By Michael Sigman
(This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Field Notes from a Music Biz Life.)
Once in a great while, the exploits of a sports team transcend the playing fields to illuminate something profound about a particular time and place.
Consider the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals, a rainbow band of brothers who, 6½ games out with only 12 to play, clinched the National League Pennant on the last day of the season–and then defeated the almighty New York Yankees in the World Series. Or gaze upon these Boston Celtics, whose NBA dynasty was sparked by the selfless ballhandling of Bob Cousy and the defensive genius of Bill Russell. Or the U.S unit that redefined the phrase “what goes around, comes around” when they won the 1994 World Boomerang Championship in Tokyo.
The Record World Flashmakers, our magazine’s softball team–a ragtag troupe of writers, editors, researchers, and other music biz denizens–never won a world championship. And our struggles against behemoth record companies, well oiled publishers, and superstars (and their entourages) might seem puny next to the heroics of the Cards, the Celts or the Boomerangs.
But one can argue, especially if one leaves objectivity in the dirt where it belongs, that the story of the Flashmakers reveals more about the Me Decade–the good, the bad, and the idiotic–than a dozen discotheques full of platform shoes, pet rocks, and mood rings.
Our story begins with a July, 1971 heartbreaker on a makeshift patch of green in Manhattan’s Central Park. It reaches a climax at what I like to call Weedstock: a 1976 triple-header against the E Street Kings (Bruce Springsteen, Miami Steve Van Zandt & Co.) on an overgrown high school diamond in Red Bank, New Jersey (more than 60 miles away!)–a contest so dramatic it’s forever etched in the hearts and minds of many who weren’t there.
The original Flashmakers exist mostly as oral legend, having been passed down from the Me Generation to the i-Generation at thousands of jams, slams, and thank you, ma’ams in musty clubs and all-night bars throughout the five boroughs and beyond. (Several key players now claim that the team never existed; photos like the one below, they say, are easily fabricated with modern technology.)
We had talent to burn, but we were a motley crew–no coach, no uniforms, no plays, no hand signals, no scorecards, and no practices. Central Park was our home turf, but we shunned the ballfields reserved for legitimate clubs–fields with such accouterments as backstops and infield dirt. We wandered around till we found a spot we fancied, scattered rock ‘n’ roll T-shirts to serve as bases, and said, “Batter up.”
Our first game, against music publishers Mills Music, started promisingly, as extra-base hits by shortstop Fred “The Living Legend” Goodman and outfielder Marty “Mad Dog” Snider propelled us to an early lead. Power hitting by Larry “Rockaways” Newman and stalwart defense by the double-play combination of Goodman-to-Sigman-to-Gregg Geller (6-4-3) expanded that lead to seven going into the final inning.
It was then that the good turned bad, and finally idiotic. With victory at hand, RW publisher Bob “Bullet Bob” Austin solemnly gathered us together. Did he express pride in our performance? Caution us against overconfidence? Promise us free drinks after the game? No. His message, in so many words, was this: “I own the magazine; we’re way ahead; I’m pitching.”
We felt like hurling as Bob’s hurling gave up run after run to the Mills men. None of us had the balls, or enough money in the bank, to risk relieving our reliever. Final score: BW-16, RW-15.
Soon thereafter, we accepted a challenge from a ringer-stacked freelance outfit put together by two of my hardest-hitting, hardest-drinking former Frat brothers, Jack “Purv” Atkins and Richie “Ricardo” Robbins. Purv smacked a homer to center-right early on that may still be bouncing around West 59th Street, and the final result was too humiliating to concern ourselves with.
The pre-historic Flashmakers soldiered on, winning a game here and there with the help of a couple of power-hitting Rockaways firemen imported by Newman and the pitching of my high school pal Lenny Beer, who had written some concert reviews and thus established a byline–and who shed the three piece suit he wore by day at Clairol to show how a killer underhand bullet was meant to be thrown. (There’d be nothing underhanded about the bullets Lenny would be tossing–or withholding–when he took over as RW Chart Editor a few months later.)
If we can confirm little about the original Flashmakers, we know far too much about the team’s second, and final, iteration. For that we have one David McGee, the team’s intrepid player/manager/historian, to blame, I mean to thank.
In the summer of ’75, Jon Skiba convinced David to revive the team. Jon knew that David–a Tulsa transplant who’d recently been promoted to assistant editor at RW after a devoted stint in the mail room (so devoted, he inspired Bob Austin to remark, “He loves his work”)–would bring to the task the dedication, creativity, and vision he had honed in the mail room.
Along with David, Jon, and Fred “The Living Legend” Goodman, key players included: Howie “Ol’ Ragarm” Levitt (RW); Marc “The Barber” Kirkeby (RW); Gary Kenton (WB); Ed “Easy Ed” “The Goose” Levine (WB), possibly the only player in the history of the game to have two nicknames; Steven “Buck” Baker (Elektra/Asylum and later WB); Albie Hecht (an early music video director, now running Headline News); David Herscher (WB Publishing); John Kostick (Columbia promotion); Stuart Sank (UA), the man whose name could have served as the entire headline if he got canned; Mike Shalett (Elektra), a gifted player who went on to create Soundscan with Mike Fine; New Yorker writer Stan Mieses; Polydor’s power-hitting promo wizard John Boulos; and Robert Smith (Epic and later Geffen).
David was more than a fine ballplayer and a diligent manager. He was (still is, as anyone who clicks here can see) a wonderful writer. It was David’s decision to chronicle the Flashmakers’ every move–and many moves they never made–that gave everlasting resonance to the team’s triumphs and tragedies.
David’s reportage, in the Softball News section of his weekly Record World column, “New York, NY,” was always grounded in fact; he told the truth about who won and who lost and by how much. From that point, however, the descriptions tilted toward the fantastical, all in the service of telling a more expansive, multi-dimensional tale–a Tall Tale, if you will.
McGee recalls, “Right off the bat we found ourselves in a serious rivalry with Atlantic Studios. Studio manager Big Mac McCollum ran the team and had secured a permit for the use of diamond No. 6 on the Heckscher softball fields in Central Park. Atlantic won our first meeting by a close score; a key hit by Mac in a late-inning rally secured the Atlantic win.
“However, in what was likely the first installment of Softball News, I wrote a completely fanciful account of the contest. Although I clearly indicated the final score as being in Atlantic’s favor, I described the game as if Record World had really been the victor and added something about Mac fuming over our resilience in coming back repeatedly and surging ahead of Atlantic on the scoreboard.
“Mac was a big guy and I had never met him until we opposed each other on the diamond, but he was an easygoing fellow with a warm sense of humor, so I thought he might get a kick out of my distorted view of reality. He did, but when we met a second time that season, he came over to our bench and said to me, ‘Now don’t you go writing no bullshit about me in that magazine.’ Needless to say, my account of that game had little to do with reality and everything to do with creating a larger than life character out of Mac.
“In ensuing years he would complain to me about the way I portrayed him in the column, but his assistant confided in me that Softball News had made him a star in the studio and he secretly loved the folk hero I had made him out to be. I want to be clear: I never misreported a score–if we got beat, I gave the score and made it clear we had fallen, but I did not hesitate to aggrandize the accomplishments of our players or to portray us as a merciless but gifted band of music business softball mercenaries who played as hard as we partied.”
The Summer of ’76 triple-header that pitted the Flashmakers vs. the E Street Kings was, in retrospect, every bit as monumental as the Games of the XXI Olympiad unfolding just a few hundred miles to the North.
David picks up the narrative: “It was sunny and 90-plus degrees when we convened on a Saturday on a high school baseball field in, I believe, Red Bank. Not all of our regular nine or ten could make it that day so our lineup was fleshed out with three newcomers. One was our assistant art director Michael “The Schanz” Schanzer in left field. And on the mound, coming out of semi-retirement in our hour of need, our managing editor, Howie Levitt. Also, to bolster our offense, I flew in from Tulsa as Howie’s battery mate Vietnam Veteran Richard ‘Mox the Box’ Moxley, a close friend of mine since seventh grade who had been an All-State lineman as a high school footballer at Tulsa Central and with whom I had played on basketball teams all through our school years.
“As I recall of the planning stages, Bruce, Miami Steve and I were figuring on only one game. That was before an incredible drama began to unfold after the first pitch of the day was thrown.
“On the mound for the Kings was Bruce’s fireballing agent Barry Bell (he’s still Bruce’s agent, but I don’t think he pitches anymore–softball, that is), who began setting down the Flashmakers with impunity. But when we took the field, Howie, deftly employing his famed and feared ‘Semitic Screwball,’ matched Bell out for out. We barely made a dent offensively–the only scoring threat on our part came in the 6th when I tripled down the left field line with two outs. But our next batter struck out and Bell set us down 1-2-3 in the seventh to secure a 1-0 win for the Kings.
“I do not recall how the Kings scored their only run but I do remember one play that saved at least two runs and snuffed out a Kings rally in one fell swoop. I remember it because I made it. With two on and two out, Bruce launched a drive high and far into the right center field gap. The runners were circling the bases at the crack of the bat. In center field, I saw the ball good off the bat and took off to the spot where I thought it was going and kept running and running, closing in on the outfield fence and stopping just short of it as I made an over-the-shoulder catch that would be compared in all the sporting journals of the day to Willie Mays’s astounding catch of Vic Wertz’s drive to the warning track in the 1954 World Series.
“RW’s Ira Mayer was there that day in his capacity as team photographer and actually had his camera at the ready as I closed in on the fly ball. He snapped the picture just as the ball landed in my glove and I reached over with my right hand to secure it in the pocket. Also visible in the photo are a shirtless Max Weinberg rounding second base and looking back at me, and Jon Skiba, playing second base, running towards the outfield in preparation for receiving a relay throw that never came, because it wasn’t necessary. Rally killed.
“Invigorated by the intensity of game 1, all parties decided immediately to make it a doubleheader. Less memorably–and without Howie on the mound–we lost game 2 by a score of 6-4.
“Then we decided two games were still not enough–the sun was still high in the sky and blazing hot and both sides were all fired up. So a tripleheader it became, with the third game being another nail-biter and another 1-0 Kings win. Once more Barry Bell bested Howie in an amazing display–on both pitchers’ parts–of grit and resolve. The two teams played superb defense throughout, with the big play coming midway through the game. The Flashmakers had advanced a runner to second base off Bell. Our regular third baseman, Warner Bros.’ David Herscher (always the best dressed player on the field), scorched a Bell pitch for a knee-high line drive that seemed destined for the right-center gap–until Bruce, playing second base, made a headlong, backhand dive to his right and speared the shot in his glove to squelch the rally. I believe Bruce also drove in the Kings’ lone run that game.
“As I recall, the Kings got not more than three or four hits off Howie in the third game, and they didn’t have much more than that in the first game. The ‘Semitic Screwball’ was a thing of beauty, a work of art to behold from any angle, save that of the batter, apparently. By the way, my then-wife, Nikki, was there with our Super 8 camera and just happened to catch Bruce’s diving grab on film–it’s kind of the Zapruder film of softball.
“Unlike the end of Rocky, one of 1976’s big movies, when Apollo Creed is shouting, ‘Ain’t gonna be no rematch,’ everyone involved in this monumental contest agreed we would reconvene the next year on the same field and go at it again. The ’77 Flashmakers assembled in Red Bank at the app0inted hour on the appointed day, but this time the weather didn’t cooperate–we were rained out, and Bruce’s tour schedule was such that a makeup date was impossible to schedule. We did, however, manage to get a team photo of the Flashmakers’ Class of ’77 and to agree that we were prepared on this occasion to right the ship of state after its rocky performance, shall we say, in ’76.”
David is one hell of a guy, but the well-being of the Flashmakers occasionally inspired a flash of ruthlessness that rivaled that of his hardball counterpart, the Yanks’ George Steinbrenner.
For one season, when the team was in a fast pitch league in Central Park, David purloined Barry Bell from the E Street Kings. Then he added high school senior Geoffrey Felder, the son of the legendary songwriter Doc Pomus, to the roster, “thus assuring that, with Doc attending the games, we had the finest cheering section in the softball cosmos.”
Unbeknownst to David, his coverage of the Flashmakers came under frequent assault from our publisher, Bob “Bullet Bob” Austin. Bob would summon me into his office, wave David’s latest column in the air and remind me that we were not Sports Illustrated.
Maybe Bob had a point about editorial priorities; maybe he was still traumatized by the Mills Music debacle; or maybe he just resented that we were having so much damn fun. In any case, he kept complaining and we kept publishing Softball News.
But I wonder if Bob’s resentment speaks to the deeper meaning of the Flashmakers story, as told by David McGee.
To me, the glorification of our players in Softball News was a sly commentary on the nature of hype–a reminder that we all create narratives in which we are the heroes. More specifically, I think David was subtly sending up the music biz hype machine, of which Record World was–there’s no denying it–a crucial part. In our straight reporting–and especially on our charts–we told the truth about who won and who lost and by what margin. But the ads, the reviews and, yes, the columns we published every week portrayed, more often than not, the heroics, not the flaws, of the amazing, complicated characters who paraded through our hallways and did so much to shape the culture of the 1970s.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael Sigman is a writer, editor, publisher and media consultant and the president of Major Songs, a music publishing company that handles the catalogs of his late father Carl Sigman and several contemporary songwriters.
While still in high school in Great Neck, L.I., Sigman worked for music publishing giant The Richmond Organization cataloging the music publishing giant’s vast catalogue of pop, folk and rock songs. During the summers between college semesters at Bucknell, he worked as a reporter for Record World magazine, a leading music industry publication. The day after he graduated (Magna Cum Laude/Phi Beta Kappa) from Bucknell, he began full-time work at RW and served as the magazine’s editor from 1972-82.
After a year as a consultant for CBS Records, Sigman moved to Los Angeles in 1983 to become the publisher of LA Weekly, the nation’s largest alternative newsweekly, where he served from 1983-2002. He was also the founding publisher of OC Weekly, sister paper to LA Weekly, when it was launched in 1995.
Sigman’s writing has appeared in Record World, LA Weekly, the L.A. Times, OC Weekly, The District Weekly, LA Style, The Bluegrass Special.com, Record Collector News, LA Progressive, Deep Roots and other newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a biography of his father. He currently writes a weekly blog for Huffingtonpost.com.