By Michael Kaufman
Thanks to Bob Gaydos for sharing memories of his days as a young sports editor in Binghamton with Zest readers last week. His post brought back a flood of memories, including one involving Jimmy Cannon, the legendary sportswriter much admired by Bob.
Cannon’s place in the canon of American sports literature is assured, and rightly so. However, my one in-person experience with him was brief and unpleasant: He spat on the sidewalk….though I should hasten to add that I was not the target of his disgust.
It happened outside Madison Square Garden on the chilly evening of February 16, 1970. Later that night Joe Frazier would box Jimmy Ellis in a bout that would be recognized as a world heavyweight championship fight by the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC). Muhammad Ali, the true champion, had been stripped of his title more than two years earlier for refusing induction into the Army and expressing opposition to the war in Vietnam. After much hemming and hawing, the NYSAC decided to hold this championship bout to replace the title “vacated” by Ali. The outcome was a foregone conclusion. Ellis, a former sparring partner of Ali and a journeyman fighter, was a sacrificial lamb for the coronation of Frazier. The fight was a sham.
I was walking with Leonard Shecter, one of my sportswriter heroes, when we saw Cannon approach from the other direction. I was hoping the two would start chatting and maybe Len would introduce me to the man who had famously written of Joe Louis, “He’s a credit to his race….the human race.”
Evidently Cannon did not think quite as highly of Shecter as he did of Louis. He glared at Len as he got nearer to us. Len pretended not to notice and nodded a hello but as those two came side by side, Cannon stopped in his tracks. Len and I stopped too. Cannon looked Len in the eye, turned his head and sent a wad of spittle to the sidewalk: “Ptooooooooey!” Then he straightened his shoulders and calmly walked away.
Coincidentally, among those who witnessed the scene was Rocky Graziano, the former middleweight champion, who Bob also mentioned in his post (“the textbook image of a pug”). I jumped on the chance to ask Graziano for a comment about the fight. Did he really think this could be called a championship fight? Shouldn’t Ali still be considered the champion until someone defeats him in the ring?
“If da State o’ New York calls idda championship fight den it’s a championship fight!” he replied in textbook pug fashion.
Then I asked Len for an explanation of Cannon’s behavior.
“I guess he doesn’t like me.”
Not many of the old-time sportswriters liked Len much. They blamed him for breaking the supposedly sacred code of silence that had existed over 100 years of newspaper coverage of baseball. It happened in September 1958. The Yankees had just clinched the pennant and were returning home by train from Kansas City, accompanied as usual by the beat writers who covered the team for the New York area newspapers.
During the trip a brief scuffle took place involving Ryne Duren, a young relief pitcher whose career would be plagued by alcoholism, and Ralph Houk, then a coach for the team, who was known as a tough disciplinarian. Houk swiped Duren with the back of his hand, and his World Series ring cut Duren above an eye.
“I pushed him down, and that was the end of it,” Houk later recalled. As described in a 2008 article by Alan Schwarz in The New York Times, “That was what everyone thought — including all the Yankees’ beat writers, who, following longtime baseball etiquette, agreed not to write about the incident. What happened on the team train stayed in the family.
“Shecter, who covered the team for The New York Post, agreed, too. But then he found himself in a jam. The next afternoon, Til Ferdenzi of The Journal-American wrote a small note about how the Yankees’ front office had hired a few private detectives to monitor the players’ wild behavior. When Shecter’s editor scolded him for missing that story, Shecter offered one better: the Duren-Houk dust-up….
“Shecter did not exactly seem to regret his decision….years later, he recommended that a pitcher he had befriended keep a diary of a full season. Shecter took the notes and tapes and helped write what became Ball Four, Jim Bouton’s seminal account of major league life as it truly was — alcohol, nudity, amphetamines and all. The public rejoiced, bought three million copies and has since expected such details from the news media as a matter of course.”
Len’s 1968 book, The Jocks presents an iconoclastic view of the role of sports in America. He also wrote On the Pad with William Phillips, the bribed policeman whose testimony before the Knapp Commission helped uncover corruption in the New York City police department. My favorite of his books is Once Upon the Polo Grounds, a hilarious account of the first two seasons of the New York Mets.
Leonard Shecter had leukemia and died in 1974 at age 48. On a cold February night in 1970 I saw Jimmy Cannon spit on the sidewalk at the sight of him. Nobody asked me but I think Jimmy was wrong on this one.
Michael can be reached at Michael@zestoforange.com.