Mike Lewis
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Tricks of a Trade

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How the Star and the Sun Played their cards in the Wayne Parrish-John Robertson switch

It was around five in the afternoon last September 3 and The Toronto Sun’s flamboyant columnist, John Robertson, had come to the ballpark early. But the Blue Jays weren’t on his mind as he moved through the press box at Exhibition Stadium. He was thinking instead about a job that had come open at the Sun: George Gross was leaving as sports editor and Robertson wanted to replace him.

When Robertson got to his usual seat just to the third-base side of the press box, the phone rang. It was Gross, known as the Baron for his aristocratic ways. “Guess who your new boss is?”

Gross said. “Are you sitting down?” Robertson felt a little faint. “It’s Wayne Parrish.”

Robertson was confused and angry. After 30 years in the business, the last five of them with the Sun, didn’t he deserve at least to have been consulted? For courtesy sake, if nothing else? He told Gross he wasn’t up to writing a column that night. Then he packed up and left.

“When you’re treated like that,” he’d say later, “when you’re told, ‘Here’s your new boss, like it or lump it,’ there’s a message in there. It eliminated any loyalties I might have felt to the Sun.”

George Gross was moving on to be corporate sports editor of the three Sun papers. He says now he had no choice but to call Robertson about Parrish’s appointment. “I was afraid he’d find out elsewhere. Unfortunately, the quickest way was by phone. It could have leaked out.” He hadn’t talked to Robertson about the job because he’d never really considered him for it. “I just never thought of John Robertson as a sports editor. He once told me that’s the last job he’d want.” Besides, Wayne Parrish, The Toronto Star’s award-winning columnist, had been his man from the beginning. “I chose Wayne because he’s very bright and an excellent writer,”

Gross says. “Having watched the type of story he broke in the Star, I figured he had what it takes to come up with the kind of stories that beat the opposition. I wasn’t sure about his administrative talents, but that’s the type of thing one can learn.”

If one wants to. When the Sun approached Parrish in mid-August, he wasn’t at all certain. “The writers often sit around late at night on the road over a few beers, discussing departments and the way they’re run,” he says. “You all have your own ideas and you bitch and complain. Suddenly someone comes along and says, ‘Here, you do it.’ I was amazed and intimidated.” But after three meetings with Gross and the Sun’s brass, President Doug Creighton and Publisher Paul Godfrey, he was a good deal less so. He accepted the offer on September 3, just hours before Gross caught up with Robertson in the press box.

Gerry Hall, the Star’s sports editor, got the word the same day and the same way Robertson had-by phone. He was on vacation when Parrish reached him at Woodbine racetrack. “It was right out of the blue,” Hall says. “He didn’t play one paper off against the other. He just told me he’d accepted the job.” Hall asked Parrish to wait a few minutes before breaking the news to Ray Timson, the managing editor. He wanted to call Timson himself. Parrish waited 15 minutes, then crossed the newsroom to Timson’s office. When he left, he went over to the sports department to let his colleagues know he was leaving. Then he called Paul Godfrey. It was left to George Gross to inform the Sun’s sports staff. The one person Gross couldn’t find was John Robertson.

Gross wasn’t the only one with Robertson on his mind. Gerry Hall had been thinking about him since he found out he was losing Parrish. “Robbie was the only guy that really scooped us on the baseball beat,” Hall says. “It’s fine to write well but you’ve got to look for people who’ll produce scoops. Someone to come up with things you can’t find elsewhere.” He put the idea to Timson the next day. Although neither Hall nor Timson was aware of the previous afternoon’s press-box phone call, they thought Robertson might be open to a show of interest. And Milt Dunnell, the Star’s octogenarian sports columnist, was just the man to make the approach. But when Dunnell phoned, Robertson’s wife, Betty, told him her husband was meeting with Paul Godfrey.

After Gross’s graceless call, Robertson took his anger straight home. He rang up Godfrey and passed it on. At the publisher’s suggestion they met the next morning. “But in the back of my mind it was 90.10 that I couldn’t live with the situation,” Robertson says. “As we were sitting there, the phone rang. It was my wife who said that Milt Dunnell had called. She said, ‘Call the Star before you do anything.'”

Robertson was glad the feeler had come from Dunnell: “When you hear something from Milt, you know it’s the straight goods.” So he was well set up to hear from the Star-it was Gerry Hall this time-that afternoon. He had lunch with Hall and Timson the next day. “It was such a wonderful feeling to sit across from them, with them telling me they want me to write for the Star,” he says. For his part, Hall recalls the only advice he gave Robertson: “There’s just one thing I want you to change in your writing-nothing.”

At 53, Robertson isn’t about to change. Those three decades of covering news and sports for newspapers, radio and television have won him four ACTRAs and a National Newspaper Award. He writes with emotion, making his readers see, hear and feel what’s going on. To some these are moments of great intimacy; to others, flights of fancy. But Robertson lives the way he writes. “He’s had a rollicking history,” Gerry Hall says. “He’s been a drinker; now he’s a church-goer. He exists in those sorts of extremes.”

Robertson is the epitome of the oldstyle newspaperman. His practical jokes are legendary. One of his best-known came in 1966 when he was departing the old Toronto Telegram: he used the first letter of the first word in each paragraph of his column to spell out “FUCK YOU EVERYBODY.”

George Gross was in the Tely sports department at the time, so he’s long been aware of Robertson’s antics. But their differences surfaced when Robertson went to work for Gross at the Sun. “We were like two cooks in the same kitchen, arguing about how the meal should be done,” Robertson says. “It’s no secret I didn’t agree with a lot of the things George did as sports editor. The fact that I stood up to him on a few occasions didn’t enhance my chances of getting the job. With George, it’s ‘My way is the only way.'”

That’s what still rankles. Not only was Robertson passed over, he wasn’t even consulted. “I wanted some input into who the new man would be, to see how I would work with him. I would bear the direct consequences of who they chose.”

He isn’t alone in the way he feels. “The Sun’s treatment of Robbie is an example of how people are treated in this business,” says Globe and Mail writer Larry Millson. “From a people point of view, newspapers leave a lot to be desired. Often, they’re not up front with you. In the communications business, we’re lousy communicators.”

Gerry Hall likes his end of the Parrishfor-Robertson trade. “John’s someone who’s established himself over a few decades. He’s Mr. Baseball as far as Toronto readers are concerned. I don’t have any doubt we’re winners in this deal.” Predictably, he down plays the loss of Parrish. “Wayne’s a nice writer, he’s got some style. I don’t know about his commitment to sports writing, but if he sticks with it he could become one of the best in the country.”

He already is. At 31, Parrish has won back-to-back National Newspaper Awards (1984-1985). As a columnist, he’s ice to Robertson’s fire, a detached and thoughtful writer with a sure descriptive touch. Extremes are not his game. As far as he’s concerned, there was only one trade involving him and John Robertson-and that one never made the papers.

On the Sunday after he accepted the Sun’s offer, Parrish went to the Star to clean out his desk. He chose a time, about 9 a.m., when the newsroom was usually empty. As he was finishing up, he heard voices coming his way. “I recognized two of them,” he says, “Gerry Hall and John Robertson.” He turned in his chair to face where they would come out, about three metres away. “Hi guys, how ya doing?” Parrish said as Hall and Robertson came into view. Robertson walked over to say hello. The portable word processor Parrish had brought to leave with Hall sat on the desk. He noticed Robertson eyeing it and handed it to him. “Now this means you’ll have to give me yours,” he said. That evening, Robertson had his son drop the machine off at Parrish’s house.

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