By the column inch
Prep school sports. Rings a bell, doesn't it?
When I was a teenager I attended a small boarding school in New Jersey. A number of colleges used to delay the enrollment of incoming freshman athletes, sending them to schools like ours for an extra year of growth and seasoning. A talented kid would use up his high school years, get his diploma and enroll at a prep school for another year of chemistry or trig, and another season on the gridiron or hardwood, before heading off to Ivy League U.
Who paid the tuition fees? Nobody talked about that.
Schools like mine were feeders to colleges in that era - longer ago than you would believe, children - just as the colleges today serve as feeders to the NFL and NBA.
Major newspapers and radio stations in New York, Newark, Trenton and Philadelphia set up networks of stringers at schools throughout the area. At our school a sports-loving teacher named Paul Hartpence - he was also our track and cross-country coach - was the contact point. He recruited a staff of at least slightly literate students to cover games. On a typical autumn Saturday there might be a football game, a soccer match and a cross-country race to cover. In winter it was basketball, wrestling, riflery. In the spring, baseball, track, tennis.
We learned the jargon of each sport, and were encouraged to use the terminology. Cross-country runners were harriers, wrestlers were grunt-and-groaners. Baseball was never played on a field, only on a diamond, and a pitcher wasn't a pitcher, he was a hurler or a fireballer or a wily craftsman.
Mr. Hartpence would assign a writer to each game. I must have been high on the depth chart because I always got the top sport - football, basketball, baseball. I became official scorer for all three. I remember sitting in the "press box," an elevated section of wooden bleacher, on bitter November afternoons, unable to feel my fingers as I charted the plays, blue for the home team, red for visitors.
We'd trudge back to the press office - occasionally getting a lift in Mr. Hartpence's ancient Ford coupe - and have to write multiple versions of the same story, so that each customer got his own text. There were hard deadlines and hard word counts.
Our customers used to pay by the column inch. Mr. Hartpence would get a check and cash it and divide the proceeds among his minions. I don't remember how often payday came around, but I used to treasure those payments. Sometimes my share would be 50 cents, sometimes as much as a dollar or even a dollar and a half.
And our clipping service would send back the proof of our efforts. There I was on the sports pages of the Sunday papers, cheek by jowl with greats like Stanley Woodward and Red Smith. Of course they had big columns with bylines and photos while I would have just a single anonymous paragraph at the bottom of the page, but still, we were colleagues, weren't we?
I learned a lot from that job. For one thing, it was real work and I received real pay for it. For another, I learned to perform to specs. If the deadline was 6 and the customer wanted 185 words, you had your story on the wire on time and it was the prescribed length, not much more and not any less. And there was no not showing up for work because you had a headache or the sniffles, and there was no excuse if the muse wasn't with you that day. You were a sportswriter. You were a professional, and you did your job.
Those little payments of 50 cents or a dollar were the most precious money I've ever earned, and the pride of performance taught me lessons that I've carried throughout my life as a writer.
Richard A. Lupoff, fan extraordinaire
Send us your Memorable Sports Moment and we will share them with our readers.