The National Sports Daily, on the one hand, is a long-dead and short-lived newspaper that, for 18 months, between January of 1990 and June of 1991, attempted to cover sports in a way that no other American publication would, could, or had ever even imagined. On the other hand, the paper is emblematic of the parts of culture and media that were not yet ready to converge. Typewriters and satellites. Mexican titans of industry and American daily news. Content in too many forms. Born from an impetuous whim only a billionaire would call a business plan, the paper quickly began its operations, grabbing all of the talent money could buy. Frank Deford, a writer who had achieved legendary status by the age of 50, was made editor-in-chief; columnists and a feature staff were gathered, poached, and lured from everywhere; every beat in the athletic spectrum was covered, charted, and ranked, from golf to professional wrestling. There were jokes, crossword puzzles, flashy info graphics, gossip, and an attempt to cover world news in brief. Somehow Casey Stengel wrote for The National even though Casey Stengel was dead. The long-form pieces were often exquisite and resonant. The box scores were innovative — a statistical Rosetta Stone. Egos ran wild. Ambitions, unchecked. Everyone’s own ideas, of course, were the best ideas. And it was all just too much: The vision for the paper exceeded the technology available to produce it; the content straddled highbrow and lowbrow in a way that confused potential advertisers and buyers; distribution was a catastrophe; the money could not last. But what transpired in that year and a half launched careers and developed the voices and thoughts that would go on to frame the next generation of sports media. On the outside, The National seems long forgotten. But on the inside, there’s no doubt at all that The National Sports Daily completely changed the game.
“It sounded exciting. It sounded new. It sounded like it was going to be the best thing ever invented.” — Dave Kindred
“I always tell people, I sailed on that Titanic and it was quite a luxury liner, too.” — Ed Hinton
“Everything about The National was wrong except the end product. The end product was terrific.” — Glenn Stout
I. “G4? I’d Never Been on a G Anything!”
Frank Deford (Editor-in-Chief): I had never heard of Emilio Azcárraga. Very few people had, despite that he was the richest man south of the Rio Grande.
Thom Potraz (Marketing Director): If you went to central casting and asked for a “Mexican Billionaire,” they’d give you Azcárraga.
Dave Kindred (Associate Editor; National Columnist): They called him … El Tigre.
Peter Price (Publisher): It all started in the spring of 1989. Azcárraga wanted to have lunch. I’d heard about Emilio from Televisa, the Mexican media conglomerate, because I was in the media business, as well. I’d become publisher of the New York Post when Peter Kalikow bought the paper from Rupert Murdoch for $37 million. When I took over in 1988, there was a strike going, the circulation had plummeted, and the advertising had disappeared. We had the challenge of rebuilding. At lunch, Azcárraga started one of the strangest conversations of my life.
Emilio Azcárraga (Died in 1997. Lunch conversation recalled by Price): I read a comment of yours that the Post is unique among all American dailies in that it has many more male readers than female readers. You attributed that to the fact that the Post was a newspaper for women and a sports paper for men.
Price: The ladies like our gossip; the guys read it backwards and hardly ever get to the front of the newspaper.
Azcárraga: That’s what I want to talk to you about! Why is it that the most developed country in the world doesn’t have a daily sports newspaper? We’ve got one in Mexico. The Italians have two. The Brits have tabloid sports papers. L’equipe in France is reigning strong, and Japan has a sports paper.
Price: There are only three national newspapers in the United States, and only one is a purely national paper with genuinely national distribution. But USA Today is going on almost a decade, a billion dollars in losses, and it’s supported by a major publishing company. To do a national sports paper from scratch without the backing of a major publishing enterprise, without having a delivery system, without having regional printing plants, without having a brand name, and without any staff is not for the fainthearted.
Azcárraga: I think it’s a good idea. What would it take? Why don’t you give that some thought and come down and visit me? I’ll send my plane.
Price: I went to Mexico on his G4. I had never been on a G-anything before. The morning after arriving in Mexico City, I was brought to the Televisa production complex. It was like being at the backlot at Warner Brothers. People in costumes, cameras going here and there, trucks moving around. Emilio’s office was tasteful, not extravagant. He had his lawyer and his CFO there. There was a big whiteboard with different color markers. I wrote out the challenges, one through four.
Price (in Azcárraga’s office): The first is content. In the United States, you’ve got dozens of local events going on at the same time. You’ve got to have the Mets game from last night — box scores, game stories. And you’ve got to have Sports Illustrated-caliber national reporting. Unless you have them both, you’re not a national sports daily.
Azcárraga: So far, so good. Keep going.
Price: Next: Production. You have to produce it in color. Every metro daily is quickly adding color. And metro dailies own their own presses. We don’t have printing plants, so we’ve got to go out and make deals with these plants who already have deadlines for their metro dailies.
Azcárraga: Good. Tell me more.
Price: Third: Distribution. We’d have to rent an entire distribution network. USA Today did that with affiliate papers and by hiring school teachers with their station wagons to deliver the paper before they go to work. But they had a couple of years to plan all of that and eight years to get it right, and they’re still having a hard time making a nickel. Almost all of these metro dailies rely on home delivery. There’s no way that we can get a home-delivery network going, so we’re going to have to rely on newsstand sales.
Azcárraga: Distribution. Got it.
Price: Last: Marketing. When you introduce a new product, you’ve got to spend a mint convincing people that they really need it. We’ve got to reach men, which is not an easy demographic.
Azcárraga: What will it cost?
Price: Emilio wanted a ballpark figure. Knowing what it costs to produce the Post, I said a minimum of $40 million. That was just to get started. Until you turn a profit or break even it could be $100 million. Nobody else in a room said anything. No questions. No challenges.
Azcárraga: This is a good idea. We’re going to do this now.
Price: What do you mean, now?
Azcárraga: Let’s make an agreement within the next 24 hours. We’ll sign it tomorrow. You go home, tell them you’ve got something else to do, and we start.
Price: I needed a lawyer. I thought it would take some pretty high-powered talent. So I called Marty Lipton. He’s my neighbor in Manhattan. I just knew him from the elevator. I got him on the phone. “I’ve got an unusual request. I’m sitting here with Emilio Azcárraga, and he wants to print this national newspaper, and he wants the deal done overnight.” The attorneys from both sides were introduced and the next day, out comes this fat document. Emilio said to his lawyer, “What do you think?” The lawyer nodded. Emilio thumbed to the last page, picked up the pen and signed.
Azcárraga: Here. Your turn.
Price: After I signed he gave me a big hug. Before leaving I said, “First order of business, Emilio: Remember that stuff about content? Well, in order to get the kind of quality you’re talking about, and to attract the kind of talent that’s going to make this happen, we need someone who is, say, the Dean of American Sports Writing.”
Tony Kornheiser (Writer; TV Host): For my money, Frank Deford is the greatest take-out writer in sports, ever.
Kindred: Deford was at the top of his game.
Ed Hinton (National Writer, Auto Racing): Go back and read one of Deford’s stories, like “The Toughest Coach There Ever Was.” The 120th paragraph is as good as the lede, and the 150th paragraph was as good as the 120th, and the ending was better than all of it.
Price: I knew Frank from Princeton. He was editor of the Daily Princetonian. I was the publisher. I’d called Frank before leaving for Mexico and said, “Frank, here’s this really crazy thing.” He took it the way that I took it — as an impossible dream. So I called him again and said, “Guess what? It’s a done deal.” He said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” Then he asked about the timetable. I didn’t know. Emilio said yesterday was his timetable.
Deford: My family was going to move abroad for a year. It had all been worked out at Sports Illustrated.
Price: Frank had a lot of obligations — SI, a book, duties with NPR. He basically said, “Here’s collectively what I make in all my endeavors.” Our agreement with Frank was basically to assure that over the course of trying to do this, he wouldn’t be out-of-pocket.
Deford: All together, it was the biggest gamble of my life.
Mark Mulvoy (Managing Editor, Sports Illustrated): Hell yes, it was a betrayal. Frank had planned to take a sabbatical from the magazine. The spring of ’89 comes along and Frank says, “I’m leaving.” I said, “I know. You’re going to Europe.” He says, “No, no, no, I’m leaving SI. I’m going to work on a media project for Emilio Azcárraga.” I asked if it had anything to do with print, and he said it was a more visual medium. I told him that in a few months he was going eligible to be vested in the company and get a nice $1 million or half-a-million-dollar bonus. I went upstairs to talk to the chairman of the company, Dick Monroe. I said, “Deford’s moving on. We ought to be good guys. I’ll put him on the payroll for $100 a month for the next four months just so he can get this money.” Dick signed off on it. The lawyers signed off on it.
Deford: A million dollars? God no. It was stock options. I don’t think it was even $100,000. It was 50, maybe 75 thousand. Certainly not near a million. I went upstairs to talk to Dick Munroe myself. We had a very nice chat. He said I could leave immediately and get the money. But I was getting the money either way. Peter checked with Azcárraga, and he said, ‘If Time won’t give him the money, I will.’
Mulvoy: The next thing we knew, Frank was out of the building and trying to hire our people. Monroe felt betrayed. I felt betrayed. The editor-in-chief, Jason McManus, felt betrayed. We’d gone way out of the way to get the guy his money and now we all felt stabbed in the back. We had to fire him because he was on our payroll and trying to hire our people for a competing venture.
Deford: I’m just so tired of Mulvoy bringing this bullshit up. Carrying this bitterness, which is all false. I didn’t try to poach people. First of all, if I wanted to hire people from Sports Illustrated I certainly could have. But, in fact, I was going to a newspaper. The people at Sports Illustrated were magazine guys. I told guys I didn’t want them, people I really liked and admired, I said, ‘”This is not for you.” The point is, whatever Mulvoy is telling you is not true.
Rob Fleder: At SI, the unequivocally declared policy was anyone that goes to The National will never work here again. It was cut and dried. It was presented to me in exactly those terms.
Deford: I hadn’t been on a newspaper since I was a copy boy at the Baltimore Evening Sun. So, I had to go out and get some real editors who knew what the hell they were doing. I didn’t know how to run a goddamn newspaper.
II. “This was as close to a frontier as we had”
Vince Doria (Executive Editor): The buzz started in the spring of ’89. There was an awareness that Frank Deford was involved with something. Nobody seemed to know a whole lot about it. That summer I went to the Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) convention. In those days, about 200 people attended from papers all over. One of the sessions was with Deford talking about the new venture. There was another session scheduled at the same time. So, in one room, you had Deford talking about what would become The National. In the other: investigative reporting and the process of using the Freedom of Information Act. One-hundred ninety people went to the Deford session.
Johnette Howard (Main Event Writer): Suddenly, everybody was talking about it. Everybody wanted to go there because it sounded like an exciting new idea — sort of like USA Today except with depth and quality.
Deford: If I did anything right, it was signing Van McKenzie, who died in 2007, to be the managing editor. If Van McKenzie is willing to give up the Atlanta Journal Constitution and come work for this crazy venture, move his family, if he was willing to do that, that was important. It was good getting Mike Lupica. It was good getting Dave Kindred, Scott Ostler, John Feinstein. All those guys. But getting the guy to run it who had such a wonderful internal reputation in sports journalism, that really mattered. Van was a pretty easy get, too.
Price: We did the hiring and planning during the summer with people due to come to work, I think, in September 1989. Maybe it was October 1.
Doria: As it turned out, a bunch of people from Atlanta joined the project. There was an Atlanta mafia there.
Hinton: The Atlanta Journal Constitution staff in the mid-’80s was the best sports staff in the country. We were better than the Washington Post. We took Dave Kindred away from the Washington Post. We took Gordon Edes away from the L.A. Times. Roy Johnson from the New York Times. Van McKenzie was getting anybody he wanted.
Deford: Van brought so many people in. They said, “If Van McKenzie’s part of this, then I want to be part of it.”
Bud Shaw (Chicago Bureau Chief; Detroit Columnist): I was working in Atlanta for the Journal Constitution as a feature writer and Olympic beat writer. Once Van got hired, he turned to a number of people on his staff — Chris Mortensen, a couple of desk guys like Tim Tucker. He asked me about going into Chicago and helping put together a staff for a Chicago bureau. That was when they thought they could be local in every market.
Tom Keegan (Chicago Bureau, Cubs Beat; National Reporter): I was the Dodgers beat writer for the Orange County Register. I went to Chicago for a lunch meeting with Bud. He pitched the paper to me as a place where you could really spread your wings. He claims to this day, as I was walking away from the interview, I had my shirt tail hanging out. I did my very best to dress like Frank Deford, but I missed the shirt-tail-hanging-out part.
Hinton: Mort, who is a Pulitzer-nominated investigative reporter, is the best office snoop I’ve ever worked with in my life. Mort could tell you to the dollar how much everybody was making in Atlanta. When I signed on at The National, Van told me I’d be getting $80,000. No negotiating. He said, “That’s a good salary. That’s enough.” Later on, Mort says, “Hell, you could’ve gotten a lot more.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “You don’t understand. Deford had read your clips. He comes into a meeting and throws your clips in front of Van and says, ‘Get this guy.’ Van says, ‘Well, yeah, I want to. But he’s kind of a pain in the ass.’ Deford said, ‘I don’t care. Get him.’” I said, “Mort, you son of a bitch. I wish you had told me this five or six weeks earlier.”
Peter Richmond (Main Event Writer): I had a Nieman fellowship at Harvard when I heard about The National. You’re obliged, if you get a Nieman, to go back to the newspaper you were working at. I worked at the Miami Herald as the national sports correspondent. I’d go to the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA Finals. I’d go to prize fights. I had a column. Then I got a free ride at Harvard for a year. In the middle of it, I had heard in the New York Daily News that Frank Deford was rounding up this all-star team for The National. I thought, “Oh my god. I’ve got to get there.”
Charles P. Pierce (Main Event Writer): As soon as I heard about it, I basically hurled myself out a window.
Deford: What was my sales pitch like? It wasn’t a reach, and I wasn’t blowing smoke. I’d say, “This paper is going to be the first of its kind. We’ve got this extraordinary staff and we’ve got a lot of money behind it. Go look up anything you want about Emilio Azcárraga. He’s into this, and these sorts of things have worked all over the world, so why can’t they work in the United States? Then I’d pause and say, “I understand it’s risky. We all know this is new territory. But you’re a sports guy. Don’t you want to be part of this?”
Fleder: Here was this great adventure and chance to invent something new. It was clear even before it started, and certainly long before it failed, that you were going to get one chance to try this in your life. This was as close to a frontier as we had.
Pierce: Rob Fleder, who was one of the original founding members of Rotisserie baseball, literally in the Rotisserie restaurant, had seen some of my stuff in New England Monthly. He called and said, “Would you like to come down and talk about this thing we have?” So I went down to New York. They didn’t even have real offices yet. They were in some space with pieces of paper hanging on the door.
Norman Chad (Media Columnist): Frank Deford called me at The Washington Post. He wanted to have lunch. We went to Rusty Staub’s, in New York. Frank is striking. I realized the first time I met him how tall he is, how debonair. He’s like the Clark Gable of sports writing. Plus, he’s the greatest feature sports writer in history, and he just looks immaculate. He had barbecue ribs. I’ve had barbecue ribs 500 times in my life. He did not get a drip of sauce anywhere on his face, suit, tie. The guy is carved out of stone. I don’t even know how he ate the ribs. He was like a god. He didn’t even need a napkin.
Howard: You heard a lot about the great writers they were going to assemble, and Frank Deford at the time had the best reputation of anybody. Everybody was saying they were being lured, whether they were or weren’t. It became this status thing. You’d be at a game and somebody would be like, “Yeah, they talked to me. I didn’t want to go.” It was total bullshit.
Scott Ostler (National Columnist): I was at the Los Angeles Times. I get a call from Deford saying, “Hey, I’m in Los Angeles, can I come meet with you?” So, he came to my apartment and said, “We’re starting this new newspaper. I’d love for you to be a columnist. We’ll double your salary.” I was making roughly $80,000 at the time.
Glenn Stout (Series Editor, Best American Sports Writing): The National is responsible for a generation of sports writers in this country owning their own homes.
Deford: We were like the Yankees looking for free agents. The first guy I talked to was John Feinstein. I had dinner with him, and he said, “This sounds great.” I said, “You look like you need a new blazer. I’m going to give you a signing bonus of a new jacket.” And I did.
Howard: I was 28 when Frank called and said he wanted me to come to New York. I desperately wanted to do features. We went to lunch, talked for 2½ hours and drank two bottles of wine.
Fleder: Frank was talking to well-employed, very successful people. He had to convince them to leave their jobs. They had this party on Emilio Azcárraga’s yacht, which was docked off lower Manhattan. It was this huge, incredibly beautiful boat. A few of us and our wives were invited, and I think the point was to show us that this mysterious Mexican guy actually existed. That he was serious. That there was real money to finance this thing.
Kindred: I remember going onto the yacht, Paraiso, and being asked to take off my shoes. I met Emilio there, El Tigre. I asked him why he thought this thing would succeed, and he said, “Because I’m too old to fail.” I think he was 58. But he was a striking guy. He had this streak of white through his dark black hair. I remember going into one of the bedrooms; it had a Jackson Pollock painting on the wall. I violated one of my rules in life, which is never make a life-changing decision while on a yacht.
Deford: A lot of people signed on right away. So much of it was the money. You had to have more money to make people take the risk. You had to have something to take them away from the security. A lot of the middle-level people, guys who had worked on sports sections all their lives, they were delighted to come. They were the easier ones to get even though they weren’t getting that much more money, because this was their chance to be on a national sports paper. Remember, writers have bylines.
Price: In the newspaper business at the time, the sports section was considered the playpen of the newsroom. People were not highly compensated. Six figures was unusual even at the senior ranks.
Fleder: I would field calls regularly from guys saying, “I just want to talk to you so I can go back to my boss and tell him I talked to The National to try to get some more money.” We were paying very well. From what I gather, in the experience of the ink-stained wretches we were hiring, it was unprecedented.
Kindred: We offered Jim Murray $1 million. That was a Van idea. Murray said no.
Doria: They came back at me again about becoming one of two executive editors — the other was Rob Fleder — and basically overseeing the news operation. Ultimately, I think I was seduced by the notion of working with all these people who I had known for years from all over the country.
Pierce: I was at the National League playoffs in Chicago that year, and they called me up with the offer. It just absolutely floored me. It was six figures, right off the top. I almost fell out of my chair.
Doria: There’s no doubt that there was a sense that money could be spent. Part of the whole thing was that money was spent in areas that it didn’t have to be spent. The $52,000 brass eagle in our lobby.
Fleder: They brought it in by crane.
Ken Carpenter (Senior Editor, Statistics): They took some windows out of the side of the building on 52nd and 5th and raised this eagle thing into the lobby through a hole in the wall.
Price: Not true. It came up in the freight elevator.
Deford: Much more extravagant than the eagle — when we opened, we had a party. Azcárraga gave everyone on the staff a gold Mexican piece. I don’t know how much it was worth. But everybody who was there at that time got this magnificent Mexican gold coin. This was to show that we meant business. We weren’t some fly-by-night organization.
Fleder: At that point, you could close your eyes and take the leap and not think you were completely out of your mind.
III. “We could do it with satellites.”
Price: The address was 666 5th Avenue.
Athan Atsales (National News Editor): The devil office.
Price: We had to put satellite transmission facilities on the roof. We had to make satellite contracts, do the lease, the construction, get the furniture in.
Carpenter: The building didn’t have cable TV, so we paid for that. The National had the cable company come, wire the whole damn building. We had big-screen TVs before big-screen TVs were really around. We had 50-, 60-inch televisions all over the place that costs thousands of dollars each.
Neil Leifer (Photo Editor): Nikon lent us a digital camera. It was the prototype. By that, I literally mean there were like two in the world.
Tom Patterson (Assistant Managing Editor): We were so technologically advanced that people came in to tour the office just to look at our computers.
Carpenter: One day, Van came around with one of the business guys, and the business guy was carrying a clipboard. Van asked, “How many fax machines are we going to need to receive all the faxes that we’re going to get?” We thought four, and Van turned to the guy with the clipboard and said, “Six.” The machines were $2,200 each. The sixth machine never received a fax.
Kindred: It was this entirely new computer system and entirely new satellite transmission system. They spent millions of dollars to create it at the last minute. The computer programming was done by some Israeli company. It was state-of-the-art at the time, but it was untested.
Doria: One thing became clear right off the bat, before we even started printing in January 1990: There was going to be a problem getting out a late newspaper, a paper with all the scores.
Fleder: I remember the tech guys making diagrams: The satellites had a brief period of time where they could transfer this information back down to the printing plants. The diagram was shaped like a funnel, and there was a very precise period of time where you had to make that transmission or you weren’t going to make your deadline. The tech guys were explaining how all this information was going to be beamed up to satellites and then broadcast back down to printing plants across the country so we could print separate editions in each city. I always thought of it as “The Funnel Meeting.”
Deford: People were so impressed by the fact that we could do it with satellites. You know, print it with satellites. That sounded so glamorous and everything.
Rick Jaffe (Assistant Managing Editor): We were the first paper in the United States to go without a composing room.
Hinton: Price signed a contract for five years with Dow Jones for us to piggyback the Wall Street Journal‘s distribution system. The Journal probably didn’t even think about this and didn’t care. What nobody thought about was the stock markets close at what? Four o’clock? Well, the Yankees aren’t even taking batting practice at four o’clock. So, OK, you’ve got the Yankees and the Mets playing in the East. The White Sox and the Cubs are an hour behind. The Dodgers haven’t even begun in the West. So the Yankees are taking batting practice, and Dow Jones is saying to the people at The National, “Where are your plates? We’ve got to go.” And The National is saying, “We’re not going to have a first edition ready to go until the Yankees and Mets are done.” They said, “When is that?” And we’re saying, “Maybe eleven o’clock.” And they’re saying, “No, baby. We’re going at five.”
Reid Laymance (Senior Editor): I was in New York, and in charge of the editing and production process. I was supposed to be the last look at a page, the last read on a story, before it would shoot off to the satellite to be printed. What we found out was, jeez, we’re doing a 48-page paper, but there’s a New York version, a Chicago version, an L.A. version. Three times 48, that’s 144 pages.
Doria: We were rolling out first in three cities — New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. We added Detroit, Boston, Dallas, Atlanta. We planned to roll out others, too. San Diego, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, San Antonio. We wanted to open in just about every market in the United States. Eventually we wanted to launch in European cities, too.
Kindred: There were no test papers. They started hiring in the fall of ’89 and wanted a paper by winter. It wasn’t like we had six months to try and get this thing perfected. El Tigre was in a hurry. He wanted it done now.
Laymance: We realized the satellite could only do a page every three minutes. So you started realizing: 144 pages times three minutes each, that’s 500 minutes. Well, that’s seven hours.
Kindred: Detroit was one of the places that if it rained, we couldn’t produce the newspaper.
Shaw: When I was working in Detroit, there was a series between the Pistons and the Bulls, when the Bulls finally beat Detroit after knocking their heads against the wall, and the Pistons walked off without shaking hands. It was big, and I was at the game, had written a column on it, and there was bad weather that night. So, we never printed it.
Laymance: It snowed and you’d see a guy go up to the roof of 666 to knock snow off the satellite dish.
Price: Somebody went up with a ladder and a broom.
Hinton: I went to New York to pick up my laptop. They bought these state-of-the-art Toshibas, and they put in these really cheap modems. In the dial-up, we could not get my computer to link up into the computer at The National. I said, “This is a problem.” And the computer grunt says, “We’ll change the modems. We bought $30 modems.” The computer people they hired, frankly, I think they dragged them in off the streets. I went in the men’s room and Van McKenzie comes in and says, “How’s it going?” And I said, “Look, we’re fucked on this sending system.” He said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “Van, I’m telling you. We couldn’t transmit a story from the newsroom to the host computer. We tried 20 times.” He said, “OK, come with me. We’ve got a meeting with Peter Price. I want you to go in and tell Frank and Peter what you told me.” Frank shows some serious concern, because he’s been a writer out in the field. And Peter Price — who, I think, his total claim to journalism fame is that he’d been the editor of some Upper East Side magazine, some hoity-toity, Park Avenue publication — he said, “Well that can’t be.” And I said, “Why can’t it be?” And he said, “Because my people tell me it can’t be.” He wouldn’t accept that we’d just failed. And I said, “Well, I’m telling you it is. And I’m telling you your computer people don’t know what the hell they’re doing.” And he looks at me, and Van, who was looking out for me, says, “Eddie, don’t you have a plane to catch?” I was fuming all the way to LaGuardia. I got home and I told my wife, “This thing’s going to fail. It ain’t going to work.” And she said, “Why? I thought you had the best writers, the best editors.” And I said, “We do. But we’ve got a terrible business side. They don’t know what they’re doing. The tech side doesn’t know what they’re doing, either. We can write and edit all we want, but if we can’t publish the damn stuff, we’re dead.”
IV. “Design Nazis and Agate Fascists.”
Pierce: Van McKenzie was a force of nature.
Kindred: He was big, gruff, lovable. Probably weighed 270. Loud, crude.
Shaw: If you put a flannel shirt on Van, and handed him an ax, he’d look like Grizzly Adams.
Doria: Van was a big card player, a gambler. Prodigious appetite. Loved to party. Could drink a lot of beer. But a really self-made guy. Not a heavily educated guy, really.
Carpenter: He took no guff. But when it was time for fantasy football, he told me, “Go find a restaurant!” I went out, looked around, came back and said, “Van, everything’s really expensive.” He told me, “Don’t worry about it.” Our draft tab was $1,000. He just covered it. No problem.
Laymance: Van had this theory: He drafted every kicker. Every pick he had was a kicker. He said, “Everybody needs one. They’ll have to trade with me later.”
Kindred: He invented the big, splashy sports section. Big graphics. Big pictures.
Shaw: Van was a big thinker. He had great ideas. I think he knew what kinds of stories would win APSE contests and he devoted a lot of resources to them. If he had an idea, or you had an idea that he wanted, he gave you unlimited resources.
Michael Knisley (Senior Editor, NFL and Boxing): I remember sitting in meetings with Van. Somebody would come up with an outlandish coverage idea and instead of immediately shooting it down, Van would talk about making it happen. He’d sit there, wave his hands around, and say, “Well, can’t we just go hire somebody?” And so we did. We went and hired somebody to, for example, go to Japan to cover the Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas fight. This was back when that sort of thing didn’t happen much. Tyson had never lost; Douglas was a nobody. But Van said, “Let’s do that.” And there we were when Douglas beat him.
Jaffe: The Tyson-Buster Douglas story in February 1990 put us on the map.
Ian Thomsen (Main Event Writer): I was in Columbus with Douglas before and after the fight. Rob Fleder called and said I want you to go write about the next guy who’s going to get beat up by Mike Tyson. They wanted me to write about a guy that had no chance. But Douglas had confidence. This was the time he was going to make his stand for his career. In the last paragraph of the story, I wrote something to effect of “When Buster Douglas beats Mike Tyson, so-and-so’s going to happen. And when Buster Douglas knocks out Mike Tyson, such-and-such is going to happen.”
Sheldon Spencer (General Assignment Reporter): Mike flew back from Tokyo into JFK early Monday morning. I was assigned to go to JFK and, no matter what, follow him. If he jumped on another plane to fly to his mansion in Ohio, I was supposed to jump on that plane. There was a mob scene at the airport. He hops into a white Mercedes with his bodyguards cause, you know, Mike Tyson needs bodyguards. And I hop into a yellow cab and say, “Follow that car!” We’re going down the LIE for what seems like forever. I’m just hoping I’ve got enough cash. For all I know, he’s driving to Cleveland. But he winds up at a Manhattan brownstone. I get out of the car and walk up the street and his bodyguards are standing in front of him. They know I’ve been following them. I go up and say, “Mike, I’m Sheldon Spencer, I’m with The National Sports Daily. I know you’ve been through a lot in the last 24 hours, but I would love it if you would give me a few minutes to talk about the fight and what’s next.” The bodyguards are standing in front of him and he’s trying to get in the door, but he stops, turns around, extends a hand, and says, “Some other time, my friend.”
Steve Lowery (Angels Beat Writer): The first big story we all worked on together in the L.A. bureau was the Hank Gathers piece in March. We got death threats, ironically, when we ran a headline that said “Hank Gathers is Dead” with a picture of Gathers on the ground.
Tom Friend (L.A. Columnist): There was a newsflash that Hank Gathers had collapsed. I’d just interviewed Hank and Bo Kimble. I lived minutes from the hospital where they’d taken him. So I just buzzed over and went in the front door, not the emergency room where all the other reporters had gathered. There was nobody at reception. It was a ghost town, so I walk in the door and there’s Bo and there’s the family. I nod at Bo thinking he’s going to tell me to get out and he nods back. I stood in the corner. Fly on the wall. We’re there 45 minutes when this doctor comes out and says, “Gone.” The mom is on the floor screaming and yelling. The brother walks outside: “Noooooo!” It was beyond belief. I couldn’t sleep for a month, it was just so haunting.
Atsales: What were we? Were we a paper or a magazine? I remember the SI people saying, “I don’t know if we need scores in this paper.” This is when they knew the deadlines were impossible and we couldn’t get the scores in. The newspaper people stood by the scores. The magazine people we’re always asking, “Do we need scores? Not if we have good long-form pieces to run.”
Kindred: Van wanted everything in the box score, including which way the wind was blowing.
Kindred: One of Van’s babies was the Page 2 thing.
Tim Tucker (Deputy Managing Editor): It was quintessential Van. Every day he wanted to take a page to tell a whole story in a nontraditional form. The idea was to peg it to an event that was happening that day and preview it.
J.E. Vader (Page 3 Writer; National Reporter): The page was actually called “Sneak Preview.” My favorite was the “Make Your Own Carburetor Restrictor Plate” page we did for The Daytona 500. I loved that page. It was research-heavy, graphic-heavy, just a ton of information in not a whole lot of space.
Pierce: Van’s the one Rob Fleder always used to fight with about the Main Event space. He always had some hair across his ass for some new graphic or agate thing.
David Granger (Executive Features Editor): What Rob and I did was separate from the daily news operation. We were supposed to create five 4,000-word magazine stories every week: “The Main Event.” The paper only published five days a week. But still, we had to have a story for every one of those days. And it was like, “Fuck. We’ve got to assign 280 magazine stories in the next year?”
Leifer: Van was a newspaper man. And Frank was not only loyal to Van — Frank understood that Van’s strengths were exactly in the areas he lacked.
Deford: I never really got to be an editor at The National. I spent most of my time as a front man, as liaison between business and editorial. The number of days I came in and put out the paper were pretty few. When we opened in Miami, I went to Miami. When we opened in Detroit, I went to Detroit. I always hoped things would calm down so I could act like an editor. I could’ve been Ben Bradlee! But I never got that chance. Van was crucial to the operation. We were a great team. I was Mr. Outside. He was Mr. Inside.
Granger: Van was the enemy. He was the daily newspaper guy who truly disdained what Rob and I were trying to do. It appalled him that we got all these pages.
Vader: I came from SI, but I started to like the newspaper guys better. They weren’t all Ivy league. They were funnier and smarter. Didn’t take themselves as seriously.
Pierce: Fleder had to continuously brawl to keep the Main Event away from the design Nazis and agate fascists. Rob fought for our four pages like a bulldog, and he had to because Frank was being told by all the other people there — the people I like to call the APSE All-Stars — that it was a waste of space to do these things. Frank once asked me, “Why is Rob always so protective of his space?” And I said, “Because if he doesn’t, it’ll disappear. That’s why.”
Stout: The launch of The National corresponded with the first of edition of Best American Sports Writing. It ended up that four out of the 25 stories I included in the first volume were from The National. I used a really funny story by Peter Richmond called, “The Sports Fan”, which was a profile of Bill Murray.
Richmond: I got Murray’s number through a mutual friend, called him up, and said, “You want to do this?” And he said, “Sure, I love The National.” He said, “I’ll meet you at Wrigley in two months. They play the Expos in a three-game series starting July 7.” But he never answered another call. So I flew out to Chicago and I got there a day early and tried to put together a Cub feature in case Murray didn’t show, because I didn’t expect him to. So I went to the PR people and said, “Just leave a ticket for Bill Murray at will call.” Then I took my ticket and went down to our seats behind home plate, and during the national anthem, Bill Murray comes down with two bags of popcorn and two beers and sits down, and we spent the next three days together in Chicago.
Deford: Murray liked us so much that he came into the office, into an editorial meeting, posed in a Cubs uniform and everything.
Patterson: I get in late and I look around the room, and all of sudden Bill Murray’s in the meeting. I said, “What are you doing here?” He said, “Oh, shut up and sit down. You’re that asshole Patterson, right?” They had set me up to have him there.
Pierce: I don’t think I ever had a story idea turned down at The National. Long-form narrative is always what I’ve wanted to do, but I went to the Boston Herald because of the money. I spent years there writing tabloid-length sports columns — 500, 600, 700 words — and was really bored. Working at The National was like working for SI, only working for SI on a daily basis. I always tell people, did you see Bridge on the River Kwai? Where they put the guy in the box, and they leave him in the box for a week and a half or something, and they open the box and he can’t walk anymore because he can’t remember? That’s the way I felt when I sat down to write my first National piece. Holy God, I’m going to write 3,500 words again. How do I do that?
Granger: Charlie and Peter had this competition to see who could write the most stories. Charlie wrote 46. Peter wrote 45. These were stories that were all over the country, sometimes all over the world, that required reporting and then required writing.
Hinton: Charlie would get all this material for a Main Event, and he’d come in and he’d sit down to write. He’d set an alarm. He gave himself four hours per piece.
Granger: Charlie is the smartest man in the world, and he’s also the fastest writer in the history of the world. I had this new George Will book about baseball, and I thought, “I can get Charlie out of my office for the rest of the day by giving him the book to review.” I gave him the book and said, “I need 800 words just as soon as you can.” He was back in 90 minutes having read the book, having written the review.
Hinton: I did a piece called “The Last Ride of A.J. Foyt.” Foyt had disintegrated his legs in a crash, and an orthopedic surgeon had put his legs back together. He’d been rehabbing with the Houston Oilers. He was going to come back and run the Indy 500 one last time. So I go down to the ranch, and he was in all of his profane bull-glory, talkin’ wide open: “Darryl Waltrip’s a jack-off. Fuck him. … And you want to talk about an asshole, you want to talk about a prick? That’s that Bobby Rahal.” The lede for that piece set the tone: “Eight a.m. and raining on Waller, Texas. Population: Big Enough to Whip Your Ass. Out where Texas starts to look like Texas ought to, 40 miles northwest of Houston on the road toward Austin.” Well, Frank wanted to cut the phrase, “Population: Big Enough to Whip Your Ass.” So Granger calls me and says, “Call Frank at home. Fleder and I told him that we’re quitting and now you need to tell him you’re quitting unless he puts it back in there. You gotta fight for your phrase. We love it. We’re going to stick by you. Now, you gotta stick by us.”
Pierce: Rob really fought. He fought to the point that Frank started getting agitated about it.
Hinton: I called Frank at home. And Frank says, “Ed, somebody has to be the country parson around here. Frankly, “ass” is gratuitous.” I said, “Granger and I have already gone over ways to keep the cadence in that sentence, and it’s just not working.” Frank says, “Stop struggling to find a new phrase, because I’ve already found a way to keep the cadence in that sentence — just remove ‘Population: Big Enough to Whip Your Ass,’ and listen to the sentence again.” That made it, “Eight a.m. and raining on Waller, Texas. Out where Texas starts to look like Texas ought to, 40 miles northwest of Houston on the road toward Austin.” I said, “Frank, you’re right. The cadence is still there.” Frank had been too good to me to get in some big fight. I called Granger back and told him I’d given in. He says to me, “Hinton, you chicken-shit coward, Fleder and I were ready to quit for you, and you folded.”
Granger: We had our protective little cocoon, at least for a while. There was this row of offices for all the most powerful people. But then Rob went on vacation, and one of Van’s people said to me, “We’ve got to expand. We’re moving around. Call Rob and tell him that he’s got to move.” It was the pure example of how ostracized we were. They were taking his office away!
Laymance: Van was always around. I don’t know if he ever signed on to a computer, but he’d come around, look over your shoulder, see what you were doing.
Atsales: We were the first to have these major box scores. The agate was the revolutionary thing; not the long stories. They had to hire correspondents in every city just to get information for the boxes. Having the average of every player? That didn’t exist back then. We pioneered that. I remember the agate desk. Lee Gordon was in charge. They called him “The Agatollah.” He had bowling shirts made for all his guys with their names on them, like they were some sort of team. They all wore those shirts proudly, even though they looked like idiots wearing bowling shirts to work.
Knisley: Gordon was incredible. He probably did more to change the world of sports journalism than anybody else at this newspaper did. He created new ways to present statistical information.
Laymance: There were nights that Van would stay really late and I’d drive him home. We walked the four blocks to where we parked our cars. Occasionally Van and I would grab a six pack and enjoy it on the drive.
R.L Rebach (Graphic Artist): We were working 16-hour days, six days a week. Sunday through Friday.
Spencer: Kim Cunningham would be at the office because she had just come back from a party.
Deford: She did this gossip page. The idea was good: to treat sports people like celebrities. I think we were ahead of the curve there.
Kim Cunningham (Gossip Columnist): Ten months in, I broke out in hives. I had chest pains.
Atsales: You got a $1,000 bonus the first year if you didn’t have a sick day. If you had one sick day, there was a $500 bonus. There were a lot of sick people at work.
Spencer: That 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift. Yeah, that was the glamour shift.
Atsales: At 3, we’d walk every night from 5th Avenue to 10th Avenue to get our cars in the Howard Johnson’s lot, where we parked. You wouldn’t believe how many prostitutes would accost you during those blocks. They’d be all over. I’m not talking about just talking to you. They’d be grabbing you. They’d be doing everything they possibly could to sell it.
V. “This is Bob Costas. You’re an asshole.”
Chad: After college, I was a standup comic. I quit because I was getting married and couldn’t make enough money.
Deford: We got Norman Chad off the rewrite desk at the Washington Post. There wasn’t a chance for Norman to be himself there. George Solomon, great editor — but what the hell was he thinking?
Kindred: For the first issue, we had New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Deford wanted a profile of Patrick Ewing for the New York edition, Jordan in Chicago, and Magic in L.A. Ostler did Magic. I did Jordan. Lupica refused to do Ewing. The quote was, “I don’t do that.” He did his column, but he didn’t do anything else.
Pierce: I needed The National. I needed to break a national profile. Norman was the same way. Then you had people like Lupica and Feinstein who went there not particularly invested in the project, except for the fact that they couldn’t see a large thing happen in sports writing without them.
Granger: I edited Norman. He did a piece about Bob Costas, and every time he’d mention him he’d refer to him as “the 5-foot, 5-inch Bob Costas.” NBC called complaining we’d gotten Costas’ height wrong.
Chad: I told the publicist, if I run this correction — The National misreported Bob Costas’ height, he’s 5-8, not 5-5″— at the end of the column, I don’t think it looks good for Bob.
Granger: Every time Chad wrote about Costas in a column for The National after that he would talk about “Bob Costas, who was not 5-feet, 5-inches tall.”
Chad: One morning my phone rang. I go, “Hello?” And I hear, “Norman Chad?” I go, “Yes.” The voice goes, “This is Bob Costas. You’re an asshole.”
Deford: Norman was the guy at The National who went from anonymity to stardom.
Kornheiser: Norman basically invented sports media criticism. He was turning out fabulous stuff day after day after day. Everybody should have looked to Norman to see what The National was supposed to be: flip, irreverent, and ahead of the curve.
Granger: I don’t think I ever saw Lupica in the flesh.
Steve Buckley (Yankees Beat Writer; Boston Columnist): Lupica had a deal where he didn’t do his own expenses. There was actually a secretary in the office who did expenses for him.
Spencer: Lupica had an office devoted to him, but he was never there. So that was the place where a lot of people held pizza parties.
Carpenter: Lupica’s office had a view of 53rd Street. He was only in the office two or three times. So finally Deford gave his office to Lee Gordon because the door was right by the stats department. Lupica came in and threw a fit.
Pierce: Legendarily, Lupica went home from the 1990 Final Four because he wasn’t sitting at midcourt. They put him in the auxiliary press box and he couldn’t stand it, and he went home.
Chad: I’m one of Mike’s few defenders. I only met him once. I had a dinner with him and Kornheiser. In an hour and a half, I believe other than ordering my entree and a refill on my Diet Coke, I said nothing else.
Carpenter: Lupica wrote a column in The National criticizing our own stats department for doing too much. He said we were sucking the blood out of sports and called us “Roto nerds.”
Pierce: In May of 1990 the Times did a story, and Michael had this series of quotes that were really very destructive — the paper didn’t have the urgency of a daily newspaper, he was unhappy with the direction the paper was going in, and he was thinking about leaving. We didn’t need that. We didn’t need one of our acknowledged superstars badmouthing the product on the business pages of the New York Times. I went into Fleder’s office and said, “I’d throw him out a window and fire him before he hit the sidewalk.”
Richmond: Two days after that article came out, I had a dream about throwing him out of the Shea Stadium press box.
Rebach: Mike left before the end. He used The National; he used his position as the premier New York-area columnist to get to The National, then he used his status at The National to get back.
Hinton: Everybody was pissed at Lupica all the time. When he quit, the verbal hyperbole was, “Frank’s doing cartwheels across the newsroom.” Lupica came and went and didn’t really make a ripple, except that everybody considered him a pain in the ass.
Mike Lupica (New York Daily News columnist. Responding via e-mail to an interview request): Good luck with your piece, and your website, and thanks for your interest. But I don’t have a lot to offer about my year at The National.
VI. “The day of the Mexican assassins.”
Price: Distribution was almost impossible. Prior to launching in January 1990, I visited major newspapers around the country and they wouldn’t touch our business.
Howard: They assured us that the Wall Street Journal trucks would take the paper. Of course, we found out later that the trucks left too early and we couldn’t get the scores in.
Price: We looked at building our own fleet of trucks and printing centers. Color printing presses were just being introduced at the time. There was one manufacturer. The lead time was about a year and a half to order a press, and you had to pay for them up front. They cost about $8 million per press, per city. Remember, Emilio wanted to publish yesterday, which meant not doing things that were a year out. To set up a national distribution network, we would have needed our own trucks and then we would have needed to negotiate contracts with the National Newspaper Delivery Union. It would’ve been tens of millions of dollars. It would have been wonderful if we were the Gannett Company and had the kind of balance sheet and an existing staff to build our own distribution operation for a paper that didn’t exist. That’s a whole different ballgame. As a startup it would have been imprudent — if not insane — to do that.
Doria: And there was a recession going on. Advertising wasn’t in great supply. The ability to distribute the paper, printing, and distributing, was a mess. Our writers in the field were always calling, saying, “The same paper’s been in the box for five straight days.”
Price: A daily newspaper at that point was running 70 percent advertising, 30 percent edit. Our ad-to-edit ratio was 20 percent as opposed to 70 percent.
Hinton: I got to a point where I would count the ads. Often, there was one — a Nike two-pager in the middle.
Kindred: I remember Peter Price going through mathematical machinations that showed we could survive without advertising. By newsstand sales alone, we could survive. Advertising would be a bonus.
Shaw: One of the ad guys in Detroit told me we were selling 4,500 copies a day in that market, and I was like, “Oh my God, that might be smaller than my college paper’s circulation.”
Price: It was a year-by-year plan, but I think the end of the first year we were targeting like 250,000 copies per day. Because, remember, we were only opening market by market. We weren’t blasting out nationally immediately. We estimated that by the end of year two we’d be at 500,000. The million circulation was five or 10 years out.
Ostler: Did anybody do any sort of market research? It was kind of along the lines of a bunch of kids in the neighborhood saying, “Hey, let’s put on a play. Maybe we can invite the adults and charge 50 cents apiece.” That was the level of market research and planning that went into it.
Price: The lady I hired as Vice President of Circulation, Diane Morganthaler, used to be the Vice President of Circulation of USA Today, OK? So it’s not that we went in without any knowledge of what distribution was all about.
Dan Correa (Chief Financial Officer): The break-even went from 400,000 in circulation to about 600,000 because we needed more editorial personnel and to maintain the technology. And when you miss your circulation goals, you lose twice. You lose because you don’t get the 25 cents from the paper, but more importantly you lose ad revenue. That was the big shortfall. The ad revenue. We never hit the ad goals, and we never hit the rates.
Price: We had our vending machines smashed with baseball bats in certain markets. The distribution staffs of these papers were told we were threatening.
Deford: I live in Westport, Conn. That ain’t exactly the middle of nowhere. They couldn’t deliver the paper to me. I knew we had problems. I remember talking to the guy who delivers newspapers to me. He told me how many people on his route had ordered The National. Now, I can’t remember the figures, but every one of them had canceled because they couldn’t get the paper. And finally I canceled myself. I did! I canceled.
Atsales: Even in the box right outside 666, we couldn’t get our own paper.
Ostler: Around the end of 1990, Steve Clow, who was the L.A. Bureau Chief, got a call from New York saying, “Steve, you know that water dispenser you have in your lunch room, the one with the hot and cold water tap?” And he said, “Yeah.” And they said, “Well, we’re going to have to swap that out for one with just cold water. We can save five dollars.” This, a company that had been spending like a Saudi sheik for months and months, and now they’re worried about two or three dollars a month. I knew there was trouble.
Doria: If people say it was the expense spending, meaning somebody spent $200 on lunch, that’s not what did the paper in. What did the paper in was the inability to produce it and distribute it in a timely fashion.
Diane Morganthaler (Head of Circulation): Azcárraga had the money to invest in us because of some antitrust legislation that forbade him from owning TV media in the U.S. as a non-U.S. national or citizen. Right around the time that Emilio pulled the plug, that legislation was changed and he was able to go buy American TV media. Unless we had been profitable right out of the gate, it’s likely that money — all of those millions — would’ve been pulled anyway because print media wasn’t his bag.
Correa: Our editorial staff wrote a lot for the editorial staff. Instead of writing a daily newspaper, they were writing a magazine that was impressing other writers. We were a second, maybe a third read. The guy going to Wall Street was reading the Journal, the Times, and then us. The guy I would love to have reached was Joe Six-pack, and Joe Six-pack didn’t need to read how the GM of the Mets reminded the writer of the Phoenicians. My immediate reaction was the guy reading this paper thinks the Phoenicians play in Phoenix.
Deford: Peter was fired around November of 1990, and Azcárraga brought his own guy in, Jaime Dávila.
Jaime Dávila (Longtime Azcárraga Associate): It is important to point out that Mr. Price was not fired. Mr. Price decided that he would rather leave shortly after my arrival.
Deford: It wasn’t like Peter was going to be out of food the next day in his refrigerator. That was the thing. We all had contracts. Nonetheless, it was pretty tough, having your buddy and your colleague and your partner fired. It was hard. I was relieved that the boss acknowledged that the editorial was fine.
Dávila: One day, which I think was in October 1990, Mr. Azcárraga informed me that I was to stay in New York and that I was to start working at The National to determine if it could be saved. I was surprised because I had not had any involvement to that point. I told him that I didn’t see how I could help since I had no newspaper experience. In essence, Mr. Azcárraga said that he didn’t feel that he had another choice but to get one of his people involved in the day-to-day operation.
Deford (from an internal memo to National staff; January 31, 1991): Under Jamie Dávila, literally tens of millions of dollars have been cut from our annual budget. We are re-examining the entire circulation situation. Pilot home delivery programs are being tried in three cities. Returns have been cut almost 50 percent, even as we sell more copies. The readership is passionate and devoted. Perhaps even by the time you get this we will have a new advertising agency on board and we will be preparing for a major new ad campaign. Really now, does any of the foregoing even remotely suggest something looking to go out of business?
Pierce: The Mexicans showed up unexpectedly and asked to see the real books. By the end of the day, the publisher and business manager had been fired and the Mexicans had installed one of their own. He began to lay people off and shift people around the country. I remember, specifically, Mark Vancil, who had been our Chicago basketball writer, was moved to Denver.
Mark Vancil (Bulls Beat Writer): I could never find the paper in Denver.
Pierce: The story is that the business manager left, and when he left, he locked his desk. So they pried the desk open with a crowbar. And in the bottom drawer, they found unpaid invoices totaling over $2 million. The guy had been doing with the bills for the paper what we did with our college phone bills — throw it in a drawer and don’t pay attention to it again.
Correa: They were not sitting in anybody’s desk. That’s an outright lie. Absolutely no hiding, no hoarding. They were sitting in the accounts payable department. We had a cash flow plan. The bills came in, they went to accounts payable, and they got paid depending on the terms. Twenty days, 30 days. Whatever we negotiated. So, absolutely there were millions. Why? Because the bills were several million a month. Payroll was several million a month. The printing bill was a million and change a week. Two weeks of unpaid printing bills adds up to be guess how much?
Dávila: The National was bleeding substantial amounts of cash. My first objective was to see how we could reduce the losses while I learned more.
Price: Emilio was saddened by the fact that it wasn’t working. He said, “The problem with this fucking newspaper business is that you gotta distribute, you gotta move so many things around in trucks, unlike my television business. If we could only deliver the paper without printing it, that would be more like the business I know.” I said, “All right, well there’s this electronic thing developing called the Internet.”
VII. “It was like the train escorting Lincoln’s body from Washington to Springfield.”
Tom Keegan (Chicago Bureau, Cubs Beat, National Reporter): There were rumors from the start.
Lowery: People outside the paper seemed to take pleasure in it. I don’t know if it was jealousy or morbid fascination, but people would constantly talk about whether the paper was going to fail. I started to wonder, if my mom was sick, would they be doing this? Always telling me she doesn’t look very good?
Deford (from an internal memo to National staff; January 31, 1991): At 7:30 in a press box somewhere some guy from the East Cupcake Gazette tells you it’s too bad that The National is being sold to the Medellin drug cartel and turned into a weekly international guns-and-ammo newsletter. And you not only believe the guy, but pass the story on a gospel.
Buckley I was one of those naive little fellows who refused to see the obvious. I just figured something being run by Frank Deford, Vince Doria, and all those bright lights of sports journalism — that they would find a way.
Jaffe: I think Frank had a staff meeting in April or May of ’91, and basically said we had till the end of the year to turn it around.
Keegan: You were always worried and afraid. Not that it would make a difference, but I was always trying to skimp and save on the road, looking for bargain meals so I wouldn’t bankrupt the company.
Deford: The thing about Feinstein’s cat was a bullshit story.
Pierce: This is how it was told to me: John was set to do the tennis and golf writer’s phony-baloney annual trip to Europe. You go to the French Open, you take a couple of weeks off. You go to Wimbledon, you take a couple of weeks off. You go to the British Open. Sometime between the French Open and Wimbledon, John called Frank and said, “I have to come home.” And Frank said, “Why? And John said, “I have had a death in the family.” Frank’s great blessing is that he’s the most humane man I’ve ever met. He immediately went into sympathy mode and said, “John, I’m sorry, who is it?” And John said, “My cat died.” And Frank, to his credit, apparently said, “What? Your cat died?” And John said, “Yeah, but that’s not why I need to come home.”
Rebach: I heard whoever was cat-sitting for him let him know that there was something wrong. He needed to deal with it, so he got on the Concorde, flew back, and he expensed it.
Pierce: Apparently Frank said, “Oh, god. OK, fine. Why do you need to come home?” And John said, “I don’t think my other cat can get through it if I’m not there.” Prompting me to have this vision of Feinstein walking into his darkened apartment, with his other cat in a chair with a cigarette and glass of brandy, going, “Oh, John, thank God you’re home. He’s behind the couch over there.”
Deford: Oh, Christ. John was overseas. The French Open ends. It’s another three weeks before Wimbledon. He calls me up and says, “Listen. Can I come home? It’s cheaper for me to fly home — and not on the Concorde — than to stay over here. I haven’t been home for a month.” I said, “Sure.” Where that crap came from about the cats, that’s one of those great urban myths. No way in the world did he come home to feed his cat. That is so much bullshit: that he’d come home on the Concorde to feed his cats or because he missed his cats or because a cat died. The cats weren’t in the conversation. I can assure you.
Hinton: The day was June 12. The day the Titanic hit the iceberg.
Deford: Jaime called me down. He had taken over Peter’s office, right down the hall. I walked in, and he said, “I just talked to Emilio. We’re going to close it.” There wasn’t any need for any explanation. We were going to do one more issue.
Price: Emilio had put me in his office in the General Motors Building, and we had taken up this conversation about having CompuServe do an edition of The National on the Internet. That would have been the obvious segue. But by then the paper had already closed. Maybe with broadband, it would not have gone away. It would simply have been reconfigured into a more sensible form of distribution that didn’t require men in trucks.
Jaffe: It really caught everybody by surprise because we thought we at least had ’til the end of the year, at least from my level down. Maybe Frank and a couple others might have known, but the rest of the group only knew that we needed to do a lot better.
Deford: All I remember was then going out, and there was no sense in pretending, going out and standing on a desk. Everybody grouped around. I don’t think I ever gave a worse speech in my life — all the clichés — and then we put out the final issue.
Laymance: Everybody looked stunned.
Keegan: I walked behind the writers’ lockers by the bathroom at Wrigley. I thought there was nobody there. I took my scorecard and just rifled it against the wall. Right then, Joe Goddard from the Sun-Times walked out of the bathroom. He said, “What happened? Is everything OK?” The next day in the Sun-Times, that was the lede, me rifling things at the wall.
Buckley: I was in a car on Route 2. I was in the process of buying a house out in Concord. I was gonna buy this really nice house. I was listening to the Red Sox game. They were playing the Mariners in the Kingdome. Bob Starr was doing play-by-play. Mike Greenwell was at bat. I still remember Starr’s exact words: “Here’s the pitch, fouled back this way by Greenwell.” Pause. And then he says, “The National Sports Daily,” and I immediately think, “Well isn’t that great? They’re doing drop-ins at Red Sox games now.” Instead he says, “The National Sports Daily has just announced it has ceased publication beginning with tomorrow’s edition. That news just now coming over the wire.” And I’m like,
Lowery: My friend Mike Penner was having my birthday party over at his house that day. We all showed up in black. It was like a funeral for me. I think I dressed up like some French existentialist with a black beret. In a lot of ways, it was like dating that girl where everyone tells you, “Oh, man, you better watch it,” and you think, I’m gonna be different. I’m gonna be the one. And then when it ends, you hang your head and think, “Why’d I feel like I’d be any different?”
Buckley: I never did get that house.
Howard: Fleder called me: “Bad news.” And I said, “I’m not going to Montreal?” And he said, “No, worse. We folded.” I was so hopelessly inarticulate. I just went, “Whoa.”
Kindred: I was at Hazeltine, the U.S. Open, in Minnesota. Deford called and wanted me to know before it was public. “Don’t tell anybody,” he said.
Larry Dorman (National Writer, Golf): Kindred said, “We’re outta business.” Those were his exact words.
Vancil: I’d been golfing. I walked back into the airport Marriott in L.A., and Jackie MacMullan is the first person I see. Jackie comes up, gives me a hug, and says, “Hey, I’m so sorry.” I have no idea what she’s talking about. I’ve got golf shoes on, I have a bag full of clubs. I thought someone died. And she goes, “Oh, you don’t know? The National is folding.” I said, “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” Rumors had been going around for so long that I didn’t believe her. So, I get in the elevator and started thinking, Jackie might actually know. I get to my room and call New York, and whoever answered the phone said, “Are you calling about the folding or what you’re supposed to write?” I said, “Give it to me in the order you prefer.” They said, “You’re writing the Lakers. We’re folding tomorrow.”
Jeff Horrigan (National Reporter, Boston): Charlie Pierce called me and Steve Buckley and Ian Thomsen. We were the Boston guys. We all met at the Eliot Lounge. The Governor of Massachusetts, Bill Weld, happened to come in and he sat with us for a drink. I know I was really drunk, but the next day I was like, “Did Governor Weld really sit down and drink with us to console us?”
Vancil: I remember calling New York at about 3 in the morning. Everyone was still in the office, obviously toasting the demise. I was calling to see whether everything got in. “Did you get my story? Did you run it the way I wrote it?” And whoever was on the other end of the line, in a drunken slur said, “Eeeevvrything got innnnnn.”
Horrigan: After the bar, it was me, Ian, and Leigh Montville walking down Newbury Street. We encounter a National newspaper box and decide, wouldn’t this be great if we could take this for a souvenir? We were in the process when a policeman stopped us. He was like, “What are you guys doing?” And we explained, even though we were very drunk, what just happened. He goes, “Hey, sorry. I’m sorry you lost your jobs but you can’t do that.”
Deford: And then we had a party. How many guys throw a party when you go out of business?
Howard: Did you ever see Roger and Me? When the last car rolls off the assembly line and they all start cheering, and there’s that one guy standing there and he says, “I don’t know what we’re cheering: We just lost our jobs?” It was that kind of thing.
Pierce: The story about Feinstein’s cat appeared on Page Six of the New York Post the day we were having our breakup party. We picked up the New York papers in New Haven, and Buckley was reading the Post. His knuckles started turning white. His hands began to shake. Then he threw the Post across the club car. And I said, “What the hell’s going on?” And I picked it up, and there it was, the story of the cat. I said, “Oh god, Steve. I heard about that a week ago.”
Buckley: It was like the train escorting Lincoln’s body from Washington to Springfield, Ill.
Pierce: It was an extraordinary liquid event. This is when I was hooked up with Van McKenzie and things were getting very liquid, and they put up, on one of the big screens in the bar, the original promotional film they sent to advertisers before we launched. Frank was on it. And Peter Price. And then Mike Lupica came on and I vividly remember getting up on a stool and shouting, “Give us Barabbas!” I’ll never forget it. McKenzie put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Ya know, there are a lot of nutty people in this business. But you’re crazy.”
Buckley: Lupica pops up and everybody’s throwing beer cans at it. It was like that scene in Animal House when Flounder’s picture goes up on the screen in the frat house.
Horrigan: People were waiting for John Feinstein to show up. I know a lot of people were hoping to give Feinstein a piece of their mind for embarrassing the paper that way. But he did not show.
Deford: It must have cost Emilio thousands. All the drinks were free. Guys came up to ask me for his address. They wanted to thank him. I’m not kidding. Everybody knew how much money he’d put into it. There wasn’t a word of sour grapes. It was all a celebration of what we’d been, and I suppose what we might have been.
Spencer: The tragedy for The National was that you had people who were very much into their careers and they had to make the difficult decision whether to take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity but turn your back on 10 or 12 or 20 years of service with your previous employer. The day The National folded I really felt so bad for those people. They risked everything. I really lucked into a job six weeks after The National folded, working for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. A lot of people weren’t nearly that lucky.
Buckley: I was crestfallen. I’m one of those guys who came up the hard way. I graduated from UMass in 1978 and got a job at a really small newspaper, the Westfield Evening News, when I was 22. From there I went to the Journal Tribune in Biddeford, Maine, and then the Portland Press Herald. Then I went out to Seattle, to the Tacoma News Tribune. The point being that every year was a little bit better than the year before. I was climbing, climbing, climbing, climbing. And now here it is, 13 years after I graduated from college, and I’m a columnist with this ambitious National Sports Daily. What could go wrong? And on that day, when I got that word, now all of a sudden I’m unemployed.
Chad: Some of the guys had three- to five-year deals. I only had a two-year deal. I was only getting paid another six months.
Pierce: They were really good about paying me. They paid me every dime. I had a June-to-December paid vacation.
Horrigan: There was long period of unemployment. There were concerns when it folded that there would be this backlash against us. Particularly the beat guys, it was tough for us to find work. Not that we were blacklisted, but it was almost like, well it serves them right.
Deford: Azcárraga was amazing. I think he committed to 50 million and lost closer to 150 million. Amazing guy. Paid every bill at the end. He paid everybody through the end of their contract.
Dávila: Our law firm recommended a Chapter 11 filing; I was almost fired for passing along the message. Mr. Azcárraga instructed me to pay every single commitment and employment contract on time and 100 cents on the dollar.
Chad: The Washington Post did a story the day The National folded, and they called me. I pretty much indicated to them that I never thought we had a chance. So, Frank sent me the final front page of The National. “We Had a Ball. The Fat Lady Sings For Us.” And they’d replaced the overhead headline over The National logo. On the actual page that day, the headline was, “Bulls stampede NBA Title, pages 7-11.” And he replaced that on my copy with “Deford Says Chad’s Attitude Doomed National.” He signed it. I’m looking at it now. I have it framed.
Kindred: Maybe a year later, Forbes did a cover story on Emilio: The World’s Richest Latin American. It was made to look grainy, so he looked mysterious. In the story it talks about The National. It talks about how The National lost $150 million in two years, how this so upset one of Emilio’s partners that he demanded to be bought out. So Emilio bought him out, and then when The National folded, Emilio took his company public, doubling its value. The point of that story was even when he loses, El Tigre wins.
Richmond: I don’t know what those gold coins weighed. After I lost the job, I went to a gold broker and I think I got like 500 bucks for it.
Howard: It’s a 37.5-gram gold coin. I know because I just sold it. It’s worth $1,300.
Pierce: I do miss the place. I always wonder how they got the damn eagle out of the office.
Deford: You’d be amazed by the number of people who stop me, bring me papers to autograph. I give a speech and ask for questions afterwards, this is 20 years on, and somebody always asks about The National. People do remember it fondly. The thing they always say is, “I read every issue.” And I think, “Bullshit.” I know you didn’t read every issue because you couldn’t get every issue.
Howard: It was the best thing I ever did. In fact, most of us are still around. All we need is a guy with about $100 million. Have another rodeo; get Charlie, get Ian, we’ll all show up.
Friend: The National was simply my dream job.
Richmond: I’d follow Frank Deford into any foxhole. To this day, I would. If he started this sucker up again and said, “Except this time we’ve only got $10,000 and four writers, and you’ll have to walk to every city,” I’d do it.
Kornheiser: I have, in the basement of my house, a National box. I have it and I have the last day’s cover. The one that said, “We Had a Ball.” I have that prominently in the glass part of the box. I will not talk about how I got it. Ever. In Washington they were yellow. My reason for having it? I had great feelings of warmth toward The National. I thought someday, you know, I’d be able to stick this in a living room and somebody will say, “What’s that?” And I’d say, “That was the great and noble experiment of sports writing in America.” (Additional reporting by Robert Mays.)