Lewis Grizzard’s Chicago: Bad Memories

“I’m sitting in a limousine talking to you,” Lewis Grizzard told us through the ether. “It’s a lot better than making $28,000 a year working for the goddamned Sun-Times.”

Since he hightailed it home from Chicago in 1977, Lewis Grizzard has become a giant of southern letters. He’s a syndicated columnist who comes out with a new book every year or two, a book titled Chili Dawgs Always Bark at Night or They Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat. He’s so big now he’s a business–Grizzard Enterprises of Atlanta.

How’s the new volume doing? we asked him.

“Well, it’s on the New York Times goddamned best-seller list. How about that!” Grizzard reported. “I just went to Macon, Georgia, and signed 700 of the suckers.”

In 1975, when Grizzard was but 28 and unknown, perversity got the better of him and he headed north. For the 17 months he held down the job of executive sports editor of the Sun-Times, he underwent harrowing trials: his wife left him, his Bass Weejuns filled with snow, one of his sportswriters called him a racist.

A late chapter of Grizzard’s 13th book, If I Ever Get Back to Georgia, I’m Gonna Nail My Feet to the Ground, tells the tale of his Chicago nightmare. The chapter begins with the staff icons he inherited. Bill Gleason for one:

“He often wrote in parables. I read Gleason for three years, and I’m not certain I ever had any idea what he was trying to say.”

Jerry Holtzman for another: “I called him into my office one day and began to tell him how baseball writers should be writing in the late seventies. I mentioned the need for quotes, and then I said, ‘And you use too many cliches. . . . You are still using worn-out baseball cliches like “hot corner” for third base and “circuit clout” and “roundtripper” for home run.’

“Holtzman looked puzzled. Finally he said, ‘Lewis, you don’t understand. Those are my cliches.’ . . .

“I didn’t bother with Holtzman’s writing after that.”

Gleason, now at the Southtown Economist, and Holtzman, now with the Tribune, do not remember young Grizzard fondly. “He was terribly miscast as an editor,” says Gleason, dismissing him as one of a series of “insignificant snots” who ran the Sun-Times sports section back then.

“He’s a no-good son of a bitch,” says Holtzman. “And he’s the only person I ever hated in my life, and he’s a phony. I’ll never forget the time Grizzard came to work. He and I and [Tom] Fitzpatrick were having a beer at Riccardo’s, and he was telling us how fortunate he was to inherit a staff that was so talented. And six months later he began harassing me, and he harassed me as long as he was there. He had his desk rewrite everything I did.”

Holtzman says he has no memory of any conversation about cliches.

A brief appearance is made in Grizzard’s book by a young columnist he hired named Tom Callahan. As the book tells it, “He wrote well. I liked his ideas. He said to me, ‘I want to play the Palace.’ He lasted a week. I edited a few lines of a couple of his columns, and he resigned and said, ‘This isn’t the Palace, it’s the Orpheum Circuit,’ and went back to Cincinnati.”

Callahan has his own memories of that week. He remembers Grizzard spiking a column Gleason wrote and yelling, “I don’t know why I run any of your columns.” He remembers Grizzard confiding in him, “It’s the young guys against the old guys here”–not realizing that Callahan was Gleason’s friend and much preferred the old guys to the young. He remembers Grizzard confiding, “You know, I hate sports. I’ll tell you what I do like–trains and Atlanta.” Actually, says Callahan, what he told Grizzard as he stormed out was, “This isn’t the Palace. This isn’t the Orpheum Circuit. It’s burlesque.”

What about that? we asked Grizzard.

“I don’t like sports much, no I don’t,” he allowed. “Why do you have to like sports? Does the movie reviewer have to like movies? It’s a professional thing.”

Was it really the old guys against the young ones?

“Oh, it was. I had about 30 people on the staff. I had about 6 guys who liked me and 24 who hated me.”

Foremost among the 24, as Grizzard tells the tale, was Lacy Banks. When Grizzard joined the Sun-Times in November of ’75, Banks was covering the Bulls. Forgetting Banks’s three years as sports editor of Ebony and like period as a Navy public-information officer, even forgetting how to spell his first name, Grizzard describes him as a novice who had a major beat only because “the Sun-Times had wanted to send a message to its black readers that it believed in affirmative action. Giving Lacey that big of a stick gave him the false message that he was an accomplished journalist . . . ”

Grizzard yanked a column Banks had written, then suspended the weekly column altogether, then tossed out a Banks “exclusive.” To Grizzard’s amazement, Banks interpreted these rebuffs as racist, and said so to a friend at the Defender. Banks refused to apologize for the article his friend promptly wrote, and editor Jim Hoge sent him packing.

Thirteen months later, a federal arbitrator told Banks to return to work.

About then, Grizzard decided to go back to Georgia. Grizzard’s book describes his farewell speech. “‘Some of you, it has been a pleasure to work with. Others of you, it has not been. And one of you has been an incredible pain in the ass.’

“With that, Lacey J. Banks got out of his chair, walked over to me, and stuck out his hand. I shook it.”

“I don’t remember him saying that,” says Lacy Banks.

Grizzard is within his rights in painting Banks, a lay minister, as he found him: hypersensitive, defensive, confounding. But given the sensitive issues–racism, professionalism–central to the tale of the two men’s run-in, why did Grizzard not take pains to tell it more precisely?

When you wrote your book, did you look at the arbitration transcripts? we asked Grizzard.

“No, I didn’t,” Grizzard answered. “I made it up from memory.”

Grizzard writes: “I tried to explain when my lawyer questioned me about the incident [when he tossed away Banks’s alleged exclusive]. I said that Lacey’s article was not exclusive, it was basically a rewrite of the morning Tribune. I also said that if he had stayed up until midnight working on it, he must not have started until eleven forty-five. . . . I also pointed out that I always threw all leftover materials on the rim into the wastebasket to clear it for work on the next edition . . . because if you didn’t get all that paper off the rim by the time the night was over, the entire sports department would disappear under tons of it . . .

“I could tell the arbitrator was not impressed . . . ”

Perhaps the arbitrator was not impressed because he was not privy to Grizzard’s imagination. This vigorous argument appears nowhere in the transcript of Grizzard’s testimony.

Consider this exchange, also from Grizzard’s book:

“I did stop the proceedings one day under direct examination by our lawyers. He asked what my reaction was when Mr. Banks had first charged me with being racist.

“I said, ‘I was bumfuzzled.’

“The Guild attorney said, ‘Excuse me. What did the witness say?’

“The arbitrator said, ‘Please repeat your answer.’

“I said, ‘I was bumfuzzled’ . . .

“Again, I felt terribly out-of-place. I’m in Chicago-by-God-Illinois getting raked over the coals by a bunch of northerners who don’t even understand a perfectly good word like ‘bumfuzzled.'”

“I haven’t the slightest recollection of that,” says Irving Friedman, who was the Newspaper Guild’s attorney.

It’s not in the transcript.

“I remember it very vividly,” said Grizzard. “It stopped the show for ten minutes.”

We asked Banks if he’ll grant that Grizzard’s book is at least poetically true–true to the way Grizzard thinks it was.

No, said Banks. “It’s the way he probably wished it would have been.”

It bothers Banks to think that under Christmas trees across America next week there’ll be a rollicking memoir that portrays him as a trouble-making incompetent. After years of grub work at the Sun-Times, Banks finally began covering the Bulls again three seasons ago. But he does not feel secure and probably never will.

Banks stuck it out at the Sun-Times, he told us, not just out of pride or principle “but as a means of survival. It’s hard enough for blacks to get jobs in this business as it is. For me to go to some other publication . . . they’ll say, ‘Yeah, this is the nigger that cried racism. We don’t want to be bothered with that. We don’t want to be bothered.’ Regardless of what they think of me as a writer.

“And there are those who maintain we can’t write,” Banks went on bitterly. “We can’t do anything significant.”

“Be easy with me,” said the voice of Lew Grizzard, calling from the outskirts of Atlanta. “I’m a good guy.”

Smoke Appeal

WASHINGTON: “A drop in youth smoking is what we’re after,” insisted Brennan M. Dawson, vice president of the Tobacco Institute, the principal industry trade association. “If another child never picks up a cigarette, that’s fine with us.”

An open letter that the Tobacco Institute might consider writing to the young people of America:

“Kids, we want to talk straight with you about smoking. A lot of people don’t approve of cigarettes. Maybe your mom and dad are among them. We make cigarettes, but we don’t make them for children–and we can’t stress that enough.

“Smoking is for adults. It’s a grown-up pleasure, just like liquor is a grown-up pleasure, and fast cars and hot jazz and satin sheets are grown-up pleasures. Smoking is for men and women. We can’t say that emphatically enough.

“If we were in the business of making children happy, we’d make bubble gum. We’d make sugar-coated breakfast cereals or slap bracelets or fuzzy-wuzzy bedroom slippers.

“We don’t make those things. Those things don’t interest us at all. We’re grown-ups. So we make smokes.

“The taste of tobacco takes some getting used to. Men and women like it. Children don’t.

“So, kids, listen to your mom and dad. If you’re just a child then act like a child. Enjoy your bubble gum. And be sure to wear your slippers!”