Welcome to the latest edition of the Fury Files, currently ranked 25th in Q&A RPI. If you have time to spare or want to abuse your printer privileges at work, check out previous editions with Tom Linnemann, John Millea, David Brauer, Joe Posnanski, Pat Coleman, Kevin Van Valkenburg, Michael Kruse, Chris Jones, Chris Ballard, Roland Lazenby and Will Leitch.
This week’s guest is Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse, a Minnesota newspaper legend and one of the best columnists in the country. I grew up reading Reusse’s stories and hearing classic stories about Reusse — my parents are of similar age and are also from Fulda, the small town in southwest Minnesota made somewhat famous in countless Reusse columns over the years.
Reusse got his start in newspapers just after high school, when he landed a job as a copy boy at the old Minneapolis Morning Tribune. His boss was a middle-aged guy who’d go on to become a rival, peer, foe, foil, subject, colleague and friend — Sid Hartman. That gig started a love affair with papers that continues 50 years later, even if the business looks nothing like it once did. After stints at the newspapers in Duluth and St. Cloud, Reusse came back to the Twin Cities in 1968, spending 20 years in St. Paul before switching to the Star Tribune in 1988.
Reusse worked as a beat writer in his early years — along with a brief tenure as a morning editor that, he wrote, was a “failure, since it put me in charge of my drinking buddies” — before becoming a columnist in 1979. Reusse’s a versatile writer, but there’s no doubt he excels at those pieces that are the most-read for any big-city newspaper columnist and attract the most praise or vitriol from readers and fans, depending on whether they agree with his view: the rip job. He wasn’t impressed with Gophers football coach Tim Brewster’s intro. He pleaded with the NCAA selection committee to keep the Gophers hoops team out of the tourney. He said goodbye to the Minnesota North Stars, those losers. Today’s Twins are a lot like the miserable Twins of the ’90s. Then there are the Turkeys. Since 1978, Reusse’s picked a Turkey of the Year and the committee’s decisions always spark controversy.
But a one-note columnist would become a boring read, and what sets Reusse apart from so many is his love of the stories that are rarely in the spotlight, along with his ability to spin yarns on everything from John Gagliardi’s retirement to the legendary Edgerton basketball team from 1960 to the Fulda-Slayton Goat to an old Star Tribune copy editor named Bud Armstrong. Read his piece on Walsh Field in Gaylord and his column on Danube legend Bob Bruggers. Or his column on the Vikings’ Weeping Blondes.
These days, Reusse spends more time on the radio than he does at the paper, as he’s a daily co-host on 1500 ESPN with Phil Mackey. Reusse’s an early sports-radio pioneer — he started in 1980 with longtime friend and fellow columnist Joe Soucheray, a combo that’s still on the air today. Anyone who’s heard Reusse tell a tale on the radio — which is often punctuated with his distinctive cackle — knows his on-air style is as unique as his written one.
Here, Reusse talks about his writing style, Turkeys, Sid, controversial columns, town team baseball, life in newspapers and radio, saying goodbye to Minnesota legends, what motivates him today, and much more. Thanks a lot for your time, Patrick.
Growing up in Fulda, were there any writers you read as a kid or any early influences who made you want to be a writer? Did you guys get any Twin Cities papers or was the Worthington Daily Globe the main paper? And growing up did you want to work in newspapers or was it a matter of falling in love when you got that job as a copy boy in 1963? If your dad doesn’t help you get that gig, what kind of occupation or career do you have instead? Or were papers always in your future?
We had home delivery of the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, the afternoon Star and the Worthington Daily Globe. I would look at the Tribune sports section before going off to school from about age 8, I would guess, but I really looked forward to the Star after school because it would have all the boxscores from the previous night’s games.
I would look at Sid’s columns, which contained mostly shorter notes than the string of quotes he uses today. I also would read Dick Cullum’s column. And Corky Brace was the sportswriter at the Daily Globe, and he wrote a column with notes from the area called “Brace’s Bits.’’ Always hoped to see a mention of Fulda athletics or Fulda Giants town-team ball in there.
A big thing was to read Ted Peterson’s Sunday notes column on high schools in the Sunday Tribune. Ted also covered town-team ball and my father knew him through that.
We were in Prior Lake by the summer of 1963. I had graduated from P.L. (only my senior year) and was going to the U of M. My Dad called Ted and hooked me up with a job answering prep calls a couple of nights a week at the Morning Tribune. That soon became four nights a week, and I loved the attitude of the people, and the excitement of making deadlines.
Before that, I had no idea of trying to get into newspapering. I was enrolled in Liberal Arts at the university. Which means, I didn’t have a hint where I was headed for a career before newspapers got in my blood.
I was 20 when I dropped out of the U and took a job as a sportswriter at the Duluth News-Tribune and Herald in January 1966 for the kingly sum of $76.04 per week ($64 even after taxes).
When did you find the “Reusse voice” in print? You mentioned in the last Random piece on 1500ESPN.com that you “can make a few detours while trying to make a point” when writing a column. That’s one of my favorite things about so many of your pieces (like, for example, a discussion of Aunt Peggy’s ’54 Chevy in a column about David Kahn). Sometimes it’s like a great Curb Your Enthusiasm episode where several different aspects come full circle at the end. Did you have a distinct style even as a young beat writer or even when you started a column or did it evolve over the years?
I wrote in the cliché-filled, pedestrian style that was the approach of most sportswriters that I read in the 1950s. That carried through my 4 months in Duluth, 2½ years at the St. Cloud Times and a couple of years as the main prep writer at the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch.
I became an overmatched assistant sports editor at the PP/D in September 1970 and started writing a Sunday column called “Reusse at Random.’’ I stretched things out a little with that, although there was no subtlety in my criticism of local sports figures. I was mostly an unlikable smart-ass in those columns, I would say.
I didn’t find a style of writing until I started traveling with the Twins in 1974 and being introduced to the daily work of other sports reporters and columnists around the country. I found out how to write on deadline and try not to be routine in my gamers and features during those five years on the Twins beat. I also was writing a couple of columns per week — general interest on Thursdays for the Dispatch and a baseball column (feature, not notes) that was basically year-round in the Sunday Pioneer Press.
The detours? I probably drifted into that when I became the five days a week columnist for the afternoon Dispatch in February 1979. There was no real editing by the old-timers on the Dispatch sports desk — they just wanted what I wrote to fit the hole, which was the same every day down the left 2 columns of an 8-column page.
So, I could write anything I wanted, in any style I wanted, and that’s when I started spinning yarns … more to avoid the routine (as I said earlier) than as a “style’’ that I embraced.
Did you ever have any desire — or receive any overtures — to leave Minnesota for a different market? Maybe someplace warmer or a bigger city or a national outlet? If so, what helped keep you in Minnesota?
Not many. A former boss in St. Paul tried to hire me at Sacramento, but I looked at that as a lateral move. I had a friend at the Arizona Republic trying to get me hired as a columnist there in the mid-’80s, but in the end, I didn’t really pursue it because of my feeling that local knowledge is the best thing a reporter can have going for him.
Also: Once I started making a decent amount of radio money in the early ’90s, I couldn’t afford to look around for another locale.
Couple of questions about the Turkey of the Year:
1. What was its origin? Was it something you had wanted to write for awhile or was there something specific that led you to starting it in 1978? Being that you didn’t become a columnist until February 1979, was there any issue about having a beat guy write a feature like that or did you already know you were going to start a column? (And for readers going through this list of past winners, they might not be aware that you awarded Woody Hayes even before he slugged a kid from Clemson. Has any other Turkey winner validated their selection so quickly?)
Thanksgiving Eve 1978. I was still drinking then, and Thanksgiving Eve was a big night for me and my Prior Lake pals. I had to write my weekly general-interest column for the Thursday paper, and wanted to get it done without attending an event on Wednesday night.
I was making the long drive from Prior Lake to St. Paul early in the afternoon, without an idea. I was trying to think of something that could be done off the top of my head, with no reporting required, so I could get back to PL and join the party.
From somewhere, the thought of sports jerks — turkeys — came into my head. It started as a one off, space-filler on Thanksgiving 1978 and the initial response (from editors and co-workers, more than the public) caused me to bring it back in 1979 … and forevermore.
Woody probably still wins the prize for validating the Turkey Committee, although I don’t have a copy and I’m not even sure references to the Committee existed in the original. As I say, it was written originally as a one off column to take care of my Thursday obligation at the time.
2. Any regrets about any Turkeys of the Year? Is there any chance the committee has ever gotten it wrong?
Maybe Lou Nanne, for personal reasons (he’s a good friend); mostly, putting Cris Carter in with Randy Moss as co-winners, rather than allowing Moss to stand alone; and never giving it to Chris Voelz, because it would have pissed off her and her ilk so much.
You’ve said the piece from Tom Kelly’s office after Game 7 of the 1991 World Series is your favorite column. What makes it the favorite — the moment itself, following the end of the greatest series ever; the writing; or that it’s T.K. basically as we never saw him, so different from the man we watched, listened to and read about for 25 years?
The magnitude of what had taken place 75 minutes earlier, the access that came from sitting in a corner quietly and seeing those personal moments; and, you’re right, the chance to present an unguarded Tom Kelly … because he was so incredibly guarded in his public moments in those days.
More difficult column to produce from a writing perspective: A rip job after a debacle by a local team or a piece after a great victory?
It’s become a tradition for me to be walking into Williams Arena or a Gophers football game and have multiple people say to me, “Write something good about them, Reusse.’’ If I bother to reply, I always say, “That’s not up to me. It’s up to them’’ — meaning the Gophers, or any other home team.
When I’m writing a column off a game, that’s truly my attitude: I don’t care if it’s a win or a loss, just so there’s an angle. And I don’t find one easier or more difficult than the other. The challenge as to how good it can be always has been based on how much access you can get to the principles after a game and still make the print deadline.
Which column sparked the biggest response? Although maybe this should be broken up into pre-Internet and Internet days. Is there anything that stands out from the snail mail-phone call-only days as being something that especially upset readers or fans?
There are two.
One, a column ridiculing Paul Giel’s tenure as athletic director at Minnesota when he was run off the job in the mid-’80s. For the ’50s generation, Giel was a Minnesota sports god, and they went bat-shit crazy … to the point Giel was allowed to have someone write a rebuttal that received better display in the next Sunday’s Pioneer Press than my original column had received.
Two, March 2, 1991. A collection of smart-aleck notes for a Saturday that included the ridicule of girls/women’s basketball and the timeless phrase “tip-toed ball throwing.’’ Hundreds of letters; demands for my firing; editorial page rebuttals (including a long piece by basketball dad, Don Shelby). Wound up writing a lukewarm apology a month later, after an earlier attempt at apology was rejected as being “too flippant.’’ Only column I’ve ever had rejected in total in 34 years of writing them on a regular basis.
You have 30-60 minutes of one-on-one time after a game with any coach or player in Minnesota sports history — pro, college, high school, whatever. Who are the five guys you covered who are giving you the best material?
1, Bud Grant (great, when interested). 2, Gene Mauch (great on a daily basis). 3, Jerry Burns (for stories and laughs). 4, Glen Sonmor (same as Burns). 5, Calvin Griffith (he told me story about being bat boy for the 1924 Senators, in Detroit a few minutes after Twins had won Game 5 to make ’87 World Series).
Sorry. No athletes on top 5. Paul Molitor was great because he was thoughtful. Pat Micheletti as a college hockey player. I enjoyed interviews with Jack Morris and Cris Carter, even though both could be dickheads. Kevin Garnett, in his early years. Puck … although it was more from observing his byplay than actually interviewing him.
Speaking of a writer’s voice, was it tough to figure out the Sid voice when working on his book with him? Did you two engage in much bickering during the process or was it relatively pain-free?
I tried to interview him chronologically and he was all over the planet. Finally, came up with a few dozen questions, with subclauses, much like you have here, had him talk into a tape recorder, and then paid to have them transcribed.
I set up the book more by topics than chronological, gave him a couple of chapters at a time, and then made whatever changes he insisted on … since it was his autobiography.
My grandpa Fury and his brothers were passionate town team baseball players in southwest Minnesota and I grew up hearing stories about amateur ball during the time your dad was running Fulda’s team. There are so many amazing tales from those days — from the games played in front of thousands of people, to the Negro League stars to Major League ballplayers. So a couple of questions on town team ball:
1. Is there any particular game from your childhood that stands out or had the league already started to fade a bit by the time you can remember?
I don’t remember 1948-52, when Fulda made a big push with paid players and my dad was very much involved, including as manager for what I think was three years. I do remember 1956, when they tried again, with my dad as the chief fundraiser and his best friend Joe Miller was manager. My dad lost a few thousand bucks and my mom was pissed.
Jack McCartan (from the U, and later a gold medal-winning goalie for the U.S.) and Don Brummer (from Creighton) were two of the paid players, and they were paid to also coach us in Little League baseball.
2. What’s your favorite Richard Reusse anecdote involving his days as the king of town team baseball, either something you saw yourself or even just heard about?
I’m thinking it was ’57, and he was just on the baseball board then, and they wanted to draw some people, so Richard and his henchman Sid Covert drove to Kansas City to hire a couple of “black’’ players … although they might not have referred to those individuals as “black’’ in Murray County in those days.
Richard and Sid met a couple of guys in a bar, and they were talking about their ball-field exploits … three, four home runs per game. So, Richard offered them a few hundred bucks, put them in the back of the station wagon and drove back to Fulda.
They were about at the Minnesota border when Richard and Sid realized they were importing a pair of softball players. They went ahead with the promotion — come see Cannonball Jameson and Triple Duty Duffy — with a day-night doubleheader on Sunday.
Giants lost 15-0 and 15-1, Cannonball and Triple Duty were put on a bus back to Kansas City, and my old man was almost lynched from a light pole on main street.
Two of the nicknames you’ve given yourself over the years — Confirmed Hacker and the Portly Scribe — are no longer applicable. Is there any chance the Hacker makes his return and tours Minnesota courses? And in a 2009 interview with David Shama you talked about your concerns with your weight. Was there any particular incident that led to the dramatic weight loss or did the concern of doctors and family members finally spark the change?
Confirmed Hacker is probably lost to the ages. Getting editors to provide space for it became a problem. And it was too much work — make the drives, play the golf, write five, six columns, all in a week — for the lack of enthusiasm from my bosses.
Weight: My wife had been on me hard for the past four, five years that I had to do something dramatic about my weight, and I finally did so last summer. I hope it keeps working.
You’ve written often about your love of newspapers — from the time you walked into a newsroom up through the industry’s current troubles and even after you asked for a buyout — but how did radio capture your interest? Was there a similar feeling the first time you sat in a booth and had access to a microphone and an audience? And how long did it take you to get comfortable with the format when you first started with Soucheray more than 30 years ago?
Honestly: Making a few extra bucks was original motivation for radio. Really enjoyed Monday Night Sports Talk and Saturdays w/ Joe. That was fun. Full-time radio is work … especially the 5:30-9 a.m. show for 13 months. I was more proud of the effort on that show with Jay Kolls, producer John Burns, plus Bob Berglund and Kenny Olson, than anything I’ve done in radio, but it was a bleepin’ killer.
How long did it take for the original Sports Show on Midwest Sports Channel from the mid-90s to come to life? Was the classic Sportswriters on TV with Telander, Jauss, etc., an inspiration? And were there any other media guys talked about for it or was it always going to be you, Sid and Dark?
The Sports Show started in May 1996. I still don’t know what the hell it was … or is today, w/o Dark. It started with Mike Max and Dark and, yes, at least from Dark’s view, much of the idea came from the Sportswriters Show in Chicago.
Maxie and Dark felt Sid was an absolute necessity to sell it to advertisers. And Dark brought me along because we were close friends … “like the brother I didn’t have,’’ Dark said to some people about our relationship, I found out after his death.
I admit to always looking forward to a column from you in the wake of the latest Gophers fiasco or another ludicrous moment in Vikings history. But so many of my favorite columns are when you write about the stories that don’t normally receive attention. Could be a story about a high school golfer or the St. Thomas basketball team or John Gagliardi or an old baseball ump. It’s where your storytelling skills really shine, and it’s something that I think is unique to big-city columnists. Many occasionally venture outside the big sports for a different type of story but they’ve always been a regular part of your columns. So, about those pieces…
1. Did you want to write those stories from the time you became a columnist or early on did you focus more on the pro sports and Gophers exclusively?
Yes. When you’re writing columns five days a week (and occasionally six), as I did at the start, you need a wide sweep to the columns. Plus, as a Minnesota boy, I had the realization the Twin Cities are filled with people from small towns, and with parents who grew up in small towns.
I was always proud to show off my knowledge of the entirety of Minnesota. It was my No. 1 advantage as a Twin Cities sports columnist, I felt.
2. Have you ever had feedback (or pushback) from editors about these types of stories? Especially with the way stories and clicks can be tracked online these days, have they ever wanted you to focus more on the pro sports that might bring in more views?
For the most part, editors love them. And I’m probably writing a greater percentage of small columns than ever, since I no longer travel, and I’ve never heard one mention of clicks.
3. Do you think growing up in Fulda played any role in you looking for those stories that aren’t always in the Twin Cities spotlight? As an outstate/Greater Minnesota guy I loved when a small school received attention or you wrote about amateur baseball. Or is that a bit too much pop psychology and it’s more about just wanting to find good stories?
You betcha. And, you betcha … finding a good story.
4. Related: You’re sort of the unofficial obituary writer for Minnesota legends, whether it’s prep ones like Pat Foschi and Steve Ostby or the one and only Dark Star. In Sid’s book you mention how editors go to him when they need the names of candidates for the U presidency. When Minnesota loses its memorable characters, have editors always turned to you to memorialize them? And, to play agent for a moment, any chance those might all be collected someday in a book?
There are the obvious obit columns that have to be written when a big local sports name dies. Pat Foschi, Steve Ostby, even Dark … that’s me. Editors have done very little pushing for obit columns from me through the years.
Secret: Even if you’re writing about a tragic circumstance, don’t make it maudlin, don’t tell readers how bad they should feel. Tell the story, make the person compelling, and let readers react as they wish. I hate stories or columns where the writer says, “This was so terrible,’’ or “so sad’’ … let the reader decide.
In that story with Shama, you talked about retiring at the end of your contract, when you’d be 66. That was in 2009, you’re now 67 and still churning out several columns a week, blogs and doing a radio show every day. For Sid’s book, you talked about trying to discover what motivated him. But how about your motivation? What keeps you going these days since it doesn’t seem you’re really ready to settle down? Is it still about finding great stories in the paper and telling great ones on the radio or, to paraphrase Gagliardi, are you worried about sitting around playing checkers with a bunch of old guys who can’t hear you if you ever stop driving yourself?
Retirement: I was 330 then. I’m 230 now. I’m better equipped to keep working, if I so choose. I’m signed with the Star Tribune through 2014. I want to hang in there at least through the Ryder Cup at the end of September 2016. That would be a great time to retire — with a Monday column the day after the Ryder Cup — but I’ll keep writing as long as the Strib will have me.
My radio contract is up on Oct. 31, 2013. Station is struggling against FM competition. I like my new shift — 3 to 6 p.m. — and my partner, young Mr. Mackey, but what lies ahead in radio, I have no idea.