Still Crazy for the Game

For legendary baseball writer Maury Allen, mingling with Mantle, DiMaggio and Robinson was all in a day's work.

By Richard Firstman

Maury Allen still lives the old world every day, in his head and on the page.
One afternoon in the fall of 1950, a City College sophomore named Maury Allen dropped by the football coach's office and asked to interview him for an article he was writing for the college paper, The Campus.

"But you're on the team," said the coach.

"Well, I'm on the paper, too," Allen replied.

The coach granted the interview, perhaps figuring the scrawny defensive back and third-string quarterback had a more promising future in journalism than football. It was a good call. The CCNY Beavers went 1-7 that year and never took the field again: A few months later came the notorious basketball point- shaving scandal that shut down most of City's athletic teams. Maury Allen, meanwhile, went on to become an institution on the New York sportswriting scene. Last fall, the Society of The Silurians, New York's oldest journalism organization, honored Allen with its annual Lifetime Achievement Award, a tribute whose past recipients have included the likes of Walter Cronkite, Bill Moyers and Pete Hamill.

Lifetime achievement notwithstanding, Allen is hardly finished. At 76, he still writes every day —whether his weekly piece for thecolumnists.com, a website that features sportswriters retired from daily journalism, or his annual book. He's written more than three dozen, most on the subject of baseball. There have been books about the glorious and futile seasons of the Yankees and Mets, biographies of Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle and even one about Bo Belinsky, a pitcher best remembered for leading the league in carousing.

"The writing has always been easy to me," says Allen. "It's always been fun. Some guys write one page and think that's a lot. I write 2 or 3,000 words a day."

Allen's been pounding out copy since his days at City College, where he learned the craft from Irving Rosenthal, a professor in the English Department who taught the college's one and only journalism course. Rosenthal had a simple philosophy: You want to learn how to write? Then write. That's how you learn how to write. Allen learned fast and loved the payoff. "What a thrill to be in the Great Hall at City College and watch a kid sitting there reading my story in The Campus."

Writer Maury Allen with baseball legends, from top: Joe DiMaggio, Casey Stengel, Jose Torre, George Steinbrenner.
Allen graduated in 1953 and went into the Army, but kept writing — for Stars and Stripes in Japan and Korea. Back home in Brooklyn two years later, he took the subway up to CCNY to ask Rosenthal for his advice: Should he go to Columbia for a graduate degree in journalism, or get a job? "He said, 'You'll learn more in two weeks on a paper than you'll learn in two years at Columbia.' "

Allen worked at a couple of small papers, in Indiana and Pennsylvania, before returning to New York in 1959 to cover baseball for a new magazine called Sports Illustrated. The job had cachet and a handsome salary, and it was at SI that Allen met his wife, Janet. But he didn't like the slower pace of a weekly — and he really didn't like it when the editors reduced his stories to captions for the photographs that the magazine treasured. What Allen really wanted to do was write for the great sports section of the New York Post. He finally got his chance when the paper's baseball writer died in a fire in St. Louis. "He was smoking and drinking in his hotel room," Allen said. "I called up the sports editor, Ike Gellis. I went in the next day. He says, 'Do you smoke?' I said no. 'You're hired.' "

Allen quickly made his mark as a baseball writer who didn't take the games, or the players, so seriously. He was at the forefront of a new breed of New York sportswriters — "chipmunks," they famously dubbed themselves—who wrote with an irreverence that ultimately changed the way all the media covered sports.

The chipmunks turned the press box into a chattering clubhouse, which prompted the legendary Jimmy Cannon to bellow, "Shut up and keep typing!"

When Maury Allen typed, it was often with a touch of the facetious. In 1963, Mickey Mantle spent most of the season on the disabled list, even as Yankee management kept telling the press he'd be back in the lineup any day.

"There is no Mickey Mantle," Allen wrote finally. "No blond-haired, blue-eyed slugger from Oklahoma. He's a fictional character created by the Yankees." Allen was behind the batting cage the next day when he saw Mantle approaching. "You piss me off just standing there," Mantle told him. It became a classic line, repeated for years by other players to other writers, although Allen became good friends with Mantle, as he did with many of the players he covered.

"The fun of covering baseball in the '50s and '60s was you could get to know a guy personally, you could go to his house," Allen recalls. "On the road, you always ate dinner with the players, you'd buy them a beer at the hotel, talk to them about the game or their lives. They considered you part of their world. When I broke in with Sports Illustrated in 1959, I was making $22,000 a year, which was more than what half the players were making. Ten years later, it became a different world."

But for Allen, the old world still exists. He lives it every day, in his head and on the page. His latest book is about the old Brooklyn Dodger Dixie Walker, a project that reconnected him with dozens of players he knew when he was just starting out. It will be Maury Allen's 40th book.

Maury's Picks

For Best Players Ever

Willie Mays — He had the famous five skills (hit, hit with power, run, field and throw) to a degree no one ever equaled.

Mickey Mantle — Would have been the best ever if he wasn't injured so much. He was the game's power icon.

Hank Aaron — Stylish star who could do it all when few people really noticed.

Joe DiMaggio — Only a relatively short career keeps him from being considered the best the game ever saw.

Jackie Robinson — Playing that way under that pressure makes him an immortal of the game.