By Michael Miner
If you're troubled by the Tribune's "Now, more in your face" sports campaign--if you fear a serious testosterone disorder--rest easy. The paper's simply striving to rediscover its roots.
In a bygone era, when it was the "World's Greatest Newspaper," the Tribune was constantly pressing chests and bumping noses. In The Press A.J. Liebling describes a mid-40s reporting expedition to the east coast ordered by Colonel Robert McCormick. The first dispatch out of this heart of darkness wore the headline: "The Alien East: / A Thing Apart / From America / Its Millions Loyal To / Lands They Fled."
A few years later Liebling spotted the Tribune crusading against collectivist headwear. "We propose a citywide burning of the babushkas!" proclaimed McCormick's Tower Ticker columnist. "These regimenting rags, which convert pretty, young Chicago faces into moon-round parodies of peasants, have made the teen scene resemble potato digging time on a Soviet collective."
Such were McCormick's bullying enthusiasms that although the Tribune's owner and publisher died 41 years ago he's held accountable by some reporters with a notion of history for every ethnic, racial, and philosophical sector of the city that refuses to buy his newspaper today. The sports section's battle cry falls short only in its failure to rally these wayward armies. "In yo' face" would have made a powerful statement of the Tribune's new commitment to diversity.
The competition in McCormick's day was represented by the liberal gentility of Marshall Field III. Again history repeats itself. When I asked the Sun-Times's sports editor what he had to counter with, Bill Adee replied, "I've got Ron Rapoport up my sleeve for starters."
Said Adee, "I can't tell you how excited people here are to have him back. Fists pumping, jumping up and down."
Rapoport, a columnist banished from the Sun-Times in 1987 for his intelligence and fairness, returns next week as Adee's assistant. When Hot Type bid him adieu I noted that he'd been named Illinois' best sports columnist various times by AP, UPI, and the Illinois Press Association, won a National Headliners Award, and been reprinted in the annual Best Sports Stories anthology six years running. But Rapoport lacked that sine qua non belligerence the Sun-Times would eventually call "attitude" and the Tribune "in your face." Stripped of his column, Rapoport went west to the Los Angeles Daily News, the voice of the San Fernando Valley.
Rapoport enjoyed years of globe-trotting eminence at the Daily News before the paper decided to save some bucks and make him quit. His fate would make a sordid story if told by someone rich in the powers of scorn, aggression, and self-pity. But Rapoport's unblessed by these highly marketable qualities.
"I don't have anything bad to say about the Daily News," he told me. "But I don't think there's any secret about the cost-cutting frenzy sweeping American papers, and the Daily News got caught up in it. They're throwing good-bye lunches, two or three a week. I shared mine with the deputy sports editor."
According to Adee, Rapoport was making double what everyone else at the Daily News was making. So they took his column away and put him on the copy desk. This sort of treatment is understood to be an engraved, embossed, special-delivery letter to get lost.
"If Bill told you that, I won't disagree," said Rapoport. "But what's interesting is that in the last few months, when I came inside, I was working with young people, and it was very enjoyable. So when Bill mentioned this job to me, when I picked myself off the floor and thought about it, it made more and more sense."
Adee wants Rapoport to work with the section's writers, not to write himself. And at this stage of his life these terms suit Rapoport fine. "I've been a sportswriter for 30 years, and I've been a columnist for 18. But I've been going through some changes." Besides his recently acquired taste for mentoring, he's found a new creative outlet, writing books. "I've just finished one with Betty Garrett," he said. Garrett was one of Tinseltown's leading song-and-dancers of the 50s--with a blacklisted husband to boot. "I'm starting another one away from sports. So I haven't given up writing."
Adee and Rapoport met at the Daily News, and when the Sun-Times offered Adee a job eight years ago Rapoport surprised him by urging him to take it. "I figured he'd have nothing but the worst things to say about the Sun-Times, and in fact he told me to go," Adee said. "He thought the Sun-Times was still great."
Human decency is a welcome addition to any newspaper. But don't expect to see it heavily promoted.
A.E. Eyre stormed into my office, and I'd never seen him so excited.
"I'm going to recite a poem," he announced. "You tell me who wrote it, Auden or Eyre."
Blocking the door, he cleared his throat and began.
My wife rose from her soggy bed
To mix the stew and box the
And moil enough to make her
Out through her tongue. The kitchen was in tears
When I came home. Self-pity on
Beatified the pale, Vicks-vapored shrew.
I cherish her in health and will in death.
But damn her with a cold. Well, where's my stew?
I considered the evidence. "Eyre," I said at last. "But only because Auden wasn't a family man."
"And Eyre is," he sighed. "Well, my friend, Bartlett's may turn its back on such piercing wit. But I've found a place that doesn't."
Eyre is of an age when literary giants such as he begin pondering their monuments. Some authors leave behind bookshelves of their tomes. Eyre seeks a citation in Bartlett's. And wildly overestimating my influence as a columnist, he has pleaded with me to "pull a few strings" and have him listed in the next edition.
The matter has put a lifelong friendship under serious strain.
But now Eyre was waving a large advertisement he'd torn from the Chicago Tribune. The headline announced, "Poetry Contest $24,000 in Prizes."
Eyre's finger stabbed at the ad. "National Library of Poetry," he read. "Founded in 1982 to promote the artistic accomplishments of contemporary poets...largest organization of its kind in the world....Many submitted poems will also be considered for inclusion in one of the...forthcoming hardbound anthologies."
You're entering? I asked.
"I'm already a semifinalist," he exclaimed. He flourished the letter that had just come in the mail from the desk of "Howard Ely Managing Editor." It announced that "Poet Eyre" was eligible for a $1,000 prize and, even better, that the National Library of Poetry wished to publish his poem "Fever" in its next anthology.
"Frost at Midnight," said Eyre, reading from the letter, "will be a classic, edition-quality hardbound volume--printed on fine milled paper to last for generations. It will make a handsome addition to any library, a treasured family keepsake, or a highly valued personal gift."
A tear was making its way down his cheek. "Immortality is within reach," he said.
As Eyre wept, I examined the various enclosures that accompanied the letter. One described the 500-page anthology as "a literary resource for public and academic libraries, recording companies, worldwide news media." A picture of a National Library of Poetry anthology lying open on a desk revealed the product in all its luster--six poems on one page, seven on another. The order form offered the "Deluxe Hardbound Edition" for the "Special Prepublication Discount Price" of $49.95, with additional copies for $35 each. Poets who wished to include their "biographical profile" in Frost at Midnight could pay an extra $20 for the privilege.
As I struggled to multiply 500 by 6 by $50 plus $20 in my head, Eyre spoke.
"I saw earlier ads from the National Library of Poetry in the Sun-Times," he said, "and to be honest I had my doubts. But the appearance in the Tribune guaranteed the library's bona fides. The Tribune values its own dignity fully as much as I do mine."
I excused myself to make some inquiries. I called the National Library of Poetry, which is in suburban Baltimore, and asked if there was a local library where I could peruse one of their stately collections. Yes, said a representative: the National Library had generously donated The Coming of Dawn to the Chicago Public Library, and Northeastern Illinois University possessed A Delicate Balance. Sad to say, librarians at both institutions could find no trace of them, but the reference librarian at NIU conducted a computer search and located the National Library of Poetry's Best Poems of 1995 at the public library in Wheaton.
Best Poems is on the premises, a Wheaton librarian confirmed. Another 500-page volume, six or seven poems to the page, it had been donated by a local woman represented within. The librarian told me that neither she nor a colleague could spot a single poet except the donor whose name they recognized.
I spoke with George Needham, an official at the American Library Association, and asked if and how the nation's libraries keep books such as Frost at Midnight.
"At arm's length," said Needham.
A Tribune spokesman told me the National Library ad was accepted by mistake. In fact, the paper had turned down the National Library a year earlier. "It appears to be a contest," he said. "It's not necessarily the kind of advertising we want to run."
If a contest, it's one where thousands of winners receive golden opportunities. Publication is just a start. Letters from Howard Ely that other poets have received--though not Eyre just yet--offer them the chance to display the poem of their choice "on a walnut finish plaque" for $38. And some receive the exhilarating news that "your poem is one of those exceptional poems that can be superbly presented, not only in print, but also through the spoken word." The cassette costs $29.95.
This is the stuff of dreams come true.
Such a glow lit Eyre's face when I saw him next that carping became unthinkable. He'd just completed his order form--I noticed he was requesting seven extra copies--and was now hard at work on his "Personal Note or Philosophical Statement."
"I assume Bartlett's scours everything that arrives from the National Library of Poetry," he said as he labored. "So it's two birds with one stone. But tell the truth--does 'Fever' find Eyre at the top of his game?"
Well, I said cautiously, it does come down a little hard on Mrs. Eyre.
Eyre's grunt told me I'd touched a sore spot. At last he muttered, "There is always a certain disregard for the artist on the home front."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Ron Rapoport by Steve Appleford.