Keepers of the Game: When the Baseball Beat was the Best Job on the Paper by Dennis D'Agostino Copyright © 2013 by Potomac Books. All rights reserved. 1. STAN ISAACS With a wry, offbeat style that typified not only his own career but the philosophy of an entire sports section, Stan Isaacs was the anchor of Newsday' s baseball coverage for nearly four decades . Joining the Long Island daily in 1954 (after the folding of the long-forgotten Daily Compass, where he worked under the legendary editor Stanley Woodward), Isaacs covered all three New York teams in 1956-1957. After the Dodgers and Giants headed west, he took over the Yankees beat in 1958. He covered both the Yankee and Mets beats until 1965, when he became a columnist. With its signature title "Out of Left Field," Isaacs's column not only covered sports but, eventually, the local and national sports media beat. He retired from Newsday in 1992. As an original Chipmunk, Isaacs was responsible for three signature moments in modern baseball writing, two comical and one deadly serious: his role in the heisting of the Brooklyn Dodgers' 1955 world championship pennant, his infamous "breast or bottle" question directed at the Yankees' Ralph Terry in 1962, and his 1964 two-part feature on Alvin Dark, in which the Giants manager was quoted as criticizing the team's Latin and African American players. A BBWAA member since 1951, Isaacs is a regular contributor to TheColumnists.com and also serves on the twenty-man committee that elects the Hall of Fame's annual Ford Frick Award winner (the broadcast equivalent of the Spink Award). Since 1960, first in News-day and now on the Internet, he has published his annual Isaacs Ratings of Esoteric Distinction, which include his anxiously awaited rankings of the world's great chocolate ice creams. The Ebbets Field press box was way up on top of the upper deck, and to get there you walked down a gated runway into the box. The first game I ever worked in Ebbets Field, I walked down the runway, and there was a seat right as you walked in. I sat down, and two minutes later Jack Lang comes over to me and says, "Kid, get to the end!" That was Jack Lang being Jack Lang. Once I started on the high school paper, I wrote sports and realized that it was really all I cared about. I advanced to the Brooklyn College Vanguard and then became a sports stringer for the Herald Tribune and the Times . That gave me an entrée into the New York newspaper business. The Daily Compass was a newspaper from the 1950s that was really significant for its time. It didn't have any advertising, the feeling being that advertising corrupted newspapers, which was completely wrong. The more advertisers you have, the less advertisers can tell you what to do. When the Compass started, I got a job under Stanley Woodward, the great sports editor. Woodward had been fired years before by the Tribune , and the Compass brought him back. The famous story about Woodward was that the Tribune was trying to cut staff. The editor-in-chief sends a note to Woodward, telling him to designate the two most expendable people on the staff. Woodward wrote back, "Stanley Woodward and Red Smith." Woodward was a gruff guy who loved college football. I was awed by him, naturally. He was the editor, and I dealt more with the subeditors, the guys on the desk. He instilled a journalistic integrity that carried over not only to sports but to the whole paper. It was a muckraking kind of paper, and we all had high ideals. When the Compass folded in 1952, I freelanced, which is a glorious word for "struggling," writing little pieces for magazines and hanging around the New York sports scene, going to the basketball writers lunches, that kind of thing. I also had a job on some crappy magazine that put out mild girlie editions. This was before Playboy . I wrote captions for it and left after one summer. Joe Goldstein, who at that time was still a writer before he became a great press agent, told Bob Zellner, the sports editor of Newsday , that I was a bright young guy. In October of 1954, I started at Newsday writing high school sports. Four years later, in 1958, I started traveling with the Yankees. I always felt I wasn't part of the mainstream of the New York baseball press. You had guys like Dick Young of the Daily News and Lou Effrat of the Times , they owned the place. I was a marginal guy, first at the Compass and now at Newsday . I had this vision of being the equivalent of a cityside reporter--the guys who covered politics and crime and things like that. You do a good job, cover the story, and you don't become pals with those you cover. One day, when I was starting out, Joe DiMaggio was involved in a weird play. I asked him about it, and he gave me a non-answer. I walked away, and Joe Trimble of the Daily News came over to me and said, "Stan, you don't go over and ask Joe about the play. You wait until he lets us know he wants to talk to us." I was stunned. That's not the way a cityside or political reporter would do it. I came at it from a different angle. We were serious journalists who weren't in awe of who we were covering. We were trying to write and cover things well, but with an irreverent air combining good reportorial instincts with a sort of an irreverent feeling and an honest skepticism. We were not part of a club; we weren't awed by covering the exalted Yankees. And they were a very tough team to cover, because they weren't used to people coming around and asking tough questions. Jack Mann was the guy who set the tone for Newsday back then. He was a mild, sweet guy. Not a strong-minded sports editor, but that was fine with me because I was pretty strong. It was basically me and Mann who determined what Newsday was like: irreverent, hard-hitting, funny. We were cityside-type guys who felt strongly about doing good work. Today's expression, I guess, would be "outside the box." As a newspaper, we always seemed to be on the outside. We were never part of the establishment. In fact, I was the one who said, "I won't be an official scorer." Newsday was the first paper to not allow official scoring. I said it was counter to what we were doing as newspapermen. One, we weren't part of the establishment. Two, it can hurt your stories. You make a scoring call in a game, and then you have to go down to the locker room and justify it. It wasn't worth it. Other papers later followed. Then it bothered me years later when Newsday guys started scoring again. Certainly I was a Chipmunk. The whole Chipmunk thing has been so distorted. The three people who gravitated toward each other were me, Leonard Shecter of the Post , and Larry Merchant from Philadelphia. Larry was a great guy for knowing what was going on around the country. He was reading me when none of the New York City editors were reading Newsday . He was sharp, and he recognized that sharpness in the way I wrote, the offbeat approach. We were kinsmen in a way. So the three of us would get together after games, and we thought of ourselves, lightheartedly, as the Rat Pack, a take-off of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and their pals. That was the three of us. A year or two later, Jim Bouton won a game he pitched at Yankee Stadium. Bouton was a guy who liked the press, and we gravitated to him because he was funny and he liked to talk to us. There's a lot of revelry around his locker; I was there, Shecter, Phil Pepe, we were kidding and laughing with him. From across the clubhouse, Jimmy Cannon looked at us all laughing and said, "Look at them! Look at them!" And Pepe's teeth protruded a little. Cannon said, "Look at them, they're a bunch of chipmunks!" So we said, "That's a good name." Forget the Rat Pack, we're the Chipmunks. Then you had other young guys come along, a lot of them from Newsday , like Steve Jacobson and George Vecsey. The Chipmunks were part of a generational thing. Young people come along and shake things up from the old guard, and then eventually the young people become the old guard when a new group comes along. So now we don't like some of the things that have been done over the years, like the personal stuff and the sex stuff. When Roger Maris came to the Yankees, he was kind of a grouch. It was sort of refreshing that you had a guy who wasn't awed by being a Yankee. We looked upon him--a guy who, if you were in the army with him, he'd complain. And you liked him complaining because you'd agree with him, but you might not complain like he did. When Maris and Mickey Mantle started hitting home runs in 1961, the traditional guys liked Mantle and were rooting for him. They weren't anti-Maris, but Mantle was the guy. We, meaning Shecter and I and guys like us, liked Maris. While it might not have been part of our stories, I know I wanted Maris to be the guy. He had a surliness that at times was inappropriate, which if you didn't know him might have turned you off. That's what hurt him with Cannon and Oscar Fraley from UPI the next spring. The run toward sixty-one homers was symbolized with two incidents. There was a game in Chicago that was delayed by rain. We're killing time in the press box and got word that Maris was down in the runway outside the Yankee clubhouse, talking to fans. So we run down, and it's a gated runway, and we're able to talk to him through the gate. Here's a guy who's supposedly running away from the press, and he comes out, and now we're interviewing him along the runway. He wasn't hiding. The other incident was at Detroit toward the end of the season, and unfortunately it typifies Maris and why he got in trouble. He hits one into the upper deck; the ball bounces out of the stands and back onto the field. Al Kaline picks it up, throws it back in, and they give the ball to Maris. In the clubhouse afterward, Watson Spoelstra of the Detroit News , asks him, "Wasn't that a nice thing that Kaline did?" I'm saying to myself, "Roger, say yes!" But he said, "Anybody would have done it." That's typical Roger. He's being honest and doesn't mean to be mean. Well, Spoelstra writes it and frames the story around it. The next day, people are booing Roger. Sometimes Roger would say no in a surly way that would work against him. That's why it started, that people hated him. If sixty thousand people were cheering and a thousand were booing, somehow Maris remembered the thousand who were booing. But Yankee fans were rooting for him. Once Mantle got hurt, Yankee fans were rooting for Maris. It's a myth to say they weren't. Bill Veeck once said that only one team can win, but does that mean all the other teams can't have any fun? I looked at the early Mets and saw that they weren't going to win, but they had guys who were interesting whom you could write about. Casey Stengel set the fun tone, and so did Richie Ashburn. Ashburn clued us in on things about Stengel and Marv Throneberry that helped us realize that this was a team you could look at lightheartedly. It was ridiculous to think they were going to contend for the pennant. You like fun in this world, and this is a game, not high science. The logical thing was to cover them that way. Throneberry had failed with the Yankees, and he was looked upon as a bum, a big, lazy Southerner who didn't amount to anything. People seemed to really dislike him. It struck me at some point that the opposite of hate is love. So I wrote a column that said, in effect, "Mets fans are bound to love Throneberry. He is going to be the guy they love." And that's what happened. It's one of the few things I can point to where I was right on. Best Sports Stories picked that one up. A big part of the Throneberry thing was that Ashburn was egging it on. He'd come up to us and say, "Did you hear what Throneberry said yesterday?" Throneberry moaned a lot, but Ashburn turned the moaning into humor. Ashburn was also good for telling you things about Stengel that we didn't know. I'll tell you the definitive 1962 Mets story. First day of spring training, Stengel takes the team onto the field, then at lunchtime they come into the locker room. I go over to Sherman "Roadblock" Jones, a pitcher who had come from Cincinnati. I say, "Hi, I'm Stan Isaacs of Newsday ." He said, "Is that a newspaper?" I said, "Yes." He said, "I only believe 12 percent of what I read in newspapers." I looked at him and said, "12 percent? Why 12 percent?" He gave me sort of a mystical air and said, "12 percent." I said to myself that no matter what I write, people are going to believe only 12 percent, so why should I get too worried about it? When we stole the Dodgers' 1955 world championship pennant, there were four of us: me, Jack Mann, Steve Weller of the Buffalo News , and a friend of mine who had been born in Brooklyn but was now working for the Los Angeles Times , Chuck Sutton. This is at the 1959 World Series in L.A., and this would be after Game Five. At the World Series press headquarters, we're eating and drinking. On the big curtain in this ballroom was the 1955 championship flag, pinned to the drapes. We're sitting there, and I said, "They took the team out of Brooklyn and now even the flag. They shouldn't have the flag." So we said, "Let's steal the flag." I must say, liquor was not involved here. I'm not a drinker. But Weller was encouraging us, going, "Yeah, yeah!" We're among the last few people sitting, and we're going to stack the tables on top of each other to get to the flag. We call the busboys, and Sutton says to them, "I'm Chuck Sutton of the New York Herald Tribune , and we must have the tables stacked up there, and we also need a pair of scissors." I guess something about the Herald Tribune sounded good to them, because they helped us stack the tables. I got up, and I snipped the cord that tied the flag to the wall. We wrapped it up and ran out of the building, figuring that the cops would be following us the whole way. We thought that when the Dodgers found out about this, they'd come to Mann and me. So we gave the flag to Sutton, who lived in L.A., and we'd get it later. Jack and I went back to the hotel, figuring that at any time, we'd be caught. We went to the airport the next morning to fly to Chicago, and Sutton came and gave us the flag. All the time, we're thinking that Walter O'Malley and his police are going to come. We go to Chicago for the rest of the Series and then home to New York, and I put the flag in my house in Roslyn Heights. We figured we'd take the flag to Brooklyn, but in those days, Brooklyn was in a down time. There was no place to display the flag. So it stayed in my basement, wrapped in plastic, for years. I finally said, "This is ridiculous. We want this flag to be seen." So I gave it to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but they didn't do anything with it, either. They kept it in their basement, and it just as well could have been in mine. Finally, they put together an exhibit honoring old ballparks and displayed the flag. Years later, Peter O'Malley persuaded them to give the flag to the Brooklyn Historical Society, where it is now. Long after all this was over, I once asked Buzzie Bavasi, the Dodgers GM, "How come you didn't try to get the flag back?" He said, "Ah, it belonged where you had it. We just had another one made, and it cost us $92." The bottle story. Ralph Terry wins Game Seven of the 1962 World Series in San Francisco. We're around Terry in the clubhouse. Terry was a shy guy, amiable. We liked him, and we had a lot of easy banter with him. In the middle of it, somebody tells Terry that his wife is on the phone. So he says, "Excuse me," and he went back. When he came back, he told us that the call was from his wife. We asked him what she was doing, and he said she was feeding the baby. So I said, "Breast or bottle?" My wife had given birth not long before, so I knew about things like that. I said it as a flippant line. Some people laughed, but some were amazed that I would say this. Terry gave a shy grin, and by the way, we never got the answer. I thought of my question as a joke, just as part of the banter. Some people saw it as the lighthearted thing that it was, but some saw it as typical intrusive Chipmunk reporting, and the state the business had come to. It's been distorted over the years. People have had it under different circumstances, like after the Mazeroski homer off Terry in the 1960 World Series. The History Channel made that mistake. To me, it was just having fun. To some who wanted to be negative about it, they saw it as intrusive. In any case, I didn't write it. Not that I had any desire not to write it; it just didn't seem that important. I laugh now when it's mentioned. People say to me, "Oh, you're the breast or bottle guy. ..." The Alvin Dark thing came about because I was going out west to cover the U.S.-USSR track meet in L.A. in 1964. I stopped in San Francisco on the way. I'm thinking, I'll get a column while I'm there. I liked Dark; so did Koppett. He was a Christian, a very ethical guy. Now I'm in San Francisco and I stop in the clubhouse before the game, and Dark is beside himself. The Giants have been losing games with stupid plays, and he was really venting about why they were doing so badly and making all these mistakes. I suggested that, well, isn't it the manager's fault? He said, "No, it's something else," and that's when he started saying that the Negro players aren't that smart and that's part of the problem. I said that if the Negro players aren't that smart, look at the Boston Celtics. They're the best team in basketball, and the smartest team, and they're almost all black. Why would those black guys be smarter? And he said, "I don't know about that, I know that you just can't make the Negro and the Spanish players have the pride in their team that the white players have." By Spanish, which is what we said back then, he meant Spanish-speaking. I'm not taking notes. I'm listening to him and certainly paying attention, and I paraphrase what he said in the column. I write it over two days, and the second day's column is mostly on Orlando Cepeda. He's really upset at Cepeda, and I wrote it as such. Because no one paid any attention to Newsday , it didn't get any publicity. The managing editor, Alan Hathway, tried to get the AP to pick up the column, but they wouldn't. But black players all around, they knew about it. It was an underground thing. Finally, it exploded about two weeks later when the Giants came to New York. I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I knew that I was accurate--I knew I wasn't making any of this up. I knew there were other managers who said these things who were not quoted. I thought I was bringing out into the open a feeling that existed in baseball about black and Hispanic players. But I was naïve; it didn't work that way. All that was seized upon was Dark saying that black and Hispanic players weren't that smart. When Dark came to New York, he had a press conference. I felt bad about what was happening; you quote somebody and it blows up, and you can't protect him. This wasn't what I wanted to happen. I thought I was making a sociological point. Before Dark came to New York, I went down to see him in Philadelphia, and I explained the best I could that I wasn't trying to get him. But it was meaningless because he denied that he was a racist and that he hadn't said it. I, again protecting him, said, "I could see where he thinks that what he said was taken out of context." He threatened to sue later on, but I knew that other people had heard things like this, and he didn't sue. In later years, when we were on the field together, I looked at him, but he looked away, and I could understand that. I felt bad for him. And the irony is that, as some people have told me, the Giants were foundering so much that Horace Stoneham was ready to fire him. But because of the flap at that time, he felt he couldn't fire him, and instead he did it at the end of the year. I was known for doing offbeat stuff. Behind the right field fence at the old ballpark in Kansas City, there was a grassy incline. Charlie Finley, who was trying to outstunt Bill Veeck, put sheep out there so they could eat the grass. At the end of a long trip you get bored, and I decided I would sit with the sheep and cover the game from there. Afterward, when I came into the clubhouse, Whitey Ford asked me, "Are you writing for the Stockyard News?" Mantle said, "How many blades of grass were out there?" You know, kidding, the kinds of questions we asked. I think I could be a beat guy today, but I wouldn't like to do the job the way it's done now. Having to write so many stories, so many early edition stories, and writing for the Web. It's constantly feeding the maw, this gigantic maw. It doesn't seem very satisfying. On the other hand, you have to earn a living, and there are worse things than writing about baseball. There's a lot more centering on insignificant stuff. I'm reading the Philadelphia papers, and there's two days in a row on "The Psyche of Cole Hamels." Hey, the guy's a pitcher, and he had a bad year. But they're squeezing the blood out of it. I don't see the New York papers, but I would assume that what I'd see there wouldn't thrill me. But if I'd had to do it, I'd do it. One last story. One year we're in California, and it's a late game against the Angels. The game is running long. We're going to have a tough time making deadline, and we find out that we probably won't make the team bus out to the airport. Joe Trimble of the Daily News says, "Well, I know Peter Lorre. He's here and he has a car, and he'll take us." So after the game we go to the car, get in, and there's Peter Lorre behind the wheel. I kept thinking to myself, this is something out of The Maltese Falcon . Peter Lorre is driving us to the airport, and who knows what's going to happen? However, Sydney Green-street was nowhere to be found. Neither was the black bird. Excerpted from Keepers of the Game: When the Baseball Beat Was the Best Job on the Paper by Dennis D'Agostino All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.