Ziehm looks back at 41 years at Sun-Times

An interview with Crain’s Chicago Business columnist Ed Sherman, former Chicago Tribune golf writer.

It hardly is accurate to say Len Ziehm is retiring.

Technically, Mr. Ziehm is leaving the Sun-Times this week after 41 years. But the idea that he will stop working? Yeah, right.

We’ve all seen days when Mr. Ziehm covered a golf tournament, worked the phones for the latest on the Northwestern quarterback,and then headed over to write about a Chicago Fire game at night. He’s a machine.

Mr. Ziehm, 66, says he still is going to continue to write for several publications, including contributing to the Sun-Times.That’s great because the pressroom wouldn’t be the same without his distinctive cackle.

I asked one of the all time greats to share his memories of covering sports in Chicago for the Sun-Times.

When did you start at the Sun-Times? What was your first assignment?

Mr. Ziehm: Well, my starting date was May 11, 1969. I know the first stories I wrote were features on the Chicago Owls and Lake County Rifles’ football teams. Neither lasted all that long. The Rifles had a quarterback from Illinois, Fred Custardo, who put up great semi-pro numbers before suffering a tragic death in a fall during his offseason.

The first live event I covered was, of all things, a pro wrestling show at Comiskey Park in which Chet Coppock was the PR guy. I got all dressed up in a new madras sport coat that I thought was very cool, and Chet had me seated ringside and mentioned on the centerfield scoreboard. Then the matches started and one of the wrestlers faked an injury. Blood (actually ketchup) got splattered on that sport coat. That was my welcome to the big leagues of Chicago journalism.

Writing assignments were few and far between in those early years. It was mostly deskwork until I got the golf beat in either late 1970 or early 1971.

What were your most memorable events to cover?

I really have had a ton of them. My first U.S. Open was Johnny Miller’s 63 at Oakmont in 1973. My first Masters was Jack Nicklaus’ last win in 1986. It doesn’t get better than that.

I really enjoyed covering the World Cup soccer tournament in 1994 because it was such a different thing, with so many different cultures involved. While golf has been my biggest deal (27 U.S. Open, 10 Masters, 16 PGAs, the last 34 Western Opens), I do appreciate other events. I was in the lead vehicle of the Chicago Marathon when Steve Jones set a world record. I saw a longtime-bad Northwestern basketball team upset Michigan’s Fab Five in the last game of the regular season to earn an NIT bid. I still savor Northwestern’s shocking run to the Rose Bowl and the Fire sweeping the MLS and U.S. Open Cups in its first season of existence.

I was around for four minor league championship runs by the Wolves and a good chunk of the Blackhawks’ recent Stanley Cup run. I was DePaul’s beat man when the Demons went 27-3 in the late ’80s (that’s significant because it was the first year the Tribune and Sun-Times started covering all their games on the road. Before that it had pretty much been just home games). All three of the soccer teams I’ve covered (Sting, Power, Fire) won championships. Guess I’m kind of babbling on here, but I’ve certainly been fortunate in covering a lot of exciting stuff.

Who were some of the most memorable athletes/executives you’ve covered?

The most fun was Karl-Heinz Granitza, the soccer player. He had his issues, but you couldn’t help but laughing when he was around. Northwestern had some athletes that were really good guys when I was on that beat:Kevin Rankin, Kip Kirkpatrick, Steve Schnurr, Pat Fitzgerald, Richard Buchanan. The football coaches were both ex-Missouri guys (my alma mater) in Francis Peay and Gary Barnett, so you now they had to be the best.

In the hockey world, my favorites were Jocelyn Thibault, Scotty Nichol, Marty Lapointe, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Eager (sorry the last two were traded). Dale Tallon was a GM who was really easy to get along with. On the Wolves’ front, John Anderson and Steve Maltais were good people, to say nothing of the owner, Don Levin. What he’s done with that team is terrific.

Cary Pinkowski, the Chicago Marathon boss, and Frank Klopas, who I’ve known as both a soccer player and executive, are longtime friends. Golf, of course, is filled with nice people starting with the Jemseks. I hate to get into listing them because I’d leave somebody out. Again, I’m babbling, but I’ve come in contact with a lot of good people.

What memories do you have of some of the outstanding sportswriters you worked with at the Sun-Times? You worked with some outstanding people.

Bill Gleason and Jack Griffin were veterans when I arrived at 26 years old. They were mentors, but Ron Rapoport was a really good friend over a long period of time. There were great writers and beat people on both sides of the street as well as at the Herald (Tim Sassone may be the best hockey writer around). I enjoyed the company of lots of S-T columnists, including Jay Mariotti.

My link with Rick Morrissey was more when he was at the Tribune. We had a weird time covering a DePaul game at Saint Louis U. one day — but I digress. Bill Jauss, Neil Milbert and I were rival-colleagues for years on a variety of beats. Bob Verdi is one of my favorite people, as well. I’ll always cherish our times together. Covering golf with Reid Hanley, Gary Reinmuth, Teddy Greenstein, Ed Shermanand Tim Cronin has been a lot of fun.

Again, I hate to leave anybody out. Obviously I’m partial to my Sun-Times teammates —Herb Gould, Toni Ginnetti, Joe Goddard, Taylor Bell, Dave Manthey, Albert Dickens, Elliot Harris, Ralph Greenslade, Bob Mazzoni, Jeff Agrest. (Some of those are on the desk/editing side of the business). We’ve been through a lot together.

What are the biggest changes in the industry between 1969 and now?

Obviously, the technological changes were the biggest thing. When I started, writers would phone in their stories, dictating them to guys on the copy desk. Women weren’t part of the action until many years later.

In some ways, things were better back then. Everything was more personal, between writers and athletes, coaches, etc. You really got to know the people you were covering.

Looking back, I have misgivings about a trend that started in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when newspapers in general started pushing for longer, “in depth”stories at the expense many times of covering hard news, the nitty gritty stuff that readers would never get via radio or TV. I still think that’s something that requires ongoing scrutiny by the people putting out newspapers in print or online. Opinion, analysis stuff, frequently crowds out solid reporting, and that’s not a good thing.

Anything else?

Just a general thought, for perspective purposes. When I started at the Sun-Times, Chicago had four newspapers. Now it’s down to two, though the Herald has increased its profile considerably since the early 1970s. In any business there’s been a lot of changes over the last 41 years, but I’m not so sure there hasn’t been more in journalism than anything else. A lot of the changes represent progress, to be sure, but we shouldn’t forget about the past. We can learn from it, just as we do from history books. End of lecture.