From Soup to Nuts

Sportswriter Bob St. John remembers the not-quite-glory days

"I'd like to thank Bob St. John for reminding me of a lot of stories I've been trying very hard to forget."

--sports columnist Frank Luksa

In the landscape of local journalism, the Distinguished Soup Nose Award has for years remained a closely guarded secret, its winners reluctant to brag about receiving it, those who gave it out happy to simply giggle and breathe collective sighs of relief that another year had passed in which they were not recipients. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I've been an occasional finalist but never a winner.

It is in now-retired Dallas Morning News sportswriter-columnist Bob St. John's recently published book, Texas Sportswriters: The Wild and Wacky Years, that the existence of the award has finally been made public. Over the years, the rambunctious and talented journalists St. John revisits have collected prizes and recognition galore for their writing expertise. And few are bashful about telling you so. The Soup Nose Award, however, is another thing.

It came into existence in 1967, in a classy Philadelphia restaurant called Bookbinders when, on the eve of a Cowboys-Eagles game, an entourage of media types and coaches gathered for dinner. As the hour was a bit late, several of the journalists, including a well-known Dallas photographer, had already spent considerable time in the Cowboys' hospitality room back at the hotel, taking full advantage of the open bar.

Keeping the tradition of the times, the legendary cameraman had led the charge. Then, hours later, he was seated next to coach Tom Landry's wife, Alicia, and ordering a third premeal martini when a waiter delivered his French onion soup. Soon, a new award would be born. As the conversation and camaraderie continued, the photographer chugalugged his martini, swooned and quietly passed out, falling facedown into his soup. Assistant coach Ernie Stautner is credited with jumping to the man's rescue, saving him from drowning.

Thus, in a time when the business of sports journalism was still freewheeling and fun, long before many of its practitioners went off to more serious endeavors, before the Times Herald breathed its final breath and Morning News sports editor Dave Smith hit town in a boring-is-better frame of mind, the Distinguished Soup Nose Award had its first honoree. In the years that followed, one need only embarrass himself badly enough and the award was his. Unless, of course, someone else in the fraternity managed to screw up even more royally.

Most often, the winners would be men of great distinction and literary accomplishment. They worked in what fellow reporters and editors referred to then as the "toy department," and their names were Blackie Sherrod, Bud Shrake, Gary Cartwright, Dan Jenkins, Steve Perkins, Frank Luksa, Mike Shropshire, Randy Galloway, John Anders, Sam Blair, et al. It might be stretching it a bit to call it a Golden Age of Sportswriting, but these guys did afford it a nice shine. Years later many would go on to write enough well-received books to fill a sizable shelf. Some even earned big bucks with successful screenplays and wrote prize-winning articles for leading magazines. Few, however, managed to distance themselves too far from their first journalistic calling. Novelist Shropshire has tried harder than most, even starting up an organization called Sportswriters Anonymous. At this writing, however, he remains the only member--and a backsliding one at that.

It is not his colleagues' later-day successes that St. John, himself a 14-year veteran of the Morning News sports department (and multi-Soup Nose nominee), has chosen to write about. Rather, it is the fun days, covering everything from Super Bowls to the homecoming game at Pflugerville High. And as the subtitle of his book--his 13th, Bob quickly reminds--suggests, the years were both wild and wacky.

"It was," he says, "a great time to be in the profession. During the '60s and '70s, particularly, there were so many excellent writers working in sports. And the business was fun. If you were at the News, you tried to be sure you got the story first, but you didn't hate anybody over at the Times Herald. At the end of the day, you all got together for a couple of beers." And laughs. And timeworn but always-worth-repeating stories.

Like the one about the old days at the Blackie Sherrod-directed Fort Worth Press sports department when a young and inventive Gary Cartwright decided it was high time that a fictional member of their small staff named "Clew Slammer" be honored as the Texas Sportswriter of the Year. Ballots were stuffed, campaign phone calls were made to the sports departments of other papers, and--you guessed it--ol' Clew won the award he'd never be able to pick up.

Or how former News golf writer Harless Wade set a still-standing record for most outlandish excuses for routinely being late into the office. His best, St. John recalls, was a lengthy and highly detailed story of stopping at a liquor store while it was being robbed. Wade swore that he was locked in the storage vault for several hours before the police came. That the paper's police reporter was never able to locate a report on the incident made no difference. It was Harless' story, and he was sticking with it. It also seemed that his aging grandmother died a lot.

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