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Ethics of Sportswriting: I. The Celebrity Wall

Warms your heart, doesn’t it? “To Johnny ‘Red’ the best in NBA. Andy Bagnato.” One sportsman hailing another. The Tribune’s scrappy young scribe respecting a local legend where it counts, on the crowded celebrity wall upstairs at Red Kerr’s joint on Clinton Street.

Maybe Michael Jordan’s new restaurant is the hotter establishment at the moment. But by the backslapping standard of inscribed portraiture, it doesn’t compare. We dropped by Jordan’s the other day. There were small autographed pictures of Jordan’s teammates and another of Oprah and that was about it. Where’s the wall of celebrity congrats? we worried; this comes perilously close to what aesthetes call understated good taste.

Fortunately, the omission is being dealt with. “There are 50 things at the framer as we speak,” publicist Louise Edwards told us. “The photos came pouring in. We got one today from Spike Lee. There’s one from Michael Jackson. Basically, what happened at the grand opening was a lot of celebrities couldn’t make it but sent greetings. Some people have done it unsolicited. Some people have been asked to join our celebrity wall.”

Any journalists? we asked her.

“Oh, definitely! Most of the sportscasters were invited to be part of the wall. Some people brought [their pictures] with them. Some people sent them over in the night mail. And some were picked up, certainly. We have Dan Roan, Jon Kelley, Mark Giangreco, Tom Shaer, Jim Rose, Tim Weigel. . . . Some are hysterically funny too, what they wrote. Tim Weigel’s I remember was hysterical. They’re all at the framer’s.”

(Later, she read us Weigel’s. “Don’t put this in the men’s room.”)

And what about sportswriters? we wondered.

“I can’t say we’ve solicited any sportswriters,” Edwards allowed. “Undoubtedly we will have print guys. We need to have all the sportswriters on that wall.”

A prime example of a mature celebrity wall is Harry Caray’s, which managing director Grant DePorter told us is past the point of soliciting contributions. There are exceptions. “Willard Scott was in a couple of years ago, and we said, ‘Hey, can we have a picture?’ Robert Goulet’s been eating here. We may have said something there.” No celebrity wall is set in stone, but at Harry Caray’s change is uncommon. “A politician will come in and want to update his picture,” DePorter explained. “He’ll say, ‘Hey, I’ve shaved off my mustache.'”

That’s a politician for you. But however great the “need” at Michael Jordan’s or anywhere else, why would a journalist turn himself into a collectible? First of all, because when your mug’s up there on the wall everyone can see you’re a swell person. Part of the scene. The Tribune’s Mike Conklin remembers Red Kerr’s putting out the word that autographed glossies would be appreciated. “They asked me to jot down a line or whatever,” says Conklin. “I obliged. I have a huge ego like everyone else. I knew I’d bring the kids in one day.”

Besides, reporters find it a lot harder than wide-eyed kids to take autographs seriously. Sam Smith’s book The Jordan Rules tells how friends of lesser Bulls would ask them to fetch their famous teammate’s signature. But Jordan didn’t like giving it. “I used to sign [Jordan’s name] myself,” said Scottie Pippen in Smith’s book, “but now I’ve stopped that, too. I’ve got some pride, too, and I’m not going to beg him.”

“Years ago,” the Sun-Times’s Brian Hewitt reminded us, “the clubhouse boy would do half the autographs.”

Hewitt dropped by Red Kerr’s last weekend because we’d told him his inscribed picture was up on the wall. This puzzled him. He knew he’d done Harry Caray’s. But he had absolutely no memory of signing anything for Red Kerr’s.

“I signed the damn thing. I couldn’t believe it,” Hewitt reported the next morning. “My guess is I did it when I was at the National. It was my handwriting. I have no recollection of when the picture was taken and who took it.”

A couple of years ago the Tribune’s public-affairs office was approached by Red Kerr’s and asked for publicity photos of some of the paper’s sportswriters. Photos were signed, sent over, framed, and put on display. But along the line something mysterious happened.

Forward to May of ’92. Andy Bagnato, on leave in Scotland, receives a letter from his friend Peggy Wolfe back home. “I went to lunch at Red Kerr’s yesterday with my best buddy at work. . . . We were looking at the various and sundry portraits of sportswriters and broadcasters upstairs and, lo and behold, there was your jovial mug grinning down at us.”

“Now you have me worried,” Bagnato writes back. “I can’t imagine why my picture was on the wall at Red Kerr’s. A sudden thought–maybe they think I’m dead. After all, it’s been a while since I had anything in the paper.”

Bagnato returns to Chicago, and for the first time in his life he drops by Red Kerr’s. He sees his picture. He sees someone else’s handwriting. What happens next he’ll describe in another letter to Wolfe:

“The waitress asked if she could help us. ‘Yes,’ I said. “You can help us. You can take that picture down, now. I’ve never been here, never met Red Kerr. And I have never, ever considered Red Kerr to be “Best Ever in NBA.”

“The poor woman was somewhat startled. She bustled off to find a manager. Then she came back and said, ‘The manager said we need a power tool to take it down.’

“That’s when I should have said, ‘You either find a power tool now, or I’m coming back with my own–and you will be powerful sorry I did.’

“But I felt I’d wasted enough time on this, so I made her promise they’d send it to the Tower the next day.” Bagnato said a week went by and the photo didn’t arrive, so he called Red Kerr’s and spoke to general manager Dorene Perley. She promised to ship it immediately.

“I haven’t been in the office to see if they sent it over,” Bagnato’s letter goes on. “If they haven’t, be prepared to see the following headline in Sun-Times next week: BAR STAFF HACKED TO DEATH BY TRIB SPORTS HACK.”

Perley’s quick action made this rampage unnecessary. The photo arrived just the other day, along with a note: “Sorry! What else can I say. Unfortunately I was not here at the time of the fraudulent signing, but I take responsibility as current GM to make this right with you.”

Who did it? Someone at the restaurant? Or could it have been sinister forces within the Tribune? We don’t know. The only thing we’re confident of is this: whoever signed Bagnato’s name has been able to sleep ever since.

II. The Moonlighting Columnist

Turning journalist, sports personality Chet Coppock has been writing a Sunday column for the Sun-Times the past few weeks. “We’ve told Chet on several occasions that if there was ever an appearance of conflict we won’t run his column,” sports editor Rick Jaffe told us.

The following, therefore, does not constitute an appearance of conflict. This Sunday, to quote the press release, “the Chicago Cubs will produce a one-hour, home shopping special in partnership with WGN-TV and Tribune Entertainment Company. . . . Co-host Chet Coppock will offer viewers an opportunity to order a broad spectrum of special, personalized and one-of-a-kind memorabilia.”

So here is Coppock helping a couple of Tribune Company subsidiaries, one of them the Cubs, make some money. “It’s a onetime deal that Chet got a flat fee for, and he’s not beholden to the Cubs organization,” said Jaffe, unperturbed.

III. The Appropriated Anecdote

Ira Berkow, New York Times, May 18: “‘After our last game in New York, when they beat us,’ [Jordan] said, ‘I saw Spike Lee at courtside and said, “You think the Knicks are going to win this year, don’t you?” He said, “Yeah, I do.” I said, “Surprise, surprise, surprise.”‘”

Jay Mariotti, Sun-Times, May 19: “Last time Jordan was here, he chatted with pal and ardent Knicks fan Spike Lee.

“‘You think the Knicks are going to win this year, don’t you?’ Jordan asked.

“‘Yeah, I do,’ Lee said.

“‘Surprise, surprise, surprise,’ said Jordan, spooking New York again.”

Again Rick Jaffe told us there’s no problem. Sportswriters “exchange stuff like that all the time,” he said. Not this time. “Sports with an attitude,” muses Berkow, who heard the story as he watched a playoff game in Jordan’s suite. “If his attitude is taking other people’s stuff I question that attitude.”

We reached Mariotti in New York. “It’s an interesting ethical debate,” he pondered. “I can tell you it happens to me far more than it happens the other way around. I’ve used the phrase ‘Michael Miracle’ to describe Jordan. It’s my phrase. Never once have I been credited with it. To me it’s not that big a deal, but why not ‘Jay Mariotti’? I came up with it. We can be creative, but yet we’re not credited. Yet somebody can come back at me on that one occasion!”

And not even somebody who’s infallible himself! Berkow, May 20: “Pippen has a reputation as ‘a soft star.’ In a critical playoff game against the Pistons three years ago, Pippen sat out the game because of a migraine. Others, said others, would have played . . . ”

Again myth overruns truth. Scotty Pippen played 42 minutes in that game. Migraine sufferers considered it one of the great athletic feats of the century.