We lived in Chicago until I was 10, north side. I was a Cubs fan. I used to go to Wrigley Field to watch the Chicago Cubs play back in the late 1940s and early ’50s and I could go by myself. Nowadays you can’t walk 20 feet from a house in Chicago without being fearful, but back in those days young people could actually run around without fear. I used to go to Wrigley all the time and I was a bleacher bum long before there was such a term.
Bill Nack learned reporting by covering water management and sewers at Newsday in New York. A love of horse racing -- and a flair for writing -- led him to covering sports for Newsday and eventually for Sports Illustrated. Best known for his book "Secretariat," Nack still reports and writes books.
BORN: February 4, 1941
HOMETOWN: Chicago, Illinois
LIVES: Washington, D.C.
EDUCATION: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
My favorite player was Hank Sauer. He ended up MVP of the National League in 1952. He had 37 home runs, two of which flew over my head. One day against Curt Simmons he hit three home runs–two went over my head and one went into center field. It was one of the great days of my life. They [baseballs] sailed over my head onto Waveland Avenue, hit the street, bounced up, and both of them hit a house behind me. And then he came out to left field and we all cheered him and he took off his cap. I was in touch with his widow after Hank died. I wrote a story about him for Sports Illustrated many years later about that day.
When we moved out to Skokie in 1951, I was 10. On summer days my mother would say to me, “What are you going to do today Bill?’ I’d say I don’t know. “Well why don’t you go to Cubs Park?”
So she’d give me like a dollar and a quarter or something. And I’d get on that bus at Oakton Street, Keeler Avenue, in Skokie where we lived, and took the bus to Howard Street, got off, got on the elevated train and got off at Addison and I was at Wrigley Field. I’d pay 35 cents or 40 cents to get into the bleachers.
In 1951, we moved to Skokie and in 1952, my mother took my sister and I out to a horse stable and we started riding. I became a horseback rider.
I watched the 1952 Kentucky Derby on TV and what made it spectacular in those days was that the greatest horse of that era was gray. And you could follow him on television. There’d be all these brown horses and then this one gray horse. His name was Native Dancer and he’s one of the greatest racehorses that America has ever produced. He lost one race in his life. Unfortunately it was the most important race any horse could ever lose.
He lost the Kentucky Derby. He was the heavy favorite but he got pushed way out in the field.
I think there was a conspiracy against him because a jockey actually rode up inside him and pushed him out in the middle of the track and he lost by a neck. I thought the race was very suspicious. Anyway, he never lost again.
It was really a very exciting Derby because he was closing on the winner, Dark Star, owned by Harry Guggenheim. Native Dancer was closing in on the outside and he just ran out of real estate at the end and just missed. And I thought, wow this is an interesting sport.
Bill Nack at the Kentucky Derby.
I was going to less and less baseball because it was farther away in Skokie. I kept up an interest in the Cubs that I maintain to this day. I keep trying to kill the impulse to root for them but I can’t do it. It’s a hopeless venture. I hope this guy Theo Epstein knows what he’s doing. If the Chicago Cubs got into the World Series today it would be the greatest sports story of the decade.
Phil Cavarretta was in the 1945 World Series with the Cubs, against Detroit. He was 92 when I interviewed him. And I said to him, “I can’t believe the Cubs haven’t won.” And he said “when I walked off that baseball field in 1945, when we lost to Detroit, if you would have told me that Cubs would not be in another World Series this century, I would have told you that you were crazy.”
They were the best team in the National League on a number of occasions. The owner was cheap. Wrigley owned a big gum company, but he was cheap. Uninspired leadership, and they just languished. And the Cubs were so popular with the fans that it didn’t matter whether they won. People showed up anyway so there was no incentive to win. With a good team coming to town, they could fill that ballpark.
Horse racing became part of my life in the early ’50s, not only as a horseback rider.
My next door neighbor, Bob Farnham, loved horse racing and he knew I loved horses and he asked me one day, “do you want to go to the track?” So Bob and I got into his Ford convertible (he was in his 40s and going through his second childhood) and we drove out to Arlington. Maybe it was Washington Park. And I saw a horse named Swoon Sun win the Prairie State Stakes at my first day at the track and there must have been 40,000 people there. It was amazing.
I had been going to horse shows. Horse shows are decided by judges who stand in the middle of the ring and look at these horses and say I like that one, this one wins, this one finishes is second. That’s bull. I like it when you leave at point A, you finish at point B, and the best horse wins usually.
I was doing horse shows by the mid ’50s. I was riding in equitation classes and winning, occasionally, a ribbon or two. I was teaching horseback riding. I was pretty involved.
When a lot of my friends were playing baseball, sandlot stuff, Little League, Pony League, American Legion baseball, I was going to the track, or going to the stable. That was my life and I chose it. I was an all star Little League player in center field. I could play, I was a pretty good athlete but it didn’t interest me. I’d much rather be around the horses.
I’d much rather be around the horses. There was something about their eyes, something about their whole aspect, the way they carried themselves. There was a regalness about them that appealed to me. They had been ridden by kings and queens.
There was something about their eyes, something about their whole aspect, the way they carried themselves. There was a regalness about them that appealed to me. They had been ridden by kings and queens. Like in the play “Richard the III”: “A horse, A horse, my kingdom for a horse.” They settled the American West, they were very much a part of American culture, American history. Americans have an affinity for horses.
I began to really love horses and racing. I was working at the track as a groom and a hot walker. I was rubbing them, touching them, going to the races all the time. And in fact when I got to the end of the summer of ’59, I was already enrolled at the University of Illinois.
Tuition was $80 a semester and I said to my mother and father I think I’m going to go with the racing outfit. In my stable where I worked for Bill Molter, there was a stable of horses owned by Travis Kerr, a big Oklahoma oil man. He owned a horse named Round Table who had been the 1958 Horse of the Year in America. I used to see him every morning.
I loved the life, getting up at 6, walking horses and grooming them and touching and being around them and watching them perform, bringing them back, cooling them out, grazing them, feeding them and watering them. And there was a certain rhythm that appealed to me in that life.
I said to my mom and dad I’m thinking about leaving. I don’t want to go to Illinois, I want to go east with this outfit to New York. My father said to me why don’t you just join the circus and get it over with.
There was a groom in that stable who said you are not going east with this outfit. His name was Paul Parker. I used to walk horses for him when I was a hot walker. Here I had a chance to get educated.
“You’re not going to come with this outfit,” he said, “you’re going to school.”
I finally thought about it and I thought he was right. If I don’t like school, I can always drop out and do this, which I never did. I went to college and I loved it.
I became a good friend of (the late) Roger Ebert. I’m writing a book about him right now. I knew him for 51 years. Dick Butkus was on the football team, the greatest middle linebacker that ever played.
I got into journalism, became the sports editor of the Daily Illini, the school paper, when Roger Ebert was the editor. And when he left to go to Cape Town, South Africa, to study the next year, in ’64-’65, I became the editor of the Daily Illini. I was the sports editor in ‘63-‘64 when he was the editor, and that year Illinois won the Rose Bowl. It was a very exciting time. I left there not thinking I would ever be a sportswriter.
When I graduated I knew I was going to be a journalist but I had been a commissioned officer, so I got married and went to Fort Benning, Georgia with my wife. She was pregnant and had the baby at Martin Army Hospital and that next year in March, 1967, I went to Vietnam. I was in the infantry. I was supposed to be a combat platoon leader, and chances were I wouldn’t have survived in one piece. But I got kind of lucky and I ended up working for General William Westmoreland at headquarters in Saigon. So I was spared the fires of combat and ended up ducking bullets during the Tet Offensive in 1968.
I left [Vietnam] six weeks after Tet began and applied to The Louisville Courier-Journal and was turned down. I wanted to be in Louisville because the horses were down there, and I’m delighted they turned me down. It changed my life completely.
I wore different color socks in the interview and I think that turned off the editor. I was a little screwed up.
I wore different color socks in the interview and I think that turned off the editor. I was a little screwed up. I had just left a combat zone. I wasn’t exactly a paragon of stability. I was emotionally a little stretched out. And I had these different colored socks on. I noticed it during the interview; one was black and one was blue, sort of like my psyche. Anyway, for some reason they turned me down. I was heartbroken for a while.
I got a note from a guy I’d been involved with in journalism at the University of Illinois. His name was Gregory Schirmer, and he eventually became the chairman of the English Department at Ole Miss. He had gotten into journalism because of me and he ended up at Newsday on Long Island.
He says “why don’t you come up to Newsday.”
So I flew out there and stayed at his house and tried out at Newsday and I made the paper. So I went home, collected my wife and our few belongings in a U-Haul, and we drove out with our baby. My wife was pregnant for a second time.
I worked cityside. I covered fires, automobile accidents. I became an expert in water, fresh water supply, sewers. I really worked hard. I learned how to report. I had a lot of energy and I loved the reporting process, getting out there and filling your notebook with stuff.
Newsday was a very rigorously-edited newspaper. I loved Newsday because it was full of energy. I wrote a series about water recharge, purifying it and then putting it back in the ground. It was a big story. It was really good.
I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t want to be a freshwater environmental sewer writer. I had other things I wanted to do. I wanted to write long stuff.
A guy named Mike McGrady was the weekend magazine editor at Newsday. And he liked my work and he got me to write magazine stuff for the weekend magazine. And I wrote several pieces for him and he loved them and they got a lot of play around Newsday. A lot of people began to see me as a writer, not just as a sewer recharge reporter. He [McGrady] was a real mentor to me.
“Get him out of the sewers,” he’d say. “He’s got to be doing other things.”
Everybody knew I loved horses, and they’d say do you want to go to sports and I’d say I don’t want to write sports. My eyes were on the White House.
We were at a Christmas Party in 1971 at Newsday, and I got up on a tabletop in the middle of the city room at the urging of my colleagues and I recited all of the Kentucky Derby winners from 1875 to the then present.
We were at a Christmas Party in 1971 at Newsday, and I got up on a tabletop in the middle of the city room at the urging of my colleagues and I recited all of the Kentucky Derby winners from 1875 to the then present. And I got cheers and I dismounted from the table. And David Laventhol came up to me. He was the editor of Newsday and a closet horse player and one of the greatest journalists I ever knew.
And David said to me, “Why do you know that? Why do you know those Derby winners?”
I said “gee David, everybody knows Derby winners. It’s un-American not to know.” Then I told him my little history, that I grew up around horses, I was a groom and a hot walker, I love racing, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
He said “really, I had no idea.” I said “well it’s not exactly a secret.” He said “do you gamble?” I said “no, it doesn’t interest me.” He said “would you like to be the racing writer at Newsday?” And I said “WHAT? Say that again, slowly.” He said “would you like to cover horseracing for Newsday?” And I said “you’re going to make my hobby my job.” And he said “yeah something like that.”
I looked across the room and my wife [Mary] was standing there and I said “excuse me for a minute David,” and I said to her “what would you think if I became the horse writing writer at Newsday? She said, “I think that would be perfect for you.” I said “we’re not going to Washington to cover the White House, we’re not going up to Albany to cover the state legislature.” She said “that sounds like more fun, we can stay right here.” I said “OK”, and I walk back, and I say “David, I’m your guy.”
He said, “you’re not happy doing what you’re doing right now?” and I said “no.”
“People are not going to believe it and I don’t want a lot of people coming into my office and saying what’s wrong with Nack has he lost his mind. So I want you to write me a note and tell me why you want this job. And I’ll post it,” he said, “that way a lot of people won’t be coming in.”
I remember one line in it: ‘after covering politicians for four and a half years, I want a chance to cover the whole horse.’ And that got a lot of chuckles around the office. And so nobody questioned it. They said OK Bill is doing this 180, now he’s upstairs in the sports department. And I did that for three years.
I started covering horse racing at Newsday in March of ’72. I came on the track about three months after an unraced, untested two-year-old came on the track, Secretariat. We came in at exactly the same time.
I was an untested turf writer and he was an untested racehorse, and he turned out to be the greatest racehorse that ever lived. And I got really lucky, and you can’t tell me that’s not divinely guided.
I mean I’m not a religious person believe me, but something’s going on. It makes you believe in a higher power really does. It’s like a golf writer starting out loving golf and coming in at the same exact time and year as Tiger Woods.
Cover of Bill Nack's novel, "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion."
I chased [Secretariat] for two years, ended up writing a book about him, and then suddenly they made a movie out of it. And it went on the best-seller list on The New York Times, it reached number five and sold 150,000 copies.
I worked on the movie set I got to know Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Scott Glenn, Fred Thompson. It was just amazing. This horse has been carrying me now for 40 years. Still the three greatest sequences of events I’ve seen in my life and I’ve been covering sports for 40 some years. Broke the record in the Derby, broke the record in the Preakness, broke the record in the Belmont, and they all still stand today, all three records, and that was 1973. We’ve had more than one million horses come of age since then, and not one of them has approached those records.
Movie trailer for "Secretariat," the remarkable true story of "Big Red," one of America's finest racehorses. The film was inspired by Nack's book, "Secretariat."
Then I covered Ruffian, who came along as a 2-year-old in ’74 after Secretariat retired. She was maybe the fastest two-year-old I’ve ever seen, colt or filly. She could flat fly. Anyway she broke down in a famous match race with Foolish Pleasure in 1975, in July, on national television. It was the worst thing I’ve ever covered in my life, a horror.
I ran across the racetrack, almost got hit by the other horse when he was finishing. Almost got killed. My hair rose on the back of my neck, that’s how scary it was. Ran across the entire infield at Belmont, 600 yards. Got to the other side where she had broken down. The doctor taking care of her trying to put an inflatable cast on her leg had blood all over his hands. He said she fractured her sesamoids.
I asked, “why all the blood?” He said they exploded out like little hand grenades. She was dead. And I said to him “what’s the prognosis?” He shook his head and I knew she was dead. And they tried to save her under surgery and they had to put her to sleep. I said to myself I’m getting out of here this is not for me.
Bill Nack talks on ESPN about Ruffian, a top American thoroughbred racehorse that broke down in the 1975 Match Race at Belmont Park.
I saw the best horse I had ever seen, I saw the best filly I had ever seen. I thought to myself what am I sticking around for? I had already seen Ruth and Cobb, or Ruth and Robinson, or Ruth and somebody. So what’s the point, I can only go down from here.
So I [next] wrote a [general sports] column for four years. I didn’t know anything about sports. I mean, I knew baseball, I could score a scorecard. But football didn’t interest me much. And I had never covered a tennis match.
But Dick [Sandler, the sports editor] said you’ll learn because you’re a reporter, you can report your way out of trouble. And I did. I wrote some horrible columns for a while, but he stuck with me cause I wrote some really good ones too.
I had an edge. A columnist has to have an edge. Feisty, tough, cantankerous, disputive; so that’s what I was.
I had an edge. A columnist has to have an edge. Feisty, tough, cantankerous, disputive; so that’s what I was. And I was known as the angry columnist in New York. I wrote a column criticizing Dr. J for moving on to Philadelphia and he was mad at me for a long time. I didn’t have any fear of criticizing people.
I learned my feistiness from H.L. Mencken. It took me a couple years to really get a handle on it, and I’m sorry for all the people that had to read me during my learning years. But I studied hard and I’d worked at it and by 1977-78 I was really humming. Columnists are really effective when they write good columns on the news.
I had written a piece that summer on a racehorse named Forego for Sports Illustrated that was about to win an Eclipse Award. It ran in the summer of ’78. I wrote this six or seven thousand word piece for the magazine as a freelancer. One of the editors said this is the best written thing we’ve had in the magazine for a month. So I had written something that they really liked, and then I got really lucky.
There was a newspaper strike in New York in the fall of ’78. The Daily News and the New York Times went out. Those were the two papers SI editors read as a staple. They didn’t read Newsday, I don’t know why, but out of habit they were reading The New York Daily News and The New York Times. So what did they start reading? Newsday!
And they were reading my column and I was hot. I was writing a better column than I had ever written in my life and I was being told that. I was just on a roll. And suddenly I’m writing these columns and bang, I’m being read at Sports Illustrated.
And that fall, after the World Series, I got a phone call from an editor at Sports Illustrated. Well I had been at Newsday 11 years, and I was like ‘really? A magazine? The magazine?’ The greatest sports publication in history wants me to come in. And I said OK, I’ll come and listen to them. Roy Terrell said we’ve asked you to come in here because we’ve already decided we want to hire you, we just wanted to make sure you have two eyes, a nose, and to say hello. I said OK, and they offered me about $4,000 or $5,000 thousand more than I was making at Newsday.
Several years ago, I was a sewer water writer at Newsday. Suddenly, I’ve got a book in me about the greatest horse that ever lived. And now, I was going to work for the biggest magazine in sports. I took the job. And it was the hardest thing I ever did leaving that newspaper.
My editor, Dick Sandler, when I told him teared up. And I did too. I loved Newsday; I loved the newspaper business. I loved the daily crack of the whip. It was a great place to learn how to be a reporter. And so now suddenly I’m working at SI and I worked there for 22 years. And I ended up doing long 6,000 or 7,000 word profiles about people and historical events.
I was really fortunate. I worked for a great newspaper and a great magazine. I look back on my sports experience and I’ve seen some of the greatest sporting events ever.
Two of them stick out beyond measure. Number one was Secretariat’s Belmont that he won by 31 [lengths], and became the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. And the second was when Reggie Jackson in 1977 hit three home runs in the sixth game of the World Series against the L.A. Dodgers at Yankee Stadium. He hit the first pitch offered at each at bat, off of three different pitchers. He won the game, single-handedly.
A third thing that sticks out was when I covered the 1976 Summer Olympics, which was a turning point in my life at Newsday. I was a columnist, and wrote 19 straight days for Newsday at the Montreal Olympics. I went up there as a columnist, with Joe Gergen, who was also a columnist.
For 19 straight days I wrote a column and a sidebar. It’s the only time I can remember that I missed a deadline. I missed a sidebar one day because I’d written a real long column. I felt bad about it. A lot of people say, “I never missed a deadline,” well I can’t say that. And I used to stretch deadlines at SI. Never missed a news deadline, but I when I had the long ones to do, and they wanted a piece on Sunday or Monday, I’d say give me till Thursday. But I tried to make them literature. I didn’t just knock them out. I really worked hard on the writing of them.
They didn’t need it. They said they needed it but they weren’t a newspaper. I stretched deadlines; I didn’t not meet them. I just asked for more time. News stories I never had a problem with. This one sidebar I didn’t make deadline and I felt bad about it, and they stuck something else in there. I wrote a really good column that day about Clint “Suitcase” Jackson, who was a fighter that traveled around the country.
The reason this was an important event for me, those 19 days, was that it forced me to concentrate, and to produce two stories a day, which is really too much. I’m sorry, that’s really asking a lot. I told Dick Sander, this was too much, and I was exhausted. One column a day I can understand, but the sidebar is a killer.
They wanted another 600-word story along with the column. It was hard enough reporting and finding a good column every day. No break, day after day after day, it was hard, but it forced me to do this, and that was good. It really pushed me into becoming a columnist. This was a year after I’d taken that job and it was an important watershed event. I started to improve after that. While I complained about it at the time, I think I’ve benefited from it.
The events that I remember best from the Olympics were Bruce Jenner finishing the decathlon.
But the one that sticks out more than anything was a story that I did on my own, with no guidance from the office. I wanted to go see Vasily Alekseyev, the strongest man in the world, the Soviet Union heavyweight weight lifter.
I was the only English speaking guy. To be able to describe what he did and write it, it was one of my favorite stories ever.
I had him breathing, back up against the wall, place was silent, he’s got the world record weight in front of him, and I described all this stuff. The spotlight was on him on the stage, and oooohhhh aaahhhhh, with his face getting bigger and bigger, and it was really exciting; I never thought lifting a weight could be that exciting.
It was truly exciting to see a human being lift more weight than had ever been lifted and recorded in history. I remember it as vividly today as if it were yesterday. It’s not an event that might excite people talking about it, but to me, looking back on it, it was truly like Reggie’s third home run or Secretariat’s last 500 yards in the Belmont. And Vasily Alekseyev, his face getting bigger and bigger as he pushed the weight up, gives me goose bumps to think about it now, as does Reggie’s home run and Secretariat’s Belmont.
Another one was in the 1978 playoff between Boston and New York; they finished even, Bucky Dent, the shortstop who came over from the White Sox to the Yankees. He was a good shortstop and a decent hitter, and he hit a late home run, and it was the quietest home run ever hit, because it was at Fenway. But it put the Yankees up and they eventually won the game and won the Series over LA.
At the end of that game at Fenway, I left the press box, into the box seat section behind the netting. I had credentials I could walk wherever I wanted. I walked down, and watched Carl Yastrzemski, who was 40 feet away from me; he was Boston’s last hope to beat the Yankees. They had a man or two on base, all he had to do was hit a home run.
And Carl was a home run hitter; he won the Triple Crown one year. Goose Gossage was on the mound. Goose was a fire-baller, and it was a fastball that had movement. He got two strikes on Carl; the place was on the edge of their seats. Goose threw a fastball, which everybody knew he was going to do and Carl knew. He swung mightily, and he just got under it, and the ball must’ve gone up about 1,000 feet into the Fenway night. And the place was absolutely silent.
As the ball rose, I don’t know why I did, but I looked at the ball, and I turned and looked behind me at the people in the stands, there were thousands of people; it looked like a watercolor done by a great impressionist painter, Renoir, Matisse. Every face was perfectly still. There was not a movement; it was like a watercolor painting that still hangs in my mind, one in the gallery of moments in my mind.
That ball going up into the Boston sky, with all of those faces with their mouths open looking at the ball as it was caught.
Season over. Not a sound. People left.
I went down into the locker room. I was sitting in front of Carl Yastrzemski’s locker as he sat there holding a beer. He had taken the top of his uniform off; his pants were still on but had taken off his cleats. He was sitting there, hair all messed up, talking about it. Explaining the last pitch very patiently to reporters. I was kneeling in front of him.
“The problem with Gossage,” he said. “I knew he was throwing a fastball, but it does one of three things. It either rises, ducks in or drops. You don’t know what it’s going to do, and he doesn’t know what it’s going to do. I just figured it was going to dip, and it rose, and that’s why I got under it.”
And he had tears in his eyes, and that was the first time I’d ever seen a baseball player cry, not weeping mind you, but there were tears. He and I drank beer one night in Boston near the end of the season of his last year. He had this entire career behind him, and he got choked up again because he’d never won the World Series. He’d won an MVP, the Triple Crown; he’d have given all that back for one ring. He missed two rings in Boston much later. He might as well have been a Cub.
The reason writers loved Reggie Jackson was because he was one of the best quotesters of all time. He would tell you that he had a very high IQ, he said he was a Mensa candidate, I don’t know if its true or not but he was a very smart guy, it probably was true. I didn’t cover this game but I heard about.
Reggie came in from the outfield after the Mets lost the World Series (to Oakland) in 1973, but the great Tom Seaver had pitched a one or two hitter, which he did all the time for the Mets and lost anyway since they couldn’t hit.
I think Reggie struck out three or four times. At the end of the game, which Seaver lost, Reggie was at his locker and all the reporters gathered around him since he was always the best quote giver. First question, “Reggie, what did you think of Tom Seaver?” Pause. Reggie said, “Tom Seaver is so good that blind people come to the ballpark to hear him pitch.”
Guys were sitting there with their pencils pulsing over the notebooks, and that led all the stories the next day, it was too good to pass up.
Many years later, I asked Reggie about that quote, he said he remembered that. I asked if he made it up in the outfield knowing the reporters were going to ask you. He said no, it just seemed like the right thing to say. So I checked that quote years later, and not only did he remember it, but he said he thought it up on the spur of the moment.
That’s what makes sports so great. You get emotional, players get emotional, and they say things that transcend them.
That’s what makes sports so great. You get emotional, players get emotional, and they say things that transcend them. They say things that are not only vivid but also brilliant. Sports bring out the emotion of the game.
I was so slow in writing that I was the last person to leave the press box. I covered a game in Detroit one time, with a column and sidebar. I finished the column at 7 p.m. and I started the sidebar. I was the only one left in the press box, not only that but it was closed and the lights had been turned off.
The press box attendant was nasty, he kept asking if I was finished, and I wasn’t done. He said my job is to leave here at 11 p.m. and if you’re not done I’m going to leave. I said so leave, but I’m not leaving until I’m done. He got angry and left, turned off the lights and I had to go downstairs in Tiger Stadium to a mustard stand in the stadium with a light, and I finished my column at a mustard stand because the press box attendant got angry. I then took it over to a phone booth in the stadium and called the office and dictated my story.
After that I was very relieved. But now I couldn’t get out of the stadium. I was walking around Tiger Stadium looking for an exit with my notebooks and portable typewriter.
The field was dark; I could hear the cats crying in the eaves. Tiger Stadium is filled with cats, I didn’t know that, they were crying all over the stadium and lived up there, eating pigeons and mice and the like. There was this whole menagerie of animals in Tiger Stadium, and I was kind of nervous, and wrote a column about it, which George Solomon wrote to me and said what a great column!
That column was posted in the press box at Tiger Stadium for a long time, and the press box attendant was actually quite proud of it!
At the end of the Mike Tyson rape trial in Indianapolis, the question was, are they going to hold the magazine open and wait for the verdict, or close it and run the result of the trial story the next week. This would require a totally different story because you’re coming at it a week late. They wanted to keep the magazine open.
I was in the press area at the trial, and I got a telephone call from Steve Robinson, the boxing editor, and he told me it is now 10:30 on Monday night, do you know what that means? Yes, that means you close the magazine tonight. You push the button, and that sends all the copy to the printer, the presses start rolling, the magazine comes out on Tuesday and you receive it in the mail on Thursday. I tell you what, in an hour and a half, at midnight, if there’s no verdict, we’re closing the magazine and you will run a story the following week. If the jury is coming in between now and midnight, call me immediately, and we’ll hold the magazine.
At 11:35, the jury came in. I called up the office, and was told to call again the minute I was back at the press box. The verdict comes in, and the counts against Tyson are read. I got the notes, and was told I had an hour and half to write 800 Sports Illustrated words and get the story in.
I thought of William Yeats’ Second Coming, “It’s hour had come ’round at last,” which isn’t a steal, but I got the idea from William. “And judge was sitting at the bench, riffling through the papers telling her whether Tyson was guilty or not…”
One of the things that’s hardest on deadline, because your mind is flooded with clichés, because they’re the easiest, is to find an alternative. That’s when I thought of Yeats, it was a more poetic way to say it. I just started writing once I got the lede, and finished in about an hour and fifteen minutes, hit the button, it went to New York. Steve Robinson called me to tell me he’d gotten it, and that was it. I had written a good part of the body earlier, but I had written the top under really intense pressure. The ability to do that comes from confidence, when you’re confident in yourself that you can do it.
Most of the guys that are really fast are real arrogant; they think a lot of themselves. I’m sorry, that’s the way it is, they have complete confidence in their ability. Mike Lupica, Dan Jenkins, Roger Ebert, all those fast guys, they all are completely confident in their ability and had no doubt how good they were.
I think it’s the guys who sometimes worry about it and get an existential view of things, they start thinking of things totally off the wall. But as time went on, I began to think that way; I can do it fast, if I was under pressure.
Red Smith, one of the great quotes of all time. Red was a sweater; he was a slow guy. But his stuff read like he’d written it in 20 minutes. It was so smooth and glitch-free and poetic, and it looked like, “boy this is easy.”
Well Red was once asked how long does it take to write a column: “As long as they’ll give me.” If he needs it written in an hour, it’d be an hour. If he had seven hours, he would take seven hours to write it!
I worked for an afternoon paper, I had longer time to write than the morning guys to get stuff in, they had to get stuff in by 6; I had until 2 in the morning. I sometimes wish I had worked for a morning paper; I would’ve been a lot faster.
You’re as fast as you need to be. With the magazine, I had more time, so I took the time they gave me, and sometimes on the real long ones I took even more time than they gave me. I was a bleeder, like Red, who said his pieces came out “one at a time.”
I said to Steve Robinson, I just have one request: keep ‘round in the lede, it keeps the meter right. If it becomes around, it throws off the meter. It is a play on the Yeats poem.
The next morning Robinson called me and said he appreciated how well I’d performed on the short notice for the Tyson piece. He the told me the editors changed ’round to around.
I screamed. I threw the phone down. He said he tried to keep it, but it was no use, they said around is more common, and ’round sounds pretentious.
“Round is a perfectly good word, ask Yeats; is he editing Yeats?!” I screamed. So the story went with around, and that anecdote was actually told by me in a book about Sports Illustrated.
I don’t have the experience of writing for online. I’m online all the time, but I’m not a digital guy; I’ve never tweeted. Dan Jenkins is a big tweeter now; I just don’t understand it. I wouldn’t even understand how to do a tweet or get a tweet. Roger Ebert was a big tweeter, he had a blog and he was groundbreaking.
I just don’t understand why would anyone would follow anybody else that tweeted. Why would you do that, what’s the attraction? Why don’t you read “War and Peace” instead, is it too long? I guess I’m a dinosaur!
I just don’t understand why would anyone would follow anybody else that tweeted. Why would you do that, what’s the attraction? Why don’t you read “War and Peace” instead, is it too long? I guess I’m a dinosaur!
When I first came to SI in 1979, I played chess, and I did because Bobby Fischer won the World Championship in 1972 when he beat Boris Spassky. I loved the romance of the names of the defenses.
When people started on television, Shelby Lyman was the guy who did the television analysis, during the big summer of ’72 when Bobby was beating Boris, and they showed the current position of both guys, and analyzed strategy. I started hearing the names of all the defenses. There were the Sicilian Defense, the Queen’s Gambit Declined, the Caro-Kann Defense, the Poisoned Pawn Variation of the Sicilian Defense, the Dragon Variation of the Sicilian Defense, the Ruy Lopez, and I’m thinking how great all these names were.
The world of chess opened up magically for me, I would play by myself with the computer, and I really loved it. I loved the way the bishop and knight moved. I started reading into Bobby’s games and why he was so good, I really developed an amateur’s appreciation for it.
You don’t have to be Bobby Fischer to appreciate chess; it’s like someone learning the opera, or learning to enjoy a concert pianist, or how to eat an artichoke. You know you have to learn how to do it to appreciate it. Learning chess moves and defenses was fascinating, and I loved chess players. I started hanging around guys that played, and they were very smart, like horse racing handicappers.
So I brought to SI this love of chess, and I had a friend who taught English at Adelphi College in Long Island, and we would sit around and play chess and sip brandy; they were great afternoons.
One day in 1979, Gil Rogan had just become the managing editor. It could have been the spring of 1980, and the guy who had written chess for SI had left, but he was good. SI used to cover chess in those days; it was one of their conceits.
In those days SI covered hunting, bridge, stuff they wouldn’t even go near now. It was powerful enough as a magazine that you took what they offered, and there were no alternatives, so they would cover things that you otherwise would not have done. Today they wouldn’t go near chess.
Gil asked me if there was anything I would like to do now that he was the editor, and I said that I wanted to find Bobby Fischer. I love chess, the other chess writer left, and the chess championship was coming up in the fall of 1980 in Murano, Italy, so I could go cover that.
Looking for Bobby Fischer sounds like a good idea, he said, no one knows what happened to him; see if you can find him.
It took me 23 months to find him, and by the time I did, Gil was no longer the managing editor, Mark Mulvoy had taken his place and inherited the story. I was only working on it during the off weeks in between stories for the magazine.
In those days, SI gave you time between assignments. If I did a long piece for the end of the magazine, they wouldn’t bother me for two or three weeks. I could do anything I wanted. Great place to work. If I wanted to go see a horse race in California or somewhere else in the country, just go and expense it; I don’t have to tell the editor.
I once wanted to go see the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in the fall, and Mark asked if it was for anything, I said no, and he said OK sure go. It was a very generous place, not only with its money, but with its time, and they really let you have time off after a story. Some of them were exhausting and I needed the time off.
I haven’t been there in 13 years, but I hear they don’t give you any time off now. If I had worked six weeks without a day off and exhausted, I want a week or two off. I left just in time, the world has changed, and they don’t give you extra money for it, its just expected of you. You’re like a newspaper guy instead of a magazine guy. I was spoiled though, coming in at a different time in a different world. I love that place though. I liked the people, the editors, everybody. I took a buyout in 2000, and it was sad.
I said to Gil Rogan I’m going to look for Bobby Fischer, but it won’t be on SI time. Let me use my off time to fly to California and look for him. Between assignments I would occasionally look for him in Los Angeles. I would talk to old chess players, friends of his, and I developed a network of people while looking for him. I found out he hung out around the LA public library.
In 1984, the last year Gil Rogan was the managing editor, I moved to California, I fell in love with a girl I had went to grade school with, and had taken my belongings and moved in with her for a little while. At first I would stay with her when I was looking for Fischer, but eventually I decided to move there with her.
While I was out there, I intensified my search for Bobby. The more people I met, the more bizarre his story became. I heard more stories of Bobby hanging around the library, and it was easier for me to hang out there too now.
In the summer of 1985, Mulvoy said he wanted a story on Fischer soon. I spent more time looking for him and people would tell me that Bobby was there the day before I was, never the same the day I would be there.
I developed an axiom out of this situation: If you look for a paranoid person, then you too will become paranoid. I began to think that he was being tipped off to my arrival at the library every time. I went to a Goodwill store, and bought a tie with urine stain, shoes with no laces, a tattered sport coat, bought a can of spray paint for my hair and glass spectacles. I looked like an aging bum, which was what I wanted because bums hung out by the library.
Before I went to the library, I went to see a psychic named Madam Lola, who looked at pictures and evidence of the person you’re looking for and went into a trance and told me the man was somewhere hot, which did me no good; it was summer in LA! I left her and went into the library, and the bell rang to signal the building’s closing, and as I went out into the rotunda to leave, there he was, standing there.
After 23 months, Bobby Fischer was standing in front of me. I finally found him! I ducked behind a card catalogue so he didn’t see me, and just thought, “Holy shit what do I do now?” I didn’t expect to find him, honestly. I thought about putting on a Hungarian accent and pretend to be a crazed fan, but I rejected that idea because I was a journalist and that wasn’t ethical. I knew from talking to a dozen people, that had he found out I was a writer for SI, which he instantly would have know that I worked for Time, Inc., (he had sued Time for libel years ago), and he would walk away.
So I’m thinking, what should I do, should I just follow him to his house and knock on his door? I would ruin his year if I did that. Here he is, a private person, who cherishes his privacy, who gave up the world chess championship to be a private person, not to be belabored by people like me. Had he still been the champion, I would have gone right up and asked why he wasn’t playing, but he wasn’t anymore; he had been stripped of his title. He was retired, in seclusion, living underground, going through all of these machinations to assure that nobody like me would bother him. And here I have found him.
I followed him as he left the building, and followed him through six or seven blocks; I knew it was him, there was no doubt in my mind it was him. I waited while he made a couple of calls in a phone booth; he looked over and saw me at one point. I got right up to him; I could’ve reached out and touched him, and realized my assignment was to find him, and I found him.
He looked good! He had a suit on, nice tie, kind of looked like a lawyer. So I couldn’t fake it, couldn’t bring myself to pretend to be somewhere else, and knew that was my ending, and it felt right to me, like it was the only thing I could do.
So I let him go, and I couldn’t have written a better ending. There was broken glass all over the bus stop where he was standing.
Here was the greatest chess player that ever lived, had completely dropped out, fillings removed from his teeth because he thought he had radio signals being beamed into his mouth and brain from Moscow that would alter his thinking, completely paranoid. Huge anti-Semite, standing under a clock that doesn’t work, time is standing still. He got on the bus headed to Pasadena.
I got home, wrote the story over the next day, and the editor called and said he loved the story.
It would be impossible not to cheer in the press box. There are some instances where the feat is so grand, the spectacle so memorable, that it is impossible not to root for an outcome.
Frankly, I have to confess that in 1973, when Secretariat started pulling away from the field in the Belmont around the far turn, I cheered in the press box. It would be impossible not to cheer in the press box. There are some instances where the feat is so grand, the spectacle so memorable, that it is impossible not to root for an outcome.
Granted, I was going to write a book about this horse, I had something going more than just a newspaper story the next day. I had invested days and days of time into this horse, and so I was rooting.
"Secretariat" is a 2010 film based largely on Bill Nack's book, "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion."
I say to the ghost of Jerome Holtzman, I’m sorry. There is still rooting in the press box occasionally.
As a matter of fact, Dave Kindred, a former columnist for the Washington Post, was standing next to Joe Falls, a columnist out of Detroit, and as Secretariat was racing down the stretch, because people had been talking how great a horse Citation was, Red Smith always said you’ll never see another Citation. He was like a god to some people.
As Secretariat was pulling away and the clock was going crazy, and he’d already broken the Derby record, and the Preakness record was about to break the Belmont record, it was obvious, Joe Falls said, “Citation my ass!” What a great line in the press box! That wasn’t exactly cheering, but it was a form of acknowledging a feat of strength, which is what cheering is really.
I’ve seen guys cheer in the press box; it’s kind of ridiculous. I pulled for teams, but if I did, I did it quietly. I was not a big Yankee fan when I was covering them, I’ve ended up liking them, although [manager] Billy Martin was not a particularly attractive human being, and Reggie Jackson was remote and suffering terribly but so full of himself that he turned off a lot of people. But there were a lot of funny guys on the team. Catfish Hunter and Lou Piniella were really funny; they were like a duet, funny in a cutting way. Craig Nettles, the third baseman who caught Yastrzemski’s pop-up, had a very dry sense of humor. One year Sparky Lyle was the Cy Young award winner in 1977, and the next year he was traded. And Nettles said, “Cy Young one year, and sayonara the next.”