Things at TSN Used to be a Lot Different
(Condensed from original article)
In the spring of 1948, as a pre-journalism would-be sportswriter freshman at Mizzou, I wrote a term paper on the Sporting News for an English composition and rhetoric class. I sent a letter to John George Taylor Spink, owner, publisher and editor, informing him of my project. In return, I received a torrent of material, including books, a subscription and an invitation to a baseball game. The letter was signed in the unreadable scrawl that was one of Spink’s many trademarks.
The term paper is long gone; even a packrat such as I can’t keep everything. But the memories are strong, from the first time I rode the rackety elevator to the seventh floor of 2018 Washington Ave. and crossed the old , creaky, rutted wooden floor to visit the jowly, gnarled, gravel-voiced, profane, cigar-chewing little man in the corner office.
I saw him a few times a year, even introduced him to my father, a baseball fan from the days before World War I. The two men got along famously, swapping old stories. When my father retired, Spink was shocked. He was of the old school, where people worked forever. But dad sent him postcards from Tokyo, and from Paris and Rome, and Spink would send them along to me, with a carbon of the thank-you note he had sent to dad. My folks traveled a lot by ship in those days, and I remember a letter Spink sent to the president of United States Lines, a man he somehow knew. Spink said he didn’t understand Samuel Pollack, because he sailed on small ships, but he wanted all courtesies extended to his friend.
Dad often recommended retirement and travel to Spink, but it fell on deaf ears; Spink was a man so dedicated to his work that when he took a rare evening off and went to the Muny Opera, it was a real event when he stayed beyond intermission. Sometimes he left at the overture, recalling a phone call he had to make. The portable phone was invented too late for him.
Spink was one of the last of the personal journalists. He inherited the Sporting News from his father and uncle, who founded it in 1886. He left it to his son, Charles C. Johnson Spink, named for an elder Spink and for Ban Johnson, a sportswriter who founded the American League.
Now the Sporting News is leaving. It’s being sold by the Times Mirror Corporation, which bought it from Johnson Spink in 1978.
The Sporting News, known as “the Bible of baseball” for its massive coverage of professional baseball teams, with complete statistics and weekly “letters” from a group of correspondents across the country, came to accept other sports the way baseball came to accept African-Americans – very slowly. Of course, the paper was subsidized by major league baseball for many years, including the purchase of thousands of copies to distribute to soldiers during World War II. For a while, it had a special section, The Quarterback, dealing with football but printed as a pull-out so that baseball fans could pitch it without having to see even a mention of other sports.
Taylor Spink read practically every word that went into the paper. I remember piles of proofs on his desk, towering over the short man. He didn’t write, even though he had a column in which baseball players often were quoted as addressing him by name. “I was born, Mr. Spink, in a log cabin (or on a farm)…” was a favorite parody. Hard-working editors like Lowell Reidenbaugh, Oscar Kahan, Oscar Ruhl, Edgar Brands, Ray Gillespie and others who did the work, bolstered by local sportswriters who worked one or two days a week as copy editors. Writers from across the country filed stories on the teams they covered, and the greatest sports artist of all, Willard Mullin of the New York World-Telegram, provided covers. It was Mullin who devised the “Brooklyn Bum” and the “St. Louis Swifty,” a lean riverboat gambler type to represent the speedy, and winning Birds of the early 1940s.
Bill Fleischman, long-time chief sports copy editor (the slot man) at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, was one of them, and the favor was returned by many Sporting News people who filled in on one of the dailies’ sports copy desks on a regular basis.
Spink was a legendary character in sports journalism. Though he rarely attended a game and probably never saw more than a couple to their conclusion, he always was one of the official scorers at the World Series. Spink had a habit of strolling through the office after the edition was printed, often tossing 5- or 10-dollar bills to people, an instant bonus for a clever headline or just for fun. At one point, his son Johnson told him this was messy bookkeeping, confusing to the accountants. Why didn’t he just give everyone a raise? Spink thought it was a good idea and did so. A few weeks later, he was back at the old habit, dropping paper money here and there.
He was violently opposed to unions, too, but I recall an incident in the late 1950s. As a bit of harassment of the Newspaper Guild and its members, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Globe managements decided to forbid staffers from outside employment, a long-time practice guaranteed in the contract. It didn’t last, of course, but a friend at the Sporting News chuckled over a Spink call to Rollin Everett, the Guild’s executive secretary, that began, “Rollin, you’ve got to help me…”
Before the 20th and Washington site, the weekly was at 10th and Pine Streets, catty-corner from the Scruggs, Vandervoort, Barney department store. As the mercantile calendar shortened the period between holidays, the store began playing recorded Christmas music right after Thanksgiving, and it floated across the street to Spink’s office. Spink asked his secretary, the cherubic-looking, always smiling, long-suffering, asbestos-eared Frances, to call Walter Head at the department store and ask to have the music volume lowered. She did, and she reported, “Mr. Head told me to tell you he won’t give you advice on how to run the Sporting News and you don’t have to give him advice on how to run a department store.”
Spink’s response was unprintable, and he then took action, hiring a brass band to perform continuous renditions of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” An hour or two later, the phone rang, and Frances asked Spink to look out the window.
Walter Head was outside, waving a white flag.
Bob Broeg, sports editor and columnist emeritus at the Post, also shared a story that Spink used to tell on himself. He was, as everyone knew, an expert on tracking down people he wished to talk to (with the help of Frances and the legendary long-distance operators of the time) and his language, which could blister the paint on a door jamb, was more styled for ship’s boiler room than a tea party.
Anyway, Spink was in New York in a cab when he noticed the driver’s name was Tommy Holmes, also the name of a Brooklyn Eagle sportswriter and Spink’s long-time Dodger correspondent. Spink knew the difference but he innocently asked the driver if he was related to the Tommy Holmes of Brooklyn.
“I’m not,” said the driver, “but some silly son of a bitch in St. Louis thinks I am. He calls me at all hours of the day and night asking for information on the Dodgers.”
By Joe Pollack
(Printed with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 10/1999).