Corporate Owner Moves a St. Louis Institution

What has St. Louis lost with the passing of The Sporting News?

For one thing, “The” was dropped from the title a decade ago when the publication switched from its traditional newsprint appearance to a glossy look.

Sporting News is now [2008] based in Charlotte, NC., where on July 23, a free, online daily – that’s seven days a week – called Sporting News Today made its debut. Starting in September, officials said, the Sporting News in its magazine form will be published only twice a month, instead of weekly.

American City Business Journals of Charlotte, which purchased Sporting News is 2006, moved most of the archives a month ago from the Chesterfield office that was its last outpost here. An online staff that had been in St. Louis as part of moved to Charlotte a year ago. In the latest migration, 17 staffers accepted relocation to North Carolina. Dennis Dillon and Stan McNeal were retained as St. Louis correspondents. Others faced retirement or career change.

“I am looking for work,” said Steve Gietschier, who was an archivist for the State of South Carolina before moving in 1986 to TSN in St. Louis to bring order to the mountain of books, photographs and sports memorabilia that had accumulated in TSN’s first 100 years. He created the Sporting News Research Center.

As if job worries weren’t enough, Gietschier and wife Donna had to forgo a scheduled trip to New York this summer to watch their beloved Mets in the final season of Shea Stadium.

Hard Departure
“I guess I’m retired,” said John Rawlings, who in late July was writing a final article for The Sporting News. Rawlings moved from the San Jose Mercury-News in 1990 to become managing editor. He left as editorial director/senior vice president – after working for Times Mirror Corp., the Paul Allen-founded Vulcan Media, and then American City.

In his sports media column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dan Caesar quoted Rawlings as saying, “It’s hard to see friends leave. But I’m excited for people who are going to working on two new products…I wish we could have changed faster. I felt like we were close a couple of times. We never got over the hump.

During its 122 years here, The Sporting News was called the “Bible of Baseball” by sports devotees. It helped put St. Louis on the map similar to the way Anheuser-Busch has. For at least 60 years, it had operated closely with organized baseball in publishing news of the game in its weekly reports and supplemented that with yearly guides, registers, record books, the National League Green Book and the American League Red Book. The absence of these materials this spring created a minor panic among sportswriters, broadcasters and collectors who had grown accustomed to having that vital information at their fingertips.

Under the Times Mirror ownership and the leadership of CEO Richard Waters, who arrived in 1982, TSN reached a weekly circulation record of one million copies during the week of March 17, 1986 – the publication’s 100th birthday. Times Mirror president Robert Erburu and his wife flew in from Los Angeles for the centennial dinner at the St. Louis Club, and Ernie Hayes was at the organ, making a million sounds. Circulation had been 750,000 before the TSN anniversary, so perhaps newsstand sales were enough to hit seven figures.

The sports highlights of that decade were more than enough to keep TSN afloat – the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, NY., the ’84 Summer Games in Los Angeles, Pete Rose surpassing Stan Musial’s National League record for most career hits (in ’81) and then Ty Cobb’s major league career high (on Sept. 11, 1985). In 1989, there was Rose’s lifetime suspension from baseball on charges of betting on games while he was managing the Cincinnati Reds.

Ty Cobb’s Record
In 1981, The Sporting News was at the center of another baseball storm after publishing a story that Paul Mac Farlane, then TSN’s historian, said he would “blow the cover off baseball.” Mac Farlane, who was compiling the seventh edition of Daguerreotypes, the complete records of major league stars and executives, found that Ty Cobb’s career numbers needed a slight adjustment because of a bookkeeping error that had been made in 1910.

Record books credited Cobb with winning 12 American League batting titles, nine in succession (1907-15), on his way to a career average of .367 and a total of 4,191 hits. Every baseball fan knew those last two figures by heart.

But whoa! TSN had acquired a collection of notebooks used by Leonard Gettelson, who edited baseball record books, including such annuals as “The Little Red Book of Major League Baseball” and “One for the Book.” A daily log book used in production of the official averages for the AL lay idle until Mac Farlane discovered an extra entry for Cobb in a late-season Detroit Tigers’ game in 1910. Cobb had gone 2 for 3 in an incomplete game that should have been erased from the records. With those numbers counted, the Georgia Peach finished the season with 196 hits in 509 at-bats, a .385 average. Without that entry, he would have been 194 for 506, a .383 mark.

Does it matter much? Well, no, except that Napoleon (Nap) Lajoie of the Cleveland Indians wound up with a .384 average, going 227 for 591, and should have been the batting champion. Well, no, except that Cobb’s career hits total should have been 4,189 instead of 4,191. So Pete Rose could have gone into the 1985 season, in which he seemed sure to top Cobb’s career total, with 4,190 stamped across his forehead instead of 4,192 (Rose had a total of 4,256 hits when he finished as a player in 1986).

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and baseball’s Records Committee refused to make a change in Cobb’s totals, declaring that this was water over the dam. Nonetheless, Mac Farlane went ahead with the new edition of Daguerreotypes. Since that time, record books compiled by members of the Society of Baseball Research (with much help from computers) and others have recognized the 1910 glitch and accepted Mac’s revelation. Ironically, an eighth edition of Daguerreotypes, published in 1990, after Mac’s retirement, restored Cobb’s glory.

Players Would Drop In
The Sporting News had a handful of downtown St. Louis addresses before it moved to rented space at 2018 Washington Ave. in 1948.

Often, big-name players who arrived by train at Union Station to play the Cardinals or the Browns would walk in off the street to visit TSN staffers or to grab the latest issue of baseball’s “Bible.”

J.G. Taylor Spink was publisher for 48 years before his death in 1962, and he built strong ties with baseball’s establishment. His dad, Charles Spink, was co-founder of The Sporting News along with his brother, Al Spink.

The Spink family hosted dinner parties at their Clayton home for league officials, umpires and retired players. Ty Cobb exchanged correspondence with Taylor Spink, advising him to buy Coca-Cola stock. Those letters remain in the archives that were relocated to Charlotte, NC.

C.C. Johnson Spink, who became publisher after his father’s death, moved the company in 1969 from 2018 Washington to 1212 North Lindbergh Blvd., a half-hour drive from downtown. Johnson commissioned a new, low building with open-air courtyards – from a photo he’d taken on a trip to Spain.

Johnson Spink spent 43 years with TSN, which he sold to the Times Mirror Co. on Jan. 11, 1977. He remained as editor-publisher for five years and as a consultant thereafter. Richard Waters, who had been a Readers’ Digest vice-president, became president and CEO in March 1982. There were no Spink heirs to continue publication.

The new building and plant improved the production facilities, but the distance from downtown reduced the number of walk-in visits by celebrities. Among the notables in the 1980s was W.H. Kinsella, author of “Shoeless Joe,” a baseball fantasy that was adapted for the movie “Field of Dreams.”

Kinsella wanted to look through TSN’s index card file, hping to confirm that a relative from western Canada had been involved in pro baseball. He found “Sinister Dick” Kinsella, who had been an umpire, a scout for the New York Giants and operator of the Springfield, IL., club in the Three-I League.

The Illinois Kinsella recommended Earl Obenshain of Decatur, who was hired as TSN editor after Ring Lardner quit the job in 1911. Lardner went to the East Coast, and his series of stories about a dimwit first baseman named Jack Keefe was compiled and published in 1916 as “You Know Me, Al.” And that wasn’t Al Spink, co-founder of TSN in 1886 and great uncle of Johnson Spink.

Basketball’s Karl Malone, whose flight had a layover at Lambert St. Louis Airport on NBA draft day in 1985, took a cab from the airport to TSN to find out where he’d been picked. (The Louisiana Tech star was taken by the Utah Jazz with the 13th selection.) Malone became known as the game’s consummate power forward and finished his career as the league’s No. 2 all-time scorer. He earned more than $100 million in salary – putting him in the limousine league.

Managing Editor Dick Kaegel, in the early 1980s, hired Larry King as a columnist. King had been tossing bouquets to TSN as host of Mutual radio’s all-night talk show based in Washington, DC. King’s telegrams arrived each Tuesday, sans punctuation, capitalization and, often, with no clue about which item was to be the lede. There were plugs for some author’s “good summer read” and for a restaurant in DC.

Every King column contained a quip or reaction from a celebrity, and this required careful editing. If it was an A-list person speaking – Frank Sinatra, for instance – the quote would begin, “Well, Larry…” or “You know, Larry…” This same kind of salutation later seemed to develop on the “Larry King Live” television show. If a guest preceded each answer with “Mr. King,” the man in the suspenders responded, “You may call me Larry.”

By Bob McCoy

(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 9/2008).