I always hoped this day would never come.
Breaking into journalism as a sports reporter back in 1960 with Newsday on Long Island, then beginning in 1968, landing at The New York Times as a general assignment sports reporter, with subsequent tours of duty as a national correspondent, Metro reporter, and religion writer before moving back to the sports department in 1980 and assuming stewardship of the ``Sports of The Times’’ column two years later (after the death of Red Smith), George Vecsey has decided to hang up his spikes and close his notebook for good after recently accepting a company buyout.
Mr. Vecsey has been such a fixture on the sports pages of the Times for so many years and admired by so many colleagues, competitors, and loyal readers-it’s hard to imagine not seeing his byline hanging under the ``Sports of the Times’’ logo. Although this marks a sad end of the George Vecsey era at the Times-readers can at least take heart, knowing the current Sports editor of the Times, Joe Sexton, will be splashing Vecsey’s opinions and signature analysis on its pages from time to time.
In addition to his prolific contributions as a sports columnist, Vecsey has authored over a dozen books, including ``Baseball: A History of America’s Favorite Game’’, ``A Year in the Sun’’, and most recently, ``Stan Musial: An American Life’’
For those interested in a ``Cliff Notes’’ version of Vecsey’s distinguished career at the Times, I refer you to his farewell column which was published on December 16, 2011.
Before departing the Times’ building at 620 Eighth Avenue, turning to the rapturous crowd, and tipping his cap for the final time, Mr. Vecsey was gracious enough to answer some of my questions.
Q. Do you plan to work immediately on a book centering on your 43-year career with The New York Times; or do you have other projects in mind?
A: I just finished and promoted the Musial bio this past year and have avoided any thought of another book...I did a book in 1988 called A Year in the Sun, and think I may have told some of my best stories...but a "memoir" (heavy word, that) is possible...thanks for asking.
Q. Did you ever miss a deadline as a Sports columnist?
A: I don't think I ever missed a first edition when they were waiting for a column. I'm sure there were a few times when I missed a subsequent edition because of events beyond control -- sudden early deadlines at the NYT or Mookie madness or Kenny Rogers walking everybody in the ball park on edition time. It is a terrible feeling to have a friend in the office say, 'we'll catch you on the next edition." although these days, with the 24-hour web, we are all in the wire service business.
Q.) Who has been the most influential during your career in preparing you to be Sports columnist?
A Wow, it takes a village. My Dad, working at the AP and Daily News, was always on my side, even talking about a column. My wife has given me freedom to pursue my madness. An editor named Stew Kampel -- now retired, but around, -- asked me to write a regular Sunday column in the Long Island section, which sharpened my sense of telling a story.
Lots of editors. Lots of people were nice to me, starting with Jack Mann and Stan Isaacs at Newsday.
And as I mentioned in my farewell column (sort of), Abe Rosenthal land Arthur Gelb knew me as one of their Metro guys -- a huge thing in any business, to be one of the boss' people -- and remembered my interest in sports. I think I mentioned a column to Abe once or twice. He never forgot anything.
Q. Any particular reason why you’ve done so few television interviews over the years?
A Being on TV implies sitting in front of a camera. That sounds contradictory to my work, which is being out somewhere, and writing, and traveling. It never meant much to me, and was intrusive, plus, I am a child of the radio generation; I still think TV is on a tryout.
For a while, The New York Times discouraged -- hard to believe -- giving it away for free on the tube. Then I looked up and saw other NYT people preening and pontificating. Not for me.
I would quickly add, that I have had a mild case of stage fright and shyness that seems to have vanished in the past decade, to the point where I can babble on live TV, and conducted live interview with Agassi for the NYT lecture series, and recently, when a guest did not show up for Tim McCarver's syndicated show, the director talked me (and Tim) into having me interview Tim, which really worked well, since I know and like him a lot. In my old age, I have become a bit of a ham -- particularly promoting my book, I should add.
Q. You've interviewed a number of compelling figures during your illustrious career, including the Dalai Lama, Tony Blair, Muhammad Ali, Martina Navratilova, Archbishop Oscar A. Romero of El Salvador, Joyce Carol Oates, Casey Stengel et al. Which newsmaker had the most profound impact on you?
A. Oh, gosh, that would be hard. For inner goodness, surely Romero (I asked him if the church and the Pope's pronouncements on activism had set him up to be assassinated. He said yes -- I speak some poor Spanish -- and a year later he was knocked off.) The other day I saw Charlize Theron -- not hard to pay attention to her -- talking about Mandela's sense of moving forward -- I truly believe in that. But if I keep going on this thought, I would say the person who guides me the most is Jesus Christ (I never ever say that in public, but the fact is, he is, at the very least, a role model and guide for behavior under pressure, for seeing the good in people.)
Then again, I can hear Casey pounding his chest and proclaiming, "I can make a living telling the truth," circa 1962. I think of the Old Man every day.
Q. Have you taught your younger brother, Peter Vecsey, sports columnist for the cross-time rival, The New York Post, everything he knows? Do you two ever share notebooks from time to time?
A: It is pretty well known that Pete and I do not share much these days. Probably, back a few decades, he offered more to me than I could offer to him -- he introduced me to basketball people he knew -- Walton, Bird, Erving, and some rogues he knew. He is very generous that way. Pete's mentor was our father, George Vecsey, a career sports writer and copy editor, and Guild organizer. (Our mom, May Spencer Vecsey, was also a Guild organizer in 1938....) My father had a lot of contact with Pete, getting him some early jobs in the business, and constantly advising him and teaching him. My father broke in a lot of people. Pete is a tribute to himself, but also to our dad.
I should add, we have one sister who is a retired prep school headmaster, and another who was an official at that prep school in Georgia, and our youngest sibling, Christopher Vecsey, is a professor and author at Colgate - "the educated one," our mother called him.
Q. How has the culture of journalism changed since you first stepped into the Times’ newsroom over 40 years ago?
A. The 24-hour cycle means there is no natural rhythm of trolling for contacts, details, writing a first draft, wandering out to lunch, revising -- the cycle that still makes sense to me. Somebody always wants your copy for the Web. So you rush -- maybe not at the expense of basic accuracy, but surely at the cost of writing and structure and fullness. On the other hand, we live in a 24-hour cycle, so I guess journalism needs to reflect that.
Q. Have the inflated salaries professional athletes earn, the shameless use of performance enhancing drugs, and the never-ending charges of spousal abuse and recreational drug abuse off the field-caused you to be turned off by professional sports?
A: I can't say it has. As the child of union people, I am glad to see athletes making money, lots of it. Why not? The money must be there. Better the athletes have some money, than all of it go to Steinbrenner or Dolan. The drugs are a scandal, but there were probably more blatant alcoholics back in the day - and uneducated louts, too.
The big change is that when I was breaking in, I had the same economic scale as people who became my friends -- Ruben Amaro, Ed Charlies, Bill Robinson, Steve Hamilton, Ron Swoboda, Larry Bearnarth. We socialized sometimes. Of course, we were the same age, 20s and 30s. I don't think ball players and writers have much in common anymore. I'm glad I can see Ruben or Charles and give them a big hug....
Q. Was there any sports figure in particular that took issue with your column, enough to verbally abuse you; or threaten to harm you physically?
A: Really, only one. During the week of Watts in 1965, the Dodgers were pretty shook up, particularly African-American ones. A young pinch-runner named Willie Crawford missed 3B...costing a run, and, as I recall, a game. Afterward, in the clubhouse, we went to ask him about it. From the far end of the clubhouse, Willie Davis said (in the most gorgeous baritone), "Leave the kid alone." I said, rather nicely, we had a job to do. Davis did not agree, and pretty quickly charged down the aisle of the clubhouse, looking like a man about to take a swing. From his own locker, John Roseboro stepped in and took the charge, as he did at home plate, saying, "Ummm, gentlemen, this is not the time or place for this." (Or something like that, very calmly, in his own mellow voice.) Davis never got to me, for which I am grateful.
A day or two later, Roseboro got hit on the head by Marichal. Larry Fox of the Telly and I found Roseboro at the Dodger plane at the airport (we knew the clubhouse guy) and his bandages were covered by a Giant cap -- Willie Mays' cap. Willie was disgusted with what Marichal did. I tell this story often, to make the point of what a wonderful man Roseboro was. He should have been a manager.
Q. Outside of the Times, who have been some of your favorite Sports columnists, present and past?
A: Dick Young (in his Daily News days; plus, he was always very helpful to me when I was breaking in), Jimmy Cannon (I felt very close to him), Milton Gross (he could get inside the heads of players), Stan Isaacs, my mentor at Newsday, the most innovative columnist I ever read. Larry Merchant of the Philadelphia Daily News, Len Shecter for the good old NY Post. After that, Red Smith and Arthur Daley. I was pretty much a tabloid guy as a kid.
And Murray Kempton. I loved his work, and was extremely proud to know him when I became a sports columnist. I think of him every time I cover a trial or hearing or any public event.
Q. Do you have some important words of advice to any young person out there aspiring one day to become a widely read Sports columnist?
A: Seriously? Minor in something else. This business is slipping. There may not be much future for the kind of sports column I did. The NYT’s has gone from five general sports columnists writing regularly..
Q. The New York Times is lucky enough to have been one of the few U.S. newspapers still thriving despite the mass migration to the Web. Do you think the Internet has taken a particularly hard toll on the Sports Pages of many U.S. newspapers, considering so much sports information is so easily available on the Web?
A: Sure...papers do not have the money to send columnists places..or even to subsidize their heads...and people can get results on line, but a thoughtful column would seem to be a priority. My advice would be to aspire, but if you think you are not getting anywhere after a year or three, have a fallback position. Patience and talent and good clips may not matter much; actually do not matter than much now, if I read papers around the US.
Q. How optimistic are you for the future of the U.S. Newspaper Industry?
A: Not. Newspapers are the engines that drive the Web. Without editors planning assignments and copy editors fixing mistakes, reporters quickly deteriorate into Underwear Guys writing blogs from their den. The sad thing is that everybody knows it -- even politicians and business people know they need some source of actual information, even if they get whacked once in a while. But the economics and timidity of the newspaper business are working against that future. And the bloggers brag about knowing how things work from the sanctity of their dens.
December 28, 2011