Tuesday, April 6, 2010

My strange road to becoming a baseball writer

I did not get here the usual way. Most writers on pro sports beats walk a well-worn path to get there. They start as prep writers, covering high school football and basketball, then wait until a writer on a beat ahead of them gets demoted or fired for excessive drinking or downloading porn on company laptops. They then move up to colleges, then as backups on pro beats, then as the main pro beat reporters. It's the cycle of life in newspaper sports departments. It's beautiful.

I didn't do it this way. Like most teens in the '70s who were interested in journalism, I was enthralled by Watergate and how two journalists could take down a corrupt president. I wanted to be Woodward or Bernstein (and yes, I know I have to be Bernstein, and I know why, so shut up, Ratto).

I went to Cal and got a political science degree and covered Berkeley City Hall for the Daily Cal. I worked a sort of internship covering the State Capitol in Sacramento then got my first newspaper job for the Ceres Courier, a 14,000-circulation weekly in what then was a agricultural town just south of Modesto. I was half of a two-person reporter/editor team and did everything -- high school sports, city hall, business, etc... I took my own pictures and even folded papers sometimes before they were delivered.

The headline on my first story at the Courier was "Broken Sprinkler Irks Neighbor." I proudly showed the paper to Vickey, my girlfriend at the time, and she laughed so hard her spleen nearly shot out of her body.

My first daily job was the San Ramon Valley Herald in Danville, working for one of those crusty, booze-fueled editors you've seen in 1940s films. He was a hoot who conducted much of his business at Elliot's bar and could not be a boss in today's politically correct world. He sat in an office with a glass window that looked out to the newsroom, and from outside we could watch job interviews in progress. As it was an entry-level paper, there were many attractive just-out-of-college women who walked into that office seeking employment. Once, the editor interrupted the interview, walked into the newsroom, sidled up to us boys and said, "You're not going to believe this. She just said she would be honored to work on my staff."

That said, this editor groomed a lot of fine journalists -- men and women -- who learned more about news writing in a short time from him than in years anywhere else.

I then went to the Fremont Argus to cover NUMMI. As the first joint venture between American and Japanese carmakers it was a big deal. I also covered technology when people oohed and ahhed the Intel 286 chip. I became a business writer and moved to the Oakland Tribune in 1985, where I finally became a baseball writer three years later.

I owe it all to Nick Peters, who just got honored in the writers' section of the Hall of Fame last year. Nick was the Giants beat writer for the Trib until he took a buyout and went to the Sacramento Bee. I had gotten to know the Trib's sports editor, Bob Valli, while writing fan stories about the 1987 All-Star Game in Oakland and asked him if there was any way I could cover sports. He gave me the Giants beat, a bold move that was ridiculed by everyone in the building and derided by the sportswriting community.

Nick Peters. What a character. I once watched him eat a $50 filet at a ritzy New York steakhouse and get it taken off the bill when he complained it was too tough. Nick used to have a marvelous talent for ripping someone standing 5 feet away with an under-the-breath comment that only could be heard by someone right next to him. You would laugh and the target would have no idea he was just filleted.

Nick still does it, but the problem now is that at 71 his hearing has declined a bit and his "under-the-breath" comments can be heard by everyone. At a restaurant in Scottsdale last month a baby at the next table was howling endlessly. The mother and father took the baby outside for a bit then returned. The kid was screaming louder than ever when Nick said, in a voice that could be heard throughout the dining room, "I thought you were going to leave that baby in the car."

I thank Bob Valli for giving me the chance to write baseball. I believe his decision was vindicated.

From the Tribune I went to the Examiner and then the Chronicle, where I am honored to carry a torch that the great Bob Stevens first lit in 1958 when the Giants came west. Next to Bob, I have the most years of any Giants beat writer at the Chronicle, which I ascribe to great fortune and wonderful people who believe in me. I can't adequately describe how much pride I have in that accomplishment.

I have a goal -- well, more of a dream -- to cover the team another seven or eight years or so to catch Bob, who was so encouraging to me I get choked up knowing he is gone and I cannot talk to him anymore.

By then, this blog should really start to take off.


  1. Great stuff, as always, Henry! Looking forward to reading more…

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  3. Hank, great story. That last line got me rolling right after the emotional bit.

  4. How familiar were you with baseball when you started the beat in Oakland? Was it a fan's perspective of the game in a way, or did you have good baseball knowledge before?

  5. Heh, heh..."Broken Sprinkler Irks Neighbor" (You just wanted "Irks" in your headline!)

  6. Now we get 'irked' by a lot less than a broken sprinkler. . . .

  7. Hey Henry

    Great stuff my friend. When you first said it would be a waste of 5 minutes of my life I really thought it would be. But, you made this story interesting from begging to end and I thank you for sharing it with us Giants fans here who read the Cronicle. Keep writting my friend and posting blogs becuase I absolutly love reading about my beloved Giants.

  8. It's obvious from your reporting and writing that you served your time in the journalism trenches. There are still a few like you out there, but I wonder where and how (and from whom) the next generation will learn the craft. But not to worry about that now; you'll be around for at least those seven or eight more years—way, way more, if we're all fortunate.

  9. Great story. Keep up the good work!

  10. hey Henry,
    Always a treat to read you, good luck on this blog...keep it real as usual...


  11. Henry: Getting paid to write is a coup. Getting paid to watch baseball, talk to baseball players and team honchos, and then write about all that -- that's a dream job. Congrats, and long may you be the beat writer in SF.

  12. Your sportswriting has an 40s-era feel. I've enjoyed it for years. I hope you have many more covering the Giants.

  13. Henry,
    You are an artist with your words. Even if you do write for the Giants! You WILL achieve your goal! Keep your eye on that prize, man!