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Inside Inside Sports: The Oral History

When Katharine Graham and the Washington Post company decided to launch the Esquire of sports magazines in 1979, they were riding high. If anyone was poised to create something touched with magic it was at the Post Company. Why then did they sell it just a few years later despite launching the careers of some of the most talented writers and editors of its generation? The Inside story of the greatest magazine you’ve never read.

THERE ONCE was a magazine called Inside Sports, an ordinary name for what turned out to be a star across the night sky of magazines. It was at its best, its most memorable, for perhaps 28 issues before flameout and penury set in. Of course, there was nothing surprising about that in the ‘70s and ‘80s when journalism burned brightly with passion projects. For every Rolling Stone that endured, there was a New York Times or a MORE or another of the myriad rock-and-roll rags that sought to make sense of In a Gadda Da Vida.

Everyone who was hired on at Inside Sports understood the risks sooner or later. They plowed ahead anyway for the adventure and the creative freedom, convinced that this was going to be a sports magazine unlike any that had come before it. Sports Illustrated was all right – if you could tolerate what your father fell asleep reading on the sofa every week. But Inside Sports was going to become all things on a slant, funny like National Lampoon, smart and nuanced like Esquire and Texas Monthly. Better yet, at least from a business perspective, it was going to be bankrolled by Newsweek—Pepsi to Time magazine’s Coke—where the culture in the late Seventies was like Mad Men ten years on: mainly white, male, and full of the trimmings, including fat expense accounts, first class travel, four star restaurants and bureaus across the map.

Newsweek was owned by the Washington Post company. In the wake of their explosive coverage of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, The Washington Post went from a regional newspaper to a national powerhouse in less than a decade. It also became famous, thanks in part to the movie version of All the President’s Men; the Post even gave free tours of the newsroom to admiring tourists. Led by Katharine Graham, the Washington Post Company was receptive when Newsweek President Peter Derow suggested the Post look to expand its empire. Time Inc. had launched two successful magazines in the Seventies—People and Money—and Derow believed the Post company could do more. After all, magazine publishing was still in its heyday and as difficult as it was to start a new title, it was easier—and cheaper—to start a title than buy an existing one.

If anyone was poised to create something touched with magic it was at the Post Company. And so they launched Inside Sports, a monthly sports magazine, concentrating on the four major sports, which introduced the magazine public to the feature writing talents of Pete Dexter, Gary Smith, Tom Boswell, and Tony Kornheiser and offered a haven for literary-minded writers who were also sports fans—David Halberstam, Willie Morris, Mordecai Richler, and Richard Ford. Caught between decades, Inside Sports’ features had the downbeat vibe of a Hal Ashby or Robert Altman ’70s movie, but the columns and departments suggested the data-packed pop sensibility of the Eighties.

The debut issue hit the newsstands just a few days after an obscure all sports Cable TV network—an even more cockamamie proposition than a monthly sports magazine—named ESPN first aired. And even though it lived a short, bright life under the Post, the creative team behind IS understood, along with the folks at ESPN, America’s obsession was with sports culture, not just box scores. And so IS covered the industry of sports—TV, gambling, analytics, media, fandom. This was before USA Today delivered daily box scores and statistics, decades before the Internet. Free agency was in its infancy and while the big money had yet to start pouring into sports from cable TV, Americans’ interest in sports, their desire for information—more, faster—seemed bottomless. It was a magazine slightly ahead of its time and yet steeped in what had come before it.

THE LAST GREAT GIG

DONALD GRAHAM (WASHINGTON POST, PUBLISHER):

The difference between Time Inc. and The Washington Post company is that Time Inc. had a long record going back to Time itself, and Life, and Fortune, of successfully starting magazines and seeing them through to profitability and we did not. It is not totally irrelevant that Time had started People, which had taken off like a house on fire.

PETER DEROW (NEWSWEEK, PRESIDENT, 1977-’81):

One of the things we understood how to do was how to run a magazine. We had not proven that we could start them.

Newsweek’s head of circulation, E. Dan Capell had been with SI and he remembered how well a Bear Bryant cover did on the newsstand in Alabama. He pitched Derow a monthly national sports magazine that would be sold regionally with different covers.

ED KOSNER (NEWSWEEK, EDITOR, 1975-’79):

Capell had noticed that Sports Illustrated always sold out in cities where a sports star from the area was on the cover. So he reasoned that a sports magazine that had six or eight regional covers each month with a local sports star out front would have 90%+ sell-through month after month. The magazine would have a core editorial well that would run in all editions; each regional issue would have its own cover.

Derow liked the idea and turned to Newsweek’s sports department for someone to run with it. As the magazine’s lead sports writer for the better part of a decade, Pete Axthelm, who made his bones with the widely-admired New York basketball chronicle The City Game (1970), was an ace reporter and a deft stylist as a writer. He possessed undeniable talent, insight, and charisma.

VALERIE SALEMBIER (INSIDE SPORTS, PUBLISHER, 1982):

Ax was a star from birth. He came out of the womb being funny.

ROY BLOUNT JR. (INSIDE SPORTS, CONTRIBUTOR):

He was a high roller and lots of fun. When Axthelm was in his prime, sportswriting—magazine sportswriting at least—was a swashbuckling kind of thing. Stay up late drinking, chasing women—you didn’t even have to write every day. You tried to see how well you could write, try to handicap yourself by staying up all night drinking too much. Anybody could write sober.

DAN JENKINS (SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, WRITER):

On the scene in those days he was considered more of a “character” who liked to drink and gamble than as a sportswriter, but that was by those who didn’t know him well enough. He was a hell of a writer, fast and accurate. He loved to say stuff like, “A Bloody Mary doesn’t do you any good in the morning unless you can see through it.”

DIANE K. SHAH (INSIDE SPORTS, CONTRIBUTOR):

He could read you pretty quickly and then he could talk to you at your level without making you feel that he was talking down to you. It wasn’t uncomfortable to be around him. He wasn’t lording his knowledge over people. He was very approachable and fun to be with. I would go out to dinner with Pete and almost always people would come up to the table. “Oh, Pete can I shake your hand, big fan, what do you think is going to happen to the Redskins on Sunday?” He was constantly being approached by people. And he enjoyed that, he liked being recognized.

TONY KORNHEISER (INSIDE SPORTS, CONTRIBUTOR):

Ax was a made man. The City Game made Pete Axthelm a huge star in the sports writing fraternity. In the New York intellectual sports writing fraternity that people aspired to, Pete Axthelm was enormous. Everybody’s talking, ‘I did this, I did that, I did the other thing, what about that guy?’ Well, that guy had The City Game so fuck all of you guys cause he’s way up ahead of all of you.

“Ax would write the story in his head in the shower… sit down at his typewriter and type for five or six straight hours.”

SHAH:

Ax would have a cover story. The assignments came on Tuesday. The story would be due Friday night. Friday morning, Ax would write the story in his head in the shower, he’d come into the office, sit down at his typewriter and type for five or six straight hours.

BILL NACK (SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, WRITER):

He’d hand it to Bonventre and say, “Read this and weep.”

Pete Bonventre was Axe’s running mate; he joined Newsweek after early success at the New York Times earned him a recommendation from Times columnist Robert Lipsyte. Ax didn’t care about boxing which meant Bonventre followed Muhammad Ali first class, from Miami and Vegas to Zaire and Manila.

When they were both in town, the two Petes hung out and were known simply as Pete A and Pete B. Standard uniform, a four-pocketed safari jacket, khakis, and Gucci loafers. Scotch in hand, Pete B holding a cigarette in the other, they were the best of pals.

ELLEN WALSH (INSIDE SPORTS, RESEARCHER):

They cultivated the sense of the two of them. They had this line where they’d go out and pick up women and be with women and they’d be on top of the world and I remember Pete used to say, “You know, Ax, can you imagine if we were good looking?”Just the fact that they were sports writers for Newsweek, that sort of carried them. I think Axthelm was a little more of a darker personality and Pete was a caricature but a totally fun, ebullient, positive, life-is-great, and I’m Frank Sinatra and what could be better, with my warm scotch—so, he was kind of a character and everybody understood it.

MARY MURPHY (NEWSWEEK, WRITER):

A very good friend of Axe’s once said, Pete Bonventre was a man who could find a silver lining in a tornado. That’s one of the things about Pete, he’s relentlessly upbeat. He didn’t have the kind of skewer that Axe did.

KORNHEISER:

Pete B lived a great life. Pete lived the expense account life. He could stay out until 3 in the morning. Pete knew how to drink. I mean, there are things that you see in someone. They know how to handle themselves in all situations. Guys like Pete Bonventre went around the world.

PETE BONVENTRE (INSIDE SPORTS, MANAGING EDITOR):

It was as good as it gets. It was the last great gig. I had no interest in editing a magazine or doing anything else other than what I was doing. Ax certainly didn’t. But we had a recommendation—this guy John Walsh who worked in the Style Section of the Post. Ax and I both knew him socially and respected him and we thought he’d be perfect for the job. So he came up and met with Derow and Capell, and they were intrigued but they’d never seen anything like him before.

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Photo courtesy of John and Ellen Walsh

THE WHITE MAN

Inside his office, the shades are drawn. Before your eyes adjust to the darkness—before you register the department store Santa sitting behind the desk—you see The Creature. More than a foot high and almost as wide, is a double-wheeled Rolodex, custom-made, with rainbow stripes painted on each side. Both wheels packed—must be 10,000 cards at least. It feels like a living thing and the White Man is forever running his fingers across it.

JOHN A. WALSH (INSIDE SPORTS, EDITOR):

It encompassed all my life. I’ve led the collective life and the basis of that was in the Rolodex. It didn’t matter who you were or what connection you were, you were in the Rolodex. Connecting people was a big part of my life.

GARY SMITH (INSIDE SPORTS, STAFF WRITER):

It felt like it had extensions, that’s how it seemed. A living thing.  Old thumb prints, fading print on some of the cards, odd combinations, if you’d start thumbing through it. John’s eclectic interest in writing and journalism and also literature—so he’d be reaching into that world and yet he knows Bill Murray so he’s into the entertainment world, too. Rock ‘n’ roll. So there’s all kind of people he’s bumped into and befriended along the line and so, the combinations as you rolling through that thing, you don’t know what’s coming next at you. If an idea was percolating, John’d be like, “I got the guy for you, I got the guy for that, I got the guy you should call.”

Walsh began compiling the Rolodex at Newsday in the early ’70s. It grew when he was the managing editor of Rolling Stone and expanded still when he got to the Post’s ballyhooed Style section. But to appreciate its roots you have to go back to Scranton, Pennsylvania, because to understand the White Man you always end up in Scranton.

WALSH:

My father was a mortician. He and his brother inherited the business from their father. There was a police radio behind the dining room table that was on constantly. Scranton was—and I think still is—a very social city. I think it’s part of the nature of what Scranton is. Everybody knows everybody. My father would pride himself if he took you on a tour of the city, he would look at each house and tell you who lived in each house.

CLARA TRAMPE NASH (INSIDE SPORTS, SENIOR EDITOR):

It’s very Irish, big families. Everybody knows everything about everybody except the secrets they don’t know but they’re aware of that there are secrets. John knew everyone in town, everyone had a nickname, everyone had a story. And it was his nature to find out everything about a person.

WALSH:

As a child I was razzed about being an Albino and it was embarrassing to me. Then at a certain point in my life—when I couldn’t get a driver’s license, and I couldn’t do certain things—I basically said to myself, “This is who you are, this is what you are. Just take advantage of it instead of being embarrassed by it.” Then it turned into something a) to be proud of and b) to take advantage of and have fun with.

ANN KELLY (CHILDHOOD FRIEND):

Being an albino, he couldn’t play on the teams but he has a photographic memory. He became the statistician at the University of Scranton for the basketball team [He was the radio analyst—Ed], so he was able to travel with them, which was terrific for him because he could hang out with all these players, get to know them.

WALSH:

I got a Master’s of Journalism at the University of Missouri in 1969  and did three years as the sports editor. I came to Newsday in 1970, started the same day as Tony Kornhieser. And I did so much there, worked on the overnight copy desk, was the editor of the Op-Ed page—which is where I got to know David Halberstam—and for The Weekend magazine, and also sports for five months.

NACK:

You could tell he was up-and-coming. He didn’t have a newspaperman’s mind. He had a more expansive view of things, a larger vision than most people. Walsh was really good at spotting trends before they were trends.

WALSH:

I was only at sports for a little while when Jann Wenner called and offered me the managing editor’s job at Rolling Stone.

PAUL SCANLON (ROLLING STONE, WALSH’S PREDECESSOR AS ME):

John was at Rolling Stone for slightly less than a year, but he brought some specific improvements to a magazine that, even by 1974, was still used to flying by the seat of its pants. He established a real copy desk to replace one editor stuck with that task, and created a fact-checking department where there had been none.

He hired Marianne Partridge, an intelligent and energetic editor, to run the copy desk. There were a number of smart women with excellent academic backgrounds working at Rolling Stone, but nobody ranked higher than editorial assistant. John and Marianne staffed the new departments with these assistants and one part-time receptionist. The magazine’s overall professionalism improved accordingly. John also gave Hunter S. Thompson his dream assignment: Covering Super Bowl VIII in Houston.

Walsh’s run at Rolling Stone was brief—he lasted a little less than a full year, not uncommon under Wenner—but he stayed in San Francisco for the next three years, freelancing. It wasn’t until 1977 that Walsh landed at the Stylesection of The Washington Post.

SHELBY COFFEY (WASHINGTON POST, STYLE EDITOR):

Ben Bradlee loved Walsh from the start, and always called him “White Man Walsh.” John wore T-shirts to work, which in Washington of the late ’70s was quite a departure.  But John, because he had come from San Francisco, was cut a little slack. John was a very good psychologist, measuring the writer, what they needed, but also conceptually very smart about what you would make a good story.

“Some editors view editing the way bad cops view police work.

TOM SHALES (WASHINGTON POST, WRITER):

He never edited with a pickaxe. Some editors view editing the way bad cops view police work. They think they are supposed to leave you lying bleeding in the gutter and your story with you. And I’ve had some terrible editors but John Walsh was not one of them. The amazing thing is he could barely see what he was reading, which makes it especially impressive.

LUCY DANZIGER (INSIDE SPORTS, INTERN, 1979-’80):

You always wanted him to laugh. Reading in this dark room with a white light behind him. His laugh was a little girlish—like he couldn’t help it, like it escaped him.

“They thought he was insane. But he had great ideas and a great Rolodex.”

SMITH:

This real giggle, this high-pitched giggle when he’s amused himself. But also an almost conspiratorial whisper like the Priest in the confessional. The whisper. The old Irish Catholic stuff he grew up with. Very low and conspiratorial and father confessor, definitely the hushed thing was going on there. Between you and me I got this idea for you…

Walsh had run across the Two Petes in his adventures and he struck them as the ideal guy for Inside Sports, so he came up to New York, met with Capell and Peter Derow.

BONVENTRE:

They thought he was insane. But he had great ideas and a great Rolodex—he knew every writer in the goddamn country. They liked him, but Peter Derow came to me and said that he’d feel a lot more comfortable if there was a Newsweek person there, too.

DEROW:

To me, the French have it right. The definition of a bureaucrat is someone who’ll never do anything for the first time. There are commercial pilots and test pilots. Test pilots look to take up a plane that’s got one wing and half an engine and see if it’ll fly. And that’s very different from a commercial pilot who gets on the plane, doesn’t talk to the people in the back, takes the plane to Chicago. You know the plane will fly to Chicago. The test pilot is figuring out where Chicago is. That’s a very different group of people.

Bonventre still wasn’t sold on magazine editing, but when Walsh was hired in December 1978, he heard the call to arms. A test issue was planned for the fall of ’79; an office had to be set up. Asked to lend a hand, Bonventre thought, “Why the hell not? It might be fun.”

Photo courtesy of John and Ellen Walsh

TESTING ONE, TWO

By the end of the spring in 1979, a small editorial staff of eight worked out of the “New Ventures” department on the 17th floor of the Newsweek building at 444 Madison Avenue. The magazine still needed a name: Grandstand, Spectator Sports, Box Seat, were all floated; then, during a meeting with Katharine Graham, Walsh explained his vision and she said, “I see what you’re doing. You’re trying to get inside sports.”  That was it. She’d nailed it.

DANZIGER:

Walsh wanted to portray athletes in a new way as opposed to just heroic or iconographic terms. It was going to be something that went deeper than SI, beyond the straight-ahead story, something conceptual.

BONVENTRE:

We just wanted to be really different from SI. We wanted to be the alternative. The aspiration was to be as well known and as good as them. And to make as much money—now I don’t know if we’d ever be able to do that because they were a weekly—but that was the goal. The goal was to be just as big, just as famous, just as good.

TOM BOSWELL (INSIDE SPORTS, CONTRIBUTOR):

Inside Sports was trying to find the sweet spot above Sports Illustrated. The conscious goal was: We’re beatin’ them. We’re better than they are. They’re really good, but we’re going to be better. Now that might be comic in retrospect but that was the conscious goal. We’re gonna knock them off.

WALSH:

We wanted to cover the vast industry and culture of sports. That’s why our columns were different than the ones you found in SI. “The Good Doctor” was Lewis Grossberger’s funny take on “Dear Abby.” We had Ray Sokolov, The New York Timesfood critic, writing about food, Roy Blount—who had been with SI—doing “Style,” Pulitzer Prize-winner Ron Powers doing “Media,” Michael Ruby on sports business and Ax on gambling.

STEVE HIRDT (INSIDE SPORTS, CONTRIBUTOR):

Statistics were not as ever-present as they are today or as accessible. There was no Internet. Finding interesting things to talk about was not a problem. It was just deciding which one of these things is the best. Modern day analytics seem very slanted toward how a particular team can improve its chances of winning. I wouldn’t say John limited himself to that or was any more interested in that phase of things than anything that was just interesting or off-the-wall.

BONVENTRE:

We’d have story meetings—I forget the frequency—but they were hysterical. Someone would throw something out and it’d get knocked down—that’s fucking terrible—but that would lead to another idea. John encouraged everybody to come in. Researchers could sit at the table. He wanted everyone to have ideas. It was a great way to run anything. At those meetings, everyone was invited, everybody.

WALSH:

You could have anybody come in and say anything they wanted about any aspect of the magazine. We were that small and we were a monthly, so there was plenty of time for feedback, there was plenty of time for suggestions, ideas, and alternations.

KERRY SLAGLE (INSIDE SPORTS, SENIOR EDITOR):

Bonventre was a good balance to Walsh, who was odd in certain ways and could be abrupt. Pete was more diplomatic, specifically with the writers. Not to take anything away from Walsh but he doesn’t have as much patience with people. Because he is so smart, he can come across as being a little brusque. He’s always a little ahead of your thinking.

BONVENTRE:

I came there, I was a sports writer. I was a weekly guy. I wanted to get a story done. I knew a good idea and I just wanted to pursue it and bang it. Let’s just get it done, let’s bang it out, I want to go out to dinner, and I want to go for a cocktail.

CAL FUSSMAN (INSIDE SPORTS, CONTRIBUTOR):

You’d find Walsh walking around in a white straw hat; Bonventre dressed elegantly, listening to Sinatra. And there was Teddy Bietchman, the house Republican, wearing a bow tie, suit, and Bass Weejuns. Imagine sitting around John’s circular desk with all these outlooks, but underneath it a love of sports and literature. So to come in and get these four very different takes was great.

KOSNER:

At Newsweek, they kept the Inside Sports development team sequestered from the rest of us in a kind of skunk works.

Five regions and five covers were targeted for the test issue—Philadelphia (Mike Schmidt), Boston (Larry Bird), New York (Yankees), Washington (Jack Pardee), Pittsburgh (Lynn Swann)—as well as a national cover featuring Swann.

RICHARD ALOISIO (INSIDE SPORTS, ART DIRECTOR):

The Philly cover was shot by Francesco Scavullo, one of the most famous fashion photographers in the world. Walsh said, “It’d be a good idea to get somebody like Scavullo. We want to do something very different.” I had to make this call to Scavullo, which is like calling Ansel Adams. I got an assistant and she said, “What’s the day rate?” I said, “Well, it’s kind of a labor of love.” She said, “Francesco doesn’t work for a labor of love.”

Tony Kornheiser was dispatched to profile Mike Schmidt, then halfway through a Hall of Fame career (and memorably photographed by Scavullo), Bonventre wrote about the ascending stardom of Sugar Ray Leonard, and Axthelm weighed in on what went wrong with the Yankees, whose season had been marred by the death of team captain Thurman Munson in a plane crash. But perhaps the most revealing piece was Diane K. Shah’s profile of Larry Bird, then in his rookie NBA season.

SHAH:

I was supposed to have this interview with Larry and he didn’t show up. So the Celtics were apologetic. “He’ll be here tomorrow can you be here at 7:30 in the morning?” I said okay. So I show up at 7:30 in the morning and Larry Bird does not show up. And they said, “We promise he’ll be here Friday at 8:00.” So I get there on Friday and there’s no Larry Bird. I had to get back to New York, and I remember I called Pete Axthelm and I said, “I don’t know what to do, Larry doesn’t show up and I’ve got to do the story and get back to New York and who the hell does he think he is and this is ridiculous, what a jerk.” I’m carrying on and Pete says, “Now, Diane, it’ll be okay.” He’s talking and I turn around and Larry’s standing in the doorway. He didn’t smile, he didn’t say anything. And I’m sorry, he was a hick from French Lick.

I did a lot of digging. He was married, had a kid, left them and then his father committed suicide. I verified all of that and wrote the story. I was sure enough of my facts that I could write it and apparently the writers in Boston had been working on this and hadn’t been able to verify it and Larry absolutely wouldn’t talk to them about it and when the story came out the writers, Dan Shaughnessy and Bob [Ryan] got together and said, “Hey, Larry, it’s out so let’s just talk to you about it, get it over with,” and he said okay. And then he said, “If I ever see that girl again, I’ll spit in her face.”

The test issue went to press on September 10, 1979—just three days after ESPN debuted—and hit newsstands five days later, first in the Northeast and then in other test markets. Of 125,000 printed copies, 100,000 or 80% of the run sold, encouraging enough for Katharine Graham and The Washington Post to give a green light and the first issue was scheduled to launch in April 1980. Reason to celebrate. Not that Walsh or the Two Petes ever needed a reason.

THE WRITER WHISPERER

Walsh assembled an editorial staff of about 20. His managing editor, Bonventre, had no experience in that job, and he wasn’t alone. Richard Aloisio, a graphic designer at Penthouse, was hired as art director though he had never been one before, and Jim Drake, a staff photographer at SI, was hired as photo director though he’d never done that, either.

WALSH:

Just because smart people haven’t done something doesn’t mean they can’t do it. I had never edited before when I went to Missouri, never worked on a copy desk before Newsday. Take the smart people and trust your judgment that they can do what you think they can do.

BONVENTRE:

Tony Kornheiser calls and says, “I’ve got a guy that I went to school with, you’ve gotta meet him. He’s really good.” Jay was working for something called Hardware Store News. I said, “How can we hire a big editor when he’s working at Hardware Store News?” Tony says, “You gotta believe me, this guy is brilliant.”

KORNHEISER:

Jay’s a few years older than I am. Jay was just sort of legendary. One of these guys who was in this snack bar area 22 hours a day, hanging out. Smarter than everybody else. Larry David before Larry David but he wasn’t as loud. More wry. You could talk to Jay. But he was working for Hardware News Weekly. He went to openings of Piggly Wigglys and shit. Jay was in a circumstance where his intellect wasn’t being used.

JAY LOVINGER (INSIDE SPORTS, ARTICLES EDITOR):

I never knew I was going to be an editor or a writer. I thought I was just going to be an acid head my whole life. I had written a few things, including something in Sport. When I went to see Walsh, I didn’t know if it was to get an assignment as a writer or what. I got all dressed up.

I never knew I was going to be an editor or writer. I thought I was just going to be an acid head my whole life.

WALSH:

He rented shoes and a three-piece suit. To this day, all Jay wears are T-shirts. Only on his wedding day did he have a suit. And here I am in a T-shirt and he’s in a rented suit.

LOVINGER:

Walsh was dressed in salmon-colored jeans, a black t-shirt with “Albino Power” written in white letters, and a floppy leather hat. Before I could sit down, he started leading me out. “Jay, I’m afraid I can’t hire you,” he said. “I’m only hiring people I know.” Before we got to the door he asked me what I thought about the test issue. I was pissed off and embarrassed, so I ripped everything in it. He must have been fascinated because everyone else was patting him on the back.

WALSH:

I asked him to give me a list of 25 stories he would assign and when we got the list back, Pete B and I were blown away. But we didn’t have the headcount. We were all staffed-up. We had to beg Dan to give us an extra head count to hire Jay.

Lovinger had never edited a story and had no connections in the business, but Inside Sports needed a bonus piece for its debut issue. David Halberstam was working on a book about the Portland Trailblazers (Breaks of the Game), so Lovinger called the author. Halberstam wasn’t home, but after some pleasant chitchat with Halberstam’s wife, Jean, she gave Lovinger her husband’s number on the road. When the two men spoke, Halberstam suggested a profile of Pete Maravich, the NBA legend then at the end of his career.  The piece would rely on reporting Halberstam had done for his book but wasn’t going to use. Lovinger said the only thing he could to a Pulitzer Prize-winner: Yes.

LOVINGER:

The piece comes in at 10,000 words and it was supposed to be 4,000. I cut it down, made a hundred little changes. I send it back to him and I get a phone call a couple of days later. He’s screaming into the phone about how I betrayed him. I listened to him for a couple of minutes and then said, “David, you’re being totally irrational. Why don’t you call me back when you’re in your right mind.” And I hang up the phone. Now, we have no back-up plan. So I go in and tell Walsh the story and as I’m telling it to him, his head is getting lower and lower and finally he bangs it on the desk. I say, “I guess I fucked up.” And he looked up and said, “Don’t worry about it.”

The next day Lovinger got a call from Halberstam, who apologized at length. They went over the piece anew, starting with the 10,000-word version, and when they were finished, they were close to Lovinger’s original edit.

LOVINGER:

Couple of years later I found out what had happened. He was talking to his wife about how mad he was, expecting her to say, “That guy’s an asshole.” And she said, “You call that nice young man back and apologize.”

BONVENTRE:

Everybody’s got some skill. Jay’s is editing. He just has that instinct. You just can’t learn some of that stuff.

LOVINGER:

I had an affinity for it right away. I really liked it and I was supremely confident that I could do it. I understand the way something should flow. How it should start, how it should end, what about a story is profound, how it fits in the world.

ROGER DIRECTOR (INSIDE SPORTS, CONTRIBUTOR):

Jay usually talks very slowly and carefully and he reads slowly and carefully and then he’ll puzzle over something for a second and you’ll wonder why he’s puzzling over something but in that moment of his puzzling or hesitating or questioning something, he’ll begin to unravel some bigger issue that’s just beneath the surface and kind of buried or muted or not totally investigated or unearthed. And Jay will slowly pick away and unearth something deeper and better and get something more precisely, more carefully explained. Jay never had anything less than a very calm, reassuring, confidence in the writers that he was working with and the process that everybody was going through.

RICHARD FORD (INSIDE SPORTS, CONTRIBUTOR):

He seemed like one of those eternal City College guys. Whenever I would talk to him about something I was writing or something that I was doing it wasn’t that we were having an editorial conference, we were just having a conversation. He would have read it and he would have ideas, which were more than just ideas that he had but they were ideas that he thought were complimentary to work that was underway. Jay didn’t have, when he assigned you something, an idea that was so specific in terms of its form as to be a constraint on what you might develop on your own.

ROBERT LIPSYTE (INSIDE SPORTS, CONTRIBUTOR):

Jay finds a way to submerge himself in your story, figure out what you were trying to say—and perhaps failed—then helps you reconstitute your original vision without imposing his own idea of what the story should be about.

GREG KELLY (INSIDE SPORTS, RESEARCHER):

He could talk people off a ledge if they were struggling. He would just see what was wrong with a piece. I wrote something for them, they took it, made it better, and I was sulking that they changed my text. Jay sat me down and said, “What makes you think you’re the only one that gets to have any fun working on this piece?

A-Z

Photo courtesy of John and Ellen Walsh
FUSSMAN:

It was just this energy, ideas, the people Walsh surrounded himself with. I met David Halberstam and Pete Dexter, Gary Smith, and Hunter Thompson. If you’re a young writer, you could not imagine a better place to throw yourself into. You can’t imagine how much learning was done, just going to the office, at the Cowboy, then later at night at Runyon’s or Smith & Wollensky. All the beat guys would come in. So you’d know everything that was going on in sports. It had your mind spinning.

WALSH:

The Dallas Cowboy was Newsweek’s version of the Sports Illustrated bar Ho Ho’s. Remember, Pete A had worked at SI. The Cowboy’s bartender was this Italian guy from Brooklyn named Tony. He was a bookmaker. Ax would go to The Cowboy and lay down some bets with Tony and then he’d be going to the pay phone calling Sports Phone every half an hour checking the scores.

SHALES:

He’d call everything a “Kecktail.” He’d say, “Let’s have a Heineken Kecktail.”

LARRY SCHWARTZ (INSIDE SPORTS, SENIOR EDITOR):

People would hang out, and once we went out—whether you were a secretary or managing editor—you were equal.

SHAH:

All the drinking, the smoking. It was all fun. And we worked like hell.

SALEMBIER:

I had been with Newsweek many years before but I had left to join Ms. And then I went from Ms. [Associate Publisher] to Inside Sports. The testosterone was overwhelming. It was definitely a boy’s club but for that time those guys were hugely respectful of women. Feminism already has its name but these guys were really different, I must say. Because they were very cool about women. There was none of that office hanky-panky stuff going on. Nothing like that at all. I was both relieved and very happy that I was in the company of those guys. They were all about sports. That’s all that mattered.

DANZIGER:

Walsh knew everybody. He knew Iggy Pop and he knew the Winters Brothers because of the whole Albino thing. He was very good friends with Bill Murray who would just randomly come by the office and party.

At the office, there were drop-in’s from Walsh’s famous pals: Hunter Thompson, David Halberstam, Jimmy Buffett, and Kinky Friedman. Nik Cohn was close friends with Pete Townshend and was rumored to be the real life pinball wizard. Cohn visited Inside Sports one day and Lovinger asked how good a pinball player he really was.

LOVINGER:

Nick was always very critical of other people but very modest about himself. He said, “Pretty good.” So I said I’d like to see it, and took him down to an arcade on Broadway. He’s on some machine that I’m sure he’s never seen before. He’s talking to me and playing with one hand. And he’s not even really looking at the game that much. And the machine is about to explode. He flies past the previous high score by hundreds of thousands and finally gets bored and just stops. And we go back and I say, “That was really amazing,” and he says, “You should see my wife, she’s really good.”

JOHN MURRAY (INSIDE SPORTS, PUBLICITY ASSISTANT):

One time Jay grabbed Bob Phillips and me and said, “I have to tell you something I really enjoy doing. I like going to Meatloaf concerts and smoking lots of joints.” Really? So we went out to Long Island, we sat in back row at a Meatloaf concert and smoked about 20 joints and went, “Ooookay. All right. I get it.”

Photo courtesy of John and Ellen Walsh

Walsh’s favorite music spot was the Lone Star Café, a Country Rock club on 5th Avenue in the Village that sported a giant Iguana on the roof, a joint that rocked to the sounds of his buddies like Jimmy Buffett and Kinky Friedman. The annual highpoint was the A to Z Bar Tour, which Walsh began in San Francisco and continued in D.C. before taking it to the Big Apple. The idea was simple: a bar crawl designed to hit one establishment for each letter of the alphabet. Walsh was the captain, decked out in a varsity jacket with the word “Coach” on the front and a whistle dangling around his neck. The boozy pilgrims traveled by bus and Walsh kept things moving with precision and without compassion for stragglers.

BOSWELL:

Walsh was the organizer and instigator of wild men.

WALSH:

The key to keeping it all running smoothly was that I had very little to drink until the end of each tour. We went to places where they served food, where there was dancing. We would descend upon New York hotels in the late afternoon, prime time. Bill Murray and Tim Russert came along. John Belushi helped us get into one bar. We had a wave of people who would come in. They tried to kick to us out of the Oak Room at the Plaza but couldn’t. The next year, they saw us coming and locked the doors. They remembered because Bill Murray had stood on the bar and sung “God Bless America.”

ALOISIO:

John knew I loved sweets and ice cream, knew I loved butterscotch shakes in the big container with a straw. One year for my birthday he bought shakes for everybody to come and give me in my office. So it was like, “Hey, Richard, Happy birthday, here’s a shake.” I had like 30 shakes and two giant tubs of butterscotch ice cream.

KELLY:

Walsh loved characters, big and small. There was Frank Ross, aka Sky Lab, who would provide all the NFL intel to Ax. Joel Horowitz was an early version of Howie Schwab, ESPN’s sports trivia savant. Joel helped with fact checking and proofing the magazine.

PETE DEXTER (INSIDE SPORTS, CONTRIBUTOR):

I really liked the kid, too, Bill Murray’s brother. I thought he was a good guy and genuinely funny. I mean, a lot of guys would be trying to be Bill Murray themselves and wouldn’t be able to do it. But Johnny was a good guy.

FUSSMAN:

All we did was talk about writing. That’s something Jay particularly loved. You might leave Runyon’s and then walk around the streets until three in the morning with Jay talking about stories. It was an education that you couldn’t get in journalism school.

There was perhaps no greater connection made than the one between Lovinger and Gary Smith, a young writer who came to Inside Sports after stints at the Philadelphia Daily News and New York Daily News. Smith didn’t have aspirations to be a magazine writer or even a sports writer. Smith read Hesse, Camus, and Kundera but that didn’t stop him from making a fast name for himself covering the Eagles for one of the best sports departments in the country at the Philadelphia Daily News.

JOHN SCHULIAN (INSIDE SPORTS, CONTRIBUTOR):

I read Smith for the first time on a visit to Philadelphia and was impressed. When I saw him work the locker room after an Eagles game, I knew instantly that he was a reporter, too. He’d zero in on the player he was writing about and stick with him like gum on a shoe.

LOVINGER:

When Gary talks to you, he makes you feel like you’re the only living thing in the world and he really cares about you.

SCHULIAN:

Gary wanted to get inside his subject’s head and turn what he wrote into a study of the human condition. A damn lofty goal for anyone, but for a kid just out of college, stratospheric. Gary got what he wanted, though. And he wrote it with magic in his fingertips.

GARY SMITH:

When you are young, you are working the muscle, developing your voice. You got to give yourself over to the piece and see what comes up. What might be the most interesting way to write this individual piece and this particular material? There’s always the challenge: Is there a different way to do this story?

Nolan Ryan, the first baseball player to earn $1 million a year, was on the cover of the first issue and profiled expertly by Kornheiser. And there was the familial portrait of Philadelphia 76ers center Darryl Dawkins by Pete Dexter, a warm-up for what was to come. Walsh knew he had a gem in Dexter who, writing for the Philadelphia Daily News, had become one of the most distinctive columnists in the country. There was the influence of Flannery O’Connor in his work, a hard beauty and mordant humor. Dexter had street savvy but unlike other city columnists, he didn’t seem to be influenced in the least by Royko, Breslin or Hamill, the three reigning heavyweights of the day. He was his own man and his own writer.

SLAGLE:

We saw this brief about [LeeRoy] Yarbrough’s arrest for trying to kill his mother, and he’s charged with attempted murder. Pete Dexter would be ideal for this. So I called Pete up. This was about a week before deadline. I said, “Would you go to Jacksonville and see what you can find out? We think this could be a hell of a story…” Wednesday to Sunday is when he did the reporting and writing. So we’re talking four days. I’m living outside of Princeton and commuting into the city. Pete is living in a little hamlet outside of Philadelphia. I said, “I’ll come get it from you.” I got there about 10:00 in the morning. He didn’t meet me at the door, his wife did. She said, “He’s wiped out. He’s been writing solid for 24 hours.” I’m thinking, This has got to be right. We don’t have time [to make major changes]. There was one typo in the manuscript, one typo, and we added a comma. That is the only thing we did to that story. I never had a piece that came together like that by any writer.

Here’s the lede:

The child in the child is somehow faded. She is eight years old but there is nothing in her manner to say she isn’t nineteen, with a house full of screaming babies and a high school sweetheart who doesn’t always come home at night anymore.

She walks the front yard like walking is already a chore, collecting the mongrel puppies. There are nine of them and her fingers disappear into the long coats as she picks them up, then puts them in a cardboard box next to the front door.

The house is a shack, about a block from the abandoned half-mile dirt track where LeeRoy Yarbrough, the most famous man ever to come out of west Jacksonville, Florida, got his start racing automobiles. About three blocks from the place where, a month before, cold sober, he tried to strangle his own mother.

“He live right up that road there,” she says, pointing a puppy. “Him and Miz Yarbrough, but they ain’t there now. Everybody knows LeeRoy, sometime he come by and sit on the steps, but now he wrung Miz Yarbrough’s neck, he ain’t home no more.”

The screen door opens and a woman in white socks steps halfway out the door. Missing teeth and a face as narrow as the phone book. “You git them puppies up yet? You know what your daddy tol’ you.”

The door slams shut, but the woman stays there, behind it in the shadows. In west Jacksonville it always feels like there’s somebody watching behind the screen door.

“We got to take the puppies down to the lake,” the girl says. “Daddy got back from the country [farm] and says so. He goin’ take them out to the lake with him tonight.”

I ask her why she just didn’t give the puppies away. She shakes her head. “I tol’ you,” she says. “Daddy got back from the country.”

I’m going to tell you right here that I don’t know what picked LeeRoy Yarbrough off the top of his world in 1969 and delivered him, eleven years later, to the night when he would get up off a living room chair and tell his mother, “I hate to do this to you,” and then try to kill her. I can tell you some of how it happened, I can tell you what the doctors said, what his people said. But I don’t know why.

It has business with that little girl and her puppies, though. With not looking at what you don’t want to see, putting it off until you are face-to-face with something unspeakable.

And tonight those nine puppies go to the bottom of the lake.

This is not the kind of story you’d find in Sports Illustrated.

Shortly after it was published, Lovinger was awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call. On the other end of the line was Nik Cohn, the coruscating British writer with an exacting sense of taste in pop culture. He said, “This Dexter fellow, they really should be carrying him around on the streets of New York on their shoulders,” and hung up.

A few months later, Dexter’s published a feature on the NFL stars Lee Roy and Dewey Selmon, another piece set in the South. Lovinger was again awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call. This time Cohn said, “This Dexter fellow, they’re really all quite the same, aren’t they?”

LOVINGER:

We had a lot of great writers but Pete was the best. I didn’t edit him, but I once read one of his pieces and asked what he was thinking with a particular scene. “Jay,” he said, “I don’t think about it, I just write it.”

THE GARVEY AFFAIR

Pat Jordan had been a bonus baby pitcher for the Milwaukee Braves in the late ’50s. He threw a 95-mph fastball but had little control over his temper or his talent, and walked away from the game after three less-than-successful years. A False Spring, Jordan’s grim, self-lacerating memoir set against the backdrop of small towns in Nebraska and Georgia, made his reputation as a cult failure. Now 38, he was a freelance magazine writer concluding a productive eight-year run at SI.

TED BEITCHMAN (INSIDE SPORTS, SENIOR EDITOR):

I had just moved from L.A. and one of our first meetings we talked about doing a story on a baseball wife. Steve Garvey was a national name. I knew from just having lived there that his wife was a major part of his life. And I saw Cyndy on TV a few times, I realized she was very smart.

Walsh assigned the piece and Jordan, estranged from his wife and mother of their five children, brought his girlfriend, Susan Ryan—mother of actress, Meg Ryan—to L.A. with him when he interviewed the Garveys.

PAT JORDAN (INSIDE SPORTS, CONTRIBUTOR):

Cyndy was all over me. I found a way to mention that my girlfriend was with me, down by the pool. She switched gears and said, “Oh, wonderful, why don’t you bring her out to the house tomorrow night when you come to interview me.” I said, “You won’t mind?” She said, “Well, she shouldn’t stay alone in a hotel room.”

The next night, Jordan and Ryan sat with Cyndy in the Garveys’ living room, a tape recorder on the table.

JORDAN:

At some point, Cyndy started talking to Susan, not me.  It was girl talk, back-and-forth: “My ex-husband did this,” “Steve won’t do that.” Finally, towards the end of it, I turned to Cyndy and said, “You know I have this all on tape. You sure you want me to use all of this stuff?” And she said, “You print this. It’s about time the world knew.”

A few weeks after Jordan got home, he received a postcard from Cyndy. It read, in part:

“Talking with you WAS terrific therapy I must admit! Meeting you was special, true, at a difficult time; but I’m truly pleased we met. I feel I may have been caught off guard but I also feel nothing said was harmful OR flippantly said… all I can say is I’m trying as we all do to live with changing emotions—hopefully, Steve and I WILL make it. I must tell you Pat—you helped Steve see my need for better communication.”

Cyndy called Jordan “a delightfully honest person” and added, “I like you much better WITH the beard.”

Jordan could not countenance a phony, and Steve Garvey, America’s scout master, the white-bread Hollywood all-star, had phony written all over him. What drove the story, however, was Cyndy Garvey. Read today, Trouble in Paradise,” is remarkable for it’s candor as Jordan laid bare the reality behind the image.

BONVENTRE:

It certainly had a wow factor. The Garveys were supposed to be the perfect couple. Jordan nailed it. I could smell bullshit from a writer and you just knew he got it right.

SMITH:

I hadn’t read anything like that in any sports publication. That piece just let me know that there was a lot of room to maneuver and a lot of possibilities.

Not everybody was as impressed. Tony Kubek, the ex-Yankee turned broadcaster, was introduced to Bonventre one day at Runyon’s.

BONVENTRE:

When he found out I worked for Inside Sports, he went off about the Garvey story. He went on and on. Finally, I said, “Look, Tony, was it true?” He goes, “Oh, yeah, it’s true but you should never have done it.”

JORDAN:

Not too long after that, I was in Toronto doing a story.  I’m in the press box dining room and [Blue Jays general manager] Peter Bavasi comes in and he’s got this AP wire story. He goes, “Pat, do you have $11.2 million?” I said, “I got a ’57 Chevy with body rot, what are you talking about?” He shows it to me. The Garveys had just announced that they were suing Pat Jordan, Inside Sports and Newsweek for $11.2 million. And Peter starts laughing his ass off. I swallowed hard. I thought it was the end of my career.

BONVENTRE:

I never remember having any regret about doing that story. Even with the lawsuit. Because we knew the publicity was going to be unbelievable. We were young guys. Let Newsweek worry about it, because we were convinced we had that story right.

WALSH:

The Garvey lawsuit had no validity. I actually had a very close friend who had spotted Cyndy Garvey with Marvin Hamlisch [the composer, who was her boyfriend] at a spa together.

During the depositions, the Garveys demanded Jordan’s tapes. There was a problem. In addition to recording interviews, Jordan also used the tapes to muse. After an interview, Jordan would put the tape recorder on in the car and say, “This broad is not getting laid, that’s her problem. Steve might carry a big bat on the field but he’s not carrying a big bat at home.”

JORDAN:

They wanted to try the case in Orange County, the most conservative county in California. That’s where all the born-again Christians and Republicans were and here you had this filthy Northeastern writer talking about the great hero Steve Garvey in a profane way: Guilty. Doesn’t matter if I had all the quotes as they said them. The lawyer who defended me said they were the most accurate quotes he’d ever seen in a libel case. But then he told me, “Your comments into the tape are what they want.”

Jordan’s accuracy was not in doubt but there were numerous examples where he pieced together quotes from different parts of his interviews with Cyndy. Bonventre laments that he didn’t remedy it. “It would have been so easy to do otherwise,” he says now. “He could have written, ‘Later on she said’, and just continued the quote.”

WALSH:

Kay Graham called me to her office and said, “I know you believe this story is right, but with the legal fees and everything else, we don’t want to do this anymore. We’re not going to admit any guilt but we’ve agreed to pay half of the Garveys’ legal fees. This just isn’t worth the time and the resources.”

Shortly after, Steve and Cyndy Garvey split up. She moved to New York to live with Hamlisch. America’s couple was no more. Jordan left his wife and moved to Fort Lauderdale with Susan. They’ve been together ever since.

PHILLIPS (INSIDE SPORTS, RESEARCHER):

The whole crew went out to Shea Stadium to see the Mets play the Dodgers. After the game we went to Rusty Staub’s for dinner. There must have been 20 of us, including Bill Murray. Rusty moved us up to the front so we’d be right at the window and everybody could see Billy. We had our meal and then stayed for a couple drinks. Rusty comes up with a round of drinks for the table. We said, “Oh, you didn’t have to do that, Rusty.” He said, “No, no, no, that’s from the gentleman in the back corner there.” We look back and there’s fucking Steve Garvey, who just winked at us and nodded his head.

GETTING LATE EARLY

Throughout the magazine’s first year of publication, Walsh turned to his trusted Rolodex and delivered on the magazine’s literary aspirations with well-known voices like Halberstam, Willie Morris, Ron Rosenbaum and Frederick Exley, not to mention top-flight columnists like Robert Lipsyte and Roy Blount Jr. In addition to stars-in-the-making, Pete Dexter and Gary Smith, Tom Boswell, moonlighting as a magazine writer between the many beats he covered for The Washington Post, became a breakout star in the world of baseball writing, an engaging blend of reportage, statistical fascination (reminiscent of Bill James), and the most elegiac observations this side of Roger Angell

Not everything worked, of course. IS ripped-off SI’s swimsuit issue concept and the results were forgettable at best. A cover with President Reagan—featuring the first Q&A the President granted after entering the Oval Office—tanked.

WALSH:

We made some poor decisions, like putting Jimmy the Greek on the cover. Most of us weren’t sophisticated about mass appeal covers in sports on newsstands. Looking back, we probably could have celebrated a little more often, like Halberstam’s piece on Pete Maravich going for the ring. That kind of a story. It took us somewhere between 12-15 months before we knew who we were.

Along the way the original concept of multiple covers, each targeted at a different city, fell by the wayside:

KOSNER:

It sounded too good to be true—and it was: The effort and cost involved in producing 72 or 96 different cover stories each year was stupendous. And, of course, few regions had a dozen sports stars worth covers ever—much less in one year.

As expected, the losses piled up—$12 million in the first year (SI lost more than $100 million over a decade before it started to be a success); combined with a recession, it must have made Katharine Graham swallow hard at her shining new investment. Then, in the spring of ’81, the Post was humiliated when a Pulitzer Prize winning story by one of their writers, Janet Cooke, was discovered to be a fraud. Graham, under tremendous stress, developed pneumonia and was hospitalized for 12 days. It was around this time that Inside Sports was handed a death knell when Peter Derow, their corporate champion, announced he was leaving Newsweek for CBS. A few months later, Graham hired Dick Simmons to be the president of The Washington Post Company. Simmons, previously with Dun and Bradstreet, was a no-nonsense finance executive.

DICK SIMMONS (WASHINGTON POST COMPANY, PRESIDENT):

I didn’t suggest anything when I got there except closing the fucking thing down. It was losing that much money and I had been brought to The Washington Post company to attempt to create a professional business property.

DEROW:

When you lose money on a new launch, you can either consider it an operating loss or an investment. While I was there, we considered it an investment, which it was. I suspect that Simmons and others at the Washington Post Company looked at it as a flow of red ink to be stopped as quickly as possible.

MARK EDMISTON (NEWSWEEK, PRESIDENT, 1981-’86):

The real problem with Inside Sports was not the concept or the editorial leadership, it was the business leadership. It was a business model that really couldn’t work, a monthly magazine that acted like it was a weekly, a weekly published once a month. That means there’s not enough money coming in. My boss felt that the right choice was just to stop it.

SIMMONS:

It was not long at all. I decided very early… that Inside Sports was not going to make it.

BONVENTRE:

We trusted Kay Graham. She said she wanted to give it a go. I was in a place called The US Steakhouse in the Time/Life building. I knew an ad sales guy who said, “How could they sell that magazine? We thought you were going to make it. We were stunned when we heard they were selling it.”

WALTER BERNARD (INSIDE SPORTS, COLUMNIST):

They never gave it a chance. They didn’t have the courage of letting it find its way. But on the other hand, it’s possible that Simmons was not wrong in the long run. It still was a hard market to crack at that time.

They didn’t have the courage of letting it find its way.

KORNHEISER:

The Post pulled the plug on it a little too soon. I thought they wanted to compete but then I realized about the Post, you know… Did Newsweek really want to compete with Time? Did The Washington Post really want to compete with The New York Times? I don’t know that they had the stomach.

WALSH:

I was destroyed. I had a meeting with Kay. She wanted to just close it. I said, “Can you give us a chance to see if someone wants to buy it?”

The decision to sell was painful but as Graham later wrote, once it was made, “a great weight was lifted from my shoulders.”

Walsh first learned of the news late on a Friday afternoon, shortly before the rehearsal dinner. Yes, the White Man was getting hitched, and his bride was Ellen D’anato, who he’d been dating—discreetly—since the previous Christmas (their’s was not the only office romance, though it was one of the quieter ones). And so, on the eve of one of the most important moments of their lives, the White Man knew that his dream job was probably kaput.

Pete Dexter eulogized IS in his newspaper column, praising Walsh and Bonventre, and criticizing the Post for its lack of commitment:

“For a little over a year and a half, [Walsh] and Bonventre and the people they put together published a memorable magazine. It wasn’t always even, but nothing that aims high ever is. The point is, they did something. They gave themselves to it, and like a lot of things in this world, it worked, and it still didn’t work out.”

Dexter’s column appeared on a Monday. Two days later, in a piece titled, “In Tasker, It’s About to Stop,” Dexter wrote about a young junkies and one in particular who had recently died. It wasn’t long before Dexter got a phone call from the dead kid’s brother, a bartender in a tough section of Philly, demanding a retraction. That wasn’t something Dexter was willing to do, but a few days later, he paid a visit to the bar. As he was talking to the bartender, Dexter was struck on the side of the face with a beer bottle, sheering his top teeth. He left the bar and went to a party being held for his friend, the boxer, Randall “Tex” Cobb.

Dexter, Cobb, and several other guys returned the bar, at which point the entire neighborhood showed up—with tire irons and baseball bats. Dexter’s posse lit off, except Cobb. Dexter was knocked unconscious, suffered multiple injuries, including a broken jaw and a broken hip. That wasn’t the worst of it. During his knee surgery the next day, the anesthesia wore off but since Dexter’s jaw was wired shut, he couldn’t speak and endured the surgery without anesthetic. Cobb suffered a broken forearm. Eight months later, he challenged Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship, and lost a 15-round decision in which he had precious little offense. The fight is notable for the pounding he received, a beating so brutal that it reportedly drove Howard Cosell from ever calling a boxing match again.  

DEXTER:

There was 5,000 people in Philadelphia thinking they’re Randall Cobb’s best friend. Because he was nice to everybody and he would tell people stuff and they would go around thinking that he’d told them something real. But he and I were friends in a different way than that. I understood and he understood exactly what happened that night. I can’t go into that anymore than I already have 2,000 times because there’s something at the bottom of it between Cobb and me, something that if I tried to go back and explain it, it all just washes over me again…What you’re asking about is going into a place that I don’t talk about with anybody. It’s private in some way between me and Cobb in a way that probably doesn’t lend itself very well to words. I’d gotten hit that night in the bar and I was unconscious. It’s just … that moment when I wake up and Cobb was the only guy there and I wanted to get him—something happened there between us that I’ve not, something I can’t revisit easily, let’s put it that way.

Dexter temporarily lost his ability to drink alcohol so as he recovered from his injuries he started to write a novel. He’d never so much as written a short story before. His debut, God’s Pocket, was sharp. When he completed his next one, Deadwood, Dexter’s brother Tom told him, “Congratulations, you’ve just written something longer than any novel you’ve ever read.”

Meanwhile, the unlikely winners of the Inside Sports sweepstakes was Active Markets, a small venture capitalist company with only one magazine under their purview: Sports & Athletes, written for high school jocks.

SALAMBIER:

They were clearly vanity owners. I mean, they really didn’t know what they were doing. Couple of guys from Bellevue, Washington, thought they would make it big.

The business side of the magazine was let go. Without the Post’s deep pockets, the budget tightened, and while Gary Smith, out of loyalty to Walsh, turned down a lucrative offer from SI to remain the star attraction and Halberstam, Jordan, Schulian, Lipsyte, Leonard Gardner, and Joe Flaherty delivered pieces to remember, the magazine began losing altitude. Walsh and company produced nine issues for Active Markets, the final being the November 1982 issue. It was then that the remaining staff, worried that their severance checks wouldn’t clear, gave the bum’s rush to the Chase Manhattan bank branch at Madison Ave. and 46th Street, just before closing time.

Photo courtesy of John and Ellen Walsh
CLARE TRAMP NASH:

They started to close the bank but they said we could stay. They had to lock the doors so nobody else could come in. Then they tell us, “We have a problem. You folks can stay here but we can’t continue to cash these checks.” So I said to our guys, “I’m going to tell the bank manager that some of us have kids—we have to call home—but here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to call every media outlet we know.” And that’s exactly what we did. We were on the news at six o’clock. All these TV cameras on the other side of the front door, all these phone calls the bank was getting from the media—nothing was budging them.

WALSH:

After we were on the news, the bank summoned their PR guy and as he’s approaching me I said, “Holy God, it’s Frazier!” Turns out the PR guy for the bank worked on The Missourian when I was there. Really nice guy named Frazier Sietel. Once he saw me, Frazier got us paid, instantaneously. Then we all went down to the Lone Star to hear Doug Sahm.

It was sad in indescribable ways. There was a real sense of loss.

FUSSMAN:

It was sad in indescribable ways. There was a real sense of loss. I didn’t quite know what to do. Everybody really cared for each other. It was a family and a party simultaneously. I think that’s one of the reasons it was very hard for me to just get a job after that.

SMITH:

It was really one-of-a-kind. To have that kind of atmosphere and those kinds of relationships and those kinds of discussions, conversations that are going all over the place, in all kinds of depth, is so rare. I loved going off on a journey with a story like: What can this be? That came out of the spirit that was incubated at Inside Sports.

FORD:

It was immensely pleasurable and actually if Newsweek hadn’t pushed them away, I would have gone on happily writing for them and forgotten altogether about writing novels. I didn’t ever feel like I was a born novelist.

BONVENTRE:

You are nobody without your writers. Treat them like diamonds. Because if you have great writers, you don’t need eight senior editors. Give your writers their head, let them express themselves and just let them loose. The most important people on a staff—and I don’t care what anybody says—are the writers. Because you can have the greatest ideas in the world, but if you can’t follow them through, if you can’t get the right writer to do it, you’re dead.

I’ve been on both ends and believe me it’s a lot harder to write than edit. You can run a magazine with 80 people; there are pressures, there are issues, I don’t care. I’d rather run a magazine and have that kind of pressure than to sit in front of a typewriter or a computer and have to deliver a cover story in a matter of hours. Trust me.

ONWARD, HA!

Inside Sports was sold again—to a company from Evanston, Illinois—and continued to publish under the name until 1998, but the luster of the Walsh years was gone. And if Inside Sports never scared SI the way ESPN The Magazine did in the late nineties, it was the proving ground for major talent, and its spirit lived on: Gary Smith turned down a staff position at SI in favor of delivering four long stories a year for them as he became the most celebrated sports magazine writer of his time; Tom Boswell and Tony Kornheiser became star columnists at The Washington Post and Kornheiser later became a talk-radio personality and an ESPN star; Pete Dexter won a National Book Award for his third novel, Paris Trout, and established himself as one of our most original fiction writers; Richard Ford became an even bigger literary star. The notably sad case was Pete Axthelm, who died in 1991, at 47. Nobody knows exactly what drove Ax to dilute his considerable talent with drink but everyone agrees that addiction shortened his life. His peers and friends speak of Ax with great fondness—so smart, so charismatic—but his reputation has suffered.

The editors thrived, too. Lovinger presided over the launch of The Washington Post Sunday Magazine, ran LIFE for a year before reuniting with Walsh at ESPN.com where he settled into his role as the Yoda of longform. Bonventre went to work for Howard Cosell’s TV show and later ran Entertainment Weekly. As for Walsh, the White Man became the managing editor of US News & World Report then found his higher ground at ESPN, first as a consultant, then as a full-timer. That’s where he played an instrumental part in turning SportsCenter into a star-making vehicle that anchored the network during its glory years.

WALSH:

Inside Sports was where I first really spilled my blood. I met my wife there, and that’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I loved the people. Today, Ellen and I will go to a play with the Bonventres or the Lovingers. If I’m in Philadelphia, there will be a meal with Beitchman. Greg Kelly and I are in a fantasy league together and talk during baseball season at least two, three times a week. There were a lot of friendships that were woven.

DEROW:

Not to exaggerate but it was kind of a special Camelot. And I’m a big believer in small fulsi of innovation. Three hundred people don’t start something. This was a very special group of people who trusted each other. They were really unbelievably happy warriors, willing, every issue, to say, this worked, this didn’t, we have to do this better, we have to do less of this. It wasn’t static. It wasn’t, we’re so goddamn smart, the customers are wrong. And that’s cool. The way to create things is to have magic on a small scale.

 

Alex Belth is the editor of Esquire Classic as well as the proprietor of The Stacks, a site dedicated to preserving great journalism and writing about the arts and culture.

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