'Paper Tiger': Sportswriting When It Roared
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past
Stanley Woodward stood 6 feet 3 inches tall, weighed 225 pounds and was strong as the proverbial ox. He loved sports but was injured repeatedly and had exceedingly bad eyesight, so he had to quit long before he was ready. He found a substitute. After World War I he got into journalism and in the 1930s went to the New York Herald Tribune, where he soon became "the best sports editor in the Tribune's, or probably any paper's, history."
That is the judgment of Richard Kluger, as expressed in his monumental "The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune." Today, nearly four decades after Woodward's death, it is a view near-universally held in the inner circles of sports journalism. During his two stints at the Trib, from 1930 to 1948 and 1959 to 1962, Kluger writes, its "sports pages achieved an unmatched level of pungent literacy," the full credit for which rested with Woodward. According to Frank Graham Jr., one of the many gifted writers who worked with him, he had "high standards and unfailing courage," including the courage to speak his mind to bosses who didn't always like what he said.
He was "direct, blunt, uncompromising and honest." That is the testimony of the best writer to grace his or anyone else's sports pages, Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith, whom Woodward rescued from inexplicable obscurity at the Philadelphia Record in 1945 and who quickly became a star of incomparable brilliance. Woodward said Smith "was a complete newspaper man" who "had been through the mill and had come out with a high polish." Woodward was baffled that no other New York paper had "grabbed him," but thought he knew the reason: ". . . most writing sports editors don't want a man around who is obviously better than they. I took the opposite view on this question. I wanted no writer on the staff who couldn't beat me or at least compete with me. This was a question of policy."
That is how Woodward put it in "Paper Tiger," a memoir first published shortly before his death in 1964 and now lamentably -- not to mention inexcusably -- out of print. Journalism has produced surprisingly few good memoirs, perhaps because journalists tend to be reactive rather than reflective, perhaps because they are so accustomed to protecting their sources that when the opportunity arises to spill the beans, they instinctively recoil from it. "Paper Tiger" is the exception: candid and uncompromising, like its author, but also engaging and funny, at times uproariously so.
My copy of "Paper Tiger" is a first edition, so I assume that I read it as soon as it came out. I was living in New York then, playing out my short string at the Times, reading the Trib with admiration and envy. Woodward had retired to "a little house in the woods in Connecticut" in 1962, but his influence was still pervasive on the Trib's sports pages and his legend flourished at the health clubs where journalists gathered: the bar of the Dixie Hotel, favorite of Times people, and Bleeck's, the Trib's hangout.
I loved "Paper Tiger" then and love it now, four full decades later. It's not a period piece but a hymn to newspapering, the saga of a young man's rise from paper to paper, job to job, until he reaches the very top and then pushes the ceiling far higher than anyone before him ever had. It's a vivid portrait of newsrooms in a day long since vanished -- a day of whiskey bottles in desk drawers and file cabinets, of green eyeshades and galluses, of manual typewriters and pneumatic tubes, of two-day train rides and club-car poker games, of copy boys and Western Union -- and of New York in the 1930s and '40s. That era was pretty much gone by the time I got to New York, but reading "Paper Tiger" makes me ache for it all over again.
Woodward was born in 1895 in the Massachusetts industrial city of Worcester, in comfortable but hardly privileged circumstances. He went to Amherst, which "had barely four hundred students and . . . was somewhat scrubby especially in the dead of winter." He played football -- at the end of his four years "I had to have five major operations to correct the after- effects" -- but he became an astute student of the game. Football is very different now, almost incalculably more complicated, but the passages in "Paper Tiger" about formations and strategy have as much authority as when they were written.
His poor eyesight kept him out of military service during World War I, but Woodward managed to sign on with the merchant marine, which took him to "all the ports of France between Le Havre and Bordeaux," taught him "to splice and to tie a rolling hitch and a bowline-in-a-bight," and left him longing for sea duty at war's end. But his mother had liked the letters he'd written from overseas and finagled a position for him on the Worcester Gazette. He never looked back: "Never, from that time until I retired on April 1, 1962, was I willfully out of the newspaper business." He came under the tutelage of a city editor named Nick Skerrett whose "credo" was right out of "Front Page":
"A man who gets what he is sent for is a reporter. A man who gets what he is sent for and something more is a good reporter. A man who does not get what he is sent for is a goddamned nuisance and will be fired."
It was what would now be called a learning experience: "My indoctrination into the newspaper business was based on terror." Woodward "covered everything on the paper including courts and city hall," and got to know sides of Worcester he'd never seen: "murders, robberies, strikes, symphony concerts, crap games, court trials, politics, and society." He interviewed a young touring musician named Jascha Heifetz, who couldn't remember the titles of any of the encores he'd played, and "covered labor for a year and discovered for the first time that capital is not always right." Next stop: Boston. In 1922 he "accepted a job at fifty-five dollars a week as copyreader and make-up man on the Herald sports staff" and stayed at the paper for eight years, including a stint on the city staff. The reader fortunate enough to find a copy of "Paper Tiger" doubtless will agree that the highlight of this period, perhaps of the entire book, is his assignment to cover the Harvard-Yale crew race in Connecticut. His editor "believed in mobbing a good assignment when he had the men available," and in this instance decided that Woodward would be a one-man mob going up against the six sent to New London by the Globe. He was expected to fill an entire eight-column page with the help only of a green assistant named Steele Lindsay:
"I planned to do my big story in my room, banishing Lindsay to the Western Union office to write some kind of a lead note. [The hotel manager] was providing me with an off-duty bellhop for my special assistant. His duties would be simple but important. Each time I finished two pages he was to run them to the Western Union office. On his return to the room he was to mix me a two-ounce Tom Collins. Sugar, lemons, gin, a knife, a spoon, a high glass, and a bucket of ice already were set up. The ice would need replacement on race day." Fueled by gin and youthful ambition, Woodward smashed the Globe, though at one point his copy read, "As the leading eight went by the ketch Comanche her Yale complement swarmed up her rigging like lascars on an X-E-B-E-C." His editor was thrilled -- "Beat Globe hollow," his telegram declared -- and before long Woodward was too big for Boston, so on it was to Gotham, the Big Apple, the red-hot center of the known newspaper universe.
He reported to the Herald Tribune sports department in September 1930. The paper's character had largely been shaped by another legendary Stanley -- the city editor, Stanley Walker -- and Woodward found it much to his liking. It was "a lively place and a really good newspaper, even though much of its business was carried on in a gin mill." He covered just about everything -- he had a particular fondness for the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Casey Stengel, who sometimes left a note in his hotel mailbox, "Mr. Stengel is pouring in room 806" -- and in 1938 was made sports editor, a job "I held, with two years out for war correspondence, until 1948." He came to the job with assumptions that show how much the sporting world has changed in the intervening decades:
"My own theory was that there are four sports which are of paramount importance to a newspaper: baseball, horse-racing, boxing, and football. Other sports rose to prominence on occasion and faded to nothing when they were out of their active period. This could be said of tennis, golf, and yachting. There are some sports that are of comparatively little interest to the readers but are important to the paper because of their advertising connections. Among these are skiing, again yachting, horse and dog shows." Basketball? Hockey? Soccer? Small beer in what Woodward quickly turned into the best sports section around as he brought in one ace writer after another. A jealous competitor moaned: "Holy smokes! Those guys will be hiring Thomas A. Edison to turn off the lights." For a while after World War II the whole paper was on a roll -- "The Sunday Herald Tribune hit its all-time peak in October, 1946, when it sold 748,576 copies" -- but its beloved president, Ogden Reid, died the next year. Woodward was too outspoken and independent for Reid's successors, so in 1948 he was fired.
For nearly a dozen years Woodward found plenty elsewhere to keep him busy. He presided over a short-lived magazine called Sports Illustrated, no kin to the present one; he edited popular annual guides to college football; he had a long tenure as sports editor of the Miami News and a short one in the same slot at the Newark Star- Ledger; he published several books, most notably "Sports Page," which even now is the definitive word on the subject; he and his wife bought and ran a thriving farm in New Jersey.
Then in 1959 he returned to the Trib, which the Reids had sold to John Hay Whitney. He loved the job in Newark and hated to leave, but pride was on the line: " . . . the thing that made it necessary to go to the Tribune was my own vindication. I had been thrown out and now I was being asked to return. The act of returning would be a severe punch in the eye for the surviving members of the Reid family." So return he did, to a department "in frightful shape." He whacked the deadwood, promoted able people and brought a few hotshots over from Newark. It was an instant rebirth, to which I can testify because I read every copy I could get my hands on. So did many others, but it was too late. The Trib went through a rapid succession of mostly disastrous editors in chief, and the unforgivable citywide New York newspaper strike of 1962-3 hammered several nails into its coffin. It published its last issue in 1966, staggered on as part of the World Journal Tribune, went out for good six months later.
Woodward was dead by then, too, gone in late 1965 at the age of 70. He'd left the paper three years earlier -- "I worked for the New York Herald Tribune for two stretches and left the paper in disappointment and rage both times" -- and had a happy, though far too brief, retirement. Now he's gone but not forgotten, Now he's remembered in those few places where literate, stylish sportswriting is respected and valued. It sure is a pity, though, that "Paper Tiger" is about as hard to find as a hen's tooth.
"Paper Tiger" is out of print.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.