Welcome to the Land of Wonderful Characters

By JOSEPH TINTLE

If you ever go to Hudson County in New Jersey, any place in Hudson County, you’ll sense it is different from anywhere you’ve ever been. The people here are a little off.

You can mention that to them and they won’t take offense. They’ll just smile. They know.

For starters, in Union City, N.J., people don’t park their cars on the street, they park them half on the sidewalk, half on the street.

That was my introduction to this town in September 1976 as I parked my 1972 Oldsmobile Cutless Supreme outside the offices of The Dispatch. I arrived to have an interview with Bob O’Connor, the sports editor of the 50,000 daily newspaper. Entering the back door, I boarded an elevator, and took it to the second floor.

The doors opened slowly to reveal a sports department that looked like a scene out of The Front Page.

Old steel desks were covered with newspapers and stained with newspaper ink. Files were scattered. The floor looked like it hadn’t been swept for days.

I stepped out, made a left turn for 10 feet, and encountered the surliest human being in my life. He sat at a desk gripping a cup of coffee. His clothes were rumpled and his face looked like a clenched fist. His eyes were heavy lidded and his head was balding. Then he rose to greet me. Sort of. At a little over four-feet tall, he had a gnome-like appearance.

“What do you want?” he demanded to know.

“I’m here for an interview with Bob O’Connor.”

“You look like a loser to me,” he said, “but okay he’s over there in the corner.”

Meet Max Frome, the newspaper’s one-man welcoming committee.

Bob O’Connor, by contrast, was 25, bright eyed, and had just been appointed to replace Lud Shabazian, who had been sports editor since 1920.

Within an hour I had my first full-time job in journalism and stayed at the paper for 18 months.

The sports staff consisted of good men who knew their stuff. Mike Spina was our lead writer. He covered the New York Yankees and local basketball. Anything you wanted to know, Mike was your turn-to guy. Jack Fehr was our track and field expert, boxing too, and he could pound out copy quickly as he sucked down cigarette after cigarette.

Dom Alagia was a generalist in sports. Often he’d guide me during my early days as a writer. If my terminology weren’t on the mark, Dom let me know in a gentlemanly fashion how to fix it and back to my desk I went to make the adjustment. Greg Hochstein was a whiz at high school and college basketball. He eventually became a pharmacist. Kevin Kennedy was the assistant sports editor and a calming influence on the staff.

Our two copy boys were Billy Waldy and Richie D’Andrea. They were 16 and 14, respectively, and they stripped the AP and UPI newswires throughout the night.

And to round things out was Lud Shabazian, sports editor emeritus, columnist, and cartoonist. His sports career spanned more than 55 years. If you wanted an anecdote about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, or Jack Dempsey, you asked Lud. He knew them personally.

Those were the final days of journalism before computers marked an end to clanking Remington typewriters and the ink-stained wretches in the print shop.

But the local sports characters we covered were alive and well.

For instance, there was a gentleman who called himself “Turk.” He was involved in an over-40 basketball league and boy was he competitive. During one game our staff covered, he got upset with a referees’ call and stomped off the court at an outdoor park. Spying a flock of pigeons, he leaped toward the pile and grabbed one.

Turk turned and approached the referee. He then bit off the pigeon’s head, spat it on the court, and chased the referee out of the park, flailing blood everywhere.

A week later, a journalist from city-side was sitting in the sports department as we regaled him with the story.

“That could never happen,” the reporter said.

No sooner had he uttered those words than the elevator door outside sports opened and there stood Turk. He had arrived to report that evening’s scores from the over-40 basketball league.

“Turk,” said Jack Fehr, “tell this guy you really bit off the head of a pigeon because you were upset with one of the ref’s calls.”

“I did,” Turk replied, glaring at the newside reporter. “What about it?”

Then there was Frank.

Frank was a copy editor and every half an hour or so he’d get up, leave the other editors at the news desk, and go to the bathroom. Not to go to the bathroom, but to wash his hands. Anyone inside when he was there will tell you that he’d wash his hands over and over for at least ten minutes. Then he dried up, turned, and backed out of the bathroom — hands upraised — never touching the doorknob, as if he had just scrubbed up for surgery. He returned to the city desk where he promptly got ink all over himself. Frank repeated this act several times nightly for his entire career.

Perhaps the greatest character of all was Chuck Wepner. He was a heavyweight fighter from Bayonne, N.J., who somehow landed a championship bout with Muhammad Ali in 1975. Give Chuck this, he reached the 15th round before Ali knocked him down and the fight was stopped.

Wepner was the inspiration for the film “Rocky” and ESPN produced a documentary on his life based on the manuscript that I had written. It is called “The Real Rocky.”

To speak with Wepner back then one got an earful of wild tales from his nights with the broads to his days in the jailhouse for his involvement with drugs.

But an even stranger tale was the night he and several friends went to a tavern in Staten Island called Joe’s Question Mark. According to Chuck, he and several friends were sitting at the bar and one of his buddies kept insisting that a Latin customer was insulting the fighter. Chuck thought his friend was kidding, but when he eventually realized there was truth behind his statement, he rose to confront the guy. The man took off and Chuck caught him, dragging the poor guy into a nearby men’s room.

Once inside, Wepner lifted the man, who was half his size, flipped him upside-down and started kicking in the bathroom stalls.

“I was going to give him a whirlybird,” Wepner recalled.

When Chuck found an unflushed toilet filled with urine and excrement, he plunged the man’s head beneath the surface then flushed.”

That’s a whirlybird — Hudson County style.

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