A conversation with Art Spander, part I

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Oct. 10, 2014) — Art Spander belongs on any who’s who list of premier sports journalists of the past 50-plus years.

His work is prolific. The streaks he’s put together (see below, in his own words) are jaw-dropping. And he continues to pursue big-time assignments.

In other words, he’s been there and done that.

But now in his mid-70s, Spander remains busy, filing stories for various print publications and websites. He traveled to Scotland for the recent Ryder Cup. He remains a fixture at Bay Are pro sporting events.

This is this first installment of a wide-ranging interview with Spander, who’s received prestigious honors for his journalistic excellence from the PGA and NFL, among others.

* * *

How was working for UPI (United Press International), starting in 1960, as a news writer before moving to the Santa Monica Outlook as a full-time sportswriter in 1963 a valuable experience in your career? What did you learn most, or develop most, while working for the news wire?

UPI was journalism at the gut level. The summer of ’60 after graduation I was looking for work (and contemplating law school) when UPI called and asked if I would work as a copy boy/chauffeur during the Democratic convention in LA, the one at which JFK was nominated. When that ended, I was hired to work full-time. Three days a week 10 p.m.-6 a.m., two days 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Rewriting stories for the PM cycle. Weekends able to do sports (LA bureau did pm-ers and roundups even when am-ers on Dodgers, LA Chargers, Rams, UCLA, etc. came from another city. Four a.m. backbone wire announcements from NY (it was 7 a.m. there) continually asking about Marilyn Monroe committing suicide. From 3-6 a.m., only I and an old wire operator were in the building. In a way, I think every kid should go through the seat-of-the-pants learning, but it wouldn’t happen 50 years later. Then I then went into the Army for six months (Jan-July ’61) and came back for another couple of years. No more overnights but a lot of late nights and some coverage.

One hallmark of your career has been the sheer volume of big events — golf, tennis, college basketball and the NFL, for instance. How does the tradition of returning to an event year after year benefit a resourceful reporter in terms of the quality of the work he/she produces? And in your own work, can you provide a few examples of the knowledge gained from being there as an annual tradition that helped you improve what you delivered in your articles and columns?

Obviously, the more you know about something/anything, the better you’ll be able to put situations in perspective. In today’s TV-dominated world, especially ESPN, the attempt is to make the viewer believe what he or she is watching is the single most important even ever held. (My totals right now: 61 straight Rose Bowls, starting as a program salesman in 1954), 38 Super Bowls (last 36 in a row), 152 (or is it 151?) major golf championships (last 47 Masters in a row, 45 of last 48 U.S. Opens), 31 straight Final Fours, every Cal-Stanford football game since ’68, 46 of last 48 Crosby/AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Ams; seven Ryder Cups.

You hear this all the time, and it’s true. Nothing is as it used to be, because of size, commercialization, TV control. When I wanted to talk to Nicklaus or Palmer I’d walk up to them on the putting green. Try that with Tiger.

The knowledge: Knowing the sources, the other writers (I gleaned so much about tennis from Bud Collins; he then stayed close to me at the ’72 British Open which Globe had him cover after Nicklaus won year’s first two majors); management. Was going to write a feature on Dave Casper when I was Raiders beat man in mid-late ’70s. Al Davis said, “I’d wait a day or two” Casper was traded the next day.

I paid my way to Britain even back when I worked for the Chronicle, Examiner, so in way I have to be more than crazy, but that’s the way it is. Radio stations call but they don’t pay.

As the NFL comes under scrutiny and criticism for its handling of the Ray Rice case, what do you the late, longtime Raiders owner Al Davis would’ve said to the media and to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about the situation if he were alive today? Do you think he’d have been a vocal critic of what’s transpired on Goodell’s watch?

Al Davis was a maverick, and a sharpie. He never forgave the NFL for bouncing him as AFL commissioner during the 1966 merger. Al could be a charmer (he’d return calls at 1130pm, then shmooze with your wife) and be vindictive. Yes, he would have been critical of Goodell, because Al had his own power base. His pals were the late Ralph Wilson and others from the old AFL.

A few short hitters…
Was Jerry Rice a greater football player than Jim Brown?

Rice-Brown? I do not like to compare athletes from different eras or in this case different positions. Could Marciano beat Louis–or Ali? You can debate forever. Brown was the greatest running back of his time when the rules and style of the game were different. Never saw a receiver better than Rice, but if he had been on a team that emphasized the run he wouldn’t have broken those records.

Who was a better all-around player, Rick Barry or Pete Maravich?

I was too close (still am close) to Rick Barry, who could shoot, rebound and dribble. Pistol Pete was flashy and talented. I think I would take Rick. He did help win a championship, and that counts.

If Wilt Chamberlain had been a longtime NFL player, do you believe he would’ve excelled more as a defensive end or tight end? Why?

Wilt? Impossible to answer. Great athlete, who high-jumped something like 6-9, broke 50 seconds in the 440. Let’s say receiver, because of those hands.

Who are a handful of the most underrated sports journalists of the past 50 years?

Underrated journalists? Columns? Beats/reporting. All I can tell you are the people I respect, and here’s only a few: Ross Newhan, Long Beach/LA Times;  (Mike) Lupica isn’t underrated or humble, but I gained appreciation of him at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.

He was the lone rep from the NY Daily News, matching in content, and overwhelming in quality, the five (or) six from the NY Times.

Art Thiel of Seattle gets overlooked, Tom Cushman of San Diego, Betty Cuniberti (pioneer), SF Chronicle, Ira Miller, San Francisco; Chris Dufresne, LA Times. The writing the last 20-30 years has improved tremendously. Every day I pick up a paper and say, “Wow, this person can write.”

* * *

Visit Art Spander’s website:  http://artspander.com


‘Superman don’t need no seat belt’ (and many more tales from inside and outside the boxing ring)

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Sept. 8, 2014) — It may seem that Thomas Hauser has always been consumed with boxing, every hour of every day. That’s not the reality, though. Really.

In a wide-ranging email interview, Hauser reveals how his decades-long fascination with the sport began, some unforgettable moments along the way as a chronicler of the sweet science and opinions on a number of topics, including Mike Tyson’s challenges as a promoter.

The 68-year-old Hauser, who has has completed more than 20 published books on boxing, received the Boxing Writers Association of America’s Nat Fleischer Award in 2004, an annual honor that recognizes excellence in boxing journalism.

In 1991, Hauser’s “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times” was selected as the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, an annual British honor for sports literature

* * *

Can you pinpoint a moment or a memory that sparked your desire to write about boxing?

In 1983, I had just finished writing a novel about Beethoven and wanted to write a book about sports. At that point in time, my favorite sports were baseball and football. You can’t just walk into Yankee Stadium and talk with the New York Yankees. But you can walk into a gym in any city in the world and talk with fighters who are training there. So I wrote a book about the sport and business of boxing entitled “The Black Lights.” And I got hooked. Everything else flowed from there.

What’s the best thing professional boxing has going for it today? And what do you consider its biggest problem?

The best thing boxing has going for it is the nature of the sport. At its best, boxing is the greatest sport of all. The biggest problems it has are (1) multiple champions in each weight division; (2) the lack of an effective oversight body that cares about the sport; and (3) an economic model that cuts fans off from the biggest events.

Of all the stories in books and articles about Muhammad Ali, all of the fights, all of the quotes from him and about him, are there a few favorite that you love repeating or simply find yourself amused by whenever you think about them?

When Ali was in his glory years, he took a shuttle flight from Washington, D.C. to New York. As the flight crew readied for take-off, an attendant instructed, “Mr. Ali, please buckle your seat belt.”

“Superman don’t need no seat belt,” Ali informed her.

“Mr. Ali,” the flight attendant said sweetly, “Superman don’t need no plane.”

Ali loves that story, and I do, too.

For the casual observer of boxing or someone who hasn’t read dozens of books on the sport, who are some of the living, under-appreciated sources of knowledge about the sweet science’s ins and outs and rich history? Can you shed some light on the important role they serve for your own research and helping to, well, make sense of it all?

I’ve learned an enormous amount over the years by talking with people in the trenches. People like Bruce Trampler, Al Bernstein, Lou DiBella, Don Elbaum, Pat English, Steve Farhood, Brad Goodman, Margaret Goodman, Craig Hamilton, Jerry Izenberg, Ron Katz, Russell Peltz, Don Turner. That’s just a few of the people I’ve learned from over the years.

If Congress in the near future were to establish a governing body to regulate boxing – and maybe mixed martial arts as well – could you recommend a person or two who would be at the top of the list as ideal candidates?

Flip Homansky, Pat English.

How would you evaluate Mike Tyson’s business acumen and the work he’s done so far as a boxing promoter?

Mike is not a businessman. His success or failure as a promoter will rest almost entirely on the people he chooses to run the business for him.

Who do you consider the most unheralded, or perhaps underrated, trainer of the past 50 fighters? And what accomplishment(s) he’s had have received modest publicity compared to other boxing headlines?

I don’t think that there are any unheralded geniuses out there. To the contrary, I think some “name” trainers get far more credit than they deserve. The fighters make the trainer more than the other way around. But I do think that trainers who did a great job with one fighter (e.g. Pat Burns with Jermain Taylor, Jack Loew with Kelly Pavlik, Brian McIntyre and Esau Diegez with Terence Crawford) should get a little more credit for their work.

Interviews with boxers after a title bout have their own challenges. From your own experience, at the most basic level, what are the keys to getting an effective interview after the bout, especially when the stakes are highest?

It helps if you’ve had a rapport with the fighter before the fight. Other than that, ask creative questions, don’t start the interview with a pre-conceived notion of where it should go, and remember that the answer is more important than the question.

If you were to rank your work, especially columns, articles and books, could you decide on five that would be at the top based on quality and how they stand the test of time?

I’ve been fortunate in that, each year, the University of Arkansas Press publishes a book that contains all of the articles I’ve written about boxing during the previous year. That preserves the columns for history.

I’d say that my work falls into three categories:

(1) Chronicling the contemporary boxing scene — “The Black Lights” and University of Arkansas Press books;

(2) Two novels — “Waiting For Carver Boyd” and “Mark Twain Remembers” (which has a boxing sub-plot); and

(3) My writing about Muhammad Ali

What compliment(s) about your boxing coverage have you most appreciated over the years? And if you can recall the context of how and when you received the compliment, please share those details.

The thing that I most appreciate is when fighters tell me that they like my writing. It’s particularly gratifying when a fighter invites me into his dressing room to chronicle the hours before and after a fight.

For your own leisure reading and continued education, who are three or four boxing writers you consider must reads? And what stands out about their work?

Bart Barry, Carlos Acevedo and Jimmy Tobin are Internet columnists — all three are relatively unknown. But they write very well and understand both the sport and business of boxing.

What’s been your most challenging column to write? Why?

I’d say that the investigative articles that I’ve written over the years about the New York State Athletic Commission, HBO, Shelly Finkel, and Al Haymon have been the most challenging to write and also the most rewarding.

Which of your boxing books was the most difficult to write? Why?

“Muhammad Ali: His Life And Times” because there was so much archival research involved and 200 people to interview. But I don’t think I’ll ever have a work project that brings me as much joy in the undertaking.

Can you provide an update on what your next book will be about? Will it be about boxing? And when will it be released?

My next book has nothing to do with boxing. It’s a novel about Charles Dickens entitled “The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens” that will be published by Counterpoint in November.

I think that “The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens” and “Mark Twain Remembers” (a novel I wrote 15 years ago) are the two best books I’ve written.

Word association time – what first comes to mind as the right word or a few descriptive words for … ?

Don King – Brilliant, charismatic, conniving

Bob Arum – Smart, manipulative, complex

Larry Holmes – champion

Larry Merchant – thoughtful

Oscar De La Hoya – unhappy

Bernard Hopkins – intense

Wladimir Klitschko – intelligent, powerful, PEDs

Vitali Klitschko – commitment, nobility, strength

Manny Pacquiao – Filipino people

Floyd Mayweather Jr. — Gifted, phony


Thomas Hauser’s online columns archive can be found here: