With the pandemic’s effects waning, Philadelphia-bound airplanes once again glide over our Chester County neighborhood as regularly as broad-winged hawks.
Their return prompted a little game with my 2½-year-old grandson. Now whenever we hear the drone of a jet engine on our occasional afternoon walks, we compete to see who can spot the plane first.
Austin is unbeatable. For whatever reason, his eyes dart directly to the target, that little mind instinctively calculating the distance between the noise’s origins and the plane’s location. Meanwhile, I’m invariably drawn toward the source of the sound, leaving me to scan empty skies as the aircraft moves farther away from my focus.
Here on the edge of retirement, that difference seems profound. The clear-eyed youngster fixed on the present. The old man looking back, always back.
During 49 full-time newspapering years — 41 at The Inquirer, the last 31 as a sportswriter — I’ve looked back a lot, in obituaries and hundreds of stories on the fascinating sports past of this fascinating city.
But despite how often and eagerly I traveled there, the past was never my beat. I went there voluntarily and occasionally, indulging both an interest in history and a desire to view our sports present more clearly. It’s impossible, after all, to understand Philadelphia fans without knowing who Pete Adelis was. And the landscape of basketball in 2021 makes more sense if you know how dramatically Wilt Chamberlain altered it in the 1950s.
Actually, looking back was just a small part of what I did. I’ve written features, projects, columns. Until 1990, when the bosses tired of my constant pleading and allowed me to write full-time, I’d been an editor in metro and sports. Two years later, those same editors fed me to the Macho Row Phillies
Talk about a lamb being led to the slaughter.
As the beat writer for those Phillies, my inexperience often showed, which led to frequent lectures from Jim Fregosi. In my first season, after yet another story he didn’t appreciate, the Phillies’ old-school manager summoned me to into his office and shut the door.
“I’ve tried to help you,” he barked, “but you keep writing whatever the hell you want.”
There was less friction with Ray Rhodes’ Eagles and an aging Joe Paterno’s Penn State teams. Eventually, I escaped the beat carousel and got to cover Olympics, World Series, Super Bowls. Over the next 25 years I worked at the fringes of sports, taking some deep dives into horse racing scandals, the mysterious finances behind Philadelphia Park, the financial underpinnings of college athletics.
“I’ve tried to help you, but you keep writing whatever the hell you want.”
Some stories were so complex they required years to complete and a forensic accountant to unravel. Others were so sweet and simple they wrote themselves. All were helped immensely by input from editors and advice from The Inquirer’s bottomless pool of talented writers and reporters.
And it’s likely none of that would ever have happened if it weren’t for one editor’s desire to redecorate.
In 1979, this newspaper was on the cusp of its Gene Roberts-era glory. I was 29 and working across the river as the Courier-Post’s deputy Sunday editor. But I wanted badly to be in Philly. So I wrote a letter of application and waited. And waited.
Eventually, convinced I’d been presumptuous to think I was worthy of joining talents like Bill Lyon, Frank Dolson, and Jayson Stark, I gave up. Then, almost exactly a year later, I got a call from an Inquirer editor named John V.R. Bull.
“Frank,” Bull said, “I was redoing my office and when I moved a filing cabinet, I found your letter behind it. Must have fallen there some time ago. Why don’t you come in for an interview?”
On the sweltering afternoon of July 21, 1980, I started on the metro copy desk. If you’re wondering how that worked out, I direct you to election night 1983. As the late copy desk chief that night, I had to hastily retype the lead paragraph of our top Page 1 story after some last-second changes. The next morning, when many Philadelphians picked up their Inquirers they undoubtedly were surprised to read that the city’s new mayor was named “W. Wilson Goose.”
Apropos of my own name, my first Inquirer byline appeared on St. Patrick’s Day 1981, three days after St. Joseph’s NCAA Tournament upset of No. 1 DePaul. I was still a night-shift copy editor, but before I left for work that March 16, sports editor Jay Searcy, well aware of my writing ambitions, called.
“On your way into the office, can you stop at St. Joe’s practice and write me a story?”
Well, if you insist, Jay.
My first full-time sportswriting job was covering high schools for the Northeast Neighbors section. In 1992, after two years of nothing more taxing than field hockey, I made the leap to the Phillies beat. Arriving in Clearwater that February, I was informed by a real estate agent that she’d inadvertently double-booked the two-bedroom condo I’d leased and that I’d have to share it with a Toronto Blue Jays player. “You’ll like him,” she said. “I think his name is Robby Alomar.”
Like any journalist, I had strengths and weaknesses. Dining with story subjects definitely fit the latter category. Early in that first Phillies season, just days after Alomar found a new place, I knocked two gin-and-tonics into Fregosi’s lap during a dinner at Shephards in Clearwater. Years later, at a catered private lunch in Ed Snider’s office, I turned down a corned-beef sandwich, a refusal that oddly ignited a fury in the Flyers’ famously feisty owner.
Along the way, I wrote a few books and mentored at least one young author. After the publication of my book, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, I got a call from an Inquirer staffer I didn’t know. He was thinking of writing a book, too.
I couldn’t have been more obnoxiously condescending, bragging about my book’s sales — 15,000 copies — and critical praise.
“So just do your best, kid,” I told him. “Maybe it’ll work out just as well for you.”
The kid’s name was John Grogan and before Hollywood turned his book, Marley and Me, into a successful movie, it sold 3.5 million copies.
I’ll officially turn in my laptop on Friday, 6/11. That seems appropriate since 611 is also the state route number for Broad Street, The Inquirer’s longtime address, and the locale of both my alma mater (Temple) and the stadiums and arenas that so often were workplaces.
So what now? Maybe another book, if I can find a topic and summon the energy. An occasional Inquirer essay or — surprise! — history piece. Certainly more time for golf and grandkids.
Finally, allow me to look back one last time. Recently, I’ve thought often about the dread I felt in the late 1970s when I first read of Ted Turner’s plans to start a 24-hour TV news channel. Surely, I thought at the time, newspapers won’t still be around when I’m ready to retire.
Well, thank God, they endured.
And somehow, even if I still can’t beat Austin at our little game, so did I.