Sunday, July 25, 2010
He Did Good, Lenny
Art Spander once told me that the beginning of the end at his San Francisco newspaper came when a snot-nosed editor called and said: "We want you to start writing funny." "Funny isn't my bag," Spander went on. "Funny is for Jim Murray. Funny isn't something you can turn on like pulling a switch."
I also got a disarming call from one of my editors one day. It must have been a slow day at the office. "We'd like to know," he said, "what you think your long-range future at the paper is." I quickly told him that I envisioned myself as the theater or movie critic. He hemmed and hawed, said something about that notion being beyond his control, and probably moved on to the next victim.
In his puckish way, Ziegel was funny on the page and off. Not all writers reflect their writing style, but he did. When you read a Ziegel column, you'd say to yourself, hey, that sounds like the same guy I talked to last night. There was a pretty good baseball writer in Boston, Larry Claflin, who could have successfully done standup, but his prose was dry. Once I asked Claflin about an outfielder I hadn't seen, and he said, "That guy would make Pete Gray look like Terry Moore." Pete Gray played with one arm, Moore was a premier center fielder. I told Claflin that he ought to go around with a tape recorder, and just regurgitate what he said for his columns.
Along the way, Ziegel, who was 72, won a couple of Red Smith Awards for writing about the Kentucky Derby. One of his last racing columns, the week of this year's Belmont Stakes, was written while he struggled with lung cancer, but it still smacked of vintage Ziegel: "(Future jockey) Richard Migliore, 15 years old,. living in a horse trainer's office on the Belmont Park backstretch, was cooking his Sunday night spaghetti dinner on a hot plate when he spotted a Pinkerton guard through the window. He opened the door and began blurting out his act of contrition."
When Ziegel was at the New York Post, he covered some dismal Yankee teams, teams that were blowing leads night after night. One night, the umpteenth game got away from the Yankees in the ninth inning. The clever Ziegel wrote: "The New York Post learned last night that the game is never over until the last man is out."
In those days, Ziegel and some of his colleagues were regulars at the Lion's Head, a writers' retreat in Greenwich Village. There were ugly rumors that many adult beverages were consumed there. Included in the crowd was Lenny Shecter, Ziegel's friend but also his idol. Shecter wrote with a cutting edge that Ziegel admired. But then one day, Ziegel was forced to write: "Lenny did a lousy thing to those nights at the Lion's Head. He died. But anytime I write a line I like, I tell my friend, 'I did good, Lenny.'"
At the Derby, Ziegel was up for anything. Besides the traditional Derby pool in the press box, he was at the ready for the Last Place Pool. We drew names out of a hat, and the one with the name of the last-place horse won hundreds of dollars. One year, the trainer King Leatherbury wanted to get in. The trouble was, Leatherbury had a horse in the race. Morality and ethics suddenly struck the organizers of the pool, and they invoked what became known as the Leatherbury Rule: Trainers are not allowed to have their own horses in the pool. There was no problem, because Leatherbury drew another horse, but his horse did bring up the rear in the race.
Another pool, unrelated to the Derby or even racing, manifested itself in Louisville. A macabre pastime, it was known as the Ghoul Pool, in which participants picked a famous person, and the owner of the first pick to die would collect the money. Ziegel was all in. He picked Glenn Ford, the actor, and several years passed and Ford was still alive. Vic grew weary of paying out as other people won. "Include me out," he finally said, borrowing from Sam Goldwyn. "Glenn Ford's never going to die." A couple of years later, one of the participants wanted to pick Max Schmeling, but none of us was sure if the former heavyweight champion, who had been out of the news for years, was still alive. So we went to Ziegel, former pool participant, boxing expert. "Schmeling?" he said. "He's still out there, although he's pretty old. Wish I had thought of him."
Ziegel covered many of Muhammad Ali's fights, including those in Manila and Zaire. By 1991, Ali was a shell of himself, all those blows in the ring having taken their toll. Ziegel ranked Babe Ruth and Ali as the two greatest figures in the history of American sports. Vic and Ali met somewhere, and Ali, recognizing Ziegel, said in a voice that was hard to hear: "You look the same."
"Bald guys always look the same," Vic Ziegel said.