Russell Baker, the formative years

Did his early work as a rewrite man and reporter for The Sun leave any clues to his future writing achievements?

January 31, 1999|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff

Is it a mark of how provincial Baltimore is, or how successful Russell Baker has been, that we still claim him as ours? A little of both, one suspects. Besides, Baker has encouraged the sentimental attachment with his two memoirs, "Growing Up," which won a Pulitzer Prize, and "The Good Times," which centered largely on his career at The Sun.

But when Baker announced his retirement on Christmas Day, the news stories reminded us that Baltimore is essentially a footnote in Baker's illustrious career. A reporter for 51 years, he had been at the New York Times for 44 of those.

Yes, Baker is our literary Babe Ruth, the Baltimore kid who made good in New York.

Just as Ruth is forever associated with Yankee Stadium, Baker made the Times op-ed page his turf. Since 1962 -- 36 years, almost half his life -- his work appeared there. He was the longest-running columnist in the history of the Times. (Baltimore deserves a footnote here, too: It was an offer to return to The Sun as a columnist that ultimately forced the Times to offer Baker a column there.)

So now we know how Baker's newspaper career ends -- with 3 million words, by his estimate, and two Pulitzers (he received one for commentary in 1979), and several anthologies of his work. But where did it begin? Is it possible to find "Russell Baker" -- the distinctive voice, the dry humor, the odd connections that ultimately seem so right -- in the work of one Russell W. Baker, once mandatory reading for new Sun recruits?

Is it possible, in fact, to find those articles at all? Well, yes and no.

The Sun does not have paper clippings from the 1940s and '50s, although a new system soon will make it possible to search most of its 20th century archives by computer. But even if it did have a file of Baker bylines -- the clippings were weeded out, alas, during a period when the space-starved Sun tossed the byline files of all former reporters -- Baker's early work would still be elusive.

In fact, Baker's earliest stories, from his days as a police reporter in 1947 and 1948, went through the "rewrite man." And even when he was "moved inside" -- when he became a reporter, then a rewrite man in his own right -- his stories often appeared as the work of "Sun Staff Correspondent" or were signed with just his initials.

"I was one of two people working as rewrite, and we literally wrote most of the paper," Baker says from his Leesburg, Va., home, where an avalanche of correspondence and a deadline for "Masterpiece Theater" has made retirement seem a misnomer. "An editor would throw a story to us and say, 'Here, put this in the mother tongue.' "

Luckily, Baker provided a treasure map of sorts to his early work in "The Good Times." Thanks to his prodigious memory, we were able to find, for example, such early gems as "Midshipmen's 'Arsenic' Proves Antidote For Academy Blues."

In this theater piece, filed March 25, 1949, Baker provided something that was more reportage than review, beginning: "It was splendid weather for homicide at the Naval Academy tonight."

The following 400-odd words are brisk and bright. They become brisker and brighter still if one imagines Baker's speaking voice, now familiar to us through his "Masterpiece Theater" gig, reading them aloud. But they do not shout to the world: Behold the man who will become one of journalism's best-known practitioners.

Then there is the article that Baker recalls as the absolute nadir of his career at The Sun, an impromptu interview with Evelyn Waugh, whose work Baker had not actually read. It didn't help that his editors gave him no more than a taxi ride to prepare for his meeting with the famed British novelist.

So he fell back on a trick reporters use to this day: asking Waugh about the current headlines, in this case the imprisonment of Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty in Budapest, Hungary.

The result, which appeared in these pages 50 years ago, almost to the day: "Waugh, Novelist, Calls Trial of Cardinal 'Martyrdom.' " Baker writes in "The Good Times": "Given the chance to sparkle, I had flopped with a dull thud."

But the article is not as bad as Baker remembers, given the circumstances under which it was written.

And so it goes. One reads early Russell Baker, yearning to find out what qualities would turn him into RUSSELL BAKER. Failing that, one returns to "Growing Up" and "The Good Times," hoping to find out what experiences might have made him RUSSELL BAKER.

There are helpful hints for young writers in Baker's life. He works hard. He learns touch-typing. His mother makes him feel as if he never works quite hard enough. One of the less satisfactory explanations for his success: The Sun paid so little that good people were constantly moving on. "As a result, you didn't have to be very good, you just had to hang around."

Whatever Baker did while he was hanging around, it was good enough to win him the London bureau of The Sun at the age of 27. His work there caught the eye of James "Scotty" Reston, then running the New York Times' Washington bureau. Bored with reporting, he was given the column in 1962. He was 37.

In the end, the lesson of Russell Baker's career may be that success comes when one reaches a point of not caring. It was when he was ready to walk away from the Times that they offered him what he called "one of the gaudiest prizes of American journalism."

Baker more or less agrees with the lessons extrapolated here. But he adds a warning: "Don't make too much of it. It's only daily journalism."

Pub Date: 01/31/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.