Growing up with The Evening Sun

September 13, 1995|By James M. Merritt

I HATE to see The Evening Sun go down. After all, we grew up together. My first attempts at serious reading 80 years ago focused on H. L. Mencken's "Free Lance" column on the Evening Sun's editorial page where he was sharpening the barbs that later pierced the hides of all "mountebanks" (charlatans or frauds) to national acclaim.

As a kid I sold The Evening Sun around North and Linden avenues to get movie money. The chap who "owned" the corner would sell me five papers for three cents; so I had to peddle 25 copies to reach my objective.

Baltimore had three afternoon papers in those days, the News-Post, Star and Evening Sun, and they sold in that order. The Evening Sun fared so poorly in street sales then because most people subscribed to both The Sun and The Evening Sun. You could get both papers delivered to your home daily and the Sunday paper, for a quarter a week.

As I grew older, The Evening Sun began to impress me as a real Baltimore paper. I could not imagine a worker coming home after a trying day at the office or shop, especially if the boss had been annoying, and relaxing with the morning Sun, which had become one of the country's great newspapers. The Evening Sun, which debuted in 1910, developed an earthy, local spin on its pitch. Its parent, with its corps of brilliant domestic and foreign correspondents, was treasured by folks who did not have to punch a clock twice a day.

Homeboy Mencken had a lot to do with the creation of this tone. Who can forget the day the editorial page was covered with more than a million tiny dots? Each represented a federal government worker whose ever-increasing numbers, H. L. charged, were intruding more and more into our private lives. This page appeared while the Sage was serving temporarily as editor-in-chief. I could not imagine the morning Sun allowing such a stunt.

As a young man, I got an inside look at the newspapers after a close friend who, after years of trying to break into the newspaper business, was finally hired by the morning Sun. Then, he told me, the news department occupied the whole top floor of the old Sun building at Baltimore and Charles streets. The combined city rooms of the papers covered two thirds of the area. He noted that The Evening Sun's managing editor's desk was out with the troops, while his counterpart on the morning paper had a private office on "brain alley," the corridor dividing the offices of the elite who filled the remaining third of the floor. That figured, I thought.

After a two-day indoctrination, my friend began working in the police districts for $20 a week. He proved to be a good man to have on the scene at major fires and other calamities. Eventually, he was made the permanent "headquarters man," meaning he covered the central district of the police department and its magistrate court; a $2.50 raise per week accompanied the promotion.

Then disaster struck my buddy. One day two young men were brought in charged with picking pockets on the Number 15 Baltimore streetcar line. One was held for the grand jury and the other dismissed at their hearing that afternoon. In haste, my friend transposed the two youths' names in his story, writing that the one who was freed was actually a suspect. The family of that youngster wrote to the Sun demanding a correction.

The letter was given to my friend to determine if a retraction should be printed. He stuck it in his pocket and forgot about it. When no retraction appeared, the next letter to the Sun came from the family's attorney. The top brass settled the matter and then settled with my friend by ordering the same editor who had hired him two years before to let him go.

"I'm sure this would not have happened on The Evening Sun," he tearfully told me. "They would have remembered that I was a rookie at headquarters working against a veteran crime reporter on the American who had sworn to have me a nervous wreck in six months and was apparently succeeding." (The American was then Baltimore's other morning paper.)

I commiserated with him the best I could while thinking that a renowned paper like the morning Sun had to have complete confidence in its reporters at all times. I had heard it said that The Sun was one of three newspapers placed on the U.S. president's desk each morning; the others reportedly were: the New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Of course, I realized that The Evening Sun would not be caught dead in such company.

James M. Merritt writes from Baltimore.

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