Dick Young, who died last Monday at the age of 69, gave sportswriting a 50-year whirl that left its mark on the trade and raised his own name to a prominence achieved by a rare few. Forty-five of those years were spent at the New York Daily News, the last five at the New York Post, indicating he was a product of tabloid journalism. He was, and an ornament to it.
His writing probably could be called strident or tempestuous and always fearless. No mercy for those miscreants lousing up the world of his special interest. The sinners should be exposed and held to account; he knew no demigods. Strip 'em of any hero-status privilege. The day that Dwight Gooden, who cheated at drugs, was to be welcomed back to the Mets' lineup, Dick Young's unforgiving column called for Shea Stadium fans to "stand up and boo."
The tabloid sportswriter could be a moralist and often was. He flogged greedy club owners and over-paid ballplayers alike. He was unpopular with both types and cared not and also feuded with sportscaster Howard Cosell, for whom he has only contempt, challenging his competence.
His impact on the sports scene was so immense that it was a story of national interest when the New York Post persuaded Young to leave the Daily News and accept perhaps the biggest contract in all sportswriting. It was a daring raid by the Post to preempt the city's most-read sportswriter, a big score and upmanship in the tabloids' circulation games. The News, of course, sued, asking $1.5 million for breach of contract. It was dismissed.
Although he griped at all that he perceived to be injustice or small or mean, Dick Young was not a curmudgeon, just a tough guy type when he saw the need for the whole story to be told, of duty to be done. Just as Damon Runyon and Jimmy Breslin, Young regarded the city as his New York, and himself as the champion of the little man. He simply assumed that authority, and was rewarded with the widest sports-page readership in the city.
If his writing lacked literary style, it was nevertheless shot through with the city-smarts and an engaging bluntness. Also with what could be devastating puns, used to undress the object of his dislike. If he were to be described here as the poor man's Red Smith, Dick would not object.
Originally he was one of the new breed of aggressive, young New York sportswriters of the 1940s-1950s, the group the late Jimmy Cannon tagged "the Chipmunks" for their incessant nibbling at the edges of the story until they hit some paydirt. They scorned statistics, seeking to infuse some social significance into their sportswriting. When a certain New York pitcher mentioned that his wife had stayed home "to nurse the baby," Dick was not the one to ask, "breast or bottle?" but one of his tribe did.
Young cut away from those types when he assumed column writing for the News. Now he would be the hard-hitting type, the first to ask the penetrating questions at every press conference, the first to impute to the subject that he wasn't coming clean. Dick's own presence at these affairs was unmistakable. There he was, not a big man, but with a mane of wild, leonine hair, and craggy of face, with a jutting jaw that suited his character just fine and seemed to underscore his combativeness.
He was no stranger to scenes at news conferences.
At the first Larry Holmes-Michael Spinks fight in Las Vegas when he dispensed with the niceties and asked Holmes challenging questions in training camp, the champion ordered his flunkies to "escort Dick Young out of here." Dick didn't go quietly, screaming, "I've got as much right to be here as you have" before Holmes' goons laid heavy hands on him. But the next day, undaunted, he was back asserting all his First Amendment rights and winning that round.
He was a product of the era when newspapers dominated sports coverage and before television became an important factor in the business, and sportswriters regarded radio as little more than a parasite. Dick Young never accommodated himself to the growing role of television at the big events, never conceded that TV crews deserved equal rights in the interview areas.
Later, it was Dick Young protesting the preferential treatment given the television crews at postgame gatherings of reporters in the clubhouses. He was an enemy of what he regarded as their checkbook journalism. It was a common scene: Dick Young vs. the TV people. He was the champion of every sportswriter, including those too timid to speak their own minds.
Dick Young, with his no-holds barred writing, his daily perceptions of what was good or bad in the sports world, was a force in our business. In so many instances, and in so many causes, he had no heroes, committed himself to none; but to so many of New York's millions who read Dick Young's stuff, he was one.