A MERE 60 YEARS AGO, at the front end of my love-hate affair with the published word, I went to work for my first "real" newspaper, an actual evening daily willing to pay a salary-like sum for my dubious services. The paper was the Herald in Augusta, Georgia. It subscribed to a feature service called NEA, which sold columns and other stories in a one-price package deal that the Herald and many other papers seemed to find irresistible. Unlike its à la carte rivals, whose wares were typesetter-ready, NEA delivered its viands neatly laid out on printed pages that made them look more attractive to editors.
That extra dash of typography meant somebody had to clip the stories chosen for print and paste them onto sheets of copy paper - a quaint necessity of the day - before writing a headline and sending the lot to the composing room, there to be set in type once again.
That somebody - often me - could be counted on to have scissors, rubber-cement pot, and a deskload of soft-leaded, blacker-than-Hitler's-heart No. 2 copy pencils at the ready. Which is how I came to be thus accessorized for my first meeting with the work of James Earl Breslin Jr., whose writing accounted for roughly half of the most interesting stories in NEA's sports section, the Green Sheet. I had no reason to wonder about the fellow's age then, and besides, he was in New York and I was in Augusta. Had I known he was 23, but a couple of years older than I was while gluing down his columns for the linotype operators, I might well have considered dropping out of the game then and there.
Jimmy, you see, had already fast-tracked himself into a job that required more than mere reporting and promised greater rewards. He was very nearly a columnist already, all but freed from the tedious requirements of "objectivity." In Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columnists, a new and important anthology, the great Russell Baker describes it this way: The objectivity code "forbade a reporter to write of, say, Senator Blattis: 'Lying as usual, Senator Blattis declared today ...'" Baker concluded, "This obligation to assist in dignifying inferior men ... made you feel as though you were nothing more than a megaphone for the convenience of frauds."
And that is why, like the young Jimmy Breslin, Baker made it a priority to become a columnist as quickly as possible, succeeding so famously that his op-ed essays ran in The New York Times from 1962 to 1998. For Jimmy, NEA's many papers supplied a nationwide wall on which his talent could grow like a trumpet vine. He'd gone from a 15-year-old copyboy at the Long Island Press to 25-year-old pro still honing his talents under NEA sports editor Harry Grayson, and preparing for ... who knew what? What he became was the columnist's columnist, perhaps the best ever, still writing at age 82 in a time when newspapers themselves are in their own twilight.
If you're drawn to the form that Jimmy pretty much whipped into shape, you'll probably enjoy this well-stocked (168 columns) volume, the product of some very good though inevitably imperfect anthologizing by its three editors, John Avlon, Jesse Angelo, and Errol Louis. This is the column-lover's bedside companion, perfect for those who'd like to relive that moment when the 1960s came along, bearing Ji...