Chuck Ramsey, the New York Jets’ punter, was crying. it was 1979 and the first time I I had ever seen a National Football League player in tears.
“What’s wrong, Chuck,” I asked after the Jets had lost a Monday Night Football game in Seattle. “Was it that punt they blocked?”
“How would you feel,” the kicker asked, “if the coach said to the entire team, ‘I can fart farther than you can punt?’ ”
Now, my problem was how to get that remarkable quote into The New York Times.
The Times, that paper of record, was also the guardian of politesse. Its stylebook was written in stone, like ancient commandments. Its mission, among many others, was never to offend—even on the sports pages. Beyond the stylebook, though, were the almost tribal edicts, passed down from slot man to slot man.
Thus, on my first horseracing assignment at Aqueduct in the early 1960s, a helpful editor told me, “Remember, you can’t say a horse came from behind in the stretch.” I wondered, is there some editor in an ivory tower on West 43rd Street going out of his way to find double entendres?
Soon after my immaculate debut at Aqueduct, I covered the Preakness, the second jewel in the Triple Crown of racing. The huge infield was packed with thousands of fans, so many that management needed to provide portable toilets for them, which I dutifully described.
No way. All references to portable toilets had to be, um, flushed.
Dirt, or words that sounded like dirt, seemed to be a no-no at The Times (we capitalized the “t” in “The”). When I asked Muhammad Ali whether he enjoyed southern cooking, he replied, rhetorically, “Does a pig like slop?” “Slop” is a southern locution for food fed to farm animals. But I guess it had some other nasty connotations for that editor in the ivory tower. The quote was killed.
Meanwhile, I was wondering why our magnificent columnist, Dave Anderson, infused his stories with the expression “in the confusion.” He often started them with those three words, or they cropped up in the middle of his pieces. So what was the story?
I found out that one of our reporters—a great guy who was hard of hearing—was at a party. It was noisy, and he was speaking loudly because of his disability, as well as because of the decibel level around him. He was telling a story about one of his road trips. Suddenly, as happens at these shindigs, the room grew quiet. But he didn’t realize it and kept talking in a loud voice, getting to the punchline, which he shouted: “And in the confusion, I fucked the widow!” Everyone heard him.
Thus, Dave, such a pleasant guy, never hesitated sneaking in those three little words. Still. (I admit, I do, too.)
But there wasn’t much you could sneak in at The Times. Even medical conditions were subject to scrutiny, if not a proctologic examination. When Ali was training for his first title defense against Sonny Liston, he suffered a painful hernia. He was rushed to the hospital and underwent surgery. Our Bob Lipsyte, perhaps the writer I most admired on the paper, already had filed his story for the day and had left, and could not be reached in that pre-cellphone year of 1964. I happened to be on rewrite that night, and the editors asked me to insert the medical facts.
I worked the phone in my best Page One fashion and got a rather complete medical history and explanation of what happened and why Ali (who was then called Cassius Clay) had to postpone the bout.
Except after I wrote the story, proud that I had made the deadline, editors told me I couldn’t use the word “testicle.” Sort of like writing about an attack of appendicitis without using the word “appendix.” After some protesting, I complied, and the Old Gray Lady heaved a sigh of relief.