It began as one of those typical summer Sundays in New York: the Mets at home, the Yanks on the road, the sheep in the meadow—and the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED staff on the 20th floor of the Time-Life Building, getting out the magazine. And then this little series of untypical things began to happen.
Sitting at his typewriter in Room 2072—an office that looks as if it had been picked up and dropped several times from a great height—Associate Editor Mark Kram was three pages into the baseball lead story and just picking up speed. Kram works in a sort of journalistic balloon, imperturbable, oblivious to all around him, teeth clamped bulldog fashion around a pipe that must weigh about five pounds. Despite his own smoke screen, Kram somehow sensed that something was wrong. He tugged the pipe out of his mouth and looked at it in wonder. Then he began to sniff. The air was pure mauve. Kram got up, put his smelly pipe back into his mouth, jammed his story into his jacket pocket and walked out.
It was 1:35 p.m.—lunch time. In a restaurant atop the building, a group of editors and writers was just settling down to the main course. Forks were poised, food was lifted to lips when the headwaiter came by. "I don't want to alarm you, gentlemen," he said, apologetically. He paused and sighed. "But...there is a fire in the building. I am sorry."
"Well," said one of the editors, putting down his fork. "In that case we had..."
August 4, 1968
"...better leave the building," the headwaiter said.
"...have one more round of drinks," the editor said.
But no. The restaurant staff gently shooed out all the customers, most of them without checks—which should give you some idea of how serious the restaurant thought the fire was.
Meanwhile, back on the 20th floor, firemen began popping in and out of offices dragging researchers from their phones, artists from their drawing boards, copy typists from their electric typewriters. Production Man William Gallagher Jr. was outside the building before he realized he had forgotten his Chicago packet—a precious bundle of pictures and layouts that was ready to be flown to our printing plant in Chicago. He talked a fireman into getting back on the elevator with him and they both breathed smoke for 20 floors up and 20 back down—this time with the packet.
As the fire and the afternoon wore on, about 50 members of the staff gathered in a Chinese restaurant next door. The Chinese place is called Ho-Ho—and that should give you some idea of how the day went from that point. Executive Editor Richard W. Johnston, pinch-hitting for Managing Editor Andre Laguerre, who is on vacation, shuttled back and forth from the burning building to the rocking Ho-Ho, picking up information at the one place and tabs at the other. Shortly before 5 he came back to announce, "The building is filled with smoke, but the fire was confined to the 11th and 12th floors. Good news is that nobody was killed or hurt. Bad news is that we can all get back to work."
It is a cliché but also a truth in journalism: deadlines are met. This issue was put out by the reddest-eyed staff in SI history, each page punctuated by more coughing than you would believe possible. But Kram got back to his typewriter, as you will discover on page 12. Gallagher got the packet off. The researchers went on researching.
One thing didn't make the issue: the Ho-Ho menu. While taking their untypical Sunday fire break, the editors kept their hand in. They edited the menu, changing "Our Chef's Specialities" to a less pretentious "Today's Food." They lowered all the prices, added some pretend Chinese dishes and then put a title and a byline on the whole thing. "Paper Fire," it said, "by George Plimpton."