Baseball and the chipmunks

Back in the early ’60s the hugely influential New York columnist Jimmy Cannon dubbed the new breed of young, aggressive, cynical journalists who were rapidly taking over the baseball beat as “the chipmunks.” It was not intended as a compliment. And it was always assumed that Cannon’s inspiration for the term was the fact that the scrappiest of the fast rising hotshots was a young scribe from one of the city’s tabloids who happened to have a high, scratchy voice and very fat cheeks. It was a bit of a low blow but then Jimmy himself was no “Mr. Chips.”

Long the must-read, super-star of the New York Post, Cannon was probably motivated by spite and longing. His own star was fading, along with his health, and most of his old sports-writing buddies, who had flourished in the craft’s golden age centered in New York from roughly 1920 to 1960, were dead and gone. It was over. A whole new school of thought was taking over and Cannon didn’t like it.

Not that the Cannons of the good old days were pushovers. Far from it! They were men of fabulous talent and even greater influence for they thrived in an age when there was no broadcasting competition, no highlights to rehash game after game, no talk shows to dissect every last scrap of minutiae, while people not only read newspapers voraciously but believed them. The best of the star columnists wielded power arbitrarily and, often, despotically.

They decided who was “in” or “out” and what was legitimate and what was off limits and you crossed them at your peril. Above all, they had “their guys” and they protected them. Nobody in the business dared to go after a Joe DiMaggio or Joe Louis and if some smart aleck didn’t get the word he was not long for the business. Take a shot at the personal life of DiMaggio or Mantle or question Louis’ intelligence and Cannon would drill you. Nor was it just the demi-gods they took care of, or the bums they buried. The ranks of “the insiders” were long and privileged. The Jimmy Cannons of the dodge policed the beat and they took no prisoners.

All of this the chipmunks rejected. They declined to be dazzled by the stars. They disputed the implicit double standard. They argued that Mantle, like everyone else, put his uniform on one leg at a time. They even resisted the perks and payoffs that tended to make writers subservient to teams. For a chipmunk, it became something of a badge of honor to be told by some tinhorn slugger to go fly a kite (or words to that effect). And in the end, they won. Because the times ... they were profoundly changing!

It’s a long and convoluted story and we don’t have to beat it into the ground here. But it should be noted that Jim Bouton (in concert with Leonard Schecter) wrote his kiss-and-tell book and that was a factor. Then Howie Cosell rode his “tell it like it is” mantra to the pinnacles of fame and fortune and that was a factor. Meanwhile, a whole generation of sportswriters got weaned on the anti-establishment inspirations of Vietnam, Watergate, and the decline of the imperial politics and that was a factor. While probably the biggest factor of all was the rise of the millionaire jocks, most of whom had swiftly forgotten where they’d come from.

A kind of Diogenesian skepticism laced with a salty splash of snide irreverence became the calling card of the proper sporting scribe. It was a tide that spread all over the business; here in Boston as much as anywhere. But the movement has been especially prominent where it started, in New York.

It’s a matter that becomes worthy of discussion -- as well as marvel -- as the winter baseball camps are opening in Arizona and Florida and the million-dollar babies try to bend over and touch their toes while girding for another long season. Because the chipmunks -- who mainly work for the tabloids -- have never been busier, never been more atwitter, never been so driven to do their thing, which is to drive conflict and controversy through the skyscraper’s roof while mainly predicating their arguments on the paltry premises of style, personality and popularity.

Their main target is clearly the Yankees whom they lust to bring down with a thousand little cuts and slices visited by unrelenting harping and haranguing. Boss Steinbrenner’s vastly overpaid and overstated warriors are a fat and easy target. Chipmunks are, by definition, men (mainly) of the people, and the pin-striped plutocrats are obviously not your “ordinary people.”

In the first week, before camp had “officially” opened and well before position players had even reported, the “crisis points” of the coming season were exploding like pin-rockets in New York’s tabloids. They included:

Joe Torre’s contract. He’s in his last year and getting $7 million. That apparently amounts to some sort of persecution, but then Torre is a media darling.

So too is Mariano Rivera, who commands much sympathy because his $12 million contract has not been ripped up, greatly increased, and lengthily extended. This comes from the same people who ran Gary Sheffield out of town because he bellyached too much about his contract.

But it’s Bernie Williams who inspires the most gnashing of teeth. It’s been intensely argued the Yankees must get younger, leaner, and cheaper but when they try to politely inform Williams they have no place for him to play it’s deemed “an insult.”

Jorge Posada. Also beloved and without contract after ’07, he has wisely stayed above the bogus fray so far. But when he’s hounded for the next 34 weeks will he crack?

Carl Pavano. His guts and honor are questioned every day, seven days a week. How much can a sane man take?

Mike Mussina and Pavano: Their “feud” was made in tabloid heaven.

A-Rod. His contract escape clause will be discussed seven days a week for the next eight months. How much can an innocent man take? The chipmunks have already croaked this guy in New York. Now they intend to finish the job and bury him.

A-Rod and Derek: If they don’t actually despise each other, they might as well.

Steve Swindal: When the heir-apparent Yankee owner got nabbed for DUI he probably assured himself a niche in tabloid hell.

George Steinbrenner: As he gradually succumbs to age, they keep yipping and nipping at him like vicious little mutts. Some things ought to be off limits. Period! The stalking of Steinbrenner in his obvious physical decline by segments of the New York media is disgraceful.

Roger Clemens: When ultimately he spurns the Yankees, Brian Cashman will get wasted.

Randy Johnson: As he was winning 17 games, the tabloids headlined him as, “The Big Useless!” Yet when he suggested he never got a break from the N.Y. media they mocked him as “The Big Whiner.” He’s an odd duck but he didn’t deserve the shabby treatment he got. It began with that ridiculous incident the first day. It was the TV crew that behaved poorly; not Johnson. Even after he’s gone, they won’t let up. It’s cheap.

And all of that is just for openers. Wait until camp fully opens. Good luck to the Yankees. It will be a long, long season.

Meanwhile, over in what is being called “Camp Tranquility,” the Red Sox can do no wrong. Everything is sweetness and light. Dice-K is another JFK. The abominations of last season have been blithely dismissed. Theo is again Young Galahad. Even Manny is in flower. And the Big Schill is learning how to speak Japanese. How swell!

The Boston media has surely had its moments in the history of this team -- those nasty “Knights of the Keyboard” were no mere figment of the imagination of the neurotic young Ted Williams. But they are all safely in the tank now.

When calculating the prospects of the coming, wildly anticipated, season, do not overlook “the chipmunk factor.” It overwhelmingly favors your team.