‘How I wrote the story’: Parachuting into a strange town
Bill Plaschke’s mission was to make sense of a civic paradox in two days
Ever wish you could look over the shoulder of a writer you admired and ask him, “How the hell do you do that?”
This week we’ll try to create that effect with a 58-inch, off-the-news piece written by the L.A. Times’ Bill Plaschke. I’ll show you Bill’s analysis of his reporting and writing strategy in bold-faced segments interspersed between sections of the full story.
Background: In the spring of 1993, in the days before he became a columnist, Bill parachuted into Cincinnati, intrigued by civic support for the Cincinnati Reds’ owner, a strange old woman named Marge Schott, who had infuriated much of the nation with her off-the-cuff racist remarks. After the story ran, I asked Bill to break the story down. His self-analysis became part of a collection of three-dozen how-we-did-it essays by Times staffers distributed inside the paper that year.
Bill said he got the idea to do the Schott story as he was driving along a rural highway through Nebraska, en route to reporting another story:
BILL: I won’t fly in prop jets for a number of reasons, none of them rational, so I had four hours to listen to the radio on this long drive from Omaha west. I am a talk-radio freak, so I was turning the dial until, thanks to the cloudless sky perhaps, I picked up station WLW in Cincinnati. I heard a popular talk-show host defending Marge Schott and then challenging his listeners to protest against a certain black city councilman who protested Schott. ”Throw his black ass out of office,” was the direct quote.
I couldn’t believe my ears, and realized then that we should go there and write about this town that defends its apparently racist leading citizen.
The reporting was fairly simple: Fly in, interview everybody you see for two days, and then fly home. In order to help sell the trip to my bosses, I coupled the story with a stop in Cleveland for a tragedy-hits-baseball story about the deaths of two pitchers.
By the time I was preparing to leave Cincy, I had established in my mind that this town indeed loved Marge Schott, who’d been suspended from baseball for using racially derogatory remarks.
With that in mind, I asked some old-timers at the local newspaper — great sources for stories on smaller towns — for the location of a spot where Schott’s support could not just be documented, but breathed and smelled and felt. That place, my last stop, became the first stop in my story, the bowling alley.
When I was younger, I would almost always begin my stories with a scene-setter. But that tool became a crutch, and as I have gotten older, I try to use it only when the scene applies directly to the point of the story (No more blue skies unless I’m writing about pollution, for example.) In this case, I thought the bowling alley, and its vivid characters, would be the best place to start.
CINCINNATI — It is a weekday night at the Western Bowl & Cheyenne Social Club, where this west side neighborhood lets out its breath.
Bowling balls thunder down 68 lanes, chubby glasses clink together, sporadic cheers and laughter erupt from men crowded around poker games behind ball-return machines.
The feeling here, as in many such gatherings around these wooded hills, is one of a warm family reunion. The people glance at each other with tiny smiles that say there are certain things only they understand.
BILL: I wanted to paint what I felt — the paradoxical picture of a warm, almost loving enviroment where they love a woman who is considered by many to be the portrait of evil. That is why, after those three narrative grafs, I used an explanatory graf about Schott’s problems before dropping in the nut graf — ”And oh, how they love her.”
These days one of those things is the behavior of Marge Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, who has been suspended from major league baseball for one year for racially derogatory remarks.
Oh, how they love her.
BILL: As I get older, I think I get to the point of the story quicker and quicker, even in an involved feature like this one. Maybe because as an older reader, I just don’t have the time or tolerance to read long-winded exposition.
After the nut graf, I had to explain myself real quick, so I dropped in two quotes. The first quote, from Jerry Beale, is a two-graffer, longer than I like most of my quotes. But everything he said, I felt, was compelling. I hoped I wouldn’t lose the reader with it.
“Most everybody around here thinks Marge was treated wrongly,” said Jerry Beale, a middle-aged member of the Skippy Printing bowling team. “The things she said, she has always talked like that. In fact, a lot of us have always talked like that.
“You ain’t going to change her . . . or us.”
BILL: I had to use another quote so, symbolically, the reader wouldn’t think Jerry Beale was the only guy in the joint who felt that way.
Steve Ashworth, a purchasing agent who came to Western Bowl just to watch his friends, agreed.
“The stuff she said, it’s something that slips off everybody’s tongue,” he said. “Maybe not every day, but certainly once or twice a week. We just wish they would leave her alone.”
BILL: My next job was to back up the quotes which backed up the nut graf. So I explained what was going on in the rest of the town.
From the working-class west side spots to trendy downtown restaurants, where patrons were recently handed paper fans imprinted with Schott’s face, the evidence is clear.
From the words of encouragement that fill local radio talk shows to the presence of flower arrangements on her empty box seat opening day, the message is strong.
With her banishment, Schott’s popularity in Cincinnati has grown.
“Put it this way,” said Scott Ramsey, an electrician, “I don’t think anybody was passing out fans with Marge Schott’s picture on them last year.”
Never before in her eight seasons as principal owner–seasons marked by charges that she treats employees like dogs and her St. Bernards like pampered children–has she been so beloved.
BILL: Then I brought in statistics to back it up.
In the middle of the furor over her remarks, one local television station reported that of 10,000 responses to the question of whether Schott should abandon her office, 73% said no.
Two months earlier, when her statements first surfaced, only 31.9% of respondents to a Cincinnati Enquirer poll agreed with the statement that Schott was a racist.
BILL: Actually, the desk suggested that I bring in those stats at that time. I hate using stats high — my career as a baseball writer burned me out on them, sorry — but in this case, it made sense. It led to the one fundamental rule that I follow as I write these lengthy takeouts: As soon as you can, let the reader know what the heck you are writing about . . . and why.
After the stats, I tried to use quotes to explain the stats. This is all part of what I call a Cliff Notes lede: I get all my good stuff near the top of the story, everything backing up everything else. Put together, it quickly covers every major part of the story, sort of like a Cliff Notes of the story.
Some say the reaction is based on a problem that has long existed just beneath the surface of a city that is equal parts North and South, with a cosmopolitan downtown fringed by ethnic neighborhoods and small hill communities in nearby Kentucky.
“This is a racist city, this is a redneck city,” said Bill Spillers, general manager and publisher of the Cincinnati Herald, a black weekly newspaper. “It’s unfortunate, but it is very true.”
Others question the polls and say that Schott supporters are not condoning her words, only her works.
“All of those polls are totally unscientific, if they get the right answer it is just dumb luck,” said Al Tuchfarber, director of the Institute of Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati. “I have done many studies that show the people here are, in affirmative action issues, actually more liberal than the rest of the country.
“Most people thought what Schott said was terrible . . . but they don’t think that makes her a terrible person.”
Schott took over a struggling franchise in 1984 and put together a winning team with the second-highest payroll and lowest ticket prices in the major leagues.
She is baseball’s only owner who sits in the stands during every home game and signs autographs. She is the only owner who insisted on keeping the prices of hot dogs at $1 while raising the price of beer, because “the kids eat the hot dogs, and baseball is for kids.”
“People here think of Marge for her involvement in a lot of community activities, for her commitment to the baseball team,” said Roger Ruhl, vice president of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce.
About the only thing people can agree upon is that the community has suffered from a split that has even filtered into the Reds clubhouse.
Barry Larkin, a black shortstop, spoke out against Schott and received hate mail. Rob Dibble, a white relief pitcher, supported her and was embraced.
Most hard feelings have quieted since the start of the season. But in this city of 364,000, of which 38% are black, nobody has forgotten.
“This thing has been kept under cover for way too long,” said Tyrone Yates, a black city councilman who received death threats for condemning Schott. “The races here are superficially polite but substantially in conflict.”
BILL: Then once the Cliff Notes section is established, I go into what can be called a flashback mode, when I get into details about each section that has already been covered in the first 25-30 grafs (if it is a 60- to 70-inch story).
In this case, I began my flashback mode with an interview of Schott, done by the telephone when she was relatively coherent. She was the last interview I did for the story, and I did it after I got back to L.A.
I didn’t want to try to get her in person because she is the kind who would get scared that something was fishy if you tried to actually come to her house or meet her somewhere. I needed to make her feel like this was no big deal, or she would have run, like all athletes run if they think you are doing something big that is not exactly a puff piece.
I am one of the few people who even has her home phone number — we have talked before — and I figured the best way to get her undivided attention was via a call late one night (around 9 p.m. EST) when she was alone in her big house and perhaps wanted the conversation. More than anything else, she really is just a lonely old woman.
I got the interview and then sprinkled the quotes through the next 11 grafs as she explained something while cursing. That was so stereotypical of her, I figured the reader would relate.
Schott is not allowed in her Riverfront Stadium offices, nor in the stadium press box, nor the stadium dining room. Until today, she was not even allowed to sit in her front-row seat next to the Reds dugout.
Yet she doesn’t need to visit any of those places to understand her increased popularity. She just needs to go shopping.
Schott, 64, recently stepped out of her black Buick Riviera in front of a grocery store when a male fan, his hands filled with sacks, shouted at her from across the parking lot.
“He said, ‘ ‘F’ ’em Marge . . . just do to them what they did to you . . . just ‘F’ ’em,’ ” Schott said in a recent interview. “I thought to myself, these people are really neat.”
While she has not spoken to anyone in the organization since her suspension, Schott said her dog, Schottzie 02, has mailed a letter to Tony Perez, the Reds manager whose nickname is Doggie.
“The letter was from a dog to Uncle Doggie, I don’t think there are any rules against that,” Schott deadpanned.
Schott says she also is attending her diversity training courses, which are required as part of her suspension. Not that she always understands them.
“I spend two hours in a room talking with a black nun who wears the outfit but is not Catholic, a regular Catholic, and a guy who I think is Jewish,” Schott said. “I’m not sure what is supposed to be happening. Sometimes I think I am the one who is training them.”
Schott said she has spent most of her time in exile responding to the reams of supportive mail and numerous flower arrangements that have arrived at her east side mansion.
“One local company said they have never delivered so damn many flowers in all their life,” said Schott, noting that the level of her support did not surprise her.
“These people around here, they just have common sense,” she said. “They have intelligence.”
BILL: The Schott quote began my effort to establish her character, so the reader would understand the city’s reaction to her. This effort would continue, in various grafs and phrases, throughout the story.
I feel it is very important that if you are going to write about something that happens to somebody, you have to establish this person’s character so their reaction to the incident, and others’ reaction to them, can be understood.
After Schott’s quotes, I got into the history of the case. I always try to make this ”histories” section as quick as I can. I usually write the entire history, then cut it way down to just the important parts. This time, I got it in 10 grafs.
Schott has been accused of lacking both qualities since mid-November of 1992, when former Reds’ employee Charles Levy accused her of referring to former Reds players Eric Davis and Dave Parker as “million-dollar niggers.”
Levy also claimed that Schott once said, “Sneaky goddamn Jews are all alike,” and that she had a Nazi swastika in her home.
The statements were part of a deposition taken in a lawsuit filed against Schott by Tim Sabo, former Reds chief financial officer.
Schott immediately denied the allegations of racist comments but then later admitted possessing a swastika and said she had used the word “nigger.”
The suit by Sabo was eventually dismissed. Schott met with Cincinnati-area black leaders on Nov. 20 and apologized.
But on Nov. 25, Sharon Jones, longtime front office employee of the Oakland A’s, claimed that Schott had slandered blacks several years ago on a conference call with other owners.
Jones, who went public with her charges because she believed that Schott was not truly repentant after the first disclosures, claimed that Schott said, “I’d rather have a trained monkey working for me than a nigger.”
These charges led to an investigation by baseball’s Executive Council, which later learned that at least nine former Reds employees claimed they had heard Schott slander blacks and other minorities.
On Feb. 3, the council announced its actions, which included a $25,000 fine and an order that Schott attend diversity training workshops. She can regain control of the team on Nov. 1, and is on probation until Feb. 28.
“Mrs. Schott’s remarks reflect the most base and demeaning type of racial and ethnic stereotyping . . . indicating an insensitivity that cannot be accepted or tolerated by anyone in our industry or society in general,” said Bud Selig, owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and chairman of the council, which is made up of the two league presidents and eight owners.
BILL: Next, I needed Schott’s history other than the racial remarks. Again, I was laying down character, like somebody else might lay down bricks.
Such intolerance was not immediately evident in Schott’s hometown, where locals have grown accustomed to her eccentricities.
During on-field ring ceremonies for her 1990 world championship team, Schott appeared to forget the first names of several players. She once called the then-general manager Bill Bergesch a “watchamadoodle.”
She is famous for allowing her dogs, the late Schottzie and Schottzie 02, to run wild around the field before the game, nipping at players’ heels and defecating on the first-base line.
“My people know the way I am,” Schott said. “They know that, in a lot of ways, I am one of them.”
BILL: From this further characterization, I then characterized the city. This was only necessary because she claimed to be ”one of them.” That, of course, begs the question, who is ”them”? It took me about two days to track down the historians who could tell me who is ‘them,’ and give me those five grafs about cultural makeup of the city.
For many in Cincinnati, “one of them” means being a direct descendant of the large group of German and Irish immigrants who came here before the Civil War, making it one of the largest cities in the country at that time.
“When Horace Greeley said, ‘Go West, young man,’ he was speaking specifically about Cincinnati,” said Gale Peterson, director of the Cincinnati Historical Society.
The flow of immigrants stopped during the turn of the century, however, as other Midwestern cities, such as Chicago and Cleveland, became more attractive with their increased industry and advanced rail systems.
Today, two groups have a particular influence on the character of the city–blacks, and whites from the Appalachian Mountain regions.
“The white Germans, Irish, English, Italians . . . they have all melded together as the majority,” said pollster Tuchfarber. “But the African-Americans and white Appalachians, they are very identifiable groups. They think of themselves as the minorities. It’s a cultural phenomenon.”
BILL: Now it was time to get into the chronology of what I was talking about it. I almost always get into chronology in the second half of a story, and take it to the end. Now that the reader knows what I am writing about, and who I am writing about, and why they are what they are, then he can, hopefully, appreciate the blow by blow of what happened.
In this case, the play-by-play took 22 grafs. It included interviews with members of the Reds, one black and one white, because I heard they were on opposing sides of the issue. Even though they both tried to stray to the middle, my sources had prepped me enough that I knew how to listen to them. In other words, I picked up the dissension in their words and voices even though they surrounded it with no-big-deals and thats-an-old-story lines.
Yates, a 39-year-old lawyer in his second term on the City Council, has a different understanding of the city’s passion for “one of their own.”
As he took the lonely position of publicly demanding her suspension several months ago, that passion frightened him. “It got so I thought twice about starting my car. It got so I was always looking behind me.”
Bill Cunningham, a radio talk-show host for WLW, a 50,000-watt station that reaches 38 states at night, gave Yates’ City Hall phone number on the air and called for voters to “Throw (Yates) out of office on his black ass.”
Cunningham, who would not return phone calls for this story, later apologized on the air.
When asked whether the negative response to his actions surprised him, Yates said: “I was more surprised nobody assaulted me. I was more surprised nobody took a shot at me.”
Yates was working out of a narrow, cramped corner office in City Hall last winter when he began receiving phone calls. About 600 phone calls, as close as he can figure. All of them derogatory. Five of them containing death threats. And then there was his mail, most of it offensive.
Soon the office was further cramped with the presence of a full-time police officer, charged with guarding Yates’ life.
“It was painful for me that I was one of the few people in this city, and the only public official, to come out publicly and say that Schott was wrong and should be suspended,” Yates said. “People think of me as the bad guy.”
Several officials and community leaders initially demanded an apology from Schott but were mostly quieted after their meeting with her.
Even Dwight Tillery, the city’s black mayor, would not discuss whether the suspension was appropriate. “My only reaction is that I’m hopeful we will now be able to get this whole thing behind us,” he said at the time. Tillery did not respond to an interview request for this story.
Tillery actually had bigger problems last winter. The Ku Klux Klan erected a cross in Fountain Square, a public downtown meeting place, during the Christmas season. The cross was torn down and re-erected again and again for a week.
Larkin understood Yates’ plight when he became the first Reds player to speak out against Schott last winter.
“If that’s how she refers to black players, I would not want to play for that kind of person,” he said at the time.
For this, he received threatening mail from fans, a group which had once made this Cincinnati native the most popular member of the team. The mail contained, among other things, a suggestion that he offer himself as food to the starving children of Somalia.
“The whole off-season was a struggle,” Larkin said before a recent game. “I was pulled from both sides of the fence. I handled it the best way I could. I stood up for what I believed in.”
Larkin, who now does not regret that he has moved his family to Orlando, lowered his voice. “But I was not an insurrectionist, as somebody wrote.”
In the other corner of the Reds clubhouse sits white reliever Rob Dibble, who admittedly represents the group of Cincinnatians who appreciate Schott for her commitment to the community.
“I’ll go into the inner city to talk about drugs and Marge is right there with me,” he said. “I’ve seen her in church, in nursing homes, in hospitals. This city knows how much she cares.”
Schott has another quality that endears her to Dibble.
“She is not afraid of anybody, and no matter what anybody says, she’s not going to change. I like that.”
While the Reds players mostly ignored opening-day tributes to Schott, which included a stadium banner that read “Marge of Arc,” the opposing Montreal Expos noticed.
“We were surprised to see all that stuff about her,” said Darrin Fletcher, Expos catcher. “I kind of thought this town would just let the whole thing rest.”
BILL: When the play-by-play ended, I knew I was at the end of my story. And for some reason, it felt unbalanced. So I put in statistics about how, economically, Cincy is a progressive city.
That sort of reaction from outsiders makes community leaders worry that this Schott affair is damaging to the image of an industrious, growing community.
Job growth here has increased nearly 30% in the last nine years, with 166,000 more people working here today than nine years ago. Worker productivity is 25% higher than the national average.
“When I travel, the perception by some of this town bothers me,” said Stanley Chesley, former chairman of the board of trustees for the University of Cincinnati. “This is a family town.”
Family values are what have Yates most concerned.
“Nobody speaks about what harm (Schott’s) remarks are going to have on our children,” Yates said. “Where is the concern for our children?”
BILL: I ended the story as I often end these types of stories, by taking the reader back to the lead, like returning to the present from a flashback. Of course, the story was so darn long, maybe by this time, the poor reader has forgotten the lede.
In the meantime, all 68 lanes at the Western Bowl & Cheyenne Social Club continue to fill up on Thursday nights, its patrons unwavering and unapologetic in defense of their woman.
“Marge was just the unfortunate one,” said Cindy Wertz, a day care operator. “She was the one who got caught.”
BILL: Length of story is just one of the problems that I had with this. It was shorter than some of my stories, but do people ever read more than about 40 inches? I don’t know.
I also had a problem with the notion that I can drop in a town for two days and then write about its psyche. That is why I tried to balance the story as much as possible with words about Schott’s good deeds, and speculation that they are the reason for her support. But was it truly balanced? I don’t know.
The worst thing about this story, in my mind, is that I received no response on it. Maybe one letter. Was nobody reading or, was just nobody moved? I know we don’t write to receive letters or phone calls, but how else can we judge whether we ever touch somebody? And in a story like this, if you can’t touch somebody, or make them think, then why write it at all?