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Remembering John Wayne on his birthday – as a sportswriter

John Wayne was the great American film hero. He was the cowboy that saved the town, the soldier that fought the evil enemy. There are many things he was not on film -- a dancer, an artist (he once criticized Kirk Douglas for playing Vincent Van Gough), or maybe, a sportswriter.

Not so fast, Grantland Rice.

The Duke did play a sportswriter during his career in an obscure television film – his first dramatic appearance on the small screen. Four-time Oscar winning director John Ford directed Wayne in a 1955 short television film called “Rookie of the Year” – buried for nearly 60 years but unearthered by Turner Classic Movies.

For a profession that has been represented in Hollywood by the but sloppy Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau, Jack Klugman) in “The Odd Couple”, woefully henpecked Ray Barone (Ray Romano) in “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and vultures like Max Mercy (Robert Duvall) in “The Natural” – you know that John Wayne is going to deliver a heroic portrayal of the Great American Sportswriter. He does, sort of, but not without first hitting all the lecherous notes that are part of the Sportswriting 101 syllabus.

The tale centers on baseball’s greatest crime – the 1919 Chicago White Sox World Series gambling “Black Sox” scandal, which has been called upon in fiction like “The Godfather II” (Hyman Roth – “I loved baseball ever since Arnold Rothstein fixed the World Series in 1919) and “The Great Gatsby,” when Gatsby describes Rothstein to narrator Nick Carraway, “That’s the man who fixed the 1919 World Series.”

It has traditionally been a go-to move for storytellers – perhaps to be replaced in future fiction by steroids, though it hardly has the same romantic grip as gambling and gangsters. After all, Brian McNamee is no Arnold Rothstein. Wayne’s appearance as sportswriter Mike Cronin was part of a dramatic series in those early days of television called the “Screen Directors Playhouse," based on a radio show of the same name. The TV version ran for one season, with 35 half-hour episodes featuring major film stars like Robert Ryan, Errol Flynn, and Wayne.

Turner Classic Movies began showing these lost dramatic gems – not seen since their one season in 1955-1956. The one starring Wayne is based on a short story by W.R. Burnett, the novelist and screenwriter who wrote such classic gangster movies as “Little Caesar” and “High Sierra.”

The story opens in the newsroom of a small Pennsylvania town – the Henryville Post Gazette – with a copy boy named Willie checking the teletype for details of the starting pitchers for the upcoming World Series, which of course features the New York Yankees.

There is, predictably, a crusty small town newspaper editor.

“Willie, tell Mike Cronin I want to see him right now,” says Mr. Cully (we never learn his full name) played by Willis Bouchey, who was in nearly every TV sitcom in the 1960s (My Mother the Car, The Munsters, Gomer Pyle, McHale’s Navy).

Willie finds Cronin (Wayne) typing away at his desk. He tells him Mr. Cully wants to see him

Cronin: “Hey, quit reading over my shoulder. It’s bad manners.”

Willie: “What is it a novel? Cowboys and Indians?”

Cronin: “No. Call it a passport, a ticket from here to there. Maybe a stay of execution. But whatever you call it, it’s manna from heaven.”

Willie: “Gee, well, old iron lungs wants to see you right away.”

Cronin: “Well, he’ll have to wait.”

“Old iron lungs” has to wait because Cronin has a call into the press box at Yankee Stadium to Ed Shafer (played by veteran actor James Gleason, (who was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role as a boxing manager in “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” in 1941), a reporter buddy of his working for the big city New York Globe.

Cronin reaches Shafer, who is covering the game, and tells Shafer that he’s got a big story that will get him a job there on the big city paper. “The biggest sports yarn since David kayoed Goliath,” Cronin says.

Shafer says he will call Cronin back in between innings at the hotel where Cronin lives in Henryville, Pa. As soon as Cronin hangs up, “old iron lungs” does what newspaper editors do. He yells at Cronin for taking too many days off, then he yells at him for making personal phone calls. Too which Cronin responds, “I’ve been taking it here for 10 years. Stuck. Trapped. I’ve got just three words for you Mr. Cully -- Drop dead.” (Two words, just to mess with his editor – the best part of the film).

Wayne, as Cronin, become the narrator, going back in time three days before, when he had visited Shafer in New York and saw “the kid” in person for the first time – Lynn Goodhue, played by Wayne’s son, Patrick Wayne.

Cronin: “It was just another ball game. The Yanks had sown up the pennant two days before. But I couldn’t take my eyes off that kid Lynn Goodhue? I couldn’t get over the feeling I had seen him before. And then he came to bat in the sixth.

“Then I knew why that kid looked so familiar – he was Buck Garrison all over again. Buck Garrison, probably the greatest natural ball player except for the Babe in the history of the game. He ran like Garrison, hit like Garrison, and when he struck out he did what Garrison never failed to do – that little trick of reversing his bat and bouncing the handle on home plate.

“It was crazy. It couldn’t be. Someone besides me must have spotted the same thing, had to. You don’t forget a player like Buck Garrison. And you don’t forget the Black Sox. And you don’t forget that news kid who waited out the clubhouse with tears running down his face, to choke out, “Buck, it ain’t true, is it?”

One of the White Sox players implicated in the 1919 Black Sox scandal was Buck Weaver. And the story goes that a young boy stood outside the courthouse during the players’ trial and said to Shoeless Joe Jackson, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

Cronin goes with Shafer into the Yankees clubhouse after the game and meets Lynn Goodhue (Patrick Wayne).

Cronin: “I just wanted to say hello and congratulate you. But I wouldn’t have picked you for Rookie of the Year.”

Shafer: “Is that so?”

Cronin: “You’re out of the rookie class, kid. You’re a regular on any man’s team.”

During the conversation, Cronin asks Goodhue how he learned to play ball, and he says from his father. Cronin asks if he ever heard of Buck Garrison, and Goodhue said he remembers hearing about him from the Black Sox scandal. Wayne gets an autographed baseball from Goodhue. He leaves New York and heads for Goodhue’s home town of Coaltown, West Virginia – yes Coaltown.

The film comes back to the present, with Cronin in his hotel room, waiting to give tell his big city newspaper pal about his big scoop about Buck Garrison’s kid. But when Cronin answers his door expecting his cleaned suit delivered, it is a woman with a gun – Ruth Dahlberg (played by Vera Miles), the young woman who we find out is Lynn Goodhue’s fiancée and who had helped Cronin find Buck Garrison during his visit to Coaltown.

She begs Cronin not to print the story – that it would ruin Lynn Goodhue.

Dahlberg: “How can a man be so evil? How can you honestly be so evil?”

Cronin: I’m a newspaperman. I don’t make the facts – just report them.” (Who among us in the newspaper business hasn’t said this when described as evil?)

The story shifts back to Cronin arriving in Coaltown. He meets Dahlberg, who tells him where to find Larry Goodhue – Lynn Goodhue’s father, who is, as we know now, Buck Garrison – played by Ward Bond, who was in 22 movies with Wayne, including “The Searchers” and “Rio Bravo.”

He is at McKinley Park, teaching kids baseball.

Cronin approaches him: “Hello Buck. Your boy gave me this Sunday (the autographed ball). He’s good Buck, but he will never be as good as you were."

Garrison: “That’s where your wrong, mister. He’s already better now than I ever was.”

Cronin: “I’d like to quote you saying that.”

Garrison: “A newspaperman. No newspaperman ever did me any good, before or after the trouble.”

Cronin: “It’s our job to print the news.”

Garrison: “It had to come out sooner or later.”

Cronin: “It’s a great story, Buck. Only one question – does the kid know?”

Garrison: No, he don’t. You better go write your story mister. Go ahead. Print it. You don’t think I’d beg now, do you?”

Cronin: I gotta print it Buck.”

Garrison: “Sure, who wouldn’t? It’ll be a great break for you.

Cronin: “One I’ve been waiting for, for a long time.”

Garrison: “I’m glad somebody gets some good out of it.”

But while newspapermen may be evil, John Wayne is not. Dahlberg convinces Cronin (without the gun) not to print the story.

Cronin: "No story, Ed. Oh, I thought I had a good one on the Rookie of the Year, but no dice.”

Shafer: “Mike did you say you had an angle on Lynn Goodhue? Oh, you silly jug head you. Mike, that angle wouldn’t be that he was really Buck Garrison’s boy, would it now? My pal, you need a change. I didn’t know you could get jungle fever in the sticks, but brother. Of course, we all know it. Anybody who would print a story like that and tell that kid….”

So it turns out the entire Yankees press corps knew Lynn Goodhue was Buck Garrison’s kid – and nobody reported it.

Still, Shafer sets Cronin up with a story for the Globe, and good triumphs over evil.

As Cronin leaves his hotel, he walks by the offices of the Henryville Post-Gazette and throws the autographed Lynn Goodhue ball through the second floor window, where it hits his editor on the head, and the story ends.

It’s not Citizen Kane, but it’s John Wayne as a sportswriter, and we should all be walking a little taller today.

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