Sunday, May 23, 2010

A visitor to the garden yesterday was wearing an old fashioned Philadelphia Phillies cap, and I was immediately flooded with memories from my youth of my passion for baseball and the Phillies and statistics and the drama of sports. I've let that all go in my recent adult life, though I suspect if Harlan takes an interest I may again, too.

In thinking of all that, I remembered this piece my Dad wrote. It covers a lot of ground in a few paragraphs, and the first line in which he admits the genesis of his story is a piece he read in the New York Times reminded me of something outgoing poet laureate Kay Ryan recently said when asked what she would be doing with her time now.

“I plan to do a lot more bicycle riding. I got a beautiful new bike and am looking forward to riding it more. I also want to do more woolgathering—idle rumination, daydreaming—which is absolutely essential for poetry, and which I can do on the bicycle.”

My dad was a great woolgatherer, and a story in the Times or in a magazine would often prompt his woolgathering. An image I still see often when walking through the garden in the mornings is of my dad in his golf cart, a section of the paper on the seat next to him or on his lap, while he stares off over the marsh: gathering wool.

The Night They Closed Toot Shor's, by Traug Keller

It was a long Sunday piece in the New York Times and what caught my eye was the picture of a smiling Toots Shor, whisky glass in hand perched on a stool at the bar in his famous bistro. The story was written by his granddaughter, Kristi Jacobson, who is producing a documentary on Toots and his legendary New York pub. It reminded me of a long ago story about the place and the memorable “Night they closed Toots Shors.”

Shor’s was a New York landmark, a bistro where sportswriters and athletes and assorted celebrities flocked to get a good drink and a solid meal. It was the watering hole of choice for the likes of Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Jack Dempsey and a legion of other highlighters who savored the hug and handshake they’d get from Toots himself when they stepped across his threshold.

It was 1958 and I was a young sportswriter in Cleveland taking my turn working the night sports desk at The Cleveland Press. That meant, among other things, reading the AP and UPI sports wires which each night clanked out yards of sports copy for their client newspapers across the country. I’d select those stories of interest to Cleveland readers, editing and sending them on to the typesetters downstairs so that, when the sports department makeup man arrived in the morning, he’d have an ample supply of wire copy galley proofs to go with local stories the department members had written.

It was also up to the night desk man to handle the incoming stories from department members who were on the road covering out-of town games. That included making sure the incoming copy from the sports columnist had arrived, was read, edited and formatted for that very large space down the left hand side of the first sports page.

A fellow named Frank Gibbons was the paper’s sports columnist at the time. Gibby was an oversize character who was as good as you get in the business. He was an exquisite writer with a sharp reportorial sense, and he combined the two to produce some memorable columns

He also drank his share and then a bit and I’d often run into him in the late-hour drink spots on Cleveland’s famed Short Vincent St., a favorite venue for horseplayers and other interesting types. As often as not, he’d be carrying at least half a load when I’d see him, and I often wondered how he carried it off while turning out some 750 words six days a week. He was always glad to see me and would inevitably buy me a drink. He’d make it seem like we were fellow travelers on one of life’s rockier roads.

It was on one of those nights that he told me he was leaving for New York the next morning to be on hand for the closing of Toots Shor’s, a favorite spot of his and one he visited every time he was in New York. I wished him well and told him I’d be working the desk and would look for his column. He promised to file early before he got on to saying goodby to Toots properly.

Along about 2:00 a.m. the next morning I began to worry. No column from Gibby and no word about when it would be coming. Meantime, the wires had been filled with stories about the closing of the pub, all of them carrying in their lead the line, “the night they closed Toots Shor’s.” Some of it got to be downright sloppy, a bunch of tired sportswriters sounding as though they’d lost their best friend and for all I knew maybe they had.

By 4:30 that morning I was desperate. Still no Gibby and still no word. I feared the consequences to Gibby for failing to deliver the column, a real no-no in the newspaper business, and I had sympathy for the morning crew who would be facing that huge hole on the first sports page. All I could figure was that Gibby had tied one on at the closing and wasn’t in shape to file.

I began pulling the wire stories together, stealing a bit here, a piece there and weaving it all together with Gibbons-like prose. By 5:00 I sent it off to the composing room under Gibby’s by line with the headline-what else-“The night they closed Toots Shor’s.” I prayed it would pass muster with Bob August, the sports editor, who had an eagle eye for style. I was getting ready to go home when the phone rang.

It was Gibby. “Where the hell have you been?” I railed at him.

“Just take it easy, boy,” he said. “I was up to see Roy Campanella in the hospital. He’s still in there from that car crash in January. He’ll live but won’t ever play ball again and just maybe he’ll walk some day. Now take this down and slug it, “Gibbon’s Saturday Column”. Then he started to dictate and with the phone tucked under my chin I typed as Gibby began his piece.

“New York is a city filled with magic and misery. On the high end of the misery scale it’s a two-ton automobile that crushes even a strong man’s legs.”

He then went on for the next 15 minutes dictating the column to me and when he was done had me read it back to him. It was a magical piece, filled with Campanella’s words and emotions, tied together by Gibby’s splendid prose, the kind of copy that the Red Smiths and the Ring Lardners and the like would turn out on one of their good days. Snatches of it still linger in my mind and to this day I can recall with great clarity my thoughts and emotions on that early morning graveyard shift as I typed Gibby’s words, the only sound the teletype machines clattering in the background. He traced Campanella’s early background as the son of a white mother and black father, his years with the Brooklyn Dodgers and his trials as a black man forced to endure the same kind of racial heat that his teammate Jackie Robinson took, the two of them black together in Branch Ricky’s noble experiment.

“What do you think?” Gibby asked when he was done.

“Not bad,” I gulped. “I’ll send it down.”

I had to scramble to recover the earlier version I had sent to the composing room.