Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


January 2, 2012

The Old Guard Steps Aside

Longtime columnist George Vecsey shares what it's like to leave the New York Times sports pageā€”his home since 1980.

Michael Gluckstadt

The old-school sports columnist is a unique breed of journalist. For decades he gives voice to a city's elations and frustrations, on and off the field. No controversy of player, coach, nor owner passes without his remark, and he has the power to bring unseen stories and people to the public's attention. Unlike his repetitious colleagues on the op-ed page, he's never wanting for material, as the sports world hatches a new drama every day. And as thousands of bloggers and Twittering fans follow in his opinion-sharing footsteps, he scoffs at the hordes in their underwear.

Photo by Marianne Vecsey
"The Sports of the Times column is, in its way, as vital as op-ed columns, or city columns."

Photo by Marianne Vecsey

There will never be another George Vecsey. The sports and journalism worlds have changed too much for a single man with a column (or a small group of like-minded men) to speak for a city. Vecsey started his sports-journalism career over 50 years ago, and has been a fixture in the New York Times sports section since 1980. He recently accepted a buyout from the paper, although he will continue to contribute occasionally. Vecsey is leaving what he describes as his dream job, "writing a column, with independence to think on my own, and travel the world, and see things in and out of the arenas."

In the following interview, which was conducted over email and edited for clarity, Vecsey looks back at a half century of sportswriting, telling Gelf what he'll miss most about the job, about the silent heroism of Stan Musial, and why he's been too busy to read sports blogs.

Gelf Magazine: Why did you decide it was time to step down from your role as columnist at the Times?

George Vecsey: The Times offered a buyout—not the best sign for our business, but a good deal for anybody thinking of moving on. I am 72, have often talked about finding some alternative way of doing things, and it's already running late. So I opted for the buyout, and the Times stunned me by asking if I would stay on as a "contributor" and write one or two columns a month. So it's all good.

Gelf Magazine: In your experience, how did the Times sports coverage differ from that of the city's other papers?

George Vecsey: With all due respect, I think the Times is able to go after important stories like brain damage or Penn State because they have terrific reporters and editors, and know how to go about it. (The Daily News takes investigations seriously, also.) The Times also assigns good people to beats, and lets them spin off into more than how practice went that day. As for me, they let me think for myself for nearly every day of 29 years.

Gelf Magazine: How has the role of the sports columnist shifted in an era when almost anybody can write about their teams online?

George Vecsey: There is far less need to be at some events than there used to be. Yes, we are a 24-hour wire service in some respects, so I was right there, on deadline, when Phelps won his gold medals in the morning in Beijing. But given the immediacy of the web, I was able to think ahead, come up with timely opinions or more timeless themes. And I need to keep doing that in my new life as "contributor."

Gelf Magazine: Do you read any sports blogs? Which ones?

George Vecsey: I hate to say, I don't think I do. I've been so task-oriented about sports that I've always been pursuing actual information from reporters who are out there covering subjects. I need to know, or confirm, details. I rely on my own head for opinions. I've also been working on a Stan Musial book since 2008 (it was a bestseller in 2011) and was accumulating interviews and research going back to the 1930s right up to today. I am fairly good at searches online, seeking people who are out there covering and working, and I have seen some longish pieces by Joe Posnanski, whom I admire greatly—an adult who knows sports.

Gelf Magazine: How does Musial compare to that other legendary Cardinals slugger, Albert Pujols?

George Vecsey: Musial was great for so long (a few war years included) and played left field or first base. Pujols has more power, sooner than Musial did. The next five to 10 years will tell if Pujols can match Musial's longevity and production.

Gelf Magazine: If he played today, would Musial have taken the contract with the Angels or stayed in St. Louis?

George Vecsey: My book points out that Musial was a homebody who was a uniquely good fit in St. Louis. He fought off a trade to Philadelphia and a late-career move to Pittsburgh never happened. But if free agency had been available, who is to say? It might not have been wise for Musial to take huge money in a more demanding city like New York, though he was beloved there, too. I would never say Musial would not, or should not, have taken more money as a free agent, if it had been an option. That's why free agency exists, to give players a choice for the money that is out there.

Gelf Magazine: The Times review of your Musial book says that despite your best efforts, the guy just wasn't that interesting, which is why he never got the big biography treatment before. Do you think there's any truth to that? What was your reaction to reading that review in your own paper?

George Vecsey: First, the Times has a sound policy of farming out reviews of books by employees. Kind reviews—or harsh reviews—by colleagues (even if we do not know each other) is too tricky. They chose somebody with great credentials. Did I like the review? No. I thought he was judging Musial by post-heroic-age yuppie standards, since Musial existed in a Depression era and showed his good values by letting everybody know he was going to play against Jackie Robinson. You cannot find a single word from Musial at the time explaining his stance. But he took the stance, because he had black teammates in high school, they had marched out of a restaurant in Pittsburgh, and he knew who he was. He was ahead of his time, in that southern-oriented clubhouse. I think it is easy for the young to judge people of previous generations. There are many examples in the book of Musial's kindness—toward players like Ruben Amaro, Elston Howard, Joe Black—and his comfort with Mays, Aaron, etc. To turn that into a negative sounds pretty knee-jerk to me. But I understand the reviewer's point of view, and respect his work.

Gelf Magazine: You've been a long-time booster of soccer in your columns. Do you see a change in how it's been regarded? Is America ready to become a soccer country?

George Vecsey: Oh, sure. It was regarded as weird and foreign by writers of my generation. But a whole generation has grown up that knows soccer matters, somewhere. Cable and the web have brought it into mainstream America. I don't think the US will be a "soccer country" in any time frame because we have so many other great sports. But will people watch big-time World Cup and Champions League matches at convenient times (midday) in the US? They are already doing that.

Gelf Magazine: Which event will make you most miss having a regular column to write about it?

George Vecsey: The soccer World Cup of 2014 in Brazil. I will be 75—I have no indication the Times would ask me to go—but I am looking for an independent gig to go there. Love Brazil; never been there, yet.

Gelf Magazine: What would you like to see the Times do in the space of your column?

George Vecsey: I am on record as saying that the Sports of the Times column is, in its way, as vital as op-ed columns in the paper, or city columns, or strong opinions about the arts. I have great regard for Bill Rhoden and Harvey Araton, friends and colleagues. And the Times has eight to 10 talented younger people who could easily develop the pace and voice of a general columnist. I hope some of them get that chance.

Gelf Magazine: How have you enjoyed blogging so far? Do you plan to start a Twitter account?

George Vecsey: I'm a writer, and enjoy working on my voice on subjects other than sports. I love slipping in links on my website and see evidence that many of my long-time readers and emailers are finding me there. I don't get Twitter and other social media. I value the lovely things people said about me—Harvey Araton and my son-in-law Peter Wilson saved stuff for me. But I am geared to writing sentences, paragraphs, essays, books, and will keep trying to develop that way.

Gelf Magazine: You and your brother Peter are both well-known sportswriters. Was writing important in your household growing up?

George Vecsey: Absolutely. Our parents were journalists (and Newspaper Guild organizers, with a lot of courage), and our dad George Vecsey (I am not a Jr.) knew more about sports, politics, movies, New York City, than anybody I know. Our mother May Spencer Vecsey was opinionated, educated, political, and idealistic, and always urged us to make more of ourselves. All five kids work in journalism, writing, education. We are all tributes to our two parents.

Gelf Magazine: Did you encourage your children to go into journalism?

George Vecsey: No. I stressed law, education, health care. They didn't listen.

Gelf Magazine: How does your son feel about you commenting on his posts?

George Vecsey: David is very talented. He could do my job. I am always intrigued by the turn of his mind. He is a copy editor at the Times who has taken to upholding the style and format of the paper— a lifer in short time. Laura has been a sports and political columnist around the US. And Corinna is a lawyer and executive in journalism in PA. My wife, Marianne, is the artist in the family. We all comment on each other. I learn so much from all of them.

Gelf Magazine: As of this moment, the Knicks, Rangers, and Giants are all in first place in their respective divisions. Do you recall that ever happening before? How would you assess the New York sports scene as you make your departure?

George Vecsey: That has changed since you wrote me. New York City has so many teams, so many ups and downs. Remember, 1969-70 had the Mets, Jets, and Knicks win titles within a year or more. It was nuts.

Gelf Magazine: An article about a recent interview you gave characterized your advice to young sports journalists as "Do something else." Is that an accurate assessment of how you feel?

George Vecsey: I don't mean to come off as a critic. I'm a guy who has spent 50 years doing this. I'm much more comfortable talking about what I did, and saw, than about what others do. As for my flippant answer, I wouldn't confine it to sports, because many newspapers are giving us the signal they are cutting back. But the corollary to my response is, some born-journalists will find a way to report and write and be read. It is a tropism, like salmon leaping the falls, or something.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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