During a rain delay at a Braves game in Atlanta, sportswriter Frank Hyland saw his opportunity to hobnob in the clubhouse and gather information from the players. But before he entered the doorway, two Braves employees advised him to stay out. Hank Aaron was angry with him for accusing the home run king, in print, of “double-dealing.”
Aaron had told Hyland he wasn’t interested in the recently vacated position of Braves manager. But subsequently he said on national TV that he was disappointed he wasn’t offered the job.
Frank, being Frank, would not be deterred. He walked into the clubhouse, and when Aaron immediately called to him, he unflinchingly headed to his locker.
“You wrote that I double-dealed you,” Aaron said.
“That’s right. You did.”
Whereupon Aaron, normally the most even-tempered of men, picked up one of the baskets of strawberries that had been distributed to the players in a “Farmers Night” promotion. Aaron smashed the strawberries into Hyland’s face.
Of course, this was an immense national story. It had more legs than a centipede. Frank Hyland became a household name. But he was already respected for his accurate, edgy reporting. During the next three decades he continued to be a popular voice of candor, reason and wit for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Last week Hyland died, of colon cancer, and I wonder if he was the last of a breed: the all-around, do-everything, hard-charging newspaperman.
If there was an MVP award for sportswriters, Hyland could have won it, because he was an absolute expert on baseball, football, basketball and hockey and excelled in all phases of newspaper content and made everyone around him better.
When I went to work at the Journal as a 20-year-old intern, the sports editor, later a best-selling author, Lewis Grizzard, instructed me to “learn from Frank Hyland. If there’s one guy I would want on a sports staff, it’s Hyland. He could put out the section by himself.”
Indeed, Hyland was a willing mentor, a fine reporter, writer and editor. Cleverest headline writer I’ve ever seen. When I wrote a story about the Atlanta Flames “backing into the playoffs,” this was the headline he put on it: “Flames make the playoffs with a late egrahc.”
Many people probably didn’t understand the headline at first, but it got them to read the story.
As for his own articles, they sparkled with insights and creative language. I recall a column on the Falcons: “How many feet make a yard? Twenty-two.”
Funny thing, Frank never thought of himself as much of a writer, didn’t want to be billed as one. “I’ve never won a writing award,” he liked to say. Of course, he’d never think of submitting a story for any contest.
He disdainfully referred to columnists as “Big By-Lines.” He thought they were pampered and pompous and didn’t work enough. He was clearly embarrassed when the paper insisted on making him a columnist. He sheepishly told me, “If I ever start acting like a BBL, please let me know.”
Frank prided himself on being a tireless grunt of a newspaperman.
He’d work late at night on a story and cheerfully take his place in the “slot” of the copy desk, dark sunglasses on, at 5:30 the following morning and orchestrate the processing of the afternoon edition. Which, alas, has long since disappeared.
Frank was an entertaining but tough editor. Even though his candor could sting, everyone (far as I know) who worked with him and most of the people he covered liked him. In his autobiography, I Had a Hammer, Aaron tells one reason why: “Hyland didn’t hold a grudge – which is to his credit, because there’s no good excuse for what I did.”
When the Baseball Writers of America wanted to file a complaint with the commissioner about Aaron’s strawberry slam, Hyland asked them to let it rest. He was no self-promotor, though Braves publicist Bob Hope appreciated him helping out in his zany promotions in the Seventies as baseball struggled to survive in Atlanta.
Hope talked Hyland into riding an ostrich and a camel. Frank was somewhat star-crossed when it came to Hope’s promotions. Farmers Night may have turned out OK for him in the end, though he hated all the fuss. The ostrich race was a breeze, but the camel bucked him off, resulting in a long and ultimately bruising fall to the ground.
Frank was incredibly colorful, a character Ring Lardner could have invented. He converted an old hearse into a rolling saloon and enjoyed driving it through the streets of Atlanta.
Nobody could get more out of a vehicle nobody wanted. He explained to me the Hyland Theory of Disposable Cars: “I buy ’em for almost nothing. All they have to do is be able to run. I never repair ’em. As soon as they break down, a year later or a week later, I call the junkyard. Then I buy another wreck.”
Never ostentatious, Frank was generous in a quiet way. He was a big tipper and a check-grabber and he was impeccably honest. He told the truth even at risk to his career. When fellow sportswriter Bill Clark sued the AJC for not paying overtime as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act, Hyland’s testimony was a key factor in the company losing the case.
“Hyland didn’t perjure himself the way Grizzard and others at the paper did,” Clark told me. When Hyland was asked under oath how many hours he worked in a day, he replied, “You could say 24, because I’m on call all the time.”
The memories I cherish most are the times he stood up to the gargantuan egos of the sports world. When a young Brave gave him some lip, Frank set him straight: “Listen, kid, I was in the big leagues before you got here, and I’ll be in the big leagues long after you’re gone.”
He had a confrontation with Howard Cosell before a Monday Night Football broadcast. Cosell told him: “Young man, I believe you are drunk.” Things got pretty heated before the two were separated. I wasn’t there, but I don’t doubt Frank had been into his beers. Cosell, for that matter, was also notorious for imbibing, sometimes just prior to going on the air.
Hyland’s battles with Norm Van Brocklin were legendary.
The Falcons coach was the most intimidating sports figure I’ve ever encountered. I feared asking him a question because no matter how carefully I phrased it, his response would make me seem like the dumbest sportswriter ever.
Of course, Hyland never hesitated to grill the cranky, if brilliant, SOB. Many times they were at each other’s throats, one time literally. Frank got so far under the Dutchman’s thin skin that the coach grabbed him by the neck, pulled him forward and blurted into his face: “Hyland, you’re a whore-writer.”
Frank later said, with his unique wistful smile, lips curling upward: “I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know what a whore-writer is.”
Whatever it is, Hyland was anything but that. If you like beautiful sentences, read The Sportin’ Life of Lewis Grizzard. Hyland captured the good as well as the dark side of his long-time drinking buddy who wrote hundreds of hilarious syndicated columns. Many of them reappeared in books with catchy titles such as Elvis Is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself. Or Don’t Bend Over, Granny, Them Taters Have Eyes.
Mark Whicker of the Los Angeles Daily News, who’s one of the best – and least arrogant — of the BBL’s, had an apt summation of Frank Hyland: “Epitome of the fearless, hard-partying sportswriter with a lot of talent to boot.”