Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Sunday 'Peach': Putting together Gopher football pages at the Minneapolis Tribune

Al Papas Jr. grew up attending Minnesota Gopher football games with his father, who played for coach Bernie Bierman. A one-time sports cartoonist and newsroom artist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, he has also created artwork for the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and for teams in the NBA, ABA, and NHL. His illustrations are featured in Gophers Illustrated: The Incredible Complete History of Minnesota Football. Here, he recalls his experiences working in a newsroom (and compiling its sports section) in the 1960s.

You could count on extensive coverage of Gopher football in what was called the "peach" section of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune. It was literally peach in color and stood out on Sunday morning to whomever grabbed the paper first. I worked on the section in the 1960s.

My first work, though, was a weekly cartoon for Star Sports Editor Bill Hengen. Hengen's favorite sport was bowling, for which he had a full-sized ball on his desk as a paperweight. I worked in the newsroom art department across the aisle from Sports. From there I got a good view of all the writers I had loved to read. One was Dick Cullum. (As a kid, I never left for school before reading "Cullum's Column.") He would sit, head tipped back in his chair, like Peppermint Patty. His eyes were closed behind Coke-bottle glasses and his arms were folded. After several minutes he would jump to life and pound furiously on his typewriter. Then he would fall back in silent repose and ponder again.



Executive Sports Editor Charlie Johnson had his own glass-enclosed office. He was a force in getting us the Twins and Vikings. Max Nichols went on to do public relations for the Minnesota Pipers of the old American Basketball Association. Merrill Swanson did the same for the Vikings.

Jimmy Burns was palsied and spoke with slurred speech. He would type his stories with one finger while holding his wrist steady with the other hand. How he did his interviews and made his deadlines was something to admire. Sid Hartman hardly sat at his desk when in. He stood while reading his mail and then was off again.

Joe Hennessy was slot man. He sat inside a slot cut into the middle of a great round table. Writers working from the outside edge would pass him their stories as he would proofread. He put the daily pages together. Sometimes he would give a caller the racing results over the phone and make the place sound like a bookie joint.

Dave Mona was a rookie like me. He would eventually have his own radio show and do color for the Gophers. John Croft was a great sports photographer who went on to work at National Geographic. Anne Gillespie was our first female sports reporter.

I worked with a wonderful bunch of fun-loving guys in the art department. Pranks and jokes abounded. It's a wonder we weren't fired. Our handball court was a fascination to those passing by. Our main job was to retouch photos before going to the engraver. This was to help poor quality pictures be more clear; for instance, a white helmet and uniform could disappear in a picture with the sky behind it. Retouching made it possible to see the player's outline.

Gopher game day found me alone at 6:45 a.m. to handle deadlines for the evening Star. It was a light day for that edition. Between 1 and 4 p.m., the rest of the full crew would wander in and prepare for the big run of the Sunday morning Tribune. The game itself ended around 4 p.m. In preparation, all the player's names were printed out on wax-backed paper. Whenever we read a player's numeral on a photo we stuck his name over him for fast identification. We also had symbols to put on pictures that indicated touchdowns, and arrows to point at something the writer would describe. Soon the photos would start pouring in. They might go directly on our desks rather than in the work basket. The regular news picture editor directed this evening's work. The other artists said that in times past, (now-former Gophers football coach) Murray Warmath might even come in to help sort things out.

On top of sports, there were also the news pictures for the front pages. Occasionally we had to crop photos on behalf of the editor. One time I messed up on a row of pictures of a TD run. I was embarrassed, but the editor just laughed. Perhaps we were all too punchy to cast blame. It was fixed for the next run.

Sometimes sight of the football would disappear in the background crowd. We would circle it and even draw dashed lines showing its flight--or perhaps dash a ball carrier's path through the line. We added things to explain what was happening in the pictures. We would toss the last photo down a chute to engraving and would be done for the big run. Smoke came up from the chute like it would from a chimney as frantic engravers were still hot at it. With our part done as artists, we breathed a sigh of relief and headed out to a nearby restaurant for a special meal. No brown bag this day. Upon returning, we replaced some pictures with better ones that the editor had more time to look over.
By 11 p.m., things settled down and it was time to leave a deserted newsroom.

Those were long, memorable days that seemed short to me. Sunday sports were never handled that way again. The football PEACH is no more.

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Al Papas Jr. grew up attending Minnesota Gopher football games with his father, who played for coach Bernie Bierman. A one-time sports cartoonist and newsroom artist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, he has also created artwork for teams in the ABA, the NBA, the NHL, and for the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.

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