The dean of the scribes from “Sportswriter U” has a basketball classic

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

COOPER, Iowa, Feb. 26, 2016 – Most normal people are unaware that my alma mater Vanderbilt University in Nashville has a nickname of “Sportswriter U.” That’s because a long line of outstanding sportswriters have graduated there, going back to the legendary Grantland Rice at the beginning of the 20th century. He gave us the “Four Horsemen” of Notre Dame, as well as the great line from his poem “Alumnus Football” that you still see written on gymnasium walls: “For when the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name, He writes not whether you won or lost but how you played the game.”

Even today, more than a dozen of the nation’s most prominent sportswriters today are Vandy graduates. Among the more widely known are Skip Bayless and Buster Olney of ESPN, Dave Sheinen of the Washington Post, Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, Dan Wolken of USA Today.

But the dean of Vanderbilt sportswriters now is my pal Bill Livingston, for 32 years the sports columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer in Ohio.

The news here is that “Livy,” as he is known by coaches, athletes and scribes across the nation, has a new book out that is especially fun reading as this basketball season starts its tournaments and playoffs. Kind of a “companion” for you to browse and enjoy between games.

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Bill Livingston, sports columnist of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. (Photo from the Dan Dakich Show, 1070thefanradio.com)

The book is “George Steinbrenner’s Pipe Dream,” the story of the Cleveland Pipers, champions of the fledgling professional American Basketball League in 1961-’62, the only year of the team’s existence in pro ball.

Yes, that George Steinbrenner, who went on to become the owner of baseball’s New York Yankees. But in his hometown of Cleveland in 1961, the 30-year-old Steinbrenner was trying professional sports ownership for the first time. And he debuted with every bit of bullheaded, heavy-handed, dictatorial management style for which he became famous with the Yanks from 1973 until he died in 2010.

As Livingston tells it, George Steinbrenner had his future charted for him as third-generation heir to his family’s Cleveland-based Great Lakes shipping company, Kinsman Marine Transit. His quick rise in the business in the late 1950s, when his stern father Henry Steinbrenner was still in charege, gave young George early recognition and connections. He “was the Chamber of Commerce’s ‘Ohio Man of the Year’,” Livingston said.

But George was mostly bored with shipping and really wanted to do sports.

So he bought the Cleveland Pipers, a team that was having great success in the old National Industrial Basketball League (NIBL), which had AAU-affiliation. (The “Pipers” name came from the original owner’s plumbing supply business.) Lots of college basketball’s greatest stars back then joined NIBL teams, because their contracts gave them off-season jobs and salaries, which the young National Basketball Association (NBA) did not. Many readers here in Iowa know that Gary Thompson, the 2-sport All-American for Iowa State from 1953-’57, became a star and later coach of the old Phillips 66ers based in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, one of the great NIBL teams.

Steinbrenner wasn’t content to be owner of a NIBL team, however. He wanted to join this new American Basketball League (ABL), which was planning to challenge the growing NBA for fan following. Abe Saperstein, the super promoter who owned the Harlem Globetrotters, was commissioner of the ABL. Imagine Saperstein as commissioner, and Steinbrenner as one of the hard-charging owners. It was showtime!

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You’ll love Livingston’s review of the year-long escapade, which featured:

–The Pipers had the first black manager in professional sports, the great John McLendon, who in the late 1950s had coached an all-black basketball team at Tennessee A&I University to three consecutive championships in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) tournaments, many of which were played in Kansas City. The book includes an insightful vignette from a mutual friend of Livingston and me, Douglas T. Bates III, of Centerville, Tenn. Bates tells Livingston how, as a 10-year-old white kid in the late ’50s, he’d have a radio under his blankets in his bedroom, listening to McLendon’s Tennessee A&I Tigers playing for chanting, singing fans who packed their gym in Nashville. Young Douglas couldn’t understand why no one in his life ever talked about the A&I team, or why their games got so little coverage in the Nashville newspapers. Livingston says many in Cleveland were “aghast” at the hiring of McLendon, but he did a great job as a coach, manager and father figure, even to his professional players, until – guess what – Steinbrenner ousted him at mid-season.

–There were often zany promotions to try to attract fans. Livingston writes how one of the teams, the Kansas City Steers, “toured with the Cab Calloway band, which served as pregame entertainment for three games between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The rigors of travel certainly did not harsh the musicians’ mellow,” Livingston continues. “Calloway’s band members brought their instruments, their tuxedos, their girdles to get into their tuxes, and their marijuana. Calloway, known as the ‘Hi De Ho Man’ for the chorus of his hit song, ‘Minnie the Moocher,’ had previously recorded a song called ‘Reefer Man,’ about a man with a fondness for marijuana. In this case, life imitated art. Clouds of smoke floated through the bus, smelling unlike anything the Marlboro Man would have enjoyed while riding through the purple sage. The basketball players were mystified by the sweet smoke. ‘Isn’t that pretty funny smelling tobacco?’ one said.”

–Road trips weren’t always on buses. The teams used airplanes when they had to, and on closer games, they even crammed into station wagons.

–There was innovation. The ABL was the first to introduce the 3-point basket for long shots (they had to mark the line on most arena floors with adhesive tape). A wider free throw lane was also used.

–Many of the arenas were aging dumps. Cleveland Arena, where the Pipers played many home games, “was known as ‘The Icehouse’ because it was the home of the American Hockey League’s Cleveland Barons,” Livingston writes. “…the Arena was a seedy building with chicken wire shielding fans from wayward pucks in its hockey configuration. The ambient temperature fully lived up to its frigid nickname. The narrow wooden seats inside it were dilapidated. Showers in the locker room went from hot to cold with the flush of a toilet. Nobody ever said the place was about comfort for either fans or players.”

–But there was some great basketball, with players like the Pipers’ Dick “Skull” Barnett, who had starred for McLendon at Tennessee A&I; the superstar Connie Hawkins, by way of the Iowa Hawkeyes, playing for the Pittsburgh “Rens” (short for “Renaissance Men”), and Bill Bridges, former Kansas University All-American who was with the Steers in Kansas City. In the summer of 1962, Steinbrenner had signed Ohio State’s Jerry Lucas – one of the best players at any level in America – and was plotting a move to the NBA. But that’s when his finances and unpopularity with other owners caught up with him. The pro Pipers folded and, within months, so did the rest of the ABL.

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George Steinbrenner (left) in his Cleveland Piper years with guard Larry Siegfried (center) and Coach John McLendon. (Photo from the Cleveland Press via the Cleveland Plain Dealer)

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George Steinbrenner in his years as owner of the New York Yankees. (Photo from the team)

Sports fans have to wonder, what might have been?

“If George Steinbrenner had made it into the NBA with that team, he might well have never left Cleveland,” Livingston speculated the other day in our phone chat. “Instead of buying the New York Yankees, he probably would have bought the Cleveland Indians. If he had, he would have solidified the Indians and made them winners like he did the Yankees.”

And, yes, all the turmoil that Steinbrenner stirred in New York would have happened in his hometown there on Lake Erie.

Sportswriter Bob Sudyk covered the Pipers for the old Cleveland Press newspaper, and he opened his files for Livingston when he was doing his research. Years after the team folded, Steinbrenner saw Sudyk in downtown Cleveland, gave him an unexpected hug and invited him to a favorite old bar for a long conversation. Steinbrenner acknowledged how he once had tried to get Sudyk fired for something the sportswriter had published.

Sudyk recalled for Livingston that Steinbrenner admitted that in his Pipers year, “I was out of control. Maybe it was my youth. I was under a lot of pressure to meet the bills.” He said that, yes, he was very hard on his players, staff and for that matter, sportswriters. “I think I can get more out of people by pushing them,” Steinbrenner continued to Sudyk. “I can’t be a nice guy about it. Nobody will ever follow me out of affection. They follow me because they think I can come up with the answers. That is my only shot as a leader… Some people call me a tyrant and a meddler. I was brought up to be deeply involved, and I don’t apologize for that. I got mad as hell when my team blew a game, just like a fan. But if I own the team, I can do something about it… Sure I’m tough to work for,” Steinbrenner concluded. “I wouldn’t like to work for me. I don’t think anybody ever reaches his potential. We all have 10 percent more to give.”

You get all of this in the 243-page book, which was published this past November by The Kent State University Press. Livingston’s newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, published excerpts of the book for a week then, and it is selling very well.

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Bill Livingston, starting out on the book signing circuit in Cleveland.  (Photo from the author)

I asked Livingston how he felt, after he’d done all his research, and was sitting with a huge stash of information about so many colorful, sometimes-outrageous characters. Many of them were reaching their prime in the late ’50s and early ’60s, an era when interest in sports was mushrooming in America – and has never stopped growing. Was it difficult to write all that?

“Well, I felt a little like I did back when I was covering the Master Golf Tournament for the first time, and I thought I had all this great stuff for my story,” Livingston said. “I was there in the press tent with one of my real mentors, Bill Millsaps, who was the sports editor and columnist then for the Richmond Times Dispatch. I said I didn’t quite know what to do with all the material I had. ‘Saps,’ as we call him, said, ‘Well, Livy, the biggest problem here is that you don’t want to overwrite it. So, just say the Old Sportswriter’s Prayer for when you have a great story situation: Oh Lord, please don’t let me (screw) this up!’ ”

He didn’t.

And I’m not a bit surprised. From the first time I met Livingston, in 1967 or ’68, I had radar for what a fine reporter and writer he would become, and that he was destined for journalism stardom.

Like most of the well-known Vanderbilt sportswriters, Livingston came to the school on what back then was a full-ride journalism scholarship, endowed in the name and memory of Grantland Rice by the Thoroughbred Racing Association. It is now named the Grantland Rice-Fred Russell Scholarship, to include the Vandy grad Russell who was sports editor for decades of the old Nashville Banner. It is awarded every year to a high school senior who is “a promising sportswriter.” (For the record, I was runner-up in 1965, and decided to go to Vandy anyway when they offered me a consolation scholarship.)

THE MAKING OF A SPORTSWRITER.  Livingston arrived at the university in Nashville from Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas, Texas.

His interest in sportswriting had been inspired early.

“The Dallas Times Herald’s sports columnist when I was growing up was a real legend, Blackie Sherrod,” Livingston said. “We never missed reading him at our house. My dad was a St. Louis Cardinals fan then. Across the South, people would listen to Cardinals games on KMOX radio. Dad never considered a game really completed until he read what Blackie had to say about it. From that time on, I knew I wanted to be a guy like Blackie.”

In high school, he ran into English and journalism teacher Albert Sidney Johnston, namesake and relative of a famous Texas military general. Johnston groomed not only Livingston, but also Lenny Goldstein, who was two years older and also was a Grantland Rice Scholarship winner at Vanderbilt.

“Mr. Johnston was a wonderful teacher,” Livingston recalled, “and I’ve got a story that will tell you just how cool he was. In my sophomore year, he gave us an assignment to write a parody of some piece of literature. I had read Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and liked it. So for a parody, I wrote ‘The Tell-Tale Fart’ about a guy who was uncontrollably flatulent.

“So as Mr. J is handing back the papers to us, he says, ‘Mr. Livingston, come to my desk after class.’ I thought I was probably in trouble. But he was so cool, he pulled out a copy of Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ and from what’s called ‘The Miller’s Tale,’ he read the scene about farting. Then he said, ‘I just wanted you to know that you are hardly the first person to write about farts.’ Right then, I thought, ‘I really do want to be a writer.’ ”

In his senior year, the Dallas Morning News decided to create a “High School Sports” page and asked journalism teachers to recommend a student to report and write for each school. Teacher Johnston picked Livingston to write for “Woodrow,” as Wilson High School is known in Dallas. He did well enough that at the end of that school year, when he needed a letter of recommendation for the scholarship at Vanderbilt, the Morning News’ sports editor wrote one.

HE WAS “AWOL” FROM THE NEWSPAPER.  Alas, in his first two years at Vandy, Livingston did nothing for the student newspaper, the Vanderbilt Hustler. “My freshman year, I was concentrating on making sure I could keep my grades up,” he recalled. “My sophomore year, I just hadn’t gotten drawn into anything. Then that spring, there was a knock on my dorm room door. I opened it up and there you were – mop of hair, glasses, saddle shoes and all, saying, ‘Why aren’t you writing for the Hustler?’ ”

I had been going over the list of Grantland Rice Scholarship winners on campus, and realized Livingston had been a no-show at the newspaper office. As the rising editor-in-chief, I tabbed him to be sports editor and demanded that he start writing a regular column.

“I’ve got a problem,” Livingston confessed. “I don’t know how to type.” I told him we’d work around that, and we did.

Eventually, we told him to focus just on his column writing, and we made my classmate Henry Hecht the sports editor. Hecht, by the way, went on to an outstanding sportswriting and editing career with the New York Post, Sports Illustrated, The National, Long Island Newsday and is now a writing coach in New York City.

After graduating from Vanderbilt in 1970, Livingston went to the University of Texas where he started graduate school – thinking he wanted to teach – then thought better of it and took a sports job with the Dallas Morning News. “Those were kind of crazy, fun years, to be young and on a good newspaper’s sports staff like that,” he said. “There was a lot of alcohol and partying, too much for some. I loved all the guys. A writer Bob St. John did this book then, ‘Texas Sports Writers: The Wild & Wacky Years,’ and I’ve always been proud that there are two or three pages in it about me.”

In 1973, the Philadelphia Inquirer – on the recommendation of a Vandy grad on its staff – hired Livingston. For 11 years, he covered the “Big Five” Philadelphia-area colleges in basketball, some Penn State football, and the Philadelphia Sixers in professional basketball. “That meant I got to cover ‘Dr. J,’ Julius Erving, my favorite athlete ever,” he said. “Now in Cleveland I’ve covered LeBron James. That’s a lot of good basketball.”

The move to Cleveland came in 1984, when one of his Philadelphia Inquirer sports colleagues, Thom Greer, became sports editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and then summoned Livingston to become the paper’s chief sports columnist. He’s done that ever since.

SPORTSWRITING AT ITS BEST.  His writing now reflects the great volume of sports knowledge and maturity that you’d expect a veteran like Livingston to have. But it’s also loaded with fun. Occasionally, I think you can see evidence peeking through that besides being an English major at Vanderbilt, he also had a minor in “classics.” But he’s never snooty, and he can make a wide range of topics very readable.

“What I’ve always loved about Cleveland is that here, I get to write about almost every sport,” he said. “In fact, I think the only one I haven’t written about is horseracing.”

He is a great admirer of the late Bob Feller, the Iowa native who became a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, and he has written about Feller extensively.

In the fall, he has always focused primarily on Ohio State football, both home and on the road, and tries to get back for Cleveland Browns professional games the next day.

Most of his career at the Plain Dealer, he has written four columns per week, “but now in the digital era, it’s pretty much 24/7 – writing whenever there’s something to write, although I don’t have to make them all column-length.” Like most journalism professionals today, he also posts regularly on Twitter and Facebook, and he’s a frequent guest on national radio and TV sports shows.

You can follow his columns for free right here http://www.cleveland.com/livingston/ and if you enjoy great sportswriting, I recommend you try him.

He writes from home and from press rooms on the road more than he does in the Plain Dealer newsroom. He and his wife Marilyn have raised three children – teacher Sondra, 34, medical clinic administrator Julianne, 32, and attorney Billy, 29, who specializes in First Amendment cases. They are enjoying grandparenting Julianne’s 1-year-old, Mitchell Holden Thomas. “The ‘Holden’ comes from Holden Caulfield of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’,” Grandpa reports. “That’s Juli’s favorite book, which I gave her in middle school.”

Now 67, Bill Livingston is contracted with the newspaper until he turns 70 and then plans to retire – but he hopes to keep writing.

As he’s shown in this new book “George Steinbrenner’s Pipe Dream,” and a couple other books he’s done earlier, he has a grand command of a bunch of good stories in his hip pocket.

You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.

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