By JOSEPH TINTLE
Anyone who aspires to make it in a particular field of work ought to seek out a mentor. Even if you are that kind of person who says, “I can do this on my own,” it’s still better to have someone in your corner who can offer you suggestions to make your transition smoother.
For me that person was Lud Shabazian. He was sports editor emeritus at The Dispatch newspaper in Union City, N.J., where I met him in 1976. He had just stepped down as sports editor within the year and turned over the responsibilities to Bob O’Connor, fifty years his junior.
Lud, a Union City native, not only held the top sports title since 1920, he also was the newspaper’s cartoonist and columnist. He knew everyone from Babe Ruth to Jack Dempsey and Mickey Mantle to Muhammad Ali. He was a walking sports encyclopedia and today he is in New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame. So who better to ask questions of in times of need.
I didn’t court Lud as a mentor. In fact, it just happened. He saw my knowledge of athletes past and present was deeper than the average Joe. So we talked. Lud liked to hold these conversations at a coffee shop a half block away where he’d buy me a donut and a cup of coffee. What was amusing was how Lud just couldn’t get over the price of coffee in 1976. It might have been 35 cents, but that was six times more than the nickel cup in his day.
Often he’d bring a copy of the sports section, open to the page where my article appeared, and commence criticizing. Now true criticism offers positive as well as negative commentary, so Lud started with the positive. And a lot of it was. Anything negative had to do with niggling points of details but that, he told me, was what made the difference between a great article and a good article. I took copious mental notes.
When I look back at these pieces today I agree with every point he once made. I even recall particular scenes at the coffee shop where he corrected me on certain points. But I notice something else 40 years later: Lud could have been a lot tougher on me. I see things now that make me wince, and I’m sure Lud winced too. I think he reasoned that I’d figure certain things out by myself. Sure, he called me out on some of them, but not all of them. I guess he just didn’t want to beat me up too much.
These sessions also took place at his house in Ridgefield, New Jersey. I’d go up at 10 a.m. and we’d start talking sports and writing. Our discussions lasted till noon and Lud’s wife, Joey, prepared us lunch and the three of us continued our chat.
I don’t think Joey was much of a sports enthusiast by nature, but after being married to Lud for so long, she picked up a lot and was right with us as we traversed the sports landscape.
How into reading was Lud? His house was filled with thousands of books — and not just sports titles. Visitors often stumbled over earmarked books written by James Joyce, William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Arthur Miller, and Truman Capote. Books of all genres were piled along the walls in his bedroom, then they swept down the hallway, and found their way into small bunches on the stairway. The living room was clear. The kitchen too. After all, Joey had to lay claim to a piece of the house.
But as one headed down the basement steps, the view that greeted visitors was a scene out of the television show “Hoarders.” Book, books, books, everywhere! On the floor, on shelves, intermittently on the washer and dryer. Lud even added a classic touch never seen anywhere: He had strung clotheslines throughout the basement and there he hung the first drafts of major sports stories he had written during the 1920s and 30s. He thought that would keep them safe from those “book bugs” that chew paper.
“Hey, take that one down,” he said pointing to a clothesline one day. “That’s my cartoon of the fight at Boyle’s Thirty Acres.” And damn if if wasn’t the Jack Dempsey-Georges Carpentier fight from July 2, 1921, in Jersey City.
When sportswriters die there is an odd tradition that other sportswriters knock on their doors, gain access from their widows, then rampage though the houses scooping up books. Lud always told me that I was welcome to do so too, but when he died in July 1990 I just couldn’t do it. It seemed crude. After April 1978, I headed off to graduate school and eventually returned to sports and developed as a writer on my own. But the suggestions Lud offered me early on resounded throughout the years. They still do.
As a teacher these days, when I edit a student’s essay, I do so in the spirit of Lud Shabazian: I accent the positive, I point out the negative, but I always encourage. Always.
Just like Lud.