Pat Jordan once asked his father, Patsy, an orphan forced to make his own way in life at age 15, how he did it. “It’s easy, kid,” he said. “You walk through shit until you get to clover.”
The younger Jordan knows something about that. A pitching phenom who saw his baseball career collapse at age 21, Jordan worked a variety of jobs – stonemason’s assistant, soda jerk, newspaper writer, parochial school teacher – while honing his style at night in his attic office. He became a terrific magazine writer, concise and poetic and unflinching. Name a major publication, alive or dead, and he’s probably written a memorable piece there. He’s a pretty good author too. His 1975 memoir about his baseball flame-out, A False Spring, is widely considered one of the best sports books ever written. (His follow-up, 1999’s A Nice Tuesday, might be better.)
That, to me, is not the amazing part. It’s this: Jordan has written for himself for half a century.
When we talked in October, Jordan was wrapping up two books. The first, tentatively titled Friends, about his longtime friendship with baseball legend Tom Seaver, is slated for an April release by Post Hill Press. The second, My Father’s Con, is a memoir about Patsy, a professional gambler and con artist. Jordan calls it his most personal work.
I wanted to find out what kept Jordan going. Jordan, who turns 79 in April, was candid and eloquent in describing how he has adapted to magazines’ wobbly existence while enjoying the ride. Here’s an excerpt of our lengthy chat, edited for clarity and for space.
Are the books the two big projects you’re working on now?
Yeah. The magazines that I worked for didn’t see me, because I never went into the magazine [offices] like The New York Times. So they started to drop me because I got old, because I’m not hip like the millennials, which is ridiculous because my father was the hippest guy I ever met until the day he died at 95. Not only for that, but for the fact that magazines dried up, period. When I worked for Sports Illustrated in the ’70s, they’d tell me the bonus pieces were 5,000 words. I’d write eight, they’d run 7,500. Today’s magazines, the whole magazine isn’t 7,500 words!
How did the rates change? What you were getting paid – did that fluctuate or stay the same?
I was making three dollars a word. The two magazines that paid a lot were Playboy and New York Times Magazine. So Playboy, for example, ran long: 5,000 or 6,000 words. So I would make between $15,000 and $18,000 with them. Sometimes $20,000. That killed me, when Playboy died. Three stories a year, and I’d made my dough. New York Times, I’d get 3,000 words, but it would [run] 3,500 words. So I would get between $10,000 and $12,000. And Men’s Journal used to pay well, too, but very short. They’d pay about 2 dollars a word, but now they don’t pay anything; they just got taken over by somebody. Oh, I had an online thing with Sports on Earth which was paying me a ton of money. They would pay $15,000, or $18,000. They folded. So I lost maybe $80,000 within one year.
How did you adjust?
I said, “OK, that’s the writing on the wall. If I’ve got a good idea, I’ll go to the right magazine to do something I want to do, but you’ve got to think globally. You’re always talking about how you wanted to write this book about your father.” The reason I never wrote the book about my father was: I was getting paid too much money to write something for nothing. And now, I wasn’t getting paid any money. So I could write something for nothing. Which I did. My father’s book took me about four years; the Seaver book took me two years. They overlapped a little bit. And now, I realize that that’s what I always wanted to do. The best thing that happened to me was the magazines dried up, because I’m having more fun writing books than I ever did writing a magazine story. A magazine story is always a pain in the ass because you’ve always got stipulations. Word length. You gotta put this in. You can’t put this in because our readers won’t like that.
Magazines falling away gave you the books, but how did you recuperate financially?
My wife [Susan] and I were living in Fort Lauderdale, living on about $120,000 a year. Which is good. Fort Lauderdale is not New York. We had a $100,000 house, a little Cape Cod-like house, about a mile from the beach. And we didn’t spend. We had two cars – a Taurus SHO we had for 20 years. And I’ve got a little blue Subaru I bought in 2002, a WRX, it’s got 80,000 miles on it. So we didn’t live high. I knew the money was going to be gone. That’s when we moved. I said, “We’ve gotta go somewhere that’s cheap.” We found Abbeville, South Carolina, which is very inexpensive to live. About $40,000 a year, $45,000 a year. I intuited ahead of time what was going to happen¸ and what I intuited happened six years later.
Part of being a writer is being a businessman: “This is happening, so let’s respond this way.” I think that gets lost sometimes.
It’s like you’re an executive at Disney and you’re making 10 billion a year, and you know it’s passing you by because nobody wants to make those small, meaningful movies anymore, and it’s got to be Marvel No. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, which is not your bag, and you know you’re on your way out, so what do you do? Do you just retire and go play golf? No. Maybe you go teach a course at a college at your home. And they give you maybe 60,000 a year, and you teach a film course. So basically, that’s what I did, but at a smaller level, and I love what I’m doing. More fun than I ever did writing news stories, I’ll tell you that.
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Did you ever lose that love of writing?
Never. If I don’t write, I’d die. I understood Hemingway completely when he blew his brains out because he couldn’t write anymore. I’m not gonna do that; I’m a good Catholic boy, so I don’t believe in suicide. But once I can’t write, that’s when I’ll get old.
After going freelance, did you ever think about joining a magazine or newspaper full time?
Turning down Sports Illustrated, the biggest financial loss in my life, was the smartest thing I ever did in my life. My father told me to never work for anybody. He said they’d own you. Sports Illustrated, after the first year I wrote for them in ’70, they offered me a contract. They were going to give me a column, I was going to make three times what I was making as a freelance writer. I was going to have an expense account, which I could essentially live off of, because it was a fixed amount. Whatever you didn’t spend at the end of the year, you kept. Plus, I had stock options. They did health care. The whole thing, right? I told them no. I said, “I will never work for anybody.” And I never have. If you work for somebody, you’ve got to kiss ass, you’ve got to do what they tell you, you can’t say no.
This is going to sound very touchy-feely, but if I had taken a full-time job at a newspaper or magazine, I wouldn’t be the best version of myself.
Absolutely, and you need to be the best version of yourself. Here’s the thing: If you’re not smart, you need somebody to turn [you] into the best version of yourself. You need a consigliere. You need a guru. But if you’re smart, like I am, like my father was, you determine who you are.
The one reason I wrote was I didn’t like who I was, and I wanted to find out why and be better. It always annoyed me, the kind of kid I was – an arrogant kid. With baseball, I could have skated on that arrogance, and everybody would have kissed my ass. And without baseball, I had to decide who I was and who I wanted to be. The only way I could do it was writing it. Once I wrote it, I couldn’t be it anymore. So that’s why I became a writer: I wanted to change the kind of guy I was.
Ithaca-based Pete Croatto is a veteran freelance writer who has written for The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Publishers Weekly, Columbia Journalism Review, and many other publications. He is also working on his first book. Twitter: @PeteCroatto.