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Behind the Byline: Damon Runyon, More Than a Sportswriter

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Behind the Byline is a new blog series that will profile significant newspaper journalists in American history. 

Damon Runyon, bust portrait, facing slightly right, 1946
Damon Runyon, 1946. Photograph. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

Though most remembered for his short stories that provided the inspiration for the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls, Damon Runyon considered himself first and foremost a newspaper man.

Born Alfred Damon Runyan on October 3, 1880, in Manhattan, Kansas, he became a full time reporter at the age of fifteen for the Daily Evening News (Pueblo, CO) writing human interest stories. Two years later he received his first byline, but his surname was misspelled as “Runyon” and it stuck. He bounced around for a decade working for several other newspapers. While his writing prowess continued to impress readers, Runyon’s excessive drinking left his bosses less than thrilled and usually resulted in his termination.

By 1911, Runyon had made his way to New York City, replaced the alcohol with coffee, and got hired as a sportswriter for the New York American where he would “face the best competition in the way of writing that any city in the English-speaking world could provide” (Clark, Tom, 1978, The World of Damon Runyon, p. 23). With the new job came a new byline. His editor thought three-word names were passé, so Alfred was dropped from his byline and “Damon Runyon” was born, so to speak.

In those days, sportswriters would follow the team they were assigned to across the country, usually traveling by train in Pullman cars where booze flowed and loose lips were fodder for many a Runyon piece. His first assignment was covering the New York Giants major league baseball team. Runyon brought the atmosphere of the ballpark to pages of the newspaper by catering to both baseball fans and casual readers alike.

Instead of providing conventional play-by-play accounts of the game, he infused humor, sarcasm, and wit. While covering a Giants home game against the Pirates at the Polo Grounds in May 1911, he extolled the heroics of pitcher Arthur “Bugs” Raymond at the plate and on the mount. At bat, Raymond “pelted the second ball ‘Big Babe’ [Charles Adams] wound over the plate for a base hit” and then “teamed down to first with great waves of noise splashing in his wake.” Shortly thereafter, team captain, Larry Doyle, crushed the ball to the fence for a triple allowing Raymond, who’s “no Mercury on his glides” to score from second “like a locomotive on heavy pressure” (New York American, May 23, 1911). On the mound, Raymond relied on his spitball to hold the Pirates to just one run by not allowing Honus “Hans” Wagner to get a single hit. During one of Wagner’s at-bats, Bugs scoffed, “How ‘ja like it, Hans?” after striking him out stranding two men on base. Bugs Raymond was a favorite and the first of many “Runyonesque” characters to grace the pages of the New York American and many other newspapers throughout Damon’s 35-year career.

A detail from the newspaper New York American from May 23, 1911, page 10 with the headline "'How 'ja Like It, Hans?' Sneered Raymond."
“‘How ‘ja Like It, Hans,’ Sneered Raymond,” New York American (New York, NY), May 23, 1911, p. 10.
“Gee! I’m Disappointed,” The Omaha Bee (Omaha, NE), July 6, 1923.

Another target of Runyon’s sharp pen was heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Dempsey. Though he was a big fan of Dempsey, Runyon had no problem criticizing him when his performance was less than stellar. In an article recapping Dempsey’s bout against Tom Gibbons in July 1923, he suggested that maybe Dempsey should “forget those $300,000 purses and do some fighting” while griping about his slow punches and sluggish footwork in the ring. Even Dempsey was disappointed with himself despite winning the contest.

Many consider the 1920s the golden age of American sports. It dominated the newspapers. In fact, baseball was so popular that it “occup[ied] a third of the front page of the final editions of the New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago papers” (Clark, p. 96). Runyon was right in the thick of it covering greats like Babe Ruth and Man o’ War, widely considered the greatest racehorse of all time.

His sports columns became so popular that they drew the notice of one particularly influential reader, William Randolph Hearst, owner of the largest newspaper publishing empire in the United States of which the New York American was a part. In response, Runyon’s salary was tripled and his assignment was broadened to coverage of all the New York baseball teams. Rumor has it that Hearst sent a memorandum ordering editors to “Run Runyon Daily No Cuts No Matter What Serious Piece You Have To Omit” (Clark, p. 68).

Throughout his career, Runyon’s assignments extended beyond sports to coverage of major news events and his columns were reprinted in newspapers across the country. An article from the Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, OH) about Charles Lindbergh’s triumphant return from flying the first solo, non-stop, transatlantic flight from New York to London in June 1927 showcases Runyon’s eloquent mastery of the English language. Rather than just providing some dry biographical sketch readers would expect to see, he painted a detailed portrait of Lindbergh as a “bashful-looking, long-legged, gangling boy, with cheeks ever so pink and with a cowlick in his hair that won’t let his locks stay slicked down, came back to his home folks today one of the biggest men in all this world.” Now, compare Runyon’s description to a photo of Lindbergh taken a few weeks earlier, courtesy of the Library Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

A collage image made of an article from the June 12, 1927 Cincinnati Enquirer with the headline "How Young He Seemed! Looked Do Frightened! Mother and Son Draw Together Before Throng That Applauds 25 Years of Glorious Youth" (left) and a black and white photograph of aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Left image: “How Young He Seemed! Looked So Frightened! …,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 12, 1927, p. 1. Right image: Charles A. Lindbergh., ca. 1927. Library of Congress, Photograph. Prints & Photographs Division.

Although he lauded trailblazers like Lindbergh, Runyon also had a soft spot for criminals. He viewed such offenders as anti-heroes bucking the establishment, likely due to his own experience “riding the rods” or illegally hopping trains in his youth. When he wasn’t writing, Runyon would spend his vacations in Florida hobnobbing with his good friend, Al Capone. He didn’t view Capone’s racketeering activities to be any worse than that of politicians or Wall Street financiers. In “By-Product of Crime in the U.S. Seems to Be Political Timber,” published in the July 22, 1941 issue of the Detroit Evening Times, Runyon expounded upon the possibility that crime helped launch the careers of many famous politicians. In the process, he excoriated two former U.S. Presidents and prosecutor Thomas Dewey, who famously lost the 1948 presidential election to Harry S. Truman.

Grover Cleveland, assistant district attorney and later sheriff of Buffalo, New York, fought so hard against city corruption that it garnered him national attention. His actions helped get him elected as governor of New York and ultimately President of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt, after only six weeks in office as a New York state representative, attempted to impeach a highly respected judge for being “overly lenient with a group of financiers.” When he failed to garner enough support, Roosevelt asserted that the “wealthy criminal class” was exerting undue influence in the legislature thereby corrupting it. Of course, he would later be elected as governor of New York and, in 1901, sworn in as the 26th President of the United States after the assassination of President William McKinley. Another former governor of New York, Thomas Dewey, attained the office in part by successfully convicting gangsters like Lucky Luciano as a federal and state prosecutor, and then as District Attorney for New York County (Manhattan).

Headline of newspaper editorial from Detroit Evening Times, “By-Product of Crime in the U.S. Seems to Be Political Timber,” July 22, 1941.
“By-Product of Crime in the U.S. Seems to Be Political Timber,” Detroit Evening Times (Detroit, MI), July 22, 1941.

Runyon was the color commentator of his day, or, as Connie Mack, illustrious manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, aptly put it, “a master of characters and plots such as we see every day in our grandstands” (National Baseball Hall of Fame BBWAA Career Excellence Award-Runyon, 1967). Runyon’s career took off when radio broadcasting was in its infancy and ended before the advent of television news upon his death in 1946. In 1967, he was posthumously bestowed the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest accolade for a baseball journalist, by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The organization is responsible for electing professional baseball players for enshrinement into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Runyon is also a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. As avid fan and epic chronicler of the “sweet science,” he coined the monikers for the some of the greatest pugilists of all time like Jim “The Cinderella Man” Braddock and, of course, Jack “The Manassa Mauler” Dempsey. Not bad for a guy from Manhattan, Kansas who went on to become a big league journalist in Manhattan, New York.

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