Bert Randolph Sugar, 1936-2012
So the story – as I heard it, and as Bert Sugar would’ve told it – goes like this:
There’s this young advertising executive, already climbing his way up the ladder. The 1960’s this is. He works longer than anybody else. He’s at every social event. He’s a lawyer, never practiced, passed the bar – and lord knows it was the only bar he did pass. So this is the kind of palooka who can convince you to give him the buttons off your fly. And he’s that kind of larger-than-life character who can not only sell the advertisers anything, he’s also in creative, he’s also selling the customers – the hoi polloi out in the cheap seats.
Remember that “N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestles Makes The Very Best” jingle? That was one of his. Samuel Taylor Coleridge this was not, this “N-E-S-T-L-E-S” – but it sold a lot of chocolate. And our hero is the rising star on Madison Avenue and let me confide in you, my friend, that what you see on Mad Men is like a Sunday Church Ice Cream Social compared to the reality of the ’60s. The motto then was “I’d rather be a good liver than have one,” if you catch my drift.
Well there’s an office party and maybe it’s at J. Walter Thompson and maybe it’s at McCann Erickson. Doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s Tinker, Evers and Steinfeldt – and Steinfeldt was the third baseman with Tinker and Evers and Chance, if you’ve already forgotten, Junior. Anyway, our young hero has a boss who doesn’t like him. Rides him every chance. Sings N-E-S-T-L-E-S at him. Never lets up. Never promotes him. And finally comes the party and there has been more liquor consumed than after Jack Johnson beat James J. Jeffries in Havana on the 4th of July. And unfortunately for the boss, in this equation he’s Jeffries and our kid is Johnson. And the wrong word is said, our kid takes his cigar out of his mouth, and shoves his boss up against the office window.
Now there are two versions of what happens next. A) Boss bounces off the window, glass is cracked, boy wonder’s career is over, or B) — and this is the one you don’t hear a lot — Boss bounces through the window onto the balcony of the high-rise office building, boy wonder’s career is over, and they don’t call the police only because the Boss is more humiliated then hurt.
Great story so far, right?
Well that’s not even the punchline.
The punchline is, Boy Wonder takes his money, says screw advertising, says screw my law degree, I’m going to buy…a boxing magazine. And before it’s all over, after Cosell declines anyway, he’s the best known media guy in boxing, even gets into the Boxing Hall of Fame – and not once does he ever sign a contract with any of the big networks or the big newspapers! He not only knocks the boss into the window, but then he spends the rest of his life doing what he loved, and till the day he dies – **he’s** his own boss!
Here Bert Sugar would’ve laughed and added: “you got time for another story?
The real punch-line was, of course, that the ad exec who pushed his boss into the plate glass window was him – Bert Sugar. Obviously that extraordinary truth made Bert Randolph Sugar my hero. Actually it made him more of my hero. Because when Bert Sugar – who died Sunday at the age of 75 — left advertising, and was struggling along with that Boxing Illustrated magazine, he had to do outside projects. And one of them stemmed from his perception, in the early 1970’s, that the next big thing…was the collecting of old baseball cards.
In retrospect it’s obvious. But back then, the multi-million-dollar Honus Wagner card cost $11,000 and the family of the guy who’d spent the $11,000 tried to have him committed. But Bert saw something the rest of us did not. So he decided to create a book that identified what the cards were and how much they were worth, and it would turn out to be the single biggest thing that launched a billion-dollar industry.
But to compile it, he needed help – cheap help.
His baseball card contact was a great man named Mike Aronstein, and Mike said “Bert, I got just the kid for you.” Which is how I met Bert Randolph Sugar – in 1974 – when I was fifteen years old. And how, sizing me up in my parents’ living room, smoking his ever-present cigar and talking to me like I was not only another adult but another Damon Runyon character, just like he was, he decided I could do it.
The book was The Sports Collectors Bible. I did the grunt work, organizing the checklists, throwing in notes here and there. He gave me a title: Associate Editor. He gave me $250 – I think. Might’ve been less. Most importantly, h gave me credibility. I’d worked on an actual book, while I was in high school. And a hit, one that was so popular he put out four different volumes of it.
Bert moved on. Baseball Trivia books, boxing books, Harry Houdini books. He put out a couple of books featuring reprints of famous baseball cards, thin little paperback editions with the reprints perforated so you could pretend you had a Wagner. He made a fortune. Not one of those cards was his – he borrowed them. The great secret was that Bert Randolph Sugar, who essentially invented the annual price guide, and the phone book-sized checklist book, and the monthly card price magazines, was not a card collector.
In addition to moving on, Bert moved up. He swapped Boxing Illustrated for the far-more-famous Ring Magazine and then when the idiots over there squeezed him out, he went back and took over Boxing Illustrated again, and just last year he’d bought Ring again. But in the years after he gave me my first paying job, Bert Sugar primarily devoted himself to the business of creating Bert Sugar. Same technique as in advertising. To the ever-present cigar, he added the ever-present hat. And the wardrobe, which he described as “The Salvation Army threw up on me.”
And mostly, he added the being there: Every big boxing match. Every baseball hall of fame induction. Every sports news conference, every sports premiere, every sports confirmation, children’s party, or bris. The last time I saw him it was at the premiere for Ken Burns’ 10th Inning. Burt had written another baseball book (The Baseball Maniac’s Almanac) and he made sure to mention it to all of us. A week later there arrived one of Bert’s singular, typewritten letters – and a copy of the book, vivid and peppy and filled with everything he’d learned in advertising and publishing and the ballpark.
Everybody knew him. Everybody. He became the boxing expert, and that was almost a shame because he really knew baseball at least as well, and boxing represented only about a fifth of his interests and only about a tenth of his stories. Remind me to tell you of the day he ordered one case of sets of Kelloggs Corn Flakes 3-D Football Cards and something went horribly wrong and the cases started arriving at his house like – as he put it – the enchanted mops and buckets in Fantasia — and he wound up with at least a thousand of them, filling his garage and his basement, and he used to hand the sets out instead of candy at Halloween or give me five cases each time he’d come over, just to get rid of them – and when years later they wound up being worth 250 bucks a set, he howled in laughter and shouted at me “of course they did! Of course they did! If I’d have held on to them they wouldn’t have been worth ten cents!”
I think I saw Bert at least once, often dozens of times, in each of the last 38 years. It was always the same. For his long ago confidence in the ultimate untested rookie, he would accept none of my gratitude, but if there was anybody nearby, he would express all of his pride.
27 years ago I was unemployed. “When you’re in the city, meet me at Zum Zum’s in Grand Central. It’s my office between twelve and three. At least you’ll get a nice lunch. And you’ll worry less.” I asked him what he was doing with a kind of German fast-food restaurant as his office. “I’m plotting there.” Turned out he was plotting to take over Boxing Illustrated for the second time, which he did. “You’ll be fine, Kid,” he assured me. “Just remember me when you make it big.”
I always have, Bert.
I always will.
Because I have never met anybody else like Bert Sugar.
And frankly, I don’t need to. Because I had the privilege of knowing the original.
The above is adapted from my script of my obituary for Bert Sugar on Current TV’s Countdown. The video is here.