Bronx cheer, 10/08/14

It’s been a delightful news week, once you get past Ebola and the Islamic State and all the other little things that threaten our existence on this planet, not to mention the assorted threats to the planet itself. But I say we all should try real hard to stick around for a while, because there’s so much fun stuff out there, none the least of which is that Sarah Palin can’t find the White House (though I’m sure she can see it from her home in Wasilla). Continue reading

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Savages

 

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We sure do like our news sugarcoated, don’t we?

The cover of today’s New York Post – which shows American journalist James Foley about to be beheaded by an ISIS terrorist, an act that was captured on video and posted on YouTube – has generated predictable shock and outrage.

That’s because it actually shows the news. Dear god, what might The Post do next?!?! Continue reading

Here’s to you, Dr. Z


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Paul Zimmerman won an Emmy the other night.

He shoulda won a Pulitzer.

Grab a bottle of fine Bordeaux and pull up a chair, kids, and I’ll tell you all about the greatest reporter I’ve ever known. You can call him Dr. Z, as they did at Sports Illustrated. Or you can call him Zim, as we did at The New York Post. But, with all due apologies to Bob Dylan, you may not call him Zimmy. You wouldn’t dare.

That’s because Paul was a big man, a bear of a man, a larger-than-life man with an insatiable appetite for great food, fine wine, expensive cigars and a shareable story. He loved combat. He played rugby. And he was the finest football writer in the country. Continue reading

The day I made a 14-year-old kid the happiest Jew in New York

Pull up a chair, kids, and I’ll tell you all about the day I made a 14-year-old stranger the happiest Jewish boy in New York.

Today is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and it brings back memories of something that happened back in 1973 or so, when I was a kid on the sports desk of the New York Post.

The Post was a very different newspaper back then, a few years before Murdoch bought it and turned the steering wheel hard to the right. It was a leftist newspaper, owned by a woman named Dorothy Schiff, and it was very much the favored tabloid of New York’s liberal Jewish population. The popular joke was that on the day the world ended, The Post’s wood would read:

WORLD ENDS
Jews suffer most

The sports department had a list of bylines that was not only awe-inspiring, but coincidentally upheld the reputation. Ike Gellis. Sid Friedlander. Milton Gross. Maury Allen. Vic Ziegel. Paul Zimmerman. Larry Merchant. Leonard Lewin. Leonard Cohen. Gene Roswell. Dick Klayman.

Need a minyan? Call Post Sports.

And that clearly was what the woman on the other end of the line had in mind when the phone rang in the office late one afternoon, a few days before Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. (I don’t remember which, but the rules are generally the same. A “good” Jew puts on a tie and jacket and goes to shul.)

It was late afternoon, and I was all alone in the office. Ike, Sid, Jack, Dick, Bob and Jerry had all gone home. My job, as the kid, was to stick around until the last race at Aqueduct was over, edit the wire report and take it to the composing room. First one in, last one out. What a job!

The phone rang. What follows is pretty much how it went down.

Me: Post Sports.

Her: Are you Jewish?

Me: Ummmm . . . What was that? (WTF???)

Her: Are you Jewish?

Me: Ummmmm, OK, what the hell. Yes. (I expect to be hanging up the phone in a couple of seconds.)

Her: You’re Jewish.

Me: Yes. (Here it comes.)

Her: Great. We’re having a problem and we need you to solve it.

Me: OK. (WTF???)

Her: We have a 14-year-old son and he wants to go to Forest Hills (where they played the U.S. Open back then, before they built the tennis complex at Flushing Meadows) on Friday. But it’s Rosh Hashanah (or Yom Kippur, I don’t remember) and his father and I say he belongs in temple. But he says he doesn’t want to go to temple, he wants to go see the tennis. We need a referee. We’ve agreed to let you make the decision.

(This woman is an idiot.)

Now, I’m sure her son read the New York Post sports pages religiously (ahem), and that she figured she was being a really cool mom letting someone in the sports department make this monumental decision, and that since the sports department had a gazillion Jews, the Jewish person on the phone would make the “right” decision, and her son would do what the guy in the sports department said.

But the Jew she got was me.

Me: Let me get this straight. You want me to decide whether your kid goes to Forest Hills or to shul on Friday?

Her: Yes.

Me: (Lady, you’re crazy.) OK. First of all, I need to make something very clear. I am speaking for me, not for the management of The New York Post or the sports department of The New York Post. In no way does my decision represent that of anyone other than myself. Is that understood?

Her: Yes.

Me: OK. Here’s my answer. You can force your son to go to shul, but you can’t force him to want to be there, and he’ll most definitely resent it, because he wants to go to Forest Hills. My decision is that HE’S OLD ENOUGH TO MAKE UP HIS OWN MIND about these things. I hope he enjoys the tennis.

That poor woman. She got the wrong Jew.

— 30 —

Billy, Reggie, George, Rupert and me

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My once-upon-a-time colleague Harvey Araton wrote a piece in the New York Times last week in which he mused . . .

[Alex] Rodriguez is fairly new to Twitter but, like Cashman, has long been a friend to old media in the muckraking tradition of George Steinbrenner. Somewhere, the pinstriped spirits of the Boss and Billy Martin must have had a good laugh this week, raised a glass to old times and wished they had had such immediate digital access to the masses….

@BillyTheKid @BossGeorge @ReggieTheStraw “The two of them deserve each other. One’s a born liar; the other’s convicted.” (1978)

And oh did that bring back some memories. The best of times, the worst of times. One of the most exhilarating nights of my career, and the horribleawfulterrible day that followed. It’s a tale of triumph and anxiety, an untold story of baseball’s notorious Bronx Zoo, and a terrifying meeting with a boss against whom The Boss himself paled in comparison.

Pull up a chair, kids, and I’ll tell you a story. It’s a long one. Grab a beer.

It’s July of 1978, and I’m the night sports editor at The New York Post, a dream job if I ever would have one. I’m all of 27 years old — TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS OLD!!! — and I’ve been entrusted to design and lay out and manage a team of editors in producing the newspaper’s celebrated sports section. Yeah, I love. This. Job.

The Yankees are the talk of the town, and Reggie Jackson, the straw that stirs the drink, is coming off a five-game suspension for bunting despite knowing full well that the dugout had taken back the bunt sign and he was to swing away in the 10th inning of an 11-inning loss. His refusal to follow orders has infuriated Billy Martin, the manager, who has succeeded in getting Reggie suspended. And George Steinbrenner, the owner, is blowing his top roughly every five minutes. The Yankees own the back page of New York’s warring tabloids, The Post and the Daily News. They own the sports section of the New York Times, as well. Newsday, too, not that you can find one in the city.

It’s a hot summer, and Billy, George and Reggie are fanning the flames. You can’t send the paper to press without checking first to find out whether Billy has sneezed, Reggie has coughed or George has passed gas.

So it’s around one in the morning when I get a call from The Post’s Yankees beat writer, Henry Hecht, who is at O’Hare Airport waiting to fly from Chicago to Kansas City.

Clear out the back page, Henry tells me. The Yanks are going to fire Billy Martin.

Huh?

Can’t tell you now, I have to catch a plane.

Yeah, I love a mystery.

A couple of hours later, Henry is in Kansas City and he calls me again.

Billy had a few drinks too many at the airport, he tells me — well, that’s hardly news — and he has said of Reggie and George  . . .

“One’s a born liar, the other’s convicted.”

Now, this is just not the sort of thing you’re supposed to say. Not about a future Hall of Famer who happens to be your star player, and not about the guy who pays you to manage his team — a guy who just so happens to have been CONVICTED a few years ago of illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign.

Henry tells me he’s already spoken with Steinbrenner, and Steinbrenner has told him Billy is toast. Stick a fork in him. Bye Bye Billy.

Henry says he asked Steinbrenner if he’d fire Billy in the morning, and Steinbrenner replied:

“If it takes that long.”

But there’s a slight problem. Henry and the Times’ beat reporter (I believe it was Murray Chass) were both with Billy when he said it, and they have agreed on the exact quote. But the Daily News’ reporter (I think it was Phil Pepe) was very inconveniently visiting the men’s room when it happened. And Billy is already telling Pepe he didn’t say it, which means that in the grand New York tabloid tradition, The Post is now saying that Billy said “One’s a born liar, the other’s convicted,” and The News is saying nope, never happened, nothing to see here.

But Henry says it happened, and the Times is in agreement, and George has told Henry he’ll be firing Billy in the morning, and that’s good enough for me.

But this is bigger than back page. This is front-page stuff at The New York Post. So now it’s around 4 in the morning and I get out of my chair and walk over to the paper’s managing editor on duty, an affable fellow named Phil Bunton, to tell him what we’ve got.

I tell Phil about Billy and Reggie and George and one’s a born liar and the other’s convicted and George says he’ll be firing Billy in the morning and Phil says:

“Let’s tell the editor.”

And he gets up and walks me over to the executive editor’s office, in which I’m expecting to find a red-faced man named Ted Bolwell, a bombastic man from Australia or England or somewhere where they don’t speak English, don’t understand baseball, and who in his short tenure has struck fear in a New York tabloid newsroom.

Did I mention that I’m 27?

Only it turns out once we walk into the office, that Bolwell is on vacation, and sitting in his chair is this guy:

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Yeah, that guy. Maybe you’ve seen his face before.

Rupert Murdoch is the new owner of The Post and I am well aware that he has a reputation for eating editors for dinner. They go well with a nice Chianti. And that thing I said about Australians not speaking English . . . I was just kidding. Did I mention that I’m 27?

So I tell Mr. Murdoch (no, I do not call him Rupert) about Billy and George and Reggie and one’s a born liar and the other’s convicted and George says he’ll fire Billy in the morning if it takes that long and Mr. Murdoch says to me:

Do you believe the story?

And I tell him I do and he says:

Do you trust your reporter?

And I tell him I do, because yeah, I do, and he waves me out of Ted Bolwell’s office and I go back to putting out a sports section.

And a couple of hours later The New York Post comes off the presses, and the wood reads:

YANKS TO FIRE
BILLY TODAY

Not “expected to fire.” “To Fire.”

Not soon. TODAY.

And what’s more, we’re the only ones with the story. The Times won’t hit the streets for a few more hours and The News is saying it didn’t happen.

Which means I am KING OF THE WORLD! And I’m only 27.

And I grab several copies of the paper on my way out the door, and I get into my car and start driving home. And it isn’t until I’m nearing the end of the Harlem River Drive, on the ramp approaching the George Washington Bridge, when it hits me . . .

I believe the story.

I trust my reporter.

BUT I DON’T TRUST MY REPORTER’S SOURCE!

And I don’t trust the source because the source is George Steinbrenner, and there’s always one rule when talking to George Steinbrenner, and that is that you don’t quote George Steinbrenner. You may merely quote a “source close to George Steinbrenner.” Never mind that the “source close to George Steinbrenner” wears George Steinbrenner’s underwear and sleeps in his bed — he is always and forever will be merely a “source close to George Steinbrenner.”

Which means George Steinbrenner can wake up in the morning, change his mind and deny everything the source close to George Steinbrenner has told The New York Post.

And that’s when I break out into a cold sweat. Because George may be The Boss, but MY boss is bigger than The Boss — and he will be very unhappy if The New York Post’s wood turns out to be wrong.

I arrive home and tell my wife the whole story, and explain that we could be moving back to my parents’ house if Billy doesn’t get fired. Today.

And then I go to sleep. Or try to. I wake up in a panic every hour or so and walk out of the bedroom to ask my wife if Billy is still wearing pinstripes.

Finally, in mid-afternoon, my wife opens the bedroom door and announces that the Yankees have just fired Billy Martin.

I’ve never been so happy to see a man lose his job.

— 30 —

Geronimo

As noted in a previous post, my first real boss, Ike Gellis, called me “Geronimo.” And my friend Susan is asking why.

It’s one of numerous nicknames I’ve been saddled with over a few score years. And, of course, there’s a story to it. But first some background . . .

When I was born, the name Stephen/Steven was very much in vogue. You could say we Steves were the Jacobs of our day.

I wasn’t aware of it until I went to day camp. I was 6, and I was in a group of 11 boys. We had five — that’s right, FIVE — Steves.

So I quickly became Hamburger for the summer. I ate them a lot for lunch, and I reckon it was a natural nickname for a guy named Bromberg.

In the fourth grade, I became Steve B, so as not to be confused with Steve W. In sleepaway camp, I was just Bromberg. There was at least one other Steve in my group; I don’t even remember his last name.

In my first summer job — I was a day camp counselor — the other guy was also named Steve. Two counselors, two Steves. Of course. I became Little Steve. I was taller than Big Steve, but he was “bigger.” I was 16 and looked 14. Big Steve Nahoum owned a razor and actually used it.

In college, I got by as Bromberg for a while, until Mike Levy decided to bestow names on a whole bunch of us. He named himself Big Louie. Terry became Birdie. Mark became Bimbo the Yucker. I was given the name Booger, and so I remained through graduation.

It could have been worse. Another friend, Bob Schindler, went through his college years carrying the name “Shit.” I saw him at a reunion last year. Everyone came up and said “Hey Shit, how are ya?”

So I could live with Booger.

When I got to the New York Post, I actually was Steve for a short while. Make that a very short while. They brought in another sports editorial clerk named — what else? — Steve. Maybe you’ve heard of him . . . Steve Serby, sports columnist for the New York Post.

Serby and I were both in our young 20s and every time Ike would shout “STEVE!” we’d both leap to our feet, because we had big futures in our sights. No slackers, we.

Ike immediately identified a problem. Two Steves was one too many. Something had to be done.

Flashback to a couple of months earlier, when I got my first byline.

In the summer of 1973 there was a concert at Watkins Glen, N.Y. — 37 miles south of Hobart College, my alma mater. The Grateful Dead performed. The Band performed. The Allman Bros. performed. SIX HUNDRED THOUSAND PEOPLE were there. . .

And I wasn’t one of them. I was the Hobart graduate with a job. In New York City. Just my luck.

One guy died at Watkins Glen.

Per Wikipedia:

Although there were no reports of violence at Watkins Glen, the day was marred by the death of Willard Smith, 35, a skydiver from Syracuse, New York. Smith dived from an airplane carrying flares. One of the flares ignited his body suit, and he was engulfed in flames. Smith’s body was eventually found in the woods near the concert site.

I was at The Post, culling sports photos from the AP feed, regretting that I wasn’t at the Glen with the Dead, the Band and the Allmans, when I came across a photo of the crazy skydiver who had died jumping into the concert.

I knew him as Bill. Bill Smith — Smitty — had been my skydiving instructor just one year earlier. I did eight jumps at the one-strip airport in Seneca Falls under his tutelage.

Smitty was former Army, if I recall correctly, and he was an awesome skydiver. I once watched him place a styrofoam cup upside-down in the middle of a field, go up maybe 20,000 feet and crush it with his foot when he landed.

He and a bunch of other very experienced skydivers loved to jump with flares. They’d light the things and they would trail colored smoke on the way down. Only this day, one of those flares malfunctioned and Smitty’s jumpsuit caught on fire. When you’re in midair coming down from an airplane, you can’t put out a blaze. He was dead before he hit the ground.

I went over to a couple of editors on the city desk and told them I knew the guy, and this was not a story about some drug-addled jerk doing an ill-advised stunt at a rock concert. Smitty’s number was just up, was all.

And they told me to write the story. They told ME to write the story. And I did . . . And they put it on Page 2 of the Post. That’s right — PAGE TWO! I was 22-years-old with a byline on Page 2 of the New York Post. Circulation went up that day. My parents bought half the papers in Brooklyn.

End of flashback.

Ike had to solve the Steve/Steve predicament, and he said I needed a nickname. I told him my college friends called me Booger, and he blanched. One of the definitions of “booger” was “a worthless, despicable person.” The Urban dictionary has a definition for “scam booger” — “an african american. More specifically, an african american sitting on a porch without a job looking for an easy buck.” — and I think that’s the definition Ike was familiar with. He made very clear that he wasn’t going to call me Booger.

And so he remembered my skydiving past and he named me Geronimo. Because, you know, that’s what he figured skydivers shout when they jump out of airplanes.

And if you go to the New York Post today, 25 years after I left the joint, you may still find a handful of people who knew Geronimo. They may not even know my name was Steve.

— 30 —