Telling like (they thought) it was

The headline refers, of course, to ABC-TV’s Howard Cosell, who claimed to “tell it like it is” when that was not always the case.

Two things in the last week brought this subject to mind. First, a death, reported by the Dallas Morning News:

Gary Cartwright, a colorful Texas journalist who began his career on the talent-laden sports staff of the Fort Worth Press in the 1950s, died Wednesday morning after suffering a recent fall at his Austin home. He was 82.

Cartwright went on to become an award-winning sportswriter for the Dallas Times Herald and The Dallas Morning News. He left TheNews in 1967 to advance a career that included writing the 1968 novel The Hundred Yard War, inspired by his coverage of the Dallas Cowboys.

But his most prominent years as a journalist came during his time with Texas Monthly. He worked for the Austin-based magazine from 1973, when he profiled controversial Cowboys running back Duane Thomas for its debut issue, to 2010, when he retired. …

“He was certainly one of a kind,” acclaimed Texas author Dan Jenkins, 88, said of Cartwright, with whom he worked at the Press and the Times Herald. “He was a wild card, but he was awfully talented. We had a million laughs.”

Cartwright, Jenkins and mutual friend Edwin “Bud” Shrake collaborated on what may have been the most audacious, literary-minded sports staff ever assembled. All three worked at the Press and Times Herald, where their boss was an equally vivid character, the late Blackie Sherrod, who later became a columnist for TheNews.

Cartwright was well-read, Jenkins said, “and he was a fan of the trade, as we all were. It just came natural to him. We were all kind of natural, for some strange reason. It was just one of those things. We all fell together. Blackie had an awful lot to do with making us work hard.

“We laughed a lot, we joked a lot, and we kind of wrote for each other and tried to outwrite each other. It was fun, and we were all friends.”

Jenkins, who now lives in his native Fort Worth, said: “I figured it up one day. Blackie and Bud and Gary and I, the four of us, combined to have 57 books published. For a little sports staff, that may be a world record.”

Cartwright came of age as a journalist in the 1960s, which coincided with a memorable era in Dallas sports. The decade began with not one but two professional football teams playing in the Cotton Bowl.

It was a time of raw turbulence in the country but especially in Dallas, where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, when Cartwright was the Cowboys beat writer for TheNews and Shrake was its lead sports columnist. The two covered the Cowboys game in Cleveland two days after the assassination, a Sunday in which a man they knew strip-club owner Jack Ruby — gunned down  Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police station.  …

But one of the most talked-about moments in Cartwright’s career came after a bitter Cowboys defeat. The lead to his game story published in TheNews remains a staple of sportswriting folklore.

On Nov. 21, 1965, the Cowboys were playing the defending champs of the National Football League, the Cleveland Browns, led by Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown. In their sixth year of existence, the woeful Cowboys had yet to experience a winning season. But on Thanksgiving Day 1965, they teetered on the threshold of a turning point.

Don Meredith, the team’s often-embattled quarterback, had marched the Cowboys to the Browns’ 1-yard-line, with 4 minutes 34 seconds remaining and the Browns ahead, 24-17. The cacophonous crowd of 76,251 was, at the time, the largest in Cotton Bowl history.

But, sadly, the comeback unraveled.

Rather than have the Cowboys run the ball, Meredith hurled a wobbly first-down pass, which caromed into the arms of a Cleveland defender.

Hunched in the press box on deadline, Cartwright crafted a lead that serves as a lasting parody of turn-of-the-20th century sportswriting legend Grantland Rice:

“Outlined against a gray November sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. You know them: Pestilence, Death, Famine and Meredith.”

That, Dan Jenkins said, “was one of the greatest leads ever.”

Sam Blair, a retired sports columnist for TheNews, once wrote a piece in which he quoted Cartwright, his longtime friend, expressing regret about something else he wrote of Meredith: “In a column I said Meredith was a loser. That was stupid. Meredith wasn’t a loser. I was.”

The second was a girls basketball playoff game I announced (one day late due to weather) at Wisconsin Heights High School near Black Earth. Wisconsin Heights is what I call a “hyphen” school district (whether or not there’s an actual hyphen in its name), a combination of two or more communities whose school districts merged. Wisconsin Heights, which opened in 1965, is made up of the former Black Earth and Mazomanie schools.

From Black Earth (nickname: “Earthmen”) came Gene Brabender, who was one of the first Milwaukee Brewers pitchers, and before that a member of the one-year Seattle Pilots. The Pilots were the subject of one of the first sports tell-all books, Ball Four, written by one of the Pilots’ pitchers, Jim Bouton. If you ever announce a Wisconsin Heights game, you are obligated to bring up the story about how Pilots players speculated on Brabender’s alma mater fight song, and they came up with “Black Earth, we love you, hurrah for the rocks and the dirt.”

The Hundred Yard War and Ball Four were two of the first sports tell-all books, even though the former was fiction and the latter was not. (Bouton wrote the book via tape recorder, unbeknownst to his teammates, most of whom reacted quite negatively when the book came out. That prompted a sequel, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally.)

Bouton, a Yankees starting pitcher who pitched in two World Series before an arm injury, reported on his teammates’ philandering and use of amphetamines (called “greenies”). He also opined freely on his teammates, manager and coaches, management, wife (eventually ex-wife) and children, and so on. In the style of the ’60s he was an outsider and nonconformist when conformity was king in baseball and, with a few outliers (Joe Namath, Bill Russell), every other pro sport.

Even if you don’t buy Bouton’s description of the poor Pilots management, the Pilots obviously had poor management, as proven by the fact that (not reported in the book) they were bankrupt before the end of their first season. Milwaukee car dealer Bud Selig bought the team in a bankruptcy sale during the 1970 exhibition season, and thus the 1969 Pilots (without Bouton, traded to Houston and into a pennant race) became the 1970 Brewers, though with the Pilots’ jerseys (with lettering and insignia ripped off and replaced by “BREWERS”). That obviously would never happen now; the big leagues are much more careful about who gets awarded their expansion franchises. (Of course, the Pilots-turned-Brewers needed nine seasons to win more games than they lost, and three more to make the playoffs. On the other hand, the replacement for the Pilots, the Mariners, have been in one more fewer World Series than the Brewers.)

Ball Four became a brief TV series …

… although not as Bouton intended. He had in mind, believe it or don’t, “M*A*S*H” set in a baseball stadium, which no viewer of the time would have accepted. (“Ball Four” had just seven episodes filmed, only five of which were aired.) There was a TV series that perhaps patterned what Bouton wanted …

… though “Bay Cities Blues,” though created by Steven Bochco of “Hill Street Blues” fame, lasted four (of the eight filmed) episodes. Then as now, most people seek sports as an escape, not to be reminded of the crappiness of life.

The News story about Cartwright notes former Cowboy receiver Peter Gent, who then wrote his own novel, North Dallas Forty. The aforementioned Jenkins wrote a more comedic novel, Semi-Tough, which became a Burt Reynolds movie.

Kirkus Reviews called War

… a very cynical view of the world of pro football and a rather too naive psychological look at the players working out — the patterns off the field generally run to sleazy adventures while practice time is surprisingly inhuman. Generally this follows the career of Rylie Silver, star quarterback on an ailing team, a man who makes a ritual of getting drunk before every game. He’s an erratic genius and also accident prone. And obviously there isn’t the rapport between the coach and his #1 man that one has been led to assume. The book starts out well, with the tension and schemata of the draft choices as coach Andy Craig tries to get next year’s winning combination. He succeeds but is later sacked and his “”dream”” never gets off the drawing board since Iris replacement, a rather strident sadist, turns the men into instruments of their own destruction and Rylie is finally traded out. Mr. Cartwright, a sports Writer, combines an intimate knowledge of the game with a grimly intellectualized look at the creatures who play it. Oddly, none of them seem real and misapplied metaphors (“”She had breasts like pine smoke””) don’t help.

North Dallas Forty was similar, with various sex and drug use, though funnier until the grim ending where the hero gets cut and his new girlfriend is murdered. The latter detail was not included in the movie:

Both the novel and the movie are thinly veiled tales of the ’60s Cowboys. “Phil Elliott” (Nick Nolte) was the author, “Seth Maxwell” (Mac Davis) was Meredith (who said upon seeing the movie, “If I’d known Gent was as good as he says he was, I would have thrown to him more”), his backup must have been Craig Morton, the coach (G.D. Spradlin) was Tom Landry, “Delma Huddle” (played by former NFL running back Tommy Reamon, known later for coaching NFL quarterbacks Aaron Brooks and Michael and Marcus Vick in high school) must have been Bob Hayes, and so on.

One assumes the authors wrote The Hundred Yard War, Ball Four and North Dallas Forty as exposés of the dehumanizing nature of professional sports. I was in middle school and high school when I first read them, so I didn’t have an adult perspective. To me, however, they were all like the movie “Apocalypse Now,” intended as an antiwar film, which was recast by its viewers as a pro-war film. (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It’s the smell of … victory.”) I was not and am not a fan of drug abuse, but to a teenage reader another thought came to mind about each book’s depiction of pro athletes — GIRLS!

Around this time I also read the autobiography of Oakland Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum, They Call Me Assassin. The Raiders were the renegades of the NFL in the 1970s, and Tatum’s self-described exploits (for instance, a training camp air hockey tournament where cheating was mandatory, and a food fight at a team banquet) reinforced the concept that pro sports was a nonstop party even beyond games. (Years later Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler wrote his own autobiography, Snake, which reinforced more of this, though again some of his teammates denied Stabler’s reports of Raider hijinks, perhaps because they weren’t involved with them.)

The aforementioned three books paved the way for later series and movies about sports, including ESPN’s “Playmakers” (killed after one season by the National Football League, which was not amused by one of its broadcast partners carrying an unflattering portrait of pro football), Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday,” and the soccer series “Footballers’ Wives.”

Gent, meanwhile, wrote a sequel to his own book, North Dallas After 40, in which characters, well, age. (Forty was written in the first person, while After 40 was written in the third person.) Publishers Weekly reviewed it:

This sequel to Gent’s very funny look behind the scenes of professional football, North Dallas Forty , is not what you’d expect. Most of the major characters are back, and their lives after football are right on target (coach B. A. Quinlan is now governor of Texas; ace quarterback Seth Maxwell is a TV star), but the emphasis here is not on the game but on corruption, murder, savings-and-loan frauds and drugs. Phil Elliot, the alienated wide receiver, is still odd man out, in conflict with the new owners of the North Dallas NFL team, who badly want the small piece of land which is his only legacy to his young son. His ex-wife is pressuring him for everything he’s got ( except custody of their son), his body is a painful relic of his playing days and even some of his ex-teammates, back together for the 20th anniversary of North Dallas’s first championship season, seem to be in league with the forces of evil. Gent uses a series of flashbacks expertly, filling in the gaps for readers not familiar with the earlier book, but his farfetched story is too improbable to work and is helped not at all by an ending as jarring and disconcerting as an official’s flag canceling out a spectacular touchdown play.

Monday Night Football viewers since its inception know that Meredith left ABC for a couple years to announce for NBC and act:

There is a great irony in these books that the authors may not have realized. Gent and Bouton bit the hands that fed them; even though pro athletes weren’t paid like they are now, they were still paid rather well for a part-time job playing sports. Cartwright was paid to cover sports. Had the public rebelled against what Gent, Bouton and Cartwright wrote about, Gent’s and Bouton’s playing successors would have had to find some other line of work.

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