Veteran Jewish sportswriter celebrates bygone era

The days of cordial and informal locker room relationships between writers and players have gone the way of pro athletes pumping gas or delivering mail in the off-season to make ends meet.

Hall of Fame sportswriter Leonard Koppett spent years in the clubhouse covering the Giants, Dodgers and Yankees for a number of New York papers, but the longtime Palo Alto resident and member of Congregation Beth Am wouldn't want the same job now. Why? Simple. "People working now don't have as much fun as we used to have," he said.

"Ballplayers didn't make that much more money than newspaper people; we were people of the same social class. We looked at life the same way. They rode the subway to go to the ballpark. Our kids went to the same schools. A hundred dollars meant the same thing to each of us," recalled Koppett, 79, a recent speaker at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto.

"Now guys in their 20s make several million dollars a year and guys in their 50s banging away at a paper get whatever they get these days. How can they relate to each other? They can't. They don't even try. In addition to this, athletes see, correctly, that most of the people standing there with the little tape recorders are just looking for them to say something they can make a fuss with at the players' expense. The players are very resentful. Who the hell needs that?"

When Koppett was making a name for himself at the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Post and The New York Times in the days when Sandy Koufax was a struggling teenager deep on Brooklyn's bench, he estimates fully one-quarter of his fellow sportswriters were Jews, which led to talk of a "Jewish cabal" controlling the field.

Koppett is quick to dispel such a notion, however, suggesting that at least one-quarter of all New Yorkers were Jewish at the time. Life for a Jewish sportswriter hasn't changed in any significant way over the years, he says — except now you're rubbing shoulders with women, African-Americans and other minorities.

"The first woman writer assigned to baseball was sent by United Press in spring training of 1965 or '66, if I'm not mistaken," said Koppett, who moved to Palo Alto nearly 30 years ago to cover the West Coast for The Times and write for the Peninsula Times Tribune.

"I recall, there was a whole reaction because people became interested in what she was doing, and we found out she was writing the same s— we were. So that became a non-issue."

A freelancer since the Times Tribune's demise in 1993, Koppett has a column every Friday in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The real change in sportswriting over the past four decades happened because of television, he maintains. What athletes and reporters of the '50s primarily regarded as a competition has been transformed into "entertainment…just another TV show."

"I still believe my job is to tell you what happened. The approach today through the insistence of marketing people and top management in both radio and newspapers is never mind what happened. You probably saw it on TV. What you want to do is comment on what happened in some way that will pique their interest. That's a different process."

Editors now "think in terms of 'this is on TV, let's write eight columns about it.' There's no space left for anything else."

Koppett also decried editors' insistence on quote-driven stories ("there isn't anything a decent writer can't say better than some ballplayer") and formulaic press conferences that lead to every paper running a similar article.

Yet while he believes television has led to surly relations between athletes and the media and a bowdlerization of the sportswriting profession, Koppett is quick to point out the medium's good points.

"I can see 100 times as much [sports] as I used to be able to see. There are more games and more interesting things can happen. And they do."

Yet for Koppett, who still manages to make it to the ballpark roughly once every home series, the best times come in the stands and not in front of the tube.

"I love the games, and the vast majority of the people who play and manage and coach them are very good people," he said. "I understand more about it every time. I go and watch the ballgames and enjoy them just as much as when I was 8 years old."