This was in the 1950s when he worked for $8 a night.
"There were about a half-dozen of us living in this fast lane," he said. They took high school basketball results over the phone and wrote up a few paragraphs for the Long Island Press.
"One night, much like all the other nights, the scores started running together. And to keep awake, and because I'm a cunning, vicious SOB, I urged my fellow eight-buckers to repeat the same phrase in the lead of our basketball roundups."
Ziegel said the next morning's high school page carried seven stories reporting "that Chuck Lastname or Danny Lastname or Gerry Lastname led his team to victory by ‘performing yeoman work under the boards.' Seven times, yeoman work under the boards. And I was back the next night, accepting congratulations, another eight bucks heading my way."
Years later, after a lifetime as a New York sports columnist, Ziegel did a memoir for Eve's magazine, "The Joys of Being a Sportswriter." He told what that experience taught him: "That you can get away with a few things in the world. That nobody cares what kind of work you do if you work cheap. That if I ever fell off a roof and landed on my head I could still edit stories about high school sports for the Long Island Press. That people would laugh when I repeated the story. Very seductive, the sound of laughter."
Jim Murray made me laugh out loud. Vic Ziegel worked the same territory, prospecting for laughs in the mud and dirt of sports, but he used different tools. Murray did stand-up comedy. Ziegel brought a sweet wiseguy whimsy to his stuff – as at the Belmont Stakes this June, only six weeks before he died of lung cancer at age 72.
His lead for the New York Daily News: "An unheralded horse named Drosselmeyer won the Belmont Stakes, the last leg, thankfully, of the Triple Crown. That's right, Drosselmeyer, pronounced Drosselmeyer, but not often in the week before the race."
The last lines: "His winning time was 2:31.57. Secretariat, who won his Belmont in 2:24, would have beaten him by, oh, 40 lengths. Drosselmeyer must never be told."
How perfectly Ziegel, that last sentence. Soft, gentle, almost a whisper, not a laugh line but just enough to make the careful reader smile. There's not much of that going on in the sportswriting world these days, and while I don't like to blame ESPN for everything, I do blame ESPN for everything. Ubiquitous and omnipresent, not to mention everywhere and in our grill 24/7, the teevee/radio/magazine/dot-com conglomerate sets the agenda for Big Story coverage. You did hear about LeBron, right? I should quote Ziegel, who once complained about a broadcast: "I'm only singling out ESPN because it's easy to spell."
"There was a certain purity about who Vic was and how that was translated to the page," Larry Merchant said. "No artifice, no shtick – just a guy telling a story and having a little fun with it. What you read was Vic." Merchant worked with Ziegel at the New York Post in the 1960s when they were among a handful of sportswriters who transformed the craft. They saw the games as games. This gave Ziegel permission to have fun. In the Eve's piece, he wrote:
"Sports is thrilling, fascinating, exhilarating, and happens out of town often enough to accomplish wonderful things with an expense account. Like the night in Philadelphia, when the sorry Mets of the mid-60s, scored 20 runs against the Phils, and manager Wes Westrum explained by saying his players had their hitting shoes on. So I toured the Mets clubhouse asking the players to tell me about their shoes. Cleon Jones said he found his in an alley."
His colleague at the Daily News, Filip Bondy, wrote in tribute: "He was always the New Yorker, a sweet wise guy . . ." Bondy quoted Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist at the New York Times: "They don't make ‘em like Vic anymore. He was great company in the off-hours, wonderful fun. A Damon Runyan character. He loved the race track, loved betting. At a cockfight in Manila, Red Smith started calling him ‘Bet-a-Million Ziegel.'"
Ziegel did a sports advice column, "Dear Flabby."
He wrote a running book about not running.
He created a sit-com based on Jim Bouton's book, "Ball Four," and went around handing out two-line business cards:
His laptop's screensaver – this craftsman in eternal mortal combat with deadlines – read, "Plenty of time."
"The deadline is the enemy," Ziegel wrote for Eve's. "It's there, at the same time, every night. You relax your fingers and it comes closer. You can't fake it out because it doesn't move. It grows closer and towers over you. It doesn't understand that you're trying to do the yeoman thing. Or that you need a better word than fast to describe a baserunner. Very fast is very bad. Fleet is a bank. Swift, nimble, speedy, no, no, no. Fast is starting to look better. There's coffee spilled on my notes. And the stranger in the next chair is on the phone telling somebody named Sweetie he's on the way home. He offers a cheery good night and I respond, ‘Yeah, grizzledip.'"
Larry Merchant is 79 years old. Mike Vaccaro is 43. Whatever the generation, Vic Ziegel could handle it. "Not everybody in New York would have spent a lot of time with a kid from some Podunk paper," said Vaccaro, who met Ziegel when an assignment brought him to the city from the Middletown (N.Y.) Times Herald-Record. "But Vic did, and it was incredibly important to me." Now the columnist at Ziegel's old paper, the Post, Vaccaro so often picked Vic's brain – on Maris, Ali, Secretariat, the old Garden — that he finally heard, "Hey, I'm not a museum, I can talk about 2008, too." Ziegel once explained to Vaccaro why he so seldom appeared on the Daily News' television show. "I was told by the producers that whenever an old-time boxer or baseball player dies, they'll have me on. I hope they don't make me wear the hood and sickle, too."
For 20 years, in Philadelphia and Chicago, John Schulian often found himself in the next chair over from Ziegel, not a stranger typing faster but a p.m.-paper ally facing down deadlines. "If there is one point to make about Vic as a columnist," Schulian said, "it is that he provided a touch of sanity in a world that is loud, obnoxious, and too often thick-headed. While so many of the big names get hysterical over things of no real consequence, Vic stayed quietly amusing. He always said his hero was Leonard Shecter, who stood up to the brutish Mantle-Maris Yankees and eviscerated Lombardi in Esquire, but his whimsical tone came a lot closer to John Lardner than anybody else. Vic wrote for laughs, not for blood, and to entertain, not to be at the head of a lynch mob. Unless I'm badly mistaken, he was the last of his kind."
Writers trying to write better than they could often convened at the Lion's Head bar in Greenwich Village. "If I got there at a decent hour," Ziegel wrote, "there was a great chance that Len Shecter, my friend, my idol, would be at the corner of the bar. He was the champ, tough, outrageous, funny, shrewd, fearless, acerbic, but don't me started. I wanted to write like Lenny – as they say in TV, the same but different – and on my best nights I came close."
But then . . .
"Lenny did a lousy thing to those nights at the Lion's Head. He died. To this day, when I write a line I like, I tell my friend, ‘I did good, Lenny.'"
Larry Merchant thinks of his friend and sees a Marc Chagall painting, "The Green Violinist." Russia's Chabad Hasidim believed that music and dance brought them to God. Chagall painted a fiddler dancing through a village. Merchant said, "I imagine Vic in Chagall's painting. Floating above us, playing the violin, observing human behavior, laughing. Vic being Vic. Just a great soul."
You did good, Vic.
Dave Kindred's latest book, "Morning Miracle," is an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295