Remembering the unmatched straight talk of The Sports Writers on TV
Every now and then, when I am sad or troubled by the warming of the Earth or the rise of the seas or the ruin awaiting us all, I YouTube an episode of The Sports Writers on TV, which aired from Chicago for 15 years, until 2000. After a few hours of watching vintage newspaper hacks, shaded by fedoras and wreathed in Cohiba smoke, argue the issues of the day, my anxiety fades and I become downright giddy.
It's not just the nasal accents of old-time Chi—tree instead of three, as in, Dank you, Mr. Pat Riley, for your word tree-peat, which da Bulls will be using; nor the often inane but occasionally brilliant conversation; nor the impact of the show, which stands as the forerunner to all the talking-head programs that bottleneck ESPN (I'm looking at you Wilbon, Kornheiser, Lupica); nor how TSWOTV provided an inspiration for Saturday Night Live's Superfans, a skit that, all these years later, still has George Wendt getting massaged by Mike Ditka. It's more the knock-around spirit of the sportswriters, their insistent crankiness, reminiscent of the boisterous corner-table guys who crowded the diners and delis of my youth. They smoke, feud, banter and console because it's really not such a bad way to pass the time.
Like many devotees, I found the show by accident. I was 19 or 20, home from a night of Schlitz at the North Side taverns, searching the tube for something, anything, when I came across a set so stark—-newspaper-strewn poker table, four men in a black maw—that I wondered if I had tuned in to a show from East Germany or a Compass Players production of Brecht.
Then I began to recognize the table sitters, legends all:
• Bill Jauss, who covered sports for 50 years, mostly with the Chicago Tribune. The son of a meatpacker, he was a big, unpretentious dumpling with a smile that lit up his face.
• Bill Gleason, a cantankerous reporter for Southtown Economist — at 19, he was named sports editor — and the South Bend Tribune, the old-timer you see buttonholing the coach after the game, saying, Yeah, yeah, I know you said dat, but what really happened? Born and raised on the South Side, Gleason had a pungent accent and waved a cigar when he spoke, dotting exclamation points with the fiery butt. He was awarded the Silver Star for his service in Europe during World War II. "I'm always amused when some 22-year-old starts telling me about da pressure at da free trow line," he said. "Da free trow line is not pressure. Pressure is knowing you may get your freaking head blown off."
• Rick Telander, the youngster for the old men to educate, who made his name writing for this magazine. Telander had the confident air of a jock; he had in fact been a cornerback at Northwestern, where Gleason had covered him. It was Gleason who encouraged the kid to cross over to the dark side. To many of us Telander, now 65, will always be the fit upstart among the machers. "At the end of the day the show was about father and sons," Wendt told me. "Telander was my generation. Those other guys were the classic cigar-chomping figures we all had had as crazy uncles."
• Ben Bentley, who was ostensibly the moderator but was more like the referee who can't help but kick the ball. He had the sort of hawkish profile familiar to anyone who spent time with the ancients at old Comiskey Park. A product of the old Jewish neighborhood — known to locals as "the great vest side" — he climbed out via the ring, a middleweight who became a p.r. man and a fight announcer. In 1953 he spent his honeymoon at Rocky Marciano's training camp. Bentley was as wise as Methuselah, having soaked up wisdom from dank gymnasiums.
The Sports Writers on TV was organized by topic, but the panelists followed the logic of the conversation, wandering from, say, the art of photography (Jauss: "When [Ken] Burns does this series on baseball, I know he's got a picture of Eddie Gaedel, Bill Veeck's midget, batting up there with the catcher — was it Swift? — down on his knees. Now that's a still photo that tells the story. Doesn't need any caption") to high school spirit (Gleason: "I'm wearing the cap of the Carmel Crusaders of Mundelein, Illinois") to challenges faced by female tennis players (Jauss: "[Steffi] Graf made twice as many errors as she ordinarily does, and I think some of that is attributable to the menstrual cramps") to a problem Telander was having with raccoons. (Jauss: "A squirrel from Chicago can beat up a raccoon from the suburbs.") This was sports talk as if designed by Studs Terkel.
Gleason: Tell da folks what nudnik means.
Bentley: Nudnik means a guy that bothers you all the time, and he annoys you. For an Irishman, I don't know where you got the word.
Telander: Similar to a shmuck?
Bentley: Oh, my goodness, no. Eliminate that word.
Gleason: A nudnik is not even as bad as a shlemiel. But a nudnik, now you just defined a yuppie.
For me, the defining moment came one evening in the late '80s. A topic for a normal show might have been the White Sox' prospects, or maybe the merits of some recent trade. But TSWOTV talked about something of far deeper consequence: the urinals at Wrigley Field, which, like the rest of the park, are exceedingly quaint, a quality few prize in their bathrooms. The term trough system was used as was the word trauma. Someone made the point that, for a kid at his first major league ball game, the experience — standing at dat long trough with grown men blasting away on either side — might be scarring. When I asked Telander about this recently, he laughed and said, "Those goddam troughs! Sometimes, you'd just say screw it, and pee in the sink."
A few weeks ago, with TSWOTV running on a loop on my computer, I called John Roach, who created the show, to ask, in essence, how the hell it happened. Roach, 61, talks with the nasal excitability of a kid from one of the small towns north of the city, though he was raised and lives in Madison, Wis. (There are as many variations of the upper-Midwestern accent as there are Eskimo words for snow. Vowels broaden as you go north, morphing toward a comical dialect that finds full expression in Minnesota.) "I was working on the show AM Chicago, which became Oprah," he told me. "I'd get up and meet Joseph Heller and Sylvester Stallone; we were a big stop on the p.r. tour back in the day. I even did a segment where Tim Weigel wrestled Victor the Wresting Bear."
Roach was commuting to Chicago, a 2 1/2-hour drive, and, it was in the car that he stumbled upon the lineup of Bentley, Gleason and Jauss, who b.s.'ed each afternoon on WGN radio. In their meandering talk Roach heard echoes of his childhood, the just-out-of-earshot babble of his father sitting around the poker table in the basement with his friends. If you're a kid, up past bedtime, hearing just the scraps, the high-frequency blue talk and profanity ... well, you'll chase after that for the rest of your life. "My dad's poker buddies were Big Ten officials," Roach explained. "I'd sit on the stairs and listen to them talk about what really happened in the games, as opposed to what I heard on the clips."
One of them had worked the storied 1966 Notre Dame-Michigan State football game, which ended in a 10-10 tie. Unlike the talking heads, the ref didn't dwell on who scored how and when, but on what was said in the huddles or what he saw in the faces of the coaches. Flash forward. Roach is making these commutes, listening to Jauss and Gleason go at it day after day, when suddenly, just like that, he realizes what's wrong with modern sports coverage. "You could tell very readily that the TV guys never hung around the story," he explained. "They'd go, do their stand-up, 30 seconds, done. And, when I heard The Sports Writers on the radio ... it was so meaty and opinionated and unscripted that it immediately appealed to me." In fact, it reminded him of his dad and his buddies in the basement, playing maybe one hand for every 10,000 words spoken.
Roach produced a piece on the sportswriters for WLS television, shot them like Scorsese, over the shoulder, through the smoke, a handful of guys crowding around to stave off the demons in the night. He pitched Bentley, Gleason and Jauss to take the thing pro, a weekly show that premiered on a UHF station, WFLD, where most viewers found it by accident. A little more than a year later SportsChannel Chicago picked up the show, and other cable outlets followed. "We went from 40,000 households when we started," said Roach, "to eventually reaching 95 million all across the country." The mid-1980s also happened to be a glorious time for Chicago sports: Ditka was still stalking the Bears' sideline, and Michael Jordan was about to begin his championship run.
"Someone finally figured out you don't have to be a TV guy to dispense good information and opinions," says Telander, who has been a sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1995. "So, these guys had been out covering the Blackhawks, Northwestern, Notre Dame, the NFL. . . . They'd come back and tell everyone about it. Bill Gleason was way ahead of his time. He proved you don't have to have powdered hair, or be a pretty boy or go to school to succeed on TV."
When I spoke to Roach and Telander by phone, they often told the same stories, corroborating each other until, in my mind, they seemed to yammer back in forth, like an old episode of TSWOTV.
Roach: It was so real.
Telander: Sometimes too real.
Roach: Jauss had fallen, and he did a show where you could see this scar on his head, this bloody wound ...
Telander: ... with the stitching coming out. Roach tells him next time ...
Roach: ... to wear a frickin' hat.
Telander had been added as a stand-in for the Baby Boomers, to create jousting among generations. "Rick was forever bitching about the cigar smoke, and they'd laugh at him," Roach says. " 'Shut up, Rick, you're the junior member here.' Rick was doing cover stories for Sports Illustrated, but Gleason and Jauss couldn't have cared less. They thought the magazine guys were pansies."
Telander: One time they started a fire with all those cigars. Lucky we didn't burn down.
Roach: Gleason and Benny would open the show by lighting up. It was like, And we are off! Interestingly, the show ran just about the length of the cigar.
Telander: I was a senior, being interviewed by Gleason [after a game], talking crazy s---, my philosophy of life, football's place in it. Gleason ate it up because he was the same kind of guy. He had a cigar in his mouth, sitting in the coach's room. He pauses, looks at me and says, "Telander, you should be a writer. You talk like a writer." It was the first time anybody had done that. I just lit up. It was all I needed.
Through the years Roach was careful to maintain his original point of view: the kid eavesdropping on the old men who'd be yakking even if there was no one there to watch. The show opened with the writers in mid-conversation, and it ended that way too, fading as they rambled on. It gave you solace knowing that the men were still at their table, talking, the way the sound of a train can comfort you in the night, letting you know you're not alone. "It's like I put on a talk show and a real conversation broke out — imagine that," Roach told me. "I tried to under-produce. I would never have the guys turn toward the camera, because we would have lost the spell. The table was critical. It was a poker table. It had tons of s--- on it, all their notes and everything. A hot mess.
"But when you look at all these other shows, it's either a guy at an anchor desk or people in a formal circle. No table to bring them together. I'd argue that there is a real rhythm to human conversation that The Sports Writers captured, and the table was central. There is an old saying: There's an Indian fire and a white man's fire. The Indian's fire is a small fire, and it draws people together. The white man builds a big fire, and it pushes people apart. I always felt that that table was an Indian fire, a Native American fire. It drew the guys together — much to Rick's chagrin because he always bitched about the smoke."
The show went off the air after more than 600 hourlong episodes; some of the guys got sick, and some went from colorfully old to irredeemably old. Like the Bull Moose Party, TSWOTV had fulfilled its function. You see it reflected, as if through a glass darkly, every time Wendt or actor Joe Mantegna puts on a Ditka sweater vest. You see it on all the cheap-to-produce but fun-as-hell-to-watch programs that have spread like weeds. "Oh, god, I see versions everywhere," says Telander. "NFL Network, Comcast Sports, every ESPN station. Those guys — Gleason, Jauss, Bentley, Roach — were incredible. I just came along for the ride."
Each of the old-timers is dead: Bentley from a stroke in 2001, at 81; Gleason from a heart attack in 2010, at 87; and Jauss from pneumonia in 2012, at 81, taking with him innumerable memories of West Side stoops and minor league dugouts, cold gymnasiums and autumn nights when the sky was shot through with chem-trails and the Big Hurt came barreling into third. Telander marveled at the fact that he is now in a position once occupied by Bentley: a guy who's been everywhere and seen everything, Methuselah. It was a sentiment that put me in the sort of funk that could only be cured by a marathon session of The Sports Writers on TV. On today's shows, the graphics have gotten brighter, the cuts quicker and the statistics sharper, but the conversation is never as real.