Friday, June 03, 2011
News of Yore 1937: Cartoonist Christy Walsh Turns to Sports Syndication
This is the story of 34 journalistic ghosts who collected over one hundred thousand dollars from an ex-cartoonist, turned syndicate man. It is the story of an unexpected, unplanned and somewhat unorthodox career that "just happened" and I hope it proves a satisfactory reply to those who have asked, "How did you ever get into the ghost-writing business?" My answer corresponds with that of many men in other fields: "It just happened."
Telling the manner in which it happened is the object of preparing this record — with four names occupying positions of special influence as we run the gamut of the ghosts: Mathewson ... Rickenbacker ... Ruth ... McGraw! Babe Ruth helped me into it; John McGraw kept me in it. Rick and Matty laid the foundation.
The syndicate, founded as a matter of dire necessity in 1921, by an out-of-a-job cartoonist, started on a shoestring; and in 1937, after having weathered 16 October classics in the ball parks of seven major league cities, voluntarily shuffles off its World's Series coil.
This story is my own story. But with certain alterations, it is the basic story of thousands of young dreamers anxious to escape the fetters of the smaller hometown and hie for the city on the Hendrik Hudson, where the rainbow of opportunity is alleged to terminate and be within the grasp of all who reach high enough Where others have beheld their rainbow in the siren tints of song-writing, dramatics, big-town reporting, magazine work, opera, Tammany, illustrating, nightclub fame, Wall Street, modeling for Russeks, style creation, column writing, engineering, a job with the Yankees or an audition from Major Bowes—the rainbow of my ambition was a blend of sport-cartooning, peddling publicity and working for an advertising agency. But alas my rainbow dissolved abruptly, the alluring colors faded into a murky smear, the salary stopped, the jig was up and the red light went on, just where Opportunity Boulevard runs into Success.
Out of a Job and Money, He Cashes In on an Idea
In plain English, I was out of a job in the biggest city in the world and didn't have money for rent. I was blocking traffic on this great highway to fame— the authors, the engineers, the basebal rookies and all the others in the procession surging up Opportunity Boulevard were impatient to beat the red light and had no time for those who couldn't keep the pace. The Director of Traffic gave me the "thumb" in the customary manner. I now appeared to be heading for a deadend, when suddenly and inexplicably, detoured right smack to the main stem, a grand, adventurous thoroughfare of imagination, invention, and high-pressure competition, wherein I have experiencec the rewards, the disappointments and above all, the cat-calls that come to one who exploit the writings of literary ghosts.
My experience with ghosts? Well, that's a sad story, and goes a long way back If you throw out the time I played one of the grave-diggers in an amateur production of "Hamlet," my initiation in the ghosting fraternity was along in the winter of 1912. In order to date your memory, it will be recalled that 1912 is a quarter of a century in the other direction, the year that Mr. Roosevelt "took a walk" on Mr. Taft; the Red Sox beat the Giants in the World's Series; and a young coach from Oak Park High School in Chicago took charge of football at the University of Illinois, Robert Zuppke, incumbent.
Christy Mathewson, called "Matty" or "Big Six" by such old-time scribes as Sam Crane and Charley Dryden, was pitching for the New York Giants and he occupied the same relative spot in the heart of the hero-worshipping public as did Babe Ruth a decade later. The word was broadcast, not by radio, that "Matty' would winter in Los Angeles and in those days personalities were not so bizzare or plentiful in the sunkist pueblo. Hence, big names and headline idols wore extremely welcome and the coming of Matty caused as much furor in Los Angeles as would the personal appearance today of Clark Gable in Sedalia or Spokane.
I was an employe of the Los Angeles Herald, which had just switched from the dawn patrol to the twilight field. William A. Curley (best loved by his staff of any editor in the business), now ranking editor of all Hearst papers, was head-man but it seemed everybody was head-man except me. A cartoon for the sport page was the chore I loved best, but I also had such executive duties as chasing hotel arrivals, taking phone items and filing photographs.
With Matty routed westward, an obsession overcame me—I must interview him. Being the proud owner of a sand-lot curve myself, however feeble the curve, and recognized for nearly 12 months as an authority on baseball, I considered no other writer on the paper so well ordained to interview the mighty New York pitcher. I planned the conference for weeks. I learned that the Mathewson family would rent a furnished bungalow at the outskirts of the city. I reconnoitered that bungalow frequently before Matty's arrival and measured the distance from curb to doorbell, in order to time my first approach, when he would smile and grasp my hand.
I stepped off the distance in the driveway where I pictured my pitching idol illustrating his interview for me, by going through the movements of his Polo Grounds routine. On the old picket fence I made markings where Big Six and I would stand, while camera shutters clicked us, and on the veranda I arranged the chairs where we might continue to interview more comfortably, after the first tiring hours.
The once-in-a-lifetime arrived and I went direct from my home to the enchanted bungalow, arriving before the great man was awake. The first mistake of a nervous cub: I had failed to bring pencil or memorandum paper! The nearest store was two blocks distant and out I started. The store was locked tighter than a kettle-drum, but the proprietor finally arrived; pencil and pad was forthcoming and back I rushed to Matty's. Now look what's going on! The solitary bungalow is alive with inquisitive men. And apparently some women. The yard seems jammed to capacity and my dream of an exclusive interview went a-glim-mering. The facts were, as I learn after my first swoon, the delegation which appeared so large consisted of but one female reporter seeking heart-interest and seven out-and-out baseball writers.
Tongue-Tied Before Matty, Until Interview Was Ending
I couldn't think of a question to save my life, although fortunately I scribbled the replies which the besieged pitcher made to queries from the more composed and far more experienced correspondents. As it developed, Matty and I had no opportunity to swap pitching tips, as I anticipated, because actually, I never met Christy Mathewson! I was flattered, however, when he called me "Jack." That unintentional encouragement brought one of my long-planned questions to the tip of my tongue, but at the same moment Mathewson disappeared into the house and everything was over.
There was a lull between editions, as I entered the Herald office, but there was no lull in my desire to put this thing on paper. I had heard plenty and had written down all the answers.
"Did you get anything?" asked the editor, standing at my back.
"Anything? I got everything!" With that I pulled notes from every pocket.
"Did I get anything? Look at that! And that! Look how Matty defends Snodgrass for his World's Series' error. And I went to old St. Vincents, with Snodgrass, right here in Los Angeles. It's a scoop, Mr. Curley. Why, I'll write you the swellest baseball piece you ever read!"
If he listened, he didn't linger. Now he is in a huddle with Managing Editor Ned Collins (my earnest sponsor) and an extremely young reporter, by the name of Rogers. He motions and approaching, I am summarily relieved of my Mathewson notes and told that a story of such importance requires finesse and experience and Miss Rogers will write it for me.
She wrote it and signed her own name. But (I hope she reads this tardy protest) that was my story! Ivan St. Johns, her husband-to-be, then a handsome cub reporter, sitting at his desk, wisely observed: "That, young man, is your first lesson in the art of ghost writing." And indeed it was. Having one's notes transcribed and set down in flowing phrases by such scriveners as W. Somerset Maugham, S. S. Van Dine or Adela Rogers St. Johns, is the last word in the ancient and honorable craft of literary make-believe. So I learned about ghosting from Adela.
From that sad seance, with the first and only female ghost in all my exploring of syndicated sports, the locale shifts eastward to the city of roaring furnaces, where, instead of moving pictures, moving automobiles are the output of another mammoth industry. Now turned press agent, I am still concocting interviews. But the quotes are obtained from men whose speed and curves are measured on the proving grounds, not the Polo Grounds.
The ambition to be a cartoonist still persists and a few papers in the far West buy my series of drawings entitled "Coast Boys in the Big League." Harry B. Smith, sports editor, San Francisco Chronicle, is the initial customer, and when others follow, the first syndicate urge develops. I picked on the Chronicle because it was the alma mater of such great cartoonists as Bud Fisher, Robt. Ripley, Rube Goldberg and many others, but my career as a cartoonist was short and mediocre.
There is a new, adventurous name on page one these busy months after the Armistice. Just as Matty's arrival was heralded from the California housetops, so the motor capital organized with feverish commotion to welcome the stripling, who went to war as a modest mechanic, and returns the Ace of American flyers, modest none-the-less. Eddie Rickenbacker first saw the light of day in Columbus, O.; he first saw the light of fame in a cockpit over France, but Detroit was the cradle of his story-book career and the motor city prepares a welcome for its returning hero.
His lecture schedule spans 48 states, so Rick leaves Detroit on time. My amateurish mind starts clicking and ideas are born in the wake of his departure. There, gentlemen, is a guy I'd like to tie to! He makes me believe the feeling is mutual, when several days later he wires: "Accept your proposition. Get as many papers as you can. Not worried about the money."
Offered Decoration Day Race Story by Rickenbacker, War Ace
The big, dare-devil handicap at Indianapolis is scheduled for Decoration Day, as usual, but this year Eddie Rickenbacker is billed as referee-in-chief. And that is unusual. Not many years before, on the same speedway, he was toiling in the pits, as gasoline chariots limped or skidded to the siding for attention. And now quietly sporting the decorations of a war-time aviator, he officially observes the death-defying drivers from a post of honor. Such success, such drama, such popularity is bound to thrill newspaper readers and the story of the big race, written by the ex-mechanic who shot down 26 enemy planes should tempt any editor to pay money foi exclusive publication.
The tempting campaign starts with a telephone call to the printer. In the role of tempter, I resort to my questionable cartoon talent, to illustrate the circular a large head of Rick, overseas cap tilting to one ear, is ideal for a centerpiece, and this I produce by tracing a photograph of his smiling face—although in polite illustrating society, tracing is taboo, or at least denied. Art work completed, the "selling talk" is composed and copy is ready when the printer arrives. My first circular, a one-color job, is finished hurriedly and I haul it to the post office and await replies.
Acceptance No. 1 comes from Boston Then a wire from San Francisco. And in quick succession orders for Eddie Rickenbacker's race story are received from Atlanta, Louisville, Syracuse and other cities. To me, these communities had existed only in railroad time-tables and each acceptance from another unknown editor spurs me to new efforts.
The day of the race is at hand and I am in the Claypool coffee shop, many hours before the holiday crowd takes possessior of the 460-acre Indiana speedway. Righ out of a salesroom bandbox, the latest thing in fastidious transportation, a 1921 seven-passenger motor car de luxe, stands guarded at the sidewalk curb.
This car will bring the popular referee of the day to the judges' stand and a seat is reserved for me, but if you don't mind Rick, I'll go on out to the track at once. Cars of every description loaded with lunch baskets and humanity, clutter the highways, but a "Press" sticker gets Van Hoven's Model "T" through the jam and I am in the stand, long before the genial captain comes roaring down the gasoline fairway and stops on a dime, in front of the packed pavillion. In order to get ahead of Eddie Rickenbacker on race day, or any other day, one needs to bestir one's self at the break of the morning; my lamented interview with the great Matty having taught me that ghosts rush in where cartoonists fear to tread, I arn taking no chance on any rush of literary ghosts at Indianapolis.
As the Hoosier sun is setting on the Wabash, the winner, Howard Wilcox flashes across the finish line in five hours 40 minutes and 42 seconds and the race is run. One hundred thousand tired but satisfied customers move toward the open gates and I move to a quiet corner to fulfill our contract with the newspapers. Rick scans my notes, makes valuable suggestions and tells me, in a friendly, sympathetic tone, that I don't know a heluva-lot about speedway racing. At last, as the shadows lengthen, it is finished . . . the exclusive, copyrighted, track-side story of today's race ... By Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker!
Error in Big "Punch-Line" Nearly Floored Rickenbacker
Rick is reading it over. He marks out what he assures me with gentleness are only minor errors and is about to clear it for the newspapers, when a sentence on the final page stops him completely! One look at Rick's countenance makes me yearn for Adela Rogers St. Johns. I guess I shouldn't have tried to write the interview with Matty, either. Bill Curley was right.
Rick wants to save my feelings. He tactfully corrects page after page, without serious criticism, but this last boner is much too much.
You see, I think I am saving a punchline for the finish and reserve the name of a colorful, hard-luck driver for the final page. Through 500 gruelling miles he had miraculously guided No. 9 out of perilous jams, only to crack-up in the homestretch. There, across the track, lies No. 9! Violently spinning wheels are now at rest, axles twisted like hot taffy, lay across the belly of the galvanized beast and the monster snorts hissing steam Yet the pilot actually crawls out in one piece, alive to tell the tale. There is the thing to feature our story! But, as Rick points out, 9 does look like 6, especially to an amateur reporter, when a car turn turtle.
At any rate, I made the correction, the story made telegraph wires and, in many cases, made page one, proving that a big name by-line may salvage a mediocre story. Eddie Rickenbacker's personality, imagination and management, publicized by Steve Hannegan, has attracted ove 2,000,000 spectators to the speedway since an inverted No. 9 made my face burn. Wishing to retain the captain's friendship I have never gone back to Indianapolis as a "ghost."
The day was profitable as well as memorable. To me, the rules of syndicate merchandising were as Greek as Athens. I knew not whether editors purchased such material by the ounce or by the word and none there was to put me wise But after paying off the printer and buying postage, Rick and I split $874. As recall, 37 papers took the story, two o them said I wrote punk copy; at least 1 featured it on the front page and seven asked if they could buy more like it.
In accordance with the acceptance from Rick, I got as many papers as I could. But I got more than that, from the experience. ... I contracted syndicate fever which eventually developed into a chronic mania for ghosts and their literary output and after 18 years, in spite of threats, indignation and ridicule, I survive, to relate the details.
It is now a cold afternoon in January 1921. The girl on the switchboard tells me the boss awaits within and I enter. It doesn't take him long to give me the business. In fact, I felt it coming. Five were let go Saturday. There has been much whispering in the corridors and the want ads are getting unusual attention from the worried employes. Today, I hear we've lost two big accounts, including National Chocolate. The boss acts nervous. Everybody says we are in a busines depression and it may last for months Who ever heard of a depression lasting for months in a rich country like America? Anyway, he hands me my check for two weeks' pay, with the assurance that I won't have any trouble finding another job, and right then and there, whether I want it or not, a newspaper syndicate is tossed bodily into my skinny lap. Thus ended my days with an advertising agency.
I have no job, no money and no alterative. The syndicate bee has been in my bonnet ever since it buzzed at Indianapolis and now is the acceptable time to give it the old college try. But how to start a syndicate, without do-re-me—that is the question.
After several vain attempts, a loan is initially negotiated with a bank for the huge sum of $2,000, at prevailing rate of interest. It is gratifying to add that said loan, secured without collateral, was paid in full before it was due! The new-born syndicate gets off the ground and, due more to luck than skill, nose-dive is avoided in the first week's light, when out of a shower of rejections and discouraging replies to circular No. 1, the syndicate's entire personnel ups and quits. That's an honest fact. But it should be explained, the entire personnel consists of one employe only, an attractive miss, who takes dictation, answers the single telephone, interviews callers in my one-room, one-door, one-window establishment and conducts all the departments by herself. Assuredly, this is no business for a young lady who is used to reading cheerful, promising letters from clients, so, after predicting sincerely but sympahetically that my business is doomed for the scrap-heap, she takes her leave at the end of the first week. What a pal! Well, twelve years later, by that time a charming matron, she drops by one afternoon and ventures the opinion that her prediction was premature if not inaccurate.
Naturally and appropriately and happily, Eddie Rickenbacker was the syndicate's first recruit. How about the Babe? We'll come to that later, because George Herman Ruth was last, but not the least, to join this struggling guild of authors. And the checks that came from the newspapers for his signed articles in April, 1921, pumped the first life-blood into an idea that was breathing with difficulty.
Ghostly Figures That Flit Down the Halls of Memory
There is a fascinating episode in the signing of Gene Buck, then writing jingles for the late Mr. Ziegfeld; the conversations that led to discovering and capturing Holland's man-mountain, Hendrik Willem Van Loon, make a priceless story of friendship; the association I formed with the dressy Mr. Kearns, better known as "Doc," generated a great liking for the ace of all fight managers, who was more maligned than he deserved, and the tribulations encountered in completing the balance of my starting line-up; above all, the Dempsey-Carpentier bluff I pulled on Mary Garden, which, luckily, she failed to call, all provide anecdotal data, sufficient for an independent volume. But this is the story of ghost-writing, with particular reference to the managers and baseball stars who have gone literary in the World's Series of the past 16 years So, I'll stick to my story and put Mary and Gene and Doc and my dear Hendrik away, in literary mothballs, until it's time to write again.
Our syndicate became the only one dealing exclusively in sport page material, but such was not the intention at the outset. My first trip calling on prospective newspaper customers, in 1921, was a short day-coach jaunt because of limited finances but it covered sufficient territory to convince me of one fact, which instantly cast my policy in the mould of sport ... to operate as a miscellaneous syndicate offering all descriptions of newspaper features, I wouldn't have a chance! To go in for sports, plus comic strips, garden hints, editorial matter, financial news, and gossip columns meant direct competition with long-established syndicates, such as owned by Hearst, the Chicago Tribune, United Features and others with enough cash and influence to put me out of the game, before I started pitching. Even to succeed financially on the department-store basis meant being just another syndicate, with no promise of position or distinction.
The field was overcrowded with that type organization, manned by men of brains and ingenuity, with infinitely more experience than my own. But to specialize in a field where I spoke the language, a field that promised men, women and children as a potential audience, a field that was a natural sequel to the dreams and activities of my own sport days on the sand-lot, there, it seemed, was the logical channel in which to carve a modest but singular niche and hope to become, not the largest, but the pioneer and outstanding outfit in a special field.
Won Ruth's Okay to Plan By Delivering Case of Beer
Thus, in the very prologue of the passing show, I eliminated all other topics, to glorify sports, and with the sole exception of Hendrik Van Loon, author, artist and meal-ticket theme through 16 years of happy hustling. Nearly every syndicate handles sport features to some degree, although some regard them, especially the ghost-written type, as necessary evils. Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard, both pitching for John McGraw, against the Athletic in 1911, indulged in a syndicated World's Series argument, years before my ghosting advent and until Babe Ruth's by line started appearing regularly in 1921 twice each week, signed material by baseball players and managers was confined almost entirely to articles during the World's Series.
The Yankees' first pennant-winning season marked the beginning of a 15-yea era, during which celebrated by-lines became permanent factors in sport page make-up. Ruth's last season as a newspaper author on a steady basis was 1936.
One of my old cartoons establishes 1919 as the first time I met the Babe, then with the Boston Red Sox and electrifying the baseball world by hitting 29 home runs in a single season, to establish a new all-time record, since dwarfed or surpassed by the Babe and 76 other player in the majors. The following year, Harry Frazee, late owner of the Red Sox, wishing to go down in history as the benevolent benefactor of New York fandom, sold his converted pitcher to the Yankees and the Babe proceeded to hammer out 54 highly advertised home runs and elevate himself to a pedestal of hero worship equaled by no character in the history of American sport.
It was amazing that such a gift from the gods of exploitation should be on the loose. But the Babe was a free agent from a literary standpoint, and I was offering him everything imaginable for his signature. Correction: everything but money—because of money I had precious little.
The Ansonia Hotel was then the dwelling place of the Ruth family and I literally camped on the doorstep with a contract in my pocket. Unfortunately, the old homestead had entrances on three streets and the Babe purposely eluded me because in those magic days, he was pursued by every glib talker in the city of New York and I rated no better than the rest, if he rated me at all. Every ruse had failed to intercept him and only four days remained before he would start for Hot Springs to boil a little fat from his tummy, even at that early date, assuming rotund proportions. A trusting printer accommodated me with 60 days to pay for my announcement poster, of which two weeks had expired, while I was trying to capture the man of the hour. That morning, the New York papers featured pictures of the Babe and his Missus, packing luggage for their southern exit.
The printer warns me he can't let all that metal lie idle any longer; everything is ready, including a large cut of the Babe. But still I have no contract with the new Home Run King.
That night, I team up with the beer-man at the corner. Even in those days, beer is the Babe's favorite beverage, and when he wants his beer, he wants it quickly. I'm showing my proposed contract to the pleasant old delicatessen man, as his telephone rings. The conversation ends abruptly; the old man hangs up, much discouraged. "Baby Root vants a case of beer. Right avay, right avay, and mine boy is gone. Yoi. Yoi. Yoi." Here is my lucky break, and in less than ten minutes I am in the Ruth kitchenette, actually counting bottles with the Babe. Does he recognize me? His exact words follow: "Sure I know you! Ain't you been bringin' our beer for the last two weeks?" The big fellow is not much on the Bertillon system or any other system having to do with accurate identification, but when I explain that this is my first and only experience as a beverage-runner, he gets the idea, enjoys a hearty laugh over the gag and good-naturedly admits he had better sign up to get rid of me.
In this sequence, mark up one of many boners for Walsh. With my quarry cornered, resistance at an end, terms and details settled and his fountain pen poised for action . . . where, oh, where is the contract?
Stupid victim of my own excitement, I face another night of uncertainty because the old gent who runs the beer shop has gone home with my contract in his pocket.
Next day, true to his promise, Babe is waiting for me at Pennsylvania station. The train leaves in 15 minutes and there he beams, belted camel-hair coat with cap to match, over-size cigar all aglow, and surrounded by the customary gallery of admirers. Mrs. Ruth stands nearby and gives me my first close-up of a mink coat; a luxurious, bulging wrap which probably set her man back a cool five thousand. While she obligingly diverts the autograph addicts, I spirit Babe through an iron gate, produce a badly wrinkled contract in the form of a short, informal letter and without a question, he inscribes "George Herman Ruth" in the correct spot and I go in search of a ghost to do the writing.
Labels: News of Yore
You can find libraries that have it here: http://openlibrary.org/works/OL7435059W/Adios_to_ghosts! (click on "Borrow physical copy".
Alas, it doesn't appear that Google books has scanned it yet -- too bad!
Thanks for the suggestion, but ILL is all but impossible at my local library since should-be-sainted librarian Cathy Mahoney passed away. She would move heaven and earth to get me material I needed.
Anyway, I was mostly interested in the first half of the story, about Walsh getting his syndicate rolling, so I'm content.