Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

April 29, 2008

The Unwitting Father of Sports Blogging

Steve McKee talks to Gelf about his proto-blog and about his memoir of his father's death from heart disease.

Michael Gluckstadt

For those who are deeply immersed in the world of sports blogs, its may be hard to remember how the genre came to be. Before there were Deadspin, Fire Joe Morgan, and Kissing Suzy Kolber, one sports-blog ancestor simply aggregated interesting sports columns from around the country, and did so—if you can believe it—snark-free. Steve McKee was the original writer of the Wall Street Journal's Daily Fix online sports column (a post now held by Gelf co-founder Carl Bialik and his colleague Jason Fry), and when it launched in 2001, the idea of a newspaper's sports page linking to other sites was still a novelty. McKee tells Gelf that he was asked to do what no other major newspaper could, "write a column wherein we asked the reader to go to other sites to read other columnists."

Steve McKee camping with his father, John “Mac” McKee, in 1956. All photos courtesy McKee Family Collection.
"I needed to come to grips with the Dad I remembered."

Steve McKee camping with his father, John “Mac” McKee, in 1956. All photos courtesy McKee Family Collection.

These days, McKee doesn't read many blogs ("I don't 'get' them", he tells Gelf). Instead, he has taken some time off from the Journal to write the deeply personal memoir My Father's Heart: A Son's Journey. In the book, McKee relives the 1969 night when his father suffered a fatal heart attack, and the subsequent changes it brought about in his own life. After seeing his father forgo the chance to change his unhealthy living habits, McKee has striven to maintain a lifestyle that won't lead him down the same road. While the book reads as a memoir, it was once conceived as an inspirational how-to guide on living healthy.

Gelf interviewed McKee and spoke to him about sportswriting at the WSJ, why he doesn't read sports blogs, and how writing this book was cathartic. Gelf didn't speak to McKee about the Murdochization of the Journal, for the simple reason that he would rather not discuss it. You can hear McKee and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, May 1st, in New York's Lower East Side. (This interview has been edited for clarity and the omnipresent prying eyes of a certain Australian-born media baron.)

Gelf Magazine: Your book is deeply personal. Did you hesitate to share intimate aspects of your life with the general public?

Steve McKee: Of course I did. But I realized even before I sat down to get going that if the book was going to have an honest ring to it, then I had to be honest about what I wrote and how I wrote it. I needed to come to grips with the Dad I remembered, especially the Dad between his two heart attacks—the Dad who I felt "gave up" trying to be alive. But I also understood that if I was going to take a hard look at him, then I owed it to him to take a hard look at me, too. I couldn't just stand back and take shots at him. I had to get in there and take some shots, too. Once I realized that, came to terms with that, then actually doing it, writing it was…well, I can't say "easy" because it wasn't. But it also wasn't difficult.

GM: What do you hope to achieve with the book? Is it more of a public service or personal catharsis?

SM: "Public service" sounds so cold and analytical—although, indeed, the original proposal for the book was very much a how-to sort of thing. Use Dad's two heart attacks, my watching him die, and my lifelong attempts not to have a heart attack as my bona fides for telling the reader what to do. But the more I talked with Marnie Cochran, my editor then at Da Capo, the more she kept saying, "The story here is in the memoir." So, OK, then the idea was to drop more "memoir stuff" in as a way to introduce what we called the "heart stuff," the how-to stuff. Then, very early on I called her and I asked her, "How 'in stone' is the proposal?" There was a long silence on the line and then she said, "Tell me what you mean." And I said I wanted to take the proposal and "throw it up in the air and have it come down backward." Because if in fact the night I watched my father die of a heart attack is the single most important night of my life, then if I tell that story first, I wasn't going to want to keep writing. And for sure, then, the reader wouldn't want to keep reading. And Marnie said, "That is exactly how to tell this story." So that is why the book "starts" at the "end"—the day I returned to high school after being out for a week—and then works back day by day to the night my father died. Once we had that structure in place, it became what I hope is a straightforward memoir. I don't mind at all that My Father's Heart might have a public-service element, but I do hope it is almost unrecognizable, wrapped inside the story I had to tell.
And, yes, telling it was very cathartic. Doing all the research to know exactly where, for instance, my parents met in 1937—at a beach house on Lake Erie—yes, it was very important for me to go there and see it. I had no interest in writing a book about me going to see it. But I had to see it for myself to make the story I wanted to tell come alive—first for me and then, I hope, for the reader.

GM: In the book, you mention watching the 1968 Olympics and being inspired at the time not by Tommie Smith's and John Carlos's post-race salute, but rather their actual performance in the race, which very few people remember. How did that event impact you?

SM: That race and those Olympics had a huge impact on me. It's what first got me out the door and down to the junior high track in the mornings trying to get myself into shape to make the track team in the spring of my junior year. That didn't happen, but I did start to see some dads from the neighborhood down there trying to "jog," which was a brand new word back then. And I was desperate for my own Dad to get down there too, but he never did. That is the impact that I have carried with me all my life. If I hadn't been down there to see those dads trying to get in shape, I would never have wanted my Dad to get down there, and without that desire, who knows, maybe it would never have clicked for me that I needed to always stay in shape.
But that race and those Olympics had other impacts on me, as well. It's important to understand the times. This was 1968. Vietnam. Martin Luther King killed in April; Bobby Kennedy in June. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where all hell broke loose. The Apollo moon program inching ever closer to a landing. There was a lot going on. And I'm a 15-year-old white kid from a small suburb of a small town in south central Pennsylvania. I don't know, what can I tell you? I watched all 44 hours of ABC's Olympics coverage and I found it all just magical. Jim McKay: "Live, from Mexico City…" and then all these Black American sprinters—many of whom had been threatening all year to boycott the Games—come to Mexico City and simply, utterly dominate. Researching My Father's Heart, I rewatched and relistened to the Tommie Smith/John Carlos race. Smith's burst to come from off the pace to win it in the final 60 meters is simply stunning. Immediately after the Games I started going down to the junior-high track to become the next great Black American sprinter. I did. I'd get out there on the track and it was always Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and me running our way to the victory stand. It's not that their black-gloved stance on the victory stand didn't have an impact on me. Of course it did. But that didn't erase from my mind what I had already seen—Tommie Smith bursting ahead, his arms raised in jubilation, the smile on his face a mile wide. That's what I wanted to experience in four years at Munich!

John McKee

John “Mac” McKee, Quartermaster, US Army Air Corps, 1062nd Division. On leave in 1943 before shipping out to the South Pacific, where he spent the war building gas depots, supplying mess halls and, in his spare time, building showers with hot running water.

GM:This seems like a story you've wanted to tell for quite some time. Can we expect another book from you? And will it also be nonfiction?

SM: Can you expect another book from me? I certainly hope so. I loved everything about the year I had off from the Journal to write My Father's Heart. I am extremely grateful to the Journal and I would love to have that opportunity again, but, well, who knows? What made the year so special was that I knew it was special even as I was immersed in it. It's not like I'm looking back on it now and saying, "Gee, if I only knew then how great that was…" I knew then. I knew that I was living a dream year, to be able to write this book that had in some ways started with a writing assignment when I was a senior in college in 1973. It was the typical first-go writing assignment—write about something you know—and I knew immediately that I was going to write about the night my father died of a heart attack. Some of the sentences from that very first try are in "My Father's Heart verbatim.

GM: How long have you been at the Journal?

SM: I started at the Journal in August 1994. As I say in My Father's Heart, the guy who hired me had no business hiring me. I had never worked at a daily newspaper. My résumé was all over the map. But he hired me anyway. I think we bonded over stories of basketball and the Philadelphia Catholic League and Philadelphia Big 5 Basketball. Seriously. He had grown up outside Philly and I had played basketball at a small Catholic college (Allentown College of St. Francis De Sales), and all of my teammates were Catholic and most were from Philly.

GM: What's unique about the way WSJ covers sports?

SM: I have been involved in the Wall Street Journal's sports coverage since it started the first iteration of its sports page, back in January 1995 under Lee Lescaze. I think that is important to note. The Journal's recent push into sports is not its first push into sports. (I am not involved in the current effort.) I remember Lee, who had covered Vietnam and India-Pakistan back in the early '70s, he always said that because we were the Journal we had the luxury of covering sports any we wanted to, precisely because we were the Journal. For example, John Helyar in the mid-90s was writing about how Nascar was on the move way before other papers were really writing about that. Maybe the best example of how the Journal could write about sports however it wanted to was a story from Roger Thurow at one of the Olympics (I forget which one; Roger has been covering the Olympics for the Journal since 1992). He did a story about how at the six-person indoor-volleyball venue (or maybe it was table-tennis?), when the home team was playing they would shut down or turn up the air-conditioning system depending on which side of the court the home team was on, to best take advantage of the air currents (or lack thereof) that the cooling system provided. Roger is a spectacular reporter and it was genius writing.
When I was asked by Bill Grueskin to be the writer of the online Journal's new (and first) online sports column, the Daily Fix, in 2001, Bill said that the Journal was the only sports "page" that could do this sort of thing—write a column wherein we asked the reader to go to other sites to read other columnists. These days lots of columns do that sort of thing, but it was unique at the start, because the Journal's relationship to sports was so unique.
Finally, I have been on the ground for the Journal at two Olympics, Salt Lake City and Torino. My standard line is I wish I had a nickel for every time a sportswriter came up to me and said he wished he had my job, because the Journal is so completely not beholden to the story of the moment, the story that must be in the next day's paper. One of the times that happened in Salt Lake City was on the day that the figure-skating judging scandal broke. The reporter was on his way to the big press conference—that I didn't have to attend. Because Journal sports doesn't have to have last night's scores, Journal sports will always be in a very enviable position.

John McKee

'Dad loved to fish. He was a good fisherman, content to be out there all day and not catch anything. I am not a fisherman, but I have learned that lesson well: It’s the doing that matters, not the result.'

GM: Is newspaper sportswriting a dying art?

SM:I don't think so, mainly because I don't think newspapers themselves are a dying art. I think newspapers need to figure out where they fit in the grand scheme with the internet, but I think there remains that place, and so long as there is that place for the newspaper, there will be that place for the sportswriter. Of course, I'm 55 years old, too.

GM: Which columnists do you read regularly today?

SM:The best way for me to answer that question is like this: Any time I pick up a newspaper, any newspaper, be it the hometown New York Times, Daily News, Post, or when I'm on vacation somewhere, anywhere, when I turn to the sports page the only thing I do read is the columns. I rarely read game stories and only occasionally do I read feature stories. But I'll read every columnist in the paper, regardless of the subject. Give me opinion!

GM: Do you read many sports blogs?

SM:No. I admit that I'm way behind the curve here. (Have I mentioned that I don't think newspapers are dying?) But I am happily behind the curve. I don't "get" blogs. I guess I can see why people write them, but what really confuses me is how all these other people read them and then respond, and then people respond to the responders and then more people respond to the people who responded to those responders. Who has the time to do all that?
I do know, however, that I didn't feel that way when I was writing the Fix. We weren't really blogging it then, but I really came to appreciate the writer feedback, even the stuff that really smacked me around.

GM: Do you consider the Daily Fix a blog?

SM: Carl Bialik (one of two people it took to replace me at the Daily Fix, as I like to constantly point out to him) will likely kill me for saying this, but I haven't been paying a lot of attention to the Fix lately. But I like to think I have a good reason. I used to read it all the time after he and Jason Fry took over and I must say I think they do a pretty good job. But when I took the year off to write My Father's Heart, I was terrified that if I sat down at the computer in the morning and spent any time at all cruising onto to read the Fix, that that would lead me to click on the recommended stories, and then that would get me (for example) to the Sports Guy's latest 200-incher on, and the next thing I'd know I hadn't done any writing that day. So I completely swore off the whole internet-sports thing. (Another advantage of columnists in an actual paper: Once you're done reading them, you can't click to another paper, and there's nothing left to do but get on with the day!)

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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