A few months ago, George Vecsey stopped writing his regular sports column for the New York Times. This is a big deal. Among the members of the most exclusive club in sportswriting, Vecsey was the last to trudge to a newspaper office. He was the last of the Chipmunks.
The Chipmunks were founded in 1962 or thereabouts. No one seems to remember. But their origin story goes like this: One day, in the New York Yankees locker room, there was a group of young sportswriters chattering away like they owned the place. Which they pretty much did. Across the room, there was an old sportswriter. The old sportswriter had once been the undisputed king of the locker room, but in this youthful chatter, he saw the future.
“You sound like small, furry animals,” snarled Jimmy Cannon, the old sportswriter. “You’re making that kind of noise. You sound like a goddamn lot of chipmunks.”
Chipmunks. Well, that did it. The young writers had Jimmy’s insult printed on sweatshirts. They handed out the sweatshirts like uniforms. “Rather than a term of derision,” says Newsday‘s Steve Jacobson, “we made it our identity.” Yes, for the next half-century, members of the most exclusive club in sportswriting would call themselves Chipmunks …
One night in 1962, Larry Merchant, a Chipmunk, was on the Philadelphia Phillies team plane. If you know Merchant from HBO — he recently threatened to kick Floyd Mayweather’s ass — you can guess that the column he was typing on his Olivetti was snide. Sammy White, a backup catcher for the Phillies, was sitting in the seat in front of him. He got annoyed by the clacking of Merchant’s keys. So White reached behind his head and tried to yank out the paper from the typewriter. The Olivetti flew down the aisle of the plane.
Merchant, who is 81 years old now, meets me at a New York hotel one morning. At his request, it is 7:45 a.m. Regarding the Sammy White incident, he says with a smile, “I did two things.” He sent the bill for a new typewriter to the Phillies. And he wrote in his Philadelphia Daily News column: “It was the best throw Sammy White made all season.”
These are the Chipmunks: Merchant of the Daily News; Stan Isaacs, Steve Jacobson, and George Vecsey of New York Newsday; Phil Pepe and Paul Zimmerman of the World-Telegram and Sun; and the late Leonard Shecter, the late Maury Allen, and the late Vic Ziegel of the New York Post.1
In 1966, a Sporting News article described a Chipmunk writer as having “beatnik tendencies in dress and manner” and “hustle, in the form of endless questioning.” The News also detected a blog-like admiration network: a “constant concern with, and profound admiration for, the literary talents of himself and his fellow chipmunks.”
But the biggest qualification for Chipmunk membership was that you had to write sports for an afternoon paper. Back then, morning papers like the New York Times supplied the game replay, the who-what-where-when. At an afternoon paper, you had to break some news, come up with a funny angle. It wasn’t blogging — let’s not insult anyone here. But it pushed against the prevailing currents of sportswriting in the same way. “When we came along,” Stan Isaacs says, “New York newspapers were stale. They were predictable.” They weren’t anymore.
Larry Merchant became the Philadelphia Daily News sports editor when he was 26 years old. He had a helmet of black hair and — his baseball writer Stan Hochman reports — the build of a tailback.2 Merchant’s sports page was a pirate ship. In 1958, he learned that two Philly workingmen had had a fight on the job that they’d decided to settle in the boxing ring. Well, the first tenet of Chipmunk sportswriting is that you hype what’s interesting, not what’s hyped. Merchant played the bout like Ali-Frazier. The first-day Daily News headline was, “‘He Called Me a Lousy Bricklayer.’” The second-day headline was, “‘He Is a Lousy Bricklayer.’” The crowd at the Cambria was so big they had to call the fire department.
Merchant was hired by the New York Post in 1966. There, he practiced the second tenet of Chipmunkery: impudence. “One thing about all of them that’s important,” says the writer Pete Hamill, “is there was no sentimentality. By which I mean, no faking sympathy that they didn’t feel.” The broadcaster Marv Albert says, “I thought Larry Merchant was one of the great sports columnists of all time. I’d get the Post to read him.”
One afternoon, Merchant was in the Yankee Stadium press box when word came in that Jackie Kennedy was at the game. The young sportswriters were told to keep away. “I said, ‘Fuck it,’” Merchant remembers, “and I went down and tried to interview her.” Merchant reached the First Widow and asked if she had a word for the Post. “Thank you,” Kennedy said. She flashed a defensive smile. Merchant asked again. “Thank you,” Kennedy said, still smiling.
Merchant: “So after about eight thank-yous, I got the idea.”
A Chipmunk maintained a suspicion of sports television, which was beginning to encroach on his turf. “Television,” Lenny Shecter wrote, “is like some gentle, mindless robot carrying sports tenderly in its arms to the top of the mountain and then over the cliff.” Case in point: The 1970 Super Bowl between the Colts and Cowboys was a lousy game that featured 11 turnovers. But the NBC announcers remained mute. “They reacted,” Merchant wrote, “as though they were watching a squadron of Communist pigeons defiling the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”
Merchant was an urbane gent. Any sportswriter on deadline can come up with a movie reference, but a Chipmunk aspired to be a true cultural traveler. At the 1960 World Series, Merchant and several others saw Lenny Bruce perform. Merchant wrote about ’60s radical Abbie Hoffman’s stint as a Brandeis tennis player.3 “Why wouldn’t you write about Abbie Hoffman playing tennis at Brandeis?” Merchant says. You would, of course, unless you were too busy writing what a swell guy Mickey Mantle was.
It was at Hoffman’s apartment that Merchant met the acid guru Timothy Leary. “Leary said something,” Merchant remembers, “that was directly on point to what we were doing. He said, ‘If you want to study human behavior, don’t watch rats in a maze. Go sit in the center-field bleachers at Fenway Park.’”
Larry Merchant took that observation and got a whole column out of it.
Tony Kornheiser, who broke into newspapers at the height of Chipmunkery, thought the young, hip, wiseass sportswriters were minor gods. “It was more than wanting to be as good as them,” Kornheiser tells me. “We wanted them to like us.”
As any Chipmunk would tell you, a good story needs a heavy. I have him right here. He’s Jimmy Cannon, the Chipmunk nemesis. This is Jimmy’s apartment.
Tonight, Cannon and the Chipmunk Phil Pepe had been covering the fights at Madison Square Garden. Cannon asked for a lift home. Pepe regarded this as a mixed blessing. For while Cannon was arguably the most famous sportswriter on the planet, he was his own favorite subject. He’d drone on about his pal Hemingway. Or read his own hypnotic prose that allowed him to cannonball right into a ballplayer’s head. Cannon would begin a column, “You’re Mickey Mantle … ” And then he’d tell you what Mantle hoped and feared.
So: You’re Jimmy Cannon. You’ve entered a late inning where you’re very famous but you’re no longer especially important. Soon, no New York paper will carry your syndicated column. “It was a crabby old man who was seeing the end of his era,” says Robert Lipsyte, the former Times sports columnist. “Here were these guys who were young and energetic and relating to ballplayers and passing him by. That’s what made him angry.”
So tonight, Jimmy, you’re motioning Phil Pepe into your bedroom. Don’t get funny ideas! You just want to show Pepe a little painting of the New York skyline that hangs over your bed. “It didn’t look like anything special to me,” Pepe says. Then he notices the artist’s signature. Frank Sinatra. Frank gave Jimmy a painting. Pepe is floored.
You’re Jimmy Cannon, and on this night, anyway, you showed that goddamn Chipmunk how great you are.
Leonard Shecter, the young Chipmunk at the New York Post, once wrote that he hated sports. “Bullshit,” Steve Jacobson says. “He loved it.” But like H.L. Mencken and Lester Bangs, Lenny showed his love in a funny way. He loved sports by whacking it with a bat.
Shecter and the Chipmunks arrived at the sports page at a propitious moment. The sportswriter of 1942 had gotten terrific access to athletes but swallowed the salacious stories. The sportswriter of 2012 has poor access, but makes up for it (sometimes, in theory) by writing the salacious stories. “There was this shining moment of the Chipmunks,” says Robert Lipsyte, “in which they had total access and they pretty much wrote what they saw.”
Shecter was on the Yankees team train in September 1958 when Ralph Houk, then a coach, slugged reliever Ryne Duren in an intramural brawl. Shecter’s scoop — given to his editor only reluctantly, and a day late, after he was berated for getting beaten on another story — peeled back the curtain on how ballplayers behave.
Vince Lombardi waved Shecter into his inner sanctum in 1967. In Shecter’s Esquire profile, Lombardi came off as a sniggering sadist. Shecter found a Packers player sprawled out on the ground, the other players averting their eyes as if he were “lying in a doorway in the Bowery.” He printed St. Vincent’s four-letter words. In a wicked touch, Shecter described the number of Packers stars who were prematurely balding, as if Lombardi had screamed their hair off.
Lombardi read the profile and, for the first time in his life, took a knee. “It absolutely destroyed him,” the Packers’ PR director said to biographer David Maraniss. Lombardi told reporters the article had brought his mother to tears.
This was Shecter’s Chipmunkery: An all-out assault on the old-time heroes. He had a rule he called Shecter’s Law of Diminishing Persons, which stated that the farther a man could hit a baseball, the more likely he was to be an asshole. Screw ‘em, then! The Chipmunks hunted for “losers” — Shecter’s affectionate term — whose distance from greatness might convince them to be co-conspirators. This is how Shecter met Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton.
“I first learned about him in spring training in 1962,” Bouton remembers. “As soon as I made the roster, players came over and said, ‘Wait till you meet that fucking Shecter.’ ‘Whatever you do, don’t talk to that fucking Shecter.’ I thought that was his first name: Fucking Shecter.”
On the first day of the season, Fucking Shecter strolled into the Yankees locker room. He was a fat man4 with a mustache and a square face — Marty Appel, the former Yankees PR man, says he is reminded now of a young David Stern. “I look over,” Bouton says, “and here’s a guy with a big smile on his face, the friendliest-looking guy in the world. He comes over and we have a nice conservation. I thought, He was a great guy!” If Mickey Mantle had seen this meeting, he would have wept.
At a lunch in 1968, Shecter suggested Bouton ought to keep a baseball diary, and Bouton told him he’d already started. There have been a lot of things written about the book that sprouted out of that diary, Ball Four, which Bouton wrote and Shecter edited. But think of it from the sportswriter’s point of view. For a man who longed to kick in the door to the locker room, here was the door being kicked out. It was an inside job. “He effectively had a camera and a microphone on buses and in the hotel rooms and the bars,” Bouton says.
They had 18-hour editing sessions in Lenny’s Manhattan apartment.5 They read drafts of Ball Four so many times that it became unfunny. “I can’t judge it anymore,” Shecter said to Bouton. “It seems like it’s all cardboard.” When news of Mantle’s booze pilgrimages landed like an anvil on baseball, Bowie Kuhn suggested that Bouton blame the book on Shecter.6 Leukemia killed Shecter in 1974, at 47, before he could see Ball Four used as evidence to bury the baseball owners at the arbitration hearings.
After Ball Four exploded, Marty Appel says, “The tendency around the Yankee organization was to say Shecter never liked sports, never liked baseball, never liked the Yankees.” To which the proper response is: Bullshit. He loved them.
Back at Jimmy’s Apartment
You’re Jimmy Cannon, and you’re staggering, reeling, collapsing on the mat. This is May 1971. You were getting ready for the Kentucky Derby when you suffered a stroke at your apartment. When the paramedics find you on the floor some two days later, you’ve passed the time thinking about old boxers. Your left arm is paralyzed.
Jimmy, in your sad, final years, you don’t exactly shower the Chipmunks with love. But in one interview7 — in the midst of a stream of anti-Chipmunk invective — you admit the youngsters “aren’t so bad.” This may be your curmudgeonly way of saying that the old sportswriter and his young nemeses have a lot in common. “Jimmy,” Robert Lipsyte says, “was the original Chip.”
Clear away the generational angst and it’s obvious. When Cannon was young, he’d shoved aside old, tremendously famous, tremendously bad sportswriters (Granny Rice, Paul Gallico) just like the Chipmunks shoved aside Cannon. Before he became a reactionary venting about black Muslims, he’d quipped that Joe Louis “is a credit to his race — the human race.” Adjust for years and here’s Lenny Shecter describing the feds’ case against Muhammad Ali: “One can only guess that some important person in Washington said, ‘Get me that n—–’ … “
The Chipmunks aren’t renouncing Cannonism, Jimmy. They’re making an adjustment. An adjustment for the age of free agency and televised fights and black Muslims and Jim Bouton. You’re Jimmy Cannon. Maybe in your hard heart you realize the Chipmunks are rebels, just like you, who stepped into the on-deck circle at a different time.
On a warm day last spring, Stan Isaacs, the wiliest of the Chipmunks, stands in the door of his Pennsylvania retirement cottage. Before we list the rebellions Isaacs staged on the sports page, we should start with what could be called his coda. Steve Jacobson, Isaacs’s colleague at Newsday, once turned to him in the press box and asked what he was writing — you know, so they wouldn’t overlap.
“Don’t worry,” Isaacs said. “It won’t be what you’re doing.”
“You might want to see this.” Isaacs, who is 83, is leading me to to a small, sunlit room. This is Stan’s office. In addition to being the site from which he still cranks out a column, it is the National Archives of Chipmunkery. There’s a black-and-white photo of a young Isaacs with Muhammad Ali. Another of Larry Merchant in his pretty-boy days. Stan has a photo of Jimmy Cannon, but it hangs in the bathroom.
Isaacs started at Newsday in 1954. As New Yorkers fled to Long Island, Newsday grew into a suburban powerhouse with a swashbuckling sports editor, Jack Mann. Long before the Times, Newsday began refusing the free plane rides and goodies that had been doled out by team owners since the golden age of sportswriting.8 “We felt we were serious newspaper guys trying to treat sports like city-side reporters,” Isaacs says. Another important tenet of the Chipmunk: If you’re going to be a professional wise guy, you first have to be a professional.
Isaacs was a pro. In 1964, he caught San Francisco Giants manager Alvin Dark saying black and Latino athletes lacked “mental alertness.” Nearly two decades later, he discovered a fellow dissident named Keith Olbermann doing radio in New York. According to Olbermann, the profile Isaacs wrote got him his very first gig on television.9
But the best part about writing from Long Island was the elbow room. Larry and Lenny were under the thumb of their Manhattan editors. Stan was free to be a spritely humanist — a liberal in all senses — gathering material for his Groucho Marx routine. “I don’t know any other paper in the country where he could have done that kind of thing,” says the Chipmunk George Vecsey, who worked with Isaacs at Newsday. “He set a tone of goofiness and worldliness and intelligence all in the same package.”
Rebellion no. 1: the 1962 World Series. Ralph Terry, the New York Yankees pitcher, throws a Series-clinching shutout in Game 7. Later, at his locker, Terry takes a call from his wife and then explains to the sportswriters that she’d been up all night feeding their baby. In his Brooklyn accent, Isaacs squeaks: “Breast or bottle?”
Rebellion no. 2: a Yankees game in Kansas City. Isaacs learns that owner Charlie O. Finley has installed a sheep meadow beyond the right-field wall. Isaacs takes his typewriter, leaves the press box, and reports from the meadow for the entire game.
Rebellion no. 3: “Now here’s a column no one else would have written,” Isaacs says in his office, as he pulls out a clipping. February 25, 1969. At a museum, Isaacs sees a painting that dates from 1560 and is credited to Pieter Brueghel the Elder. There are children climbing on each other’s backs, and Stan thinks old Pieter may have discovered the precursor to buck buck.
Stan Isaacs takes that notion and gets a whole column out of it.
Sportswriting is like a Third World country. It makes up for a lack of natural resources with an endless supply of revolutionaries. The Chipmunks weren’t the last exclusive club. The next one included Tony Kornheiser (the Times), David Hirshey (the Daily News), and Henry Hecht (the Post). Thurman Munson dubbed them “the Munchkins.” “We were so enamored with the Chipmunks,” Kornheiser says, “that we got brown shirts with little animals on them and tried to peddle ourselves as the Munchkins.” After that, some more clubs were founded, once-young writers grew into bitter, old Jimmy Cannons, and here we all are on the Internet today.
Stan Isaacs says to me, “This gives you a sense of my nature. The Bryn Mawr women’s basketball team is 0-18. I think I should go and talk to the coach.”
He pauses. I can see Stan plotting a Chipmunk column, one that takes “normal” sportswriting and does a Groucho walk in the other direction. “Oh-and-eighteen,” Isaacs says with fascination. “What’s that like?”