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McGRATH: Ron Rapoport’s anthology showcases the best in Chicago sports journalism

Dejected manager Dusty Baker descends inCubs’ dugout after team’s loss Marlins Game 7 2003 NLCS. | AP

Dejected manager Dusty Baker descends into the Cubs’ dugout after the team’s loss to the Marlins in Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS. | AP

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Updated: October 30, 2013 6:24AM

I got started in journalism delivering newspapers when Chicago was a four-paper town, and I read all of them on most days. The bylines, exotic datelines . . . I was star-struck. What a
magical way to make a living.

We were a two-paper town by the time I was ready to give it a go, so it would be awhile before I got to play in this league. I was fortunate to land some pretty good gigs in some very nice places, but the desire to work in my hometown never left me. When the opportunity came in the mid-1990s,
I would have walked here.

I was 40-something then, and I’d done some things, but you always wonder if you measure up to people you either grew up reading or pretty much wanted to be once you entered the business. It was heady stuff to have old favorites such as Bob Verdi, Bernie Lincicome and Don Pierson as colleagues and to have a hand in hiring Rick Morrissey, Mike Downey and David Haugh.

They were a sharp, feisty bunch doing good stuff in the shop across the street, too, so we had to be at our best to keep up with Rick Telander and ol’ What’s-His-Name, that perpetually angry guy.

Doing newspaper work in Chicago was everything I hoped it would be. I was blessed to do it at the level I did. One might say I outkicked my coverage.

And now, thanks to Ron Rapoport, it’s as though a century’s worth of elite Chicago journalism talent has gathered in my living room, available for consult as the mood strikes. From Black Sox to Three-Peats is an anthology of great Chicago sportswriting, assembled with much thought and great care by Rapoport, a former Sun-Timesman who knows great writing from having delivered a lot of it during a long, distinguished career.

As the book points out, there is no distinctive ‘‘Chicago style’’ of sportswriting. (John Schulian and Jack Griffin were both great storytellers, but they were hardly the same guy.) Each contributor comes at it from a different angle, often improvisational, as there haven’t been many championships to provide inspiration. The White Sox, for example, had gone 87 years without a title when they were the last men standing in 2005. They’d thrown a World Series since they’d last won one. The Cubs? Who’s counting?

Against that backdrop, torturously close calls provide some of the most memorable, albeit anguished, reads in the book.

Rick Talley was known as ‘‘Ripper’’ when he worked here, a nod to a pugnacious style that seemed attack dog by the mellower standards of his softer counterparts around town. But Talley’s account of the 1969 season slipping away from the Cubs reveals a sensitive understanding of the role disappointment plays in the human condition, something we know well in Chicago.

In a similar vein, Morrissey’s angst-filled account of Game 7
of the 2003 National League Championship Series between the Cubs and Marlins is an artful, awful recap of maybe the gloomiest night in Chicago baseball history. I was sitting next to Morrissey when he wrote the column. I liked it then, and it still stands strong after 10 years.

The Bulls’ glorious run was clearly an aberration in the Chicago Bob Verdi memorably described as ‘‘the city of broad shoulders and narrow trophy cases.’’ Fittingly, Rapoport has a half-dozen writers weighing in on Michael Jordan, none more eloquently than Jay Mariotti, whose dramatic account of MJ’s title-winning shot in the 1998 NBA Finals illustrates what a fine writer Mariotti could be when he wasn’t dyspeptically cranky about some hapless miscreant’s muffed punt or botched ground ball.

Lincicome could be an ornery cuss, too, but he wielded a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer. One of his best lines assessed a backfield pairing of Jim Harbaugh and Brad Muster: ‘‘A quarterback from Michigan and a fullback from Stanford. That is so Bears.’’

Verdi, too, was a sly one, duty-bound to deflate the pompous with wry observations cloaked in deadpan humor. But he strays from character in these pages, delivering a beautiful account of a touching day at the Special Olympics. Typing at its finest.

The Dempsey-Tunney Long Count Fight, Gabby Hartnett’s Homer in the Gloamin’, Bears 73, Redskins 0, the Black Sox — the book is Chicago sports history come to life. Kid Gleason, the embattled manager of the infamous Black Sox, sure sounds like a man who knew something was amiss in a boldly suggestive recap of the 1919 World Series.

One quibble: Not enough Ron Rapoport. He was my mother’s favorite writer, present company included. That counts for a lot.

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