The Rise and Fall of the Press Box
by Leonard Koppett
Published by Sports Classic Books
288 pages, 2003
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan
When Leonard Koppett died earlier this year, he left a tremendous void in the world of sports journalism.
Koppett, who was named to the writers' wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992, was one of the great baseball writers of the postwar generation. His insight, his ability to break down information into meaningful and thought-provoking concepts, was appreciated by old fans and new.
Just before he passed away, Koppett completed work on The Rise and Fall of the Press Box, a fascinating look not just at his own career, but the sports media as a whole.
A man of innate logic and intelligence, he never gave the impression that he felt superior by dint of his enviable position; in fact, he felt blessed. "Once upon a time," he begins the book, "there was a special place where millions of Americans of all ages and all segments of society yearned to be. Admission could not be purchased, its unique privileges were not available elsewhere, its particular blend of intimacy, visibility and glamour could not be artificially reproduced, and its occupants considered themselves fortunate to be there ... It was called a press box."
Rise and Fall is divided into distinct categories including his professional affiliations (such as The New York Times, New York Post, Palo Alto Times, et al.); a brief section on his personal life, (as befitted this modest man); classifications of people, such as readers, players, coaches and managers, etc.; and a nostalgic overview of the baseball and football teams he covered on both coasts. Ironically, one of the most interesting chapters describes the tricky nature of sports book publishing; not a very good way to make money, Koppett claims (despite having seen 17 of his books published).
He also discusses issues not normally associated with sports writing, such as ethics and relationships between players and reporters; the obsession with statistics (his views reflected the mutual fund phrase, "past results are no indication of future performance"); and the impact television has made not only on the game as played on the field, but by the way it is covered.
Years ago, ballplayers and reporters were roughly on the same level, economically speaking. That's obviously no longer the case. Even a laureate like Koppett doesn't earn "A-Rod dollars" (Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez makes a reported $25 million a year). Koppett bemoaned how things have changed, saddened by the loss of the camaraderie of the old days in the press box. "Most media people today, especially the younger ones, sincerely believe that ethical standards ... are higher than they once were .... I want to be on record as disputing that view. Different? Certainly. Higher? By what measure? Lower? In many respects. One thing I can report as fact, from personal experience: We were certainly less pretentious about it."
Methods of reporting have also changed, thanks to the need for speedy coverage demanded by the electronic age. In Babe Ruth's day, basic indiscretions went overlooked. Now these peccadilloes -- most recently the use of steroids -- lead off the news programs. Koppett compared and mooned over those changes, but admitted there was little to be done about them. "Time lurches on" he sighed.
"...[T]he press box ... has been devalued even in its non-press box venues, and in the importance of the newspaper story -- in the eyes of the participants in a controversy -- is less than the importance of a TV sound-bite's impact or talk radio's agenda."
He showed a great deal of respect and gratitude to those who mentored him and otherwise helped him on his journey, including legends like Ring Lardner, John Drebinger and Damon Runyon. He acknowledged he had a wonderful career and his readers are lucky to have had him share it with them.
Koppett's last book is a fitting memorial to a man who always remembered that he was not the story. In an era when many sportswriters' books -- either collections of their old columns or simple autobiographies -- are more concerned with making themselves the center of attention and dropping names, Koppett was, as always, a gentleman and a scholar (although he would probably hate that cliché). | November 2003