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Jack Mann, who used to be somebody, died of cancer early Saturday. He was 74.
In the end, Mann covered horse racing for an Annapolis community newspaper called the Capital. But he covered it as if he were still writing for Newsday, the New York Herald-Tribune, Sports Illustrated, Life magazine, the Washington Star, or any of the other top-shelf publications where he’d once worked and drawn national acclaim. They’d all either gone out of business or decided long ago to stop doing business with the famously obnoxious Mann. But as long as the Capital agreed to take his stuff, he kept working.
For just a stringer’s wage, Mann spent more time on the backstretch searching out stories in the last several years than any other reporter working the Laurel Park or Pimlico beat. Anybody who slowed his progress when he was on the prowl—be it a parking lot attendant or a track security guard looking for a media credential or a younger writer unfamiliar with press box rules—risked earning a trip to “knuckle city” with the short, chunky scrapper. He’d bang out his weekly columns on a manual typewriter, sitting beneath a bulletin board on which he’d pinned typed and handwritten notes with slogans like “What is written without effort in general is read without pleasure” and “Next to human love, I hold the English language most dear” and “I don’t write the headlines.” He always kept a dictionary close, flipping through it often.
“Jack always called it ‘the best damn $75 sports column in the country,’” says Gerry Jackson, the Capital’s assistant sports editor. “And it sure was.”
Mann, born in Brooklyn, started working for newspapers when he was in high school. He reported on the funeral of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for treason in June 1953. The angry crowds at the cemetery during the ceremony scared him more than anything he’d seen in his three years as a Marine in the Pacific Theater during World War II. But he got the story he was after, only to have his editor at Newsday insert words like “traitor” into his copy to make the dead seem more despicable. If editors had the power to screw with his words, Mann reasoned, he didn’t want to be writing about anything of such significance. That left sports.
He became the sports editor at Newsday, and he still gets credit for making the sports section at the Long Island paper a worthy competitor in the New York market. His run at Newsday ended in 1962, when he was fired for criticizing a superior in a memo. Mann went to Sports Illustrated and got back into writing. Baseball was his specialty then. Mann’s literate shredding of Dodger outfielder Willie Davis for selfish and otherwise horrible play in the 1966 World Series—in which L.A. was swept by the Orioles—represents a scribe, if not a ballplayer, in his prime:
If a ground ball is needed to move a runner from second to third, Willie shoots for the mountains anyway and hits a fly ball. Once in a while he reaches the mountains and then he wants to do it again, and the hell with that greatest-good-for-the-
greatest-number jazz. He overthrows cutoff men with maddening consistency, runs bases carelessly and does these things because he is too stubborn or too something to accept the good advice a player gets in the Dodger organization.
And he’s a hot dog, too, even though he says he is not. So why should anyone feel sorry for him? Because, as Mildred Dunnock said of her salesman, a terrible thing has happened to Willie and attention must be paid to him.
Apparently, Mann was just as adept at shredding co-workers in the office. After two years, SI cut him loose. He wrote a book on the Yankees and got a big advance to do a Denny McClain biography, but he returned the money and backed out of the project after realizing he despised the Tigers pitcher. Mann came to D.C. in 1970 to take a job with the Daily News, which was soon absorbed by the Star. When the Star folded in August 1981, columnist Dave Kindred of the Washington Post graciously thanked Mann for making him and his employer better:
“By hiring [Mann], the Star moved up a length. His every phrase tells,” Kindred wrote. With Mann working for the competition, “the Post sports department spent no time making promises we would be aggressive and enterprising. We knew that if we didn’t do the job right, we’d get our hat handed to us.”
Mann had apparently hoped to hook up with the Post, where his second ex-wife, Judy, still works. That didn’t happen, though, and to his dying day, Mann believed that Shirley Povich, the Post’s esteemed lead columnist, sabotaged his employment prospects out of jealousy. (He kept a picture of Povich, with a nasty caption, on his bulletin board at the racetrack.) Mann instead headed for the Baltimore Sun, where he won an Eclipse Award as the best turf writer in the country in 1987. He stayed there until hitting the mandatory retirement age of 65 three years later. He didn’t want to stop writing, but he had nowhere to go.
“I got a call from the Laurel public relations department one day asking if I wanted Jack Mann to freelance for us,” says the Capital’s Jackson. “That was easy. I said, ‘Hell, yeah!’ I knew all about him—the good and the bad—and I couldn’t believe we could get him. The guy was a legend, and, well, I can assure you he wasn’t doing it for the money.”
Mann couldn’t stand being the only reporter walking the barns in the morning hours when the horses exercised. In many of his Capital columns, he blasted the media for ignoring the only sport he covered during the last decade of his life. A year ago, he wrote:
Whatever else is wrong with racing these days, it is the least adequately covered of all the sports. And that is criminal neglect because those guys are still out there with their stories….Riders grown too big to be jocks, getting on seven or nine horses a morning, trying to make common SOBs act like race horses, moonlighting at anything. Grooms hoping their stake from a race will get the car payment. Gloomy hotwalkers who might make a couple of bucks more doing something easier in better hours, unable to articulate why being in racing is preferable to flipping burgers. They’re all out there, not in roped-off tents like the golfers and tennis players, not limited to an hour a week, like Super Bowl players.
Vinnie Perrone, a longtime turf writer for the Washington Post, as well as a friend and admirer of Mann’s, spent an afternoon with him the week before he died. Perrone was intending to just take his sick pal to pick up a prescription at a drugstore in a strip mall near Laurel Park, but the incompetence of the pharmacists gave the two some time to talk about Mann’s life. They sat in a pub next door while waiting for the medicine to be packaged, and Mann confessed some regret at running from hard news after the Rosenbergs’ funeral.
“I think he felt like maybe in the end he’d sold himself a little short going with sports,” Perrone said. “Jack Mann bled black type and could have done anything he wanted. For that guy to end up at the Annapolis Capital, writing the greatest prose nobody ever saw, well, that’s amazing.”
After his confession, Mann went next door and cussed out the
pharmacist. —Dave McKenna