause there was nowhere else I could go.  Nobody would hire me.  But rnwe used to sit at bars and tell stories; Toots Shor's, for example, in rnNew York.  And we would tell—drink, yes, tell stories, yes, yes and rnyes.  And the young kids, at which point I was one, would listen to the rnold timers.  Now, the kids don’t go to the bars, I don’t care if they rndrink, have a Coke, but hear the stories.  Don’t go up to your room to rnfigure out on your laptop how many free flyer miles you have, sit and rnhear what it is you’re doing so you have a reference value.  Sports did rnnot start in 1979 with the beginning of ESPN.  It went backwards before rnthat, I hate to tell the young writers. 

So, no.  I don’t see rnthe tradition being carried on.  I’ll give you a story I picked up at rnToots Shor's, had to be 40-45 years ago.  There was a writer in the rn'20s, for the New York Times who was still covering when I came on the rnscene named, John Drebinger, or Drebby, who told the story about the rntime when the writers would be on the same train with the ballclub.  Andrn he was covering the Yankees, and they’re going when there was a westernrn trip, there were eight teams in the American League from St. Louis rnovernight to Chicago.  They played the Browns; they were on their way torn play the White Sox.  And the writers were in the club car dealing out arn hand of bridge.  And they were fanning out their cards and the door rnslams open and Babe Ruth runs down the center aisle, naked.  And they rnlook up; they fan out their cards more.  And the door slams again, and rnhere comes a woman chasing him, equally as naked, with a knife in her rnhand.  And Drebby says, one of the writers said, “Well there’s another rnstory we’re not going to cover.”  Because that’s what it was like in rnthose days.  You protected your heroes. 

Where're these young rnkids gonna hear stories like that, if they don’t sit with the old fogiesrn and listen.  They’re too busy doing something, I have no idea what.  rnBut it sure as the dickens ain’t soakin up what they’re coverin'.

Do you have a story of your own that compares to that one?

Bert Sugar: Oh, several of them.  I remember asking Joe rnDiMaggio once, “Could you have made that catch Willie Mayes made in the rn1954 series off Vic Wertz?”  Joe thought a second, he said, “I wouldn’t rnhave lost my cap.”  Now, where are they gonna hear that? 

I alsorn found out why the Runyons and the Walter Winchells and the Red Smiths rnand the Shirley Poviches, and on and on and on wore hats.  They wore rnthem indoors.  I mean, if you’ve ever seen "Front Page" by Charles rnMcArthur and Ben Hecht.  It’s been done four times in movies and plays. rn The writers are wearing their hats inside.  Well, it goes back to the rnold, old days when type was set by linotype machines, Morganthaler rnlinotype machines.  The hot type.  They’d type in the word, and each rnletter would be typed in and it would fly in and the filaments would rnsort of just spew out all over the place.  If the made an “A” everythingrn that wasn’t an “A” would go flying on the metal, “B”, “C”, etc. 

Well,rn in the old days, the joisting in the floorboards between the type room,rn which was upstairs and the edit room, which was right below them rnbecause they were setting up their stories by pneumatic tube (whooshing rnsound).  And then it would (whooshing sound) once that come down again rnby tube, rolled up in a ball into a tube.  It would come filtering rnthrough like a constant drizzle.  And they took to wearing their hats.  rnSo, I wanted to become a writer, I guess I adopted that, which makes me arn throwback?  No.  It makes me a hat wearer. But It’s fun to wear one rnbecause people identify me as a writer.  Not to put a press pass in.  rnThat’s if you’re insecure and you want somebody to know you’re in the rnpress.  And of course, today’s kids can just have it tattooed on their rnarm.  But it was because in the old days, all they did was get this rndrizzle coming off their hat – or their head, and now their hat.  At rnleast they protected something.

Recorded May 4, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen