Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Days When Newspapers Were Champs

Our Town downtown
January 2, 2007

‘Tunney,’ the new biography of one of the legends of the 1920s, boxer Gene Tunney, begins near the water off the West Village. Tunney’s old man worked on the docks and lived on Perry and then Bank Street to be near his work. The future champ who would knock out Dempsey twice went to St. Veronica’s grammar school and as a teenager coached boxing at P.S. 41.
The beginning chapters depict a neighborhood of working class people. It’s all different now of course. You’d have to own one of the boats that Tunney’s father unloaded to live there. Not many kids are there now who might grow up in the ring. Luckily the great apartment buildings are still there and the old sidewalks and the old trees and the school buildings that evoke that era. Which is of course why people sensitive to that don’t want it messed with by developers.
Here’s something in the book that sticks with me. Years later, Jack Cavanaugh who wrote the biography was on the train to Connecticut where he lives. Next to him was a noticeable guy who turned out to be Gene Tunney, and a conversation ensued and the book grew out of it. Anyway, the part of that train story that I liked was this: ‘Like most passengers in the car, he was immersed in one of New York’s three afternoon newspapers of the time, the nightly ritual for daily riders to the Connecticut suburbs from Manhattan.’ Is that a great scene or what? Don’t you ache for that way of spending your time? Three big wide newspapers to choose from to read on the train and then after dinner at home.

I was maybe 11 years old in the late 1950s when my father brought me by train into the city from our rural western New York hometown to see the Yankees play a weekend series against the Orioles. Of course I wanted to see Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford like any other kid who collected baseball cards and listened to Mel Allen on the radio. But the guy I wanted to see most was Gil McDougald. He was by far my favorite player. I couldn’t wait to watch him bat with his odd stance and to watch his easy long throws from third base to first base. He captivated me.

So, that first night in town, a Friday, when my guy Gil amazingly won the game with a single in the ninth, I was excited about getting up to a newspaper article in the New York paper the next morning telling about my hero’s hit. That’s what I did every morning at home; jumped out of bed to grab the sports page. What I still do. We got the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Another Rochester paper in the late afternoon. So, that’s how I figured it would be here. I was wrong. I think I found seven or eight New York papers throughout the next day in the hotel lobby’s newsstand. I bought them all and ripped out the articles on McDougald’s winning single for a scrapbook I kept on him.

Newspapers were what fathers did at the breakfast table back then. They were what mothers were doing at that same table when you came home late at night in high school.

Some nights now, in the face of a television filled with games and movies and talk, in the face of a computer filled with even more stuff, in the face of a cell phone filled with free calls after 7:00, I’ll still grab a Post or News and take it home with a couple slices of pizza and sit at the table like my parents did pretending in a way that I’ve got an evening paper in front of me.

It’s one of the great pleasures to walk to a newsstand here and grab a paper. Tunney’s old man did it. Tunney did it. Dempsey did it. At night it’s especially rich. The way the light hits the stacks. Some of the stands look like they could have been around back then. I read recently that the mayor cut some deal with a foreign company to get new ones and to replace the old ones. Ouch. Sometimes he can be way too natty. Luckily I haven’t finished reading ‘Tunney.’

-- Bill Gunlocke

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