Dick Schaap Did So Much Work – The Big Lead

The final episode of Sports Reporters airs on Sunday at 10 a.m. We are looking back on the career of the show’s longtime host, Dick Schaap, who died in 2001. E:60, hosted by Dick’s son Jeremy, will be replacing Sports Reporters on ESPN Sunday mornings. The display graphic was made by Michael Shamburger.

Dick Schaap “collected” friends and/or journalistic subjects voraciously, and within two months in 1960 he met two of his most significant ones: Cassius Clay and Lenny Bruce. His relationships with these two — Clay/Ali for over 40 years, and Bruce until the comic’s death in 1966 — exemplified Schaap’s versatility. While he didn’t at first see their similarities to each other, they both put themselves out there against standard norms and the law. As Schaap would come to realize, they both embodied “Causes.”

Schaap is probably best known today for his work on Sports Reporters, but his career in magazines, newspapers, and books was monumental. His stories encapsulated race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, sports, politics, and culture. “He was the most talented person in our business,” Dave Anderson, a longtime New York Times sportswriter and friend of Schaap, told me. “He could do anything in journalism, whether print or broadcasting. Whatever it took, he could do it, and do it as well if not better than anyone else.” 

Cassius Clay and Dick Schaap first met in New York. Schaap, then 26, had just become sports editor at Newsweek and with no particular agenda in mind, searching for a story, headed out to meet a group of American Olympians about to leave for Rome. He connected with the 18-year-old Clay. “On the ride uptown in a taxi, Cassius turned the conversation into a monologue,” Schaap wrote in his autobiography Flashing Before My Eyes. “I forget his exact words, but I remember the message: I’m great, I’m beautiful, I’m going to Rome, and I’m going to whip all those cats, and then I’m coming back and turning pro and becoming the champion of the world. I’m pretty sure he did say, ‘I’m the greatest.’ He didn’t add ‘of all time’ until a few years later.”

When Clay returned from Rome, his first prophecy of winning the gold medal consummated, he and Schaap hit the town. Clay was borderline astonished that wherever they went pedestrians or bartenders were well aware of who he was. At the end of the evening, the two were in the fighter’s hotel suite after midnight, and thumbed through photographs Clay snapped in Rome for over an hour, at which point Schaap told him that he was going to have to explain to his wife why he didn’t get home. “You mean your wife knows who I is, too?” Clay asked.

A few years later, as a city editor at the legendary now-defunct New York Herald Tribune, Schaap broke the story that Malcolm X had recruited Clay to become a Black Muslim. Schaap got to know Malcolm X well enough that that he received a postcard from the religious leader on his Middle East pilgrimage in 1964 that read: “Greetings from Mecca, the holiest and most sacred city on earth, the fountain of truth, love, peace, and brotherhood.” It was signed, “Bro. Malcolm X.” After Malcolm X and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad had a falling out, Malcolm X was allegedly assassinated by Nation of Islam members (three were convicted; one confessed, the other two maintained their innocence, and there remain questions about the law enforcement investigation).

Reflecting on Muhammad Ali’s journey in a 1971 story in Sport Magazine, a magazine he edited for five years, Schaap wrote that Ali’s breaking with Malcolm X in favor of Elijah Muhammad was “the only step of his career I can really fault.”

Lenny Bruce and Dick Schaap shared a distaste for institutional hypocrisy. Bruce was not well-received by audiences who took his words literally — for example, he once said that Bobby Franks, murdered at 14 by two University of Chicago students in 1924, “was a snotty kid, anyway.” — and generally challenged conventional mores pertaining to race or religion, and corrupt institutions. Schaap took Bruce to the comic’s first and only baseball game, Game 7 of the 1960 World Series between the Pirates and Yankees in Pittsburgh, where Bill Mazeroski’s home run capped off a wild game. Bruce’s act drew heavy heat from law enforcement, and he was repeatedly arrested on obscenity charges.

When Bruce died of a drug overdose, Schaap profiled him again, this time for Playboy, and was particularly proud of this lede:

Lenny Bruce fell off a toilet seat with a needle in his arm and he crashed to a tiled floor and died. And the police came and harassed him in death as in life. Two at a time, they let photographers from newspapers and magazines and television stations step right up and take their pictures of Lenny Bruce lying dead on the tiled floor. It was a terrible thing for the cops to do. Lenny hated to pose for pictures.

Schaap played goalie on the lacrosse team at Cornell. In one game, he competed against Jim Brown’s Syracuse team, yielding four goals, and supposedly stopping three of his shots not because of any skill but because they were fired straight at him. Schaap had made it to Newsweek by the time Brown was a senior, in 1956, and voted for his former lacrosse opponent to win the Heisman trophy. Paul Hornung, the future Packers great who was then at Notre Dame, won the award. Brown finished fifth in the voting, as a punitive measure for being black. Schaap boycotted voting for the award for 25 years until 1981, when he voted for Marcus Allen.

In college, Schaap also served as editor for the Cornell Daily Sun. He later was awarded the Grantland Rice Fellowship at Columbia Journalism. “I did not become an alcoholic during my year at Columbia,” Schaap wrote. “I did, however, become a workaholic, an addiction that has driven me during my lifetime to great productivity and considerable alimony.”

Schaap eventually landed at Newsweek, collecting subjects such as Clay, Bruce, Floyd Patterson, and Bobby Fischer. During this time, he also freelanced for Sport magazine, writing features on Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and the tennis player Pancho Gonzalez (this piece is brilliant, and can be read in the Best American Sportswriting of the Twentieth Century anthology). Schaap quickly rose through the ranks of Newsweek, becoming sports editor at 25, and a senior editor with more than a half-dozen departments under his control at 27.

“Dick understood that the coming of the black, or the non-white, athlete was the major story of this time,” said his longtime friend David Halberstam, in the Flashing Before My Eyes documentary. “And Dick had the empathy and humanity to invest himself in it, understood that it went beyond just what was happening in the game. He was covering civil rights through the metaphor of sports.”

In the early 1960’s, Schaap landed at the New York Herald-Tribune on the recommendation of the legendary columnist Jimmy Breslin. Schaap and Breslin first worked together when they were 15 and 20, respectively, at the Nassau Daily Review-Star. They stayed close for over 50 years. At Schaap’s memorial service, Breslin summed it up succinctly: “Dick Schaap was a friend behind your back.”

At the Herald-Tribune, Schaap was a city editor and later a columnist. During his time as editor, young writers Tom Wolfe and Terry Smith, son of legendary sportswriter Red Smith, were on his staff. Schaap oversaw a series entitled City in Crisis. As detailed in The Paper, Richard Kluger’s massive history on the rise and fall of the Herald-Tribune, Schaap wrote the first sentence in the feature: “New York is the greatest city in the world—and everything is wrong with it.”

At the paper, Schaap was at the forefront of civil rights coverage. In the summer of 1964, he traveled to Philadelphia, Mississippi to report on two law enforcement officers, Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Cecil Price, who were suspected of murdering civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman. Schaap went to the only restaurant in town, saw the officers dining, joined their table, and watched a “stream of good ol’ boys” approach them with jokes about the deaths. “In Mississippi,” Schaap wrote in his piece. “Murder is a laughing matter.”

The next year, Schaap was out in Los Angeles following the Mets on a road trip, “for a change of pace and a few laughs.” He would not accompany the team to their next stop in Houston, because while he was in LA the Watts Riots erupted. He stayed there and covered them for a week. “It did not strike me as at all strange that one day I was asking people about fastballs and curves and the next about looting and shooting,” he wrote in his autobiography.

“The journalistic principles are the same for covering a pennant race or a race riot,” he continued. “You use your eyes, your ears, and as Jimmy Breslin has always preached, your legs. You go to to the scene. You talk to the people involved. You ask questions. You look for the small details that illuminate the larger story and reinforce credibility, and then, using those details, using quotes, using the richness of the English language, you tell the story as vividly, as honestly, as compellingly as you can.”

Schaap’s first overwhelming financial success as a writer came when he published Instant Replay, the diary of Packers guard Jerry Kramer covering the 1967 season in which Vince Lombardi’s squad won Super Bowl II, their third consecutive NFL championship. The collaboration has remarkable depth, with characters like Lombardi, Max McGee, Fuzzy Thurston, Willie Wood, Dave Robinson, and Willie Davis. Then, its commercial viability received a massive boost when the protagonist was a key component in the decisive play of one of the most famous games in league history: Kramer threw the block on Bart Starr’s QB sneak to beat the Cowboys in the Ice Bowl.

When Schaap was asked by a publisher to pick an athlete to publish a diary with, Kramer was the first to come to mind. Schaap had previously profiled Kramer’s roommate, running back Jim Taylor. Incidentally, Kramer had been profoundly unhappy with that piece. Schaap had written that Taylor “had emerged from LSU virtually unscarred by education.” Kramer says he was bothered enough by that line that he wrote Schaap a scathing letter.

But, in the process of reporting that piece, Schaap had wandered past the teammates’ room in the hallway when he overheard Kramer reading poetry aloud. “He did a double-take — he walked on about five or six feet, stopped, turned around, and came back to make sure he’d seen what he thought he’d seen,” Kramer, who grew up in a household without television, where his father often read poetry to a brood of six children, told me. “Yes, I was reading poetry.” Clearly, their relationship was reparable. 

Kramer said that he initially was trying too hard to be “authorly,” using bigger words than was his custom until “A little voice inside me said you is what you is, and you do what you do, and you see what you see, so just try to be as honest as you can be about it. It’s all you can do. If they don’t like it, they don’t like it.”

They loved it. In a meeting with Schaap, their mutual agent Sterling Lord, and about a half-dozen publishing suits, Kramer had been told the book would be a success if it sold in the neighborhood of 10- or 20,000 copies. It sold over two million copies in total, and was on the bestseller list for nearly a year. It even reached no. 1 for a couple weeks, an unheard-of feat for a sports book at the time. The book tour took them to The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where Judy Garland was a fellow guest, and other programs that included guests such as Hugh Hefner and Norman Mailer. Kramer and Schaap collaborated on a couple more books going forward, and stayed great friends; Kramer became both the godfather and namesake to Schaap’s son Jeremy.

“His books were really special because he got the humanity out of the athletes, and all of the characters around them,” his friend and longtime New York Times writer George Vecsey told me. “They did it because he was non-threatening, and yet he was very smart. He was a great observer, who could see things and get people to talk and get them to be themselves. I would say in a way that he was disarming.

“I’ve done these types of books, and it’s not always that easy to get the people to cooperate. Just because you’re writing a book with someone, it doesn’t mean that he or she will relax and be totally honest.”

Other people whom Schaap collaborated on autobiographies with included Hank Aaron, Billy Crystal, Dave DeBusschere, Bo Jackson, Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Tom Seaver, Phil Simms, and Tom Waddell.

Waddell competed in track and field in the 1968 Olympics, and organized the Gay Games beginning in the early 1980’s, and died of AIDS in 1987. In addition to the book, Schaap did an ABC 20/20 feature on him, which won an Emmy.

At Schaap’s memorial service, Jimmy Breslin recalled the time Schaap pressed him to write about AIDS. “He was very interested in big stars, but his obsession was with somebody not able to keep up with the rest of the world. AIDS people were on his mind, he pressed me, and my answer would be, ‘Well that’s just a small portion of people. I gotta write about more broad things.’ And he pushed me and he wouldn’t stop until one day I went out and I wrote about somebody who had AIDS, and I found it very interesting, the plight he was in. Interesting in a dark way. And I started to write several pieces.” Breslin won a Pulitzer Prize for them, but didn’t call Schaap to say thank you, saying acerbically, “He didn’t expect me to. It wasn’t in my nature, and he knew that.”

As with Ali, and scores of others that Schaap covered and/or crossed paths with, his friendship with Jerry Kramer would be enduring. What was it about him that made him so magnetic? “Dick was comfortable in his own skin,” Kramer told me. “He didn’t put on any pretenses. He didn’t try to impress you with bullshit. He was obviously very bright and intelligent, but he didn’t show it off. He didn’t have any complexes that he needed to deal with around you, or around anyone else. He was just comfortable being Dick. He was a polite, thoughtful, considerate, really, really fine human being.

“Whatever you wanted to do, Dick would say, ‘Yeah let’s do it. Let’s go.’ He was just easy to be with. Whether it’s in your house, his house, the outhouse, or the penthouse. He was the same guy all the time.”

This wasn’t just a courtesy that extended to Olympic gold medalists, Super Bowl champions, accomplished performers, or decorated socialites. He was a mentor to dozens of journalists, to whom he not only did not territorially view as competition, but also doled out counsel, wisdom, and massive stories.

In 1972, the chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, who had been a young teen when Schaap had first connected with him 14 years prior, was set to face Boris Spassky in a high-profile match in Iceland. He was not communicating with the media. Schaap rang up Ira Berkow, who would go on to write for the New York Times for decades, but at that point was writing for E.W. Scripps’ Newspaper Enterprise Association. 

Berkow told me: “Dick called me and said, ‘Would you be interested in doing an interview with Bobby Fischer?’ I said, ‘Of course.’ Anyone would. And so he called Fischer and arranged for me to do an interview. Fischer was in town staying at the Hilton. It turned out to be a two-part series.” (Fischer and Schaap eventually had a falling out.)

Douglas (Warshaw) Alden — who would go on to be one of the members of the founding team, as head of production and programming at Classic Sports Network, which became ESPN Classic — was 16 when he met Schaap. Schaap was teaching a course at New School called Sports in the City, and they would later joke that it was a course in free speech: “Dick just got people — such as Robert Lipsyte, Dave Anderson, Red Holzman — to come speak for free.”

While the term intern had not come into vogue yet, that is essentially what Alden became for Schaap at Sport magazine. While they went their separate ways after that summer, they later reconnected when Alden was a young producer at ABC, fresh out of school. Schaap joined ABC News in 1980 after nine years at NBC.

Schaap wrote that sports coverage was “tolerated” at NBC, but embraced wholeheartedly by legendary ABC honcho Roone Arledge, who had created Monday Night Football and by this point been promoted to head of ABC News. “Roone was famous for, among other things, not responding to phone calls or written messages. This led me to send him notes that ended, ‘I will presume if I do not hear from you that this meets with your approval.’ At least I thought about sending Roone such notes,” Schaap wrote.

Schaap had a strong enough rapport with Arledge that he got the boss to sign off on Alden, in his early twenties, to be his producer on the ABC weekend news. They remained in constant contact at work and socially — which of course for Schaap were inextricably intertwined — for two decades until Schaap died.

“In the 20 years that I worked with Dick, we had two really big arguments,” Alden said. “We didn’t have any other arguments. We had two fights. In both cases, people in the room thought we were joking as we were starting to argue, and then it was too late and they couldn’t get out of the room. Anyways, 20 years, two arguments, and in neither of those arguments, nor any other time, did Dick ever pull rank.

“I was 23 when I started working with Dick at ABC. Dick never treated it that I was working for him. He 100% treated me as an equal. Let’s put it this way: He was already Dick Schaap. He treated me like an equal from day one. There would be people who were with us that would be shocked by how we interacted with each other and what we did. One of Dick’s amazing abilities was to treat everybody as his equal. One of the reasons Dick liked young people so much is that he himself was a prodigy. So, he never thought anybody’s youth and inexperience meant that they didn’t have a ton to bring to the table.”

One of the two arguments between the producer and reporter was because Alden did not finish a production soon enough to make it early to one of Schaap’s Super Bowl parties. The shindigs were melting pots that brought together Schaap’s people collection from all walks of life. You never knew who you’d run into there, or how the hell Schaap knew them.

Ira Berkow recalled a time at one of these parties where he made quick small-talk with a woman around the punchbowl. He could swear he recognized her from somewhere, but just couldn’t place it. When they were finished talking, he discretely asked Schaap, “Who was that?” It was Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy, whom Schaap wrote a book about in 1967. During the reporting process of the book, there had been a time where Schaap saved Ms. Kennedy, pregnant at the time, from getting bitten by her son’s pet coatimundi.

In his book A Year in the Sun, a diary of his life as a sportswriter for the Times, George Vecsey noted that he attended the Super Bowl party hosted by Schaap and his wife Trish in New Orleans. The famous chef Paul Prudhomme closed his restaurant, K-Paul’s, to the public, and “personally cooked blackened redfish for over one hundred guests” which included U.S. Senators Gary Hart and Chris Dodd, Jimmy Buffett, TV personalities Ed Bradley and Bryant Gumbel, former NBA star Bob Pettit, and former Packers Willie Davis, Jerry Kramer, and Marv Fleming.

“How Dick paid for it — if he did — how he arranged for it, what favors people wanted to do for him, I have no idea,” Vecsey told me. Schaap wrote that when he received the bill for this party he told Prudhomme that he thought there was something wrong with it. “Too high?” asked the chef. Schaap responded that it was actually too low, but Prudhomme told him not to worry about it because he broke even on the costs.

Robin Roberts, who co-hosted Sunday SportsDay on ESPN with Schaap in the early 1990’s, recalled a time during Schaap’s memorial service in which he presented her with an award in Boston. Her parents were there, she had to leave early the next morning on assignment, and when her parents went down to the hotel lobby Schaap was waiting for them. They shared a taxi to the airport. “My mother called me this morning and talked about how Dick didn’t turn around the whole cab ride — he was never looking forward, he was always looking back — and told story after story and laughed all the way to Logan Airport. I always appreciated how he always made everyone feel so welcome, and feel so at ease.”

As gregarious and selfless a friend and mentor as Schaap was, he was by his own admission not a faithful husband to his first two wives. He married his first wife at 21 years old, and had multiple affairs while at Newsweek. “At Newsweek, everyone had affairs,” he wrote. “Secretaries and researchers were equally fair game. It was considered one of the perks of the job, and too often and too loudly, editors and writers boasted of their conquests.”

Schaap wrote that Sport was also “not conducive to monogamy, although I suppose the fault, once again, lay more with me than with the corporation.” He married his third wife, Trish, in 1981, and they remained together until Schaap’s death in 2001.

Schaap was very early at supplementing his writing work with television. After Instant Replay was a runaway success, he co-authored a book with Joe Namath entitled I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow … ‘Cause I Get Better Looking Each Day. This led to a syndicated television show in which Schaap writes that he played “a sort of poor man’s Ed McMahon to his poor man’s Johnny Carson.”

Schaap booked guests including Truman Capote, Jerry Kramer, Micky Mantle, Willie Mays, Rocky Graziano, Howard Cosell, Jimmy Breslin, and more. He chain-smoked throughout the show. (As an aside, Schaap smoked 3-4 packs a day at his height. Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder bet him a grand he couldn’t quit for three years. Schaap never smoked again. Jimmy the Greek welched on the bet, saying, “I should send you a bill, I saved your life.”)

By 1971, Schaap landed at WNBC in New York. In addition to local work, he contributed to the national programs Nightly News and the Today show. It was at WNBC, in 1978, where Schaap’s son Jeremy made his debut as a sportscaster. From Flashing Before My Eyes:

I handed [Jeremy] a microphone and he interviewed Pete Rose. Rose was more receptive to Jeremy’s line of questioning than he was years later to inquiries into his gambling habits. “How many more years do you think you’ll play?” eight-year-old Jeremy asked thirty-five-year-old Pete Rose.

“Seven hundred more hits,” Rose said. “I measure it in hits, not years.”

“Oh, Jeremy said. “How many hits do you think you’ll get this year?”

“Two hundred,” Rose said. “I try for two hundred every year.”

“Then you’ll probably pass Cap Anson and Napoleon Lajoie,” Jeremy said.

As noted earlier, he remained at NBC until he switched over to ABC in 1980. He continued to mix sports, politics, and culture. In addition to spots on the news telecasts, he did 20/20 stories on a variety of subjects, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sid Caesar, and, as he wrote, “an assistant United States attorney who became a cocaine addict and stole half a million dollars’ worth of drugs from the evidence safe in his office.” That doesn’t sound boring.

This brings us to Sports Reporters. When the show debuted in 1988, ABC, at this point not yet having acquired ESPN, declined to let Schaap host. However, the network bosses changed their mind six months later when the original host left, and Schaap hosted the program on Sunday mornings from then through the first show post-9/11.

Participants on the show over the years that Schaap hosted included Mitch Albom, Bob Ryan, Mike Lupica, Michael Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser, John Feinstein, Ralph Wiley, Skip Bayless, Jim Murray, Dave Anderson, Ira Berkow, and the now-disgraced Bill Conlin. While Schaap acknowledged in his autobiography that he would have liked more women to have been on the show, Jackie McMullen, Sally Jenkins, and Christine Brennan did appear on it during his tenure.

“Dick’s Parting Shots — during which he could profoundly sum up anything in a few well-chosen words — always had more depth, more context, a little more background, a little more relevance,” wrote the late Ralph Wiley. “As far as I know, he never alluded to it. He didn’t need to. I never met a man in this business more secure in his abilities.”

“Any time he would talk to me about any of these people on the panel who were weren’t here, or any of his other friends, it was always in the most positive way,” Mitch Albom said on Sports Reporters after Schaap passed. “Believe me: In television, in newspapers, in sports in general — that is not the rule, that is the exception.”

Schaap had other contributions on television as well. He hosted Schaap One on One on Classic Sports Network and continued when the network became ESPN Classic. He contributed to the SportsCentury series — during his career, he had interviewed 75 of the 100 greatest athletes in the program’s rankings, and known 40 of them socially — and also for a time hosted a two-hour ESPN Radio show with his son Jeremy.

It goes without saying that, in addition to all the content he produced, Dick Schaap made an indelible impression on countless lives that he crossed.

“To this day, I still go to pick up the phone to call him about something that I read or see that I know he would have loved,” said his friend and producer Douglas Alden. Alden recalled a conversation that they’d had with former Packers safety Willie Wood, in which Schaap asked him about his feelings on Vince Lombardi.

“Willie Wood said, ‘I loved my father. He was a great man and I loved him. But, there will be a day that goes by, maybe, where I won’t think about my father. But there’s not a single that goes by that I don’t think about Coach Lombardi.’ There’s not a single day that goes by that I don’t think about Dick. Something happens every single day that makes me go to call him and tell him what I just saw or thought, or to find out what he would think about something. He was unquestionably one of the greatest journalists of the 20th Century, and for those of us who were fortunate enough he was one of the greatest friends of our lifetimes.”

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