The Gray Lady blushes

A former Times sportswriter recalls a primmer era
September 3, 2013

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?’ ”

How, indeed?

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.

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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.

Brigitte Nielsen, ex-wife of Sylvester Stallone and inamorata of the Jets’ defensive star, Mark Gastineau, was a 6-foot Swedish blonde who had made a few movies in Europe (what, you never heard of Red Sonja?). I had gotten friendly with her at team practices as she watched her “Markie” work out.

One night, before the three of us went out to dinner, she showed me around their rented home on Long Island. In their bedroom was a bed so high (Mark was about 6’ 5″) that you needed a small ladder to climb onto it. She launched herself onto the bed, and began to roll around. “This,” she said breathlessly, “is where Mark and I have all our fun.”

You don’t really think that quote made the paper, do you?

Of course, those of us who work with words are delighted when we can invigorate the language with a new phrase, or find an athlete who has a new way of saying something old and tired.

I am grateful still to the old Mets manager, Wes Westrum, who remarked after a close game, “Boy, that certainly was a cliff-dweller!” I believe we permitted that quote to remain, as we did that from the Buffalo Bills football coach who remarked, “We knocked the sails out of his wind.”

And Joe Gardi, a Jets assistant coach, is in my pantheon of wordsmiths, because he told me, when discussing the team’s problems, “We’ve got to nip it in the butt.” Perhaps so, but not in The Times.

Which brings me back to the tearful punter, Chuck Ramsey.

After he told me that head coach Walt Michaels had used the word “fart,” I called the paper. Remember, I was in Seattle, and it was close to midnight in New York. I told them what I had. They told me they’d call me back, that it needed a command decision. The response was fairly quick–“You can’t use the word, but you can paraphrase it.” So I dutifully quoted Ramsey as saying that Michaels had yelled, “I can spit farther than you can punt.”

However, one of the tabloids in the city actually used the real quote. And then the Long Island paper Newsday, which had a media columnist then, subsequently wrote a big story about how every paper in the city had used that f-word except The Times, which–for shame–altered the quote.

That embarrassed the powers at my paper, and an edict came down from on high: Never again is a quote to be altered for any reason. You can use brackets to show that a word has been changed, but not actually change a quote directly. I mentioned that edict to Ramsey later that week.

Some years later, I was at a Jets exhibition game in Nashville. Ramsey had retired, but I happened to spot him at the players’ entrance, where he was visiting old friends.

“Hey, Jerry,” he called. “Over here. I want you to meet someone.” He introduced me to a friend.

“This is the guy,” he said to his friend, as he held my hand, “who made me famous in The New York Times. They have a rule about me there!”

Good for Chuck, I thought. Glad he could laugh about that odious moment. Still, some part of me wishes I could have made history at the paper by getting the f-word past our editors.

Perhaps I might have if, once again, an editor hadn’t cautioned me. I was leaving the office to cover a New York Rangers hockey game when my kindly editor told me: “Don’t use the word ‘puck.’ ” And why not? Because the linotype operators were engaged in union negotiations, and to flex their muscles, some operators might have a puckish sense of humor and give the rubber disk a new first letter.

So I wrote a thousand words about a hockey game without using the word “puck.” It was a hard rubber disk, a black sphere, but never a “puck.”

Do I have any other regrets for words not written? Well, maybe it would have been fun to have slipped one or two in when I was a young Times reporter on the high-school sports beat. I wrote about the public schools in New York City, of course, but also wrote about the Catholic Schools, though was sternly warned before my first column: In The New York Times, St. John’s never “whips” St. Cecilia’s. And woe to the writer who dares to say that St. Cecilia’s “downs” St. John’s.

I thought about that simpler time recently when I read a longform piece in the paper about a transgender martial-arts fighter. Wonder whether you could say she “topped” her opponent? Or even, in the confusion of a martial-arts brawl, had her down for the count?

Gerald Eskenazi produced 8,000 bylines in more than 40 years with The New York Times , in addition to writing 16 books. He now lectures on sports and the news media.