Like the locker room of the World Series champions or the Super Bowl winners, the second-floor mezzanine of The Kansas City Star probably was the scene last night of champagne corks flying and reporters and editors spraying each other with the traditional celebratory beverage.
If it wasn’t, it should have been: The Sports Department learned yesterday that it was one of three papers to win sports journalism’s biggest award for its work in 2012.
The Associated Press Sports Editors voted The Star as a winner of its “Grand Slam” competition. That is, The Star was named one of the top 10, large-circulation newspapers in each of four main categories: daily sports section, Sunday section, special sections and website content and presentation.
It is a tremendous triumph for the paper, especially considering that the only other two papers to gain Grand Slam status last year were the Washington Post and The New York Times. The air is mighty thin at the top, and that’s where The Star’s Sports Department has stood for the last 15-plus years.
In a sports-section story today, sports editor Jeff Rosen said, “We’re not in this business to win awards, but it’s a tremendous honor to score The Star’s first Grand Slam.”
The quality of the sports section is something that, I’m sure, a lot of readers take for granted. The sports section’s rise to the top has been gradual, for the most part, and it’s worth taking a look at the modern history of the sports section and how it climbed into the top ranks nationally.
In most cases, the stature of a paper’s sports section coincides with the caliber of its columnists. For the most part, that is the case with The Star.
When I was hired as a general assignment reporter at The Star in 1969, Joe McGuff was sports editor and sports columnist, and his name was uttered with reverence. He was a clear-headed thinker and straightforward writer whose honesty and dedication to Kansas City and its betterment were unquestioned.
His greatest hour came in 1968-69 when he played a huge role in convincing the executives at Major League Baseball to locate an expansion team in Kansas City. That, of course, came on the heels of the late Charles O. Finley owner of the Kansas City Athletics, moving the team to Oakland.
Not since then, and probably not before, has a sports writer or columnist stepped so far beyond the customary trappings of his job. As far as Kansas City was concerned, McGuff might as well have been “St. Joe” after that.
Another great Star sports columnist in the 1960s and 70s was Dick Mackey. Another not afraid to leave the comfort zone of sports, Mackey set sports aside the day after Martin Luther King’s assassination (April 4, 1968) and wrote about King and the nation’s shock.
Metaphorically, Mackey later drove himself into the ground: In a state of exhaustion and with an ulcerated stomach, he collapsed in the back of a cab in Memphis and died. That was in the late 70s.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the featured columnist was Jon Rand, another straight shooter, who came to The Star from the Miami Herald. He wasn’t a flashy writer, but readers could rely on him to give them informed opinions. The most memorable line that I recall of Rand’s was a year or so before The Chiefs hired Carl Peterson as general manager and Marty Schottenheimer as coach. The front office was led by Lamar Hunt’s old buddy, Jack Steadman, who was never popular with the fans.
“This fish stinks from the head down,” Rand wrote one day, capturing the sentiment of the entire city.
Gib Twyman was another outstanding columnist. A born-again christian, he was genuinely empathetic with people who were experiencing difficulties, and he frequently digressed from the sports scene. He wrote several extremely touching columns, I recall, about the Thompson family after a Thompson daughter, Amy Thompson, was shot in the neck and paralyzed in a botched robbery on Halloween night 1986. Some friends organized the first Amy Thompson Run in 1988, and over the years it has raised more than $1.5 million to help people with brain injuries.
On Christmas night, 1989, Amy died of complications from her injuries.
Twyman, unfortunately, had a big problem making deadlines, and that resulted in him getting fired for plagiarism in 1994. He later redeemed himself as a reporter and columnist at a paper in Salt Lake City, before dying of a heart attack in 2001.
In the long run, though, it was not a columnist but an editor who took the sports section to new and spectacular heights.
In 1996, then editor Art Brisbane and managing editor Mark Zieman brought in a guy named Dinn Mann, who, at 31 years old, already had some notches on his journalistic belt. He came to The Star from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he was associate sports editor. Before that he had been sports editor at the Houston Post before it folded in 1995.
Mann also had a high-propane personality and some estimable blood lines: His grandfather was Judge Roy Hofheinz, a former Houston mayor, who built the Astrodome.
Mann only stayed at The Star for five years, but he brought the sports section into the 21st Century before the 21st Century arrived. It was he who introduced the snappy, funny headlines on the lead sports story of the day. It was he who pushed for award-winning special sections, and he who introduced many features that are still cornerstones of today’s sports section, such as the Five-Game Planner and expanded “On the Air” listings of sports on TV.
In addition, Mann hired columnist Joe Posnanski, who became the counterbalance for Jason Whitlock, whom Mann’s predecessor, Dale Bye, had hired in about 1994. It was at The Star that Whitlock and Posnanski found their voices and established their launching pads to bigger jobs. At The Star, Whitlock wielded the hammer, while Posnanski supplied the poetry.
Mann himself went on to an extremely big job in 2001 — founding editor-in-chief of MLB.com, baseball’s official website. Mann is still with MLB.com, which has grown to more than 100 employees.
When Mann left, his top assistant, Mike Fannin, became editor and kept the momentum going. After Fannin was named editor of The Star in 2008, the sports section went through a bumpy period. Fannin’s top assistant in the department, Holly Lawton, took the reins, but she left two years later, after allegations surfaced that she and Fannin had had an affair. About the same time, Whitlock left the paper after a blow-up with Fannin and perhaps Lawton.
The ship got righted late in 2010, however, after The Star hired Rosen as sports editor. For six years, Rosen had been deputy sports editor at the Houston Chronicle.
For the last couple of years, the public face of the sports section has been columnist Sam Mellinger, who combines Whitlock’s hammer with Posnanski’s poetry.
Already, Mellinger has established himself as a “destination columnist,” that is, someone who draws readers to the paper just for what he brings to the paper.
Headed by the team of Rosen and Mellinger, and buttressed by fine reporters like Blair Kerkhoff, Adam Teicher and Bob Dutton, The Star’s sports section should be solid for the near future.
Don’t be surprised if you hear about more “Grand Slams” down at 18th and Grand.