Tom Callahan his own words

Idid not take any journalism classes while I was at Mount Saint Mary’s because none were offered.

About This Project

In his 1973 book "No Cheering in the Press Box," author Jerome Holtzman chronicled the lives of the greatest sports journalists of his generation. Four decades later, students at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism are updating his work with a series of interviews with the best sports journalists of the last 40 years.

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This chapter was produced by Connor Moldo.

About Tom Callahan
HOMETOWN: Baltimore
EDUCATION: Mount St. Mary's
OCCUPATION: Former Senior Writer, Time Magazine & Columnist, Washington Post

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Works by Tom Callahan

“His Father's Son,” Mainstream Publishing Company, 2012

“Johnny U,” Crown/Archetype, 2010

“Arnie: The Life of Arnold Palmer,” Harper Collins, 2017

I got about halfway through my senior year at Mount Saint Mary’s College and asked myself, ‘What does an English major do for a living?’

I happened to contribute columns to a weekly newspaper in Emmetsburg, Md., the Emmetsburg Chronicle. It was mostly just a see paper; there were no pictures. I walked into the office, and it was just a guy and a linotype machine. I told him I wanted to be a newspaper guy and that I’ll write him a column if he will print it. I wasn’t asking for a job and certainly did not expect to get paid for it. He asked me what I wanted to call the column. I replied, “The Viewpoint by Thomas Callahan,” pompously. I wrote about 14 or 15 of those on anything.

I actually applied for credentials for the World Series in 1966. The last two games of the series were in Baltimore, and the Orioles swept the Dodgers. Most people expected it to go the other way. The Orioles won the last two games both, 1-0. I wrote a column about it the following week.

Anyway, I walked into the Evening Sun and asked for the city editor. I talked to him for a while and then he passed me to the metro editor. I finally got passed along to the sports editor, Bill Tanton. Bill had just replaced the old sports editor.

I had just been in Akron because Mount Saint Mary’s was in the small college Final Four that year. Mount Saint Mary’s big player was a guy named Fred Carter, who ended up playing with the Bullets. I knew he was a good player when I saw him. I got into this conversation with Tanton and he asked me, “What is the first thing you read when you pick up the paper?” I replied, “The front page, of course.”

We got to talking, and I told him I was just in Akron to watch a guard, Earl Monroe. Tanton had never heard of Monroe and not many people had by then. Tanton asked if I had seen the Bullets play, and if I had seen Don Ohl. I told him, “If the Bullets had Monroe, Don Ohl wouldn’t be playing.” He kind of took offense to that because I was just some guy from St. Mary’s telling him some guy he never of is actually great.

Anyway, that year the Bullets flipped a coin with Detroit for the first pick in the draft. Whoever won the flip was going to take Jimmy Walker. Detroit won the flip and took Jimmy Walker, while the Bullets took Earl Monroe.

Tanton walks up to Gene Shue, the coach at the time for Bullets, and says, “I just had a kid walk into my office and tell me that’s the best player in the country.” But, I didn’t tell Tanton that. Tanton paged me at Mt. Saint Mary’s and said, “I don’t know where I’m going to put you, but I think I have a job for you.”

He gave me the high school beat and gave me a $100 a week. The idea of writing sports for $100 a week sounded great, but Tanton called me and got me an extra $25 a week. I thought $7,000 a year to go to ballgames, that’s great. That was my first job, and I wrote about high schools.

I got out of college in ’67 and walked into the Colts locker room that fall because I was doing a sidebar. I’m looking around the room, and Raymond Berry taps me on the shoulder. He says to me, “You are lostest looking guy I’ve ever seen in here. Who are you?” I say, “I’m Tom Callahan, a reporter for the Evening Sun.” He then asked me, “Who are you trying to speak with?” I said “Unitas, of course.” He goes into the crowd around Unitas’ locker and pulls him out. The players had these little milking stools that they sat on. He kicked me and Unitas a stool. Berry says to him, “John, this is a good friend of mine, Tom Callahan.” I had just met Berry two minutes earlier. Unitas responds, “Hey, Tommy.” From that day on I was Tommy to Unitas. I’d call him while I was at Time Magazine and leave a voicemail. He would call me back and never say hello. He would always say, “You bullcrappers in the media.” That was always the way he greeted me. I had a relationship with him.

That was my first job, and I had a lot of side beats because I got to cover things no one else wanted to cover. There were times when I had four or five articles in the paper in a day. I was the boxing guy because no one wanted to go to Dundalk, Md., at night. People in the rafters were yelling, “I got the winner.” I did a lot of side things like that. Every now and then I’d be sent to New York to cover the Bullets.

I went from there to the San Diego Union because Jack Murphy wandered through town one time and read an article of mine. He hadn’t hired anyone in years. He just doesn’t hire anyone. He wanted a pro basketball writer to cover the Rockets. I was the NBA writer, and I was kind of tough.

Cincinnati then asked me to come cover the Royals basketball team at the Cincinnati Enquirer. They were going to let the basketball writer, me, write a column a week. I wrote my column on everything but basketball. The first article I wrote was the first day after Bobby Jones had died in Atlanta. This is December of 1971, and I was made the columnist in May of ’72 at 25 years old.

It was a lively place to write a column because of its geography. The Reds were going strong, Paul Brown was still coaching the Bengals, and Bobby Knight was coaching next door at Indiana. It was a lively place to be writing a daily column.

I would have been happy on the other side of the paper. Once I got to sports, I realized it was a piece of luck. The great thing about sports is that the news is scheduled. The city side of news is you come along after the news happens. If you’re writing in sports it’s not exactly Armageddon.

One time, I was in Indiana and there was a terrible plane crash in Evansville. To me, that showed me that city guys and sports guys develop different muscles. I made it my business to see what everybody wrote. Their instincts were different. The city guys wrote about logistics of the crash. Sportswriters wrote about the salad dressing that went unused and the luggage. Everything survives but the people. I always thought it was lucky to end up in sports because it was more fun to write. The other bonus was that people brought a sense of passion to sports. I didn’t want to marry Cincinnati. If you’re a national sports columnist, you’re on a national trail. If I was just a Cincinnati guy, then you’re stuck where you are. I was for there for seven years, but I wanted a bigger market. The Washington Star then offered me a column, and that is where I went next. I was at the Star for the three years before it folded.

I played all the games, but I was not good at any of them. I went to Loyola High in Baltimore. I was the goalie on the lacrosse team. We had big wins, and I got carried off the field. At Mt. Saint Mary’s I only played intermural sports. The funny thing is that Earl Monroe always thought I was a basketball player. I like sports, but I would have covered anything. A lot of sportswriters liked the writing more than the game, but I liked the writing far more than anything.

I just liked the words. When I worked for Jack Murphy, he was a lucky guy to be around. He was a danky and delicate writer. Jack did not know anything about sports. It was amazing to me that guy could spend his entire career in sports and be so ignorant toward sports.

When I was covering the Rockets, the NBA All-Star Game was in San Diego. Every team had to be represented in the All-Star Game at the time. Lenny Wilkins enters the game in the second half. He had been a great left-handed player for Atlanta Hawks. He didn’t do anything with his right hand; he didn’t even brush his teeth right-handed. He scored the quickest twenty points you ever saw. It brought tears to your eyes how great he was.

After the game, Murphy leaned over to me and asked, “Who are you voting for as MVP?” I thought he was kidding; he wasn’t. Everyone at the table that night voted for Lenny Wilkins against Jack Murphy, who voted for Willis Reed. Reed was on the losing team.

As good of a friend as Jack was, I never brought this up to him. For a long time I cringed at the though of that. Anyway, he was a lovely writer. He would finish a column on Al Davis, and the last line would be “his face was lit with mischief.” He was a writerly guy. Getting around him helped ream me off the compound complex guys like Tom Wolfe and move me toward the Hemmingways.

Through Jack, I got to know Red Smith. I was Red Smith’s last best friend. That’s my greatest accomplishment as a sportswriter. After Jack died at age 57, it was just me and Red. We would be at a World Series and I’d be his legs because he wasn’t in very good condition. I would write a piece in Time magazine, and Red would call me up and say he read that piece twice. I could talk him about a column. He wouldn’t write anything I told him; it just got him in the mood to write.

I tried to be like him, but he had better eyes than I did. I mimicked him quite a bit. At some point, you don’t even realize you stop mimicking and develop a style of your own. Sooner or later, you find your own words, your own voice, and your own edge. Doing a column is very personable, and I was doing it when I was really young.

I went to all of the big sports events. I went to Houston for the Battle of the Sexes. So when I went to Time, I was still only 35 years old. I stopped being a daily newspaper guy except for my column in the Washington Post. I went back to writing a Sunday column for the Post after George Solomon cooked it up. He said he could get me off the eastern shuttle. George suggested I could write for Newsweek and the Washington Post. He was able to cook up that deal with help from Ben Bradlee.

I always promised myself that once the tuition stopped, I would only write books. I haven’t stuck to it completely, but I still kick in stories for Golf Digest because they are my friends. I do less writing because it became work and it just wasn’t as fun. Now I’ll only will write long pieces for Golf Digest, but I used to be the back-page columnist.

In my view, Red was the best sportswriter ever. Even Hemmingway knew he was great. It’s really hard to describe because he was such a crystal stream of a writer. Every four years, Red would cover the Democratic and Republic Conventions just to get out of the ballpark. He was a sportswriter let loose in a political atmosphere. The best sportswriters could see things that others could not, and Red has this quality. If you give me a fleet of sportswriters, I’ll take them against the best city guys in the world.

It was the simple guys that I loved. When I first showed up, each city had a sportswriter synonymous with the team. If you name a town then, I could tell you their sportswriter. It was a great pleasure to be around.

Shirley Povich was not a young man when he went to the Olympics in Munich in 1972. Once the shooting started, Shirley was terrific. It was very interesting to see the good guys how good they really were.

During the 1972 World Series, Jim Murray walked up to Jackie Robinson in the clubhouse. I already knew I was going to write a story about Robinson. Jackie was pretty much blind by then with diabetes; he was 57 but looked like he was 77. Robinson ended up dying 10 days later, but Murray had a final conversation with Jackie. Murray went to Jackie, “Jackie, it’s me, Jim.” Robinson responded, “Oh Jim, I wish I could see you again.” Murray replies, “No, Jackie, I wish I could see you again.” Murray didn’t use that quote, and to me that seems incredible.

It reminds me when Shirley was present at Lou Gehrig’s retirement speech and forgot to use his famous quote. I used to always bug Shirley about this, but his attitude was that he thought, “readers didn’t care what the players had to say, they only cared about what I had to say.”

I’ve ignored all these technology changes because I am old enough that I missed the rise of social media. Up until three weeks ago, I had a flip phone. When I came along in the newspaper business, we used to drop our copy at Western Union. I could be at Madison Square Garden handing my pages to a Western Union operator. When I went to Time magazine in 1979, they were still writing on typewriters. I miss all the old type of newspaper things; I miss the ink and the composing room downstairs. You really felt like a newspaper guy, and I miss that about the industry.

My goal was always to entertain the public, but I always wanted to make sure I told them something they didn’t know. To me, the fun of it was putting the words together. It is a musical exercise putting the words together. It’s really hard to explain to someone how to write a column. Red Smith used to say; “All you need to do is open a vein in order to write a plinth.”

I wouldn’t know how to give advice to young sports journalists today. The business I was in does not exist anymore. There are no columnists like I was. All those guys like Red Smith and Shirley Povich wrote every day, but that is not the case today. I don’t know how to recommend someone get in this business. All those pleasures and joys of the newspaper business are gone. Probably some of this is because I am an old crock. I am not sure I would point a young man in this direction. I don’t miss the business because this business I loved is no longer there.

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