Welcome to the Land of Wonderful Characters


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.


Tom Seaver Not So “Terrific” Toward Me



One of my early assignments as a sportswriter came in October 1976 when I covered the Cincinnati Reds and the Philadelphia Phillies. The Reds swept the Phils in three games. But I hardly recall the series. What I remember was the way Tom Seaver treated me one late afternoon a few hours before Game 1.

The future Hall of Fame pitcher had an off year in ’76. He posted a record of 14-11, but he was still “Tom Terrific” in everyone’s eyes, mine included. After all, he won 20 games five times in his career and earned 311 victories. He should have been on top of the world that day, but Seaver, as any sportswriter will tell you, has his cranky side.

The regular season being over, the 31-year-old New York Mets’ pitcher was tapped by ABC to do commentary. Who better to converse alongside Al Michaels and Warner Wolf when it came to analyzing the art of pitching?

I had just begun my sportswriting career a few weeks earlier at The Dispatch in Union City, N.J., and newly appointed sports editor, Bob O’Connor, wanted to try out his first hire. I didn’t want to disappoint. I knew I had three important games to cover but Bob wanted extra coverage. He asked me to get whatever sidebars I could, write them up, and dictate my stories to a staff member before the games began. These were the days before MacBook Pros. I composed my road stories on an Olivetti portable typewriter because it was compact and reliable.

So I headed down to the field at Veteran’s Stadium to let my mind wonder in search of an idea. No sooner had I walked out of the Phillies’ dugout than I saw Seaver. He was a most distinguished looking man in his suit, a little snooty looking, but that did not discourage me from approaching him. After all, I had just interviewed Muhammad Ali a month earlier.

I had read a Sports Illustrated article in which Seaver said that after his playing days were over he might consider sports broadcasting. It was a casual remark, but I thought there might be more to the story considering that’s what he was doing now for the week.

I introduced myself and asked if I might do a story on him. He nodded assent and waited for me to begin the interview.

“Tom, you mentioned in the past that when your career is over …”

“My career is not over!” he said in a surly tone. “What are you talking about?”

I tried for a minute to convince him that I did not say his career was over, but he only only wanted to hear what he thought he had heard. I did not start an argument. There was no heated exchange. I gave it one more try at explaining where I was going with my question but he waved me off, turned his back, and looked toward home plate, crossing his arms in case I didn’t get the message.

Was he still seething because he had 11 losses that season? Did he think that I thought the less-than-stellar record that season meant he was on the decline? I was aware that  he received only 15 runs of support in his losses.

Now what? I had just annoyed one of the game’s greatest pitchers even though I had done nothing to provoke him. But I had to find a sidebar. Back at The Dispatch office Bob would soon be anxiously tapping his foot.

Enter then-ABC broadcaster Warner Wolf. For whatever reason he walked up to me and we began talking. I introduced myself and we shook hands.

“Hey, Warner, I heard that your father was Larry Fine of the Three Stooges. Any truth to it?”

“Everybody thinks that,” he said with a big smile. Although Larry Fine was not his dad, Wolf’s father often filled in for Larry Fine when the Stooges took their act on the road and Larry needed a breather.

The interview turned into an amusing sidebar and Warner Wolf had bailed me out. For those of you who are fans, he is the same courtly gentleman off air that you hear on Imus in the Morning.

Well, I wasn’t going to let Seaver off the hook. I approached an ABC public relations man named Jeff Tolvin and told him what had happened. He seemed annoyed with Seaver’s actions and said he’d look into it for me. An hour later, he came back and said, “You need another sidebar tomorrow?” I did. “Guess what. I got you Al Michaels. He’ll meet with you over breakfast.”

Michaels and I spoke for 90 minutes as he outlined his career from minor league baseball in Hawaii to covering the playoffs for ABC-TV at age 32. He offered lots of anecdotes, plenty of insight, and gave me a great story. Two sidebars in the book and Bob O’Connor was happy.

I had forgotten about the Seaver incident on the third day as I stood at the first-base foul line talking with Phillies’ relief pitcher, Tug McGraw, who was fielding ground balls. Between hops, we discussed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and we agreed that the film’s best scene was when Leatherface hung the brunette in hot pants on a meathook.

“Good stuff,” McGraw said.

After he finished taking grounders, McGraw slapped the side of his thigh with his glove — his signature move — and said goodbye. After that I just took in the scenery. A few minutes passed and I got a tap on the shoulder. It was the Tolvin, the ABC representative. He told me that he had spoken with Seaver and that things were straightened out; he’d sit for an interview.

Being 24 years old, I was not wise enough to take the high road. I thanked Tolvin for his efforts, but unfortunately, I added, “I’m not going to talk to that jerk.”

As I turned to leave, I bumped right into Seaver. We both stood six-feet, one-inch tall and we were eye to eye. He didn’t like what I’d said, and I was not interested in an interview. No words were exchanged, but it was definitely an “F-you” moment.

Whenever people asked me about athletes I did not like, I used to say: There is just one. But no more. That’s because I saw a different side of Tom Seaver a while back when the Mets hosted a televised event in which they announced the All-time Mets team; Seaver, of course, was named starting pitcher. He spoke movingly about his days as a Met, but specifically about the influence that Manager Gil Hodges had on his career and life.

Tearful, at times, Seaver explained how Hodges taught him professionalism and was the most important man throughout his career. When the show ended, I said to my wife, “Remember I always told you that Tom Seaver was the one athlete I couldn’t stand? Forget that. I’ve just seen a different side of the man.”

From sportswriter to teacher and never once looking back


For more than 20 years I was a sportswriter. I covered Major League Baseball, the NFL, track and field, boxing, the NBA, tennis, college sports, and high school sports. Met everyone from Muhammad Ali to Mickey Mantle. Then one night I made a phone call to a friend, Chip Phelps. Told him that I had to do something more worthwhile with my life. He asked me what I was talking about. He said that sportswriting was worthwhile, that I informed people, and did so in an entertaining fashion.

I could see his point, but something was lacking in my life.

That was 1993. It would be another seven years before I’d find my true calling in life: teaching.

Until then I became the managing editor of a Catholic newspaper. I liked that a lot, but still something was tugging at me. That something was a first grader yanking on my coat sleeve during a grammar school Christmas sale in 1999.

“Can you help me find a present for my mommy?” he said.

“Sure, how can I help?”

He led me to a table filled with all sorts of small-item gifts. I didn’t offer any suggestions. I let him select and I reached for the item that he pointed to. Such was the extent of my “help.” He ponied up $5 and bought his mom a pair of stained-glass earrings. He said thanks and walked out of my life.

But that moment resonated with me. I actually had helped a kid other than my sons. It was a nice feeling.

More time passed and I helped out on my older son’s Little League team, a minor role, but that too was satisfying to see youngsters grasp a lesson in hitting or fielding.

“Hey, Joe,” a father said, “ever think of becoming a teacher?”

No way. In fact, I’m surprised that I didn’t go right out and buy this guy a gift certificate good at any hospital for a lobotomy, as satirist Tom Lehrer once said. But his words stuck and as the summer wore on, I began to give the profession serious consideration.

Finally I headed to Barnes and Noble to review its education section. I knew that if I were to become a teacher I had to become certified in English.

As I was thumbing through a book about high school English certification, a young lady from Bishop Ahr High School in Edison, N.J., approached me. She asked if I were considering the teaching profession. I said that I was and she began to tell me about her favorite teachers and what made them effective. As she was leaving, she wished me well and predicted that I’d make a good teacher.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because you took an interest in what I had to say.”

Then she waved goodbye and wished me luck.

I’m a big believer in signs from the universe and too many now had revealed themselves to me. So I purchased a test book as well as a copy of Masterpieces of World Literature to review my background knowledge. Two months later, I took the certification test, passed, and I’ve been teaching ever since.

Teaching is everything that I had hoped it would be. While I may grouse about the over testing of students, there is nothing like getting up in the morning with just one thought: Who can I help today? Then it’s off to school, arrive at 6:20 a.m., and teach at 7:30 a.m.

Classes are fun, informative, and exciting. Students like to be taught and if they see that you sincerely care about them, they will always come through.

Sometimes they even get in touch with you long after you have taught them.

Dave, a former student of mine in 2007, recently contacted me on Facebook and we conversed by phone for more than an hour. He’s only 25, but he is married, has a beautiful six-week-old daughter, a new home, and a career that he loves. I told him that I hadn’t accomplished any of that at his age. Now, as a teacher, you’re never jealous when your student surpasses you. In fact, you are delighted that he or she has found success.

Years ago, an educator named Richard Long hired me and promptly offered sound advice. “When you teach,” he said, “always try to be the best teacher a student ever had.”

I’ve taken that suggestion to heart, and while I’m certain that I’m not everyone’s favorite teacher, Dave was kind enough to tell me that I was his favorite teacher.

Not a bad way to end a long school day.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving


I like to tell my high school students not to worry, things will work out for them, as they did for me. They think the bearded gentleman, who teaches them English literature and writing, always knew what he was doing as a teenager and always got straight A’s. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In grammar school I was fine. No problems.

Then came the horror story known as freshman year of high school. That’s when I accumulated 11 failures on my report card catapulting me to summer school for Algebra I. Eleven failures, you may be wondering, and you were not left back? There’s a reason for that. At Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J. , we received report cards every month. That’s 10 report cards a year. And apparently I spread out my failures with great aplomb, except for algebra.

I remember sitting at my desk that first week in class and thinking that I’d better pay strict attention to this instructor because “letters” were now involved in math problems. It was a concept I never grasped. As the months wore on, my grades sank from an 88 to 79 to 68 to 66 to 65 and so on. The final grade was well below 70. So off to Madison High School I went for a six-week course in algebra. Sadly, I continued my string of failure. And if I failed summer school, I would not be allowed back at Delbarton.

What to do?

The fellow teaching me that summer was named Mr. Peyser. Good guy, and I actually understood a bit of what he was teaching, but not enough. My average was 68. The last week of summer school, however, he announced there would be a final test. And if those of us not passing right now passed this test, he would pass us for the summer. A great offer, but I resigned myself to the inevitable: FAILURE.

The morning of the test, I arrived early to class. As as I sat there waiting, I heard a distinct rumble outside. Up pulled someone on a motorcycle wearing a leather jacket, and spinning his way into a parking spot. But when he took off his helmet, I knew I had a chance to pass Algebra I. It was Mr. Peyser. I realized then that here was a man I could reason with. Because my algebra teacher actually rode a motorcycle that meant he was a regular guy. And so when he got to class, I presented him with a proposition. It went something like this:

“Hi, Mr. Peyser, do you have a moment?”

“Sure, Joe, what’s up.”

“Look, I know I’m failing your course and, honestly, I just don’t get algebra. It’s the letters and numbers thing.”

He nodded as if he understood.

“If you could just give me a “D” so I can return to Delbarton, otherwise I’ll be kicked out. I not only would appreciate it, I promise I’ll never return to summer school again.”

He smiled and said, “Well, let’s see what happens.”

I took the final that day and I knew I didn’t pass.

A week later, my summer school grade arrived. I had sneaked out to the mailbox to intercept the grade before my mother and father got hold of it. There was the envelope holding my immediate future. I opened it slowly, unfolded the pink paper inside, carefully, winced and …

A grade of “C.”

My parents were pleased and my father gave me one of his speeches about how hard work always wins the day.

I was graduated from Delbarton three years later. But two things gnawed at me during the graduation exercises: not really passing Algebra I in freshman year meant that I was not officially a high school graduate. And that I never thanked Mr. Peyser for his “gift” which made my graduation from high school — and the rest of my life — possible.

Mr. Peyser, wherever you are, thank you.

PROM-ises, PROM-ises


The high school senior prom was approaching and I had no intention of attending. But two classmates, Jack and Kevin, approached me and said I just had to be at their table because we’d been classmates since seventh grade. The problem was that Jack and Kevin had girlfriends; I had yet to date. In fact, I had promised myself as early as seventh grade that I would never attend the prom. That’s how shy I was.

Even at 17, I never thought I’d outgrow my social shortcoming. My friends pushed and pushed so I eventually caved and said I’d see what I could do about getting a date. I went home and told my sister, Alice, about my predicament and she gave it some thought. A day or two later she told me about a waitress named Carol at the restaurant where she worked. Carol was five-feet, two inches tall, an attractive blonde, and tops in her class, Alice assured me. I was interested.

So one Saturday afternoon I just “happened” to go to the restaurant and my sister introduced us. Carol waited on me, I ordered chicken croquettes, we talked, and I asked her out for Saturday. She said yes. But Friday came and I thought I should give her a call. I didn’t know why, but I did.

“We can’t go out,” Carol said in a firm voice.

“Why?” “Something’s come up.”

“How about next week?”

“I don’t think so.”

Well, Carol and I never went out that Saturday or any other Saturday for that matter, and it would be two years before I learned the reason why she had backed out of our date. By then I had taken a summer job at a nearby school and one day I was speaking with a teacher. She had the same last name as Carol and I asked if they were related. Yes, they were, she told me. So I explained how I had asked out Carol two years earlier and that she had mysteriously brushed me off after accepting the date.

The teacher explained that was probably the day Carol found out she was pregnant by her former boyfriend. A few days later, Carol’s family sent her away to have the child.

The next day I told Jack and Kevin that the date with Carol didn’t work out. They thought for a moment and said they had “the perfect girl” for me.”

“And who’s that?” I wanted to know.

“Her name is Carolyn,” Kevin said. “She’s a friend of my girlfriend.”

Hmm, a blind date. I wasn’t comfortable with that, but the guys were insistent and being their peer I, of course, went along with what they said like any teenager would.

My blind date was set for the following Saturday. Carol was now in the rearview mirror; Carolyn was up ahead and coming around the bend. Carolyn turned out to be wealthy and living in a gated community. No pressure there for my first date as we drove up to her stately home.

As I walked in her house accompanied by my friends and their girlfriends, Carolyn made a grand entrance down a stairwell. How ravishing was she? Well, have you ever been on a date and realized that you were the dog?

It was all downhill from there.

From our initial conversation it was obvious that Carolyn and I had little in common, so I asked Kevin if I could hang with his girlfriend while he entertained Carolyn. He agreed and eventually the night dragged to its conclusion. Jack, his girlfriend, and I dropped off Carolyn at her home. I said good night, turned, and slinked into the backseat. Jack and his girlfriend sat in the front as the car rumbled through the gated community.

As we wended our way to her house we spotted a rather large-figured girl walking on the shoulder of the road. “Hey,” said Jack’s girlfriend, “that’s my friend. Pick her up, please.”

Jack complied and this 17-year-old girl, who weighed about 250 pounds, squeezed her way into the backseat and off we went. We drove another two minutes when Jack arrived at his girlfriend’s house. They bid each other farewell with a drawn-out kiss.

Given my lack of dating experience, I was rather embarrassed and turned to look at our new passenger thinking she’d roll her eyes at the proceedings occurring in the front seat. Instead, she gave me a long look as if she wanted to kiss. I turned and stared out the window, never so embarrassed.

Obviously, I did not make it to the senior prom, but at least I kept my seventh-grade promise.