From Soup to Nuts

"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.

Then, there was a long-ago Saturday evening in Buffalo, when a charter bus carried a group of writers back to the hotel to rest for the next day's Cowboys-Bills game. Times Herald beat writer Steve Perkins, a little travel-weary and a lot intoxicated, had stretched his lanky frame across the back seats and fallen asleep. He was still snoring away when the bus arrived at the hotel. As they departed, St. John and Curt Mosher, the Cowboys public relations director, assured the driver everyone was off and waved him back to the bus barn. Which, the following game-day morning, was where Perkins awoke.

Perkins, of course, later got his revenge by scooping St. John on the retirement plans of Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith. That the story wound up being a bit premature--Meredith returned to play another full season--never seemed to bother Perkins. When, finally, Dandy Don did call it quits a year later, an unruffled Perkins boasted to one and all that he'd had the story first.

Walter Robertson, sports editor of the News from 1960 to '80, admits there were times when he wondered if he was running a department or overseeing a vaudeville troupe. "Certainly, we had some characters," he says, "but the bottom line was that everyone had a tremendous amount of talent and a willingness to do whatever necessary to get the job done." In an age before specialization and a multilevel management chain, members of his staff covered beats, wrote two or three columns a week and took their turns editing copy and writing headlines. Robertson still refers to those who worked for him as his "Dirty Dozen," which was the maximum number he ever had on his payroll at any one time. The head count of today's Morning News sports staff, he points out, is now nearing 80 full-time employees. "But comparing staffs then and now is a lot like trying to compare teams from one era to another," Robertson says. "Putting out a sports section was different back then, but, considering our resources, I thought we did a pretty damn good job."

As one who worked for and learned from him, I can only add a loud "amen."

And how is it that during my years as a Morning News sportswriter I never claimed a Soup Nose Award? There was one Thousand Oaks summer when I feared I'd cinched no worse than a tie for the infamous prize.

The Cowboys were traveling to Canton, Ohio, to play in the annual preseason Hall of Fame game, and Luksa, then with the Times Herald, assured me he would set his alarm to make sure we would be on time for the charter bus that would deliver everyone to Los Angeles International. Naturally, he fumbled the ball. Only after hastily making reservations with a commercial airline and an Ohio car-rental company did we end a long, hectic day of travel by quietly sneaking to our game-site hotel rooms late in the evening.

The following day, at game's end, we both wrote stories furiously in an effort to be certain of making our scheduled flight back to California. We gathered quotes from the dressing room, we wrote, we filed and raced for the airport. And finally made it back to Thousand Oaks in the wee hours of the morning. There, a message from his office awaited Luksa. As the result of some electronic malfunction, the game story he'd traveled thousands of miles to write had never made it to the Times Herald sports desk. And those being pre-cell phone days, Frank hadn't checked in to make sure his story had arrived. They'd had to go with an Associated Press account, giving Frank the needed edge to earn the Soup Nose outright.