Lawyer Goes Straight, Steps Up to Sportswriting

Lester Munson Jr. gave up the newspaper game 23 years ago for the noble calling of law. This year, at age 48, he gained the lofty perch of president of the Du Page County Bar Association, a title that might convey to you a life swelling in honors and dignity. What, then, are we to make of Munson’s sudden decision to chuck it all–in order to write sports for gosh sake? Can it be anything but pathetic regression, Munson in mid-life making a damn fool of himself?

He says he isn’t.

“I was getting dissatisfied with the legal process, no question about it,” Munson told us. “There is a tremendous glut of lawyers, particularly in Du Page County, where I was doing 90 percent of my work. Instead of a nice little club of professionals we have a huge number of cutthroats.”

Four years ago, Munson was elected third vice president of the Du Page bar. His ascension to the top was automatic. But by the time he got there he’d made up his mind to serve his one-year term and leave the law. He wound up serving four months.

The reason Munson bolted is the National Sports Daily, a newspaper that intends to be exactly that. Now being assembled in New York by publisher Peter Price, former publisher of the New York Post, and editor Frank Deford, former writing star at Sports Illustrated, the National will debut in mid-January as an archetypal phenomenon of our times–Americans exhibiting an uncontrollable national craving, and foreign operators moving in to gratify it. Behind Price and Deford is the reclusive Mexican media magnate Emilio Azcarraga.

“Think about it,” says Frank Deford in the slick promotional packet that goes to advertisers. “In a way, what is technically a confederation of 50 states is now more accurately a league of ‘major league cities.'”

“Intensity,” says Peter Price. “That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? When people are passionate about something, you can be sure new media will emerge to satisfy the desire.”

Back in the early 60s, Munson and the authors of these shiny fatuities were all buddies at Princeton. “When I saw they were hooking up I thought, it’s now or never,” says Munson. “So here I am.”

Already at work in the National’s Chicago bureau, Munson will be one of the paper’s five investigative writers. “Anything that involves the legal system, I’ll be covering,” he says. “Right now I’m working on collective bargaining, free agency, court cases, that kind of thing. I’m working on a piece on spinal cord injuries in football. I did a lot of personal injury work, so that falls right in.”

Fresh from Princeton, Munson got a job at the Chicago Daily News in 1962 and was given a choice: city desk or sports. A budding grown-up, Munson chose hard news, and still wonders why he did. “I sometimes think that if I’d started in sports, I’d have stayed with it.”

He lasted four years as a reporter. Then, “I found myself going to law school and all of a sudden I was a lawyer.”

It just sort of happened? we said.

“I ended up covering 26th Street and the federal courts,” he explained, “and I was in contact with all these lawyers all the time and I figured I could probably do as well as they were doing. I think when I went to law school, I had the idea I’d be moving up a notch in terms of intellectual challenge and literate activity. Now I do not feel I’m moving down a notch, so you can make any judgment you want about that.”

Emerging from the University of Chicago Law School, Munson did personal injury work for a big Loop firm, wrote speeches for Governor Ogilvie, and then decided to lead the life of those high-profile defense attorneys he’d met back at the Daily News. He hung out his shingle in Wheaton, and his profile was slow in rising.

“When you start in doing criminal work, you start with some 20-year-old who burglarized McDonald’s while it was open, some brilliant practitioner of the criminal art,” said Munson. “Then I guess you hope these guys will graduate to bigger and better things. Major felonies. Doing DUIs is not too exciting either.”

Munson found himself associating on a daily basis with two-bit creeps he didn’t even want in his office, because of the way they had of pocketing anything that wasn’t nailed down.

So he went back to personal injury.

Like Philip Corboy, we said.

“He’s a world-class plaintiff’s lawyer,” said Munson. “I was strictly in the bush league level.” Double A? we said. “That’s about right,” said Munson. “Trying hard to get to triple A but you’ve got to win a few more cases.”

Munson confessed, “The life of a lawyer is not the life of a scholar in any way at all, at least the way I was doing it. The learned aspect of the profession was quite elusive to me. I felt frequently like a glorified claims adjuster.”

Munson says the National is finally giving him a chance to write what he thinks, plus a national audience that will pay to read it. Actually, the National will only be available in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles when it is launched; but if Price’s projections pan out, the paper will be in 28 cities by the end of 1991. Munson will be writing for the core of the paper, which will come wrapped each day in a shell of outer pages tailored to each local market. Chicago, for example, will have its own columnist, John McGrath, formerly of the Denver Post.

“We’re trying mightily to be a very analytical and literate sports paper, something that has not been tried,” says Munson, “but that this leadership feels can be done professionally and with great financial rewards. Deford’s almost messianic on the point.”

Yet when Munson approached his old Princeton pals about a job, they were astonished at his wish to descend from the law to their base trade.

“Once I convinced them,” says Munson, “things fell into place very quickly. Obviously, they didn’t know too much about lawyers. Peter Price went to Yale Law School. He never practiced law but he is a lawyer. He never had the pleasure of going to court and waiting an hour for the judge to show up. He missed that exquisite joy of the legal profession.”

Where the Action Is

We’re a little shaken. We just heard from an old J-school pal, Surge, of the Post.

“Europe wakes!” he shouted. “I’m off!”

We couldn’t believe what we heard. Surge is a giant of American journalism. Well, that’s not entirely accurate; he’s more of a hack, to tell the truth. But he’s always conducted himself with a certain nobility, and to Surge the biggest story on earth was a presidential campaign.

“You can’t leave now,” we told Surge. “The preprimary maneuvering has already begun.”

“I woke up in a cold sweat the other night,” he said, “and suddenly I could see everything for what it is. It doesn’t matter anymore. It doesn’t matter if we reelect Georgie Bushman in ’92 or whatever mope the Democrats put up this time. I mean, give it to rewrite and cover it by phone!”

So the fate of the free world no longer concerns you, we snapped at him.

“Sure it does,” cried Surge, sounding desperate to be understood. “That’s why I’m bailing out. That’s why me and the rest of the old gang–Pride, of the Mail, Glance, at the Mirror, Tarzan of the AP–we’re going to rent a flat in Montparnasse and chronicle the collapse of the Soviet empire and the emergence of a new Europe.”

“From Paris?” we said.

“Center of everything,” said Surge. “We pop to Berlin one week, Prague the next, nights on express trains, a hell of a lot of schnapps, incredible sex everywhere. You remember the 60s–the way everybody would be making the revolution and then they’d suddenly want to take their clothes off.”

“A dim memory,” we told him.

“Not in Czechoslovakia, my man!” Surge cried. “The whole continent’s in heat. So I asked myself, what’s there to cover if I stay here? You know what? Deficit reduction, that’s fucking what. Old-age insurance, that’s fucking what. Civil rights of cows, that’s fucking what. The ambient tobacco smoke menace, that’s fucking what. Those are stories no real man should be doing!”

You can’t choose the times you live in, we reminded him.

“I saw Walesa!” Surge raced on, “and do you know what I thought? I thought, this is a man who doesn’t worry about cholesterol. This is a man who walks into a restaurant and doesn’t care where he sits.

“I am also that man!” proclaimed Surge. “But I can’t be that man here. This country’s as dead as Sunday night in Kansas.”

He pleaded with us to join him. We said it was impossible just now, not with the race for County Board president shaping up the way it is.

“I will drink whiskey with the crowd at Cafe Flore,” Surge told us, “then take my leave and make my way past harlots and fishmongers to my fax machine, to transmit my vivid commentary on magnificent events. Then, somewhere, a nip of anisette.

“The Cafe Flore’s still there, isn’t it?” he added anxiously.

Same as ever, we said.

“And the Deux Magots?”

Waiting for you, we told Surge.

“And everyone over there does speak English?” Surge wanted to know.

Not really, we said. But they wave their arms a lot.

“With my sensitivity,” Surge pondered, “that should do.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.