Sports Collectors Digest: Dick Young

By Marty Appel

More than a half century ago, A.S. Barnes and Company, a champion in the publication of baseball books, created an annual series with biographies of the winners of the MVP Awards.

They began in 1949 with Jackie Robinson (by Bill Roeder) and Ted Williams (by Arthur Sampson). In 1950 they delivered Jim Konstanty (by Frank Yeutter) and Phil Rizzuto (by Joe Trimble). In 1951, the series continued with Roy Campanella (by Dick Young) and Yogi Berra (by Joe Trimble). 1952 brought forth Bobby Shantz (by Ed Delaney) and Hank Sauer (by John Hoffman). And that was the end of the run, four years, eight books. Campanella repeated in ’53, probably helping the decision to wind things up. (It’s also unlikely that the Shantz and Sauer books were very big sellers).

The books were nice bios with a focus on the MVP season, and including interesting appendixes, with the MVP voting, the names of the electors, the history of the award, and a full roster of all members of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

What makes the series interesting to me is that it produced the only book ever written by Dick Young, generally acknowledged as the best pure reporter of his era. To live in New York during Young’s time meant that he was must reading every morning for every baseball fan, and as such, an enormous asset to the New York Daily News.

It is not surprising that Young had only one book to his credit, because he was far too busy getting “scoops,” spending hours in the clubhouses, and honing his column, “Young Ideas.” He was carried in The Sporting News for many years, giving him a national audience, but he was a New Yorker through and through, for better or worse.

I traveled with him during my days in the Yankees PR office, and I’d sometimes cringe at his “New York style” on the road. If something was not up to “New York standards” in a press box; if some team in the Midwest was too slow at getting him a fact or a press guide, he would pretty much level them with a good hard lecture on professionalism, making us all feel like intruders. He epitomized the stereotype boorish behavior that gives New York the reputation for pushiness that it sometimes properly endures.

But you had to love Young. He was the best in his field, including the best at getting his way. The Commissioner’s Office put up a rope barricade to keep the press 20 feet from the batting cage during the World Series? There was Young, undoing it. TV cameras suddenly appeared at press conferences? There was Young standing in front of the lens.

Bowie Kuhn once convened a committee to consider allowing Negro League players into the Hall of Fame. Young was on the committee. So was Ford Frick, the former Commissioner. Frick had a more cautious approach to the process; Young saw him as an obstructionist and began to lecture him. Kuhn told him to knock it off and respect his predecessor. Young backed off.

Young was born in 1918, and began his career with the Daily News in 1937 as an $18 a week messenger, going on to a 45-year stay at the tabloid. His early experience hardly humbled him. When a longtime messenger working for agent Frank Scott died, someone known to all in New York sports, Young wrote, “…he was only a go-fer, but he was a go-fer’s go-fer.” I’m sure the family took great comfort in Young’s sendoff.

“In Dick Young’s life story,” wrote George Vecsey of the New York Times, “Frank Sinatra would surely have portrayed him.”

Young was a champion of Jackie Robinson’s entrance to the Major Leagues, and a rather liberal columnist in his most powerful days, when three baseball teams reigned in New York and you had to get Young’s take on things each day. As he grew older, he grew more reactionary, often taking management’s side and finding little of appeal among players. When Yankee pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich swapped wives in 1973, Young, whose own personal life was not without failings, railed against what they represented against “My America.” When Dwight Gooden return to the Mets after drug rehab, Young famously extolled the fans to “stand up and boo!” when he took the mound. He pretty much ran Tom Seaver out of town, writing a column defending the Mets and suggesting that Nancy Seaver and Nolan Ryan’s wife Ruth had a jealousy going. Seaver called it “the last straw.” He wrote a note about why Johnny Bench’s first marriage ended that made even Young’s best defenders wonder if he had gone too far.

To see Young rant about some wrong in the press box, or some insufferable traffic jam, or a comment from Pete Rose praising Japanese baseball equipment (a chance for him to recall Pearl Harbor), was actually a thing of beauty. No one could outperform Young, and for several years after his 1987 death, the New York weekly Village Voice ran a parody of a Young column, decrying all things in the sports pages, and using the dateline: Hell.

He is credited with being the first reporter to leave the press box after a game and work the clubhouse for quotes. He was on the field long before the gates opened, grabbing quotes, getting “inside dope.” He was tireless and never without his reporter’s notebook. He’d dictate his column in high volume and with great confidence over the phone. He took calls from any publicist and weighed whether it was news or not. But he took the calls. He didn’t want to miss a thing.

He had a long running feud with the equally powerful Howard Cosell, and he frequently got in the last line, skewering his broadcast rival mostly because he hated that broadcasters were being taken seriously.

During a contract dispute with the News, Young shocked New York by joining the rival New York Post in 1982. His move seemed to play against his own frequent cries for loyalty when Seaver or someone else demanded more money. Somehow, he lost a bit of his clout. It wasn’t the perfect fit it had been at the News, even though the Post was the more conservative paper, embracing Young’s politics more closely.

Oh yes, the Campanella book. There was nothing extraordinary about it. It was clearly an assignment – “give us 30,000 words!” – and he batted it out, one would assume, fairly easily, given his long relationship with Campy. He might have thought to himself, “Done! Never doing another one!” when he finished, and he would have been true to his word. Too much to cover out there to sit at the typewriter and pound out a book.

He was not only the best at what he did, but he was always there to help a young reporter break in, giving out tips on covering the beat that only he could offer. He was just as kind to women reporters as they began to appear on the scene – just so long as they knew their stuff and worked hard.

Young was elected to the writer’s wing of the Hall of Fame in 1978, around the time he adopted expensive haircuts and abandoned his trademark bowtie, and began to hobnob more regularly with club owners than with the players.

There are a lot of great Sunday notes columnists covering baseball these days, but none have approached Young’s power when he took up a cause.