By Tony Kornheiser Washington Post Staff Writer
Pressroom Confidential: Young Inks Pact; Jumps from News to Post . . . Young Sez: "News has No Class" . . . News Sez: "Incredible that Young Would Run Out," then calls him "Irreplaceable" and Sues to keep him . . . Breslin Blasts Young as "Hypocrite" . . . Young Fires Back, calls Breslin "Stooge" . . .
Getting hot in New York, huh?
Getting down. Getting dirty.
With The New York Times safely above the combat zone, New York's two other daily newspapers, The Daily News and The Post, have been in mortal combat the last few years. When The News was recently put up for sale by its parent company, The Chicago Tribune, it was taken as a sign that The Post had won. A late, crippling blow may have been delivered on Monday when The Post announced on page one, above the masthead (and, in red ink no less) that: DICK YOUNG JOINS THE POST. He couldn't have gotten more of a hero's welcome if he was Australian. On the back page there was a half-page picture of Young and his family. Inside, there was a story that concluded with the words: "Dick Young of The New York Post. A man for this paper -- a paper for this man."
Young worked for The News for 45 years, 40 of them as a sports reporter and the last 25 as sports columnist. He is widely regarded as the country's preeminent baseball writer, and his column is as admirably classic in its grit as Red Smith's was in its elegance. In September 1980 he signed a four-year contract with The News worth more than $475,000. Young says that all he ever "wanted was to work at The News for 50 years, say goodnight and go off by myself." As The News was a working-class paper, Young saw himself as a working-class columnist, always trying to identify with the constituency of "the common man." His style and substance -- short, punchy, so full of blue-collar fury -- were so consistent with the tone of his paper that many came to believe that Dick Young didn't just write for The Daily News but that Dick Young was The Daily News.
Even if he retired quietly, Dick Young leaving The News would have been a bang, not a whimper. But this, this is a bomb.
"It's astounding how much noise it's caused," said James Brady, who writes the Page Six gossip assortment for The Post. "Every bar where writers gather, all they talk about now is Dick Young."
"The truth of the matter is that the death rattle is louder than ever since Young left," said a News editor. "It's a bad signal to a prospective buyer when a superstar leaves." To underline staff feeling that the ship is indeed sinking, in the city room, according to staffers, there is a big drawing of a rat with an arrow pointing to an exit sign. Though Young has many friends and admirers at The News, his exiting hit hard. "The word you hear most around here is 'betrayal,' " said David Hirshey, editor of The News' Sunday magazine and a former sportswriter under Young. "He always used to say, 'I write for the little guy.' Now, he's leaving and maybe because of that 4,000 little guys here will be out on the street."
Jimmy Breslin, writing in Tuesday's edition of The News, made reference to Young's 1977 Tom Seaver column, in which Young lambasted the then-Mets pitcher for trying to renegotiate his contract. Breslin quotes Young as writing: "Tom Seaver . . . wants to break his contract . . . 'Renegotiate' is the pretty word . . . It comes down to this . . . A man lives up to his contract." Saying that Young's jump to The Post constitutes breaking his contract with The News, Breslin called Young "that worst of all figures, a public hypocrite." A similar stance, complete with a Seaver column reference, was taken by Michael J. O'Neill, editor of The News, who said, "When Tom Seaver tried to bolt the Mets . . . Young thundered 'greed is greed,' and, 'a man lives up to his contract.' Young obviously sets a lower standard for himself." Yesterday, Breslin called Young's Seaver column "the best case ever of a guy hanging himself with his own words."
Neither is a man to mince words. Young called Breslin "a stooge swinging an axe at me." And his response to the accusation from News management that he has been disloyal is: "That bugs the ---- out of me. That's hurt me more than anything. I was there 45 years, and now I have to take this ---- from O'Neill and from a publisher Robert Hunt who's been there 2 1/2 years, and who's going to have a job no matter what. That's a joke. Who is he to lecture me about loyalty? If they had any class they'd have shaken my hand and wished me luck." Young insisted the Seaver analogy is bogus: "He was trying to renegotiate for more money; I was looking for a guarantee."
Young said when it was announced that The News was up for sale, he asked management to guarantee his contract. He said they would not, and that by the time they agreed to he had already committed to The Post, the same paper he had turned down some 16 months earlier. Young said he never would have left The News had the guarantee been immediate: "I didn't break a contract; they did. It obviously wasn't a valid contract because it only binds me. They broke it by refusing to guarantee it." When told that it didn't seem as if The News had as yet actually broken the contract and that he had, Young said, "The lawyers will have to decide."
"A contract is a contract, period," Breslin said yesterday. "What do you think it's on paper for? So that the words people say don't matter. The man is a dimwit. What he's saying is the statement of a grammar school mind -- as is calling me a stooge. That's sad, isn't it?"
Buddy Martin, the outgoing sports editor at The News, said Young "has to take the criticism. For years he's been criticizing athletes for breaking contracts. Now he's done it."
Since Monday, not a day has gone by without a story on Young in both The News and The Post. Plenty hoo-hah, huh?
The full terms of the deal are as yet unpublished, but the 64-year-old sportswriter said he signed a contract for three years (plus an option year) with The Post. Young said that a new car, as yet unbought, was included in the package. "I'll probably spend about $14,000 -- nothing fancy," Young said. Young said he walked away from a possible $252,000 in severance pay should The News fold. "I didn't go to The Post for money," he said. "I wanted a newspaper job." At The Post, Young is believed to be getting $125,000 in the first year escalating to $150,000 in the third year.
If that sounds like a lot for a sportswriter, it is. About four times higher than the industry-wide average at major dailies.
"But it's peanuts to Rupert," said a Post editor, referring to Rupert Murdoch, the tabloid press czar who owns The Post among many other papers worldwide. "Rupert's pockets are pretty damned deep."
Roger Wood, The Post's executive editor who labeled getting Young "a substantial coup," said, "I'll make a simple, hard circulation point -- the people who read Dick Young will be needing to read The Post now to read Dick Young. That's the idea, isn't it?"
Buddy Martin called it "obviously a plus for The Post," but said his guess was that it would cause "a tiny ripple in circulation." Phil Pepe, close to Young and the heir apparent to his column, called Young "vital" to The News, but wondered how many people would actually switch just for him: "Reading a newspaper is such a habit that I think most News readers are News readers no matter who comes and goes."
Yet in an affidavit on Wednesday, O'Neill called Young "irreplaceable" and said that The News would suffer readership loss if Young bolts. O'Neill said "the loss of Young would cause advertisers to question the ability of the newspaper to survive." In addition to seeking to block Young from going to The Post, The News has sued for a total of $1.5 million in damages from The Post and Young, who are represented by Roy Cohn. Originally, Young was supposed to appear in The Post on Feb. 8, but now he plans to start on Feb. 15, from spring training in Florida. The Post has agreed not to publish anything by Young pending a Feb. 11 hearing in New York State Supreme Court where The News will petition for a preliminary injunction to keep Young from writing for The Post.
Young hates wasting his sports columns writing about lawyers and contract negotiations. When he feels compelled to write about how big money and contracts are corrupting sports, he frequently uses one of his pet words. That word is "horsespit."