Gare Joyce Tried, Succeeded



Gare Joyce Tried, Succeeded

The title of Gare Joyce’s “How to Succeed in Sportswriting (without Really Trying)” is, of course, a play upon the well-known movie and play, “How to Succeed in Business,” based upon Shepherd Mead’s satire of the business world.

Joyce was a long-time reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail, and wrote for ESPN The Magazine for eight years, so the guy who openly admits to have wanted to be a sportswriter since childhood has paid his dues. The author of thirteen books, including a mystery series, Gare Joyce clearly has writing chops.

“How to Succeed in Sportswriting” reads like the offspring of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four and Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter – belly-laugh funny but also introspective, occasionally even poignant.

Gare Joyce Starting Out As a Copy Boy

The beginning chapters describe Joyce’s childhood love affair with newspapers, knowing even as a kid that being a reporter was his calling, and his muddled, sometimes confused, early efforts in the reporting business, including persistent attempts to be accepted into journalism school. Once in, Earl McRae, a guest lecturer who wrote for Sport Magazine, tells the students that studying journalism is a waste of time. “The worst job in a newsroom is better than a degree from the best university,” he said.

Gare Joyce takes that lesson to heart, beginning with a job as a copy boy, a position lower than working in the proverbial mail room, and we learn along with him that our heroes – whether they be athletic or writerly – can certainly be gifted in a special perspective of life, but outside of that particular arena, are often the same flawed, sometimes failed, people as are all of us mortal beings. Often this is humorous, but sometimes it is not.

An early adventure involves the vegetarian Joyce spending a few (probably a few too many) days with Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Tom Henke, interviewing the ball player for a profile. Henke is an avid outdoorsman, meaning hunter, and Joyce is introduced to such delicacies as “squirrel on a bun” and “chili con raccoon carne,” realizing that “ if only [Henke’s] dogs could have treed Kirk Gibson, the Jays would have a World Series banner.”

Tom Henke, baseball player, spoke to Gare Joyce

Gary Joyce has a knack for learning more about characters, and sharing that with potentially interested readers (and listeners)

The Newspaper Business, De-Romanticized

Mark Twain loved the Mississippi River when he was young, worshipping the riverboat captains as he dreamed of becoming one, worshipping them until he grew up and began working on a boat himself, when he learned boat captains were only human beings, and that piloting a ship was more work than romance. The same happened with Joyce, as he learned the newspaper business is, well, a business.

But still, one does not commit oneself to a line of work for 40 years and more without having some affection for the process, the infatuation of youth graduating into a more mature form of love. What I see in Joyce’s writing is his wonder of the human predicament. He mourns how many of today’s writers are what in the financial world is referred to as a quant – someone who understands life through the language of statistics and equations, which leaves a lot of room for what is not understood.

Gare Joyce is more of an artist than a quant, a short story writer who uses fact rather than fiction, writing stories set in, or at least around, the world of sports, rather than in an office or a battlefield or a bedroom. An artist who, in hitting the pavement in the process of writing a story, might have to frequent the kind of bars that have two sections to accommodate tobacco laws: “smoking and chain-smoking.”

Sometimes interview subjects do not talk much at all, except to exclusive friends. Michael Jordan might have been mentioned in this context. Joyce offers a few tricks on how the professional adapts to this particular complication. At other times, however, too much information is provided. But, as Joyce observes, “If you have to have a problem, having too much material is the problem to have.”


Joyce’s mystery novels are set in the world of hockey, and the atmosphere of sleuthing is evident in his discussion of covering the last hockey game the Boston Bruins would play at the Boston Garden. The Garden’s media relations office failed to supply Joyce his expected media pass, so he snuck into the arena, a cloak-and-dagger game ensuing once the media relations manager discovered she bad been duped.

“I’ve been told that I bear an uncanny likeness to that popular Irish-American beefcake Steve Bannon,” Gare Joyce writes, “…an accident of Hibernian genetics that in the Garden gave me perfect cover.”

NBA Hall-of-Farmer Charles Barkley is, for Joyce, the anti-thesis of Michael Jordan. Jordan was always wary and reserved, self-regulating his comments based on how his words might affect sponsorship revenue. Barkley had no such concerns.

Gare Joyce could win a Steve Bannon lookalike contest

Sportswriter Gare Joyce, not political consultant Steve Bannon

But he could avoid media, too. Once, Barkley was walking away from Joyce and another reporter, tired of talking about basketball, when Joyce called out – reporters can throw Hail Marys, too – asking Barkley what he thought about Colin Powell deciding not to run for president. Barkley stopped in his tracks and turned to Joyce, the voice box back on.

In the dressing room after a game one night, Gare Joyce asked Barkley a question. “You’re the Colin Powell guy, right?” Barkley said.

A Canadian with a great knowledge of hockey (of course), Joyce’s coverage of American sports is not limited to those major ones that reach into Canada, basketball and baseball, for example. More wide-ranging than that, he has sampled NASCAR and used his investigative skills to meet with a somewhat embittered Luther Bedford, the basketball coach featured in the documentary Hoop Dreams.

Joyce’s disappointment in Michael Jordan is at least matched by Bedford’s, given that Bedford coached at the school closest to the NBA arena where Jordan played ball, yet those few blocks separated one world from another, with Jordan choosing not to cross the border to help as he might have.

Layoff Happens, Then ESPN

The sad, for those of us for whom reading newspapers is a daily ritual, decline of the newspaper industry is discussed. Gare Joyce is laid off from an Ottawa daily, with leadership not strong enough to be honest about the reason for his dismissal. The union-backed effort to retain Joyce’s job was successful, in terms of employment and a paycheck, but not regarding duties commensurate with his former work.

New assignments included reporting on fires nine days in a row. Joyce became such a regular sight at burning buildings that “police briefly questioned me as a suspect.” Not happy with his new working conditions, Gare Joyce shares with us that “It was an unsettling feeling, writing for a newspaper that I had stopped reading.” This discontent, however, is what led Joyce to his time with ESPN The Magazine.

Reading Joyce’s journalistic memoir is indeed a trip down memory lane, with his mentioning Sport Illustrated, Sport, and Inside Sport. It must be difficult for younger readers to imagine the high literary quality of writing that was once available to us. Pulitzer Prize winners including Richard Ford, John Updike, Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, and Carl Sandburg wrote for Sports Illustrated. William Faulkner was a Nobel laureate when he wrote for the magazine.

One chapter details the time Joyce was sued, along with the Irish Times, for an article Joyce had written about Barry McGuigan losing his featherweight championship to Stevie Cruz in Las Vegas. Joyce mentions that “In the sportswriting business, we’ll sometimes talk about a ‘money quote,’” and the “money quote” in this article was provided by boxing historian Bert Sugar, who cast some shade on McGuigan’s manager, Barney Eastwood.

Eastwood was upset with the comment, upset to the degree of over a million British pounds sterling, with Joyce then following Sugar’s lead in allowing the deep pockets, the newspaper, to handle the litigation.

Gare Joyce On Hank Kaplan

What might have been a wonderful story, again, about boxing, involved Hank Kaplan, an advisor for the computer heavyweight championship tournament designed to determine the greatest heavyweight in history. The NCR-315, with 20k of memory, was programmed to analyze tens of thousands of “memory positions” of the fighters.

The project had a few inherent problems – bias, primarily of the racial kind – most affecting. Sonny Liston, one of the more powerful punchers in heavyweight history, was excluded from the tournament. Jim Jeffries beat Muhammad Ali and Max Baer decisioned Jack Johnson.

Ali sued the company producing the tournament for $1,000,000 citing defamation, which is what Ali thought of his losing to Jeffries, but dropped the suit when given $10,000 and a “shot” against the eventual tournament winner, Rocky Marciano.

By the time Gare Joyce was prepared to write about this, Kaplan was the only surviving source of information, but he wouldn’t talk for less than a million dollar consulting fee. This was slightly over Joyce’s planned budget of a couple meals.

Joyce Tries Ghost-writing

Hired as the ghost writer for an autobiography of the professional wrestling legend Joyce refers to as the “Legend,” might have been more frustrating than trying to contact basketball’s Jordan. The Legend was worn out, both physically and psychologically, from his years in the ring, a shell of his former self, the complete opposite of the persona he still presented to the public.

The working relationship was terminated when Joyce’s draft chapter presented in a tragic tone the cost of a lifetime’s wrestling on the human self. The Legend and his lawyer were not interested in any self-analysis. They needed a hagiographer, and understood Joyce was not their man.

The last couple of yarns are more introspective, even touching. The final chapter again discusses Joyce’s childhood newspaper hero, the columnist Dick Beddoes, to whom we are introduced early in the book. Consistent with the disappointment one realizes when our athletic gods prove to be troubled souls once out of uniform, Beddoes proves to be no role model at all.

But it is the penultimate story, on obituaries, that is most moving. Newspapers once carried obituary writers as a full-time position, just as they once employed a writer to cover only boxing. That this is no longer the case is, in a sense, its own obituary.

Gare Joyce mentions Red Smith’s “To Absent Friends,” a collection of Smith’s writings about departed athletes Smith knew over the years. Given that Smith wrote into his 70s, that means a lot of years. Joyce laments not ever having met Smith, nor Sports Illustrated’s Mark Kram, who wrote so eloquently about boxing.

Remembering the class acts he found Tony Fernandez, the Blue Jays infielder, and Luther Bedford to be, as well as the hockey tough guy John Ferguson, Joyce leaves no doubt about how highly he thinks of Curt Flood, who sacrificed his career on principle. Joyce wonders how many of today’s ball players enjoying the benefit of that sacrifice even remember Flood’s name.

Referring again to the increasing focus on quantification in sportswriting, it can be argued whether Flood’s career “numbers” warrant membership in the Hall of Fame. But it would be difficult, Joyce makes clear, to count on the fingers of one hand the number of players who have had a larger impact on the game. That effect, accompanied by the numbers he did put up, make for an easy decision.

Red Smith died before “To Absent Friends” was published, with many obituaries written of him throughout the world. But for Joyce the book was enough, writing “The best available obituary of Red Smith could be read between the lines on every page.”

Hopefully Gare Joyce will be around for a while longer, but “How to Succeed in Sportswriting” serves in a similar way.