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Interview with: Mickey Herskowitz
JB: This is the Houston Public Library, Oral History Project. The date is December 6, 2010. We are at the home of Mickey Herskowitz in far northwest Houston. I am Jim Barlow. Why is Mickey part of this project? Well, he dominated Houston sports writing for decades. He is a national star in that era. He is author and co-author of, what, 51 books? He is a national wit. I do remember one time reading you were talking about University of Texas, the foreign side of it, and you said, “It is if a careless carpenter is indicating _____.” How did you catch the sports bug?
MH: I was one of those really lucky kids that discovered at a very early age that two things that were passions or would be passions in my life kind of connected and that was using words and playing ball in the sandlot or playground across the street from my house. Behind a lot of people who succeed or think they succeed and what they do, there is a teacher who kind of encourages or pushes or nudges you. When I was in the second grade, 8 years old, my English teacher read what we called then a composition that I had written out loud to the class. And then, had me go down to the principal’s office and read it to the principal – one of the few times I was in the principal’s office for a good reason. So, when I found out there was a thing in the daily newspaper called the sports section and you go could go to a ball game and get in free, I probably set my mind and my course right at the time on the spot to someday write sports for a Houston newspaper and that is exactly what happened.
JB: I thought you grew up in Houston.
MH: I grew up in Houston and actually started writing for the Houston Post when I was 14 years old and in junior high school. They did not start paying me until I was 19. That story involves someone whose name may be familiar to an older generation of Houstonians, certainly to several generations of people in San Antonio and that was Dan Cook. Telling you how far back it was – the papers covered junior high school football games the way they cover today high school games and the progression was we did not have pro anything. We had Minor League baseball, no pro football or Major League baseball or basketball. So, the colleges – Rice and, to a lesser extent, Houston, were the big beats and the high schools got most of the coverage. And then, junior high schools got some coverage. So, Dan Cook was the high school and junior high school beat writer for the Houston Post and he noticed that I was covering the Johnson Junior High School football games on Friday or whatever day of the week it turned out to be. So, he got me to cover the games for him and just write up some notes and a little highlight and the stats. And when the gun went off and literally, it was the stadium that they still play in – Robertson then Jefferson across the street from the campus, you could hear that gun go off all over the universities and campus. You may remember the days when they had the slaughterhouse, I guess, the stockyards across the road from the campus and, to digress a little bit, I remember the first day I met Bill Yeoman. We drove around the campus and when the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, that odor from the stockyards just drove people indoors and into the chemistry building. But anyway, Dan expanded it and had me cover junior high school games 3 times a week and he would go over to the Cougar den and hustle the co-eds. And when he heard the gun go off or somebody did, they would tell him and he would come by, pick up my notes, take them to the office, write the story. I never got my byline or anything but I would see some of my words in there, so the bug bit me really hard. By the time I was ready to get out of high school, Clark Nealon who was at the Houston Press back in the days where we had 3 newspapers – the Press which was the Scripps-Howard paper; the Chronicle was the afternoon paper and the Post was the morning paper. Clark was at the Press and told me when I got out of high school if I wanted a job working for a paper, to come see him. And as it turned out, I went in the Marines when I was 17. When I got out at 19, Clark was at the Post and remembered and called me and had an opening and just fired somebody and offered me a job exactly where I started, covering junior high school football.
JB: Did you not go to college?
MH: I actually was going to college. I went to college and went to work at the Post at the same time – University of Houston – and, I don’t know how personal I should get but I will never forget . . . Clark was an Aggie and he had about an acre or two acres behind his house which was off Almeda near the Veteran’s Hospital, and he poached that acre or 2 acres to grow vegetables in his backyard. He called me to come out to his house and negotiate my agreement to work for the Post. I had just gotten out of the Marines so I was making like $98 a month as a corporal or something. The way Clark offered me the job was he was on his knees piddling with his carrots or okra or something with one of the little tools of some kind and the way he put it to me was, ‘What is the least amount of money you can work for?’ I actually stood there and thought to myself, well, I am living at home so I have no expenses and I had a car, needed gas. So, I told him $42.50 a week and he said, “You’ve got it.” That is what I went to work for. And had to get married . . . each time you had a kid, you got a raise. So, we had 3 kids in 3 years and by that time, I was making almost a livable salary.
JB: So, you started covering the high school/junior high?
MH: Well, junior high school but do you know what? I skipped high school, Jim. What happened was Bear Bryant who had been at Maryland and Kentucky, came to Texas A&M. I don’t know how many people will remember but it was a big story and it was a time of excitement and reaction and great stirring in the Southwest Conference because there hadn’t been a coach of Bryant’s reputation or of his energy in the Conference. There had been some great coaches – Dutch Mayer and DX Bible and Mattie Bell and, of course, Jess Neeley, but Bryant was of a different era and a different personality. No one had ever covered Texas A&M. They were just out there in the desert, in the Brazos valley. So, Clark who was an Aggie, assigned me to cover Bear Brant. That turned out to be kind of a magical merger for me because covering Bryant was an entre to covering national college football. He was so colorful, he never sent a writer away hungry. I can remember when they were playing Arkansas and Arkansas had the best team in the Southwest Conference and it was the year the Aggies gave Coach Bryant the only losing season in its entire 37 year career. They lost to Arkansas 7-6, even with their . . . they had their top 2 full backs injured and he moved a center, a full back for that one game and he rushed for over 100 years. And the next week, he put him back at center. But anyway, the line I still remember to this day was, Coach Bryant always had a way of building up the other team and so he said, “You know, Arkansas is going to be coming down here and they are going to be looking for blood and they are mean and they are tough and they are fast and us, we are peaceful valley.” So, other coaches told me they looked at the film of that game and they had never seen a team blow the other team’s line off the scrimmage 5 yards. But the Aggie backs were getting 3 or 4. But anyway, covering Coach Bryant was a great experience. I have a son that is named after him.
JB: You wrote a book about him.
MH: I wrote a book called The Legend of Bear Bryant. If you don’t mind me injecting another little personal story. That was a book I was supposed to do with Coach Bryant and, as some people will remember, certainly people who were Aggies of that vintage and any Alabama fan, would remember that Coach Bryant died 3 weeks after coaching his last game in the Liberty Bowl. And it was so ironic because Bryant had always said for years, people would ask him how long he was going to coach and he said he would never retire from coaching because the moment he stops coaching, he will croak. And, of course, he died 3 weeks later and that became such a prophetic line that everybody used it in every story written about him. I remember talking to Mrs. Bryant, Mary Harmon, and she said she hated reading that. She said, “Papa did not want to die. Papa did not have any reason to die. Papa wanted to live. There were lots of things he wanted to do. That was just a line.” But we were going to do it because he had done one book earlier that was based on a series that Sports Illustrated ran. This was going to be the book where he told everything he could not tell while he was still coaching. I talked to McGraw-Hill, an editor there, and after Bryant died, I thought the project went with him. He said, “No, why don’t you go ahead and write a biography about him?”
JB: Had you had an opportunity to interview him extensively?
MH: I had spent more time with him than any writer anywhere. We were very close and, in fact, when he did not do the first book with me, it was already written because it had run in Sports Illustrated basically. It was a series of like 6 articles. I actually saw him in Birmingham and he asked me to go for a walk with him and he wanted to apologize and actually see if I could work with the Sports Illustrated writer doing the book. I said, “Coach, you don’t have to apologize and you don’t have to try to squeeze me into that project. The book is already written.” He said, “Well, when I retire, you will do the book.” I used to get letters from him saying, “We’d better start thinking about the book pretty soon because the only guy who can play me in the movie is John Wayne and he is getting old.” But the funny thing was, if it is funny, the title of the book was supposed to be The Legacy of Bear Brant. Forty-seven of his former players and assistant coaches had gone on to become head coaches in major college programs and the National Football League. So, you had this almost biblical progression of Bryant’s players and coaches going out teaching the gospel of Paul Bear Bryant. And so, I wanted it to be called the Legacy of Bear Bryant. The book came out and bigger than life. Well, I got an advanced copy. On the dust jacket, the title said, The Legend of Bear Bryant. So, I called the editor, a lovely guy, and I was almost choking with emotion. I said, “There is a typo in the title of the book.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Tom, the title is The Legacy of Bear Bryant and that is what the book is really about. The title is the legend of Bear Bryant and that is kind of trite and cliché and almost every other biography would be about somebody who is well-known.” He said, “Well, let me find out if I can it changed.” He called me back and he said, “They have already printed the 35,000 jackets for the first printing and they are not about to tear them up and do a new printing and incur that additional cost.” And then, trying to reassure me, he said, “Look, the only people who know that it is not the right title are you and me.” I said, “Yes, I guess so but just think – suppose you tried to tell that to Margaret Mitchell if her famous book about the South and the Civil War came out and the title was changed to ‘The Wind Blew Everything Away.’” Anyway, the book did well and I was pleased with it and it has been well-received ever since.
JB: So, you started covering major sports, college sports?
MH: Yes, and Bryant really was my entre. And the second one was Howard Cosell. The first book I wrote for a publisher - The Houston Post had a collection of columns. The first book I did was a book with Howard Cosell. I will try to condense it. It is a long, complicated story but the short version is I did a column about Cosell that was really very flattering to him at a time when he was starting out and fighting all the demons and waking up to a new conspiracy every morning at ABC and he was doing a telecast of a fight in Sweden between Jimmy Ellis and Floyd Patterson. It was a Sunday – I’ll never forget. I was at home. I had a Monday column to write that Sunday. I had no idea. Most writers don’t until something finally strikes you in the right temple. I am just flicking through the dial and I stumble across Cosell’s blow-by-blow account of the Jimmy Ellis/Floyd Patterson fight, and what I hear him saying is, “This fight is so terrible, so dull, so awful. Both fighters are just worthless.” He urged all the viewers to turn to another channel or find another show to watch. I had never heard anybody on local or network television tell the viewers to turn them off and go someplace else. So, I had to write a column about making this incredible discovery of something I had to wrack my brain to identify and then finally discovered it was an elusive quality called truth and it was coming from a guy named Howard Cosell. About 4-5 days later, I get a letter from New York, the ABC station area, and it is a thank you note from Cosell telling me that there was a conspiracy to keep him off the air at ABC and he had copied my column and sent it to all the executives and it really helped.
So, flash forward a little bit. We are at the Olympics in Munich in 1972 and Cosell tells me he has signed a contract with Playboy Books. Hugh Heffner had started a book publishing division, and Cosell who kept no secrets said he was getting $100,000 which was a nice advance at that time, to tell his life story and they asked him to give the editor a list of 10 writers who would be acceptable to him. I can remember George Plinton, Norman Mailer, Bud Schulberg, Gay Talese, Truman Capote – that quality of mostly novelists, and Mickey Herskowitz – a totally unknown little sportswriter in Houston, Texas. But that was Howard’s way of thanking me for that column, and that is all I took it as. The next day, there was a big controversy at the Olympics because two American sprinters missed their races because the track coach who happened to have been from Houston, Stan Wright, the track coach at Texas Southern, had the wrong schedule. Cosell was at a cocktail party with the ABC sponsors and they brought him in from the cocktail party to interview Stan Wright. Howard had had a couple of belts and, you know, as arrogant and obnoxious as he could be, he had a radar that told him when he had gotten right up to the edge of the line and not to cross it. But just a couple of drinks had kind of fuzzed that line. So, I will never forget – I was actually writing for ABC at the Olympics, not for the paper, and I was in the studio. I was doing some copying for the studio anchor who that year was _____ Schenkel and I could not get out. I was like a monkey chained to my desk. So, Cosell came in to interview Stan Wright and I was right there and out of the range of the camera. But Cosell had been trained as a lawyer, educated as a lawyer and was a labor union lawyer in New York when he got into radio. You could see his Perry Mason mode. He was going to break Stan right down in the 3-1/2 minuets he had and the last 30 seconds have him confess to being responsible for ruining the lives of these two American ____. Howard started off by saying, “Today, in the 32nd Olympiad, from Munich, Germany, 26 miles from a town called Dachau where 6 million Jews were murdered during World War II, a tragedy took place at the Olympics.” And I thought to myself, oh man, what if something really bad happens here? I did not know that a few days later, something would. But the next thing he did was turn to the coach and say, “Stan, the American people need to know. The American people want to know and they have a right to know. Who was responsible for this terrible misdeed that cost two young men 4 years of their lives and the opportunity of their lifetime to compete in the Olympics. And Stan Wright did the single most awful thing you could do to Howard Cosell, he said, “It’s my fault, Howard. I’m responsible. I am to blame. I am the one that had the wrong schedule.” And that was the end of the interview, really, I mean, because they had nothing else left to do except keep coming back and asking him how it happened, why it happened and how badly did he feel and what does he say to the young men? The coach kept saying, “You know, that is between me and them and I will have to handle it, I will have to live with it.” It just went on and on. It was just beating him to a pulp is what it came across as. As soon as the interview was over, two things happened: 1) We learned later that the switchboard blew up in New York at the ABC headquarters. And the other thing was that the sponsors, some of them had followed Cosell to the interview to see him in action live. And they had been to the control room.
So they descended on him after the interview and the thrust of it was, ‘Howard, couldn’t you have cut him a little slack? Couldn’t you have been a little gentler?” as he was leaving the studio and fending them off. I was trying to get out of the way so I would not get dragged into it but he saw me and he said, “Mickey, you were there – what did you think?” And all I could say as diplomatically as I could as quickly as my mind could turn was “Howard, I know how you felt about Coach Wright and I know that is not what came across on the air.” I found out the next day that, by 3 o’clock in the morning at the Sheridan Munich in downtown Munich, German. Writers from around the country were getting telegrams from their offices telling them to interview Cosell about that interview. And by the middle of the morning or night, Cosell was defending himself by saying, “Mickey Herskowitz, one of the fine young writers in the South,” and by the end of the night, it was “one of the fine young riders of the western hemisphere.” Was in the studio, rushed up to me after it was over, grabbed me by the lapels and said, “Howard, you were too easy on the sorry SOB.” And so, the next time I saw Cosell was the next day. He came up to me and he said, “You know, Mickey, I’ve been thinking about that list the publishers asked me to give them and I have thrown it away. I decided that you are the only writer I know who has the sensitivity to write my story. So, if you want to work with me, the book is yours. We will go to New York after the _____ and we will go to the editor, and that is exactly what happened although I realized later Plinton and Gay Talese and David Halberstam and Truman Capote, and Normal Mailer – none of those guys would have worked with Cosell because you cannot have two big egos on a book like that and Howard’s was bit enough for several people. But we ended up doing the book and it is called, Cosell, by Cosell which was fine with me and my credit was inside with the editorial assistance of Vickie Herskowitz. An interesting thing happened and that was almost any publisher in New York . . . the book was on the New York Times Bestseller list for 2 years and outsold Roger Kahn’s Boys of Summer which, up to that time, was the biggest selling sports book ever. I never thought of Cosell’s autobiography as a sports book though. It was really about a particular character and his dominating and transcendent personality, but also about television and how it worked, and the ego of it. After I did the book with Cosell, almost any publisher that had a really difficult book or a book with a person they deemed to be temperamental and concerned about whether they could actually get through the process and actually have a book to take to market, they would say, “Well, let’s get that short brown-haired kid from Houston that worked with Cosell,” and I ended up with Bette Davis’ book and a book with the Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder and not because he was temperamental – he wasn’t – but Dan Rathers’ book which is called The Camera Never Blinks and that was based on the Houston relationship. But, to a large extent, a lot of the books that I ended up with really started with Cosell and, for that reason, I always had a very fond soft spot in my heart for Howard.
JB: You were the sports editor of the Post at age 26.
JB: That’s kind of unusual. You know, _____ or they pick some guys who were on the copy desk 200 years and can hold the rabble-rousers down but you were a rabble-rouser.
MH: Well, the funny thing about that, as you will well recall, is getting a raise in the newspaper business certainly 30 or 40 years ago, we went up in nickels and dimes, and some major event had to occur for you to get a big salary boost if you were at a certain age. I was offered a job writing a syndicated column by Samuel Newhouse who had just started the Newhouse syndicate and his flagship paper, the Newark Star Ledger. I had no clue, no idea what Newark, New Jersey was all about and what life was like there or what the newspaper was about. But I did look at it as an opportunity to maybe try to get a raise from the Post and as sometimes happened, I got a $25 a month raise and the editor expressed the wish that I would stay with the paper. Well, not long after that Newark offer, I got another one that was at a significantly higher salary and the only was the Post could match that was to make me the sports editor. I did not think that was even a possibility because the man who hired me and mentored me was Clark Nealon, a father figure to me, and I would never have done anything that would have hurt Clark. We had a meeting and his position, and he was sincere about it was, “Mickey, I always took it for granted that you would succeed me as sports editor. Maybe not this early but I have no problem with you doing that now. I’ll be the executive sports editor. You can run the department on a daily basis and when you have an issue or a question or a problem, if you want to discuss it with me, you can.” So, that was how I got the promotion to sports editor. And then, as other opportunities or offers came in, Jack Linney actually offered me the chance to be the number two guy with the Motion Picture Producers Association after he had taken that job after having worked for Lyndon Johnson in the White House. I had another opportunity to go back to the National Football League and work for Pete Rozelle. So, when I got those offers, what newspapers traditionally did was not just give you a raise, they would give you another job. So, I got a daily radio show and then I was given the daily television sports anchor’s job. So, I had 3 jobs but by doing that, I was making the money that I could have made by taking one of those other opportunities.
JB: Weren’t you heavily involved in the founding of the American Football League?
MH: You know, I wasn’t really involved with the founding of it but when the war between the Leagues really heated up and basically was heading for a confrontational climax, I was hired by Al Davis to be the Director of Public Relations. The title did not really fit the job. I was actually the liaison with NBC, and NBC being the television sponsor, was the underwriter of the League and they were really important to the survival of the new League. It was the year that the merger took place, so I was able to be there at a time when it was pretty exciting. And interestingly, certainly to me, I got to work on the first Super Bowl game. And I am the last survivor of the 8 people who did most of the organizational work on the first Super Bowl game that matched Green Bay and Kansas City. I can rattle off the names. They may not be know to everybody but starting with Pete Rozelle who was the Commissioner of the National Football League and his top lieutenants who were Jim Kinsel (sp?), Don Weiss, Bert Rose, two others from the American Football League – Val Pinchbeck who had been at Syracuse and came to the AFL as actually kind of the marketing guy, Irv Kaze who had been the publicity director for the Los Angeles Angels, California Angels, and had come in as the publicity director for the American Football League. Davis believed in lots of publicity, so he hired a lot of guys to beef up that department, and all of the sadly are deceased along with Bert Rose who was the first guy to go to Los Angeles to set up the arrangements for the Super Bowl, and I came along about one week later because Bert had set up his office in the bar of the Statler Hilton Hotel and there wasn’t a lot getting done so, no disrespect to Bert. I had to pick the hotels for the teams and the media, set up the practice fields, lay out the press box, arrange for the half-time entertainment, get the tickets printed and design the program. I was a busy guy for 3 weeks. And, you know, we only had about 6 weeks to put the game on once Congress approved the merger of the two Leagues.
But in answering your question, I wasn’t around when the League . . . I covered the founding of the League in 1960 and, to this day, remember the announcement Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams, in Adams’ subterranean office in the ____ Oil Building. So, I covered the first 7 or 8 years of the League and then went to work for Al Davis. Al was somebody I had met. You know, the great thing about sports in this city and everywhere else is the tangled lines. It is like the roots of trees that just kind of intertwine. I was friendly with the relief pitcher for the Houston, then Colt .45s, who had pitched for the Milwaukee Braves and was a great high school athlete in Brooklyn; had gone to the same Brooklyn high school, I think Erasmus, as Al Davis, and Davis was on the coaching staff for Sid Gilman in San Diego. The Colt .45s, later the Astros, were playing a spring training game in San Diego against the San Diego Padres. So, Davis who was with the Chargers and was there off-season, came out to watch the game and say hello to Don McMahon. After the game, I was leading the press box and McMahon was walking along with 3 or 4 guys – Davis was one of them, a couple of other assistant coaches for the Chargers; Jack Faulkner, who became the head coach and I am trying to remember who the other one was. But anyway, he introduced me to Al. Over the next couple of years, I got acquainted with him, wrote about him. He was made Commissioner of the American Football League in Houston, I think in the summer or early fall of 1966. It was famous for a fight between Jack Gallagher, sports columnist at the Houston Post, and Bud Adams. Al Davis actually broke up the fight. The other singular distinction he had during those winter meetings, the League meetings . . . he called me and offered me a job on his staff in New York. Interesting, going back to Clark Nealon who was still there, Clark had always told me that someday, I had to go to New York – that is where all writers went to die or go to heaven. But I had just become sports editor of the Post and was finishing my first year and I told Al, “Could I have a few days to think about it?” He said, “I will call you Tuesday at 7 o’clock.” So, I gave him a number in the library which would be closed at 7 o’clock and I would have some privacy, and I said, “I’ll be on this extension.” He called and he said, “What is your answer?” I had thought about it and talked to my wife and I said, “Al, I’m coming with you.” And then, there was a pause on the line and he said to me . . . Al, of course, had been the coach of the Oakland Raiders after he left San Diego and became the general manager of the Oakland Raiders and coach and then the Commissioner of the American Football League. So, now he offered me a job and maybe I answered too quickly because there was a pause on the phone and he said, “Mickey, can you name the offensive line for the Denver Broncos?” I laughed and I said, “Al, can anybody? If I need to look it up, I’ve got a little brochure, a press guide in my desk and I could get it to you in 30 seconds.” But he said, “O.K., be in New York on June 15,” or whatever. I went up there and was on his staff. A great story. He left within 6 months because the leagues merged and Rozelle was going to the commissioner of both leagues. So, Al went back to Oakland as a managing general partner.
The night before he left, he went to the office of everybody who was still in the building and gave everybody a 2 year contract. The merger had not been announced yet and nobody knew whether they were going to be out of a job or whatever but he wanted everybody to have the security of at least a 2 year contract. After that, the next day, there was a press conference and Al came into my office to say goodbye. Joe Foss had been the Commissioner of the American Football League, war hero, South Dakota governor, great guy, and he had a bad back and he had a rocking chair. He had left that chair in my office. I don’t know who was going to end up with it but I had it and people always gravitated to it because it was just fun to sit there and rock. So, Al sat in that rocking chair. I had only been there like 6 months or so and I was still just moving papers from one pile to another to look like I was busy because most of my job was just having lunch with the executives at NBC. But Davis sat there and I sat there and I didn’t know what to say, so there was a moment of silence or several moments and finally he said, “Mickey, I hope that someday, someplace wherever you are, wherever I may be, you will have a reason to think something nice about me.” And I don’t claim that a little puddle of moisture formed in my eye but I was touched and I said, “Al, I’ll never have any reason to think anything but nice things about you.” And he threw back his head and laughed and said, “I was just kidding.” And I said, “So was I.” But we remain good friends to this day.
JB: Tell me about when the focus of sports coverage in Houston started to change from covering the junior high schools to . . .
MH: Well, obviously there was this quantum leap from the intimacy of high school football being as important as it was, Rice Institute then being the premier beat in town, and then the arrival of Major League baseball with the Houston National League franchise and the Houston Oilers and the American Football League and all of their rough struggles in the early years playing in a high school stadium and trying to get into the Astrodome; the wars between Judge Roy Hofheinz and Bud Adams. And then, the arrival of the Houston Rockets in which I had a small role but kind of a key one. Wayne Donaldson, Billy Goldberg. Wayne was a real estate developer and very respected. Billy Goldberg was a banker and political figure in Houston and very well known . . . put together a group of distinguished Houstonians including Bob Lanier who had become mayor of the city and Judson Robinson, city councilman; Ralph Cooper who was the son-in-law of, I think George or Herman Brown of Brown & Root, and Wayne and Billy and I went to San Diego and negotiated the deal to acquire the San Diego Rockets. Oddly enough, they were in San Diego on the shore, had nothing to do as far as I could tell with the Space Program but they were called the Rockets, so we bought that team, moved them to Houston, they became the Houston Rockets and have been here ever since. That would have been the 1971-1972 season.
When we got Major League sports, everything changed. It changed from the standpoint of the coverage. The colleges and the high schools moved down a notch and the local sports, amateur sports, junior high school sports, virtually disappeared from the sports pages altogether. Initially, there wasn’t the kind of culture or financial gap that you see today. The highest paid player on the Houston baseball team is making $30,000 a year and sportswriters are making maybe $12,000 to $15,000. Maybe one or two would be making $17,500 or $20,000. But there wasn’t a huge bridge, so you did not have the class hostilities that you have today when athletes are making $10 million, $15 million and some make $20 million to $25 million a year. And writers have made some progress but doing well to do early six figures. The other thing was that you had a lot of camaraderie that went with that lack of class rivalry or whatever. You would sit with the players on the planes, you traveled with them on the planes, you traveled with them on the busses, you had breakfast and lunch or dinner and you would be involved in practical jokes and sometimes you would be involved in keeping confidences. And you shared some really close friendships that, in some ways, lasted as long as their careers or yours. It does not happen that way today. I think some writers feel like they have relationships with athletes because they don’t punch you in the nose or they will talk to you in the locker room but you don’t see them after the ballgame is over and after the stadium has emptied out and the echoes have faded away. But, in those days, you actually not always formed a friendship, sometimes you formed hostilities but at least they were close and they were ongoing.
JB: So, tell us what you remember about Judge Roy Hofheinz and the coming of the Astros.
MH: It was a story I was very close to because I was sort of adopted by the catalyst for that campaign who was a former newspaper man and magazine writer, George Kirksey, going into the public relations business. Kirksey would encourage me to be at the Judge’s mansion which was also his business headquarters and became the headquarters for the Houston effort to get into the National League. Of course, anyone who knew him considered Judge Hofheinz to be a genius and certainly a visionary and a man who created, imagined and developed the Astrodome – whether or not it was the 8th wonder of the world, it changed the architecture of sports forever.
JB: What did you call it? What was that term you used?
MH: I called it the “big blister,” or the “big bubble.”
JB: You said it looked something like . . .
MH: An overturned cereal bowl or a coffee cup.
JB: You said it looked like the end of a stick deodorant.
MH: Yes, that’s right. You have a better memory for what I wrote than I do. It is funny the things that people quote back to you and that is one of the lovely things about having had a chance to write about sports because it touches people so deeply. There was a writer for the Los Angeles Times, George Lederer, who later taught journalism at UCLA; he would always quote a lead that I had written about a Dodger/Astros game in the Astrodome, a Saturday night. I did not even remember it until somebody told me about George always using this in his class every semester. He would hold it up as an example to his students. The lead was just this simple: “The Houston Astros held Sandy Koufax to a 3 inn-er Saturday night.” And that was the lead. Of course, he was coming off a one-hitter and a no-hitter, so it was a pretty good night’s work for them.
But back to the Astrodome, I was in a very small group the day Judge Hofheinz changed the future of the ball club and the franchise when he fired Paul Richards, who had been the first general manager to put a team on the field. We went over to the Shamrock Hilton Hotel and Paul and George Kirksey and Craig Cullinan and people who had sided with Richards, and there was another group that sided with Judge Hofheinz. And Kirksey said to Richards, “Well, Paul, the Judge is his own worst enemy.” And Richards took a slug at his drink and said, “Not while I’m alive, he isn’t.”
JB: What was the dispute about?
MH: Richards wanted to have control of the ball club as general manager but he also wanted to play golf and he would leave the office around 3 o’clock in the afternoon and Judge would come looking for him and they would say he was on the golf course. But it all went back to the first day that Paul was hired and his first press conference, and somebody asked him how long he thought he would be the general manager of the Houston Astros, and his answer was “Right up to the day that the Judge decides he knows more about baseball than I do.” It worked out sort of that way.
JB: What is the real story about the Colt .45s becoming the Astros? Was that a trademark thing?
MH: It was a trademark thing. I guess it would be nice if people believed there was something more conspiratorial but what actually happened was there was a contest and the Colt .45s was the second or third choice. Mavericks was one of the top two choices but there had been a team named the Mavericks that had been kind of a Minor League Basketball franchise in Houston when they had leagues that preceded the American Basketball Association. So, they avoided that and the contest got ____ but the name that actually would have been the team’s nickname was the Ravens, and this was way before the Baltimore Ravens. But Houston was the southernmost city in Major League Baseball now and there was a real concern about how segregation and integration would play out in the drawing capacity of the team and the acceptability of the team, and frankly, there were people who thought that the word “ravens” would be misused and mistaken by people, and that an alternative name for the Ravens would be the Blackbirds. And so, as crude and as strange and as distant as that would sound today, that was the reason for moving to the Colt .45s.
They loved the idea of having a nickname – “they” being the front office, the management and ownership – having a nickname that identified Houston and Texas with its Wild West roots and the gun that won the West. And that was terrific for the first two years and then the Colt .45 Company – I don’t know if it was Remington or actually the Colt .45s, if there was a company called the Colt .45s or the Colt Remington Company – they began to feel like there was enough publicity deriving from that name that they should be paid for it. So, they asked the Judge to sit down and negotiate a rights payment for the Houston licensing of that name. The Judge did not like the name anyway and did not want to be identified with the Wild West. He wanted to be identified with that big construction that was going on in Clearlake and Webster and that was the Space Program. So, he was eager and delighted to be able to use that as an excuse to get rid of the name of the Colt .45s and a big press conference, a big unveiling, and the new name was the Houston Astros. And when somebody asked Judge Hofheinz why the Astros and not the Astronauts, he said, “I knew that the headline writers on the copy desks of the newspapers would immediately shorten the name from astronauts to Astros so I did it for them so it couldn’t be shortened further.” And the next time anybody had a chance to write a headline about the Houston baseball team; for example, going to spring training, the headlines said, “’Stros open training camp tomorrow,” or today, and they shortened it anyway.
JB: Tell us something about the founding of the AFC.
MH: Are we talking about the Oilers?
JB: Yes, the Oilers and the . . .
MH: The whole league?
JB: Because they were intertwined so much.
MH: Yes, well, you know, it started with Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams. Both tried to buy the Chicago Cardinals who were the other team in Chicago and, in a very short time, moving to St. Louis because they were simply not able to compete with the Bears for the fans and for the coverage and exposure in the Windy City. But George Halas owned the Bears and made it very clear to Lamar Hunt and Adams independently of each other – they did not know that they were both negotiating to try to buy the team. I am sorry, Halas on the Bears but the Wolfner family owned the Chicago Cardinals. And both Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams independently of each other had talked to the Wolfner family -- Walter Wolfner was managing it for the family – and the Bidwells were the next generation. Wolfner was willing to sell it to a group from Texas but only willing to give up 49% but willing to move the team to Dallas or Houston but with 51% ownership and control. So, neither Lamar or Bud would accept that deal. And it turned out that in talking to Wolfner, wanting to make the team as marketable as possible, mentioned 3 or 4 other wealthy sports fans and sportsmen who had expressed an interest in the team. And as Lamar described it later, flying back from Chicago to Dallas one day, he thought, you know, why can’t we start another league? I’ve already got the names of 6 or 7 guys who want teams, who wanted that team and there are 2 teams in baseball – the American and National Leagues – why can’t we do one for football? So, he and Adams knew each other well, their families knew each other, but they had not met. He called Bud and asked him if he could fly to Houston to meet. They did. They had dinner and talked about everything except football. Bud drove him out to the airport and as he was getting out of the car, he said the reason he wanted to meet with him was talk to him about starting a new football league, knew that he had tried to buy the Chicago Cardinals, and Lamar had and Bud had made the same attempt and had the same result, and asked him if he would be interested in coming in with him. And Bud said, “Count me in.” And so, then they started bringing in people like Barron Hilton in Los Angeles and Ralph Wilson who wanted a franchise in Miami but settled for one in Buffalo. Billy Sullivan in Boston which became the New England Patriots. Bob Howsam in Denver. Guys who later became known as the “foolish club” because everybody thought they were crazy.
Another myth is that they bought their franchises for $25,000. The fact is $25,000 was the deposit or good faith money they put up to sit at the table. And, you know, immediately they had to come up with $250,000 and all of them lost $1 million or more the first year. A famous story about when it became apparent to people in the National Football League that this league . . . there had been attempts to start rival leagues 2 or 3 times. The All-America Football Conference notably had failed but it lasted for about 4 years. But the League began to worry when they saw an interview with H.L. Hunt, Lamar’s father, and a writer for one of the Dallas papers said, “Mr. Hunt, your son lost over $1 million this year investing [in the then Dallas Texans of the American Football League].” He said, “At that rate, how long can he stay in the League?” Mr. Hunt thought for a second and said, “Well, that is a lot of money. At that rate, Lamar wouldn’t last more than 150 years.” And so, when the NFL saw that interview, they thought we may have a problem with these people. They may have a little more staying power. And Adams actually was one of the guys who was really willing to put his money up. He was the guy that signed the marquis name, Billy Cannon, the Heisman Trophy winner in 1960 from LSU, outbid the Los Angeles Rams whose general manager at that time was Pete Rozelle. Signed him under the goalpost of the Sugar Bowl when LSU played at Old Miss. It was funny because Adams tried to get him for weeks or months to negotiate after they had their first draft and could not reach him. And finally, he called the LSU strength coach, conditioning coach, and told him that if he could find Billy Cannon, to tell him he understands that he has talked to the Rams but whatever the Rams have offered him, he would double it. Adams went home and he told Nancy, his wife, to stay off the phone, that he was going to get a call from Billy Cannon within the hour. And about 30 minutes later, this chirpy voice comes on the line, a collect call, “Mr. Adams, will you accept the charges, a collect call from Billy Cannon in Baton Rouge?” And he said, “I certainly will.” This voice came on the phone and said, “Mr. Adams, how are you? I have been trying to get ahold of you.” And they made the deal. It actually came to about a $100,000 package, a $15,000 or $30,000 a year salary and a bonus for signing for 3 years, and when they got the terms agreed upon, Bud said very kind of randomly, casually, “Billy, have you signed a contract with the Rams?” There was a little hesitation and he said, “Yes, I have Mr. Adams. Do you think that is a problem?” And Bud said, “I think we can work our way around it.” So, it went to trial, went to court, litigation of course, and the case was assigned to the courts in Louisiana. They found in favor of Billy Cannon and the Houston Oilers. And so, Cannon became the first really college marquis name and the Oilers got the other one who was George Blanda who had played quarterback for George Halas; who actually had been quarterback for Bear Bryant at Kentucky. Had also played linebacker for Bear Bryant.
JB: Those were the days of the two ways, right?
MH: Those were the days when you played both ways, 60 minutes. He played for the Bears. They had Johnny Lujack, they had George Ratterman, and Blanda was the number three quarterback. They were losing badly though one game and Blanda actually quit because he was not getting to play. Halas just wasn’t going to play a rookie and he wasn’t going to play Blanda ahead of the guys he already had. They were getting beat badly in the second half of a game and Blanda was sitting on the bench with his helmet at his feet as he usually sat and in the stands, they started to chant, “We want Blanda. We want Blanda.” George told the story. Halas looked down at the bench and yelled, “Blanda, get over here.” Blanda grabs his helmet, runs over to Halas and Halas tricks his thumb and says, “Get up in the stands, they are calling for you.” So, after that season, Blanda quit, and to keep him from going to another team, Halas paid him a salary and he went to work for a trucking company and he was a free agent when Adams and the Oilers came along and offered him a job as the quarterback of the Oilers. He was the other big name and one of the early stars of the American Football League. What it amounted to, not necessarily I think . . . it was important that the owners had money and had staying power. Not all of them had money. Billy Sullivan had been a sports publicist and had to borrow every dime he put in that team. But what it was, was the hunger, the appetite for football fans in developing major cities around the country who wanted professional football, who wanted a piece of that action. And, you know, there were only like 8 teams in the National Football League and there were a lot more great football cities than that. They were all in the East until the Rams and the 49’ers moved out of the West. There was an explosion coming in pro football and the American Football League helped accelerate that.
JB: Wasn’t the tipping point when the AFL got a television contract?
MH: A television contract with NBC. That was like $32 million, $36 million in there somewhere and that underwrote the next 3 years for the teams, that they knew they wouldn’t go broke, they knew they could go out and sign players and compete with the NFL. And that is when the NFL realized they had to make a deal, that both leagues, would be bankrupt if they started trying to outbid each other for players. But the stories were so wild, Jim. Every team had bird dogs and scouts and babysitters – guys who would go to the towns where their college draft choices lived and stayed with them until they got them into camp, not just got their contracts signed – that meant very little in those days – but they had to get them into camp. I remember one guy ended up at the wedding of one of the players and one guy ended up in the funeral of a family member of one of the players. He helped carry the coffin. And players would get notes from waiters, from a scout sleeping in his car in the parking lot telling him what the other team was going to offer. Kansas City did this one time. And a player like Otis Taylor . . . I wouldn’t swear it was Otis but someone of that caliber, he actually climbed out the window of his motel room to go get the offer from the Kansas City Chiefs over at the NFL team that he picked. And, you know, Tommy Nobis of the University of Texas had been drafted by the Atlanta Falcons and the Houston Oilers and Adams got one of the astronauts, they were orbiting the moon and got one of the astronauts to send a message to Nobis to please sign with the Oilers. It was very dramatic and theatrical but Nobis signed with the Atlanta Falcons anyway.
JB: What was the big conflict between Judge Roy Hofheinz and Bud Adams about . . .
MH: Money. The Judge wanted to charge Adams, and for all I know, that may have been the terms they finally agreed to, 17-1/2% rental, and a very low percentage of concessions and parking for the Oilers. The problem was that the Oilers had taken an equal role in getting the revenue bonds passed to build the Astrodome. And, in fact, the football vote probably swung it and Adams made a lot of effort and turned out a lot of votes to get the bond issue passed to build the Astrodome with the expectation they would be equal partners. Adams made a strategic error in that he had a chance to get the lease to the Astrodome and did not want the responsibility. Bud had 20 companies he was running then in the oil and gas business and pipeline business. And so, he let the Houston Sports Association – he was a member of it but Hofheinz controlled it – let them have the lease. Judge Hofheinz was the emperor of all he surveyed and had plans for an amusement park and hotel complexes, all of which happened, and treated Adams and the Oilers like a tenant. And when it came time for Adams to take his role as, he thought, the co-inhabitant of the magnificent new domed stadium, basically, the Judge offered him the same terms he would have offered you or me if we wanted to hold a bar mitzvah in the Astrodome, and that was 17-1/2% and you would keep a little bit of the popcorn and Cracker Jack money. Adams was finally able to play a couple of seasons at Rice Stadium and he played a couple of seasons at the high school stadium and finally, they all realized they needed to have the football team in the Dome, the fans didn’t like it, everybody was hurting as a result, the baseball team needed the rental income and Adams needed the accommodations. And so, they worked it out. I don’t think there was really any bad blood after they once had that reconciliation because they were both fairly hard-nosed business men and able to put those things behind them and move ahead but, you know, they weren’t drinking or lunch buddies.
JB: Adams had a contentious relationship with the City of Houston.
MH: It was a strange circumstance, really, because I don’t think in my lifetime, I’ve known a major figure in sports, particularly an owner, that was as misunderstood and as little appreciated as Adams. He had an unfortunate tendency that when things went well and good news happened and they won a championship or signed somebody important, he would disappear. And when he had to fire somebody or there was a crisis in the administration of the team, Bud would go to the press conference and get hammered by the questions. So, it was a Pavlovian kind of thing where the fans got to associate Bud with bad news and somebody else with the good news that happened and that team over the years had a fairly decent record in Houston, even though they broke a lot of hearts a lot of seasons. But Bud was not seen as an articulate showman, guy with some showmanship, although, in the early years of the AFL, he was really one of the more visible figures and one of the more fascinating ones, and one of the more aggressive owners in terms of carrying the battles of the National Football League. But that unpopularity, and I will say this . . . I talked to Adams about it and he said he never really saw signs of it; that the fans who came up to him always thanked him for bringing pro football to town and wished him luck. And he understood though that there was another side and he had a sense of humor about it. I was stuck in traffic one night and he was on the radio being interviewed by one of the sports talk shows. A guy called in and said, “Mr. Adams, I would like to ask you a question about this: You have had these coaches,” and he rattled off a list of 6 or 8 coaches that Bud had hired and fired, “and you have had these general managers,” and he rattled off the names of 6 or 8 general managers that Bud had hired and fired. He said, “Mr. Adams, my question is, are you crazy or what?” Adams laughed and said, “Maybe so. Maybe so.” It wasn’t by design. He offered the job to Tom Landry when they started the team. I don’t know if Landry would have been gone 4 years if they had had losing seasons. Of course, they didn’t. They had the best team in the American Football League. But Bud always said if Landry had taken the job, he might have had the same coach for 25 years. But, as it happened, for one reason or another, the first 3 years, they had 3 different coaches and that sort of set the tone for the turmoil in the franchise.
JB: When did you basically change from being sports editor to a columnist?
MH: It was after I did accept the job to go to New York as Director of Public Relations for the American Football League to work for Al Davis. Even though I had a contract to stay there, I also had an offer – grateful to have it – from Pete Rozelle to work in the National Football League office. The Post had called and Bill Hobby was the editor then . . . they gave me a contract the day I left Houston that was good for 1 year Mrs. Oveta Culp Hobby told me, to bring me back to Houston as an assistant managing editor if, after 1 year, I wanted to come back to Houston. So, I kind of had that in my back pocket when I went to New York which was sort of a nice insurance policy. So, the day the merger was announced, Bill called and asked me if I wanted to enforce that contract and come back to Houston. I said, “Bill, I think that is what I want to do but I do want to stay through the year, at least finish the experience of being in New York and being in professional football.” So, I did stay through the Super Bowl and did finish that year and then came back to Houston. The person I had had as my assistant sports editor had moved into the sports editor’s job so I was assistant managing editor supervising the sports department but not officing in the sports department, just to kind of keep those lines clear. That was really the next development. Briefly, I wrote a features column, Jim, that was on the front page of the Features section. It was because there was a sot of feeling that it probably wasn’t the smartest move for me to move right back into the sports department since other people were carrying on things that I had covered or written about, but it was obvious that it was going to be easier for me to do what I needed to do or could contribute to the paper to go back to sports. So, I came back from New York, back from the football league and went back to writing a column. In those days, I think we were writing 5 days a week but very shortly, we started going to a 3-day-a-week cycle. We had, I think, at least 3 columnists, maybe even 4, so we had 1 or 2 columns every day in the paper.
JB: I remember Leon Hale telling me that he was having to write 7 days a week there for a while.
MH: I can’t even conceive of that but I don’t doubt it, yes.
JB: So, tell me about leaving the Post and going to the Chronicle.
MH: Well, I was traveling when the deal closed for the Chronicle to acquire the assets of the Post and I came back home from a trip and it was the night before the announcement. I had about 10 voicemail messages, people wanting me to call them. I started returning the calls and they said, “They are going to announce tomorrow that the Chronicle has bought the Post and is going to shut it down.” I said, “That’s absurd. I can’t even conceive of that. I had not heard a thing about it.” You know, it was kept very quiet and if it hadn’t been kept so quietly, I think Dean Singleton and the Post would have gotten an offer equal to what the Chronicle would have had from investors in Houston who would have wanted to keep the paper going. So, they had to keep it quite to keep from a bidding war breaking out and that was a condition of the sale. The next highest offer was from the Bielo (sp) family in Dallas. But I hadn’t heard a word. And so, I was assuring everybody that it was just so much hokum and that there wouldn’t be any announcement and then I said, “And besides, if the Hearst Corporation bought the Post, why would they shut it down? Why wouldn’t they want to keep one as a morning paper, one as an afternoon paper and have a monopoly in both time cycles?” But the next morning at 10 o’clock, sure enough, they made the announcement and gave everybody until 5 o’clock to clear out their desks. I had another career going, as you know, in writing books and always had at least one and sometimes two contracts that I would be behind a deadline on. I was in a position not to make a move right away and do not know if it would have been a good thing, in any case, that the Chronicle was taking on a lot of debt buying the paper and did not really want to take on a lot of Post employees. Jack Loftis was the editor and we did talk and I recommended 5 people including one of the most important, Pat Robertson, who was the secretary to the editor.
I said, “If you don’t hire Pat, you won’t have any institutional memory of what has gone on at the Post for 20-25 years.” And the others were Ken Hoffman and Cliff Pugh and Ernie Williamson, and all of them did wind up there – a couple of others. It was a strange situation and I really felt like I had an income that could support me. There were 80 or 100 more editorial people, writers, friends, coworkers, who were out on the street looking for a job and not knowing if they were going to find one because there weren’t more opportunities coming up, there were fewer. The newspaper field, of course, was shrinking badly. And so, I did not want to jump to the other paper, the Chronicle, while there were so many people still looking for jobs. So, I focused on the books for 1 year and after that year, I missed writing the column and the Chronicle talked to me about doing a column a week and I did that for 1 year. When the end of that year came, I did not want to do it just one column a week. It was a Sunday column which meant I had to write it on Friday, so I really could not cover very much in the way of events. Once in a while, I would get sent out on assignment. So, we were going to dissolve it and Jack asked me to come on full-time and be a columnist and Dan Cunningham had the problem of fitting me into the schedule but I did and I had 10 really good years at the Chronicle, enjoyed it and got to continue writing about the people and the teams and the towns that had been a big part of my life. You always miss that when you leave it. But there was a little bit of a conflict for me with writing books and writing columns, and there always seemed to be kind of a clash when there would be a deadline on the book end and an assignment that I needed to do for the paper. I had an opportunity to go to Sam Houston State in what they called the Warner Endowed Journalism Chair, named after Phil Warner who was, at one time, the editor of the Chronicle and later a judge. So, I accepted the position of the journalism chair at Sam Houston State and have it, to this day, 5 or 6 chairs later. And, of course, it afforded me something the Chronicle could not do and that was 3 to 3-1/2 months a year of free time that I could work on a book.
JB: Are you still writing books?
MH: Still writing books. I always have a deadline or two that I am behind on.
JB: So, 51, is that a right number?
MH: Somebody counted them up and actually it is up to about 59 now. It is almost embarrassing to say that because it makes it sound like it is easy, like they roll out of a machine like gumballs. It is not easy, and you do a lot of bleeding and a lot of looking out the window and a lot of trying to make people happy and a lot of trying to keep editors from knocking at your door and storming the fortress and kicking in your television set. But I have been so fortunate, Jim, because I have had a chance to work with people who, at what they did, were one of the best that ever were. I did books with Leon Jaworski right after the Watergate story and scandal and resignation of President Nixon. I did books with a couple of astronauts - Walter Cunningham and Bernard Harris. And some of the most famous television figures – Dan Rather, Howard Cosell, Nolan Ryan, Mickey Mantle. I did a book with Blanda. Some wonderful, famous actresses – Bette Davis, Gene Tierney, Shirley Jones. Some Texas icons – Joe Jamal, one of the great trial lawyers. Red McCombs one of the major business figures in the state in San Antonio [whose] name is on the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas. Joe’s name is on one of the law school buildings. It has been a terrific experience and career for me.
JB: You did a biography of Prescott Bush _____.
MH: Yes, I did.
JB: And you also, as I understand, sort of did a biography of George W. Bush.
MH: I started it and almost finished it. It was actually a campaign memoir. Without going into too much boring and tedious detail, it was in 1999 when he was then Governor Bush and had announced for the presidency for the Republican nomination. And there were stories of a number of books coming out that would deal with unpleasant periods of his life and episodes. The campaign memoir was going to be kind of a defensive measure. The staff, his gubernatorial and campaign staff, really were against it. They really did not want him doing a book at all because they did not want something people could put a microscope to and pick over it. But, to his credit, Bush thought there was an advantage in it, that if it was handled right, it could be a positive for him. So, the idea was going to be that it would be 30% autobiographical and 70% his policy and position on issues. Without getting into confidences I have no right to break or share, there were some disagreements that grew out of things that were in the book. I feel comfortable in saying one example was Governor Bush, later President [George W.] Bush talked about his business career and said that he had started an oil company and another one that floundered. I got a call from the lawyer for the presidential campaign sort of taking me to task and objecting to that word, and said, “We don’t take the position that the Governor ever floundered in business. Our position is, for the book, that he was very successful at starting companies and creating equity for the stockholders.” I think they had meant, in most cases, that he was the stockholder and created equity, but the only defense I had was that that was his word, that he said they floundered. And when I mentioned that to the lawyers, they said, “He had no right to say that.” I thought, I am in the middle of a very funny squeeze here and it is probably not going to end real well, and it didn’t. That was O.K. The PR staff took over the book and came out and disappeared into some great dark hole.
JB: So, did you have to give the money back?
MH: I got some of it, but I will say this – I have no unkind ill feelings at all about George W. Bush and had the greatest warmth and affection in the world for his father and mother, former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, and I would visit with former President Bush just casually – an invitation in the mail or by phone – just to talk sports. He loved baseball. He was the captain of the Yale Baseball Team, first baseman. In 1948, he had the opportunity to accept the original manuscript of Babe Ruth’s autobiography written by who knows what writer. And probably Ruth never read it but he donated it to Yale Library and first baseman and captain George H.W. Bush accepted it on behalf of the Yale Baseball Team. I was in his office one day and it was after the experience of working on the book for the candidate for the Republican nomination and without any reference to that, former President Bush, the elder Bush, said, “You know, my father was a great man and no one has ever written anything about him. I wish someone would write a book about him.” So, I took that as kind of an encouragement or a hint, turned it over to a literary agent. A publisher came on board immediately. I spent some fascinating months going through archives in Connecticut and at the Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M.
Prescott Bush was an amazing man, a very modern and moderate Republican which might not be a popular position today but he was the first Republican to oppose Joe McCarthy. He and his wife, former President Bush’s mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, founded Planned Parenthood in Connecticut, which was an interesting part of their life and their stories. I could go on and on but just the kind of person he was and those genes were passed on to that family, especially to his son, George. For all of their clashes, and I don’t think there is any question that McCarthy tried to bribe Prescott Bush to stop criticizing him and criticizing his tactics, offered him a big campaign contribution. He turned it down when he was running for reelection for the Senate. And when McCarthy was dying of liver disease, liver failure from his alcoholism and was in the Bethesda Naval Hospital, Prescott Bush may or may not have known he was there but he was there for a routine annual physical checkup and as he was leaving the hospital, a nurse came up to him and asked him if he had a few minutes. He said, “Yes, of course.” She said, “Senator McCarthy would like to have you drop by and say hello.” And so, he went in and he visited McCarthy and they just chatted. Even though McCarthy was a vindictive man and a man who bore grudges very well and bitterly, he had so much respect for Prescott Bush that in his dying hours or days, welcomed a chance to have a visit and to talk a little bit with him. And so, that was one of the last memories, I guess, that Joseph McCarthy had, was seeing a guy that had not hesitated to oppose him when it was a very rare and unpopular thing to do.
JB: Looking back on your life, if I just did not know you and walked up to you on the street and said, “What do you do for a living?”, what would you say?
MH: I would say, I guess, that I wrote about sports. It is strange because now, I am actually lecturing at Sam Houston State. My primary class is a sports writing, sports broadcasting class. The other class is a magazine, an opinion column writing class. So, it fits very nicely into what I like to do. So, I still feel like I am sort of writing although I am talking about it rather than doing it, which I guess is almost a definition for academia, isn’t it? But one of the great compliments I have ever had in my life was the first semester I was there, we had to bring in extra chairs because so many young men and even young women wanted to take that sports writing class. Only about 4 schools in America ever even offered that. And I was on the second floor waiting for the elevator to go down to the first floor where my office was located and 3 of my students were walking down the hall away from me but I could hear them. One said to the other two, “You know, you get to talk sports with Mickey Herskowitz for an hour and a half two days a week and you get 3 hours of credit for that. How cool is that?” I know they didn’t know I heard them but I thought, man, I’m not going to get a bigger, better compliment than that.
JB: O.K., here is a philosophical question. Why is it that people who cover sports are called “writers,” and people who cover ____ are called “reporters?”
MH: Isn’t that interesting? Yes, you do hear sportswriters called reporters once in a while but mostly it is just sportswriters. I think it is because for centuries or decades or whatever, sports columnists and sportswriters did not do any investigative journalism. You really wrote for the home team and you were a cheerleader, in a large degree. Very little negativity, very little in the way of criticism. It began to change about the time I was growing up and writing about the early pro teams. I can remember one time writing about the very colorful, one of the early heroes of the Houston franchise, Turk Farrell – a big, strong, right-hander from Boston and his best friend, Jim Owens, they had been together in Philadelphia with the Phillies as part of what was called the “Dalton Gang”. They tore up many a bar. Jack Meyer was the third member of that group. Anyway, Owens was a relief pitcher and I had covered a game in which he had been pounded and had made a reference to Owens coming in from the bullpen and pouring gasoline on the fire. Not a phrase that you wouldn’t think would be . . . today, would be fairly commonplace but back then, not many people took any little slight digs intended to be funny or otherwise. So, we are flying back from Milwaukee and Owens and another player on the team were trading insults and one of them said something funny and I laughed and Owens said, “What are you laughing about, you little so and so?” and I said, “Well, it was funny, Bear.” His nickname was Bear Owens. So, he said, “Well, when we get to the stadium,” . . . that is where all the cars were parked and the bus was taking them, to the stadium . . . he said, “You can wait for me when we get off the bus because I am going to have to bust your nose. I was sitting with a player named Claude French Ramon who was from Canada, Montreal. And he kept telling me, “Don’t egg him on. He’s had a little bit to drink and you know how mean he can be when he drinks.” But I had learned something very early and that was even though the relationships were fairly calm and comfortable, you could not get the respect of the players if you really let them trample you. It had been bat day in Milwaukee and I had two little boys, 6 and 8, and whatever, so I had gotten two of these little miniature bats, one for each kid, and I made up my mind that I would wait for Owens and when he took one step off the bus, I was just going to hit him across the forehead with those two bats and do whatever damage I could do. And the guy who was sitting with me, Claude Ramon, was trying to convince me to get the hell out of there. I said, “No, everybody on the team has heard this and so I can’t do that. I’ve got to stand here and either we will talk our way out of it or we will work out way out of it one way or another.”
But I am standing there by those two bats, and they weren’t that small – I was feeling pretty comfortable about it because I knew how loaded Jim was. I waited and waited and he did not get off the bus. And finally, the back doors of the bus opened up and here came Owens. Farrell had him under his armpits and somebody else had him under his feet and they were carrying him off the bus and he just passed out cold. I yelled to Farrell, I said, “Tell Owens that if he regains consciousness, I was waiting for him at the front of the bus.” So, the last sight I had, I was on the loading dock, I was going to drive home with Gene Elston, the radio announcer who was terrific along with Milo Hamilton, and I saw Owens and Turk Farrell driving off through the parking lot which already had developed some potholes. And Farrell’s right rear tire was flat and he had taken off before Owens got all the way in the car. So, he is hanging out the right front door, the tire is flat and they are bouncing along those potholes with Owens going up and down with that door swinging halfway closed and halfway open all the way across the parking lot. Well, three weeks went by and I managed to avoid him and I am walking through the locker room going down to the tunnel to the dugout and it is just Owens and Farrell. Best friends. Lockers next to each other. Kind of a classic, typical writer/athlete/jock story. But I am walking to the clubhouse and trying to make a B-line for the tunnel so we would not have to exchange words and this voice said, “Mickey. Mickey.” And I turned and I said, “Yeah, Jim?” He said, “You got a minute?” I said, “Sure.” I walked over and he said, “I just want to tell you, I just want to say, I want to let you know I am sorry about that incident coming back from Milwaukee.” And before I could even say, “Oh, it’s O.K., Jim, forget it,” Farrell said, “Well, you S.O.B., you are always sorry after it happens.” But after that, we were okay. We were always friends. But no matter how small or tall or wide, you had to sooner or later stand your ground for the guys you covered and, you know, if you gave them respect, they gave you respect back.