During my last year at UW-Madison, uncertain of what was next, I developed a daily ritual that helped sustain me.
Early every morning, I stopped at the Rennebohm Drug Store at the corner of State and Lake and bought the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times newspapers. I carried them a block over to Lake and Langdon, to the Kollege Klub, where I sat in a booth with a cup of coffee.
Not many people knew the KK was open for breakfast. It was the campus’ best boy-meet-girl place at night. The Meier family owned it. John Meier, whom everyone called Big Dad, was the boss, but his son, Bruce, my childhood friend from the neighborhood, was already running it. These days, Bruce’s son is in charge.
Back then, I lost myself in the stories in those Chicago papers. The columnists wrote nonfiction pieces that took me where I could not go myself, introducing me to shady politicians, profane baseball managers, saloon singers, pool hustlers and more — a whole galaxy of colorful characters brought to life with vivid writing.
At one point during that year, a thought crossed my mind. “I wonder if I could do that?”
The Chicago writers — on the news and feature side — had names including Mike Royko, Tom Fitzpatrick and Bob Greene. Some of the best storytellers were sports columnists — Bob Verdi, Ron Rapoport, David Israel, and, especially, John Schulian.
Not one of them works for a Chicago newspaper anymore — some are no longer living — but all of those listed above, along with many other fine writers, are once again telling their stories, thanks to a new book, “From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago’s Best Sportswriting.”
Rapoport, who wrote for the Sun-Times as well as the Los Angeles Daily News, and may be best known for his two decades as a sports commentator on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” had the idea for the book and served as editor.
I caught up with him last week by phone from Los Angeles, where he had just returned after a wild and wonderful week in Chicago promoting the new book. The launch party was at the fabled Billy Goat Tavern.
“We ran out of books,” Rapoport said. “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
Rapoport, 73, said the book’s genesis was his recent realization of just how talented many of his Chicago sportswriting colleagues were, coupled with the somewhat tenuous state of sportswriting today. It seemed important to have a record of sports storytelling that actually tried to entertain, inform and move readers rather than merely incite them.
Rapoport asked the living writers to send him their best stuff and unearthed earlier gems on his own. What emerges is not only a feast of good writing but a history of the Chicago sporting scene, the good and the bad.
Readers get Ring Lardner on the eve of what would be a notorious 1919 World Series for the White Sox, along with John Kass, more than eight decades later, who found himself sitting near Steve Bartman at Wrigley Field shortly after Bartman became a pariah to Cubs fans. (Kass, like Mike Royko, is an example of Rapoport’s wise decision to include not just sportswriters but city-side writers who occasionally ventured into sports.)
Madison area readers will find a number of ways to connect with the book beyond the good stories. One of the writers represented, Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander, wrote a book about the University of Wisconsin athletic program titled, “From Red Ink to Roses.” Another, the late Bill Gleason, helped Madison producer John Roach create the long-running TV show “The Sportswriters on TV,” which also featured Telander.
I have a couple of connections of my own besides having once written a book about Royko. One of the best Christmas gifts I ever got was a surprise from my mom around the time I was spending all those mornings in a booth at the Kollege Klub. There was a new book, titled “Grif,” a collection of sportswriting by Jack Griffin, who wrote for the Sun-Times and died right before I started reading the Chicago papers. It wasn’t easy to find limited edition books in those days, but I received a copy of “Grif” that December. My mom later told me it came in the mail on Christmas Eve. I devoured it. No surprise, Rapoport saw fit to include two Jack Griffin columns in the new book.
I have also, over the past decade, enjoyed a long distance friendship, via e-mail, with John Schulian, to my mind the greatest Chicago sports columnist of them all. Schulian left sportswriting to work in television, and lives outside of Los Angeles in Pasadena.
Any Badgers fan who took my suggestion and indulged at Pie and Burger in Pasadena during a Rose Bowl trip needs to thank Schulian, who was my tipster. Rapoport ends the book with a haunting 1983 column by Schulian that said, without really saying, the time had come for him to move beyond daily sports journalism.
The new book is all anyone needs to realize how fortunate we are that Schulian and his gifted colleagues gave themselves to their craft as thoroughly as they did.
Thinking back on those Kollege Klub mornings, I sometimes wonder if all the young people I see today staring down at their phones are getting something back equal to what the Chicago newspapers once gave me.
I hope so.