Paying homage to legendary Jack Mann: ‘he encouraged and reveled in reporting that disturbed the peace’
Vecsey remembers Mann's stories. A Marine, Mann told the kid about another Marine, a young Brooklyn Dodger, who had lived by his hands on an atoll during the war in the Pacific — and came home with a Bronze Star earned as an anti-aircraft gunner at Tinian and Okinawa. "Turned out to be Gil Hodges," Vescey told me by e-mail. He loved the talk, and more: "I loved all the rules he made – no freebies, no writing for house organs, no Sharks-vs.-Jets analogies for local high school rivalries. I loved watching him sharpen a pencil, crisply break off the very sharpest tip, and commence to move stuff around in my copy, and say, ‘Is that what you meant?'"
Mann made his reputation through the tumult of the 1960s. First as Newsday's sports editor, then writing for Sports Illustrated, he encouraged and reveled in reporting that disturbed the peace. "Chipmunks," he wrote, appropriating the term of disdain coined by co-opted hacks, "are the New Breed … their outstanding characteristics being irreverence and curiosity."
He made words dance. He once assigned reporters to interview track fans who carried their own stopwatches so he could write the headline: "These Are the Souls Who Time Men's Tries." By the end, his resume came with stops in New York, Long Island, Miami, Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis, perhaps because in his fierce integrity he suffered fools not at all. "Most chicken newspapers," he once wrote, "which is most newspapers…."
His voice is vibrant in the memo that Vecsey shares: "The subject is style. Style is arbitrary. There is no important reason why a man is a shot-putter, rather than a shotputter or a shot putter. But the purpose of style is consistency. We have had shot-putter all three ways, sometimes on the same page. It is a sloppiness that is unnecessary and should be easily eliminated."
Mann inveighed against dashes. "A dash is a drastic piece of punctuation. It should be used for the abrupt introduction of matter that is a sharp departure from the rest of the sentence." Nor did he like capital letters. "There won't be any occasion for caps. They're for circus posters. If you can't make your point without clobbering the reader the big letters, either you don't have any point to make or you're not making it correctly." Exclamation points? No! "There might be an occasion now and then to use an exclamation point in copy. Our consulting staff of deskmen couldn't think of one. If you find one, show it to them. Before you use it."
He insisted that his staffers look up the word "literally." "The way we get it," he wrote, "it usually means ‘figuratively.' Look that up, too. If a thing is ‘literally' true, it will almost always suffice to say simply that it is true. If, for example, Hofstra's line was ‘literally torn apart by Maryland State,' it's a story that has more business on Page 3 than the St. Valentine's Day massacre."
Down with barbarisms. "‘Win as a noun is not out, but it is discouraged. Never use it in the first instance. It will sometimes be necessary as a variation, but it is a barbarism." "Giving a team's record as 6-5 ‘on' the season is a barbarism originated by the radio-TV people. That doesn't make it any less a barbarism."
He believed "said" was the only necessary word in attribution: "‘I guess I'm just hitting the ball well,' he smiled. People don't smile and say things at the same time."
On quote marks: "Don't put quotes on a word or phrases unless you're quoting from somebody. If you're worried about using too strong a word, putting quotes on it doesn't take anything off it. And if you're trying to be cute, the quotes won't make it cuter." On quotes themselves: "Don't fix a man's quotes. Not his grammar, or anything. Don't have a coach saying his team was ‘woefully lacking in the lumber department,' if what he said was, ‘We didn't hit.' It makes him look silly and it makes us look sillier.”
As evidence of the stylist's command of the language and baseball, Dave McKenna of Washington's City Paper once cited Mann's 1966 evisceration of the Dodgers' Willie Davis. In it, Mann wrote:
"If a ground ball is needed to move a runner from second to third, Willie shoots for the mountains anyway and hits a fly ball. Once in a while he reaches the mountains and then he wants to do it again, and the hell with that greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number jazz.
"He overthrows cutoff men with maddening consistency, runs bases carelessly and does these things because he is too stubborn or too something to accept the good advice a player gets in the Dodger organization. And he's a hot dog, too, even though he says he is not.
"So why should anyone feel sorry for him? Because, as Mildred Dunnock said of her salesman, a terrible thing has happened to Willie and attention must be paid to him."
I knew the name, Jack Mann, because anyone who paid attention to sportswriting knew the name. I met him only late; he did columns at the Washington Star, I wrote at the Washington Post. We first spoke on a winter day in the 1970s. Without introduction, without preamble, and with one sentence of elaboration, he said, "I read your Maruk." Dennis Maruk was the latest Canadian farm boy hired by the Washington Capitals. Then came the elaboration: "If you don't know Abe Lincoln's politics, write the log cabin." He said it with a smile, for he knew I knew nothing about hockey and yet had made it through another column day by charting Maruk's journey from the farm to the city.
On August 8, 1981, the day the Star folded, I was with Mann at a tennis tournament. "Damned if I won't drink a beer today," he said, ignoring, again, a doctor's order. He wore blue jeans, a sports shirt, and Ben Franklin half-glasses. He was 55 going on 30. If you liked life sweet and sour, if you admired a man who could be courtly and yet answer foolishness with the back of his hand, Jack Mann was your guy. On that melancholy day, the Star's young tennis writer, Rachel Schuster, said, "What are we going to do?" For a helping of self-pity, lordy, she had come to the wrong place. Mann said, "Get off it. I'm 55 years old, I have a mortgage, I have one child in private school, I have another 2 years old, and what I'm going to do is have another beer. It ain't the end of the world, Rachel."
Nineteen years later, Mann was dying of cancer. His friend and colleague at the Star, Tom Callahan, said, "Jack talked about the cancer as ‘vultures that nibble on my liver.' He'd nurse a beer and say, `I've finished whiskey, and now I'm on the chasers.'" He sent a note after reading my Sporting News column choosing an All-Century baseball team. "Good picks," he scribbled across the clipping. "I'm wary of mingling Ripken with the great ones. Schmidt is one of the giants. And a good guy. Bench is a boor–but the best. I'd have Concepcion and Gilliam on my bench. And I'd win."
Later came a note typed on crinkled blue paper. Pee Wee Reese, the 1940s and '50s Dodgers star and longtime captain, had died. "I'm reminded of a Robinson story the Captain told me years later, over some beer in Philly, about the brightest play he ever saw: the catch Jackie didn't really make in the final (regular-season) game of '51, and Jack's quick thinking, without which there would have been no 14th inning, no Robinson home run, no playoff, no Bobby Thomson. If you ever have a use for it, I'll detail it for you in Pee Wee's words."
So we talked, and Mann said, "The Giants had won that day in '51, and the Dodgers needed to win to force a playoff. Robinson makes an impossible diving catch behind second to keep the game going–and he wins it with a homer in the 14th. Only, Pee Wee tells me, Jackie doesn't catch it. He short-hops it, but pops up off the dirt and tosses the ball to the ump and never allows anyone to think for a second that the ball was anything but caught."
McKenna had seen Mann, near the end, write freelance columns on horse racing for $75 a pop. What McKenna saw, and wrote, is the very image of the sportswriter as craftsman, the cantankerous sumbitch as sweetheart. It went, "He'd bang out his weekly columns on a manual typewriter, sitting beneath a bulletin board on which he'd pinned typed and handwritten notes with slogans like 'What is written without effort in general is read without pleasure' and 'Next to human love, I hold the English language most dear' and 'I don't write the headlines.' “