How Dan Barry wrote a New York Times baseball game story as if it were 1908
On a week consumed by "Back to the Future" retrospectives and updates, Dan Barry went back to the present.
Barry, a wonderful New York Times reporter and writer, is on assignment for the sports section as he takes a break after eight impressive but grueling years traveling the country for his "This Land" column. It explains an unusual creative gambit he pulled off last week, covering a New York Mets-Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field as if he were a 1908 sportswriter.
He's a huge baseball fan who wrote a nifty book, "Bottom of the 33rd," about a 1981 minor league game that may be the strangest ever. This time, his immersion in the past brings insights about journalism then and now, an altered sports culture and an overall linguistic grace often missing in our video-driven world. This is, after all, an age where 140-character tweets can often be a primary vehicle for news — even purported analysis — on sports, politics, the economy or pop culture.
"Cubs' Dreams Dashed in Loss To Metropolitans; Prayers Of Wrigley Faithful Go Unanswered" was the headline above a sepia-toned photograph of the Mets second baseman arriving at home plate after walloping a homer in a record sixth straight playoff game. The caption: "That Metropolitan miracle, the ginger-haired second-sacker Daniel Murphy after hitting his customary home run."
The story's pacing, phrasing, use of classical analogies, focus on those in the stands and majestic tone were part and parcel of the way sports was written back in 1908, when the Cubs met the Mets' predecessors, the New York Giants, in a one-game playoff inspired by one of baseball's most notorious gaffes: the base-running mistake still known as Giant player Fred Merkle's "boner."
With a byline of "D. Francis Barry," rather than his customary Dan Barry, it opened, "CHICAGO, Oct. 21 - The New York Metropolitans claimed decisive possession of the National League base-ball pennant on enemy turf here Wednesday night, sweeping the Sisyphean Chicago Cubs in four games to earn their ducats to next week's World Series championship.
One read of a "mighty Californian" who "smote a home run for the Mets;" of the "jostling sea of humanity" outside the park before the game; the players engaging in "limb-loosening exercises" inside; of a former "Cubs twirler Rick Sutcliffe, known as the Red Baron for his fiery tonsorial hue"; of "events unfolding on the diamond-shaped greensward": and of the vanquished Cubs manager offering an honorable post-game handshake to his winning rival, "a Lee greeting his Grant."
Barry's was an on-deadline tour de force that could have lapsed into failed satire. It was started in the Wrigley Field press box and completed at 4 a.m. in his hotel room, with ample assistance from a crew back at the office led by sports editor Jason Stallman. And it got a thumbs-up from one baseball fan who happens to be an expert on the craft of writing.
"He is writing in tribute to the likes of Ring Lardner and Grantland Rice and maybe Heywood Broun," says Poynter's Roy Peter Clark. "The famous editor Stanley Woodward told his hagiographic scribes to 'stop Godding up the athletes.' The most famous example is the [Grantland Rice story of the] Notre Dame victory [against Army in 1924] and the analogy of the ND line to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It began 'outlined against a blue gray October sky.' As some wag once opined, the writer would have to be lying on his belly on the stadium grass to see that."
"The Old Style was marked not only with mythological language, but a combination of literary metaphor and sports slang that liberated it from the suffocating conventions in the rest of the paper, " said Clark, who found one or two spots where Barry might have been "a tick or two overheated," but not by much.
So how did this come to be? I caught up with Barry by phone Monday as he was heading into work from his New Jersey home.
What was the genesis of the basic notion, and how did you then proceed?
Two things. One, when it wound up being the Mets and Cubs, I thought, "When was last time these two teams played a meaningful game in October?" If you consider the Mets a descendant of some sort of the New York Giants, that goes back to 1908, and I thought I might do a riff on the Fred Merkel case. But while doing research, I noticed the language of the coverage.
At the same time, Nora, my daughter, a freshman at Skidmore College, went to a bookstore in Saratoga Springs, New York, and found "Batting to Win," by Lester Chadwick, published in 1911, a Hardy Boys-like adventure on the baseball diamond, with language like, 'For the love of Caesar." I thought, "why not do a game in that voice?" I talked to Jason Stallman, the sports editor, and he's a guy who takes chances and we said this could be cool. But when it comes to crunch time, you also think you will ruin your career if the thing goes flat.
I thought I could watch the game on TV in New York. But that was fake. So I flew to Chicago and had written down some notes in going through the 1908 coverage. And there was a book, "The Unforgettable Season," by Gordon H. Fleming. It was a collection of the coverage of the 1908 season, with snippets of language from mostly New York papers but also some Chicago papers. I also got some help from John Thorn, the Major League Baseball historian. So I'd gone through New York Times archives and got some language, like "twirlers" [pitchers] and using "cushion" as a reference to a base.
But beyond that, there was the kind of grandiose voice that veers between being hagiography for the men on the field to reducing them to lunkheads when they fail. I wrote down a lot of terms on the plane so I would be familiar with them. One of my colleagues then gave me his seat in the main press box at Wrigley, with a spectacular view of the game. I walked around the stadium and drank up the ambience since, back then , the crowds were very much part of the story. You'd always find stories about fans swarming to get in, boys sneaking underneath turnstiles. So I got some of that color outside the stadium, then sat inside in a choice spot. And, frankly, I just started riffing. Every inning I had 300 or 400 words. Some people thought I was putting salt on the wounds of Chicago. No. I was celebrating Chicago, and the way the Cubs fans were almost embracing the Mets when done.
Around the seventh inning, I had to come up with a lede, and knew I had to write about the protracted pain of Chicago. I had even written a line that the Cubs had at least denied Murphy a home run. But then he hit one in the eighth inning. And, then, I went down to the field and saw [Cubs manager Joe] Maddon walk across to go to the clubhouse to shake [Mets manager Terry] Collins' hand. It was a classy act. Then I went to the hotel and wrote in a deadline delirium and sent it to Jason at 4 a.m. and said I didn't know if it made any sense. I sent it and, when I awoke, it was already online and people were mentioning it. A half dozen people on sports desk were coming up with the look of it [for the print edition the next day], going back to 1908 pages. [They were Wayne Kamidoi, Sam Manchester, Victor Mather, Kevin Quealy, Lee Yarosh, Randy Archibold, Peter Blair and Stallman; all responsible for images, chart, design and research] It was great! All there was from Jason was wondering if I'd be upset if they changed my byline to Daniel Francis Barry. I said that, well, if you're going that way, why not D. Francis Barry, which evoked the whole New York Times thing. Dan Barry was just too modern.
What was the biggest challenge? Was it psychological? Was it melding a long-ago journalism culture with an actual game account from last week? Was it a bit like being an actor and playing a role?
What it was, it was weird, trying not to be a parody of that writing but also having fun. It was a struggle for me to always stay in the voice, or I mean stay in the time. I write about "the wonder of electrification." And in the online version I think I used the word "morphing,' but then somebody later pointed out that morphing wouldn't have been the right word. For the print edition, that changed to "transmogrifying," one of those grandiose words that might convey the right sense.
How would you describe to, say, a J-school class how the sports scribes did their jobs back then and how that compares to today?
Sportswriters today, at their best, work their asses off, particularly now; meeting many deadlines, and with the nature of the story possibly changing with a swing of the bat. I'm impressed with what they do. In 1908, it was not unlike that. Today may actually be closer to that period than, say, 20 years ago. They had so many deadlines back then, hitting late editions. In a weird way I saw a parallel between then and now in writing on deadline and trying to find a literary voice, often failing, slipping into cliché and grandiloquence. Also, I noticed how, back then, we closely associated ourselves with a sports team. The Giants weren't just the Giants, they were New York. The Cubs weren't just the Cubs; they were Chicago, the Midwest. It was more tribal back then, and more violent in the stands. It mattered. It friggin mattered. For the 1908 game, the one-game playoff, tens of thousands of people couldn't get into the stadium. The cops couldn't control them. The game mattered.
What do you really think of the way they wrote back then?
At its worst, it was pretty bad. But, then, at its best, it becomes almost classical. And you will see Sisyphean, referring to the Cubs, a lot of references to ancient Greece and Rome. The language has this highbrow voice that grants the game extra class, gives it a grace and intellectual worth. They write about it as if it's worth your time. At its best, it is transporting. You feel the swell of the crowds, you feel when Merkel makes a mistake, how critical and painful that was for the New York crowd. If I am feeling that 100 years later, those writers were remarkable.
The great game story seems a relic of the past, does it not, almost regardless of the sport? The ESPN SportsCenter, video-driven account now has seemingly superseded the morning-after tale in a TV-less world way back when, no?
I think the challenge to the writer has changed. He can still write a wonderful game story if he understands that the reader knows how the game turned out. People still have the pleasure of reliving the game through the word. But if you stipulate that you know the Patriots beat the Jets yesterday, you can tell them that here's what it was like on the ground and in the locker room. And you can still go to Ralph Branca's locker like [New York Post columnist] Murray Kempton did, rather than to Bobby Thomson's [after Thomson of the Giant hit a homer off the Dodgers' Branca to win the 1951 National League pennant]. When done well, even now, the audience will remember that much longer than something on SportsCenter.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Correction: Dan Barry's name was misspelled twice in the story and has since been fixed. A previous version of this story also rendered incorrectly Barry's old-timey byline.
Correction: Grantland Rice's reference to the Four Horses of the Apochalypse did not refer to the Notre Dame line, as originally referenced by Roy Peter Clark, but to its backfield