It seems to be a modern publishing axiom that every sports star is worth one autobiography. The formula is a familiar one: the star or his agent get together with a friendly ghost and a willing publisher, a price is agreed to and a manuscript emerges forthwith. The publisher brings out the book, gives it a moderate advertising push and sets up a few interviews for the jock with local talk shows and book critics. Newspapers and magazines review the book charitably, if at all, and the publisher can hope for a sale of between 10,000 and 20,000 copies. For the star it is good publicity; for the writer a sizable advance and a few royalties; for the publisher a modest profit.
Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs is one of the oldest superstars to have his life story published. "Mr. Cub" (Follett, $6.95) has been out for a couple of months now, and on the surface it conforms to all the standard clichés. It has received the obligatory good reviews ("Banks'...love story of life."—Dick Young, New York Daily News) and made the bestseller list of The New York Times. But "Mr. Cub" is no ordinary sports autobiography. No less than three publishers have been involved in the project over the last two years. Two different agents were busy lining up deals and ghostwriters. And, finally, at least three writers have been engaged in getting the ebullient first baseman down on paper. In short, the project is more interesting than the product.
The genesis of this sticky literary web occurred in the spring of 1969 when Chicago Sun-Times Sportswriter Jerry Holtzman approached Banks and got what he thought was approval to do Banks' life story. Holtzman took the idea to Henry Regnery Co., a Chicago publishing house, which gave him a cash advance and a contract for $12,000 on delivery of a book. Holtzman and Banks would split the money.
All might have gone smoothly from there, but sometime in May Holtzman had a clubhouse shouting match with Leo Durocher, and Banks—sensitive about relations with his manager—now seemed to shy away from the deal. Nevertheless, a meeting was set up with Regnery's editors to sign the contract. Banks did not show, so another signing session was arranged. Banks attended, but balked at signing until he had consulted other writers. One of these was Chicago Today's rotund, cigar-chomping Jim Enright, a scribe of the passionate old school who has covered the Cubs since 1952 and regards himself as Banks' surrogate father.
July 18, 1971
While Banks was temporizing, his agent, Jack Childers, began looking around quietly for someone else to write the book. He eventually settled on Brent Musburger, then sports director at WBBM radio in Chicago. Meanwhile, Holtzman—who had already started his interviews with Banks—was now aware that Enright was involved and felt things should be cleared up. A meeting was arranged for himself, Banks and Enright in an Atlanta hotel following a night game in June. There Holtzman asked Banks to set Enright straight. But Banks would not commit himself, so Holtzman told Enright flatly that he and Banks were going to write the book. Enright reacted predictably. Banks would be foolish, he said, to work with the first writer who approached him. The meeting broke up. Enright immediately got on the phone to Frank Scott, an agent in New York, and told him to find a publisher for a book that he, Enright, was going to do with Banks. And Childers told Holtzman the deal was off. Exit Holtzman.
Returning to Chicago, Enright learned that Childers had negotiated a new contract with Musburger. Enright demanded to know what right Childers, Banks' agent, had meddling in Banks' affairs. At this point Musburger bowed out and apologized for the confusion. He needn't have bothered.
Banks next suggested a hiatus until after the 1969 season. Enright went to Cub Owner P.K. Wrigley, presumably to enlist his aid in persuading Banks to proceed, but Wrigley cannot remember the call. About this time Childers pulled out of the project, and Enright finally had the deal. Enright's pal, Frank Scott, became the agent.
The new publisher was to be Viking Press in New York, which paid Enright a four-figure advance against an 80,000-word acceptable manuscript. (Enright had by that time joined Holtzman in the Durocher doghouse by writing that Durocher had gone AWOL during the pennant drive.) Viking received Enright's first manuscript in January 1970 and rejected it. A rewrite followed, and Viking rejected it too. One problem, Viking said, was that Enright had written only 40,000 words. (Enright denies the drafts were rejected, charging the company with "incredible foot dragging." But he kept the advance.)
The following January, Scott approached Rutledge Books in New York with Enright's manuscript, asking them in effect to fix it and get it published. John Sammis, the associate publisher at Rutledge, declined the manuscript, but finally accepted the next rewrite—Enright's third version—with reservations. The book eventually reached the stands as "Mr. Cub" under the Follett imprint. It had a first printing of 15,000, a second of 5,000 and is now into its third.
Leo Durocher, as usual, got the last word. He claimed that George Vass of the Chicago Daily News had rewritten the book for Enright. Vass denied everything.