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.

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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.”

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

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