When I first asked Bob Drury if I could interview him about his journalism career—an ascent that started out with a job in newspapers as a copy boy, and later as a sportswriter and crime reporter, and then as a glossy men’s magazine star and author—he told me there was nothing special about his story.
In fact, he wrote back and said his story was pretty mundane.
As you are about to read in the following email interview, Drury’s life in newspapers, magazines, and books is anything but mundane.
As a newspaper reporter myself working at a mid size daily, Drury’s story reminds me that things are so different now than when Drury was coming up.
The hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-living reporter—in most quarters— is a dinosaur.
In the past glory days of “newspapering”, reporters hung out with each other in bars after hours.
Today, newspaper reporters are more likely to squeeze in visits to the gym at lunch and after work than talk about writing in between swigs of beers at their local tavern.
But nostalgia aside, Drury’s story shows that talent and hard work goes a long way and luck—being in the right place at the right time—can play a role too.
Tell me about your journalism background. More specifically, when and where you started writing professionally? How did you get the job and what did you cover?
After attending high school in Newark and college at a small Jesuit school in Ct.—Fairfield University—where I majored in English because, well, because I liked to read I suppose, I more or less drifted north to Cape Cod. Other guys were doing it. We heard there were girls up there. Soon found out you needed money to attract girls.
Got a job on a painting crew, painted the Hyannisport Water Tower and the Hyannis Police Station. I recall talking to one of the Kennedy cousins, forget which one, while I did the window trim on the outside of his jail cell. He was in for something minor. Public drinking, I think. Anyway, he told me that they were hiring on the Chatham commercial fishing pier, and I spent the rest of the summer unloading from boats and re-loading to trucks boxes of cod.
Come Labor Day, when some of the mates went back to school, I split time between working the pier and setting the long lines out on the Georges Banks. It was cold out there in winter. Odd, just a few weeks ago I was back up in Chatham for a feature I’m writing on the Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association. Back when I was sailing they used to tell newbies not to worry about falling overboard, as you could just walk back to the boat on the backs of the cod fish. Now there are no cod. They closed the Georges Banks to fishing in the ‘90s.
That first winter we weren’t going out much. Chatham is a small harbor with small boats, and even a 15-mph westerly could keep us in on an otherwise perfectly sunny day. I was playing ball in the Cape Cod Basketball League—I had been pretty good in high school—when one day someone mentioned that the Cape Cod Standard Times was looking for someone to write a weekly round-up of the league. They were offering $20 a story. I jumped. From there I began earning another $20 a story covering town council meetings up and down the Cape. Decided that this newspaper racket sure beat working. It still does.
A year later I moved to New York—well, to Harrison, New Jersey, actually, just across the Hudson from Manhattan—and started looking for work. I recall getting $15 a story from a weekly political rag—sorry, its name escapes me—and I was over the moon when Crawdaddy magazine—a now-dead music monthly—paid me $1,100 to interview the comedian Richard Belzer after his act at Catch a Rising Star. Eleven hundred bucks? My bartenders were happy.[Editor’s note: Crawdaddy was relaunched as an online music webzine in 2007.]
Next I found a job running film cans around town for Bud Greenspan, who was then and is still making Olympics documentaries. “Can Carrier” was a pre-digital occupation—you used to see us all over Manhattan with our blue canvas shoulder bags. Bud’s was a tiny, five- or six-person operation, and I also swept up, ran errands, and operated the projector when he screened his films for visitors. One night, not long after Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post, Bud screened a rough cut of his documentary The Australians for a bunch of Post execs, and among them was Jerry Lisker, Rupert’s new sports editor.
Jerry, now dead, was my first mentor. (The other was GQ‘s Art Cooper. Also dead. Jesus.) They called him, and he called himself, “Blackie” and/or “Cholo” because he was part American Indian. He was part everything—German, Irish, Russian, Mexican—and he was completely nuts. The night of the screening Greenspan was kind enough to mention to Lisker that I had hopes of becoming a sportswriter, and Jerry hired me as a copy boy on the spot. They still had hard wire copy, and copy boys, back then. Not for long.
Lisker assigned me the 8 p.m. - 3 a.m. shift and told me to show up the following Sunday night. When I asked him what exactly I would be doing he told me not to worry, an old hand named Harvey Araton would show me the ropes.
Back then the Post did not publish on Sunday so when I arrived in the newsroom an hour or so early on Sunday the joint was empty. I was walking around looking and feeling stupid in my corduroy sport coat with the patches on the elbow when this kid shows up appearing as bewildered as I was.
“Yeah, you Drury?”
“Yeah, its my first night here and Jerry Lisker told me you’d show me what I’m supposed to do around here.”
“It’s my first night, too. And Lisker told me that some guy named Drury would show me what I’m supposed to do around here.”
I remain good friends with Harvey. He’s now, of course, a New York Times columnist.
So how long did you write about sports at the Post? Did you start out writing game stories and was later promoted to columnist? Also, did you feel like you were getting away with murder—being paid to write about sports?
For the first couple of months or so I was strictly peon material at the Post—ripping copy off the wires, fetching coffee, taking dictation from the baseball writers on deadline on the West Coast. I remember Paul Zimmerman—now Sports Illustrated Dr. Z—going ballistic when I once transposed one of his football picks I’d taken over the phone at the end of a long night. Thought he was an asshole, but we patched it up later.
About six months into the job, they let me start compiling a thin, half-column wire round-up of minor sports news, two grafs at best, called, appropriately enough, “Sports Round-Up”. The deal was, if you could get more than half of the copy on your own, you’d get a tag-line at the bottom of the column. I loved that challenge, all the copy boys did (there were no copy girls in the sports department then). Each night between “official” job duties I dialed up sports information directors at all the small local schools—Hofstra, St. Francis, Wagner, etc.—that didn’t rate the St. John’s/Seton Hall treatment looking for game scores, high scorers, record-breaking rushers or passers etc. Finally one night I compiled enough of my own copy to earn my first tag-line. Thing was, I went by Robert, my friends called me Bobby. I wanted “Robert F.X. Drury” as my tag. But it didn’t fit across the format in a single line. So I was, and am, and will be forever “Bob Drury”.
The Sports Editor Jerry Lisker was a mug and a mensch. He had boxed semi-pro, and if you shook hands with him it was like grabbing a board wrapped in sandpaper. More, if you went out drinking with him often enough, he’d throw you an occasional bone. Thus I started getting assigned to cover basketball games nobody else wanted. Fordham-Manhattan. Wagner-Rutgers. Games like that. Couple grafs back by the racing results. Tag-line stuff. This led to the occasional sidebar at a Giants or Jets game, or a Knicks scene setter. By-line. Cool.
The day Yankees catcher Thurman Munson crashed his plane—forget the year—I had just gotten off a double shift. I was barely home in my sixth-floor walk-up on East 73rd and York—I was living in Manhattan by now—when I heard the news. I called the sports department to see if there was anything I could do. Lisker answered. “Get out to Canton, Ohio right-fucking-now.”
I caught a plane out of LaGaurdia that afternoon. For the next couple of days I was the only New York reporter on the scene—don’t know why, now that I think about it—and my by-line was on the front and back pages of the Post for a week straight. I also got to know the cops and security people investigating the accident, so I was getting good stuff none of the other papers had. Even spoke briefly to Munson’s widow, the only reporter to get a quote from here. It was probably the usual mundane stuff, but you had to know the Post back then. It was Murdoch through and through. Headlines like, “GRIEVING WIDOW SPEAKS EXCLUSIVELY TO POST MAN ON THE SCENE.” A real hoot ... well, I guess not for her.
When I got back to New York there was much back-slapping and whiskey toasts and an offer from Lisker to take over the Giants beat. I remember telling my girlfriend that this newspaper racket, most especially sportswriting, was like pissing up a rope and not getting wet. I did the Giants for a couple of years, with a lot of college basketball after the season. I loved it. Fighting with Ray Perkins. Playing hoop with Phil Simms. Getting smashed with Lawrence Taylor. I remember once there was a rumor that Dick Young, the columnist for the rival New York Daily News, was about to break a story about the Giants being riddled with reefer smokers. I was screwed.
Murdoch, and by extension Lisker, hated nothing more than to be beaten on a story by the Daily News. I never heard Lisker call it the Daily News. It was always the “scumbag News”. And beaten on a gossipy story about sex, drugs or alcohol by the scumbag News was even worse. But I was buying reefer from the starting free safety and/or the back-up halfback, and smoking after practice with about half the team. There was no way I could write the story, and Dick Young was going kneecap me. (Do you know what an IRA Sixpack is? Three in the knees and three in the elbows.)
Then, an idea. Confront the impending story head-on, get a denial-y quote from some Giants official. Boom—I would have both the story and the denial first. My best friend on the beat shared my recreational proclivities—The Marxist we called him; I don’t want to name him; he’s now an editor on the New York Times’ Foreign Desk. Anyway. The Marxist and I made an appointment to interview the Giants’ General Manager, the late, wonderful, witty George Young.
I really liked Young. He was a former history teacher. I chatted him up often, and I think I probably had more conversations with him about the Battle of the Boyne than I did about football. (I come from a family of greenhorns; My grandfather was hung by the Black & Tans, and my father became a homicide cop in Newark straight off the boat.) Between talking to Young about anything and everything and talking to then-linebackers’ coach Bill Parcells about his passion for baseball and boxing, ‘tis I wonder I ever wrote a football story. (Forgot to mention, I was also covering a lot of fights in the off-season. Mostly Vegas. I was too young for the hallowed travel-scam days of Manilla and Zaire, although, sitting next to Cholo Lisker in his silk black shirt and black headband in New Orleans, I did phone in the “running” for the Duran-Leonard “No Mas” fight when the Post’s boxing writer, Mike Marley, failed to show because he’d ran off with a Brazilian hooker.)
And this from Young I will never forget. As we sat in his office, beating around the bush with more hems than haws, I finally blurted, “George, there are a lot of rumors going around about some of your players and drugs.”
Young looked me in the eye. Swiveled his head to The Marxist and held the stare. Back to me. “We’ll Bob,” he said evenly, “there are a lot of rumors going around about some of the Giants beat writers and drugs.” He waited a beat; the coup de gras. “And I don’t believe a word of them.”
End of interview. End of drug story. I will never forget that moment. It is up there with the time the late, great Murray Kempton told me, “Drury, you are font of useless information.” Coming from Murrray, well, I want that on my headstone. Murray and George were peas in a pod.
But even though I had only done it for a year, I was already getting antsy about covering sports. Sometimes I looked at my notebooks and laughed. The coaches giving “110%.” The 30-something pitchers, “This spring my arm feels 10 years younger.” Every fat guy was always in “the best shape of my life.”
I thought about sitting in a press box at 35, 40, 45, 50 years old. Cadging quotes, eating free hot dogs, trying to decipher the hieroglyphics in my box score. Sportswriters, as Shakespeare said about kings, always leave the office feet first.