Sports Media Then and Now

download-3  download-2

I miss the days of pajamas and Sunday mornings, pulling the rubber band off the rolled up newspaper and spreading the sports section out all over our dining room floor. The initial scan and deliberation, deciding which article to read first.

I almost always began with the recap of the previous night’s Mets game (or Knicks, depending on the season), but it was a veritable overflow of critical information that any young sports fan had to know about.

The Newark Star-Ledger was the paper I grew up on, and to this day I would argue that from the early-’70’s to the late-’90’s (when newspapers all started falling by the wayside), the Star-Ledger (we never added “Newark” to the moniker back in the day, it was always just the Star-Ledger, or Ledger) Sports Section was consistently head and shoulders superior to all others. Best in class, period. And not just for the tri-state area — we are talking across the entire country! Heck, the whole, wide world!

The Sunday Ledger’s expanded Sports Section was the grandaddy of them all, of course, because you always had a Saturday game to digest, plus you had the columns from all the staff writers and senior editors on their respective sports (Dan Castellano on baseball and the Mets was my personal favorite), plus there was the grid.

You know what I’m referring to, dontcha? That weekly table listing every hitter and pitcher in both leagues, with all their important vitals (average, HR’s, RBI’s, ERA — none of this OPS or WAR stuff that annoys the hell out of me these days). I could spend hours on the grid.

Important questions often emerged from scouring the grid, such as “can Ron Blomberg really get enough official at bats to lead the league in hitting this year?” or “how can a hitter as good as Hal McRae really be dead last in the entire American League?”

For good measure, the Ledger would throw in individual stats for the Mets and Yanks separately with their own tables covering the entire active rosters (and update them after every game — are you listening New York Post?). But maybe the best tidbits were those you’d find buried among the classifieds and horse racing results in the final few pages of the sports section.

That’s where the true gems could be uncovered. Like wrestling results — “Ivan Putski won again — Polish Power!” — or small, waiver-wire transactions, like young Hank Webb being sent down to Triple-A after another awful start. Yup, you could spend hours poring over the abundance of information pulled together in that awesome, grainy collection of pressed pulp and ink that was sure to leave a stain on the carpet when you were done (sorry, mom).

download-1.jpg  fullsizeoutput_19b3

I got to thinking about how we used to consume sports news as I waited for my flight to Dallas to take off. On my phone I’d just reviewed in detail my New York Post app, getting caught up on all the New York action from the previous day (Mets lost again and their bullpen still sucks. Yanks won again and traded for the leading home run hitter in the AL, apparently just to rub Mets fans noses in it).

Intermittently I flipped over to the Facebook app, where amid all the pictures of graduations and household pets I caught a posting of the New York Times article from 50 years ago reviewing the Mets trade for Donn Clendenon from the Expos (we got that one right, at least, although it probably speaks more to the Expos nascent front office back then).

Then I jumped over to Twitter, where I saw a couple of cool, old photos, one of Walter Payton and Earl Campbell together back in the ’70’s — a couple of great backs wearing number 34 (note they were wearing, not exchanging, jerseys) — and one showing Terry Bradshaw and Jim McMahon yucking it up on the sidelines after a game in the mid-’80’s. We can only hazard a guess as to what those two Mensa members had been discussing.

Back on Facebook, another post popped up from a page I follow offering to sell a 1954 Ted Williams Topps baseball card to the highest bidder, and over on Instagram I see that apparently Genie Bouchard is in London this morning. And additionally, it appears the tennis star/IG Model has recently auctioned off her match-worn sneakers from her latest early-round knockout, this one at the French Open, to reward her fans and celebrate reaching that all-important milestone of two million followers.

Huh. Match-worn sneaks?

Not exactly Ivan Putski, but interesting nonetheless.

As an admitted traditionalist, but also a sports fan with huge appetite for anything nostalgic, I wonder — is this the Golden Age for those of us who wake up ready to eat, drink and sleep sports? Or are we all actually suffering from this embarrassment of riches, unknowingly getting sucked into information overload — sports fan version?

download-5  download-6  download-7

Like on most important existential topics, I don’t have a clear answer here, but perhaps it is simply another example of today’s world not being better or worse than the “good old days,” but just different?

As a kid, I lived for the four minutes of sports coverage at the back end of the 6:00 evening news that my father insisted on tuning to daily. Warner Wolf was the king as far as I was concerned, poking fun at Mr. G. the weatherman, and making his predictably inaccurate selections of the weekend’s upcoming football games (yeah, sounds familiar).

Bill Mazur was a surly and unappealing talking head who had somehow garnered a short, erratic time slot to talk sports on one of the local channels (Channel 9, I think), and I couldn’t stand him. But I watched him. Every time I could. Because it was sports information, and I needed it. Yeah, in those days, you either worked your schedule around when sports news fleetingly flashed at you on the television, or hoped you’d luck into a segment like Mazer’s while surfing from Channel 2 to 13 and back, before heading to bed.

Then in the ’80’s George Michael’s Sports Machine came along on Sunday nights, and I felt as though I’d died and gone to heaven. All sports, highlight after highlight, with amusing, insightful and in depth commentary. Yeah, he was a homer for the Redskins, but I didn’t care too much, because this was appointment viewing aimed specifically at me, and it carried me through the college years. What a way to close out your weekend!

download-4.jpg  fullsizeoutput_19b4.jpeg

But print media was my foundation. When the family moved west in the ’70’s I switched my allegiances to the L.A. Times sports section. I found it to be a solid runner up to the Ledger, with the added benefit of broad college football and basketball coverage, something that was more of an afterthought back in New Jersey (let’s face it, Wooden’s UCLA Bruins and the USC gridiron powers of the ’70’s demanded coverage, and the uninspiring sports programs of Seton Hall and Rutgers back east simply couldn’t compare).

In addition to the daily papers, at an early age I developed a long-term relationship with Sports Illustrated that continues to this day. I still subscribe, and if the wifi had precluded me from working on my blog on this morning’s flight (as so often is the case with United Airlines, a consistently bad horror show 30,000 feet in the air), I’d be diving into the latest issue, even though, much like my beloved Mets, Knicks and Jets, SI has fallen on hard times these days.

I mean, c’mon, it is perfectly understandable if the poor economics facing all newsstand publications these days force the publishers to adopt an every other week distribution format, but don’t lie to me and tell me it’s the same amount of sports content. It isn’t, and oh by the way, while we are on the subject, stop pandering to the politically correct by choosing to cover certain sports that few readers (or me, at least) care about.

I’m sorry, but a full issue — or damn near it, anyway — dedicated to women’s soccer and the World Cup is overkill, especially right on the heels of having featured several members of the same women’s soccer squad in last month’s swimsuit issue. If I were a skeptic, I’d hazard a guess that there could be some financial connection between the upcoming World Cup and SI, but we will save the conspiracy theories for another day.

(SportsAttic aside — is it just me, or do others also feel like a leacherous creep if they dare open up the SI Swimsuit Issue in a public setting? It’s bad enough being a member of the universally despised demographic of over-50 white males, without throwing gas on that fire by pulling out a magazine showing nothing but women less than half my age in various stages of undress. I can’t help looking over my shoulder, anticipating an angry mob of pant-suited feminists descending upon me, ready to snatch my magazine from my age-spotted hands to beat me to death with it, while being raucously cheered on by the other passengers on the plane. Sigh.)

However, I digress.

Anyway, here’s my quick and personal Top 5 of sports media sources, past and present, along with a note or two on why they were, or how they could be, useful to me and my fellow sports fans:

PAST

  1. Newark Star-Ledger Sports: Give me a Jerry Izenberg column on the first page, talking about Muhammad Ali or Y.A. Tittle, or some little known fact about a long-ago Super Bowl. Follow that with columns from Castellano and the Kleins — Dave on the NFL and the football Giants, Moss on the Yanks and the American League — and throw in all the local New York beat writers. The Ledger. Nothing better — retired champion, never to be challenged again.
  2. Warner Wolf on CBS Channel 2: Before we had “The Swami” and “SVP” on ESPN, there was Warner, guaranteeing if the viewer followed his picks (and went the opposite way) they were a lock for betting success. Then flashing to a fan passed out in the upper deck at Shea Stadium and leading into his next segment with his “and Mr. G was at the game!” call. Priceless stuff.
  3. Los Angeles Times Sports: The ’70’s were the time to be a young sports fan in Southern California. Wooden’s Bruins were in the midst of their incredible unbeaten streak. McKay’s Trojans were winning national championships with Student Body Right. The Dodgers’ vaunted core was beginning to form with Cey, Russel, Lopes and Garvey finding their way to their appropriate spots in the Chavez Ravine infield (before the Dodgers finally figured out this grouping and rode it to the 1974 World Series, that infield featured Garvey trying to play third, Russell as an outfielder because an aging Maury Wills was still at short, Lee Lacy as the second baseman of the future, with Billy Buckner the heir to Wes Parker at first — really, you could look it up). Plus you had some formidable L.A. pro football drama, and the weekly debate over James Harris or Pat Haden or Ron Jaworski for the always close-but-no-cigar Rams was intense.
  4. Sports Illustrated: It was the photos that got me hooked. Ali, Secretariat, O.J. The articles were too long for me as a kid, but when I figured out how inspiring the writing could be, too, I was all in, and still am to this day.
  5. New York Times Sports: Just kidding to make sure you’re all still paying attention. This list ends at four. The NY Times was, is, and always will be, the worst sports section on the planet.

PRESENT

  1. ESPN: I don’t care if it is overexposed. Nothing compares, and now that they’ve ditched that dreadful pairing of Michael Smith and Jamele Hill I can go back to watching without the need to keep my remote within reach. And east coast fans, I know Scott Van Pelt comes on late back there, but he’s the best in the business, bar none. Relatable, witty and having so much fun with his guests and sidekick, Stanford Steve. It’s like hanging with that guy you don’t see very often, but when you do you can’t wait to dive into the latest in the world of sports. Record it if you can’t stay up that late, or…
  2. Twitter: Used to be my least favorite social media medium, but I chalk that up to not recognizing how to make it work for me. In addition to following my favorite sports writers and commentators (hello SVP, Buster Olney and Joel Sherman), I’ve found a helluva lot of “retro” and “vintage” sports sites that bring back obscure and fun memories from my sports fan days of old. Plus, there’s the real time element of wondering why the heck Jason Vargas just left a game he seemed to be cruising in, only to learn via Twitter he has a cramp (a cramp?) in his calf. And Dickie V. Lots of Dickie V. The guy loves Twitter. He gives updates on everything, not just college hoops (MLB, his grandkids, a stranger he befriended at dinner the night before), and he may just be the nicest, most genuine guy in the entire world of sports.
  3. Facebook: I know it’s fashionable to blast Facebook. And sure, there’s a lot I don’t care for, mostly pertaining to the aggressive political views overshared by many, but if you join a few clubs, groups and sites that share a passion of yours (and block — but stay friends with — basically everyone else), the Facebook experience becomes a steady feed of information that matters to you. Right now I enjoy posts from MLB, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, ’69 Mets, and various sports card collectible pages (some photos, some where you can go in and purchase), along with all my favorite team sites (and the Sopranos page, Classic Movies, yeah, it’s a long list).
  4. Instagram: Similar to my Facebook strategy, I prefer to cherry-pick certain meaningful InstaGram pages (meaningful to me, anyway, and apparently two million other Genie Bouchard fans) to follow, and enjoy a wide range of interesting photos and commentary on the world of sports, plus the added bonus of old movie clips, satire (The Onion cracks me up) and humor. Now if I could only find a way to post SportsAttic blogs on IG, this site would vault all the way to #2 on my list.
  5. New York Post phone app: Maybe the ritual I miss the most from my days commuting from New Jersey to New York City every morning is forking over my fifty cents to buy the best hour of entertainment known to man. Starting from the back cover (of course), I could usually make my way completely through the sports section and entertainment pages before arriving at my lower-Manhattan destination. I’ve transitioned (begrudgingly) over to the electronic version, and despite still preferring the feel of newspaper in my hands, I’ve embraced the economy and convenience of having The Post’s irresistibly campy articles and features just a finger tap away. The Post is my current undisputed champion of New York sports coverage, filling the void left when the Ledger succumbed to the financial pressures of today and became it’s current shell of its old self.

So is today’s media better, worse or just different?

I’m going with just different. The memory of learning how to read a boxscore, or understand movement in the daily MLB divisional standings via my voracious consumption of the Star-Ledger sports section makes me smile to this day.

But laughing out loud and pausing Scott Van Pelt so I can rewind and share a “Bad Beat”  segment with the rest of my family on a Sunday night is pretty cool stuff, too.

Would watching Warner Wolf have felt so special if I could have dialed him up 24/7 on a tablet back in the ’70’s? I don’t know the answer to that one either, but I do know that appointment viewing with the family and sharing a laugh at Mr. G’s expense always felt good back in the grade school years.

Then again, what I wouldn’t have given back in my childhood to be able to touch a button and read about Willie Mays’ catch in the ’54 World Series, or see a clip “on demand” of Ali’s “phantom punch” against Liston.

Special times then and now. The common thread? Sports as a timeline for life well lived, with vivid memories, shared joy and anguish among friends and strangers, and always the knowledge that tomorrow will offer up more unique moments and experiences to be enjoyed.

download.jpg  fullsizeoutput_19b2.jpeg

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s